Show us yer Talents

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn North on Sunday 19th November 2017.

Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The tradition of sermons around the Parable of the Talents connect it with the messages we heard from Jesus and Paul last week, of how we need to be living out our discipleship to the full since none of us knows when Christ shall return and the opportunity to serve God has passed.  Jesus is represented in today’s gospel story by the character of the Master, and the disciples (including us) are the worthy slaves to whom are entrusted the talents, the property of the master, which for us is the mission of the Kingdom of God.

In our reality Jesus has died and has been resurrected and ascended.  Today we eagerly await his return.  We heard this from 1 Thessalonians 4 last week, which was probably written around the year 49 or 50 and we are still waiting today in 2017.  The popular interpretation of the Parable of the Talents goes that when Christ returns those who are found to have been faithful in the Lord’s absence are rewarded with Heaven, and those who have been found unfaithful (lazy, afraid, defiant) are punished with exile from Heaven.  So where the wise bridesmaids taught us to be vigilant while our Lord is delayed, the wise servants teach us to be diligent.

Last week I suggested that most half-hearted Christians no longer attend church.  In the same way I want to suggest to you that the work that goes undone in the Church is undone because of a lack of youth and person-power rather than a lack of wisdom or desire.  I am sure there is more that can be done by us, you and me, in the Yallourn Cluster, but we need not beat ourselves up about it or fear that Christ will disown us when he comes.  We can only do what we can do, and for the most part that is being done.  We would do more if we had more, but we are being pretty faithful with what we have.  Nonetheless the call of God is individual and we must each do what God has called us to each do.  And we must each do it with all the strength God gives.  The lesson of the talents is that the more you do for God the more God will give you to do: the reward for diligence is greater responsibility.  This may sound like a punishment rather than a reward, but if you think of new responsibilities as the evidence of God’s trust in you, and your work is a display of additional opportunities to give God glory and worship, (which as a Christian is the desire of the heart), then it is reward upon reward.

So, I think Yallourn Cluster is perhaps the second servant, the one with less than the first servant, but the one who still managed to employ what was given and turned a profit for the Master.

The third servant in the parable, the one who is cast out, has buried his talent.  To bury something is to treat it as if it is dead.  But the Lord’s resource is never dead, it is alive and should therefore be exhibited in the world and opened to the elements of light and heat and air to grow.  To bury a borrowed thing is a breach of trust when it has been entrusted by its master for ongoing, practical use.  To bury is to betray.

We are wise to remember that this parable comes toward the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, we are in chapter 25.  Palm Sunday was back in Matthew 21, Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26, murdered in Matthew 27, and resurrected and ascend in Matthew 28.  Jesus “the master” is about to leave “for a long time”.  My chronology suggests that Jesus here is speaking on the Tuesday before Good Friday; in light of the story he is making sure his servants are up to speed with the need to continue his work while he is away.

We are the people of light.  What a privilege we have to be the people of light and the ones with the responsibility to display that light to the world.  What a loss it is to God then, and to the world, if we do not share that light.

And let’s go deeper still.  The sin of the unfaithful servant goes further than merely not using the resource given to him: he actually blames the master for being a bully.  “I did the right thing by keeping your investment intact,” he says.  “If I had invested in this opportunity and lost the lot then you’d have received nothing back and I’d have been punished.  At least here you’ve not lost anything.”  Do you think that is a fair response?  Some might think so, depending upon the character of their master; but our master is Jesus and he is not like this.   One of my commentators this week suggested that laziness is being portrayed as virtuous, where in fact it is an abuse of privilege.  I like this.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the return of Christ will come unexpected and unannounced.  Like labour pains out of nowhere will come immediate and great, debilitating distress.  This is a great metaphor, because two things are going on here.  One, known to those of you who are mothers, or indeed the loving husbands of mothers, is that labour is very painful and that it can come on suddenly.  I am neither a mother nor a husband, but I know this to be true, even in theory.  The other aspect of the metaphor is that labour is somewhat predictable: when 40 weeks have passed you know you’re “due”, and you’d be on guard from 35 weeks.  I know that when my sister was pregnant with my nephew she had her “due date” marked on the calendar months out: and do you know what, she was right.

