That old-time religion…

Deuteronomy is an account of the end of the wandering by the Hebrew people, and the beginning of a new challenge; how to live as people of the promise in the land that embodies the promise?  Moses has helped Israel to the borders of the promised land; it is up to Joshua to take the lead once the boarders have been crossed.  And through this memorial document that we call the book of Deuteronomy, the people are reminded of the most ancient of promises – God’s promise to provide, to deliver, to respond to the distress of God’s people.

The so called ‘books of Moses’ – Genesis to Deuteronomy – represent the selective history of a very specific people.  These are not first=person accounts – they are written generations – even centuries after the fact.  Most of our Scripture comes to us in this manner, emerging from the constant sharing of the memories of the community.   Their stories are recorded – the rituals formalized and they are used to encourage and empower a nation on the verge of something new and terrifying.  The Hebrew Scripture develops as the people ‘come in to their own’ – they become a nation; a force to be reckoned with in the ancient near east.  And throughout the Scriptural story, every time they forget their heritage, or grow arrogant, or fall prey to more powerful neighbours, they are called to remember that they are still strangers in a strange land.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Memory is a vital part of a life of faith.  And the many layers of these memories make up what we call ‘religion’, which is a word that describes the systematic articulation of spirituality.  Lately, religion has become something of  a dirty word.   More accurately “organized religion” has become code for “something to be avoided”, the same way we might avoid ‘organized crime’.  Religion has become associated with the structures (both beautiful and corrupt), and with the people (both faithful and fallible) and in the analysis, people have decided religion has no redeeming qualities.  Interest in things spiritual, however, is at an all time high.  As a religious person (as well as a religious official) this is very frustrating for me.  To be sure, when a religion abandons its spiritual foundations, it ceases to be useful to society. But a spirituality without ‘religious parameters’ – that is, a dis-organized (chaotic) spirituality – is an equally purposeless endeavour.

The ancient Hebrew memories became ritual; festivals to mark important moments in the history of their becoming a nation and in their relationship with God; Scripture to stand as a lasting testament to their discovery of faith.  Their religious identity develops as an expression of their experience with God’s guiding presence – religion and Spirituality are indistinguishable; civic leaders have religious function; religious festivals and activities are an integral part of the social fabric.

The Old Testament is an incomplete summary of the development of the religion of the Hebrew people.  Within that religion, differences of opinion and interpretation develop. There will be those who follow the rules for the sake of convenience, and still others who will seek a deeper connection with God by taking a mystical approach.  But the basic structures of religious life are common to the earliest days of the Kingdom of Israel and to the people living under Roman rule in Jesus’ day.

The power of The Spirit was not unknown – it is the Spirit’s voice that speaks at Jesus’ baptism; it is the the Spirit that leads Jesus to the wilderness – towards temptation.  But it is religion that guides Jesus through his interview with the Tempter.  What Luke describes is a competition between religious structures; the devil offers one scenario, Jesus counters with fundamental Jewish religious truth.  These expressions of Jewish Spirituality, quoted by Jesus chapter and verse from Hebrew Scripture are available to Jesus because his religion preserved them, embodied them and taught them to the community generation after generation.  This continues to be the task of religion.

Jesus didn’t call on the power of ‘religious authorities’ during his crisis of temptation – he offered the truth about God that his religion taught him.  He has been led to this “by the Holy Spirit” – a leading he trusts because of that same truth.  The temptations are meant to exploit weakness: physical hunger, the hunger for achievement.  When Jesus answers those first temptations with his religious convictions, the devil makes an appeal to Jesus’ pride: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…”  Put your money where your mouth is, in other words – but Jesus isn’t fooled.  The truth taught by his religion is that even the power of God abides by the rules of creation.

People who appeal to the ‘power of spirituality’ (even Christian spirituality) have been tempted by the idea that religious rules somehow limit the power of the Spirit – but nothing could be further from the truth.  Religion is what helps us understand the framework in which the Spirit of God works – an imperfect understanding, of course, and always open to re-evaluation according to our Reformed heritage – but there it is; the Spirit of God is a Spirit of order, not chaos, and the Christian religion (at it’s best) affirms that order and teaches us to recognize the work of the Spirit when we see it.

Can ‘religion’ save you?  No, but it can point you to the saving power of God.  Are ‘religious people’ somehow superior to those without religion?  No, but religion can (indeed it certainly should) affect the way you live your life – for better or (occasionally) for worse.  Christian religion has the power to change lives because it expresses the power of the spirit of God; the Spirit of order and peace; of love and life.  Thanks be to God the power of that Spirit meets us and guides us in the person of Jesus, whose trust in God changed forever the way we express our religious convictions.

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