Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 4 October 2015: Harvest Thanksgiving
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 26.1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I’m about to become an Interim Moderator. That’s where another minister is put in charge of the Kirk Session for a parish where they have no minister at the moment. The Rev Jan Matheson, currently minister of the linked parishes of Cawdor and Croy, is moving to a parish in Glasgow. Jan is a good colleague, and we will miss her in Inverness Presbytery.
So I’ll now become the chairman of the Kirk Sessions of Cawdor and Croy. Many, many years ago, when I was a student, I visited those parishes. We had a light-hearted choir in the Divinity Faculty of Glasgow University, and we had a week performing in various Inverness churches (although not St Stephen’s or the Old High!). On the Sunday, Easter Sunday, we were sent off to various churches, and I did the children’s addresses at Cawdor and Croy, where I ate a daffodil. It was the start of a long friendship with the Rev Ian Wilson and his wife Ann, which lasted until their deaths.
So I know a little about Cawdor and Croy. But it’s a long time since I was last an Interim Moderator- in fact, the last time was when I was still in Glasgow, so that is over a decade ago. So I’m a little apprehensive, for the church law has changed a bit in that time. I’m having to re-read it so that I can help them as they seek for a new minister. Thankfully, they seem well organised and prepared for their vacancy. They have a locum minister ready to step in, so I shouldn’t have many pastoral responsibilities, although once or twice I will have to be with them on a Sunday morning.
Oddly enough, my last (and so far only) interim moderatorship in Glasgow was also with two rural, linked parishes. Glasgow Presbytery spills well beyond the boundaries of the city, and I so for some months I looked after two parishes on either side of Kilsyth, north of Glasgow at the foot of the Campsie hills. There was a Sunday when I had to be at both churches, and perhaps it was good practice for my current post, for I had not a lot of time to drive from Twechar (which had been an old mining village) to Banton (which had been a farming community).
On that particular winter day, my route from Twechar took me along alongside the Forth and Clyde canal. It was a dreich Glasgow January day- damp, with that kind of rain that can’t decide whether it’s rain or really just a sort of mist, so I needed my lights on although it was past eleven in the morning, and I had to keep changing my windscreen settings, and keep a sharp eye on a road that was wet and slippery, and perhaps even icy in patches.
As I drove along, I passed a sign- a red triangle warning sign which said, ‘Danger- floods’. And then, a few hundred metres later, another, similar sign which said, ‘Danger- ice’ I was beginning to wonder what would come next. Would I turn the next corner and see ‘Danger- snowdrifts’? Or perhaps ‘Danger- war, famine, pestilence and death’, for this road was beginning to remind me of the Book of Revelation- perhaps I was going to meet the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And I began to think that this short car journey was turning into a metaphor for life. Those times when life is a bit dark and gloomy, and we find ourselves dealing with one challenge after another- illness, bereavement, problems with family or work. Times when it becomes hard to cope. Times when we are likely to become worried and irritable if we are not careful.
At times like that, gratitude or thanksgiving are the last things on our mind. But today, we find ourselves hearing part of the instructions for the people of Israel to celebrate their harvest thanksgiving festival. These are instructions for a farming community, in the days when the vast majority of the people lived off the land. So the command was not that you gave money (as we do week by week in church nowadays), but that you gave a share of the produce of your farm to God- the first part of the crop to be placed on a basket and offered to God.
The ancient Israelite harvest festival didn’t just celebrate God’s gift of the harvest. It was really to celebrate that God had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and that God brought the people to the land flowing with milk and honey. So these instructions about harvest offerings end with the words: ‘Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…’
My thought for today, on our Harvest Festival, was to meditate with you on God’s good gifts to us, and how we, too, might make an appropriate response. But some of you might feel that your life today is a bit like going along a wee, narrow, dangerous canalside road, and that you keep coming across signs of challenges, dangers, uncertainties and difficulties. When life is not so good, how can we feel grateful?
Well, start by thinking of what you take for granted. Our harvest food gifts are going to the Highland Foodbank, to help people who are struggling so much that they are not sure where their next meal is coming from. But most of us here are used to plentiful and safe food- unlike most people in our world. So we rarely think about how it comes to our table, or about the work of people across the world who bring it to our table.
Recently we have seen people fleeing from war zones, masses of people crammed on trains, walking along motorways, sleeping in railway stations and makeshift refugee camps. Most of us, however, are used to easy, fast travel. A late train or a delayed flight gets us annoyed.
Many of those on the move across the world are fleeing places like Syria or Yemen. There may be a few of you here who were once caught up in the Nazi bombing or our cities in the 1940s, or who have been to some of today’s war zones. But for the rest of us, all we know is what we see when we see TV pictures of cities in ruins. What must it be like to live in places that have been on the receiving end of today’s high-tech firepower? The damage done to cities by modern warfare mean that the people who live in these places cannot do simple things we are used to, like switching a switch and getting electricity, getting water at the turn of a tap, lifting the phone and getting through first time, or even going to the shop and buying food.
Although poverty and hardship exists in our country, most of us are materially very well off. Although we worry about crime, our communities are basically peaceful. So perhaps, indeed, we ought to still hear the instruction of Deuteronomy: ‘Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…’- because, for most of us, we are materially very well off, compared to most people in the world.
And so we ought to say thanks. And as we do so, we should not remember in our prayers those who have little- the victims of war; the peasant farmers who struggle to feed their families, the folks in our own communities who cannot feed their families. We pray, because we believe in a God who stands alongside those who suffer and struggle.
