From Rev. Ann Inglis, Interim Moderator
Domestic circumstances – a flooded kitchen floor – have prevented Bob Gemmell from writing a sermon for this Sunday. He and Marion have gone to stay with one of their daughters for a few days. This week I am having a few days off and going to my daughter’s (no flooded kitchen involved!) because, as a lone Granny, I can join their bubble. So, I decided to give you the service I live streamed on 28th June from Queensferry Parish Church. I appreciate some of you may have seen this service already – apologies but I couldn’t fit in writing another sermon on a week off!
In Dalmeny and Queensferry we are on a project of “The Bible in a Year”. Last Sunday in our continuing journey we were on our third week of looking at Moses and my remit was the Book of Deuteronomy. I looked at four short passages from the book, passages which I think capture the essence of the narrative.
Call to Worship
“I am now giving you the choice between life and death. Choose life.” (From Deuteronomy Chapter 30)
Jesus said: I have come in order that you may have life – life in all its fullness.
Whoever we are
WE ARE KNOWN TO GOD
Whatever we’ve done
WE BELONG TO GOD
Wherever we go
WE ARE LOVED BY GOD
Every day, every moment
GOD IS OUR FRIEND
God of all creation, you are our goal and our glory, our heaven and our hearts’ desire:
MAY WE WALK IN YOUR WAY OF LOVE.
You have set before us, as inspiration and example, the life and teaching of your Son, Jesus Christ, and called us to follow in his footsteps:
MAY WE WALK IN YOUR WAY OF LOVE.
You teach us how to live in justice, truth and peace and you strengthen us to do so through the gift of your Holy Spirit. We know that you will never abandon us:
MAY WE WALK IN YOUR WAY OF LOVE.
Living God, you have set before us this day, as every day, the choices we have to make, simply because we are alive and active in your world.
Obedience – or disobedience
Kindness to others – or selfishness
Following you – or going our own way
All the time in our lives we must choose between alternatives.
Sometimes we choose well – sometimes we make mistakes.
Sometimes our choices are wrong but we have made them in good faith.
Sometimes we turn aside from what we know to be right.
Today, as every day, we lean on your mercy and trust in your grace as we come to you asking forgiveness.
We know we have done wrong things in the past and we know that we will not always get our choices right in the future. So we ask you to prompt us, guide us, lead us and teach us so that, with our eyes fixed on your love and grace, we may know that you have forgiven us, even as we pray that we might learn to forgive one another.
Enfold us, Lord, in your love, surround us with your peace, encircle us with your power.
Enable us to be what you would have us be, and empower us to do what you would have us do.
Hear us now as we pray further in the words Jesus taught his disciples:
Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven;
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Hymn 555 – Amazing Grace. Listen here.
Deuteronomy 4: 9–14 (NRSV)
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children – how you once stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble the people for me, and I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me as long as they live on the earth, and may teach their children to do so’; you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain was blazing up to the very heavens, shrouded in dark clouds. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets. And the Lord charged me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.
Make certain that you do not forget
In the Book of Deuteronomy we are getting closer to Jordan, or, at least, the Israelites are. They are on the boundary. I’ll try to sum up the whole book in a couple of sentences. Moses recalls the events of the past 40 years in the wilderness. I suppose if he were introducing a modern TV show he might say “Previously on Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible.” He stresses how good God has been to the people despite the fact that they started complaining as soon as they were out of Egypt. He tells the people to remember God’s goodness and be loyal. Then he reviews the ten commandments with an emphasis on the 1st commandment which tells them to devote themselves to God alone. Then he reminds them of the Covenant between God and them and calls them to renew their commitment to God. Finally there is the commissioning of Joshua – but that’s next week.
Early in the book, spies are sent out to do a recce of the land and they find it is fertile BUT the inhabitants are like giants and so they are afraid. Moses tells them not to be afraid because God will give them victory. So annoyed with them is God because they seem to be doubting him that he says none of them – not even Moses – will enter the Promised Land.
The next couple of chapters see the Israelites defeating those who stand in their way because God is on their side. It’s a pretty violent time with kings and their people being killed and their towns being plundered. Moses pleads with God to allow him to enter the Promised Land. You can understand that, after all he has come through in leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness. But God says “No”. He tells Moses he can see the Promised Land but not enter it.
Moses tells the people they must obey all the laws they have been given. That’s not just the ten commandments but also the hundreds of laws which regulate every aspect of their lives. He tells them not to add anything and not to take anything away. This isn’t just about blind obedience but rather it’s an obedience grounded in, and encouraged by, promise and claim. It’s a call to obedience because that makes sense. When they obey God he blesses them but when they don’t he curses them. Essentially – these laws work and they are for the good of society.
