Sermon: Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 11 September 2016, St Matthias

Readings  Exodus 32.7-141 Timothy 1.12-17Luke 15.1-10

Preacher  The Revd Neil Summers

The story from the Book of Exodus is just one example of a number of episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT) which picture God in a very human way, in conversation with Moses as with a friend.  To re-cap briefly, Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years, before the people were finally to occupy the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ as promised by God.  Today’s story is set during that wilderness period.  Moses has gone up to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God and to receive the law God gave for the instruction of the people.  But Moses was gone a long time and the people grew tired of waiting.  Would he ever come back?  He – and God, for that matter – was out of sight and, gradually, out of mind, too.  The Israelites thought they would benefit more from a visible God.  So they said to Aaron, ‘Make us a God we can see, a God like other peoples have.’  They felt lost and abandoned, and were anxious to have something concrete to hold on to during this arduous journey in alien surroundings.

Now Moses was a prophet and therefore perhaps a bit elevated from the community.  His brother, Aaron, however, was a priest, closer to the people, more able to sympathise with them and to feel what they were feeling.  So they bring their gold to Aaron, and he makes a calf from it.  Deep down, Aaron seemed worried by this development, so to reassure himself that the faith of the Israelites hadn’t fundamentally changed, he gave this new image the name ‘God’ as well.  So the calf became ‘He who has brought you up out of Egypt’.  Just to make sure the community didn’t totally lose its bearings or its affiliation to the God who had liberated them from Egypt, Aaron also put notices up declaring, ‘Tomorrow is a feast day of the Lord’ – no doubt hoping Moses would be back by then to put things back on track.

Well, the feast gets going, but it isn’t a feast of the Lord, for the Israelites dance in ecstasy round their new idol, their God-replacement.  Inevitably, it is when the festival is in full swing that Moses comes down from the mountain, stone tablets in hand, fresh from his encounter with God. He is, naturally, furious.  As we read, God is totally aware of what is going on and tells Moses in no uncertain terms that he will destroy the people in his anger.  Far from the image of God as creator, liberator, and the font of love and mercy, we are instead given a picture of a God who turns out to be as apparently fickle as the Israelites themselves, who responds with typically human disillusionment to the ingratitude of the people and who has to be persuaded by Moses before he changes his mind about bringing disaster on the community.  It is indeed a very human tale, where the visible human being in the story has to interrogate the invisible God and challenge him to remember the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to multiply their descendants and enable them to inherit the Promised Land.

This story lies at the heart of Jewish identity and, like all good stories, it doesn’t only inform; it also raises questions.  Perhaps the central questions here are: Who is God, and what is God like?  Is God really as capricious as today’s story suggests, willing to impose disaster on people, as well as favour and blessing?  Does God really take umbrage and react in human ways when things don’t go the way he ordained?  Is God open to dialogue and persuasion, does God do deals, and does God need to be reminded by humans of the promises made when he is in danger of failing to keep them? Or…could it be that God’s reactions are a sign of his complete identification with his people.  Perhaps he has to act like them to prevent divinity being too remote, too removed from the actual world and from real life.  Perhaps the writer’s intention was to say that we should, to some extent, consider God in human terms, as part of the human story in which we are meant to discover meaning and significance.  For isn’t scripture essentially the story of a human community’s relationship to God and its search for meaning in the world in which it was living?  There is a long and noble tradition in Judaism of wrestling with scripture and tradition, as rabbis and scholars debate and ask questions, searching for new insight, meaning and relevance.  It is known as Haggadah. If questions arise in the Jewish tradition, how much more so are they magnified in Christianity, which asserts that the divine, far from remaining remote, actually enters right into the heart of human experience in the person of Jesus.

How are we individually and as a community shaped by the stories of our inherited scriptures and traditions?  What do the stories have to say to us about the human encounter with God and with one another?  Well, one thing today’s story indicates is that asking questions about God is a very human thing to do.  Like the Israelites, we might have our doubts about a God who remains unseen, and we might look for more tangible things to turn into gods instead.  Also like them, we may feel abandoned when all seems lost, or disaster strikes, when God seems at best remote, or at worst, absent; those times when we are at our most vulnerable, when we have nothing but doubts and questions, flailing in own wildernesses.   But it is all right to feel anger and disillusionment, because this story tells us that’s also just how God felt.  Indeed, we might go as far as saying that divinity finds it fullest expression when it is most fully human.

And something of that is evident in today’s parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  They are both aimed at telling us something highly significant about the God whose nature we see in Jesus.

Three recent losses: Oyster card; contact lens; key.  But there are losses of much more import.  Both these stories assert that no matter how lost or abandoned we may feel – disorientated, buffeted by potential losses of many kinds – maybe the loss of a partner, a friend, or a relationship, a job, a home, our independence, health or mobility, or by guilt about the past or anxiety about what lies ahead, there is a love at the heart of all things which is so persistent and so all-embracing that it is not willing to let us go, but will go on searching us out, especially when we feel at our most lost.  And that is because, in this understanding of God, there is an intrinsic worth in our very humanity, and we can therefore never be lost or worthless or just abandoned to our fate.  That love, which constantly searches for us, we call ‘God’, but it needs to find its fullest meaning in our human sphere.

These stories in Luke are concerned with what it is to be human, to be lost and found, the stories of all of us at some point or other in our lives.  God, Jesus says in these little stories, in his limitless love and mercy, seems willing to go to extraordinary lengths to find and rescue the lost.  It has been said that Luke 15 is the Gospel within the Gospel.  Its stories of being lost – which can be such a frightening experience – but then found, truly are good news, which is what ‘Gospel’ actually means.  Just how extraordinary that is is illustrated in the poignant and overwhelmingly moving image of the shepherd putting the sheep on his shoulders and carrying it home.  Note, though, although the shepherd is symbolic of God, he is, nonetheless, human and visible.  That implies a great deal for Christians, whose faith is founded on the inextricable link between the divine and the human.  Perhaps in trying to look for – and find – the unseen God, we should be looking for and finding each other.  We may well find it is essentially the same thing anyway….

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