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Proper 23 / Ordinary Time 28 / Pentecost 19

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VIII, Cycle A
Theme For The Day
The only antidote to idolatry is proper worship.

Old Testament Lesson
Exodus 32:1-14
The Israelites Worship The Golden Calf
Moses delays coming down from the mountain, and the people clamor for something to worship. Aaron gives in to their pleadings, organizing a collection of gold jewelry and forging from their offerings the idol of a golden calf (verses 1-4a). "These are your gods, O Israel," say the people to one another, "who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (v. 4b) -- a statement not only blatantly idolatrous but historically untrue. The plural ("gods," not "god") is a reference to the pantheon of Canaanite deities. Aaron constructs an altar, and the people make sacrifices before the image then engage in a riotous feast (verses 5-6). The Lord, seeing the people's idolatry, alerts Moses to the situation and promises to consume the people with "white-hot" wrath (verses 7-10). God is not angry with Moses and promises to make of him "a great nation" -- which means God will still be able to keep from violating the covenant with Abraham and can destroy the people with impunity. Moses, however, pleads with the Lord on Israel's behalf, saying how embarrassed God would feel if the Egyptians were to learn the people had perished, abandoned by the God who had led them out. Moses also reminds the Lord of the covenant (verses 11-13). "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people" (v. 14). This is a classic passage about idolatry and could form the basis for a sermon about recognizing modern-day idols in our midst. One feature of this story that is not always mentioned is that Aaron forges the idol from the offerings of the people. This aspect could form the basis of a stewardship sermon -- about the dangers of confusing our offerings for anything other than what they are, a tool for ministry. How easy it is to worship the product of the labor of our hands!

New Testament Lesson
Philippians 4:1-9
Rejoice In The Lord Always
Ready to wrap up his letter, Paul moves on to give some closing exhortations. The first verse actually belongs to the end of the preceding pericope -- encouragement to "stand firm in the Lord" (v. 1). The apostle urges two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to "be of the same mind in the Lord" (v. 2). We know little about these women, except that they were significant leaders in the Philippian church (Paul refers to them as his "fellow-workers"), and they had had some kind of falling-out with each other. Twice, Paul repeats the encouragement to "rejoice in the Lord" (v. 4). The "gentleness" (epieikes) he encourages these Christians to show is an extraordinarily rich and hard-to-translate term (v. 5). It is sometimes translated "forbearance." It has to do with moderation in administering justice with flexibility in applying the law, sensitive to the complexities of human life. "The Lord is near," Paul writes, so do not give in to worry (verses 5b-6a). He encourages "prayer and supplication" as an antidote to worry but reminds the people that it should be accompanied with thanksgiving (v. 6). The next verse, well-known in Christian liturgy as a benediction, holds forth a mystery -- "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" -- without seeking to explain it (v. 7). Verse 8 is one of those cascading Pauline lists that include a multitude of rich words: "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..." These are the sorts of things that make life worth living, and Paul encourages his readers to "think on these things" -- to focus their minds on God's goodness, rather than the things that lead to disillusionment and despair. We do have a great deal of choice in life concerning what we consciously think about, and that choice will make a great difference with respect to how thoroughly we can fulfill the command of verse 4, to "rejoice in the Lord."

