Archive for September, 2014

Exo 17.1-7 Mat 21.23-32

Why does the Bible seem to repeat itself so often?

Even in the episodes making up a singe story, like the exodus, we see patterns of repetition
There are stories that appear in both the Book of Exodus, and the Book of Numbers
episodes like this one, the miraculous flow of water from a rock

There are incidents within the Book of Exodus itself which look very similar to each other
The Israelites complain because they are hungry and thirsty; God miraculously gives them food and water: that’s the story we heard last week
Next thing you know, they are complaining of being thirsty again; that’s the story we heard this week

Some of these parallel incidents are probably just different versions of the same story from different traditions
But others clearly show us the Israelites testing God’s patience by falling into the same errors again and again
They are trapped in ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour that keep them in the wilderness far longer than they had to be there
The worst and most self-defeating of these patterns is the habit of grumbling

If you look at the life of any church, you will see the lessons for us
We see churches getting stuck; becoming fossilised
Losing their sense of direction: Going round and round
Faithfully doing the same things over and over, when the reasons for doing them are gone and forgotten

You see churches getting too attached to where they are
Because staying where you are gives you a false sense of security
You see churches becoming more and more afraid of moving forward
Then getting worn down and exhausted because they feel they aren’t going nowhere
They are weary and dispirited: because all their effort goes into preserving the status quo

Yet the positive message from Scripture is that no matter where God brings his people, when they listen for his voice, he will lead them out
What we have to do, is to steer away from ways of thinking, and especially ways of talking, that blind us to God’s presence and his intentions
We have to break the habit of grumbling, and tackle the spirit of fear that leads to grumbling

We heard two very different readings just now
One from Exodus, the other from Matthew’s Gospel
What connects them?
Clearly, it’s the theme of grumbling

The Israelites grumble against Moses
The chief priests and the elders of the people grumble against Jesus

The Israelites grumble about how Moses has led them into the wilderness, where they now confidently expect to die of hunger and thirst
The chief priests and elders grumble about Jesus’ claims, and his credentials
They mutter and conspire, and try to think of ways of discrediting Jesus and avoiding a fuss

You can easily see that grumbling is an expression of fear: the fear of change
Better the devil you know, we always say
Better stay in Egypt, better remain a slave, better remain at the mercy of other human beings
Better that than set off into the wilderness, where there’s only you and God

Or, for the priests and the elders in the time of Jesus:
Better live under the Romans; better hold on to the privileges they allow you to have
Just keep the temple going, don’t preach anything that might upset the way things are
Better that than have the whole thing overturned, by some scruffy madman who thinks he’s the Son of God
So they grumble and conspire together against Jesus

Grumbling blinds us to God’s blessings
Grumbling drowns out the voice of God
Grumbling blinds us to the presence of God

The writing has been on the wall for the mainstream churches for at least forty years
If we haven’t found ways of renewing ourselves, I think it’s because deep down we’ve done nothing but look for ways of staying as we are
When anyone suggests we might have to change, we grumble
Because we are so deeply frightened of change

How do we get over this fear?
Clearly not by denying the need to change
Clearly not by saying, it’s impossible for us to change
Where will the inspiration for real change come from?

You can look at the situations of God’s people in both stories today and see the fear and apparent hopelessness that paralyses them

But why does God lead the Israelites into the wilderness?
Why does God let the Jewish nation fall into the hands of the Romans?

God does these things so that his people can be re-shaped
He brings them to places where everything they thought they knew is called into question

Why didn’t God just bring his people straight from Egypt to the Promised Land?
Because they couldn’t enter the Promised Land as freed Egyptian slaves
They could only enter as a people who had been tested
Who had been brought to an awareness of their special covenant relationship with God

Why was Jesus born into a country under Roman rule?
Because Jesus could only call a people that had had its faith in human institutions challenged
That had seen the reputation and status of the Temple and its priesthood called into question by their collaboration with the Roman occupiers

But what traps God’s people in these difficult situations is their refusal to change
To recognise that God is testing them, and that until they allow themselves to be re-shaped, there is no way out

When we find ourselves in a situation of testing, there’s only one question to ask
Is this a situation of human making, or one of God’s making?