But the unannounced and sudden return of Christ is of no concern to us since we are alert and not asleep.  We are people of the light, people of the day, and not of the darkness.  Let us live with faith and love as our protection and hope as our assurance.  When the terror comes it will not come for us, we have been chosen to be saved and have been prepared in advance to be armoured and ready.  Once again Paul’s message is not to be afraid of what is to come but to rest assured in God’s sufficiency in protection.  Live out your faith confident that when the Lord returns he will find you doing so, like the slave with two talents.  Do not fear judgement, only live in the light and you have nothing to fear.  Only those who are asleep on duty, live the foolish bridesmaids or the slave with one talent, will be caught off guard and have need to be afraid; but we are not them.

But here’s the rub, if we are people of the light, and other people have never seen the light and so will be caught off guard when Christ returns, whose fault will that be?  As faithful disciples of Christ and investors of his talents you are assured of Heaven’s welcome; but what of your friends who are not?  Is your own salvation enough for you?  Are you shining so that others can see, or have you shaded your light?  Have you kept yourself so pure for God that all of your devotional and worshipping activity is hidden from those who might need to overhear?

Our reading from Judges this morning spoke of Israel in the time of Deborah and Barak and of how the Israelites were doing evil in God’s sight.  The conquest of the land had not been completed under Joshua, the people had just settled when they were ready.  The people had not held to the promise made under Joshua to choose only the Lord as God.  God allowed the people to be overrun by an insurmountable Canaanite king, but then delivered them from that king when they cried out for mercy.  When God was ready to act God spoke through the prophetess Deborah to the military commander, not to Barak directly.    So, if not for Deborah, Barak would not have heard the Lord’s command or been ready to act where and when the Lord’s timing was prime.  My commentary says that this was the first time an Israelite force had overcome a plains people: all previous victories had been against mountain people or city states.  So, because of Deborah’s faithfulness to the message of God, and to her “talents” as judge and prophet the armies of Israel were confident to try something new, and they were successful at it.

Who are we denying the word of encouragement and direction from God?  What new thing is to be done in the Latrobe Valley which we know but they out there do not?  This congregation, including those members of it who live in Newborough and Moe, are faithful in worship, faithful in giving financially, and faithful in care of each other.  For the most part.  I do not believe that this congregation is under threat of judgement from the returning Lord.  But I appeal to your conscience: is there more light, more power, more love that you could expend in the service of God and the people God loves in Gippsland, the people who don’t know how much they are loved?

This is a challenge to each of you, and not an accusation for any of you.  So, be challenged, invest your talents, and see what the Lord will do.

Amen.

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Talents

(A confession centred on Matthew 25:14-30)

Lord, through Matthew and the story of the lazy servant

you taught the crowd and your disciples

to be busy at the work of the Kingdom

after you had gone.

Two servants who were known to be diligent

were given great responsibility

and were proven to be trustworthy when at last the master returned.

They were commended for their diligence and trustworthiness.

and each was welcomed into the celebration.

We want to be like these men when you come.

When you ask how faithful we have been

with the resources you entrusted to us

we want to be proven as diligent.

But often Lord, like that third man

we are afraid,

knowing that the responsibility which you confer

upon even the least of us is still great.

We do not want to be untrustworthy,

but we are anxious.

We do not want to be lazy,

but we are paranoid.

God of mercy and second chances,

do not throw us out of your house

if we fall short undertaking the tasks that you have given.

Enable us and encourage us to do as you have asked,

and forgive us when we do not do as you have asked.

Amen.

Make your Choice.

This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017.  It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples.  Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that.  Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land.  The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.

So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory.  Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land.  Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other.  As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited.  Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome.  Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action.  As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.

The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant.  Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD.  Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.

In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God.  Today we face a similar situation.  Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost.  We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom.  The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared.  The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame.  The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed.  You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation.  In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness.  The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.

