Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 27 September 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 17: 1-7 (Children of Israel in the wilderness. Strike the rock and water will flow)
• Psalm 79: 1-4, 12-16
• Epistle: Philippians 2: 1-13 (In humility value others above yourselves, not looking for your own interests but to the interests of the others)
• Gospel: Matthew 21: 23-32 (John came to show you the way of righteousness and the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, but you did not)
One of the strange aspects of our time is the way our sense of community and of individuality have been scrambled. We are critically aware of the NHS and our debt to those who work in it, and then we are also perhaps more critical than anything else, when it comes to responding to the instructions – or is it the orders – of those whom we have elected to govern us.
Then at another level there is the sense of self, of family and of neighbour. The self is something we can understand but its social and moral context has changed, and so has our sense of the family, especially when we are at some distance from them.
Finally, there is the neighbour: love your neighbour as yourself, or is it, compete with him for whatever is going and otherwise distrust him as a possible carried of the virus?
So our sense of self, the community and the church have all changed.
It is worth keeping this in mind as we look at today’s lessons.
First there are the children of Israel, happy to be out of Egypt but hot, thirsty and querulous. Moses is desperate, again as he seeks guidance on what to do.
But at least Moses is still with the project. He still has that personal relationship with God to whom he can bring his troubles and he still believes, passionately, in the Promised Land.
The project of the Exodus is a project of God – His plan, His purposes, His guidance and deliverance. At Sinai, they would find that God has a vision for the life of the Children of Israel as a community of kinsfolk.
They would have common values and a common worship, a loyalty and a sense of who they are like none other.
But first they must learn to trust, and to trust radically. In the wilderness, life without water would be short and the frailest would succumb first: the eldest and the youngest. Survival would go hand in hand with their faith and their trust in God who had delivered them so far.
Then there is the gospel lesson in which Jesus was challenging the religious leaders of Israel.
This time they were deeply embedded in the culture of Israel, the laws, the prophets, the psalms, and the worship of the synagogue and the temple.
But the project of God was still there, but it was being expressed in a new way. This time God was visiting the people in the details of their lives. This time they could see and hear Him, listen to His teaching, watch His healings, observe how He dealt with opposition and criticism.
The project of God was being renewed before their own eyes and in their hearing.
And it would not just be about talk. It would lead to action and costly action at that.
But right now Jesus was challenging the leaders on their own responses to the things of God. Were they just routines to be repeated or was this a life to be lived?
What was really first and foremost in their thinking and loyalty? Survival and gaining the advantage over rivals and even neighbours? Or the things of justice and the holiness of God, found in the details of everyday life and relationships?
Just where were the people and their leaders when it came to the Kingdom of God? And so Jesus’ comment that tax collectors – that is collaborators and corrupt officials, and prostitutes and the morally suspect or compromised, would come behind the religiously satisfied as they humbled themselves before God.
It brings us back to the epistle in which Paul puts the focus on Jesus and on Him alone.
Jesus’ commitment to the project of God was total and unquestioned. He was willing not only to lay aside the honour and the glory of heaven, but to accept human life upon the earth.
This was a life lived day to day and meeting all the temptations known to the people of His time. This was no fleeting appearance of an angel. It was a daily, total commitment.
And having done that, He would proclaim the Kingdom of God, in word and deed and in who He was. He would teach the people, heal the sick, raise the dead and challenge the conventions and the religious clichés of the time, including those who promoted them.
He would accept the opposition that this aroused and He would challenge those who resisted Him even when the forces of the state and the culture were ranged against Him.
And yes, He would follow the path before Him knowing that it would lead to the cross. And He would do it without wavering.
But Paul’s point is that what Jesus could do, we could imitate. Where Jesus led, we could follow. The way Jesus prayed would be the pattern for us.
And His total and unwavering trust in God to raise Him up on the third day is what has given Him the name above all others. And all knees would indeed bend for and to Him.