The Gospel
Matthew 22:1-14
The Parable Of The Wedding Feast
Continuing in this series of parables, Jesus tells the story of a king who throws a lavish wedding banquet for his son. He sends word to his invited guests, announcing that the feast is prepared, but -- incredibly -- they all fail to come (verses 1-5). Then, as now, an invitation to a royal wedding was not only a treasured mark of prestige but something of a command performance. It's inconceivable that every guest would shun the king's invitation -- and, not only that, that they would torture and kill the king's messengers (v. 6). The king's retribution is swift and harsh, leading to the utter destruction of these cruel and callous subjects (v. 7). The king is determined to go on with the wedding feast, and so he sends out a general invitation to everyone, filling the banquet hall with guests "both good and bad" (verses 8-10). One guest has arrived without the wedding robe the king's servants would have distributed with the invitation -- a simple, white garment that was de rigeur for such an occasion. The king orders that this rude and ungrateful guest be cast into the outer darkness (verses 11-13). "For many are called, but few are chosen" (v. 14). William Barclay tells of two rabbinic parables that were commonly known at the time, which may well have been on the mind of Jesus and his listeners. The first, similar both to this one and to the parable of the wise and foolish young women, has to do with some guests invited to a banquet but were awaiting the summons to appear. Some waited eagerly, while others went off to work and were unready when the call came. The second is the story of a king who distributed wedding garments to all his guests; some kept them carefully for the feast, while others wore them to work and ruined them. The implication of the second story is that the festal garments are like the human soul and we must return them to God unsoiled and intact (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, in the Daily Study Bible series [Westminster, 1975], p. 270). To these stories, Jesus adds the detail of the king's general invitation to fill the places vacated by the unfaithful -- including, presumably, the Gentiles. Jesus' invitation is one of radical openness, extended to every member of the human race. When we do finally come to him, he expects us to come in reverent and grateful worship, not with casual disdain.

Preaching Possibilities
There came a time, in the story of the Exodus, when Moses put his brother Aaron in charge and ascended the mountain to commune with God. That's when the trouble started.

People started coming up to Aaron, offering generous compliments: "Oh, Aaron, you look so good standing there with your staff!"

"You definitely have it, my man -- that air of authority!"

"If you ask me, you're doing a better job than that brother of yours. Your speeches are certainly more interesting. He's so grim and gloomy all the time, withdrawing into his tent to pray. You really know how to get out there with the people, kissing babies and pressing the flesh."

It isn't long before the compliments offered to Aaron mutate into requests for favors. Then it happens, the simple request that amounts to the biggest favor of them all: "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us..."

Aaron calls over one of his top aides. "How are we doing in the polls this week?"

"Not so good, boss. Honeymoon's over. You've slipped a few percentage points. Gotta do something to get that razzle-dazzle back."

"Well," says Aaron to himself, "what's the harm in it? It's only a statue. A little morale-booster. If it makes 'em happy, why not?"

So, Aaron calls for the golden earrings -- probably, in those days before coins, a family's life savings. He establishes the "Friends of Israel Leadership Roundtable," complete with "Golden Patrons," "Benefactors," "Sustaining Members," "Members," and "Friends" (special discounts, of course, for Students and Senior Citizens). The gold comes rolling in so fast, you'd hardly know this is a bunch of former slaves.

Aaron personally melts the jewelry down, calls for the goldsmiths, and before you can say "spin doctor," there it is -- the finest golden calf you ever did see.

The book of Exodus tells what happens next: "They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel."

Don't you just love that phrase, "rose up to revel"? It calls to mind the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie, The Ten Commandments. There's old Edward G. Robinson, trading his gangster's fedora for a burnoose. He's playing Dathan -- a minor character in the Old Testament. Good ol' Cecil B. whomps Dathan up into a composite bad guy, symbol of everything that's wrong with the wandering Hebrews: the short memory, the chronic complaining, the yearning for the fleshpots of Egypt. In the film, Dathan single-handedly incites the crowd to demand of Aaron a golden calf; then joins in a wild, bangle-jangling dance. It's 1950s Hollywood's idea of biblical decadence -- pretty tame by today's standards -- but back then it must have seemed like some wild party!

There's only one problem with DeMille's cinematic version of the golden-calf story, any idiot watching the film can tell the good guys from the bad guys. Edward G. Robinson is so deliciously smarmy, and the worship of the golden calf so much like the mother of all drunken frat parties that anybody watching that scene can say with absolute confidence, "I would never be so stupid!"

However, that's not the way idolatry typically is. John Calvin calls the human race "a perpetual factory of idols" -- and he's not referring to golden statues of livestock. Someone once said, "Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used and using anything that ought to be worshiped." Plenty of things fit that definition: things that are real, bona fide temptations for us twenty-first century Christians.

