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22nd October 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
20 October 2017

Readings

Exodus 33: 12-23

Maurice Andrew notes that Moses is still unsure of God’s presence on the journey. [1]

Perhaps in putting Moses in the cleft in the rock until God has passed by we have a metaphor for the reality that, although we cannot look straight at God, the divine presence with us can be determined in the journey we have travelled. 

How many times have we felt the ‘glory of God’ in a sunset, the moment that the day passes, or looked back at the difficult decisions we have made to achieve satisfying and enriching results and felt the presence of God in those decisions.

Matthew 22: 15-22

The disciples of the Pharisees along with the Herodians ask Jesus about the legality of paying taxes to Rome.  This tax was a direct tax or tribute, often paid in kind, and levied on land including crops and livestock and on personal property.  This was the way Rome subjugated its empire, paid the costs of empire and accumulated wealth.  Through the first century, in Judea and Syria and in other parts of the empire, resentment against taxes at times boiled over into tax revolts. [2]

The tribute had to be paid in Roman coinage and there was also resentment about carrying Roman coins among Jews because they had the image of Caesar as god on them which of course was prohibited in the Decalogue. 

Sermon

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21)  That could be one of the most famous of all anecdotes told about Jesus and one that is frequently misunderstood.  Bill Loader suggests that it lends itself to justifying a separation of religion and the activity of commerce and government.[3]  However we could also profitably understand it as a recognition that Christians exist within a wider community and as they benefit from the structure of that community they should also contribute to it.  That fits what we understand of Jesus’ vision of ‘the kingdom of God’ which is both a present and future reality that Jesus’ followers lived into reality.  ‘The kingdom of God’ is not something that comes into being through violent revolution but by law abiding citizens loving their neighbours, offering healing and hope.  

Furthermore, giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s is not about setting up an inclusive Christian community and shunning the rest of the world.  It is not about refusing to vote or avoiding civic responsibilities.  It is about being part of your community, facing up to the responsibility of living collectively but making a better job of it than most people. 

In Jesus’ time people resented Roman taxes.  Like most ethnic groups they felt they would be better off being ruled by one of their own kings.  But from the time of David onwards their own kings were just as expensive as those who acquired the feudal franchise by conquest.  The Romans provided security, roads and sewer systems but they certainly believed in user pays.  Like the corporate empires that rule our world they also believed they should make a profit so the tax may have been harsh and it was a flat tax which is always harder for the poor to pay than the rich.  A flat tax is always favoured by the wealthy because there is a lot of poor people to pay it and what the rich pay is minimal compared with their ability to pay. 

Nevertheless Christians living in the Roman world, or our secular world, have to pay for the benefits they receive.  They are also expected to live better lives than people around them and to influence their society by the way they live and the way they participate in their society. 

Above all living within the divine realm is about allowing God to guide us in our life’s journey and our Exodus reading helps us understand that.

Moses had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, saved them from the murderous pursuit of the Egyptian army and had worked through, not just living in the wilderness, but living off the wilderness.  But with the burning bush experience way in the past Moses had doubts about the journey.  Was God with them or had they all just experienced a series of serendipitous events.  That surely is a question for all religious people which is why we are called people of faith. 

There is no proof, only faith and so religious people are attacked by atheistic scientists who don’t seem to remember that a hypothesis is a theory waiting for proof.  Expounding a hypothesis is a statement of faith. 

Interestingly physicists are more likely to also be religious because, in their world, even a fact is only a fact till someone discovers a new fact.  

I am sure that many of us facing difficult choices have wished that the divine voice would be absolutely and irrefutably clear to us. 

As a new Christian I was envious of those I met who seemed so full of confidence that God was leading them off on exciting missionary adventures until I noticed that some of them never really completed anything.  It wasn’t long before I began to ask myself how can we distinguish the still small voice of God from the enthusiastic brainwaves of an individual’s inflated ego?

Reading the story of Moses’ miraculous rescue from a floating basket, adoption by a member of the royal household and murderous assault on a slave master we certainly could imagine him having an inflated ego as a young man.