This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation.  Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions.  Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week.  Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week.  So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.

But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all.  Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago.  Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society.  Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all.  “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”.  Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week.  The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.

So, what do we do with that?  Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands.  Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.

The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too.  All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship.  All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others.  In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus.  However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that.  Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy.  In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat.  To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD.  Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red.  But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there.  They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour.  Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids?  Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven?  Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands.  The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past.  In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God.  Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.

Paul’s response is good oil.  Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.

And so, this is our work too.  We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago.  We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations.  But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ.  The way of Christ is a better way: choose now.  Do you want to be full of Jesus?  Then worship him.  Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB?  Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those.  Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.

But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.

Amen.

Carna Saints! (All Saints’ Day A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 5th November 2017.

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

You know, all was once fine with me and the story beginning at Matthew 5:1, but after I attended theology college and studied the Synoptic Gospels (of which Matthew is the second), it almost makes me want to smirk.  Like you, I have heard more than one sermon on “The Sermon on the Mount”, and I have seen more than one film where this episode from Jesus’ life is shown in cinematic form.  You know how it rolls, the crowds gather, and Jesus stands atop a mountain declaring “Blessed art thou when…” and so forth.  Even Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” features a scene where “blessed are the cheesemakers” is proclaimed to the impatient multitudes.  But I ask you, how many people are recorded in Matthew’s gospel as having heard Jesus speak that day? Anyone?  C’mon, I know that Matthew does not give an exact number, but it is inferred from the verses immediately before this passage.  No?  Four.  Simon the brother of Andrew, Andrew, James, and John the brother of James, these are the disciples of Jesus as recorded by Matthew in 4:18-22Matthew 5:1-2 plainly and in NRSV English says that after Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain: and after he sat down his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak and taught them… In other words, having seen the crowds Jesus withdraws and sits with his disciples, and of disciples we know of only four so early in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Now I’m not here to change your theology, well not until I’ve been here a bit longer anyway, but it does make for an interesting idea.  Jesus takes his dearest followers, his disciples, in other words his student-slash-apprentices away from the crowd to begin their lessons where Jesus can speak freely, and he won’t be interrupted.

Is that significant?  Does it matter that there were only four men listening that day, or am I just being a smart-alec with my theology degree?  Well, it’s probably a bit of both but I hope it’s more about the first.  For me it is significant as we speak about the saints today that sometimes saints gather in small groups as well as large.  Sometimes, as in Revelation 7 the saints are the whole crowd; sometimes, as in Psalm 34 one saint is alone and isolated; and sometimes, as in Matthew 5 the saints are a small group called aside from the crowd.

From Revelation we read today of the great multitude gathered in Heaven at the end of days (we spoke of that last week).  They testify that salvation belongs to The LORD God enthroned, and to the Lamb.  Heaven’s company responds by falling face down in worship and crying blessing and honour, according God and the Lamb with everlasting power and might.  The one to whom this story is revealed is told that the multitude are the once living who have endured and come through: in other words, their testimony is the story of individual and corporate human lived experience.  These are the conquerors, the victorious martyrs, the undefiled witnesses (Revelation 7:14b).  Now they are home and safe, never again to be hungry or terrorised, and never again to weep.  The fact that this is a multitude can and should encourage us as a small congregation that we are not alone.  Like we prayed last week as a cluster for the ones and twos and tens of the persecuted church, so we can be encouraged even as a handful in the Latrobe Valley that we are not alone either.  We are the heritage and current expression of two millennia, seven continents, and billions of lives of tradition and praise.  Where, according to the commentator I read this week the church in John’s day represented 1 in 625 people in the Roman world, today we are 1 in 3 people in the whole planet.  And as Revelation 7:9 assures, the diversity of the Church is our strength.

