Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 18 October 2020.
• First Reading: Exodus 33: 12-23 (Moses’ request to the Lord: show me Your glory)
• Psalm 99
• Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 (God has chosen them; the gospel came to them with words and power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction)
• Gospel: Matthew 22: 15-22 (Pharisees try to trap Jesus: what about tribute to Caesar? Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s)
I suppose that there are many expressions of glory and achievement. For some it is the amassing of great wealth, or the ownership of a wonderful house, prominently located with gardens and interior fittings and decoration to match.
For others the collection of public honours and preferments. Then there is the art collection and the most fashionable car – or is it aeroplane?
Yet for Moses the question was about the glory of God. Moses had already been serving the Lord as he brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and had confronted Pharaoh and he knew the effectiveness of prayer, especially when in desperate times.
Now he was looking for something else as he asked to see the glory of God. No, said the Lord. You can hear My Name and you can see My back but to see the face would be too much. You cannot bear it just now.
This would be a vision of a real glory. One that is from everlasting to everlasting. Other glories crumble, collapse or fade. Names and reputations change, property becomes out of date or just tawdry, even money loses its value through inflation.
The value of possessions changes as market fashions and preferences change, and so in this world, there is no reliable place to store wealth and to protect reputations.
But then Moses and the Lord were talking about something far more durable and which would outlast all sources of decay and destruction.
The Lord would show Moses as much as he could bear and as much as he could comprehend. The rest would have to wait until the fulness of his days.
But then there was Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica – today’s Salonica.
Here Paul was saying that it was the Christians in the town themselves that were signs of the glory of God. They knew that they were not perfect but Paul was seeing something else. Their lives and their fellowship, their worship and their love for one another were themselves beacons in a dreary landscape.
Even in times of trouble they were standing firm in the faith that held them together and which now defined who they were and what they stood for.
But Paul was writing about more than what wonderful people the Thessalonians were. There was more going on for there was also a work of the Holy Spirit.
This was and still is the personal spirit of Jesus Christ in action within and among the people. But the Holy Spirit is a perfect gentleman and does not act mightily where he is not wanted. Here the Holy Spirit was being welcomed by the people as a whole, and as a believing and worshipping community.
And this was far more than about seeing some miracles in the street or charismatic worship in church. It was about a people who together had a life that proclaimed the glory of God.
This was a glory that other people could see and admire and respond to. It was there as they loved one another and as they found their way through the thickets and minefields of everyday life in a culture that was hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was a light in a dark place and a clear sound amid noise and cacophony. Harmony of relations amid a tumult of brutishness and ignorance, indifference and callousness.
And Paul was indeed proud of them.
Then we have the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus. You would think from their particularly obsequious approach to Jesus that something unpleasant was on the way, and it came to the fore very quickly.
An attempt to trap Jesus over rival loyalties: Caesar of the Lord.
Jesus’ reply was to say that each had their legitimate place in society and in peoples’ lives.
Caesar had a definite right to issue coinage and to collect taxes. His regime provided peace in the streets and safeguarded the people from marauders.
But there were limits and no Caesar or other civil authority has the right to impose itself on the realm of God. Sadly, history has only too many accounts of regimes that sought to play God and to demand the loyalty and worship that belong to Him alone.
And yes, there are regimes in the world that do exactly this today.
Maybe this is why I have found something profoundly disconcerting in the prohibition of public worship at a time when other gatherings were free to debate as much as they liked and without any evident two metre spacing.
If this was supported by science then the science would be open and subject to peer review and to development by other scientists with other data sets, theories and means of measuring their phenomena.
History tells of may regimes, powerful and mighty in their day which crumbled in time.
Shelley’s poem about Ozymandias is especially apt. Regimes that obstruct the people of God in rendering to God what belongs to God will not do so with impunity.
Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.