The readings for this sermon are Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18, and Matthew 22:34-46.
Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the Lord. ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
The Greatest Commandment
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“The Lord said to my Lord:
Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This week, I started to write down some of the lessons I have learnt about life.
If you were to ask me what was the greatest poem I have ever read, I think If by Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) would fit the criteria. Travelling on the underground recently, I saw a poem, which I think during Covid-19 and these unprecedented times is a new favourite. It is by John O'Donohue.
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
Jesus was confronted by Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees who wanted to trap Jesus by asking difficult questions. The Gospel reading today asks which is the greatest commandment. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, so which one is the greatest? We know the Ten Commandments, surely it is going to be one of those? Instead, Jesus sums up all the 613 commandments with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He goes on to say the second greatest is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It is a helpful response, and the two go together because to show that you love God, you surely must love God’s creation. Therefore, we must love our neighbour whoever they may be.
Both of these commandments are mentioned in the Torah. Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema Yisrael that Jews say twice daily, contains the first and "love your neighbour", is taken from Leviticus 19:18. So, it is not new, but Jesus has pulled these two together to summerise how we can truly worship God. It is how our Christian lifestyle is defined; the vertical dimension of loving God crossed with the horizontal direction of loving our neighbour. We know who our neighbour is through the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour is anyone who is in need.
I sometimes forget how radical the concept of only having one God is. In Roman times, I think there were over 60 gods that you could worship, including, of course, the famous Olympian Gods: Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Neptune and so on. It is radical to go from the safety of having so many powerful gods to pray to when you need help, to having only one. Even more remarkable, this one God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. The Roman Gods never once had a thought for us, so through Judaism, this concept of God, creator of the universe, wanting time and a relationship with us is groundbreaking.
When I compare the Ten Commandments with the response Jesus gave, worshipping God, having no idols and not misusing God's name fall into place. Loving my neighbour means I will honour my mother and father, I will not commit adultery, murder or steal, and I will not give false witness or covet other people’s goods. The Sabbath reminds us, as Augustine (354-430) said, we have to love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbour as ourself unless we love ourselves. The Sabbath provides us that day of rest whereby we can not only appreciate God’s wonder, but it also allows us to recharge, restore and renew.
Jesus goes one step further in our reading. After answering all the questions, Jesus poses one based upon Psalm 110. This Psalm, written by King David, is the prophetic notion that the Messiah will not just be of David’s line, but will also be far superior to David, so much so David calls him Lord. Jesus’ question stumps the would-be questioners and silences them. We see Jesus as being beyond human, touching the divine, and it is that acknowledgement of his true self that quiets the crowd. We too have to acknowledge who we are for we often have a mask that we show the world; one we believe the world wants to see for which we will gain acceptance and love. But if we are to truly love ourselves, we have to remind ourselves of our true self rather than the self we portray to others.
So, we offer to God who we truly are knowing that God will accept us, love us and transform us.
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Gants Hill United Reformed Church on 25th October 2020
We start by reading Psalm 56:1-6, written over a thousand years before Christ was born. Verse 6 shows how it is possible to twist the writer's words.
1 Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
2 My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.
3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise--
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
5 All day long they twist my words;
all their schemes are for my ruin.
6 They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
hoping to take my life.
This Psalm leads into today’s service, which is predominantly the Gospel story of Matthew 22:15-22, where the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trick Jesus. The lectionary also highlights Isaiah 45:1-7, so let us look at that reading first then lead into the Gospel.
1 “This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armour,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honour,
though you do not acknowledge me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
Isaiah prophesied from 740-681 BC. This reading highlights Cyrus as doing God’s bidding. Cyrus the Great was born in 600 BC and died in 70 years later, we believe, on 4th December 530 BC, probably in battle. Cyrus became king in 560BC reigning for 30 years and had the grand titles of King of Anshan, King of Persia, King of Media, King of the World, King of Babylon, King of Sumar and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World. The strange thing about the passage is Isaiah wrote it around 150 years before Cyrus the Great came to power; it is a prophecy.
