|This Week's Sermon -
In our first exploration of God’s plan for his people we heard how God called Abraham to leave his home and take his family to settle in a land that he would be shown. We heard how God promised Abraham that he would be the founder of a great nation and that his descendents would live in this land. Last week we picked up the story at the point where Abraham’s descendents were living not in that land but in Egypt and far from possessing the land they were slaves of the Egyptians. Moses was called by God to lead the people out of Egypt back towards the Promised Land. The Hebrews went into the desert as an unruly bunch of individuals, unprepared to take any responsibility themselves, ill equipped for the task ahead and only too ready to grumble at every difficulty they encountered.
Now we pick up the story a generation later when they had been transformed by their wilderness experience. Although they viewed themselves principally as members of one of the twelve tribes they were on the way to becoming a nation. They were united by their adherence to a code of behaviour which was summed up in the ten commandments and more importantly, by their growing understanding of the nature of God. Their religious beliefs were strong and quite different from the beliefs of the Egyptians whom they had left behind and the Canaanites they were heading towards. First and foremost they understood that God is one God, the creator of the earth and everything on it. Secondly they saw that God is purposeful not capricious, so when they saw some sort of effect such as famine or defeat in battle they looked for a cause which was related to their own behaviour in so far as it measured up to God’s standards. Thirdly they saw God as a living God, ever present and involved in every aspect of life so they made little distinction between their religious life and their everyday life.
Here they were then, on the brink of a land “flowing with milk and honey” and unsurprisingly it was already inhabited by groups who were non too willing to stand aside and let the Israelites take over. How did they come to take possession of the land? Well probably not by launching a series of all out attacks and then dividing up the spoils between the various tribes as the book of Joshua would suggest. It is likely that there was a much messier, more piecemeal approach with different tribes moving in at different times. Certainly there would have been some battles but also more peaceful encroachment, some adhoc alliances with groups already living there and the whole taking place over an extended period of time, rather as our own land was taken over by Angles, Saxons and Vikings with varying degrees of completeness. When the history came to be written down the oral traditions of the different tribes would be collated and tidied up to give a simplified account which gave the people a common history and identity. Throughout this period of settlement and consolidation the leadership rested with a series of Judges, strong charismatic individuals, who emerged as leaders by common consent. The office of judge was not hereditary or elected and interestingly not restricted to men. As time went on it became clear that this system of tribal confederacy was no match for the stronger nations surrounding the fledgling state and so the people began to call for a king so they could be “like the other nations”.
As Abraham and Moses were chosen by God to fulfil his purposes so the first of Israel’s kings Saul was chosen and anointed. Saul’s reign was very much a transitional period; it was David the second king who really instituted the monarchy as we would understand it with the beginnings of a civil service and the centralising of power and it was his son Solomon who made Israel a player on the world stage. However, it was Solomon’s excesses with his taxes and his conscription of labour that led to the break-up of the kingdom with ten tribes breaking away after his death to become the state of Israel and just two tribes, Judah and Benjamin remaining loyal to Solomon’s son.
Returning to David for a moment, we have another one of God’s promises to an individual. This time David is promised that his house and kingdom will be made sure forever. God says, “Your throne will be established forever”. Just a couple of generations later, though, the kingdom ruled by David’s heirs was very much the smaller, weaker and less influential of the twin kingdoms and it remained this way. However the dynasty remained strong and continued to rule over little Judah while the more powerful northern neighbour Israel had a very unstable political history with a series of army coups bringing first one then another faction to power. Although more powerful, Israel was the first to fall with the Assyrians moving in and carrying the people off to exile. Judah survived for a further hundred years or so before succumbing, this time to the Babylonians.
The promise to David was not forgotten though and over the years it began to be understood in a different light. The prophets began to talk of a Messiah, an anointed one, who would come and restore the nation to its rightful place in the scheme of things. This Messiah would come from the lineage of David and thus fulfil the promise or covenant made with David. We of course believe that this did indeed come to pass and that in Jesus we have had the promised Messiah. In showing their readers that Jesus was the one sent from God Luke and Matthew trace his line back through Joseph to David, Abraham and beyond. In Jesus we have our King but his kingdom, on earth at any rate, is something that we are still working towards.
God’s promise has been renewed at different times and in different ways with groups of people and with individuals but in essence it remains the same. God created us to be his people and he has remained with us through bad times and good. His promise is to be involved with us and to bring us back to him when we have sinned and he has remained faithful to us despite our unfaithfulness to him. Through Jesus, God manifested his promise of salvation to all mankind. This brings us back full circle. In Noah God first made his covenant with all mankind that never again would there be total destruction. The promise was focused on a nation then on the line of an individual, David and now through the sacrifice of Jesus, an individual, the promise is made to all mankind once again.