Moses challenges the Israelites to recognise God’s will in what is happening to them, by posing the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Jesus challenges the Jews to recognise who he is by asking, where do you think I come from? Are my origins human or divine?

If the Lord is among us, and if we are prepared to hear him and follow him, he will bring through the time of testing

So today I want to ask that question: ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
We are certainly in a challenging situation
We are an ageing congregation
A congregation declining in numbers
Not an especially wealthy one

But I believe the Lord is truly among us
This is a time of testing: it is a time in which we will be re-shaped
But it is not the end

God wants to inspire us
To see, think, speak, and act in ways we have not done before
He wants us to break the pattern of just repeating the things we have done before

He is telling us to admit our fear, instead of brooding on it in secret
He is calling us to push aside the temptation to grumble
To listen prayerfully to what he is calling us to do

And not just to listen, but to try out new things
To give our support to people who are trying to do new things
Not just with our voices, but by being a part of the new things others are doing

So make a resolution this week to try something new
Do it for yourself; do it for all of us; do it for God

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Exodus 16.2-15

Friedrich Nietzsche said there were two types of morality:
– A noble morality
– A morality of resentment

The noble morality represents everything good and noble in the human spirit
The morality of resentment represents everything mean and grovelling, all varieties of envy and petty snobbery, all kinds of self-serving judgments passed on other people

Nietzsche thought of Christians as people who exemplify the morality of resentment
We think of ourselves as respectable; we consider ourselves as upright and virtuous enough to judge other people’s behaviour

But actually, if we are in Christ, we exemplify the other type of morality: the noble morality
The morality of freedom from every kind of pettiness, every temptation to judge needlessly,
Because we have learned from Jesus how to forgive
There is no resentment inside us to be turned outwards
We have learned to live with ourselves

We know we are not perfect
We are not blind to anyone’s faults
But we know what we all need, what other people need, is God’s forgiveness
Not our condemnation

What has all this got to do with the manna in the wilderness?
It’s all about grumbling
Grumbling is the voice of resentment

Six weeks after God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the grumbling begins: The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

They complain about their leaders
But they are really complaining about God

You can fit this into the pattern of blessing and cursing you find all through the first books of the Bible
God is the source of all blessing
Grumbling is a form of cursing; So when you grumble, you curse God

You might think you are grumbling about people who have let you down, gadgets in the house that keep going wrong, or the miserable weather
But the ultimate target of human grumbling is always God
Because God is the one who creates and bestows all things on us

The attitude of resentment turns blessings into curses:
It turns us into victims
it turns us into resentful people, incapable of loving others

So every day when we pray, ‘give us our daily bread,’ we remember the manna in the wilderness; We remember the grumbling of the Israelites
We pray to be reminded how great our God is, and how wonderful are all his blessings

Matthew 20.1-16

They thought they would get more, … and they started grumbling against the employer

If you were here earlier, you will remember we were discussing how the difference between a curse and a blessing is largely one of attitude
We talked about this point in the context of the exodus story of the manna in the wilderness

God brought the people out of Egypt
But they soon start grumbling, because they are hungry
They want all of God’s blessings
now

God blessed his people by bringing them out of captivity
But the people by their attitude transform that blessing into a curse

God could retaliate by cursing them
But instead, he blesses them again: this time, by sending them manna to eat
The Israelites stare at the manna on the ground, and say, ‘What is it?’
Because they are not very good at recognising God’s grace

There are lots of rules about how to gather and consume this manna
Gather only as much as you need
Don’t keep it overnight
Gather twice as much on the day before the Sabbath
Don’t try to gather any
on the Sabbath

Why does God surround his blessings with so many rules?
Think back to the Garden of Eden
All those trees the first people could eat from; just one tree they couldn’t
Just one rule; but it leads to the first outbreak of sin on earth