The solitary singer of today’s selected Psalm declares boldly that The LORD is worthy of praise because The LORD is the one who saved the distressed one when he cried out for salvation.  The LORD protects and surrounds, and we can rejoice that it is so and feel safe and held in God’s love and protection.  Live into the experience of God, it is all good under God’s hood. Taste and see is a double invitation and an example of God meeting with us as multiple intelligences. (The LORD can be learned of in various ways).    No one will be permanently lost, and no one will be left totally and permanently harmed.  Psalm 34 speaks about God, but it is addressed to the people hearing it; it is not addressed to God (although we can assume that God is earwigging in on the worship). So, unlike what was read to us from Revelation 7 the section of Psalm 34 set for us today is a testimony of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, and an invitation to join.  This is the testimony of a man who is living in a dark space yet is trusting that God will deliver him.  This is the testimony of a man speaking to the shadows around him, “I am not afraid” he says, “because The LORD is faithful and mighty to save”.  This Psalm for the alone, the “poor one” (Psalm 34:6) speaks encouragement and understanding to any who are alone and bereft and needing assurance.  Again, that scripture records and the lectionary demands that we read the song of one man on the run should encourage us that we are not alone.  Like the persecuted ones we can be encouraged that we are not unaided or forgotten even when we are isolated because God knows us each.

Blessed, “happy and to be envied” as one commentator put it, is the true disciple who displays all eight of the characteristics listen in Matthew 5:3-12.  This list does not refer to eight different types of people who will be blessed, no, like the fruit of the spirit (which is one fruit with eight characteristics) this short list is to be the biography of every saint.

  • Jesus says that when you recognise your need and turn it towards dependence upon God you will be granted all of this and more. Rely on God for provision and you shall lack no good thing, in other words.  Does this verse refer only to some people in the Church?  No, it is a promise for everyone, even if it is not the primary promise for every time.  All Christians, all disciples, are supposed to rely on God and to bring our needs to God.
  • When a woman or man of faith laments the state of the world she or he will be assured by God that the end is not “the end”. As we heard from Ecclesiastes 3 last month, everything has a season and mourning will give way to rejoicing over the new thing, and the promise that God’s goodness is everlasting.
  • Disciples of today, like Joshua and Caleb of old, who are trustingly humble and submitted to God, but not submissive in the face of hardship, will inhabit the promises of God. All are called to persevere, and all who call on the name of The LORD will be saved.
  • Those whose lives are lived fully conformed to the will of God will receive God’s filling response. Is there any Christian woman or man whose life is not required to be lived fully conformed to the will of God?  Again no, so this is an expectation and a promise for everyone in the Church.
  • Those who are gentle and patient, empathising and quick to render comfort to others will receive the same from God.
  • Those who are single-minded in their loyalty towards God will see God, the subject of their desire.
  • Those who work for friendship in the world will be recognised as having the nature of God and will be beacons of God’s own character.
  • And those who persevere with these characteristics even though the world is against them will be welcomed by the God whom they championed. Jesus said that if the world takes issue with you then you’re probably on the right track as that is what happened to the true prophets of ages past.  Today we might add that that is what happened to the Lord Jesus too, so why should we expect any different.

And to set your minds somewhat at rest, it does say in Matthew 7:28 that when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astonished at his teaching, so yes, Jesus probably did speak to more than four men.  Or, he spoke directly to four men, but he was overheard by the multitude.

And so, as we move toward the prayer life of the church and into communion this morning what have we heard that is relevant to All Saints Day and to all of you, saints of today?  God is with you whether you are one of the majority, one of the minority, or alone and isolated.  God desires that your character and life reflect the character and life of Jesus, and of Godself the compassionate and merciful one who is everlasting and entirely faithful.  Perfection is not expected, only God is perfect, and even the saints of old and the ones whose names appear on special days or coloured glass had their downtimes.  But where God is faithful the saints of God will be upheld, and the story of the welcome of Heaven extended to us and through us will be proclaimed in all the world.

Let the world be on notice: the saints are coming.

Amen.

A Multitude: A Confession centred on Revelation 7:9-17

 

Lord, John saw thousands upon thousands of the tribes of Israel

gathered before you in Heaven,

and after that he looked and there was

a great multitude than no one could count

from every nation

from all tribes and peoples and languages

standing before you and before your throne.

