Sunday, August 13, 2006

First Searmon at St. Alban's Westwood

Proper 14 – Year B
Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:(25-29)30-5:2; John 6:37-51
Sunday, August 13, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

In my former life, prior to going to seminary and being ordained as a deacon, I was a transportation planner. My job was to look at the amount of traffic using particular intersections, roadways and freeways; analyze the operations; compare those operations with local and state standards; and, if the operations did not meet the specified standards, determine what improvements would be needed to improve operations to satisfactory levels – admittedly, a losing battle in Southern California. Having done that type of work for nearly 20 years, I tend to approach life from a very rational, planning and engineering based approach. For me, like most of us, things need to make logical sense.

That being said, the transportation planner in me has a really hard time understanding why it took Moses and the Hebrews 40 years to go from Egypt to Canaan. Straight line, that’s only about 170 miles. I know traffic around here is really bad, but even in LA, it wouldn’t take 40 years to go 170 miles. Although, there are times when it seems like it. So what’s with this 40 years of wandering in the wilderness? Even at a leisurely pace, it should have taken Moses and company a few weeks, a month max, to get to the Promised Land. So what happened?

Now, there’s a really bad joke that the reason it took 40 years was because Moses was a typical man and would not stop to ask for directions. But I think that today’s Old Testament lesson tells us just the opposite. The Book of Deuteronomy purports to be Moses’ farewell address to the people, occurring near the end of the 40 year journey. In this address, delivered on the plains of Moab, just across the Jordan from Canaan, the Promised Land, Moses recounts the mighty acts of God, solemnly warns the people of the temptations that await them in their new home, and “pleads for loyalty to and love of God as the condition for life in the Promised Land” (Oxford Study Bible). Moses tells the people, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut. 8:2). The time in the wilderness was not aimless wandering, as appears on first glance. Rather, this time of wandering had a specific purpose. It was a time of teaching and of testing. It was a time which God used to establish a covenant with the people – a covenant in which they would be God’s people, and He would be their only god. More importantly, it was a time for God to educate Moses and the people about what it means to be in covenant.

Like any learning process, there was a period of testing and of humbling. The time in the wilderness was a time when, as the people really began to learn what it meant to be in covenant, the more they realized how flawed they were and how unworthy they were to be selected to be God’s chosen people. They came to realize that it was a great privilege to be God’s chosen people. They also learned, or rather experienced first-hand, that that no matter how badly they missed the mark, no matter how badly they messed up, God would not abandon them – that God would still be their God, and would ultimately lead them to the land God had promised to them. God provided care for the Hebrews in the wilderness, proving God’s faithfulness to the people. But it was not without cost. Like so many learning experiences in life, it was not easy. There was a period of uncertainty and of pain, as the lessons were learned, absorbed, and made part of the very being of the people. This came in the form of challenges and temptations of disobedience, something that was felt by these rag-tag wanderers for the first time. Ultimately, Israel is humbled by the experience. The “seriousness of the intent to maintain loyalty to God’s covenant had been tested and the consequences of disobedience had begun to be felt” (NIB, 355).

As Moses reminds the people of the hard lessons learned over the past 40 years, his message is consistent. The people are to “remember that the Lord God who have [them] the land also gave [them] the commandments to observe” (NIB, 354). God has given them a firm and indisputable foundation upon which to build their lives, both individually and as a community – the foundation upon which they are to live and die as the chosen people of God – the Ten Commandments. Moses reminds them of their hunger and their thirst in the wilderness – the physical hunger they experienced, sated by manna, a gift from God; the thirst they experienced, satisfied by water gushing from a rock, again a gift from God. Yes, God provided for the physical needs throughout the 40 years of wandering. But then Moses tells the people that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).

Old Testament scholar Ronald Clements notes that in this simple, well-known statement is demonstrated the indisputable truth that “God’s care is sufficient for all human needs. To ask for more than this becomes a mark of human arrogance and greed, with a consequent loss of the essential perception that the most fundamental of all human needs are spiritual. Accordingly, the Word of God is the most precious gift, and it alone makes possible life within the divine order” (NIB, 356). More important than providing for the physical needs of the people, God provides for their spiritual needs. The people have known poverty and have been satisfied. But, as Clements notes, “Real poverty is poverty of the spirit” (NIB, 357). That’s what the 40 years in the wilderness was about – it was about teaching the people, or rather letting the people come to the realization on their own, that their spiritual needs, and their spiritual fulfillment, were far more important than satisfying ordinary physical needs.

After the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the people are on the threshold of the Promised Land. To describe what awaits, Moses tells the people, “the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:6-9). We’re back to a description of the physical – of what the new land will be like, what will be provided by God. The delights promised are a far cry from the manna, the quail, and the water provided by God in the wilderness. What is promised are delights far greater and more extravagant than what they have had in the past 40 years. What they had in the wilderness were rations for mere physical subsistence. What will be had in their new home is a veritable feast. What they had in the wilderness was bologna sandwiches and water. What will be available in their new home will be lobster, filet mignon, caviar, and champagne.

What is not described is the care for the spiritual needs. But I think we can read between the lines here. If the spiritual needs and their fulfillment are far more important than the physical needs; and the provision for the physical needs will be far more extravagant than anything they have ever known, how much more will their spiritual needs be met in this new land? The Hebrews are coming out of a period of spiritual struggle and poverty, of basic spiritual subsistence, into a time of unlimited spiritual riches and fulfillment – into a time when, with the guidance of the foundation established by their time in the wilderness, they will have the opportunity to grow spiritually in ways as yet unimagined. They will have the opportunity to fully live into what it means to be in covenant, in partnership, with God, to be God’s chosen people, to be God’s beloved children.

