St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22
These days it’s not uncommon to overhear or participate in conversations that include comments such as “I really don’t know what is happening in the world today – ISIS and the Mideast situation, Ebola, all these hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes – it’s really frightening. Maybe the world really is coming to an end.”
Another common theme that literally screams out at us, not only in face to face conversations but in Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and other media sources is the apparent decline of Christianity. Ethnic cleansing of Christians in many areas of the world, strife at General and other theological Seminaries, and blogs that state boldly “Even your new pastor won’t be able to save the church” all underscore a deep and real concern about the state of Christianity, especially in America.
And, right here in our own backyard – right here in Delray Beach – we are faced daily with the grim issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and a sea of people lost and searching, victims of abuse and addiction.
Without a doubt, after a quick glance at the daily newspaper, or listening to a few CNN or Fox News talking heads discuss the latest spin on who’s who and what’s what, there is a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty to shoulder through as we head out into our individual worlds of work and responsibility.
Yes, indeed – at times it really does seem pretty grim. What to do – who to turn to in these challenging times.
In fact, after reading today’s passage in Exodus, I wonder if we aren’t all feeling a bit like Moses did way back in the “good old days” when he stood on the mountain shaking in his sandals after having been instructed by God to lead a rebellious group of people into the unknown, barren and certainly dangerous wilderness, through the Red Sea and into the land of Canaan.
However scared Moses might have been though, he was not afraid to speak up about it. He was not afraid to challenge God. His message to God was crystal clear. Standing there on the mountain top, he said, “Look if you want me to carry on with this task of leading your people out of the mess that they are in I need your help and I need you here – right here, by my side. Without your presence it just is not going to be possible.”
God listened to Moses, and God responded. God said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest…I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
Moses spoke directly to God. God listened to Moses. God responded. And Moses carried on. He led his people through the wilderness, all the way – right up to the plains of Mount Nebo, where he died.
The very last passage of Deuteronomy eulogizes Moses, proclaiming, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” (Deut. 34:10-12)
Moses spoke to God. God listened. God responded. Moses acted and performed displays of power in full sight of all Israel.
By the time Paul comes around, many years later, God, through the presence of his Son, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, has been made manifest, not to all, but to many. The exclusivity of God speaking only to Moses has been radically altered. No more mountaintops. Jesus has been with and among the people. God, through the gift of his Son made man, Jesus, has come down from the mountaintop to walk alongside us as we journey through troubled waters and the challenges of life.
Jesus through his teaching, healing, death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit has proclaimed the good news message that God is there for us – all we have to do is open our hearts to his presence. If we acknowledge God as our Creator, the one who loves us, and if we speak directly to Him for guidance and support, God will listen; and, God will respond.
In his Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s encouragement and support to the struggling new believers in Thessaloniki, remains a relevant message for us even today. Paul says, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example for all…For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known.”
Paul praises the Thessalonians for their receptivity both to the gospel and to the gift of the Holy Spirit – a receptivity that Paul’s characterizes as having “full conviction.” He commends the converts’ commitment to their difficult and oftentimes dangerous existence as they model the love, compassion, peace and glory of God’s Kingdom through both their words and actions.
Paul reminds these new believers that in receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit they have chosen, despite threats of persecution, to be led by the Spirit as they carry out their Christian mission. They have become a model for others, so that “the Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of God’s name.”
The Thessalonians led by the Spirit modeled the courage and faith needed to weather the persecution of the early Church. As they weathered these grim challenges, they, like Moses among the Israelites, were seen and heard by thousands of Roman citizens, and Christianity as we know it today emerged.
Jesus is, of course, the ultimate model for us. We encounter him in today’s gospel reading, standing face to face with the Pharisees. Pharisees who are yet again plotting to catch him in words and actions that will be seen as treasonous by the Roman authorities.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they question him.
Jesus does not mince words – “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he replies, knowing full well that everything we have belongs to God – whatever small pittance of money is due the emperor has no relation to the commitment we have to God. It is to God whom we turn. It is to God that we listen. It is from God that we seek a response that will carry us forward in facing the challenges of life. It is from God that we will receive our salvation.
“When the Pharisees heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”
Amazed at what? Jesus’ courage? Jesus’ passion? Jesus’ defiance?
I would imagine that the Pharisees were amazed by it all – the courage, the passion, the defiance, and the authority of Jesus as he perseveres in his mission to re-establish God’s Kingdom in Jerusalem and beyond.
Jesus’ courage in leading God’s people out of a wilderness of power and money established by the Roman Empire, the priests, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Jesus’ passion as he barrels forward at a breathless non-stop pace to spread the gospel – the good news of God – the Kingdom of God that has come near.
Jesus’ defiance as he flies in the face of authority – an authority that desecrates God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Jesus’ authority that leaves people amazed.
Moses stood alone on a mountaintop and confronted God, asking for his presence as protection and help. Paul encourages us to speak directly to God asking for his presence in our lives and his protection as we fight the perils that face us. Jesus demanded that we acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, and forever and ever.
Moses on the mountain. The Thessalonians in Macedonia. Jesus in the Temple. All in direct communication with God. God listening to them all. God responding with the gift of his Son and the Holy Spirit. God with us and in us – always.
All this tells me there should be no “shaking in our sandals” as we face the challenges of today’s world. There is, indeed, reason for deep concern. There is, without a doubt, a pressing need for us as Christians to actively seek God’s response as we pray for guidance from the Spirit. There is a legitimate need for us to ask God to be at our side as we journey through a wilderness of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and ravaging illnesses.
However, there is also an urgent need for us to be models – examples – to all believers throughout the world. There is an urgent need for us, through our words and deeds, to preserve the works of God’s mercy, that the Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of his Name. Perhaps this is the greatest need of all.