Today’s readings are very challenging, and do not seem in any way to relate to each other. Our Bible study this week struggled big time looking at two of the readings, and we discussed them thoroughly, from several different views. The Exodus reading is a familiar one about the Israeli people, tired and wandering in the wilderness, falling away from God and making the golden calf idol. The Philippians reading has a truly wonderful positive message with several very familiar lines that we use in song and prayer. And, the Matthew reading is the parable of the king who planned a wedding banquet for his favorites, but ended up giving it for others instead. I decided to sort of finish up the Bible study, add more information I have found, and see if there are some nuggets of wisdom we can find here.
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In the Exodus reading, the Israelite people got frustrated when their leader Moses was delayed in getting back from his mountain visit with God. Moses had been there for 40 days and nights, learning from God for his people about how to worship and sacrifice and live, and getting the Ten Commandments from God in written tablet form. The impatient Israelites decided they needed a new leader, and a new God, even if it was a golden calf idol object. Even the local leader Aaron, Moses’ brother, was led astray and helped them in this perverse action. God saw all of this, his anger burned against the people, and he told Moses he was going to destroy them all and start over with just Moses and his family. But Moses pointed out how it would look to everyone else if he destroyed his own people after delivering them from Egypt, and didn’t keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and Moses pleaded for their lives. God then reconsidered his plan to destroy them—at least for right then!
What we did not read today is that in the rest of this chapter, Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people celebrating with their idol. He got really angry with them, smashed the Commandments tablets, burned and ground up the golden calf, and made the people drink water polluted with the gold powder. The Levites, as ordered by God through Moses, put some 3000 of the people to death, as more punishment. And then God punished all of them with a plague, too. Moses did won “pardon” for some of the people from God but delivered his own punishment. Not exactly a full pardon for them, was it?
As best as the Biblical scholars can determine, the Book of Exodus was written in stages between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, and tells a story of the Israelites set hundreds of years earlier—perhaps in the 15th century BC. This word of mouth collection of stories was likely written down more as a way of explaining the earlier Israelite people ancestors and their relationship with God, rather than describing historical events.
There are a couple of remarkable things to note about the relationship of Moses and God:
· Moses actually argued with and made demands of God! He told God to: turn from his anger, change his mind about destroying the Israelites, and remember the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
· Even more remarkable than Moses' taking a stance for the people, even to the point of making demands of God, is that God listens to Moses! At least he didn’t destroy the Israelites totally!
I think the main message we can take from this reading is that we all can have a personal relationship with God, and fully participate in it. We have read that we were “made in God’s image”; I think that this is not just the physical image but also includes the mental and psychological image—including emotions such as anger and compassion. God may be “perfect”, but God can have emotions and interact with his children and even listen to and be influenced by them. Just ask Mary (Venske) sometime about her open and loud dialogues with God!
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The letter to the Philippians reading was written by the apostle Paul to the church at Philippi, an early and dedicated center of Christianity in Greece, around the year AD 63. Paul was likely writing from prison in Rome, where he was for two years, and he expected soon for his appeal to be heard and acted upon. As you can tell from this reading today, the Philippians were very much attached to Paul, just as he was very fond of them. Of all the early Christian churches, their contributions (which Paul gratefully acknowledged) were about the only ones he accepted.
This writing to the Philippians has an interesting feature to look at. It is said by some that Paul’s writings are not friendly to women, citing one occasion where he said that women should not be leaders in the church. Nothing could be further from the truth! That passage dealt with serious discord in a particular church community, and he suggested that if this helped the specific situation, then do it. What you see here in Philippians 4 is his call for the community to support Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord, and to help these women in their ministry as equals to Paul in the cause. This community of believers was very small but faithful and needed all of the people to be in unity and dedication; Euodia and Syntyche apparently were really important to this cause.
This is such a wonderful writing that in our Bible study we shared this full reading as a prayer; parts of it have been used for a long time in the past as prayers or blessings at the end of our worship service. As a group they offer to us a formula for how to live our lives:
· “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” As faithful followers, this can be our attitude, even in rough times. Of course, we can also rejoice as we talk and even argue with God!
· ”Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” This is a great way to lower stress—give your concerns up to God and then give your best in God’s name. This especially works to get rid of a lot of the future anxieties you may have.
· ”And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The results of the first two—rejoice always and do not worry—lead to God’s peace. This peace is more than we can understand, and it boosts us, both in heart and mind, as we follow Jesus.