Did you catch what Aaron says in the Exodus story about why he wants to make a golden calf? "Tomorrow," he announces, "shall be a festival to the Lord." (The word "Lord," of course, is English-Bible shorthand for "Yahweh," proper name of the God of Israel.)

Yes, you heard him right. Contrary to what you may have been taught about this story, Aaron's not calling the people to worship some god other than Yahweh -- not directly, anyway.

He's just accommodating to the culture, trying to make the faith a little more intelligible.

As do we contemporary Christians, very often. Let's domesticate God a little, we think to ourselves. Let's replace those complicated old hymns with praise choruses -- innocuous little jingles that, if you changed the words, could just as easily sell toothpaste as praise the Lord. Let's get rid of all those negative-sounding prayers, the confessions of sin and such. They're bad for self-esteem.

While we're at it, let's be sure we have a convenient God. That's what the people of Israel are looking for. "Come, make gods for us who shall go before us," the people demand -- gods who will be at their beck and call. Really, a golden calf is so much more convenient than some disembodied voice, saying, "I am that I am." Why, you can pack a golden calf right up and take it wherever you want to go!

While we're at it, let's lose the talk about God being "king" and "judge" and "ruler of heaven and earth." Let's transform the Lord, instead, into our "co-pilot," our buddy, our chum. Of course, this congenial God will always be on our side, no matter what we do. That's because -- we have it on good authority -- God thinks just like we do. Ain't it so?

Not so. Not according to Isaiah, anyway, who writes, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).

There's nothing convenient about the God of Israel. This God cannot be confined in any project or production of our own making but comes and goes unexpectedly. We are made in God's own image -- not the other way around. This transforming God also remakes us, says the prophet Malachi, as a silversmith picks up a dented, tarnished vessel and melts it down in the hottest of fires, bringing out, in time, a shiny new creation (Malachi 3:3).

What the people ask Aaron to give them in Moses' absence -- a portable God who will go before them, wherever they may wander -- is simply impossible. The God of Israel is utterly sovereign and free.

The most dangerous idolatries are not those that rise up in statues of gold, as pagan deities, but rather those that clothe themselves in institutions and values we generally consider good -- like patriotism.

Most of us have come to a new awareness, in these post-9/11 days, of how wonderful it is to fly the flag and celebrate those values that have made our country great. Yet at the same time, we ought to be extremely careful that patriotism (a good thing) doesn't lead us into bad things: like suspending constitutional rights, or waging war preemptively against people who have not attacked us.

Another value we all consider good is prosperity -- something we as a people have enjoyed a great deal of in recent decades. Yet not all profits are worth earning. If profit leads any of us to cheat or steal, or to trample on the poor so a few might become rich, or to compromise ethical principles, then financial profit will have become for us a false god.

Another potentially idolatrous value is health. We live in a highly paradoxical situation in our culture. On the one hand, we have the most advanced health-care technologies on earth; yet on the other, large numbers of people in our land cannot access those technologies because they lack insurance coverage. Doctors are the highest paid professionals in our society; yet that's not true in all societies. In Finland, for example (a nation that has an excellent health-care system, by the way), doctors are paid roughly the same amount as elementary-school teachers. That's because the Finns place equal value on improving life for the young, on nurturing them to become productive members of society, as they do on prolonging life for the elderly.

Patriotism... prosperity... health -- all these are good things. Everyone would agree they all represent values worth nurturing and protecting. Yet the lesson of the golden calf is that each of these good things also has the potential to be abused -- to be forged into an idol and set up as an object of worship.

Remember, in collecting the wealth of Israel and forging it into an object of worship, Aaron thought he was doing the right thing. He thought he was leading his fellow Israelites to deeper faith in the one, true God. What he was doing, instead, was setting up a rival demigod.

The potential is there for us to do the same with so many things in this God-created world that have positive value. The difficulty arises when we fixate on those intermediate goals, to the exclusion of our ultimate goal, which is union with God.