We also see maturity in his discussion at the burning bush when he pleads his lack of public speaking ability and his concern that he will not be believed.

We are told the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness but the stories are not date stamped or even guaranteed to be in chronological order.  However we could reasonably assume that today’s reading happened a good way along the journey.  It is also important to remember that the journey was not so much a journey of geography but a journey from slavery to freedom and nationhood, from nomadic herding to settled agriculture and above all a journey towards a better understanding of divine action in human communities.   We could certainly imagine that after all the time that had past Moses began to doubt that he is fulfilling a divine purpose.  Divine patience is always clashing with human impulsiveness and, as he neared the end of his life, Moses would be wanting to ‘get the job done.’  They were heading for the ‘Promised Land’ but they didn’t have a map with ‘Promised Land’ marked on it and with all the time that had passed they would all be wondering if there was such a place.  That is a problem we all have. 

I watched the grand designs episode last week where a robust retired architect and triathlete designed, and had built, a magnificent retirement home.  He and his wife then drove past a waterfront section with serious building difficulties and he decide that he could build an even more spectacular retirement home there.  After all he had never actually ‘hands on’ built a house himself.  Sitting in the home at the end of the programme the presenter asked the couple if this was really their retirement home.  The architect’s wife gave an enthusiastic affirmation.  However all her husband would say was ‘for now’. 

Like the rest of us those moments that Moses remembered as theophanies, meeting with God, would have become faded memories.  After all even when he was given the Decalogue people went and built a golden calf. 

So according to our reading Moses experienced another theophany and is given a message for all of us.  Living humanity cannot gaze on the glory of God but we can see when God has passed by.  In other words we have a much better chance of seeing the action of God in our lives in hindsight than being directed by a blinding flash of light. 

Even the moments in my life that I consider to be spiritual experiences were simply a feeling of enfolding presence and an affirmation of belief rather than direction for life’s journey.

That was one of the struggles I had being selected for ordained ministry, I could not in all honesty articulate a divine call.  My minister, a delightful petite Irish woman, suggested that one day and I might be a wee minister.  I rebutted the idea by saying I was too old to train.  Myrtle replied that there were people my age in the theological college when she trained.  ‘Never mind’ she said ‘you probably like what you are doing now’.  I thought about that as I drove back to work and wondered if indeed I still enjoyed being a photographer.  Out of nowhere came the totally random thought that ‘liked what I was doing’ was not the phrase I would use.  ‘Bored out of my tiny mind’ was more like it.  It was a very negative sort of call completely lacking any sense of looking into the glory of God, or even the voice calling in the night.  I was simply driving though traffic on a very ordinary day.  Yet when I look back on that day I realise I have never been bored since.  Plenty of anticipation and extremely difficult decisions along with feelings of inadequacy and vigorous arguments but when I look back on my life I realise that faith has indeed set me on a journey. 

Moses’ people did get to the ‘Promised Land’ but they probably only recognised it as such when they settled there and in terms of becoming a people of God they, like us, had plenty of journey still to go.

That is certainly the case of those who heard Jesus’ call to be part of the divine realm.  We are two thousand years and counting and although we can look back at our history and see the glory of God in the footprints of many of the faithful there are also many dark and godless moments to repent. 

As a church in Aotearoa New Zealand we are very much a minority and have lost considerable influence in our lifetime.  But that does not make our task any less important.  To look back on those two thousand plus years the glory of God shines forth in the civilising influence of the gospel and the almost magical advances in medical science.

When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked if he was the one Jesus replied: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to the. (Matthew 11:4,5)    s 

That is the history of our church and if we look at our history in the church that is still the church’s story, and it also is our story.  The Christian story is a story we are called to keep telling by our living and our loving. 

We live as a minority in a secular world that our Christian values have helped to shape.  We therefore have even more responsibility to give to our democratic society what it demands of us.  But as followers of Christ we must also give to God what God requires of us.

In the cleft between our democratic secular society and the divine realm Christ calls us to proclaim, we can glimpse the glory of God transforming our world. 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.123

[2] Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark  International 2004) p.439.

 

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