By Wendy Anne Clark
In Deuteronomy 26: 1-15, God gives specific words to the Israelites for them to learn and speak. First, they are to speak to the priest: “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us” (verse 3). Then they are to declare before God:
My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me. (verses 5-10)
Wow! That’s a lot of words to remember. He gives them more to say in verses 13-15.
Along with the words, God tells them specific things to do, like in verse 10, “Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him.” Since God asks them not to neglect these things, they will also have to teach them to their children, making sure to pass them on to the following generations.
In reading this passage, I can’t help thinking about how often the modern-day church looks at rituals like these as hokey, corny, and pretty much meaningless, but God sees value–in at least this particular ritual. And if you read the Old Testament, it’s difficult to miss that God gives many similar commands. Evidently he sees the need for human beings to have some rituals and practices to help us stay focused on Him.
I would sum up the rituals and practices with these words:
First, we should rehearse the things God has done for us and the things he has told us. I think there is great benefit in doing this in the Body of Christ gathered (as we do in Baptism and Communion) as well as in our homes as families and in our own personal lives as individuals. As a family, we have revisited the practice of observing Advent. We also have a family Christmas service that we do to refocus on the birth of Jesus. We make an effort to do things that are fun and meaningful, not only during the holiday season, but also throughout the year. The act of purposefully taking the time to say out loud what we know for certain that God has done and has said is very powerful, but we shouldn’t stop there.
To help us avoid falling into the trap of saying empty words, we should also reflect on what the words and actions mean and why they are important. Any rituals we do in the church benefit from our stopping and really thinking about why we do what we do. Baptism is one of the most fun and exciting rituals for Believers (or at least it should be) because those being baptized have a story to tell. God is alive and working in their lives. The ritual and practice of Communion sometimes suffers from participants becoming drone-like, but it’s really not difficult to keep it meaningful if we engage our minds in reflecting on who Jesus is, what he did for us, and how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and making us new.
As we reflect, we take the time to remember. I’m one of those people that if something nags at my memory, I stop and think and pull the threads of thought together with some effort until I can remember. Sometimes I’m with people who say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter” (and sometimes it doesn’t), but I don’t want to let go of the thought until it is complete. The Church ought to do that kind of remembering—the kind that involves some effort. Bringing members of the Body of Christ together to share their memories and to sharpen their memories together is a good and healthy practice. What has God already done? What has God already said? Let’s remember together.
After we rehearse, reflect, and remember, let’s use all that the Holy Spirit brings to mind to refocus on God and His ways. The world around us is focused on self, and if we don’t actively pull away and shift direction, we will focus on self too. It’s the “natural” way, after all. What does God want to do? How does He want to do it? What part do we have to play in His plans? We need to stop and hold everything that we hold dear up to the light of His Word.
Finally, let’s regroup. Let’s let go of anything that we have been trying to accomplish by our own power and our own abilities, and let’s let God have His way in us and in our Church. As Believers, let’s recognize when we’ve been holding onto our own opinions and our own desires, and let’s let go and let God finally do what He wants to do in His own way. We need to willingly loosen the grip we have on anything that God wants to remove from our lives. Let’s make ourselves soft and pliable before the Holy Spirit and cooperate with all that He desires to do in us to transform us. Let’s do all of this as individual Believers and as whole Church Bodies.
And if we do, imagine how that will change everything.