Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 26.1-11

Luke 4:1-13

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sometimes, gratitude is the last things on our mind. We may be dealing with one challenge after another- illness, bereavement, problems with family or work. There are times when it becomes hard to cope, when we are likely to become worried and irritable if we are not careful. We can forget to be thankful.

But in our service today, are called to thanksgiving. We’ve just heard part of the instructions for the people of Israel for celebrating their harvest thanksgiving festival. These are instructions for a farming community, in the days when the vast majority of the people lived off the land. So the command was not that you gave money (as we do week by week in church nowadays), but that you gave a share of the produce of your farm to God- the first part of the crop to be placed on a basket and offered to God.

The ancient Israelite harvest festival didn’t just celebrate God’s gift of the harvest. It was really to celebrate that God had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and that God brought the people to the land flowing with milk and honey. So these instructions about harvest offerings end with the words:

Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…

Today, our Harvest Thanksgiving, we should be thinking about God’s good gifts to us, and how we, too, might make an appropriate response. But some of you might feel that your life today is fraught with worries. When life is not so good, how can we feel grateful?

Well, start by thinking of what you take for granted. Our harvest food gifts are going to the Highland Foodbank, to help people who are struggling so much that they are not sure where their next meal is coming from. But most of us here are used to plentiful and safe food- unlike most people in our world. So we rarely think about how it comes to our table, or about the work of people across the world who bring it to our table: the farmers around the world, the lorry drivers and sailors who transport it, the warehouse and shop workers

And what about those who live in places where their next meal is not guaranteed? In places where drought is ever a threat. In places like Yemen, where war has disrupted food supplies. In a disaster areas, such as the area affected by the earthquake in Indonesia. Or even on our own doorstep, where men and women, through no fault of their own, need the Highland Foodbank to feed themselves and their children.

Although poverty and hardship exists in our country, most of us are materially quite well off. Although we worry about crime, our communities are basically peaceful and safe. So perhaps, indeed, we ought to still hear the instruction of Deuteronomy:

Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…

-because, for most of us, we are materially very well off, compared to most people in the world.

Perhaps we have been learning again recently about how fortunate we are in this country, as we hear of some of the stories in the media about what could happen if Britain leaves the European Union. For hundreds of years, this island has imported much of its food. Getting food to Britain was a major problem during the two world wars, when at times the German U boats were almost able to starve this island. Today, we are only able to import and export due to trading agreements, which, since the 1970s, we have negotiated as part of the EU.

Even the government’s own analyses show that without an orderly transition, involving a treaty with the EU, we would face a national emergency. We can expect our food to be held up at borders as our trade agreements, not just with the EU, but with all the other countries across the world, fall into disuse. It seems we must expect, on top of all the other economic problems which would come with a so-called ‘no deal Brexit’, food shortages and rising prices. I find it hard to believe that our political leaders would lead us into such a situation. Certainly, no politician should be saying that such a situation could be contemplated. Our politicians have a basic moral obligation to ensure that the people are fed, that our food supplies are safe. They should not be playing politics with food.

We must hope and pray that such a dreadful situation does not come to pass. But it is perhaps a reminder of what an interdependent world we live in: that we rely on so many people, in so many lands, to feed ourselves (and that our own farmers and food producers are able to sell their products around the world).

At a Harvest Thanksgiving festival, we give thanks not only because God given us good material things. We are even more grateful because we believe that there is a God, and that we know what our God is like. People have all sorts of pictures of what God is like. Many people think that God is angry, judgmental, distant. Sadly that’s how the church has often spoken of God, and, sadly, it’s put a lot of people off.

But when we read the Gospels properly, we discover that we are to see God in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. So our God is one who lives alongside us. He wants us to know love, forgiveness, grace. Jesus went out of his way to welcome all kinds of people, especially those who thought they didn’t have any status. Jesus was eventually put to death- but on the cross we see a God who suffers alongside those who suffer, who shares our pain, even sharing our death.

And in the empty tomb of Easter, as Jesus defeats even death, we see a sign of hope that one day all will be well. If all that’s true, then, even if we are on a dark part of our journey through life, we can also feel grateful. If we believe that Christ is risen, then we always have cause to be grateful.

