Stiff Necks, Returned RSVP’s and Joy in Prison!
People will be people! They fight and quarrel and show disrespect. They can be a pain in the neck. Indeed, all of us have a dark side to our personalities. I, for instance, can get testy when put on the defensive. I can also be a bit stubborn, which may make stiff-necked! In this, I’m not alone. And yet people can also be joyful and gracious. We are a mixed bag, aren’t we?
This collection of lectionary texts offers the preacher two rather dark stories and one that finds joy in difficult circumstances. So, we might say – there is darkness in the community and it’s time to face it, so that we might find our joy. With this in mind I’ll end my reflections with Paul’s words to the Philippian church so we might end on a positive note. Guess, which text I’m preaching this Sunday!
In the lections from Exodus to this point we’ve seen that the Hebrews, the ones whom Moses has led out of slavery in Egypt through the desert toward the Promised Land aren’t the happiest lot in the world. They complain about not having enough to eat and drink. They worry a lot about dying, whether it was at the hands of Pharaoh’s army, of starvation, or of thirst. They were afraid when God spoke from the mountain and told Moses that they’d rather he do the talking with God. Now, we’re in Exodus 32, and Moses is back up on the Mountain for a conference with God. Apparently he’s past due and they’re not sure what to make of his absence. They feel leaderless and fear, perhaps, that Moses got himself killed on the mountain. They need something tangible to hold on to, something that they can use to guide them. Yes, in Exodus 20 God tells the people that they should have no other gods and that they shouldn’t make any images of any gods, but now that Moses seems lost, they want some images. So, they go to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and talk him into making some gods for them so that they can get on their way toward something. Don’t you find it interesting that they don’t have to do much to get Aaron to fashion for them a god. He’s quite willing to take up the task, telling the people to gather up all their gold rings so that he can fashion a golden calf. When he finished the calf, Aaron built an altar and offered sacrifices and the people ate, drank, and were merry.
Not everyone was happy with this revelry. Yahweh, who according to Exodus 20:5 is a jealous God, is fit to be tied. Yahweh says to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you have brought out of Egypt, have acted perversely.” Do you hear this word from God? Yahweh wants Moses to go down and do something about Moses’ people, the ones Moses brought out of Egypt. There’s no “my people” here – it’s your people. It’s a bit like one parent telling another – “your son” or “your daughter.” So what happened here? Is God disinheriting this people with whom God had covenanted (Exodus 19:4-6)? God’s upset because contrary to the covenant stipulations of Exodus 20, they had fashioned for themselves an idol and worshiped it. Since they had exchanged gods, Yahweh was getting ready to exchange peoples, for they were, Yahweh felt, a “stiff-necked” people,” and God’s wrath burned against them and God was ready to consume the whole lot of them and start over with Moses. This isn’t the first time God had gotten so upset, and it won’t be the last. But Moses wouldn’t hear of it. Like Abraham who pled for Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses pleads for Israel. Moses tells Yahweh that if God does this thing, the Egyptians will spread rumors that Yahweh had led this people out into the desert to kill them. So, God won’t you change your mind? Do you hear this question? Moses asks God to repent of this plan to wipe out the people. Whereas God referred to Israel as “your people,” Moses returns the favor and says to God “don’t bring this disaster on your people.” And at that God changes God’s mind and the people are saved – thanks to the intervention of Moses who gets God to calm down. This is a story to spend some time with because it raises questions about the nature of God and how this understanding of God evolves over time. There doesn’t seem to be much “steadfast love that endures forever” in this passage.