“Make certain that you do not forget what you have seen with your own eyes” Moses tells them, and that’s a timely reminder for us today as we take steps out of lockdown. Some people think we are moving too slowly while others think more caution is required. How easy it is on a beautiful sunny day somehow to forget what we saw with our own eyes at the height of the pandemic and how terrifying it was. How easy it could be to think we are nearly back to normal and that the threat has gone away. The rules are there for our protection. Keeping rules – whatever they are – doesn’t just protect me; it protects other people. Make certain that you do not forget.
That injunction from Moses is also relevant, and always a timely reminder to us, of what God has done for us. Sometimes preaching can stress too much what we should do for God and doesn’t stress enough what God has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I finished the sermon slot a couple of weeks ago by quoting “Count your blessings”. The last weeks and months have given many of us a chance to stop and reflect more on God’s goodness in our lives. Many people have turned to prayer and lots of people tune into online services who never come into church buildings. Even in the darkest times we can see God’s blessings in our lives. Of course, as we get busier and go out more we will inevitably spend less time on reflection.
BUT make certain that you do not forget how good God is.
Deuteronomy 6: 4–9
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The Heart of the Matter
In the Book of Exodus we read about how Moses received the ten commandments from God. Moses calls the people together and he reminds them of how he received them and then he goes through them for the people. He also reminds them that he stood between them and God because they were afraid of the fire surrounding Mount Sinai. Despite their fear, however, they tell Moses that they will listen to him when he tells them the content of the law – and they will obey.
Moses then goes on to tell them all the other laws which he has received from God – the laws which together make up the whole body of law by which the people are to live. All the laws are important and all will go well with the people when they reach the Promised Land provided they obey all the laws. They will live in a rich and fertile land and become a rich and mighty nation.
Then Moses gets to the absolute heart of the matter – the commandment or law which is the foremost one: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Centuries later this was reiterated in the conversation between Jesus and the teacher of the law in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is the central tenet of the law. Jesus tells the teacher of the law to follow the commandment and he will live. Moses tells the Israelites to follow the rules and all will go well with them.
It’s a vexed and vexing issue. So often in life we see people who live – or certainly seem to live – exemplary lives being met with extreme suffering. Children, who haven’t had time to live a good or bad life, are struck down by illness or accident. People who go through life without seemingly showing care for other people, sail through life with no major troubles – and they often prosper.
Years ago a Rabbi called Harold Kushner wrote a book called “When bad things happen to good people.” He was steeped in Old Testament history and law and was perplexed about why good people suffered so badly. He explored all the theories which have been written about the problem but found satisfaction in none of them.
When bad things happen to good people they want to know why. Why would a loving God do this? Many years ago I had conducted the funeral of a man one Saturday and on the following Monday his daughter phoned me to tell me that her brother had died. I went right round to visit the family. I was hardly in the door when the young man’s mother – newly widowed – said: “We’re just sitting here waiting for you to arrive and tell us why this has happened to us.”
Moses told the people that if they obeyed the law all would go well with them. The fact that our experience has so often shown us that faithful committed people do not always experience all going well for them is one of life’s huge unanswered questions and mysteries.
As a Jew, Rabbi Kushner’s theology did not include a suffering God and he concluded that God did not bring suffering to his people and indeed God could not prevent it, but that God is always there to support us in the darkest times.
As Christians our theology does have at its centre a suffering God. God watched his son suffer on the cross and so he understands our sorrow, our suffering and our tears. Many, if not all, of us will have experienced that comfort and strength at the most difficult points of our lives and it will have brought us through them.
God is good, his mercies are everlasting and he calls us to do one thing above all others – love him with everything that we are.
Sing Oh! Oh! Oh! How good is the Lord. Listen here.
Deuteronomy 10: 12–13
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own wellbeing.
What does the Lord require?
In Chapter 9 Moses is reminding the people how angry God became with them when they doubted God and when they complained about lack of food and water. Worst of all, while Moses was on the mountain with God receiving the commandments they had made a gold bull-calf to worship. God had done such wonders for them in leading them out of slavery, yet here they were worshipping a piece of metal.
It led me to wonder what are our golden calves? Anybody who has done – as I have – Presbytery planning will know that the most challenging discussions are around buildings. Everyone understands the need for a reduction in the number of buildings we have in the Church of Scotland – as long as it’s not their building. In rural Berwickshire where I ministered for 12 years there were many historic listed churches. My parish had 6 listed buildings when I arrived – even the Manse was listed. It was probably the only house of its age about which there was no claim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept there! One of the consequences of the Covid pandemic is that the whole Church will have to reassess its resources, including buildings.
But we have other golden calves in our lives – things, possessions – we hold so dear that we are in danger of according them more importance or status than they merit. We may not exactly worship them like the Israelites worshipped the golden calf but …
Maybe it’s not a golden calf for you – maybe it’s a baby rabbit. A little boy had been learning about poverty and the importance of sharing. He was all in favour of this and in his prayers that night he asked God to help him share everything he had with poor people. Then very quietly he said: “Except my baby rabbit.” We all have our baby rabbits. They might be possessions or more likely they will be attitudes.
