"Alien Appreciation: Joy and Perspective at Thanksgiving"
Oct.10, 2010 Deut.26:1-11
PROUD OR APPRECIATIVE?
We Canadians are a very blessed people. We have a beautiful vast country rich in natural resources and agricultural productivity. We rank near the top of the list for nations in which people would like to live in the world. However the danger is that with so much to boast about, we may also be a very proud people. We try not to be brash about it, but more of a silent smug kind of pride. We feel pretty good about ourselves and our place on the planet. Being rich, we don't have too many worries, we're in control of our own destiny (control is often associated with pride). So, ironically, the very blessings and riches which ought to prompt gratitude to God instead bolster us in haughtiness, independent pride, and smug self-sufficiency.
Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent American Congregational preacher of the mid-1800s, said: "Pride slays thanksgiving, but an humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grows. A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves."
Perhaps it would humble us to consider what our country might be like if things were just a little bit different. On Wednesday a torrent of death broke out of a huge reservoir in an eastern European country and surged through whole communities, poisoning the land and burning people with its ooze of toxic sludge. Heavy machinery was set to work in a frenzied emergency attempt to stop the flow before it reached the Danube River and spread much further. What was the toxic sludge from? The manufacture of aluminum from bauxite. Don't we do quite a bit of that in Canada? What if that had happened here?
Or take our vast fresh water supplies and river systems. What if they suddenly overflowed and inundated millions of homes as in Pakistan? Would that humble us a bit so we'd be more appreciative?
In today's Old Testament lesson, God sets forth a simple harvest-offering ritual that's designed to help His people be appreciative not proud; at a time of harvest wealth to humble themselves, stop and acknowledge His supernatural grace in delivering and preserving them.
LIFE IS ENTIRELY A GIFT: DON'T FORGET THE GIVER
A first lesson we can take away here is that Life is entirely a gift - and if it's a gift, it's not earned: there's a Giver behind it all, whom we should remember. Five times in the space of 11 verses we see it emphasized that God has given the riches the Israelites enjoy in their new homeland of Palestine. Grammatically speaking, a lot of this comes through as subordinate clauses, but it's pretty obvious once you start looking for it.
Deuteronomy 26:1, "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..." Let's read that again. "When you have entered the land" [STOP! WHAT LAND?] "the land the LORD your God is GIVING you as an inheritance..." Let's keep doing that as we read on. V2, "take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land [WHAT LAND?] - the land the LORD your God is GIVING you..." V3, "and say to the priest in office at the time, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land [WHAT LAND?] - the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to GIVE us."" Are you starting to see a pattern emerge here? V9, "He brought us to this place and GAVE us this land, [WHAT LAND?] a land flowing with milk and honey..." Not a bad land, at that! Hyperbole to express its richness - just oozing goodness.And v11, "And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things [WHAT GOOD THINGS?] the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household."
Maybe our scripture reading is suggesting a new linguistic habit for thanksgiving that we can practice the rest of the weekend. When we go out to the parking lot, we can say, "Thank you Lord for my car - the car you Lord have given me." When we sit down to feast, we could take a deep sniff and exclaim, "What a wonderful turkey! The turkey the Lord our God has given us." When we wake up we could pray, "Thank you Lord for sleep - the sleep and refreshment You, Lord, have given me." You get the point. In everything give thanks - acknowledging God as the Giver behind the gift. Nothing in life is something we inherently have a right to.
The apostle Paul brings this out in the New Testament in the area of spiritual gifts in 1Corinthians 12(4ff): "There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men." Hear that recognition again? Spirit - Lord - God - He's behind all the giving. So our language should reflect that.
CH Spurgeon wrote of this 'giving' aspect of God: "God is satisfied with Himself, and sufficient to His own happiness.Therefore, surely, there is enough in Hm to fill the creature.That which fills an ocean will fill a bucket; that which will fill a gallon will fill a pint; those revenues which will defray an emperor's expenses are enough for a beggar or poor man." Paul could tell the Philippians (4:19), "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." He sees fit to bestow those riches on us as an inherent gift. What a great and good God we serve!
IT'S NOT PRIMARILY ABOUT THE 'STUFF'
A second lesson we can draw from Deuteronomy 26 is that it's not primarily about the 'stuff' in life, but about the promise, the relationship, the choosing behind the 'stuff'.
