26 August 2018 – The Gods Your Ancestors Served

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Rev’d Jonathan Gale

They say that when a child is abused, it sometimes becomes an abuser.

They say that those who escape slavery, sometimes enslave others.

This is of course by no means true of everyone but where it is, it is known as the cycle of abuse.


It is very difficult, apparently, to escape the values of one’s culture, even when one is disadvantaged by them and they are clearly not helpful. There is an irony in this of course. It is a form of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We respond in the only way we know how.

This is especially obvious in the new middle classes amongst previously disadvantaged people in South Africa.

It may shock you to discover, that I (who could not exactly be described as Left Wing) was once on the executive committee of an African National Congress branch. I joined the ANC because as someone in development banking it became clear to me that there was a massive inequity problem in South Africa and the ANC was the only party that was attempting, at a policy level, to do anything about that.

However, aside from the fact that I worked myself to a standstill in the lead up to the first free elections in the country, I resigned from the executive committee of our local branch because I saw an unseemly rush for the gravy train going on. People could see the goody bags (what Winston Peters calls the “baubles of office”) on offer and principle went out of the window in a grab for position and power.

Joshua tells the Israelites to put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.

He knew that now that they were freed from slavery, they were likely to revert to the Egyptian – or even the pre-Abramic lifestyle they had led before Abram had migrated from Mesopotamia to Canaan. He challenges them with the words, choose this day whom you will serve.

Who are the Gods that our ancestors served? I’m not talking about the pagan gods of Europe prior to Christianisation. I’m talking about colonialism. I’m talking about Christendom. I’m talking about the exclusive class structures of Great Britain.  There a few more but that’s enough for today.


The rush for colonial expansion was especially noticeable as the great powers carved up Africa for themselves in what was known as “the scramble for Africa.” But of course Africa was not the only place that suffered. Virtually the entire non European world did. The exercise was one of the brutalisation of cultures often justified by the fact that behind the conquerors came the missionaries – in other words the primitives were being Christianised. And yes they often were, but they paid an awful price for it. In some cases the missionaries came first, then the land-grabbers. That was possibly worse.

Behind it all was the sin of acquisitiveness – the demonic drive to acquire more. It is the same spirit that prevents people today from living generous lives. Of course not everyone is like this but many are.  Put away the gods that your ancestors served and serve the LORD. Choose this day whom you will serve.

Class Structure

Most former English colonies pride themselves on an egalitarian spirit: hence we have the concept of Mateship – nobody is superior. Everyone is your Mate. Class structures were so strong in the United Kingdom that it was virtually impossible to achieve upward mobility unless you were already ‘born with a silver spoon in your mouth’, as the saying goes. Was it Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady who said, “Every time an Englishman opens his mouth he causes another Englishman to despise him.”?

The sin of exclusivity seeks to preserve privilege and keep the underprivileged away from the means of accessing privilege. In the United Kingdom this was exercised by class structure. In New Zealand it is exercised by wealth and the subtle pretension that often goes with it.

If Lord Acton was right, in saying that “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” then we can see the blinding force of exclusivity. Of course not all wealthy or powerful people are like this, but many are.  Put away the gods that your ancestors served and serve the LORD. Choose this day whom you will serve.


Now it has increasingly puzzled Biblical scholars and historians, as they discover more about the people of ancient times, why Jesus clashed so fiercely with the Pharisees. They were a God-fearing people absolutely committed to following the Law of Moses.

I believe it is because one of the most destructive, blinding and corrupting sins is that of spiritual pride. When a sense of religious rectitude is combined with a position of privilege, whether political, social, financial or intellectual; we have the recipe for self-delusion.

Normally it is the elites who get into bed with the church to form the kind of toxic mix that was at the heart of what the French revolutionaries were trying to get rid of. That is why what is happening in the United States with Donald Trump’s alliance with the religious right is so odd. But it all makes sense when one factors in that the essential ingredient is still power (in this case at the ballot box) rather than in social or intellectual superiority.

But in the case of the history of the West, the rot set in with the Emperor Constantine who, in converting to a form of Christianity, dramatically transferred power to the church. The result of this was the emergence of what we now know as Christendom – cultural Christianity.

Increasingly there emerged a group of people who were converted outwardly but still held onto control of their own lives. People whom Paul described to Timothy as having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3: 4)

When the heart is not converted and the old self-preservation is still strong we have a classic case of either licentiousness (well-disguised some of the time) or legalism (thinly disguised most of the time.) Both hang onto control and do not submit to the Lordship of Christ.

Of course not everyone hanging onto the coat tails of Christendom is like this, but many are.  Put away the gods that your ancestors served and serve the LORD. Choose this day whom you will serve.

Paul says in our Ephesians reading, 11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. And that includes the helmet of salvation. If we hold onto control of our own lives we leave a vulnerable gap the size of a barn door in our spiritual armour.

It has often been pointed out that all the armour mentioned in Ephesians is defensive (the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes that protect your feet as you proclaim the good news, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation). The only offensive bit of armour is the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.

Without an ability to wield the word of God we will not be free of the gods our ancestors served. We will simply be using the defensive armour to enhance our own power, not God’s. Our minds will not be renewed. Our cause will, subtly, still be our own, not God’s.

Jesus, standing in the synagogue in Capernaum, looked at his hearers and said,  58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’

Only the Word of God can slice through the Gordian knot of so many of the unhelpful things that we inherit from our ancestors and free us. And that refers to Jesus the Word of God too, for it is of Himself that he is speaking in this last statement.

63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. He says, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

Let’s not perpetrate the sins of our fathers on ourselves and others around us. Let’s use the past to learn from, but not as a place to live.

58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.

I can’t think of any better way of concluding than by quoting Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1: He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not because of our own works, but by His own purpose and by the grace He granted us in Christ Jesus before time eternal. And now He has revealed this grace through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the gospel.


Do you remember why Joshua called the tribes together at Shechem? It was because they arrived fresh in Canaan top-heavy with the Word of God (the Law of Moses). The Law was designed to be implemented, lived by, not simply carried in their heads.

So Joshua lines up half the people on Mt Ebal and the other half of Mt Gerizim (with Shechem in the middle) and gets them to repeat the curses and blessings of the Law. They are in the land now and the Law (God’s Word to them) is to be implemented in this land. Lay down the Law on the shoulders of the land (Shechem means shoulder) because the land is going to bear the load now. In other words, the Word of God is to be lived by! Speak it and do it!

Let me read you an extract from Eugene H. Peterson’s book, [1]As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

“The tradition of which we are a part doesn’t separate (Scripture and prayer). Scripture is the Word of God understood comprehended, honored. Prayer is the Word of God assimilated, absorbed, lived. Scripture without prayer has no soul; prayer without Scripture has no substance. What I hope to develop in our congregation is a fusion of the two: Scripture-prayer or prayer-Scripture. What is the use of knowing Scripture if you are not living it? What is the use of praying if you don’t know to whom you are praying?”

He has saved us and called us with a holy calling – Paul tells Timothy. And holy means set apart for special use: a dynamic relationship through Jesus that is infused with and mediated by Scripture and prayer. That, Christian, is what God calls you and me to – a life that speaks and lives out the Word, not one that mimics the sometimes dodgy values of our ancestors, who so often escaped one form of unpleasantness only to impose it on others.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2017), 93

Readings today:

  • Joshua 24: 1 – 2a, 14 – 18
  • Ephesians 6: 10 – 20
  • John 6: 56 – 69