The only way to prevent this kind of confusion is to worship. To gather regularly as the body of Christ, to open ourselves expectantly to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to offer up praises to the one true God -- to do these things is to continue to set our eyes on the only entity in the whole universe who's worthy of pure praise. Direct that sort of ultimate praise at any lesser thing, even at something having positive value, and you begin down a road that leads only to sin and death. Neither patriotism, nor prosperity, nor health -- nor anything else that is of this world -- will save us in the end. Only faith in God -- whom we come to know through Jesus Christ, God's Son -- can do that.

Prayer For The Day
Great God,
in all that we do --
in all our giving,
all our living,
all our loving --
may we honor nothing and no one
that does not come from your generous hand.
When, in life, we do praise lesser things,
may we never forget
the greatest gift,
the gift that dwarfs all others:
the relationship we have with you,
through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

To Illustrate
There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the god of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshiped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy.... These transitory gods are not able to save or bring happiness to the human heart. Only God is able. It is faith in him that we must rediscover.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.

***

Anybody remember the old TV game show, Let's Make a Deal? Monty Hall, the host, would pick a contestant out of the studio audience -- usually the one wearing the most bizarre costume -- and would offer the person something for nothing. Then, the fun began. Monty would offer the contestant a "deal": a trade, in other words, for something the player couldn't see. There was always an element of risk to it: "Would you like to keep the bedroom set, Mrs. Jones, or would you prefer to trade it for whatever is behind the curtain where Carol Merrill is now standing?"

The audience would wait with breathless anticipation. Would Mrs. Jones stand fast with the prize she'd already won or would she risk it all, hoping to bag the "big deal"?

It's almost as though Monty Hall had walked into the Sinai Desert and stuck a microphone in the faces of the wandering Israelites: "Okay, Israelites, have I got a deal for you! I'm going to give you this statue of a calf, exquisitely crafted in 24-karat gold by the house of Aaron. Just look at these fine lines, that intelligent face -- a beautiful and functional item, perfect for home or apartment! And not only that, we're going to throw in a year's supply of metal polish!

Now... let's make a deal! Do you want to keep the golden calf or would you prefer to trade it for whatever Moses has behind the curtain of cloud on the mountaintop? You have but a few moments to decide, Israel... so what'll it be: the calf or the cloud?"

It's no contest. Israel (as we all know) chooses the calf. Who wants to risk it all for whatever that crazy fanatic Moses is cooking up on the mountaintop, when down here we've got the most beautiful piece of devotional sculpture -- in solid gold, no less? And besides, you know what they say... a golden calf in the hand is worth two in the bush!

***

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior devil, Screwtape, write this advice to his eager young apprentice, Wormwood:

"You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided the cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light and out into the nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins, 2001), p. 60

***

In the classic film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, an English officer, played by Alec Guinness, is in command of a band of Allied prisoners of war. He and his men have been forced into slave labor in Southeast Asia. Their task is to build a wooden railroad bridge across a remote jungle river -- an all-but-impossible task for that weary, demoralized band, who have been driven there on a death-march through the jungle by their Japanese captors.

Yet, even amidst the humid horror of the slave-labor camp, the senior British officer is a civilized man. He believes in principles like pride and honor. He inspires his men to excel in their backbreaking task. Finally, after months of trial and tribulation (and after watching many of their comrades die), the POWs complete the bridge.

It is a marvel of engineering. The prisoners have built it so well, the Allies have to organize an expedition to blow it up; and when they finally succeed, the British POW commander is outraged. How dare they try to blow up his bridge!

Then comes the awful moment of realization. The Alec Guinness character discovers he has lost perspective. What had begun as a morale-building exercise for weary troops has become collaboration with the enemy. "My God," he asks, "what have I done?"

Idols come in many shapes and sizes -- even in the outline and proportions of a bridge!

***

There is a Jewish story about a rich miser who visited a rabbi. The rabbi took the man to the window and asked him what he saw, as he looked over the village. "Men, women, and children," he replied.

Then the rabbi took him over to a mirror. "Now, what do you see?"

"I see myself."

"Exactly," said the rabbi. "Behold, in the window there is glass; behold, in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with silver; and no sooner is silver added than you cease to see others and see only yourself."
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When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.  Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (vv. 50-53)

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by Peter Andrew Smith
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