Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 20 September 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 16: 2-15 (The people grumbled for meat – Manna from heaven)
• Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45
• Epistle: Philippians 1: 21-30 (To live is Christ, to die is gain. Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ)
• Gospel: Matthew 20: 1-16 (The last will be first and the first will be last)
It was a desperate situation and the people grumbled. Yet it was also a time when they were coming together. The things that held them together varied: kinship, the shared experiences of slavery, and of their deliverance from it.
But there were also their attitudes to things: the ways they understood and responded to those experiences, and to Moses. There were the ways in which they saw themselves and in which they saw God.
As they struggled through the rugged wildernesses and deserts, they were both coming together and drifting apart. They may not have known too much about Moses but they understood what he represented.
They knew that he was offering an alternative to the task-masters and slave-drivers. But beyond that they were pretty mixed.
Perhaps it is not surprising that some of them still yearned for what was familiar, even if it was limited. And so as their times challenged them they came to complaint and murmuring.
The deliverance from Egypt and their crossing of the Red Sea were all very well, but they were still hungry and on their own. So just how much would they trust Moses and the Lord whom he served?
It was at this low point – one of many – that Moses cried out to God. The people were rebellious and might turn against him in earnest. How was he going to provide food in the wilderness?
This is the point when God was going to show that He was far more than a deity demanding loyalty and worship but would offer nothing in return. The fertility cults, the life cults and the death cults did not offer love or belonging, they did not meet the people in their need, or relate to them in personal terms.
Yet this was where the Lord was going to do something new. He would feed His people even as He guided them through the wilderness.
He would feed the faithful and the undeserving, the strong and the weak, those who loved and those who were utterly selfish. All would find the Lord’s provision.
Yet in finding it some would see and perceive, they would hear and understand. Others would be dull and inward-looking, knowing only their own hunger and appetites.
But in the midst of the wilderness and to a largely ungrateful people, still ignorant of who was leading them, God provided food in abundance, and all the people had to do was to go out and get it.
Sinai and the law, the 10 commandments and the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, even the temple were all in the future.
Then there is Jesus’ parable of the Kingdom, this time about the workers in the vineyard.
It was harvest time and the vineyard owner was looking for casual labour, and so went out to hire some.
The keenest were already there first thing in the morning. They knew how to bargain and did so, and they agreed the standard daily rate. So off they went. Maybe not too many but some. Certainly not enough.
And so the vineyard owner went out again, and again and again and again, even at an hour before evening drew in. The vineyard owner was determined to send as many workers as he could into the harvest-field.
Those who went first knew what they were getting. But those who came later did not and could only trust the vineyard owner. They could not bargain a full day’s work and so had to rely on his generosity.
And this is the point. We may imagine we can bargain with God but we can’t. There have been times when people have prayed in deliverance and made promises which God has respected.
But the truth is that no we cannot bargain with God. We can only throw ourselves upon His mercy, and receive His provision as He gives it.
Perhaps the surprising thing is that God does indeed hear our prayers and at times moves very speedily to answer them. I can certainly remember a time when I needed a taxi, as I had a load of items to deliver. No sooner was the prayer uttered than the answer was 50 yards away and approaching me. ‘Before they call, I shall answer and while they are still speaking I will hear’ – Isaiah 65:24.
There is this sense in which the Lord looks to our needs rather than to our deserts. We come before Him trusting in His Fatherhood and not just as if we were in a negotiation for a contract or some form of collective bargaining.
This is a relationship of love and not of deserts, or wages. But there is something else which we can overlook. The children of Israel were chosen for a purpose that would last as long as the earth sustained life. They would show forth the kind of Lord who we serve.
But the vineyard owner also had a purpose for hiring the labour – namely to bring in a harvest and he would use anyone willing to go out to do it.
In the same way, He looks to the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples also to work in the vineyard and at the right time, to bring in a harvest. Maybe not too fussy about who goes, so long as they – that is, we – go and go faithfully.