Archive for October, 2014

Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Matthew 22.34-46

Our two passages tell very different stories
– In Deuteronomy we say goodbye to Moses: there is a deathbed scene, a burial, and a eulogy (there was never anyone like Moses, and there never will be again)
– In Matthew we have a story of testing: the Pharisees test Jesus with one question, and Jesus tests them with a different question

What links our gospel passage with the death of Moses?
I think it’s the sense of an ending
In our reading from Exodus, Moses dies
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus prepares to die – and the first step in that preparation is to bring his public ministry to a close
He does this by publicly silencing his opponents

This image of silence also links our two passages
In our Old Testament passage this morning, after we’ve heard Moses speak so often, his voice finally falls silent.
His hearing and teaching of God’s commandments to the people comes to an end

In our gospel passage Jesus’ public teaching about the Father and his own Sonship also comes to an end
From now on, in the brief time he has left before he suffers, he speaks only to his disciples

Why does Jesus fall silent?
Because he has revealed all he needs to reveal
About his own divine nature and his relation to the Father
And about the reasons why his opponents do not accept him
Simply, their inability to respond to the presence of the living Word of God in their midst

Jesus silences them by drawing two things together:
the fulfilment of the Law, and the revelation of the Son

In the first half of our reading, Jesus answers his opponents’ question: what commandment matters most?
Jesus shows that the whole Law is fulfilled in the love of God
– a love that wholly absorbs and blots out self-centred love
– a love unafraid of the loss of oneself
– a love that flows out to one’s neighbour, created in the image and likeness of God
– a love whose perfection is revealed and given human form in the Son

This love does not get bogged down in arguments
The perfection of the Law is not more words, not more interpretation, but silence – the end of human words, the human voice falling silent in adoration

So in the first part of our reading, Jesus shows how simple the Law really is, when it has not become a vehicle for human cleverness
When it remains an expression of divine love:

Love the Lord your God … Love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Then, in the second half of the reading, Jesus ties his opponents in knots, by simply asking them, ‘Who do you think I am?’
He asks this question in a coded form
He asks, ‘Who is the Messiah?’
They say, ‘the Son of David,’ because that is their understanding of Scripture
But when they give that answer, they walk into the trap Jesus has set for them.

Jesus points out that, in Psalm 110, David acknowledges the Messiah as his Lord:
‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’

‘THE Lord’ is God; ‘MY Lord’ is the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel

The son cannot be lord of his own father
So the Messiah apparently cannot be David’s human descendant
Yet the promise of Scripture, repeated in many places, is that the Messiah will come from the house of David

The only way this paradox can be resolved is if the Messiah is both divine and human
Son of God AND son of David, Son of the Father AND Son of Man
Jesus is the only one ever born who can claim to be both

The Jewish leaders can neither recognise this fact nor admit it
And so they are silenced

This passage shows us, there are two ways of being silent before Jesus:
One good, the other bad
– The good silence is the silence of recognition and adoration, that says, ‘This is enough; there is nothing greater than this, just standing in the presence of the divine Son’
– The bad silence is the sullen, angry silence of frustration and resentment, that says, ‘Just you wait’

This is the last word, but not the final act
It is a conclusion, but not a final victory
The Jewish leaders are sullen, angry, frustrated and resentful
They know now, they will not conquer Jesus in debate
They will have to silence him by other means

Jesus’ final words of teaching are on the commandment to love
In this episode, Jesus reveals his own determination to love, in spite of the fact of opposition
In spite of the presence of enemies, determined to seek his own death rather than admit who he is

‘Love never ends’ – those are some of the best-known and most-loved words in Scripture (1Co 13)
They are words that tell us everything about what Jesus showed us in his life on earth

– They tell us something about human love: love is faithful; love is reliable
– They tell us something about the God-given qualities of human love: love is not limited by time or space

They tell us something about the qualities of divine love.
– God’s love is present in the here and now, but his love is also there in the end of things
– In fact, God’s love IS the end of things, the ultimate purpose of things, their reason for being
– Through the grace of God, the love of created things participates in the love that is uncreated, the love of God himself
– Love is like God, because love is of God, and God is love