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire, now known as Iran. He was a great military strategist and is the only non-Jewish person given the title of Messiah in the Bible. He knew the world of politics but showed humanitarian traits as he respected the customs and religions of the people he conquered. His empire was the largest ever known at the time, spanning two thousand miles, including Assyria and Babylonia. It was Cyrus who allowed the Jewish people to leave their exile and for Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Cyrus is significant in the history of Israel, and Isaiah prophesied it 150 years before.
In one report, it said because Cyrus read the account of Isaiah, Cyrus made the prophecy come true by invading and freeing the people of Israel. God, therefore, is not limited to using the Jewish population; God can use anybody, Jew or Gentile. It is always important to remember this in our relationship with God; God can and does use us to fulfil God’s almighty plan.
We move into Matthew and the trickery with which he had to deal.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
To put you in the mood here is a story:
In a small Italian town, hundreds of years ago, a small business owner owed a large sum of money to a loan-shark. The loan-shark was a very old, unattractive looking guy that just so happened to fancy the business owner’s daughter.
He decided to offer the businessman a deal that would completely wipe out the debt he owed him. However, the catch was that we would only wipe out the debt if he could marry the businessman’s daughter.
Needless to say, this proposal was met with a look of disgust.
The loan-shark said that he would place two pebbles into a bag, one white and one black.
The daughter would then have to reach into the bag and pick out a pebble. If it was black, the debt would be wiped, but the loan-shark would then marry her. If it was white, the debt would also be wiped, but the daughter wouldn’t have to marry the loan-shark.
Standing on a pebble-strewn path in the businessman’s garden, the loan-shark bent over and picked up two pebbles.
Whilst he was picking them up, the daughter noticed that he’d picked up two black pebbles and placed them both into the bag.
He then asked the daughter to reach into the bag and pick one.
The daughter naturally had three choices as to what she could have done:
1.Refuse to pick a pebble from the bag.
2. Take both pebbles out of the bag and expose the loan-shark for cheating.
3. Pick a pebble from the bag fully well knowing it was black and sacrifice herself for her father’s freedom.
She drew out a pebble from the bag, and before looking at it ‘accidentally’ dropped it into the midst of the other pebbles. She said to the loan-shark;
“Oh, how clumsy of me. Never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
The pebble left in the bag is obviously black, and seeing as the loan-shark didn’t want to be exposed, he had to play along as if the pebble the daughter dropped was white, and clear her father’s debt.
Moral of the story:
It’s always possible to overcome a tough situation through out of the box thinking, and not give in to the only options you think you have to pick from.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus the Pharisees and the Herodians questioned Jesus. Knowledge of the Herodians is scarce, other than they must be supporters of Herod. Therefore, the Herodians were in opposition to the Pharisees - the common enemy of Jesus brings forth strange bedfellows. Yet, Jesus had the measure of them. The fact they produced a Denarius when Jesus asked for a coin has implications.
On the Denarius it reads "Ti(berivs) Caesar Divi Avg(vsta) F(ilivs) Avgvtvs", which in English means Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus. On the reverse, we have a seated female, believed to be Livia depicted as Pax, the goddess of Peace, with the words "Pontif Maxim".
Having the image of Tiberius was an anathema to the Jews. The fact that it claimed Augustus was God was offensive to the Jewish population. As a result, pious Jews did not carry that coin but did their business using smaller denominations. The coin itself was worth one day’s labour; smaller copper coins, which did not hold the face of the emperor, were quite ordinary and were used for daily life. So, the Denarius must have been produced by a Herodian because a Pharisee, would not carry such a coin.
So, Jesus comes up with the famous statement, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's.” In some Bibles, the translation is not "render" but "give to Caesar". I understand the Greek "to render" means to give back, which implies they must have received something already. They were benefitting by the Roman occupation, profiting from the blessings of good communication, transport links, freedom from tribal warfare, stable currency with coins used all over the known world and general peace. It is strange to think of an occupation bringing blessings, and I presume if you live in such a society, the expectations are you give back to that society from which you have taken.
