There are no self-made men (or women!)

May 14, 2012

The Rogation Days and Ascensiontide are among my favorite passages of the church year. The themes of divine providence, human dependence, and the goodness of creation are vivid in the liturgical readings. The Morning Prayer Old Testament lesson today (Monday) is Deuteronomy 8, one of my favorites.

Yes, it is the grumpy Old Testament God speaking. The one who provides familial homesteads for his people, protects immigrants, forbids vengeance, and demands severance pay for freed slaves. Yep, that is the grumpy, ill-tempered, mean God of the Old Testament.

In this passage, the chosen people’s 40-year trek through the wilderness is ending and Moses addresses the people as they prepare to cross into the land promised to the Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Here, Moses addresses the thorny question of human suffering.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deut 8:2-3 ESV)

He did it to humble them? What kind of sermon is that supposed to make. It will never sell in America. We want to feel good about ourselves, after all we are “special.” God, on the other hand wants to make us humble. No way! Does he think we are a bunch of human punching bags? Let the losers be humble! Not me.

The Almighty does not see it that way. He wants to know what we are made of, and, more importantly, he wants us to see as well. The good Lord gave them 40 years of ghastly manna. It was dull and barely enough to keep a man alive. God sent that nasty food every day in order to teach rebellious human beings to depend on divine mercy every single day. It is no accident that the New Testament reading in Morning Prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. When we say those words, we are asking the Father to give us exactly the same kind of dependence and humility that was to be instilled in the Israelites.

We petition the God of Creation for the simplest of foods, bread. We request only as much as we need. Give us this day our daily bread. We look to the Most High for sustenance. If you live in a mansion, you still depend on the Almighty for the most basic needs. Ask yourself, how would you do if the water supply were interrupted? Yeah, I am aware of that cable TV show about people getting ready for the collapse. How will they do if they cannot reach the stockpiled necessities? Ultimately, Christians rely on God.

And furthermore, “man does not live by break alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” That is precisely what Jesus told Satan when he was tempted to use his miraculous powers to take care of himself, but Jesus would not do it. Our Savior, in his human ministry, looked to the Divine Power to provide the essentials of life. In quoting Deut 8, Jesus affirmed that, as important as food and water may be for life, a regular balanced diet of God’s word is to be more highly regarded.

God loves his creation and intends good things for us. God intended to give his people a beautiful and fertile land where they might worship him and enjoy this life. But there is always a human tendency toward price and self-deceit. We sometimes believe that the good things we enjoy are the result of hard work, prudent living and fiscal restraint. Those things might play some role in what we call success, but there is more. This warning in Moses speech seems to be directed at neo-pagan America.

“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget 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 terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deut 8:11-18)

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? You move into a big new house with all the conveniences and God suddenly falls off the agenda. I made my own money. I did it my way? Isn’t that a laugh? Whether you are wandering through the waterless land of despair or residing in the finest house in the neighborhood, God is looking to see what you make of it. Thankful or greedy? Resentful or trusting? As we pray for a fruitful harvest and all the things we rightly need, those are the choices. How we live in our circumstances, good or bad, really matters.


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