Before we move on, I’d like us to stop for a moment and have each of us think about our own personal wilderness experiences – about those times in your life when you have felt like you are wandering in the wilderness, lost, alone, without anyone to take care of your needs, be they physical or spiritual – or both. How did you get through those times of wandering? Who came through in those times of need, to provide you with relief, to help guide you to a new land, filled with promise and hope? And what did you learn about yourself through this time of wandering, or in looking back with new eyes? It’s not always easy, and it may take some doing, but in that experience, where was God working in your life, caring for you, leading you to a new land? If you look hard enough, you will find God there – working through the circumstances, working through some unlikely Moses, to lead you to a new life.

Or do you still feel like you’re wandering, in need of someone to care for you, to provide for your needs? Each circumstance is unique, but God has promised to be with us, to guide us through the wilderness, and to care for us on that journey – just as he promised the Hebrews. That’s not to say that things will be easy. They weren’t always easy for the Hebrews. But in the end, we, like them, will be transformed and strengthened – but only if we have the courage to stick it out and follow God and whatever Moses God provides for us, to be a guide and companion on the journey. Ultimately, like the Hebrews, we will be brought to a new land, to a new life, filled with good things.

The same goes for communities of faith. A community, like this congregation, is a living, breathing, organism. As a community, there are times when we may feel like we have lost our way and are wandering in the wilderness, trying to find our way to a new life together – a life in which we are faithful to the one who called us into being. God, too, is in the midst of all this, guiding us and encouraging us, if we will only suspend our own desires, if we will only listen and follow, if we will allow ourselves to be humbled.

So how do we get through our wandering and to a new place filled with life and joy? Easy! Faith and perseverance. Okay, maybe not easy, but certainly doable, if we just give it a shot, if we just humble ourselves to follow God’s will as opposed to our own. God promised Moses and the Hebrews a good life, filled with good things; a life in which people would want for nothing, and be filled with all that they need. Out of faith, they trusted in God’s promises and were willing to follow – even though it meant years of wandering, being tempted, and being humbled. By remaining faithful to their covenant with God, they were ultimately transformed into the people God was calling them to be – the chosen people of God, and brought into a new land and a new life.

Just as God promised the Hebrews a good life, so too, Jesus makes a similar promise in today’s Gospel lesson from John. In fact, Jesus promises an even better life – eternal life. Jesus says “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:40). This is one of the greatest promises Christ gives us – that we can have eternal life. Unlike the Hebrews, we are not promised a life in a new land that will only last as long as we live. Rather, we are promised that that new life will last beyond this life – that it will last forever.

Not only that, but the conditions are incredibly easy. Jesus expands on this life-giving offer, by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). This is how Christ fulfills his promise to us – that he gives himself, his very flesh, his very humanity. He gives his life for us, so that we may have eternal life.

How do we obtain this eternal life? Again, the answer is so simple. Merely by believing in Him, we will be given the gift of eternal life with him. No strings attached. All we have to do is believe that He is the Son of God, believe that he came into the world to save us, to protect us, to fulfill our needs, and to guide us through the wilderness into a new life – a life in which all our needs will be met beyond our wildest dreams – and not just for the rest of our lives, but forever. Unlike the manna, which God gave the Hebrews to sustain them in the wilderness, and unlike the land of wheat and barley, the land where we may eat bread without scarcity, Jesus is God’s true life-giving gift to the world. Jesus’ flesh is the bread that will give eternal life.

This is not just Jesus’ doing. It is the will of God, the Father. Jesus says “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44) and that “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). God has taken the initiative. God prompts us to seek Christ. God invites us to accept Jesus and believe in Him. God offers us the gift of his Son, not just the bread of life, but the bread of eternal life. It is up to us how we respond. God does not force us to say “yes.” God does not place impossible conditions or restrictions on our acceptance. God extends the invitation to all, and wants us to accept, to say “yes” to redemption and to eternal life. “God’s initiative toward humanity is held in tension with human decision and response.” The choice is ultimately ours.

What do we have to lose by not accepting God’s invitation? Absolutely nothing! What do we have to gain? Everything. We gain eternal life. We gain a guide and companion to guide us through those wilderness experiences in our lives, a caretaker who will provide for all our needs, physical and spiritual, as we journey through this life into the life eternal. And unlike the Hebrews who had to wait 40 years for results, the benefits to us are immediate. We don’t have to wait. Merely by accepting the invitation, we gain a foretaste of eternal life. As we gather in this community to pray, worship, and fellowship, we obtain a glimpse of the joy to be had in the company of the saints. As we gather at the Table and partake of Christ’s Body and Blood, we are given a glimpse of the life-giving sustenance that will be ours at the eternal heavenly banquet. In this, Christ has given us a firm and indisputable foundation upon which to live and die as the chosen people of God.

In one of my favorite verses from the Psalms, which we read today, the Psalmist says “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him” (Ps 34:8). “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This is the promise of what awaits us if we accept. We will have great joy if we open ourselves to experiencing God’s goodness and mercy, available to us through the Eucharist, through the Body of Christ, through one another living in community, and through all of God’s creation. But this is only a glimpse, only a pale imitation, only a foretaste, of the joy we will experience for eternity, as we enter into eternal life with Christ – into eternal life made possible by Christ’s gift to us. Like the early Hebrews, our forebears, we are standing on the threshold of a new land, of a new time, of a new way of being. God has issued the invitation for us to enter. Christ has provided the means of our entry into eternal life. All we need to do is humble ourselves, accept the invitation, and step over the threshold to a new life.

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