Depending on God
You need great faith to depend on God. Surely – such faith will be tested as life's events come at you, unfold and pass. The whole point of a called people is to demonstrate that dependence. That is a hard call. God wants space to move in our lives and in our Church. We are not to trust in ourselves, our ingenuity, our gifts and skills. We are to trust in God firstly and use these well secondly. The reading from Deuteronomy spells it out clearly. Obedience to God's commands is the way to prosperity. The epic journey by the Israelites through the desert after the Crossing of the Red Sea is recalled as the paradigm of dependence which was proved and vindicated. It had a purpose....to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. In other words, the training, the discipline, the testing was to strengthen the people to be the People of God.
The people went hungry the text acknowledges and then God fed them with manna. The word still means a miraculous providence. They did not hunt or shoot or fish; they did not till the land; but they found sustenance and survived. Again the text explains why....to teach you that you do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The writer adds...as a parent disciplines the child, so God disciplines you.
The passage then highlights the problem on the horizon. In the promised land the people would go from scarcity and dependence to luxury and plenty. There would be food in abundance and rich mineral deposits. Their flocks would multiply and they'd own gold and silver for the first time in their lives. The women would have expensive jewellery and the men would store ingots and plate. They would build fine houses and do away with tents. How would they behave? Would they forget God? Would they lose their way spiritually, vocationally? Would they become indistinct? Would they be assimilated into the practices of other tribes and peoples? Would their purpose be lost? The warning is given...then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Israelites might say My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me but, says the text remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth. Then some words are added which put everything in context...and so confirms his covenant. God's continuous providence confirms his faithfulness and the genuineness of our calling as his people.
It is a metaphor of today, is it not? Life is materially better for most people in this land. Even what defines poverty includes what were called luxuries not so long ago. In terms of interests and opportunities, there is so much as to be confusing and distracting, 24 hour TV, infinite internet, leisure possibilities galore, many of which are free. And people have forgotten the Lord their God. They want to say that they are the masters and mistresses of their own choices, rights, decisions, destinies. There is clearly a worth and worship attached to fame and wealth. Our politicians offer themselves as guides and saviours and have little place for acknowledging dependence on God or the seeking of his will. Even the great issue of independence for Scotland is being played out without the slightest reference to the providence of God. The Church of Scotland is keeping quiet since its echelons do not know the will of God but are afraid of any loss of historic position and privilege. The Roman Catholics are keeping quiet in case they cause offence. The evangelical independent churches seem to be more in favour of the union than independence. Someone from the Free Church was quoted a saying that independence was tantamount to treason - a very odd reasoning, I must say. The criminal penalty for treason can be as much as life imprisonment! Our state education system has largely excluded any sense of dependence on God for learning, wisdom, discovery, wonder, character building and growth towards maturity. Humanist celebrants are being invited to conduct weddings and funeral services which are person centred only without any reference to the existence of God or the Christian context of spirituality, relationship with Jesus Christ and eternal life. To sum up – we have forgotten the Lord our God. We have given up depending on God, collectively as a people and nation and very many as individuals.
For the Christian it cannot be so. It is our calling to seek and find God and to witness and testify to God's presence and involvement in our lives. Do you ask yourself What has God done for me today? Can you point to anything special, anything with the hallmark of the Risen Jesus Christ, anything that evidences the help of the Holy Spirit? President John F Kennedy famously said in his inauguration address in 1960... "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." So we Christians must say in our prayers, “ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God”. Working for God is different from working for yourself. If it is a true calling you are given grace and fulfilment beyond what you expected. Look at what Jesus did in the lives of his disciples. He turned them into great men. Jesus still takes unlikely people, unlikely human material, people with problems and difficulties and hang-ups and hindrances and transforms them into great men and women – for him.
It doesn't always work. Richard Holloway was brought up in Alexandria near Loch Lomond. He was called to the ministry of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He became a bishop. He had a gift and flair for self-publicity. He found that the more radical things he said against God got him more publicity and began to make him well known. He fed on this adrenalin. He denounced faithful pious Christians and he began to reject the existence of God and to dismiss the resurrection of Jesus. His books sold well and he became wealthy. He was a leader of the de-Christianising of Scotland. Politicians loved him because he gave them legitimacy to depart from Christian standards. The media loved him because the media is replete with atheists, agnostics, secularists and humanists. Holloway used his position as a bishop – the word means shepherd to attack the foundations of the Faith which had nurtured him and gave him everything he had. He turned against the Christian Faith and yet continued to use his church office for that purpose including taking a salary and he is still taking a Church pension. He is a Judas Iscariot figure.
But there have been and are many people in this land who began in similar ways and who have been faithful in calling and ministry. There have been many who have lived humble quiet lives of faithfulness to Jesus Christ who are known only to him. There are many who have persevered and have not given up the Faith even after discouragement, disappointment, and even failure.
St Paul was such an one. You know about Paul. In the reading for today we listened again to his struggle with God for release and freedom and healing from a personal condition which caused him a lot of pain. He called it his thorn in the flesh. He thought that God gave him this to keep him humble, to keep his feet on the ground because he was inclined to spiritual ecstasy, to see visions and to momentarily leave this life in his mind's imagination. But what exactly was this thorn in the flesh? It was a physical characteristic not a mental one. It was in the flesh not in the mind. It was not a perpetual agony of the soul. Scholars think it might have been epilepsy. Galatians 4: 14 refers to Paul's condition. 'Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn'. Epileptics were sometimes treated with scorn as they were thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus, we know, healed people of epilepsy, notably, a young boy with a very serious condition. But Jesus did not heal Paul. Other scholars think that Paul's thorn in the flesh was severe migraine headaches. Others think he suffered from malaria as a result of his travels in that part of the world, in what we know as Turkey today and Greece, especially. It is a reasonable possibility.
But this condition made Paul all the more dependent on God. It made his ministry all the more miraculous; he was not a charismatic figure like Billy Graham or Pope John Paul II. But Christ's resurrection power worked in and through him effectively. His thorn in the flesh kept him focused and disciplined in his calling as an apostle. He was spared temptation to use the gifts and powers of the Holy Spirit for himself. Some of the medieval popes used the office to enrich, indulge and debauch themselves. Some ministers became less and less interested in the Gospel over the years than in their own ambition, comfort and prestige. Many local church people have used the Church of Jesus for the exercise of their own egos and desire for local prominence and self-promotion. Sad – isn't it?
Dependence on God is our calling. Trusting God is our calling. Keeping the faith is our calling. We will be honed and sharpened, pruned and made fit. It will be a walk with God. We will take the hand of the Risen Jesus Christ. The wind of the Spirit will gently push us forward. If we focus on the Lord and not on ourselves, it will work out for us. It will work out for you. God is working his salvation out in our midst.