Words on the Word – Sunday 11th October 2020

Lectionary Readings for today:

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

These readings can all be read online here.

Exodus 32

We have just come to the end of seven straight chapters of God’s instruction to Moses about the construction of the Tabernacle – the famed dwelling place of the presence of God in a tangible way via the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy Place. The two copies of this Covenant are inscribed on tablets of stone and are to be kept in the Ark (What else was to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant?). The tabernacle was to be that thin place where God’s presence touched the ordinariness of earth. It was the tabernacle referred to at the beginning of John when John says this had happened again in Jesus – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – literally, the Word became flesh and TABERNACLED amongst us. Tabernacle theology is huge and worthy of of its own study, but perhaps that’s for another day!

Moses, their beloved leader, has been away on Sinai now for 40 days and 40 nights (surely that rings a bell somewhere too…). The people are keen to worship God and so they ask Aaron to help them. This golden calf is not so much a turning away from God as a clueless attempt to sidestep the long instructions about tabernacle construction and create something on their own terms. Aaron would have fashioned the collected gold into a calf because that was a common image for the Divine in the Ancient Near East. The tragedy is that they lost all that Egyptian gold, the spoils of their escape from Pharoah’s power. God’s anger, expressed through Moses, is focused on that phrase “stiff-necked people” – will they never learn that they are being called to be radically different from the surrounding cultures, not to keep falling back into ways of surrounding tribes? God is calling them to be set apart for God’s service – the very meaning of the word holy.

Psalm 106

One of the purposes of the Psalms was to set to music verses which could then be sung to assist God’s people in telling their story. In Psalm 106 the singers recount the Exodus 32 narrative, but all under the thumping refrain that calls the people to give thanks to the Lord “for he is good, for his mercy endures for ever”.

In these verses we see the Psalmist interceding for the people in a new context. Fully cognisant of their sin, they make this appeal to the steadfastness of God, to the God who is faithful and merciful. “Remember, O Lord” is a theme which occurs in several other Psalms (Pss 25, 74, 89, 115, 119, 132, 137 in a quick survey) as the Psalmist appeals to the very character of God which is of course unchanging. Since God is unchanging and steadfast, goes the reasoning, then surely God will act the same way now. The Psalmist is seeking to establish case law based on legal precedence!

Surely our sins are not as great as those of Israel at Horeb? In which case, let me be like Moses and appeal to God to turn aside God’s wrath.

I wonder if our own confessions are as heartfelt. Do we appeal to God’s mercy like the Psalmist, or do we simply shrug off our sins “because God forgives me anyway”? Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned strongly against such “cheap grace” in “The Cost Of Discipleship”. Grace, yes, but look again at the cross to remind yourself that your forgiveness was far from cheap.

Philippians 4

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! If you are a singer of modest experience then at least one tune will be running through your head right now! This whole chapter is a joy, and it would make a fitting reading to close any act of Christian worship.

Rejoice in the Lord though. Not just rejoice in all circumstances like a fool. Rejoice in the Lord always, rather than look to rejoice in things of the world, which are only temporary anyway. Rejoice in the Lord, who is eternal. Rejoice in the Lord always – let your joy always come from your thanksgiving for God’s love in Jesus, who … (and then re-read Chapter 2 again).

Jesus as the source of your joy. Your gentleness is the calmness of one who sees the presence of God in all things, to such an extent that others notice it in you. Brother Lawrence described this gentleness in his little book ‘The Practice Of The Presence Of God’ which I highly recommend. Taking up Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about not worrying, Paul goes on to provide the consequence: as one who is not worrying, God’s peace will guard your heart instead.

I love the ‘Think on those things’ section towards the end. Delight in all that is true. Stand up for all that is honourable. Pursue justice. Make purity your goal. Seek all that is pleasing. Strive for what is commendable. Aim for excellence. Enjoy all that is worthy of praise. There is a delightful simplicity in this, which modern reflective practitioners are rediscovering today. ‘SImple pleasures’ – a walk after the rain; the smell of home-baked bread; the glow after a morning run; the crunch of a home-grown apple. One of the habits of a truly lived-in Christianity is a recognition of the divine in all things; an appreciation of which contributes to the ‘fullness of life’ to which Jesus refers in John 10.

Think on these things. Rejoice Always. Be at peace.

Matthew 22

A parable, rich in detail, and most likely one which would have set on edge the teeth of the Chief Priests and Pharisees who first heard it. That’s not how the story should go! You don’t invite people like that to a wedding!

Matthew, as ever, talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘the kingdom of God’ as he would have adopted the Jewish euphemism of his day. We need to put together all Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God from the Gospel accounts in order to understand it properly – each parable like this only ever gives us a glimpse of the whole.

There is little point in fussing over every detail, for example by having an evening’s Bible study given over to what Jesus really meant by “burned their city” or “one to his farm”. The point is, of course, that the normal rules just don’t apply. As they say in the only joke in a modern book of etiquette, “How do you turn down a request to a Royal Banquet?” Answer – you don’t! Here these people are, though, finding better things to do than attend this royal wedding. You can feel the shock rippling through the crowd. You can’t do that! Even when summoned again, they STILL do not come. This is outrageous!

Only when those originally invited are refusedentry and their places given to the ordinary people of the streets do the Pharisees and Chief Priests realise that they are those former guests and the story is being told against them.

So we see salvation offered to all, for that is the meaning of the parable. Yet there remains that one tantalising detail over the guest who wears the wrong robes. We could let this pass, as we have rightly glossed over some of the other details, but here robes signify the new robes of baptism (remember ‘clothed in Christ’?) so there is a clear expectation that while all are definitely welcome, those who accept the invitation are required to make the most basic commitment of faith.

Matthew is advising his Christian readers – don’t sit there feeling smug at the fate of those who spurned the original invitation; what evidence is there that you have put on new robes?

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