Prophecies will cease, says Paul; tongues will cease; knowledge will cease
What survives is love
Love is the voice that speaks in the silence that follows death
Love is the voice that speaks through the apparent insignificance of all those small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness we perform for each other

Love is all we have to offer each other; all we have to offer God
The best example we can set for our neighbour is to love our God
The best proof we can offer of our love of God is to love one another

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Exodus 33.12-23

There’s a point in the career of every boy band when the hits start to dry up.
The singles still make the top ten, but they don’t go straight to number one.
The boys start to grow up – they lose that first, innocent appeal.
That’s the time when their manager takes one of them aside, the one with the most talent, and says, “You know what? You don’t need these guys – you’re better than any of them. You could make it on your own – with me to help you”

The golden boy accepts the manager’s offer, sells out his mates, and launches a solo career.
He watches his old friends fade into obscurity, while he goes on to greater things.
He holds onto his fans as they grow out of adolescence; he becomes an all-round entertainer; he even begins a successful acting career

That, in a sense, is the offer God tempts Moses with
The rest of your people aren’t bothering with
You’re the only one who listens

You remind me of Abraham a long time ago
Let’s start again
Let me destroy this people
Let me make the same deal with you I made with Abraham
I’ll give you a land
Your descendants will outnumber the grains of sand on the shore, and the stars in the sky

Moses is not stupid; he knows he is being tested
He rejects the offer
Instead of agreeing to the destruction of his people, he pleads for them
He begs God for his reassurance that he will forgive the past
Above all he seeks an assurance; that when his people set out again, God will still go with them

The climax of this negotiation is a unique event
As proof of God’s faithful intention towards Israel, he grants Moses a revelation of himself unparalleled anywhere else in Scripture
It’s hard for us to absorb the magnitude of this promised revelation
It’s hard for us to absorb it, because none of us can picture that it means

Let’s recap what’s happened in the life of Moses
– He was brought up as an Egyptian prince
– He fled into exile, and heard God speaking from a burning bush
– He led God’s people out of Egypt
– He guided them in the wilderness
– He pleaded for them when they grumbled against God
– He received the commandments, written by God on tablets of stone

You’d think all this was enough for any human being
But God now promises Moses something more
He promises Moses he will actually see God

This is one of those passages where our ability to picture what is going on is challenged
We can visualise practically everything else in the life of Moses
– We can picture the burning bush and imagine the voice
– We can picture the Israelites crossing the sea bed, between walls of water
– We can picture the manna, and the water gushing from the rock
– We can picture the stone tablets
– But we can’t picture God

This revelation of God is a climactic episode
But there’s also something apparently anti-climactic about it
Partly because it’s so hard to picture
Partly because of what God promises to reveal to Moses:

I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord

We think, wait a minute: I thought God had already revealed his name to Moses
Back there on Sinai, when he spoke from the burning bush
This must be something more

We know this is a difficult verse to translate; because it’s translated so many different ways
It might be God’s splendour that passes before Moses, or it might be his goodness
But the key thing is that Moses not only sees God directly;
He also hears the name of God, from God’s own lips

The name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush was essentially a promise of faithfulness: ‘I will be who I will be’; ‘I will be there as the One who will be there’
The name God reveals now is more than this promise

The name of God is sacred to Jews: they won’t even speak it aloud
You probably know, it usually appears in texts as YHWH: Yahweh
But when Jews see those four letters, they read them as Adonai: ‘the Lord’

That’s the power of words, and the danger of words
We always think there is some connection between words and what they signify
There’s something rounded about the word ‘ball’
there’s something unpleasant about the word ‘evil’
Ugly words twist the mouth into ugly shapes when we say them

The word holds something of the essence of the thing
The name God speaks to Moses now contains something of God’s essence: as much of God’s essence as any human being has ever been able to hear

There’s always something sacred about the name of God
How much more sacred the name of God is, when it is uttered by the voice of God himself