If Yahweh gets upset with the idol that Aaron fashions, what happens when the people reject God’s invitation to a wedding? In Matthew 22 Jesus tells another parable of the kingdom. The realm of God is like a wedding that a king gave for his son. He invited folks to the banquet but the invitees didn’t want to come, even though the king had prepared a great dinner, slaughtering the fatted calf and everything. After the first rebuff, the king sends the slaves out once again, but the invitees again send back word that they had better things to do than attend the wedding of the king’s son. In fact, some of the invitees got downright violent and beat them up and even killed them. At this, the king gets upset and sends in troops to wipe out these murderers and burned their city. Those invited simply weren’t worthy (apparently of living). Apparently this group, unlike the people of Israel didn’t have a strong intercessor on their side. But, the king didn’t want there to be an empty banquet hall, so he sent out his servants to round up guests to fill the seats. They went out and gathered up everyone they could find – both good and bad – and the hall was filled to capacity. You would think the king would be happy, but as he looked out across the banquet hall he noticed someone not in the proper attire – I’m assuming the servants handed out wedding robes along with the invitations – and said” Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? When the man couldn’t answer, the king commanded that the man be bound hand and foot and thrown into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That is, the man faced judgment and was cast out.
In the context of Matthew’s gospel the ones called are the Jewish people who had rejected the ministry and message of Jesus – and of his apostles. They had rejected and even killed them, according to this text, so God decides to start over – as in Exodus 32 – but the final word is important. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This word is likely offered to the Matthean community and serves as a warning that simply because they had heard the call doesn’t mean they will be chosen.
Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring suggest that the theological point of this last portion of the story – about the one who is found without a robe – is “that those who find themselves unexpectedly included may not presume on grace but are warned of the dire consequences of accepting the invitation and doing nothing” [The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 86]. That would be cheap grace, and in Matthew grace is never cheap.
On a brighter note, Paul invites us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” In fact, don’t worry about anything, but instead pray about everything with thanksgiving, letting your requests be made known to God. Yes, and let the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. This is one of the most quoted and joyful sections of scripture that you’ll ever find. But, before you conclude that everything is wonderful in Philippi, back up just a few verses, and listen to Paul’s word about Euodia and Syncthe. These two women had served alongside Paul, struggling alongside him during difficult times, but now they seem to be at odds with each other, and so he urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” These words hearken back to Philippians 2, where Paul encourages the people to follow the example of Jesus and in humility be of one mind and spirit. Paul seems deeply concerned that these two women are at odds. It breaks his heart that two people who had stood side by side with folks whose names were now written in the book of life were having these difficulties. It’s in this context of discontent and distress that Paul, writing from prison can encourage the people to rejoice. This is realistic joy. It emerges out of a sense that God is present even in difficult times. But Paul’s not just inviting folks to a party, he’s encouraging them to act in a way that brings honor to the gospel. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” because “the Lord is near.” Now in context, this word about the Lord being near is eschatological in nature. Paul’s joy is found in part in his belief that Jesus is going to return soon, so act in a way that is appropriate for this eventuality. That’s why there’s no reason to worry and why they can peace in difficult times – the times are coming to a close. So, he offers them a final word of instruction, calling on them to live virtuous lives – do what is just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. There’s nothing especially unique about these admonitions, but they are appropriate to the moment – think on those things that are excellent and worthy of praise, the kinds of things that Paul exemplified in his live and had taught them when present with them. With this instruction, he can say – “the God of peace will be with you.”
Of course, the day of the Lord, as an eschatological event didn’t come nearly as fast as Paul had expected. But are these words simply useful for those living in the moment of departure, or are these words we can take to heart in moments like these times in which we live? Paul’s words of advice don’t suggest a stoic stiff-upper lip, in which we endure the hard times. Instead, it seems to me, that he is inviting us to find joy in the moment, to cast aside the negative and embrace that which is good and commendable. It’s not an unrealistic word, but one that enables us to move forward in constructive ways. We live in a time when the philosophy of scarcity has taken hold. Too many of our neighbors, including those who inhabit our churches, have concluded that there’s simply not enough to go around, and so I’ll grab mine. Maybe that’s the problem that Euodia and Synchte had – they were grasping for that last piece of pie. But Paul’s God is a God of abundance, and therefore there is a place for joy and an opportunity to live without anxiety. This is because the “God of peace” is with us.