· ”Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Look for the best in yourself, and give that to God for his service to others, and you will have that peace from God. It helps to look for the best in others, too!
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One source I read while preparing for this sermon said that, “The Matthew Gospel reading today has a parable you won't find in your child's Sunday school curriculum. It is intended for theologically mature audiences only. In fact, without proper attention to the narrative context, I'm not sure this parable is conducive to a Christian sermon at all.”
Based on our Bible study discussion this week, this is a totally accurate statement! We struggled mightily to make sense of this reading. At one point, Lee (Avery) said that Jesus blew it with this parable, for it is impossible to understand what his message is. Actually, though, everything seems to make sense, at least everything to the point where Jesus talked about the one guest with the improper wedding garment, who was thrown into the “outer darkness”. The best we could find for this was a short statement in the study guide that said this last part might have been added later by the writer to make a point to so-called new Christians who were Jews--that they needed to be diligent and show by their faith and deeds that they believed in Jesus and serve his people, not be selfish and self-serving.
This seems confirmed in the parallel reading from Luke 14:16-24. It is very similar, except that it does not have any of the violence involved—either by the murderers of the king’s servants, his killing of the murderers and burning their city, or any mention of the one guest without a proper wedding garment. Luke’s audience was different—new Gentile believers, not Jews, so he did not feel the need to talk about this. This might make the overall reading easier to take, and we even talked about whether to read all of it today. One source even suggested reading the Luke passage instead of Matthew to get away from this violent behavior.
In this reading Jesus was talking to the Jewish leaders. He was in Jerusalem during the week of his crucifixion, having several dialogues with the Jewish leaders, and increasingly angering them with each parable he told. They were the ultimate target of this parable. The easy and likely meaning of this parable is that the King represents God, and the wedding banquet is the eternal feast in Heaven. The prime guests are those first offered a holy and eternal life, but they rejected it (Jesus is talking about the chosen Israelite people). Others were offered the same thing, but they rejected it too and killed those who were messengers for God, the prophets (this would be the later Jewish people and their leaders). Finally God will offer this same opportunity to everyone (the Gentiles), and many will accept it unconditionally, while some will reject it outright. Some others will accept, but will not really “buy in” fully, acting the part but not really meaning it. (These will be those acting as believers in name only, not really acting in full acceptance of the opportunity—not wearing the proper garment.) I’ll leave the violent ending for you to figure out.
The Jewish religious leadership Jesus talked to consisted of the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes and others in authority. Many loved their religious traditions, their interpretations of the Old Testament, their money, and their political and religious power more than God and their neighbor. They talked a good line about God but did not live it, were the epitome of hypocrisy, and were blind to God--God’s love, God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s Son.
Today some so-called Christians also talk the talk but do not walk the walk; maybe that is even each one of us at times. They use all the right buzz words, read the Bible, attend church and do all the churchy things but then live a lie and do not demonstrate the love of Christ in their daily actions. The apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce actions and behaviors that God wants from us is hypocritical like those Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time.
Jesus wanted those Jewish leaders to know (even though they did not want to hear it, and maybe many Christians do not want to hear it either!) that full-blown sinners will be at God’s banquet. His friends were the poor, maimed, blind, lame, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and other so called “sinners.” In today’s world, we often do not find “the poor, maimed, blind and lame” as members of most middle class congregations. Congregations can easily become reflections of differing economic and physically or mentally well-based classes. But God wants his house filled, not with people who don’t want to be there, but with people who do. We, as servants of God, are to do as the slaves in this Gospel story—to compel the “poor, maimed, blind and lame”, the homeless, and the hurting to come to God’s house and banquet.
Rejecting Jesus, God's gracious invitation and the way to celebrate life, is to know Hell as bad as it can get—it means self-exclusion from love, fellowship, hospitality, community, and celebration. When we ignore God, we put ourselves outside of God's grace and experience Hell. (Martha said that perhaps Heaven and Hell are on Earth now and we create one or the other by how we live in God or not.)
When we act in ways we call Christian that overlook justice and hospitality toward others, we are depriving the world of Christ’s influence through us. We are also depriving ourselves of those experiences that could change our lives. That can make life Hell—for ourselves and others! Jesus did not make light of people and their concerns, but poured out his life, both ultimately and on a daily basis, as he listened, healed, taught and loved people, both friends and strangers. That is what we also are called to do—that which can make life Heaven for all--right here and now!