What this should make us think is, what power there is in the name of God
What it means, to utter the name of God with lips of faith
What a privilege it is to call on the name of the Lord when we worship, when we pray

Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23 Exodus 32.1-14

No story in the Bible is told as often as the story of the Exodus
On the journey to the Promised Land, the people of Israel made three vital discoveries about themselves
– They were the people chosen by God to be his people
– They were the people with whom God made his covenant
– But they were also people who found it impossible to stick to their side of the bargain

The faithlessness of Israel is nowhere clearer than in today’s reading
While Moses is on the mountain, receiving the commandments from God, the people are melting down the earrings they took from the Egyptians
Directed by Aaron, they are melting them down and making a golden calf

The passage puts like this:

[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

One writer says, it’s like committing adultery on your wedding night

I think I would pick three things out of this incident
– One is boredom: how hard it is to wait for God
– Another is impetuosity: how easy it is, when you’re bored, to rush into thoughtless action
– The third is the contrast between our nature, and God’s: his stillness, his patience, and the certainty of his purpose

First, the boredom
I’m sure that is what the Israelites felt as they waited for Moses to come down from the mountain

There’s a lot in the Bible about waiting
Specifically, about waiting for God
Psalm 27 Wait for the Lord
Psalm 37 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him
Proverbs 20.22 Wait for the Lord, and he will help you

The poet John Milton said, ‘They also serve who also stand and wait’
Because to wait on someone is to serve them: we joke about waiting on someone hand and foot

People who serve customers in a restaurant are waiters
What you notice about good waiters is that they are attentive
They are always looking out for what the customers would like them to do
Even when none of the customers want them to do anything at that moment

Bad waiters are bored waiters
Waiters who don’t like hanging around
Waiters who are not interested in their customers

Good waiting is faithful waiting; expectant waiting
That’s the spirit of waiting we should cultivate in ourselves

The Israelites are bad waiters:they get bored
They look for something else to do, instead of waiting for Moses to return with God’s word

That leads us to our second point, the Israelites’ impetuosity
Discontent sets in, and rapidly spreads
Everyone gathers in a mob around Aaron, and demand that he does something
He does something unexpected: he tells them to take off their earrings
Not their bracelets, not their necklaces, not their medallions, not any of the gold ornaments they might have had in their tents
Aaron just wants their earrings

Gregory of Nyssa was an early commentator on Scripture
He said something interesting about this: he said the earrings represent the Word of God
When you make an idol of your own expectations and your own wants, you stop hearing the word of God
You don’t have the patience any longer to listen or reflect

When are we tempted to act impetuously as a church?
I see a lot of churches trying to jump on band wagons
They look at new ideas that have worked elsewhere, and they rush to join in
Messy church, Alpha courses, anything with the words ‘fresh expressions’ attached to it
They put their faith in novelty
They put their faith in someone else’s recipe, instead of thinking about how it relates to their own situation

That brings us to our third point: the contrast between the way the Israelites act in this scene, and the way God responds
God seems to go through the motions of anger
He strikes the pose of a wrathful God intent on vengeance

But this is to test Moses
Will Moses react with impatience?
Will Moses react by rejecting the people God has appointed him to lead?
Will he put his own feelings of disappointment and anger above his faith in God?

Of course he doesn’t
He doesn’t rush down the mountain
He doesn’t demand the heads of the culprits
He stays where he is, and he talks to God

He does what God expects him to do, which is to plead for his people
The Israelites are spared from immediate destruction
Their punishment is postponed
But there’s never any doubt that their sufferings in the wilderness are the consequence of their own misguided decisions, and their refusal to listen either to Moses or God himself

Our theme today is idolatry
The saying is, the devil makes work for idle hands
I’d like to offer you another saying: idle hands make false gods
Restless hands make false gods
Hands which are desperate to be busy make false gods

It’s no sin to be griped by the urgency of the gospel
It’s no sin to be desperate to share the good news with other people
It’s no sin to realise that many things in the church have to change

It’s certainly a sin to lose patience with God
It’s certainly a sin to try to go ahead of God, instead of being led by him