Why does God make rules?
Perhaps it’s wiser to ask why people question them

People question God’s rules because they resent them
In questioning God’s laws, they reject God’s will
They display a lack of trust in God

They display a resentment at our situation of complete dependence on God
The God we depend on, because he is the Creator and sustainer of everything that is

Resentment is the attitude that turns God’s blessings into curses
When people begin to voice their resentment, you hear grumbling

That’s when resentment grows
One person voices the resentment they feel
The voice of resentment sows seed in the hearts of others

The grumbling grows into a chorus of complaints
The complaints come together in rebellious actions
And finally, in the exodus story, God himself acts
He inflicts some form of punishment or retribution

You can see just this pattern in today’s gospel reading
It’s exactly the same type of story we see repeated several times in the exodus narrative
Not just in the single incident of the manna; but again and again

A situation of challenge or difficulty sent by God
Human questioning and resentment leading to rebellion
Divine punishment leading to Moses’ intercession
Forgiveness, and the re-affirmation of the covenant

When you read a Bible passage, you should always look for patterns: patterns recognisable from other stories elsewhere in the Bible
Often these are patterns that remind us of a few key incidents: Creation, the exodus, the Flood, the giving of the Law, and so on

When you examine today’s parable, and you look for patterns, you see almost right away we have a complete history of the world
From creation to judgment

We begin at dawn
It’s a new day – a new world
God meets the people he has created, and gives them their tasks
He makes promises to them, and he sets the conditions: in other words, he makes a covenant

As time goes on, more people appear, and God calls them into his covenant
I think in the context in which the gospel as first written and first read, this would quite clearly be seen as the call of the Gentiles

At the end of the day, at the end of time, comes the judgment
God’s people receive their reward

This should be seen as the time of fulfilment of all God’s promises to his people
They should be happy
But of course, they are not: they grumble
Because God rewards just as richly the people he called later

I think in the original context, this would be seen quite clearly either as Jewish resentment of Christians, or perhaps the resentment of Jewish Christians against Gentile converts

The resentful attitude of the people who were called first turns God’s blessing into a curse
Instead of feeling blessed, they feel deprived; because they now feel they have less than they were entitled to

God explains himself: which is a greater mercy than we are entitled to
He says:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

There are three things to notice here
– The first is, God justifies himself to only one of the grumblers: not to them all. I think this is a device intended to make the story personal: it points directly at the individual reader
– The second is the judgment: ‘
Take what belongs to you and go’ – the grumbler gets what he is entitled to, but then he is dismissed from God’s presence
– The explanation concludes with a question: the question is not answered within the narrative, so it is left pointing at
us: ‘are you envious because I am generous?’
– What do we think? Should we be envious because God is generous?

Jesus introduces this parable as a story about the Kingdom:
it begins with words we often hear in Matthew’s gospel, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like …’

What is the kingdom of heaven like?
It is a place where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first

This is not a story that tells us from now on, God will favour the Gentiles over the Jews
His promise to Israel remains the same

The last shall be first because they accepted the landowner’s gracious behaviour graciously; and the first shall be last, because they grumbled
A gracious attitude of mind turns curses into blessings
A resentful attitude of mind turns blessings into curses

The world is not going to end today, as far as I know
But God is still asking that question: ‘
are you envious because I am generous?’

How good are you at recognising God’s blessings?
Are you sometimes resentful?
Do you feel the world favours other people at your expense?
Many people feel that way even when everything in their lives is going well
Resentment turns blessings into curses

I know there are many people in our church who are suffering
Suffering themselves, or suffering by seeing someone close to them suffer
It’s easy to feel that life itself is a curse
I’m both humbled and encouraged when I hear people in the worst situations talk about how they’ve realised God is there with them

Only God’s grace redeems suffering
Only God’s grace enables us to realise that in the depths of suffering he is there with us, still showering his blessings on us

Exo 14.19-31 Mat 18.21-35

The exodus is the most important narrative in the Old Testament
It recount God’s mighty deeds of power in bringing Israel out of Egypt
But it is also an invitation to reflect on the nature of time
Time, as given by God, measured by God, controlled and shaped by God

The time of this story is God’s time
God’s time marches from Creation to Last Judgment; it travels in a straight line

But in God’s time there are also cycles: repeated patterns
In the Bible, God’s people are always being told to ‘Remember’
Because no matter where we are, we have been here before

We wait for God to reveal his purpose, as he has done before
We wait for God’s forgiveness; we wait for the time of testing to end, as it has done before
We wait for God to answer our prayers, as he has done before

The Jewish people remember the exodus, not once a year at Passover, but
– At morning and evening prayers
– In every synagogue service
– As the basis for their calendar
Because the past is always here with us, in the present

We are no different
We meet this morning, and we do what we have done before
We repeat significant words and actions
Because religious ritual symbolises the fact that God does not experience time as past, present and future as we do
A ritual should not be different every time it is performed: it should remain the same
The ritual of a worship service is a way of symbolising the fact that God is eternal, and yet constantly present with us in time

The name of God revealed to Moses is often translated as, ‘I am who I am’;
but more correctly, according to Martin Buber, ‘I will be there as the One who will be there’
– ‘I am who I am’ is a philosophical title; it is enigmatic, and inscrutable
– Buber’s translation is more accurate, and it says something entirely different

The whole basis of God’s relationship with Israel is his ‘being there’
– Being there with his people, watching over them and acting for them
– In other words, the basis of God’s relationship is his own faithfulness
– Faithfulness expressed in his constant presence, and his deeds of power
God’s presence and his deeds of power are what we see today, at the Sea of Reeds

The Book of Revelation expresses God’s constant presence in another way
It tells us God is Alpha and Omega: the beginning and the end
God is the beginning, because God is the Creator
God is the end, because God’s judgment represents the end of all things, either their salvation or destruction

We can see both of these aspects of God in the story of the crossing of the Red Sea

The crossing of the Red Sea contains both
– Echoes of Creation
– And premonitions of judgement

First, the Alpha God: the God of Creation
The exodus marks a new beginning

You would have to be blind not to see the parallels between the crossing of the Red Sea and the account of Creation in Genesis 1:
– God creates the world by imposing order on chaos
– He separates one thing from another
– He sets barriers which things which do not belong together are not allowed to cross
– He separates light from darkness; he separates sea from land

Both of these original acts of creation are repeated in this story
– God guides the Israelites with a pillar of fire
– He creates a darkness that separates the Egyptians from the Israelites
– He separates the sea from the land, so that the Israelites can cross over safely

You may remember from last week how God gave the Israelites a new calendar on the night of the Passover
– In other words, time began again that night

Now, as the Israelites cross the Red Sea, God baptises them
– He creates a new people for himself; he makes them his elect, to be his forever

But the Alpha God of Creation is also the God of last things
– The Omega God of judgment
– The waters of the Red Sea, that represent life and freedom for the Israelites, become the waters of chaos and death for the Egyptians

It’s a re-enactment of the story of Noah
– God brings his chosen people through the waters, into new life
– The wicked are overwhelmed, and destroyed

What does all of this mean for us?
The exodus story is constantly being re-played – even today
God is constantly calling people out of the state of slavery
Slavery to sin; slavery to ways of life that often seem comfortable, but are wrong

God calls us out of slavery by holding before us the story of the exodus
He calls us to respond as the Israelites did:

Exodus 14:31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Scripture constantly calls us to remember
It calls us to believe, and worship
Because God is continually present with us
And the things God has done for his people in the past, he will do again

Eze 33.7-11 Mat 18.15-20

There are three different points in our short reading from Matthew’s gospel:.
– The first is an issue of church discipline: what do you do If another member of the church sins against you? Jesus seems to be getting ahead of himself here, because at this point of course there was no church
– The second point confers authority to rebuke or forgive: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This point doesn’t seem to go with the first point, because the first point is all about the conduct of ordinary members towards each other, but the second point seems to be about the authority of leaders
– The third point seems to go off on another tack altogether, because it addresses the topic of prayer: if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven

These three points don’t seem to form a coherent argument.
It seems like a collection of teachings that have been brought together here because they didn’t belong anywhere else.
Jesus might have said all these things in the same episode of teaching; but then again, he might not. The remarks might have been made days, weeks, months, even years apart

There are other difficulties, too
What is the significance of the binding and loosing?
Matthew introduces these terms without explanation, so he obviously thinks we will know what he means
But the terms have given scholars difficulty

Binding and loosing seem to correspond in some way to the rhetoric we find in Deuteronomy, of obedience and disobedience, cursing and blessing, life and death

In the Judaism of the Pharisees, binding and loosing refer to the interpretation of Scripture
The right of an interpreter to decide which commandment is binding in a particular situation, and which is not

The same words appear in Matthew 16, but there it’s only Peter who is given the authority to bind and loose
That verse in Matthew 16 has been used in the past to support the authority of the Pope
Whereas Matthew 18 appears to give this authority to every follower of Christ

We could talk about this point all day
But there’s always a danger of getting hung up on problems that turn out to be quite superficial
The danger is, we miss the real demand a passage makes on us

Firstly, it doesn’t really matter whether the remarks we have here formed part of a single sermon or not
For whoever wrote this gospel, the important thing was to get all of Jesus’ teachings down on paper – everything people remembered
Not to throw anything away, just because it didn’t fit with something else.

Secondly, even if we can’t quite pin down the meaning of binding and loosing, the intention is clear
Members of the church are responsible for each other’s conduct

So now I think we can see why these remarks of Jesus appear together
And they relate to the other readings we are thinking about this morning
Which all share the theme of watchfulness: spiritual vigilance, or mindfulness

During our praise service we looked at the institution of the Passover
We reflected on what is probably the most striking and unexpected part of that reading, which concerns how the feast it to be consumed:

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly

The message of the Passover is, that God’s people have to be alert
They have to be ready to move, the moment God calls on them

The reading from Ezekiel is also about vigilance
We have a moral and religious obligation to obey God’s laws
We also have a moral and religious obligation to keep watch over each other:

If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.

We are commanded to be God’s sentinels, warning each other when danger threatens
Keeping watch, to protect each other from the consequences of sin

In other words, in Christian terms, we have a pastoral duty to each other
To be watchful, like the good shepherd

So we have a duty to remind each other of the dangerous consequences of sin
We also have a duty to remind each other there is always a way back
That our God is a gracious and forgiving God
So even when we have to tell someone they’ve done wrong, we try to conduct ourselves as a gracious and forgiving community
Because Jesus showed compassion for the Gentile and the tax collector, and others whose way of life seemed to have put them outside the Law

The idea that faith and virtue are rooted in community brings us to Matthew’s final point, which concerns prayer:

If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven

When we pray together, we should pray for the same things – with one will
We shouldn’t pray with our individual wants in mind
We should pray as fellow members of the body of Christ

Our first prayer should be for the grace of forgiveness for ourselves, for the things we have done that violated the rules of our community
Our second prayer should be for the grace to forgive others
Our third prayer should be for the presence of Christ among us, not just as we sit here this morning, but as we set out to serve others, in his Spirit of love, and in the power of his name

Gen 37.1-4, 12-28  Matt 14.22-33

When you look at the Lectionary readings for a certain Sunday, you know there’s something that connects them
You look for the connection as you read the passages, and usually it emerges quite clearly But there’s often one passage that doesn’t seem to fit the mould

At the start of the week I looked at today’s readings – not all of which we have heard
The theme seemed very clear: in times of trouble call on God, and he will turn to you

Think of Matthew 14 The disciples are terrified by the sight of someone walking on the water at the height of the storm: Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” [Jesus] said, “Come.”

