St Augustine's Grove Park

8th August 1992

Years C Week 19

The People of God: Part I The Old Testament

I invited Your Churchwardens to come up with some ideas and greatly to their credit they did their homework and came up with an excellent idea. So what you will be hearing about is thanks to them.

The idea was to take the Readings of this Sunday which refer to the people of God of the Old Testament, and the Readings in a fortnight's time which refer to us as the New Israel, and then to see the person of our Lady whose Feast we shall Keep on the middle Sunday as a bridgehead watershed between the two Ages, the Old and the New.

So to begin at the beginning...

It all happened in Palestine or Canaan or Israel - they're all the same place called by a different name at different times. And the first thing to establish is that it's not all that far away or long ago. Some of you have been there I expect so you know it's about four hours by plane - 1600 miles or so. It's further than Paris, further than Rome, but nearer than the West Indies or South Africa. It's a little strip of land a hundred miles long and 60 miles wide at the very eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.

The time we shall be thinking about, 1850 BC till the time of Jesus isn't all that long ago either. The Pyramids, for instance were already a 1000 years old by then and there were kingdoms and civilisation's all over the Middle East from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Legal systems were well-developed; people could sail boats over short distances, and the use of bronze was commonplace.

Now its importance so far as we're concerned is that between the years 1600 BC and the Coming of Jesus Christ this people, the Jews, discovered far more truth about God than any other nation had done. And it's rather curious how it all happened.

Their knowledge didn't come about by having a lot of Wise men sit around a table discussing the nature of God; on the whole they weren't a nation which set much store by academic talent; nor did they go off into the desert to meditate and commune with nature about the meaning of life; that was done by people in India sitting beneath the Bo-tree.

No, the Jews learnt about God by obeying him by doing his will. They somehow got into the habit of asking him to tell them what to do and then doing it. And, surprise, surprise, they found that God answered their prayer. Little by little, as they listened they learnt just that little bit more.

What they had discovered was the meaning of the word Revelation. People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob mentioned in the second reading this morning were men who by doing what God told them to do, often without really understanding where it was all leading, came to discover what God is really like.

This is what faith means. They didn't themselves possess the full truth, but like strangers and pilgrims on earth they pressed on towards it.

Of course there were many of their fellows who totally failed to discover or do God's will. People of faith have always been In the Minority in this world. That is why keeping God's commandments is so difficult. It's not the commandments themselves. If everyone kept them it would only be the odd person who fell from grace.

But in an age with out faith it's much more difficult to be righteous because there's no very obvious reason to want to be righteous. If "anything-goes" and "everybody's doing it now". Then "why shouldn't I do it?"

People simply don't understand the link between faithlessness and sin until it's too late. There is no compelling reason to practise Honesty or chastity or kindness unless we believe in God.

people are always trying to make out that you can have Morality without faith. In fact you can't - or not for very long. People who stop practising their faith in God, and turn away from him as the Old Testament puts it, "and going astray", "turning their backs", "running after other gods" do not immediately lapse into immorality - the hard learned lessons of obedience didn't just vanish overnight. But within a few years they started becoming like everyone else, the nation's round about who did not know God as their Lord and Saviour - and even sometimes considerably worse because the nations round about may themselves have been searching for the true God, and finding their way towards him, in which case God will already have responded to their search by putting a tiny bit of his law in their hearts. The very desire to seek after God is itself a powerful moral incentive to live a morally better life.

"But," you may say, "That's all very well, but surely belief in God isn't something you can manufacture. Either you believe or you don't and there's nothing very much anyone can do about it.

And that idea is based on a misunderstanding. Believing in God isn't the same thing as, for instance, believing that he exists, or understanding all about him.

To believe in a person is much more a matter of the will than the intellect. If I have faith in my doctor, it isn't really about believing that he exists, or even knowing all that much about him.

No. "Faith in my doctor" means going to him when I am unwell and at least trying out what he prescribes -- doing his will for me in other words.

Do you see that "faith in God" always comes back to "doing his will". That was the great discovery made by the Jewish people and which set them apart from all the other nations of the earth. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had faith in God and (as the Scripture says) "that was counted to them as Righteousness".

Of course we have come to see that God was at work behind all this Making ready for the next great step in his plan for the salvation of the whole world. We shall come to that next week when we consider how at a particular moment, after all those years of preparation, God himself became man, employing in the process someone whose faith in him and in his purposes for her has been an example ever since. I'm referring of course to Mary who became the Mother of God.

But that is next week's subject. For the present I only want to get across the lesson which the study of the Old Testament teaches.

The lesson is a very simple one. You can't have Morality without faith, and without either, people perish. The whole historical setting of God's ancient people, the Jews, is that of a tiny nation sandwiched between warlike Powers, often conquered but never wiped off the map. Whereas the neighbouring civilisation's, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian and so forth all came to an end and perished as though they had never been.

What kept the people of God alive was the faith of a small remnant. Just a few hundred or a few thousand people having faith in God and obeying his will resulted in the survival of the nation itself against all the odds:

Through many a day of darkness
Through many a scene of strife
The faithful few fought bravely
To guard the nation's life.

And that of course is almost precisely the position we are in today. Against all the odds we come to Mass on Sundays. Against all the odds we try to keep ourselves clear of sin. Against all the odds we try to discover and obey God's will.

But then again, against all the odds God has chosen you and me to be his faithful people, not because he thinks we are the greatest, or the best or the cleverest, or the prettiest, but because he loves us and sees us in some way responding to that love.

And behind that choice lies another deeper purpose as we shall see. By choosing us for his people God intends as he did in the days of Abraham that like him we should become "the father of many nations". As Abraham came to be seen as the father of all who believe, so we'd too are destined in God's plan to beget many people in the Faith we profess.

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