At a Harvest festival, we give thanks not only because God given us good material things. We are even more grateful because we believe that there is a God, and that we know what our God is like. People have all sorts of pictures of what God is like. Many people think that God is angry, judgmental, distant. Sadly that’s how the church has often spoken of God, and, sadly, it’s put a lot of people off.
But when we read the Gospels properly, we discover that we are to see God in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. So our God is one who lives alongside us. He wants us to know love, forgiveness, grace. Jesus went out of his way to welcome all kinds of people, especially those who thought they didn’t have any status. Jesus was eventually put to death- but on the cross we see a God who suffers alongside those who suffer, who shares our pain, even sharing our death. And in the empty tomb of Easter, as Jesus defeats even death, we see a sign of hope that one day all will be well. If all that’s true, then, even if we are on a dark part of our journey of life, we can also feel grateful. Life might be dreich, and the signs we’re passing may not be cheery. But if we believe that God is travelling the road with us, then we still have cause to be grateful.
Today’s Gospel story comes from near the beginning of Jesus’ story. It is a picturesque attempt to imagine how Jesus must have tried to prepare for his ministry of teaching and healing. To prepare for the work he believes God is calling him to, Jesus undertakes a sort of spiritual retreat. He goes off into the deserts around Israel, away from the crowds and distractions. He fasts- that is, he gives up eating food for a time- a traditional spiritual discipline for someone who wants to be close to God. He spends time in prayer, seeking to know the will of the God he calls his Father.
But it’s a struggle. What’s so powerful about today’s Gospel reading is that here we see Jesus as he really was. It is a symbolic story. It’s a story of a man struggling to understand what God requires of him. It’s a story of man trying to figure out what his vocation is. He knows he is called by God to do a job- but what job, exactly? And how is he to do it?
And what if it’s difficult and dangerous? There will be those who will hate his preaching and teaching. This carpenter’s son knows he will be in conflict with the established religious leaders. In an age when life is cheap, this could be dangerous. Rock the boat back then, and you could be in trouble. Religious heretics might be stoned to death. If the Romans thought you were a danger to their empire, you could be crucified. It’s not an age of freethinking. It’s a dangerous time for the sort of new ideas that Jesus has.
And so the story gives us figure of the devil, a symbol of the forces which press in even on someone we think is a good person, someone like Jesus. Because those who strive to do what is right, those who think they have work to do for God, are always going to be troubled by a wee voice that says, ‘There has to be an easier way than this’.
As we watch Jesus struggle with temptation, we see him as he was. Christians might sometimes think of him as God, but in this story we see him as one of us- completely human. Someone who knew pain and joy, laughter and tears- just like us. Someone who knew friendship and betrayal, health and tiredness- just like us. Someone who knew temptations- just like us. For me, this strange story, which has the devil as a character, is, in a way, one of the most realistic stories about Jesus in the Bible.
He’s in the desert, hungry, because he hasn’t eaten. And his fevered mind conjours up a devil- an inner demon, if you like. A demon who wants to lure him away from his vocation. A wee voice from within which suggests an easier way- ‘If you are indeed God’s son, you could make these stones turn into bread’.
And for two thousand years, his followers have had this happen to them, too. Just when we are trying to follow God, trying to get closer to God, trying to live our lives for God, we, too, often hear a wee voice from within, suggesting another, easier path-
‘You’re giving up so much by being a Christian. You could enjoy a long lie on a Sunday. You could go to the pub rather than doing voluntary work. You could buy that lovely dress in Marks and Spencer instead of donating to Christian Aid. You could be popular with your mates, rather than having them look at you puzzled because they know you are a churchgoer. You could get away with stealing from your company if you didn’t have a conscience about it. You could be watching the telly rather than reading your Bible. You could be free…’
‘Turn stones into bread’ is the temptation to take the easy way.
Jesus has an answer ready: ‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone’. In other words- the material is not enough. There has to be a spiritual dimension to life as well. This is hard for people today to understand, for we are so use to having all our material wants met immediately, and we often believe that having ‘things’- consuming and owning- are enough. This is why church is a so much of a mystery to many people. We’re not in the entertainment business. We will not guarantee that you will be rich or successful. We are not offering gadgets for instant satisfaction. We offer faith, but not certainty. We speak about loving your neighbour, and not your individual happiness.
And we seriously ask people the question, a questions which we mostly avoid- what is all else fails? What if, around the next corner, there’s a warning sign, and it comes true? What illness, bereavement, disappointment, death comes into your life? Do you really think that you can live on bread alone? Will your nice house or your fancy car be enough. Will all your money, or the fact that you’re a popular person, will tall that count for anything when it all goes to pot? And even when it’s going well- don’t you sometimes feel a gnawing doubt that there must be more to life than just ‘things’?
For those who follow Jesus, part of the answer is to learn to be grateful. ‘Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…’ This week, try being grateful for the things you usually take for granted- the food on your plate, your water and electricity, the fact your house is unlikely to be the target of a jet bomber or a drone. Try saying a prayer of thanks before you eat- and remember, too the farmers and fishermen and all the people who get the food onto your table (and who often don’t get rewarded much for it).
‘Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…’ Be grateful also for the fact that you don’t have to live on bread alone. For the God who gives us all good things has God has come into our world in Jesus Christ. The God of Christ is a God of love, who will meet our deepest spiritual needs if we ask. The God of Christ will accept us as we are, offers us forgiveness and grace, and is willing to be our companion on our journey, whatever life throws at us.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo