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A God Who Defies Our Expectations

Commentary
Celebrations with an awesome God, focusing on a God who defies our expectations.

Exodus 32:1-14
The First Lesson is drawn from the book of liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, likely the product of three distinct oral traditions. The text is a story of Israel’s breaking the covenant with Yahweh and his forgiveness. It seems likely that the lesson is the work of the ninth/tenth century BC oral tradition called J for its use of the name Jahweh/Yahweh when speaking of God.

The account begins with a report of the people gathering around the high priest Aaron during Moses’ delay on Mount Sinai and seeking to have Aaron make gods for them, as it was not clear what had become of Moses and the Lord (v.1). Aaron has people bring all their golden earrings to him (vv.2-3). He molds the gold into the image of a calf, proclaiming it to be the god who delivered Israel (v.4). (The Hebraic word Elohim, which is plural, is used here, the same word translated “God” often used when referring to the Hebrew God. Obviously, the calf of Aaron truly was in his mind the god who had delivered the people.) The calf or young bull was as symbol of fertility in the nature-religions of the Ancient Near East. Aaron builds an altar and proclaims a festival of dedication where sacrifices are performed. The people’s reveling [making merry] might have sexual connotations (vv.5-6). Yahweh directs Moses to return, instructing him about the people’s idolatry (vv.7-8). The Lord further directs Moses to leave him, so his wrath consumes Israel (v.10). Moses begs for mercy, reminding Yahweh of his good works of deliverance on their behalf. He invokes God’s promises to the ancestors (vv.11-13). The Lord changes his mind/purpose and does not punish (v.14).

When, like the ancient Hebrews, life is not going as we think it should we are tempted to occupy ourselves with idols, and not with God. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that for the majority of Americans (69%), family is the most important dimension of life, followed by career and money. (Throw in free sex to match the reveling that was going on among the Hebrews in our lesson.) Faith only ranks fourth for us, barely above friends and health. Obviously the big three function as our idols, way above God. This sort of idolatry is even heightened further in the election season, as we’ve been focusing most of our attention on the nation’s problems and perhaps more so on the personhood of Trump, Biden, and their VPs. Campaigns, especially this year following the pandemic, have not been conducive opportunities for thanking God. This is a sermon for helping us see these dynamics and trying to set straight our priorities.

Part of the problem involved in idolatry is how God does not fit well into our boxes. Just as the Hebrews in the wilderness found it hard to believe in God as he and Moses were distant from them, so we wonder where God is in our lives. That is just the point of this lesson. We need the reminder that God acts in hidden, surprising ways, maybe even in and through ideas and trends that are emerging in the campaigns and the election outcomes. One more word this lesson offers for sermon themes: God’s amazing compassion! Just as he forgave the errant Hebrews too much space herefor their idolatry, so our Lord compassionately forgives all our waywardness. And with that forgiveness, along with the Hebrews, we can move along on our journeys.

Philippians 4:1-9
The second lesson is part of a letter written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia (Greece). There is some debate about whether the epistle in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters. The apostle is concerned with urging persistence in faith in face of opposition. The epistle is also a kind of last will and testament by Paul, offering the church a witness on living faithfully even when he is no longer present. This lesson is a final appeal urging rejoicing, harmony, and prayer. Paul begins by exhorting the beloved to stand firm in the Lord (v.1). He proceeds to urge that two women in the church, Eudoia and Synthyche, who had been bickering resolve their dispute (v.2). A number of women seem to have been in leadership positions in churches related to Paul’s ministry (Romans 16:3-4,6; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philemon 2). Paul asks his “loyal companion” (some leader of the church in Philippi, perhaps named Syzgus, a name resembling the Greek word for “companion”) to help the women. Together with Clement all of them have labored with Paul in the work of the gospel and their names must be in the book of life (v.3). He then calls for rejoicing in the Lord (v.4). This is a recurring theme in the epistle (1:18; 2:28; 3:1; 4:10).

The apostle further urges the church to be known for gentleness, for the Lord is near (v.5; Psalm 119:51). There is no need to worry about anything, he adds, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving it is good to let God know their requests (v.6). The apostle then offers the benediction (a blessing of peace surpassing all understanding) (v.7). Speaking to the recipients of the epistle, whom he terms “brothers,” Paul urges them to reflect on all that is good and worthy of praise and to continue doing things they have learned and received, for God will be with them (vv.8-9).

Several sermon possibilities are suggested by this lesson. The importance of women in the church for Paul’s ministry provides an occasion for highlighting women’s leadership in church as well as society, and perhaps even the role of women in the pulpit and in Washington. Another angle is to take this as an occasion to try to understand why Americans as a nation do not take Paul’s advice not to worry very well.  In the 2019 United Nations’ World Happiness Report, Finland, Denmark, and Norway topped the list, with the U.S. a distant 19th among the nations. This has been a consistent pattern in these annual reports.

Part of the problem regarding our (lack of) happiness relates to the fact that we do not have the generous safety nets of these other nations, as issue which could be used to link this text to the presidential campaigns. We in America are not heeding Paul’s directive to the Philippians (2:4) to look not just after our own interests, but to the interests of others (a policy implied by Paul’s use of the term “brother” to all male Christians). But a less controversial approach is to keep in mind the relationship between joy and spirituality. Students of the evolution of religion have observed that religion seems to be rooted in functions of the brain in which we lose our sense of self, almost in a trance-like experience in favor of a joyful feeling of being part of the whole, a joy related to the secretion of the amphetamine-like brain chemical dopamine released in these neural activities (Matthew Rossano, Supernatural Selection, pp.34-35,171-172). When we live lives of prayer, in dialogue with God like Paul prescribes, then fears and uncertainties begin to whither. We already have all it takes for a good, happy life. It’s not hard to rejoice (and then life’s a lot sweeter).

Matthew 22:1-14
The gospel is again like most of this liturgical year drawn from the most Jewish-oriented of the gospels, an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus addressed to a Jewish Christian community apparently ostracized by Jews in the region. This text recounts the parable of the marriage feast. Although much of the parable appears in Luke (14:15-24), vv.11-14 have no parallels in any of the other gospels.

The story begins with Jesus still teaching in parables in Jerusalem during holy week (v.1). He introduces the relationship between the kingdom of heaven and a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (v.2). The phrase “kingdom of heaven” [basileia ton ouranos] is more dominant in Matthew. In this way, this Jewish Christian author could avoid naming God, a structure most practicing Jews sought to observe. Jesus reportedly claimed that the king in his story sends slaves to call [kaleo, translated “invited” literally means “called”] those who had been invited. But the invited would not come (v.3). Those slaves probably represent Hebraic prophets. The slaves are sent again to tell those who had been invited that the food had been prepared, but the invited guests make light of it, each going to their businesses or killing the slaves (vv.4-6). The second action taken against the slaves probably represents reaction to Christian apostles.

Enraged, the king reportedly sends his troops to destroy the city (v.7). He instructs his slaves that since the wedding is ready and those invited/called were not worthy, those slaves are to go into the streets and invite everyone (vv.8-9). The slaves proceed and find enough guests to fill the wedding hall (v.10). Some New Testament scholars think that what follows to the end of the lesson was a distinct parable added by the writer of Matthew (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According To Matthew, pp. 416-417). These additional verses commence with the king coming to see the guests and noting that one man was not wearing a wedding robe. The king asks the man how he had gotten into the hall not properly attired (vv.11-12). The king then tells the attendants to bind the guest and throw him out in darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v.13). (This is a phrase used in a number of occasions in Matthew [8:12; 13:42; 24:51; 25:30] to evoke horror and fear of God’s final judgment.) For many are called but few are chosen (v.14; cf. 7:13-14). The last verse may be a warning against self-righteous arrogance by Christians.

Weddings are wonderful occasions, opportunities to celebrate love, family, and friendship. What kind of a jerk would want to say no to an invitation? Somebody who says he or she is too busy. Of course, we say that about ourselves. In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 60% of U.S. adults said they at least sometimes felt too busy to enjoy life. But just a year earlier, the U.S. Labor Department 2017 survey found we spend ten hours a day on personal care (including sleep). We’re not as busy as we say we are. No, we get caught up doing other things, and that is precisely what caused the invited guests to turn down a great chance to celebrate love with the Lord. Help your parishioners to see that we are guilty of that too.

The sermon should close with a celebration of the fact that the unworthy are invited to this love feast. Help the flock to see that we are those not first invited. If it seems wise to address questions about the guest not properly attired being judged, John Wesley’s contention that the proper wedding garments is a reference to “the righteousness of Christ” (Commentary On the Bible, p.419) is a most helpful comment. We who are invited to the party thrown by the Lord are not there because of who we are, but the faith in Christ which properly clothes us and covers our sin provides our entrée and worthiness to be God’s guest. The guests of God are clearly not present in accord with the regular expectations one would have of a guest. But defying human expectations is God’s style. All the lessons for this Sunday make clear.

All of these texts invite sermons celebrating a God who is present among us in ways we might not usually expect.  And in reflecting on this God and his wonderful ways, we find happiness and joy.
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