Yes, it is a harvest ritual, bringing a basket of produce to the priest. But what's more important than the actual grain or figs or other fruit is knowing God's backing those who trust in Him.
V2, "take some of the firstfruits..." Not the end of the harvest; not what you can spare. Take it off the top - the Israelite farmer out in the field would actually tie some leaves or other marker around the heads of grain he saw ripen first. You're giving God priority, trusting Him for the rest of the crop as He's shown He's been faithful in providing the earliest harvest.
For farmers, there's always a certain amount of risk as a harvest is weather-dependent. Our son-in-law Trent has been helping his dad in Neerlandia with the harvest this fall. Recently a twister struck their fields and farm, lifting a wooden grain storage bin clean off its moorings. About 15% of his crop was affected, but a couple of their neighbours had their whole crop destroyed (I think it was canola). Thankfully they had crop insurance, but still it's a loss. So, giving the firstfruits does show you're trusting God for the rest of the harvest, which is yet out in the field, subject to climate's vagaries.
God backs His covenant with us by promises. V3, "I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the LORD SWORE to our forefathers to give us." For example Genesis 12:7 where the Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." Also here in Deut 26 v15, "bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers..." How precious a promise is! There's much excitement amongst the Dow girls currently with Meredith's wedding upcoming, but aside from booking the facility and the caterer and getting dresses etc etc, at the heart of it all, a wedding is about a PROMISE two people give each other - a commitment to stand by each other through thick and thin. The basket then is a sign or token that God has kept His promise; in bowing down (v10) and obeying Him (v14) we treasure Him.
The little 'creed' in vv5-10 emphasizes the wonder of God's dealings with the Israelites: Jacob and family went down to Egypt as 'a wandering Aramean', nothing but a nomad shepherd; and from this one family (originally, just Abraham and barren Sarai), came a nation millions strong by the time of the Exodus. From zilch to gazillion! Then to bring them into a land 'flowing with milk and honey' (v9) - rich, lavish, bountiful, overflowing like the cornucopia symbol we associate with Thanksgiving. Sheer unwarranted GRACE.
Who's backing the people? One who brought them forth v8 "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders." A clearly supernatural Deliverer! Who could ask for a better backer? Stubborn imperialist Egyptians - no problem, they're suddenly all floaters. Sorcery-potent Balaam? He's bound to bless not curse. 9-foot tall Anakites? No sweat, an 85-year-old can take them on with the Lord's help. Jericho's thick walls? A pushover with a trumpet blast. So God operates.
Although harvest is the occasion for thanksgiving, it's not about the harvest itself; it's not about the 'stuff'. Rather, it's about the relationship with the One who promises His backing. How does God refer to them in v18? "And the LORD has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised..." That's the real cause for rejoicing right there - to be God's 'treasured possession'.
The Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah (9:23f), "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD." Isn't it great to know a God like that? If you're not sure you know Him, wouldn't you like to? In Jesus it's possible! In Paul's words in Philippians 3:8, "...I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ..." It's about a person, not produce.
REJOICING BEST SAVOURED IN GRACE
A third lesson: rejoicing is best savoured in acknowledgment of God's abundant grace, not a sense of "I earned this" or "I deserve this." When does the party start in this passage? Not until v11, AFTER you harvest the firstfruits, take the basket to the priest, recite your history as one person blessed to be a part of God's people, and don't forget the part about bowing down before God (v10). Only AFTER acknowledging all that can you really rejoice. As the New Living Translation puts it, "Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household." You can 'party hearty' at its max only after having realized how good God has been to you. Rejoicing finds its true resonance in the context of acknowledging God's lordship and grace.
Contrast the person who is wealthy but does not know God. Who is more anxious, self-protective, burdened with worries than an unpious miser? They have much 'stuff' but much stress, for they haven't submitted all they have and are to Christ's lordship, acknowledging their need for His eternal life most of all, not to mention His wisdom and help in directing and managing large amounts. Un-grace says, "I've earned all this," and feels entitled and proud, not thankful. St Bernard of Clairvaux observed, "Theirs is an endless road, a hopeless maze, who seek for goods before they seek for God."
In the New Testament, Paul clearly contrasts a works-attitude and grace-appreciation in the book of Romans. "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about-- but not before God...Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." [and later on he adds] "...at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace." (Rom 4:2,4f; 11:5f)
We rejoice best when we savour grace.
