Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on Sept. 25, 2011
Is the Lord Among Us or Not?
One of the things I love about reading the Bible is the realization that people haven’t changed all that much. From the time of Moses, through the days Jesus walked among us, to today, human nature has been pretty consistent.
Take the Israelites, for instance. The passage we read today occurs after the plagues that forced the Egyptians to release the Israelites; after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian soldiers drowned; after God showed Moses how to sweeten bitter water; after God fed the people with manna and quail. The people have had ample demonstration that God is guiding Moses to provide for God’s chosen people.
But the very next time they have a need and do not see an immediate remedy, they forget what God has done through Moses and they accuse Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die of thirst.
Can you blame Moses for asking God, “What shall I do with this people? They’re ready to stone me!”
We can do a 180 and look at the story from an ordinary Israelite’s point of view, and Moses and Aaron come off as not always dependable, especially after that euphoric moment when they crossed the sea and their enemies were stopped. Once they were in the wilderness, the people didn’t get these miracles until they complained long and loud about Moses’ leadership. You notice Moses didn’t ask for God’s help until the people were ready to stone him. Who’s the stubborn one?
Figuring out the best way to lead and the best way to follow has been a problem for humanity since the dawn of time. I used to think of history as a continuum of progress, human beings learning from their ancestors and predecessors, aided by the spread of wisdom through written, as well as oral, communication.
But in the 21st century, we’re still dealing with the same struggles. A traditionalist would call it sin. A psychologist would call it the human condition. Today, in our American society, we’d call it, “just politics.”
How do people act as “a people” to meet their needs and how do leaders lead them? How do we all follow God’s will to accomplish that?
That’s why I cherish the UCC slogan, “God is still speaking.” God is still speaking through these scriptures, because we’re still having the same kind of problems. And God is still speaking through people like Moses and the writer of Matthew and Paul and the people to whom he sent his letters. And people like us.
Lets take the Matthew passage. The chief priests who question Jesus’s authority have based their own authority on an assertion very similar to statements made by Moses and Aaron: That is, when you complain to us about our leadership, you are really complaining about God.
That’s why I was so intrigued by the decision of the lectionary folks to pair the Exodus and Matthew scriptures in the same week’s reading. In Exodus, Moses and Aaron ARE God’s instruments. In Matthew, the priests only THINK they are God’s instruments, or maybe they know they’re not, which is why they’re so touchy about Jesus.
In both passages, the question is “by what authority do you do these things?” In the words of the Israelites in Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Or other ways of asking it, “Are your words and actions from God or not?” “Should we listen to you or follow your leadership as having God’s authority or not?”
We readers of the Matthew story have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story. When the priests challenged Jesus, we know they were challenging God as directly as any person ever could. But they didn’t know that. They seemed quite certain of their own authority. They probably felt confident they could trace their lineage straight back to Aaron himself, even though plenty of people then and now would say they were lackeys hand-picked by the Romans.
In fact, Jesus (and Matthew, in the telling of it) turns their question of authority right back on them. He asks them about the source of the authority of John the Baptist.
The description of the chief priests’ and elders’ dilemma brings another element into the question: The crowd. The people have already determined for themselves that John’s baptism and his authority are from God. If the priests dismiss his actions as not from God, they’re afraid of what the crowd will do.
The crowd. Jesus describes the followers of John — and by implication the followers of Jesus himself — as tax collectors and prostitutes. Isn’t it amazing that these powerful chief priests, appointed by the Roman emperor or his agents, would be afraid of tax collectors and prostitutes? Kinda reminds you of the people who were about to stone Moses if he didn’t ask God to find some water, doesn’t it?
OK, so how does anyone determine that a leader who professes to speak for God really is speaking for God? Jesus gives us a pretty good benchmark with his parable of the two sons. One says he won’t do his father’s will, but then changes his mind and goes and does it. The other is very respectful of his father and says the right thing. But he doesn’t do it.
If the question had been, “which son has shown the proper respect for his father?” some people would take the words at face value, especially if they were spoken in public, or, say, on TV. They would say the second son showed the proper respect.
But Jesus didn’t ask about how things appeared, or what the motivation was of the two sons. He asked which son did what the father wanted done.
We’re locked into just such a contrast at the moment. We hear a lot of politicians and other opinion leaders saying they honor God and are speaking for God, but their actions do not match their words. Jesus tells us, in this Matthew passage, that the actions are what counts. And even those without honor — prostitutes and tax collectors — can tell the difference between the empty rhetoric of the chief priests and elders and the message of John and Jesus.
I’ll read that part again where Jesus says to the chief priests: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Notice the translation is not “believe IN him.” But just “believe him.” John’s message was to repent, because another one greater than he was coming. The priests didn’t believe it. The people did, especially the people who had little or no power and no honor or respect in society. They saw and they believed and they changed. And they “are going into the kingdom of God” before the chief priests.
Are going. I used to interpret such passages as indicating they’ll go to heaven after they die. But Jesus is talking in the present tense, not after they die. Right here, right now. They’re going right now into the kingdom, which Jesus said was “at hand.”
That has been an evolving understanding for me, that the kingdom of God is here right now. Not completely — for if it were all accomplished, we would not be praying to God every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
But in those instances where God’s will is being done, God’s kingdom is there — that day in the temple with the chief priests disputing with Jesus as the crowd looks on, as well as here today, when, despite sin and the human condition and “just politics,” when people manage to do God’s will.
In those instances, the answer to the Israelites’ question of, “Is God here among us or not?” The answer is, “Yes. God is among us.” we are going into the kingdom.
Paul, in his letter to the people at Philippi, gives us some more clues on how to judge who has God’s authority and how God is acting among us.
If the peope have “any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,” they will show it by “having the same love [as Jesus].” They will be “in full accord and of one mind.” They will “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than themselves.”
In the kingdom of God, each person “looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Here is the perfect description of doing God’s will, of demonstrating “God among us”:
Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
You want to know the one whose authority comes from God? Look for the person who does not exploit the name of God, but accepts the servanthood of others, who looks to the welfare of others before his or her own power and honor and glory.
I find one glaring irony resulting from this passage about Paul’s understanding of Jesus and God’s kingdom: that in such close proximity to an expression of awe at Jesus’s humility — that he emptied himself — some demagogues take the next description of honoring Jesus as a demand that all people bow their knees to one single (and not necessarily accurate) understanding of the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Sometimes I fear that such people who are so certain of their own authority — and their own interpretation of Christianity — are more like the chief
priests and the elders in Matthew than they are Moses or Jesus or Paul.
When we see someone who does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than themselves, someone who looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others, then we see, in the words of Paul, “God who is at work in that person enabling that someone both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
Then we can say, “yes, the Lord is among us,” right here, right now, in the kingdom of God.
Praise God. Amen.