Sunday the 12th of February 2017
Deuteronomy 8: 7-18
If I were to ask you what you give thanks to God for? Many people might respond by saying that they give thanks to God for all they have in this life. Whilst friends and family would come to the minds of many, I suspect that our possessions, what we have or own, would also come into our thinking. When I have read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, the impression that I get is that it is as if he’s talking about possessions as if they are somehow ‘radioactive materials’. In other words I get the impression that our possessions can do a great deal of good in this world if they’re used properly, after all this is what Christian stewardship is about, but it is also clear that we have to be extremely careful how we handle them if we want to avoid being ‘contaminated’ by them.
The Old Testament reading for today from Deuteronomy chapter 8 has this same warning. To the Israelites the prosperity of the nation of Israel was a blessing from God for which they gave thanks, but it also had potential dangers. Therefore they were wrestling with the same question we do. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it?
Listen to what it says in verses 7-9: “For 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, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.
You can imagine the Israelites, who had spent their whole life in the desert, thinking to themselves that this sounds too good to be true, as they were on the edge at the borders of the Promised Land. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses goes on to outline in the following verses. They have the freedom to go into the Promised Land, to settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land, but this freedom could lead to them getting so used to it that they forget the land and the freedom they had, was a gift of God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.
I don’t think that it should be any surprise that we can see that today we face the same temptations and danger that these Israelites did. We are living in one of the most prosperous societies that have ever existed. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased to an almost unsustainable point.
We enjoy the possessions that we have; we give thanks for them, and we don’t relish the thought of living without them. But, from a spiritual point of view there are dangers and temptations. In our prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can so easily get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. Also we know that not everyone shares in the prosperity we have. I came across some American research that was saying that twenty years ago the average American CEO of a large corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.
So what would God have us do to protect ourselves from the dangers we face? Well according to today’s reading the Israelites were to remember where they had come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, Moses says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.
Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”. We would all do well to remember what God has done for each of us, where he has been at work rescuing and providing for us.
Verse 10 says, that they were to ‘Bless the LORD your God’. To bless God means that they were to continually thank God for all the blessings they had received. Again the same is true for you and me.
Being thankful to God is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Rather, we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.
Thankfulness is an antidote to this. According to today’s reading, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. Moses did not say, “Feel thankful”; he said “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, is not a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to shape us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.
The Israelites were also to keep God’s commandments. Verse 11 says: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage is not what many people think it is. It is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received. Our obeying God is our response of thankfulness for what he has done for us.
Prosperity can be a great blessing in our lives, but the thing is that we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, God challenges us to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being contaminated by it!
So I encourage you all to be thankful for the life that God has given you, including the possessions that he has given. I encourage you to regularly stop and reflect on this so you don’t forget God’s blessings in your life. And lastly I encourage you to share the blessings that he has given you with those around you.