Monday, September 11, 2017

A Covenant Relationship with the Land (Psalm 66)

Land and stories go together. Wonderfully illustrated in New Zealand’s and possibly the world’s longest place name, given to an unassuming hill near Poranagahau in the Hawkes Bay, "Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu”, its 85 characters long and tells a love story. in English it is "the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as 'landeater’, played his flute to his loved one." The locals just call the place Taumata hill for short.  

Land and identity are also very linked, as people groups, families and individuals… I was named ‘Howard” after the place where our family lived when I was born… “Point Howard” in Wellington, and of course I am always grateful that the family didn’t live in Christchurch in the suburb of Shirley. But having moved to Titirangi, in west Auckland when I was very young I can’t help but look at the Waitakere’s or down at the Manukau and feel a sense of belonging to that place. You could say “Mt Atkinson is my mountain and Big muddy creek is my river.”

Faith and land also go together. Our faith looks back to the Israel, to the small town of Bethlehem, a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem, an empty tomb carved into the rock, a gathering of disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem as the spirit of God descended on them.  Our denominations journey looks back to the Celtic saints and places like the island of Iona that St Columba used as a base for the Christianization of Scotland. It moves through the city of Geneva where John Knox fled religious persecution and sat under the teaching and influence of John Calvin. It moves to lands and islands where the missionary descendants of those people went to share the gospel.  In New Zealand it holds the story of people coming from all over. As a parish it talks of early growth of the town of Ellerslie, and the housing developments in Mt Wellington in the 40’s and 50’s and a coming together of two congregations that were planted to be God’s people in those places,  to this place and this building.

On a personal level there are places that I readily identify with significant events in my faith journey. Some church buildings like The little war memorial church on park road in Titirangi where I first experienced the reality of the presence of God, and the present Presbyterian Church there where that experience developed into a strong faith and I was nurtured and encouraged to take on leadership and ministry. There are many others, including this one. Beyond church buildings, places like Piha where I was baptized in a stream. The hill above the Arataki information center on the scenic drive where I went to pray when I had to decide about staying in Auckland or moving to Rotorua, and received a profound answer from God through his word. I remember God's guidance everytime I go past that hill. Even last week sitting on Maungakiekie (one tree hill) early in the morning and having God speak encouragement from my daily devotions. Probably you have those same connections to places as well. I don't think I will look at One Tree Hill anymore without remembering Paul's words "Do not Lose Heart" As you held the small pottle of dirt this morning in the service those kinds of stories, of who you are and your relationship with God may have come to mind.

The psalm we read this morning, invites all the earth to come and praise God and rejoice because of ‘His awesome deeds!’ following on from the psalm we looked at last week, this is not just an invite to the earths various people groups but the whole of creation to join in a great praise party. The previous psalm ended with images of harvest fields joining in a liturgical dance with the wind, grasses and wild flowers responding to God sending of rain, by painting the normally barren hillsides with vivid color. Animals reveling in what God has provided and the hills dressing themselves in there festive finery. As it was Forest Sunday we saw that as a reference to the forest and trees which Isaiah 55 tells us clap their hands with joy because of God’s saving deeds. If you’d seen the Church car park here on Thursday you’d think the trees were holding a dance party as the cabbage tree leaves shivered and shimmied in the wind, the Pohutukawa in the corner rock its head back and forwards and everything was in motion, as the wind blew.  

Psalm 66 invites all the earth to give thanks to God for his awesome deeds and moves on from the previous Psalm which looked at those deeds as creation, forgiveness, God’s sovereignty and God’s provision to look specifically at God’s saving acts for Israel. The Psalm gives no indication of when it was written, but it was a time when God had once again delivered Israel from their enemies, but like most of the Psalms it ties that in historically with the exodus. Specifically, God leading the people of Israel through the red sea and through the Jorden river on dryland. Leading them to victory over the various tribes and nations that had opposed them. The whole of creation is to see that what God has done for Israel now  is as miraculous as those two occasions and only makes sense when you see that it is God who is moving, God who is on the side of his people. For you and I equally we look back at the cross and the resurrection as God’s saving act in history, one that only makes sense when it viewed from the reality of God.

The psalmist then invites the people of the earth to see that God has been with and for his people during those past events and this present event and his purpose was to refine Israel. The imagery used in verse 8-12 are those of smelting precious metals like Gold and silver going through the furnace to have all the dross removed. Israel can look at the hardships and difficulties they have been through and see God using them to bring them in closer and closer relationship with him. Despite the fierce suffering’ says Gerald H Wilson, “ God’s intention for His people were good from the beginning and a blessing in the end when he bought them to a place of abundance.”

