‘Vicar, could you do a Lammas service for us please?’ ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that – a what service?’ ‘Well, you see Vicar, there’s quite a lot of us farmers in the area who belong to a club. Not the Young Farmers you understand, we’re mostly in our seventies. Every year we organise a Lammas service – could you take it?’
‘Er, I’m sure I could. Did you have a particular date in mind?’ ‘Yes, Vicar, that would be Lammas Day, the 1st of August’. ‘Ah, yes, silly me, the 1st August, how could I forget? I’m sure that will be fine’.
So I went off and did my research. And when it came to it, the day went well. There was a good crowd of (not-so young) farmers and lots of old harvest hymns. At the high point of the service they brought up a loaf of bread, made from the first wheat harvested in the year, and offered it before the altar.
A quaint old custom? Or a moving reminder of our dependence on God? A symbol that all things come from God and of his own do we give him. In an age where many don’t know where their food comes from it was strangely moving to hold the Lammas loaf, the first fruits of the harvest grown in local fields and baked in a farmhouse oven.
That tradition is based on the passage we had today from Deuteronomy chapter 26 verses 1-11. It’s the second in our sermon series on big themes from the Old Testament – the themes we’re looking at aren’t exactly the same as the Lent studies, but they illuminate each other. And today’s passage tells us a lot about God’s plan for his people. It’s speaks about his love of justice and compassion. He rescued a slave people and expected them to treat others well too.
Even before they entered the land of Israel, while they were still wandering around in the desert, God prepared the Jews for the life they would eventually lead. Deuteronomy describes Moses giving the people their law and telling them how they should act towards God and one another when they enter the Promised Land. It gives us an idea of the principles of justice, gratitude and love that God seeks from us today.
I can see it in my mind’s eye: a family group approaching the altar with basket in hand. Inside are some little barley loaves from their couple of acres. The white-clad priest takes it and places it by the altar, and the family recite – from memory – the Jewish history in verses 5-10.
‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor’ – Abraham and his family were travellers, not important people until God chose them and they became ‘a great nation, mighty and populous’. But then, in v.6 ‘the Egyptians’ felt threatened and ‘treated us harshly, enslaving us, and we called to the Lord the God of our ancestors and he heard our voice.’
Do you see how the speaker uses ‘we’? Although these events happened years ago, way before some of them were born, they understood that God has rescued them too. Just like us in communion – we celebrate what happened and apply it to ourselves today. In verse 8 God rescues them with mighty signs and wonders, becoming their Saviour. God saves for a purpose, and he keeps his promises, becoming their faithful provider in verse 9 ‘He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
It’s a wonderful summary of the first five books of the Bible. And now it leads into human response: ‘So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ God’s generosity leads to human gratitude. If we’re not generous, maybe we haven’t understood what Christ has done for us? Lent is a good time to reflect on his love.
Isn’t it interesting that the alien, or foreigner, is invited to the party in verse 10? The Old Testament isn’t just blood and battles – there’s a huge amount of celebration. Jewish festivals are full of joy and Christian festivals should be too. Community is formed and sustained when we gather together and eat – I find this more and more in ministry that people respond to shared food. (We all know that Hullavington is fuelled by flapjack) When we have a housegroup or a meeting it goes so much better when there’s hospitality. I think this is growing as time goes by – perhaps as our wider society becomes more fragmented people really value the chance to eat together.
But why do they bring loaves to God? Is God hungry, does God need a sandwich? Surely it’s for the sake of the people. So that they can remember. Bringing the firstfruits and reciting the history encourages and teaches them. They will remember to be humble – because they were nothing until God rescued them and built them up. Similarly for us – if we think we are something, ask why? We are tremendously blessed in this country, we have so many advantages – but it’s hardly down to us that we were born here rather than say sub-Saharan Africa.
God’s people will be grateful because, although they have worked hard, nothing they have has not come ultimately from God. Even our talents, our perseverance are gifts from Him. So hopefully they will also learn compassion and generosity. For if God acted like this to them, surely they can act in the same way towards the poor and oppressed, the foreigner among them? When we realise how much God has given us, it’s a massive incentive to generosity. How could we not be welcoming when he has opened wide his arms for us?
In this passage we catch a glimpse of God’s plan for his Old Testament people. He wanted them to be blessing to the nations, a sign of his love. By looking at how Israel lived, others would be able to see life as God intended it. They were meant to be a model society, obedient to God’s laws, not as something restrictive but as the blueprint for life. The best way to live, according to the Creator’s wisdom.
So what went wrong? By the time we get to our gospel reading, the words Jesus says suggest that things have taken a very bad turn for the worse. In v. 34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.’
God’s prophets were killed because people did not like being challenged. God’s prophets were sent because the people had wandered from the right path. It seems that they forgot.
They worshipped idols because they forgot, or ceased to believe, that it was God who brought them to their land. They oppressed the poor because they forgot, or didn’t care, that their ancestors had been slaves, and God had rescued them. Perhaps they were unjust because they forgot that all good came from God, and thought their achievements were down to their own efforts.
I wonder if we can see similar things today? A forgetfulness of God in our society leading to pride, injustice and oppression? If so, the remedy is in v.35 ‘And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’’. Turning back to God through Christ will set our society’s perspective right. Building our lives on God’s will enables us to build well.
Perhaps we can also learn from the Old Testament practice of remembrance. Are there things we can do that will act as a modern Lammas Day – a regular reminder like that annual festival of first fruits? Celebrating Harvest keeps us in touch with where our food comes from. The church’s year gives a rhythm of the seasons and an annual observance of God’s great story. Holy Communion is so important – may it be a meaningful reminder of what Jesus has done for us. The Pope recently urged us to say grace – a simple reminder that we are not an island unto ourselves.
This Lent we could take up a discipline like 40 Acts –a simple action each day which encourages us to think and be generous. Here’s an example from the Christian Aid alternative: ‘Natural disasters make the headlines but the consequences endure long after the news coverage fades. Nearly 2 million people in northern Mali are still affected by the droughts of 2010 and 2012. Give 20p for every drink you have today.’
Actions like this remind us of the bigger story. They take us out of our own little world and broaden our horizons. Through these acts of remembrance we put our lives in context and discover how blessed we are. May we be aware of what God is doing in our world, and may we join in his great story. May we know his salvation and justice. Amen