 

This intercultural hoard declared your praises

and the wonder of your gift of salvation

to all without prejudice.

 

Why can we not do the same?

 

O Lord, we are ready to declare your majesty

and to sing our thanks for the work you have done

in salving and saving us.

 

But on the All Saints Day we confess

that we have not always lived in harmony

with our sister-brothers who do not

look like us

see like us

love like us

speak like us

cook like us

sound like us

worship like us.

 

Today we ask for your mercy upon those who suffer in your name

and particularly upon those whose suffering we have caused.

 

Today we ask for your forgiveness upon us who have neglected our sister-brothers

even those in this room.

O God guide your world, them and us intermingled,

to springs of the water of life

and…wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Amen.

‘Cos you gotta have faith…fa…fai…fa…faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for Moe-Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 8th October 2017.  It was a communion Sunday and was also my first time preaching to this congregation.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-13; Philippians 3:4b-11

So, the ten commandments eh?  You’d think that would be a straightforward task for a preacher: it’s all there in black and white.  God quite clearly says what is expected of Christians and Jews, so the sermon for today is read that, live with obedience, and move on.  Case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn.

But I really don’t think it’s that simple, and here’s why.  The way I read it the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, according to the narrative of Exodus, was to introduce the Israelite people to the God who had delivered them from slavery.  So, rather than being a set of rules without a context, (common-sense as those rules are for the most part), the commandments inform Israel of the best way to relate towards and behave in the presence of God, and each other.  Rather than primarily being a legal code framed for punishment of offenders these commandments are boundary markers for healthy communities.  They are words spoken personally by God (Exodus 20:1) and they speak of who God is with respect to the Israelites.  The LORD, whose self-spoken name is YHWH, is their God and the one who delivered them from slavery.  There is no doubt that this God is same one who spoke with Moses and sent Moses to Pharaoh.  This is the same God who sent the plagues, opened the sea, sent the manna and quail, and provided water at Horeb.  “I AM” the One who is with you, says God, the one who has always been with you.  In other words, “it’s me”, and “it’s been me, only me, all along”.  With that introduction make God then sets out the expectations of ongoing relationship.

So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:

  1. Sole allegiance. Exodus 20:3 assumes the existence of other gods, but the Israelites are to belong to YHWH alone.
  2. Related to the sole allegiance thing The LORD God is not to be imagined in physical form. There are to be no religious statues like the ones seen in Egypt or the ones to be seen in Canaan, not even statues of YHWH.  The LORD is the creator and not a creation: the nature of God is that God has no form or shape so to imagine a form or shape for God, even for the express purpose of worship of God is to lessen God’s dignity.  You may not pretend that God is something that God is not; it’s impolite.
  3. Related to the true nature of God, The LORD is not to be spoken of as if God were something different to what God is. In the same way that you must not give God a shape that isn’t God’s, don’t give God a voice that isn’t God’s.
  4. Imagine life in the model of God. As Christians, we might think of discipleship as following the Way of Jesus, living and acting as Jesus did, even pausing to consider “WWJD” if that’s your thing.  Well Israel’s God expects the same.  Follow God by acting like God; and the primary way of this is to rest on every seventh day.  Slaves do not get a day of rest, but Israel are no longer slaves so let them model the life of God.  Sabbath-keeping is therefore about freedom and discipleship.
  5. Five to Nine inclusive are about showing respect and care for other Israelites, the other followers of The LORD. Love and don’t disrespect the value of all parents; love and don’t kill anyone; love and don’t disrespect the humanity of all peers; love and don’t steal from anyone; love and don’t lie in court.  These are great, common-sense rules for society, but to read them in the context of the way of life for a worshipping community dedicated to the God who has saved them from a disrespectful community adds a layer of importance.  Don’t be like the Egyptians, be like The LORD.

And lastly, guard your attitudes as well as your actions.  No only “do not” act thoughtlessly or maliciously, but “do not even think” along those lines.  Jesus echoed this in the Sermon on the Mount, didn’t he?  Jesus was not original in saying that, the intent was there all along.

