Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 15 October 2017.
I wonder how often we have accepted an imitation in place of the real thing.
As children we saw plenty of dolls in place of babies and plenty of plastic guns rather than the real thing. There was table tennis to take the place of tennis played on a full-sized court and table football, again as a domestic down-sizing of the game on a full-sized pitch.
These substitutes seem to be harmless enough, but what about false news, pandering to our own prejudices instead of researched and substantiated accounts? What about the use of assertion and emotion in place of reasoned argument based on tested and justified data?
These substitutes are perhaps more dangerous, especially when they become propaganda as opposed to peer-reviewed research.
So the emotions behind the Israelites are not quite so off-scale as we may suppose as they demanded gods to be made for them when Moses had disappeared up the mountain.
The people had lost control and become discouraged, so they asked Aaron to fit in with their plans and fantasies. Sadly, Aaron had given in and manufactured for them a god, or an image of a god as if this could be contrived from a furnace and a mould.
“Give us gods” – “OK, here they are. You can serve them, pray to them and of course be manipulated by their priests and clergy.”
If you cannot and will not wait for and wait on the real thing, then here is something that you may hope will do instead. It may mislead you, it may dominate you and control you, but if not the real thing then a substitute – any kind of substitute really will have to do. But we do not know what its agenda is or how it may usurp your imaginations or fantasies or self-generated stories.
It is easy to feel superior to the Israelites in the desert – until we realize that the same dangers of fabricating God in our own image are as real as ever.
And yet there is a God, a real God who answers with fire and meets us in the depths of our needs and sorrows, according to His plans and priorities and not our own self-generated demands.
But then there is another set of principles within Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In a time when there were so many distractions around – the games and the petty gods and their officials, the taxes and the latest executions, who in Caesar’s court is up or down or out – the Philippians needed to know how to respond to the barrage of distraction around them. And they did not even have TV to really set them on edge.
So Paul gave them alternatives to the endless and sometimes rather fruitless discussions on theology.
Is there something lovely that you can take pleasure in? A garden, a sunset, a piece of music, the grace and beauty of a person’s manner especially when talking to people who are themselves troubled or demanding or just plain angry?
Is there a word of wisdom that seems so perfect for its situation? Or a public figure who seems to give genuine inspiration without hidden agenda?
There are indeed many wonderful things around to enjoy and admire – and where they are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, then let them indeed be honoured.
This brings me to Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. The custom was that guests were invited to the banquet well in advance and had the opportunity to prepare for it.
When the host had prepared all, the guests were summoned and were expected to attend. And so Jesus presented it as an image of the coming heavenly banquet, especially prepared for the children of Israel.
In this parable the host expected the guests to be ready and waiting for the summons which could come at any moment. But rather than this they had their own interests and preoccupations.
The messengers were the prophets of old, who were serially abused, rejected, beaten and killed.
In another version of this parable, the guests were more interested in their new wife, land, or oxen: in fact, anything but the wedding feast.
But the prevalence of the people’s own agendas was clear enough.
And so the invitation was passed to others, who could never have expected to receive it, and they came, unprepared and indeed not knowing what to expect. But they came and accepted the host’s hospitality as he gave it – including a garment issued to the guests who were being received. To appear without this garment would be a deep insult to the host, and suggest one not ready to accept the hospitality as it was offered.
Hence the man’s ejection from the event.
For us, these three lessons point to the importance of discerning what is true and rejecting what is not.
It is about waiting for that which is of God and not conjuring up something of our own.
Above all, like the advertisement for a certain soft drink, it is looking for the real thing and being satisfied with nothing less.