I would like us all to think in this week ahead what might be our golden calves or our baby rabbits.
Moses was so angry with the people that he threw down the tablets containing the ten commandments and, as a result, had to get a second set of tablets. God was so angry with the people that he was going to destroy them. Moses pleaded with God and God changed his mind. He listened to Moses and decided not to destroy his people. The idea of God changing his mind is a fascinating one – but that’s for another day. Moses leaves the people in no doubt about what the Lord requires of them. Worship him; do all he commands; love him; serve him with all your heart; obey all his laws.
Running through the first five books of the Old Testament is the covenant between God and his people. I will be your God and you will be my people. Worship me and obey my commandments and all will go well with you. In a moment, in our last meditation, we’ll come close to the end of Moses’ encounters with God and be presented with a stark choice.
Deuteronomy 30: 15–20
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
John 10: 7–10
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
Choices are part of everyday life.
Some of the more, dare I say trivial choices that we make all the time are not very significant in the big scheme of things. Nobody will be affected by them. But often we make choices which are selfish. Look back a few weeks to a time when many of us chose to buy all kinds of things in supermarkets which we didn’t need with the result that others were left without. People whose financial situation meant they had to live from hand to mouth – and who didn’t have large freezers – couldn’t do that. Many of our lifestyle choices in our affluent Western societies leave others without. Too often there is a sense of entitlement amongst those of us who have all we need and in many cases more than we need. It even happens in churches.
We have all found ourselves recently being faced again with the evil of slavery. It’s only in recent years that I have become aware of how many of our significant benefactors of the past were involved in the slave trade. Maybe I just hadn’t read the right books. I watched a programme this week – made long before the recent Black Lives Matter protests – about books which made Britain. This particular episode was about the south-west of England and one of the authors considered was Winston Graham, author of the Poldark books. The presenter had always been a fan of the TV series of Poldark until he realised that the main character – Poldark himself – had made his money from slave labour in the tin mines. And yet, in the books, Ross Poldark is presented as a man who is sympathetic to the plight of the disadvantaged and poor.
And in real life we are discovering more and more examples of people in our past who made money from the trade in human beings. Slaves had no choices in their lives and many people, even today, have very few choices in their lives.
Moses told the people of Israel that he was giving them a choice between life and death and encouraged them to follow all God’s commands and thereby receive God’s blessing. “Choose life” he told them. Was that a difficult choice? I think it was. Jewish law is pretty exacting.
The wonderful news of the Gospel is that the choice has been made for us. Jesus came “in order that we might have life – life in all its fullness”, and, even more wonderful than that, he said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and, in perhaps his most powerful words, said “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Our call is to choose to follow Jesus who came to earth to live our life so that we might have everlasting life.
And thanks be to God that it is so. Amen.
“Today I offer you the choice of life or death – choose life.” So said Moses to the people of Israel but for us choices are seldom simple. They are often blurred and one thing has to be weighed against another. Often we feel there is no obvious clear-cut good but only the choice between varying degrees, all of which are unsatisfactory: often we find ourselves choosing not between black and white but only shades of grey which often blur into one another.
And so, Lord, we pray guidance for each step when we are confused or faced with difficult choices. Help us never to stray from the path to life.
Make certain that you do not forget:
Lord, we pray for those who have never known you or who have strayed from your path to life. Help us to take every opportunity to show your presence in our lives to others we meet on our journey.
Make certain that you do not forget:
Lord, we pray for all known to us who are in particular need of our prayers at this time – those who are sick, those who are anxious; those who are bereaved. Especially at this time we remember all those injured in the horrific incident in Glasgow on Friday the 26th. We pray for their speedy recovery and ask you to be with their families in this time of anxiety. We remember those who have asked us to pray, those who have not asked us, and those who would never ask but whose lives need your healing touch. In silence we bring before you all whose needs lie particularly heavy on our hearts at this time.
Make certain that you do not forget:
Lord, we pray for all in our health service and all care providers. As we ease out of lockdown we pray that they will be able to return to a more normal pattern of work. Help us never to be careless because we have forgotten – even if only momentarily – that coronavirus is still very much a part of our lives. We pray that there will be no resurgence of the virus putting lives at risk as well as our NHS and our fragile economy.
Make certain that you do not forget:
Lord, we pray for our police forces and security forces at a time when they are facing unrest and violence. May we never forget that our security and peace and freedoms depend on them and on our support of them.
Make certain that you do not forget:
We give thanks for those who have gone before us in this life and who have influenced us to choose life by following you. They are now in your nearer presence and we will never forget them.
Hear our prayers in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
Hymn 167 – Guide me, O thou great Jehovah. Listen here.