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Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Wandering Aramean, I

Deut 26:    When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket......
Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.
He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. 


 The Hebrews could have thought that by making their offerings in the Temple they were bribing God. A kind of "look after us, God, and we'll see you all right. They could have thought of it as a bargaining chip. But they didn't. They'd grasped what God was like. You couldn't bargain with God offer God his cut, in exchange for a decent harvest next year. The opposite of the film, the Wicker Man. Not the recent American remake. Nicholas Cage's acting in that film is terrible. And its general unrelieved appallingness is such that you end up wishing he did his own stunts in the leg-breaking scheme. But I digress. In the Wicker Man, the gods demand a sacrifice so the year's harvest will be good. It's like the gods themselves are weak - they need feeding up. You can only get something from them if you give them something first.

The Wicker Man was based on dodgy reconstructions of Celtic mythology, sure. But you can see similar attitudes in the rituals of the other religions of the ancient Near East. When Elijah has his run-in with the prophets of Baal, the prophets cut themselves to make themselves into blood sacrifices. When the King of Moab is up against it in a battle, he makes his eldest son a burnt offering to his god. They're offering something to their gods, to get something back - treating them like a retailer of blessings. And a retailer can't exist without our paying. If you go to Sainsbury's and ask for all your shopping free, it won't happen. Even their free gifts are there to encourage us to pay.

But then this passage puts us in our place. The offering of first-fruits is made not to bribe God, not to feed God - but to give thanks. And it starts with this wonderful expression: "My father was a wandering Aramean..."

A foreigner, even to the Hebrews. An exile. A man with no land to call his own - not even, as we are reminded on one occasion - with a family to pass his portable wealth on to. A man totally dependent upon God - and therefore, as it turned out, one who saw God.

The prayer goes on to remind the Hebrews - that their existence as a nation was precarious. That they went down to Egypt. That it was in prayer to God that their voices were heard - and that it was God who heard their prayer and brought them home.

And so for anything we give to God. We have no rights with God. We have no strength outside God. As Paul says - quoting a pagan - "In him we live and move and have our being." We are nothing without God. We have nothing except what God gives us. Anything we bring may be an offering - but it is actually more like a thanksgiving. All that we have is God's. And we are only giving back what we were first given. The whole creation is grace - given freely to us.

And if the whole creation is grace, its fulfilment is grace piled upon grace - a pouring out of Gods' love in an offering so great the universe could not hold it. Only the womb of a young Jewish woman, freely given could hold that much grace.

The ultimate gift of the God who gives us life, and breath, and a world in which to be, is the gift of his Son. Given to the world, freely. Offering God's love, freely. Expecting nothing in advance - because nothing we gave in advance could ever be good enough to earn God's love. It's the lesson we hear in Deuteronomy 26, where the harvest gift is a thanksgiving for what God has done. God gives to us freely. God's love cannot be earned, bargained for or counted. It can only be received.

And then we give thanks. It's exactly 3 months to Christmas Day. So I reckon I can get away with a few words from Christina Rossetti.....

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

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