The Psalmist, writing perhaps five hundred years after the Exodus event describes the way in which the ordinances of God revive the soul and light the fires of learning (Psalm 19:7).  The wisdom of Torah, the profound instructions of God bring joy and light, the advice and intention of God is to be sought and held precious (Psalm 19:10).  The Ten Commandments are in no way “The Ten Suggestions”, God expects them to be adhered to, but the heart of the instruction of God is that this code offers an impenetrable barrier against the thoughts of the unwise.  Think like God, not like the foolish polytheists and their slave-making ways. Torah is a guiding light for the weary disciple and a reminder when you are falling apart of how to act toward other people and toward God.  The commentary I used this week refer to omission regarding Psalm 19:12-13: the law is not a stick to beat you with but a reminder amidst times of human frailty not to forget God’s expectation that you will be nice to people and humble to God.

In the section of Paul’s letter to Philippi set for us this morning we are made to understand that there is no doubt that Paul was very Jewish (Philippians 3:4b-6).  Paul makes his credentials as a Jew and a scholar very clear: even so he considers such knowledge a loss if it does not connect with the wisdom of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not saying that knowledge of the law is loss; he is rightly proud of his knowledge of Torah and I imagine he would agree with all which was said about the Law in Psalm 19.  No, what Paul is saying is that if your scholarship, your knowledge of Torah, does not point you to Jesus then your scholarship is useless.  (But if your scholarship leads you to Jesus then it is priceless.)  To pursue scholarship for the sake of righteousness, i.e. salvation, is pointless: being an academic cannot save you, even if it does help you be a good Jew.  (So long as you are a good Jew of course, and not a scholarly snob.)  In simple terms Paul says that the advantage of a working knowledge and understanding the ten commandments is that it helps you to understand what Jesus did so that you can follow in his Way.  I hope you can see that this is a development on the Jewish understanding already presented; that the law itself is not enough but the law as a pointer toward God for relationship and discipleship of God, and a life of better fit in the community of faith is what it is all about.  If you’re going to be clever, great, but make sure your cleverness leads you to be humble before God and kind to your friends and to strangers.  Faith as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:9 is assent to articles of belief; you might say “I have faith in the resurrection because I believe it actually happened and that it is meaningful for salvation from sin”, but faith as described by Paul is also openness to God’s activity.

So, what do we need to know?  What is the simple message for you to hear and then “case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn?”  Well the message is pretty much the same: live with obedience and move on.  And here’s how to do it: study the Bible and other Christian texts and know what God expects of you as a disciple.  Follow the text and follow the Way of the Lord.  More specifically, be like Paul and know the Bible so well that you will have what you need to rebut the arguments of the legalists and the know-it-alls.  Paul really did know it all, he tells us as much and his detractors acknowledge his learning, and Paul says love is all you need.

Love God, love other people.  Get to it.

Amen.

A Wicked Tendency: A Confession cntred on Matthew 21:33-41.

Vintner of Heaven,

Landlord of Earth,

We come into your presence with a description of our desire for justice.

Where the Teacher of old spoke of foxes in the vineyard,

We recognise that it is human effort which has destroyed what you intended.

 

Lord of this place you are worthy of your due.

 

Not only are you landowner and great gardener,

Not only are you master-vinedresser and great winemaker,

You are creator and sustainer.

 

Not only are you the builder of walls and digger of moats,

Not only are you governor of people and selector of choicest fruits,

You are God and Father.

 

Forgive us, you who are All, when we withhold from you

all that is rightfully yours.

 

Forgive us, you who are Love, when we withhold from others

love that is duly theirs.

 

Forgive us, you who are Father, when we mistreat your daughters

and sons who speak to us by your authority.

 

We are sorry that we have not listened,

that we have thrown out,

beaten,

and killed those who have called us to listen,

and that we have, consequently, made a mess of your garden.

Amen.

 

Servants of the vineyard owner, hear the words of the Father’s heir,

“The kingdom of God will be…given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Hope remains for the obedient, and forgiveness for the penitent.

Amen.