We don’t always hear the Psalms read in church on Sunday, but there are two to choose from this week, and the theme of calling on God is clear in both of them: Psalm 85 says,

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

The faithful turn their hearts to God, and he speaks to them
They call on God, and he responds

It’s there in our other psalm this week, Psalm 105

Ps 105 Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name … Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.
Again, the faithful call on God in their times of trouble, and they find he is with them
Calling on God in prayer, and sensing he is there with us, go together
The confidence that God will be there when we call on him is the essence of faith

Paul in his letter to the Romans makes the same connection:

Rom 10.9 if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’

The inner faith and the outward speech together produce the confidence that God is present and active in our world and in our lives.

As I said, the theme seemed clear: in times of trouble call on God, and he will turn to you
Seek his presence by calling on his name
In other words, when things are difficult, pray

But then I looked at the Genesis reading
Which I intended to make the focus this week, because I have been following the stories of the fathers of Israel

That’s when the trouble began
Because the Genesis reading does not seem to fit this pattern

It’s the story of how the young Joseph upset the family apple cart
He became his father’s favourite son
Which is not that unusual, for a youngest child
Particularly when that son is the child of the favourite wife

It’s certainly not unusual in the Bible for younger sons to take their elder brothers’ place
Think of Jacob himself, who conspired with his mother to steal his brother Esau’s blessing
But it’s not a state of things considered normal in that society: it always causes friction

Of course Joseph adds to the friction
He delights to tell of his dreams where everyone bows down to him

All this inconsiderate talk provokes his brothers to the point where they would literally like to murder him
Or at least to fake his death: to sell him into slavery, confident he will never be seen again

It’s one of those difficult Bible stories where no one seems to come out well
Neither the indulgent parent, the arrogant, precocious son, nor the jealous, hateful brothers

As I say, I wanted this to be the central passage for the week
Yet there’s nothing here about calling on God, and feeling his presence
Until you read closely, in particular the conversation between Jacob and his son, Joseph

Jacob wants Joseph to go looking for his brothers, who are pasturing their flocks somewhere near Shechem, in the central highlands of Israel
Jacob says, “Come, I will send you to them.” And Joseph answers, “Here I am.”

‘Here I am’: three simple words: that doesn’t sound like much to build a sermon on
It might pass as an almost casual remark
Unless you’ve already made a study of the special sense of those three simple words, as we have today

What force compels Jacob to send his favourite son in search of his brothers?
Isn’t he worried what might happen to him on the way?

What force compels Joseph to go?
Isn’t he worried what might happen in an isolated place, with his jealous brothers?

Yet Joseph agrees to go, and Jacob lets him

Think of what follows from those three words, ‘Here I am’
Joseph goes to his brothers, and is sold into slavery in Egypt
He rises to a high position in his Egyptian master’s house
He is betrayed by a woman’s jealousy and finds himself in prison

He interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is appointed to rule over the whole country
Because of his planning, Egypt has food at a time when neighbouring countries have famine
And because Egypt has food, Jacob’s brothers make their way there to look for supplies

That leads to a great family reunion, and the beginning of the four hundred years the people of Israel spend in Egypt
Those years begin well: but when the old Pharaoh dies and Joseph is forgotten, the Egyptians begin to mistreat the Israelites
So begins the story of Moses, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the journey to the Promised Land, and the giving of the Law

‘Here I am’ – three simple words, spoken by a son to his father
But in the light of what follows, we recognise that it isn’t Jacob who is sending Joseph to look for his brothers
It’s God himself
It’s not a request to go and look for his brothers
It’s a command to leave home and family, to accept hardship and danger
To go and live among an alien people
To be the instrument of God’s will in bringing his purpose about

‘Here I am’
We hear in these few words the same obedience to the divine summons Abraham displayed when he left the city of Ur and set out on his wanderings
The same obedient willingness to set out, not knowing where the journey might lead
Joseph’s obedience to his father has consequences for the people of Israel which are just as momentous as the obedience of Abraham

What does this mean for us?
Simply that we should be mindful of God
We too must say to God, ‘Here I am’

We must signal to God that we are here, watching and listening for him
We must signal to God that we are available: here for him to use
Here for him to send to other people
Here to be a reminder to others of God’s presence with us, in our world