GRACE ACKNOWLEDGED PROMPTS GENEROSITY TO OTHER 'ALIENS'
The last lesson I'd like to point out here has to do with the generosity we're freed to show others when we realize we too come from humble origins. In v5 the Israelite farmer presenting his basket of firstfruits would say, "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there..." Just pause there a moment, before you jump into the 'powerful and numerous' great nation. A 'wandering Aramean' - like a gypsy, a nomad; going to a foreign country with a few people, in Jacob's case on account of a 7-year drought. What do we call people today who are displaced and go to other countries because they have no food? Refugees. This farmer holding the basket is admitting his refugee roots. New Living Translation has, "My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt." New Revised Standard, "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number..." ALIENS? Your ancestors were ALIENS?
Here's where a light went on for me. Who gets to join in the party in v11? "And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household." Who let the aliens in? Not the Chew-bacca kind, we're talking about foreigners here, maybe refugees.
Slip down to v12: who benefits from the special tithe taken every 3rd year? "You shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied." Aliens AGAIN! Why should I give a flip about refugees? Why should they benefit from my hard-earned income, me whose ancestors stepped off the boat from the highland clearances about 1825, nearly 200 years ago? (There's even a book written about their voyage and settling, y'know!)
Lest we become proud and harden our heart toward our neighbour - even our foreign neighbour, or the fatherless, or the widow - God reminds us all that, as far as His holiness is concerned, we're all ALIENS. Like the Israelite whose ancestor became a refugee in Egypt, we were all refugees fleeing from the hell we sinners deserved. We have nothing of which to boast apart from Christ. So when God says the alien is entitled to 'the sacred portion' (v13), it's like God saying, "What you would give to me, give to them - they're my stand-in." As God has been kind, forgiving, welcoming us into the riches of His grace, so we can afford to be kind to foreigners and the less-endowed, less-enfranchised near us.
Paul directed Timothy, "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share." (1Tim 6:17-18) Grace acknowledged prompts generosity to other 'aliens'.
Is there someone near you who would benefit by your stretching your walls, your boundaries, to include by some act of hospitality or friendship? Some 'alien' - not necessarilya refugee or foreigner, though it could be - someone not like you that for some reason you feel yourself withdrawing from? What if Christ had treated you that way? Do you not sense His love within you reaching out to help that person? Perhaps they were actually close to you at some point, maybe even a relative, but they've alienated themselves somehow - an angry word or misuse of money or some inconsiderate act has fractured the relationship. What do you stand to gain by no longer keeping them at a distance? What does the Kingdom stand to gain?
Who is a 'foreigner' or alien to you, and how can we share the grace of Jesus more realistically? Sometimes foreigners are actually people from other countries. Ed Epp, executive director of cbm Canada, recently returned from a trip to Africa looking at how to deal with neglected tropical diseases. He says, "All of us have the obligation to share the gospel, to love our neighbour as ourselves.I wish our country would open up the definition of neighbour - sometimes it's difficult to think of people in Congo or North Korea as neighbours." Can they become 'neighbours' to us instead of 'aliens'?
Tonight Yvonne and I hope to go to Ottawa and stay at Matthew House, where Keith and Darcie will be live-in 'host family' for a former Baptist parsonage that, like 5 other Matthew Houses in Ontario, will provide short-term housing for up to 10 refugee claimants. You don't have to move into a halfway house. But can you say with Keith in the ChristianWeek article, "We wanted to be involved however we could"? Are people from other countries 'foreigners' or 'aliens' to you, or 'neighbours' to whom Christ's love obligates you to show concern?
This coming Saturday is World Food Day. Canadian Foodgrains Bank invites us to 'Fast For Change', its annual fall campaign to raise awareness and support for more than one billion people living in hunger today. James Kornelsen, public engagement co-ordinator, says: "Thanksgiving is a perfect time to focus on food, on what it means to have 'enough', and to build solidarity with people who struggle to produce enough food for themselves and their families."
In the Christian Church, we don't systematically tithe every third year to give to the Levite, alien, fatherless, and widow. But savouring Christ's grace challenges our definitions, our entitlement, our sense of who's 'neighbour' and who's 'alien'; His mercy draws us to pass on His love and generosity to those needing it most, be they near or far. In Canada we too enjoy "a land flowing with milk and honey". May the Lord be pleased with the firstfruits we offer Him! Let us pray.