Normally I am hoping that Leo would come to church, but not that week. You see we were looking at the story of Achan's sin. It's difficult, the man is stoned to death with his family. It is a terrible reminder of how seriously God takes sin.
The service started and Leo wasn't there. I was sitting at the front. Then I saw Sam, one of Leo's sons. I turned and Leo was behind me to my right. I felt helpless as the sermon began. I wasn't preaching so I couldn't try to soften the blow. In truth I should not be ashamed of any story in the Bible. After all God is not embarrassed by this passage. He has chosen to include it in his word.
Sometimes people give the Old Testament a hard time. They see the violence and write it off. We might talk of the 'Hard Sayings' of the Old Testament. But we shouldn't forget two related points: that there are equally 'Hard Sayings' in the New Testament (e.g. Jesus' teaching on Hell) and that there are many 'Soft Sayings' in the Old Testament.
This post focuses on five of these 'Soft Sayings'. By 'Soft Sayings' I am referring to those teachings that remind us of God's incredible mercy and kindness.
1. The tithes in the Laws of Moses had a feast for the poor. 'At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in the towns, so that the Levites ... and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied ...' (Deut. 14:27-29).
2. In the rules of harvesting there was provision for the needy. 'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien ...' (Lev. 19:9-10).
3. Immigrants were welcomed. 'When an alien lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt ...'
4. The Old Testament teaches people to love our personal enemies. 'If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under the load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it' (Exod. 23:4-5).
5. In the Old Testament God expresses his love for the vulnerable. God, 'defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing' (Deut. 10:18).
In some ways I might have been more comfortable for Leo to hear a sermon on the soft sayings of the Old Testament rather than the hard story of Achan. However, we need the full picture of God. We need to hear of both his anger and his mercy, his holiness and his grace.
Another thing. There is a sense that these soft sayings are actually hard sayings for they make big demands of us. It isn't easy to love our enemies or to be generous.
Take the attitudes to 'aliens'. I realise that the Promised Land was a unique place. The land was allotted only to the tribes of Israel. On one level it would have been impractical to let all newcomers to have a share. Just as it would be impractical for all countries to have entirely open boarders. However, new residents were to be welcomed as friends and provided for.
I believe that populations originate from a central source. Therefore all people on this island come from immigrant stock. I don't place a huge value on the fact that some tribes have been here much longer than others, it is all relative. So, in light of the above soft sayings, what do I say to the Facebook friend of mine who regularly expresses his dislike of new residents? I want to say, 'Remember that God loves the alien in the land, that we are to provide for them, that your people were once immigrants too.' That will be a hard saying for him to hear!