At the end of verse 12 the psalmist tells us Israel is bought to a place of abundance. In the case of the exodus it was into the land of Milk and honey, as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. For Israel their relationship with the land and the lands around them is very much tied to their relationship with God, and their identity as God’s people. Israel’s story cannot be separated from the land, their continued occupation was dependent on their keeping their covenant with God and God’s covenant faithfulness, in the exile there hope was for God to restore them and during the diaspora, their heart cry had always been ‘next year in Jerusalem’… Now the Psalmist equally sees the end of the time of hardship and a return to knowing all the good things of God in that light as well.

The psalm then takes a turn. It moves from the Awesome deeds of God being for Israel to the psalmist’s individual experience of God’s forgiveness. It turns from communal experience of God’s salvation to personal testimony. From ‘Us” to “I”. The psalmist offers sacrifices to God and  invites God’s people to see that God has answered his personal prayers, forgiven him and bought him through the time of testing to being right with God. It’s a personal testimony of God’s saving grace. Creation is invited to see God’s awesome deeds in creation, forgiveness, sovereignty, provision and saving his people and now that becomes personal. It opens the psalm up to all of us to join our stories, our experience of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, our journeys through times, and suffering to places of abundant life. For God’s people to hear and be encouraged by and as part of why all of creation should rejoice and celebrate God’s goodness. In Jesus parables of the lost sheep and coin, the punch line is that the whole of heaven rejoices and parties when one sinner repents.

The psalm also gives a good picture of the truly repentant heart as one that does not cherish sin in my heart. It is easy to say the religious words of forgiveness but it requires a change of heart. Seeking God’s good not our own sinful desires.

It’s land Sunday and what does this have to say to us about the land.

We can’t simply bring the idea of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and its effect on the land forward to our own situation today.  We are not Israel, some people have tried to do that and it is a false interpretation of the scriptures. Brian Tamaki for instance made the connection between moral standards in New Zealand and natural disasters. That is in my humble opinion a wrong understanding of scripture. But when we think of land in New Zealand we do have to think of a covenant relationship, between Maori as Tangata Whenua, people of the land and the crown, the treaty of Waitangi. Part of the historical reasoning behind the treaty was that because of the awakening in England after the Wesleyan revivals that amongst the social changes that occurred such as the abolition of slavery and child labor, the setting up the RSPCA to look after animals, the push for universal education, and a great missionary movement, in foregin policy it showed itself in a desire to treat other people groups with respect and honorably, in New Zealand’s case with a treaty between two equal peoples. Sadly our history is that that covenant agreement has not always been honored. We have a bad track record. While there have been some attempts to address the wrongs of the past, we still have a long way to go to honor the intent of that treaty, it impacts on how we think of land and use land and make decisions today and in to the future, and who gets to make those decision.

Israel’s covenant relationship with God did have an impact on the land. As you look through the books of the law that make us the beginning of the scripture you see that their relationship called them to treat the land with respect and care. I guess you’d call them sustainable farming practices. While I don’t think you can simply take those practice across to be a text book for modern land uses. However, they do question intensification of farming where instead of harvest being a gift of god’s abundance land we can push for ever higher and higher productivity. The impact of such things on our waterways are an example of how this is not sustainable. 

Israel’s covenant relationship also spoke to who was to benefit from the land. The land was given not just for those who had the wealth to acquire it and profit from it, in fact Israel had strong laws to stop the wealthy from taking a lion’s share of the land. The jubilee was to be a time when land was given back to its original owners. It could be why it never happened. But the poor were to be allowed to glean the crops in the fields. In the book of Ruth Boaz instructs his harvesters to leave a little extra for Ruth and Naomi, yes because he was attracted to Ruth but also because he was a honest and righteous man. In a time of increased inequality, it’s important that remember that the abundance of the land is to be for the benefit of all. In our more urban non-agrarian world, it may be more about living wages and a better welfare system, be it governmental or the non-government sector.  Part of the housing crisis is that instead of having the New Zealand dream that everyone should be able to own a home we tell ourselves the narrative that land ownership is wealth creation. Even first home buyers are said to be getting on the first rung of the property market, rather than simply getting a home for their family.

Going back to the connection between the land and God’s awesome deeds. The land as part of God’s creation is invited to join in giving praise to God for what he has done. I think it calls us who know God’s salvation and grace, who have experienced God’s lavish love and mercy should care for our fellow worshiper. Psalm 65 painted a picture of the land in its festive best as both God’s provision and as being called to celebrate his awesome deeds. The picture is of creation in its finest, not as beaten and battered, marred and scared, polluted and misused, limping in and made to stand at the back like the poor person in James chapter 2, while we all jostle for front row seats. Our story of God’s awesome saving deeds in Jesus Christ, is one of grace that calls us to new relationship with God, a love for God’s people and a universal call to all people to know God’s goodness and it calls us to identify with the land God has given and to care for it as God’s creation.  It is the story of God leading all of us to a place of his abundance.

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