Exo 20.1-4,7-9,12-20; Mat 21.33-46

Harvest thanksgiving is an emblem of many things:
– it’s a public act of thanksgiving for God’s generous gifts
– it’s an offering to God, that takes the form of giving gifts to others

It’s a public confession of our absolute dependence on God for our daily bread
– a dependence which we experience in the rhythm of the seasons
– so it’s an acknowledgement of the divinely created order of things: and the need for this order to be expressed in our treatment of the world, and each other

Why read the Ten Commandments at harvest time?
We might begin by asking, why does God give the people his commandments at this point in their journey from Egypt, to the Promised Land

Remember what we’ve talked about in the last few weeks
The Israelites journey across the Red Sea into the wilderness
All the complaints and grumbling against God
It seems like years – it’s actually only three months
Now God decides it’s time to lay down the law:
Time to make clear how his people should behave

We can see the commandments doing two things:
– Providing a framework for the Israelites to reflect on their behaviour and recognise the sins they had committed in the wilderness
– Equipping them with a code for how they are to live in the Promised Land

Out of the ten commandments: which would you say was most important?
Perhaps the law against murder, because that is the most serious crime against another human being
But that’s not the law which gets the most attention
The law that takes up most space is the law against idolatry

Compare how quickly the other sins are dealt with:
– Crimes against property: ‘You shall not steal’
– Crimes against the person: ‘You shall not kill’
– Perverting the course of justice: ‘You shall not bear false witness’
– Crimes of sexual conduct: ‘You shall not commit adultery’

Why is so much time and space devoted to the sin of idolatry?

If there are lots of laws relating to a particular offence, it’s because the offence is common
The temptation to commit that offence is greater than the others
And there are more opportunities to commit that offence than the others

Agriculture for the people of Israel is tied up with idolatry. Why?
– Because the methods of farming they learn from the Canaanites are all tied up with the worship of Canaan’s gods

They come into the Promised Land as a nation of shepherds
– Now they have to start learning to plant crops
– In Egypt, farmers irrigate their fields using the waters of the Nile
– But in the Promised Land, the crops depend on seasonal rains

– as Deuteronomy says:

Deuteronomy 11:10–11 (NRSV) For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky

For the Canaanites, the business of farming was bound up with the worship of their own gods
For every job that had to be done, there was a ritual, an incantation, an offering
Think of Plough Sunday, which some churches still celebrate at the end of January
Above all, the Canaanites performed religious ceremonies intended to bring the rains

There was a belief in the ancient world, that every place on earth had its own god
Think of Naaman, the Syrian commander in 2Kings who is cured of his leprosy by Elisha
He takes soil from Israel home with him, so he can kneel on it when he prays to Israel’s God
The Israelites probably thought, they had to pray to the gods of their new land if they wanted their crops to grow

You can see how the Bible fights against this view:
Deuteronomy says, this is
a land that the Lord your God looks after. The eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Deuteronomy 11:12 (NRSV)

The giving of the Law means God’s people are well warned against the dangers of idolatry before they enter the land
But the Scriptures where we read this story aren’t directed at the people of that time
They are directed at people who came much later – including us

We hear this story today, and we ask ourselves: Are we free of this temptation to idolatry?

There are really two temptations:
– One is, the temptation to create false gods
– The other is, to practice religion as a kind of magic

Some people say, our churches and our church life are full of false gods
Idolatry in the church is when you make a god of the things you are used to doing
When the fresh reality of God disappears in a smokescreen of habit and over-familiarity

That’s why prayer is so important, to constantly seek God
That’s why it’s so important to constantly look at what we do as a church, so we don’t just do things out of habit

The other temptation is the magical view of religion
The idea that we pray to God for the things we want
Or to stop things happening that we don’t want

The belief in either case is that we can bend God’s will to suit ourselves
A God who only does what we want is a man-made God: in other words, an idol

We come here today, bringing our thanks to God for the blessings of another year
We come to his table today, praising God whose nature is a mystery to us, whose ways are past finding out
But whose determination to make us grow and bring us to him is beyond all human wishes