Today’s Gospel story comes from near the beginning of Jesus’ story. It is a picturesque attempt to imagine how Jesus must have tried to prepare for his ministry of teaching and healing.  To prepare for the work he believes God is calling him to, Jesus undertakes a sort of spiritual retreat. He goes off into the deserts around Israel, away from the crowds and distractions. He fasts- that is, he gives up eating food for a time- a traditional spiritual discipline for someone who wants to be close to God. He spends time in prayer, seeking to know the will of the God he calls his Father.

But it’s a struggle. What’s so powerful about today’s Gospel reading is that here we see Jesus as he really was. It is a symbolic story. It’s a story of a man struggling to understand what God requires of him. It’s a story of man trying to figure out what his vocation is. He knows he is called by God to do a job- but what job, exactly? And how is he to do it?

And what if it’s difficult and dangerous? There will be those who will hate his preaching and teaching. This carpenter’s son knows he will be in conflict with the established religious leaders. In an age when life is cheap, this could be dangerous. Rock the boat back then, and you could be in trouble. Religious heretics might be stoned to death. If the Romans thought you were a danger to their empire, you could be crucified. It’s not an age of freethinking. It’s a dangerous time for the sort of new ideas that Jesus has.

And so the story gives us figure of the devil, a symbol of the forces which press in even on someone we think is a good person, someone like Jesus. Because those who strive to do what is right, those who think they have work to do for God, are always going to be troubled by a wee voice that says, ‘There has to be an easier way than this’.

As we watch Jesus struggle with temptation, we see him as he was. Christians might sometimes think of him as God, but in this story we see him as one of us- completely human. Someone who knew pain and joy, laughter and tears- just like us. Someone who knew friendship and betrayal, health and tiredness- just like us. Someone who knew temptations- just like us. For me, this strange story, which has the devil as a character, is, in a way, one of the most realistic stories about Jesus in the Bible.

He’s in the desert, hungry, because he hasn’t eaten. And his fevered mind conjures up a devil- an inner demon, if you like. A demon who wants to lure him away from his vocation. A wee voice from within which suggests an easier way-

If you are indeed God’s son, you could make these stones turn into bread.

And for two thousand years, his followers have had this happen to them, too. Just when we are trying to follow God, trying to get closer to God, trying to live our lives for God, we, too, often hear a wee voice from within, suggesting another, easier path, that we take what seems like a simpler route. ‘Turn stones into bread’ is the temptation to take the easy way.

Jesus has an answer ready- an answer to the devil, and a warning to us all:

‘Human beings cannot live on bread alone’.

In other words- the material is not enough. There has to be a spiritual dimension to life as well. This is hard for people today to understand, for we are so use to having all our material wants met immediately, and we often believe that having ‘things’- consuming and owning- are enough. This is why church is a so much of a mystery to many people. We’re not in the entertainment business. We will not guarantee that you will be rich or successful. We are not offering gadgets for instant satisfaction. We offer faith, but not certainty. We speak about loving your neighbour, and not your individual happiness. And because

all good things around us
are sent from heaven above[1]

we are grateful to our God.

And we seriously ask people the question, a questions which we mostly avoid- what is all else fails? What if illness, bereavement, disappointment, death comes into your life? Do you really think that you can live on bread alone? Will your nice house or your fancy car be enough? Will all your money, or the fact that you’re a popular person, will all that count for anything when it all goes to pot? And even when it’s going well- don’t you sometimes feel a gnawing doubt that there must be more to life than just ‘things’?

For those who follow Jesus, part of the answer is to learn to be grateful:

Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…

It’s a good spiritual exercise to try to cultivate gratitude. This week, try being grateful for the things you usually take for granted- the food on your plate, your water and electricity, the fact your house is unlikely to be the target of a jet bomber or a drone. Try saying a prayer of thanks before you eat- and remember, too the farmers and fishermen and all the people who get the food onto your table (and who often don’t get rewarded much for it).

Be grateful for the good things the Lord your God has given you…

Be grateful also for the fact that you don’t have to live on bread alone. For the God who gives us all good things has God has come into our world in Jesus Christ: the bread of life, bringing us hope, light and love. Thanks be to God for God’s goodness!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] CH4 229