19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 15 2017
Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
How are we to read scripture? The question is posed inevitably to any Christian who takes the Bible seriously. It’s also posed to us every Sunday as we hear the Bible read.
Sometimes we introduce our scripture readings by saying, “Hear the word of God”. Other times we say, as I said this morning, “Listen for God’s word”. The difference is subtle but important.
“Hear the word of God” may suggest to us that the Bible just is the word of God and we can read what God is saying to us off the surface of the text. “Listen for God’s word” reminds us that the Bible is the word of God in human words and if we are to hear what God is saying to us we need to pay close attention to the text.
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – that great movement of Christian renewal in Western Europe so profoundly rooted in a return to scripture. The question that drove Martin Luther in launching this renewal movement was “How do I find a gracious God?” The question that drives us every Sunday as we listen to the readings, the question that drives us every time we open our Bibles, is “How do we find a gracious God in scripture?”
There is no quick and easy answer to that question. To be sure, we can read the Bible’s best bits – much-loved portions of scripture such as the 23rd psalm – and find our hearts strangely warmed.
But more often than not, we are like Jacob wrestling near the ford of the Jabbok with a man who turns out to be God – and forcing from God a blessing. More often than not, we must wrestle with the text to force from it the good news of God. It’s enough to make a preacher go bald.
Take for example, the second part of our Old Testament reading, the familiar story of the golden calf.
The Lord says to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against these people and I may consume them.”
And Moses has to talk God down. He reminds God that these are God’s people, whom God brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. He tells God that consuming them will be bad for God’s reputation. Why allow the Egyptians to say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”?
“Turn from your fierce wrath,” Moses urges God. “Change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And the Lord does that.
What are we to make of this?
The first thing to notice is that here, as in so many places in scripture, the text gives us an anthropomorphic God, a God who is made in our image and likeness.
But we must not think that God really is like that.
Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second half of the second century of our common era and the beginning of the third, already tells us this. He writes, “Even though it is written” – written, that is, in scripture – “one must not so much think of the Father of all as having a shape, as moving, as standing or seated or in a place, as having a right hand or a left.”
The corollary is that we must not so much think of God as changing God’s mind. God doesn’t that.
The second thing to notice is that the human being the anthropomorphic God in our text most resembles is Donald Trump.
On Sunday last, Republican Senator Bob Corker became an unlikely hero. In an interview with the New York Times, he said out loud and on the record what many Republicans say only behind closed doors.
He told the Times that most Republican Senators understand how volatile Donald Trump is and how much work it takes to contain him.
“He concerns me,” Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”
President Trump concerns me too. When he rattles his missiles at North Korea, he could trigger a war that reliable estimates say would kill a million people. And that’s just on Day One.
“As long as there are people around him who are able to talk him down when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision gets made, I think we’ll be fine,” says Corker. I’m not sure I find that entirely reassuring.
But that’s Moses’ role in our Exodus story: to talk God down when God gets spun up, to calm God down and stop God consuming God’s own people.
We must not so much think of God as being like that.
Turn to this morning’s parable, and again we run into questions. The parable offers us the picture of a king who – like the Lord in Exodus – is enraged. A king who sends his troops to destroy his invited guests and burn their city. A king who is displeased by a guest who shows up to his banquet improperly dressed, not wearing a suit and tie, and has him bound him hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness.
Is this how we are to think of God?
I’m more than half-way through my sermon, and all I’ve done so far is raise questions. But that’s the whole point or, at any rate, my first point.
Faced with difficult texts, if we rush in with easy answers, we will fail to learn anything much.
On the other hand, if I offer you no answers at all, you will go away feeling that you have asked for bread and I have given you a stone.
So let’s zoom out from the details of Matthew’s parable and look at the big picture.
God invites us to a banquet at the end of time.
This is one of the standard ways in which Jesus of Nazareth speaks about the kingdom of God. But I am going too fast and getting ahead of myself here.
When Jesus tells parables such as this one, he is not speaking in the first place to us, Christians of the 21st century. He is speaking to his fellow Jews in first-century Palestine.
God’s purpose for you, he tell them, is of good. God wants you to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God invites you into God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time but already here and now. All through your history, God has constantly renewed this invitation.
Time and again, the same God who brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand has sent you God’s prophets to invite you to live as God would have you live, to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Time and again, you have refused that invitation; and when you do that, bad things happen. This is how the scriptures understand the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century before our common era and the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century. This is how they understand the destruction of Jerusalem.
But the invitation is constantly renewed, because God does not change. In Jesus’ day and in his preaching it is extended to the outcast and the despised, both good and bad.
And today it is extended to us.
The kingdom of God is still like a banquet. The invitation can still go out, because everything is ready. We accept the invitation when we come to the Lord’s table and feast on him by faith with thanksgiving. We accept the invitation when we go out into the world to live as God would have us live and become what we are: God’s beloved children.
We don’t always do this. When God is not obviously with us, when we feel abandoned or even are abandoned by our Christian leaders, we can turn from the way and put our trust in things that are not God. When we are called by God, we can produce all kinds of excuses for not responding. When we do respond, we can fall into the trap of thinking it is enough to say Yes, without any of the bother of actually living out that Yes. And as Paul reminds his first-century hearers in Philippi and through them reminds us, all too easily we can fall out with one another.
But the invitation is never withdrawn. The hand of God is held out to us and never taken back. However fickle or volatile we may be, God does not change.
These are the deeper meanings beneath the surface of our Exodus reading and our Gospel today. We do not find them without wrestling with the difficulties of these texts.
But when we find them, and cling to them, then the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep guard over our hearts and minds and, however much we may stumble, will bring us back to balance.
Nicholas Kristof, “Trump’s scary strategy on North Korea”, New York Times, October 12 2017
Bernard JF Lonergan SJ, “The Absence of God in Modern Culture”, A Second Collection (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974)
Jonathan Martin and Mark Landler, “Bob Corker says Trump’s recklessness threatens ‘World War III’”, New York Times, October 8 2017
Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)
Rejoice! the Lord is King (CH4 449)
Give praise and thanks unto the Lord (CH4 70)
Like the murmur of the dove’s song (CH4 592)
Here in this place new light is streaming (CH4 623)
Put peace into each other’s hands (CH4 659)
 Stromateis V, 11; 71, 4. Cited in Bernard JF Lonergan SJ, “The Absence of God in Modern Culture”, A Second Collection (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), 109.
 Jonathan Martin and Mark Landler, “Bob Corker says Trump’s recklessness threatens ‘World War III’”, New York Times, October 8 2017
 Nicholas Kristof, “Trump’s scary strategy on North Korea”, New York Times, October 12 2017