There is a common theme throughout the new testament. Jesus says to love your enemies, and Paul frequently writes to submit to the authorities, as does Peter. So, the idea of giving back to Caesar reflects they are part of the Roman situation. But when spirituality conflicts with society, Jesus says God comes first; even though we live in society, it is obedience to God that comes first. So, his famous sentence is quite brilliant, as it satisfies both parties and the people posing the question were amazed at the answer. They found the answer quite marvellous. The scene is then set for the Sadducees to have a go at questioning Jesus, but for the minute, Jesus had shown his ability at dealing with tricky questions.
So, let us reflect: we acknowledge the blessings we receive from living in society; we give back, but we also recognise God’s importance, which means we have absolute obedience to God. In today’s world, Covid-19 means we put our trust in God, but there are also so many other groups who are requesting our support, Black Lives Matter and climate change being two examples. We have to obey the law because it is Biblical, but that does not mean we cannot stand up for others. It is also Biblical that we should stand up and try to change the structures in society that result in injustice. It is a balance, what do we give back to our communities, and what do we offer to God?
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Great Dunmow United Reformed Church on 18th October 2020
Ruth Meets Boaz in the Grain Field
1 Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz.
2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”
Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” 3 So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.
4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!”
“The Lord bless you!” they answered.
5 Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”
6 The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.”
8 So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”
10 At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
13 “May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant—though I do not have the standing of one of your servants.”
14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.”
When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over. 15 As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. 16 Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.”
17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. 18 She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough.
19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”
Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said.
20 “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.”
21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’”
22 Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”
23 So Ruth stayed close to the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law. (NIV)
Harvest falls on the closest Sunday to the first full moon after the autumn equinox. It is a pagan festival which Christians have used to show how God provides. Harvest was important to the life of the Israelites. Part of the heart of harvest is in the spirit of gleaning. Deuteronomy 24:18-22 says that when harvesting and overlook a sheaf of wheat, leave it for the foreigner because you must remember you were once slaves in Egypt. The story of Ruth mentions a farmer. The outsides of his fields remained uncut so that the poor could feed. Within the spirit of harvest, we not only celebrate the safe gathering in of a crop that has been dependent upon the weather but also looking after the poorest of society. Perhaps it is time to reflect upon how we use our gifts, our harvest. Do we satisfy ourselves fully and abundantly, or do we leave something for the marginalised and the outcast? The concept of tithing, which means a tenth in Hebrew, asks that we set aside one-tenth of our income or whatever we produce to go towards those who are most unfortunate in our society. As 2 Corinthians 9:8 reminds us, God loves a cheerful giver.
Within Harvest, we think about setting aside a small part of our gifts from the benefit of others. Whilst Harvest festival itself is decreasing in popularity, (the first traditional harvest festival as we know it was in 1843), the spirit of what it says about thanking God and providing for others is not at all out of date.
We reap what we sow and next year’s harvest I would like to set the challenge that what we have sown this week we reap in a year. Let us consciously sow some seeds. What seeds are we going to sow? Will we be making extra phone calls to make sure the lonely get a call, will we give more to charities, will we sponsor a child? Whatever it is, let us be specific and sow a seed so that next harvest we can say what we have achieved.
The Parable of the Weeds
Matthew 13:24-30 (36-43)
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
(36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.) (NIV)
When you think of Harvest, what words come to mind? Thanksgiving, provision, reaping what you sow, gleaning, tithing. Today's passage is only in the Gospel of Matthew, but a similar text appears in the Gospel of Thomas written around 150-200 AD. The reading very much reminds us God has sown good seeds, but it is the enemy that has sown weeds. I want us to think of the field as being our hearts. When we are born, God gives us good seeds; our hearts are full. Traits, such as racism and discrimination, will be taught by society.
This idea reminds me of a story about an old Cherokee:
One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute then asked: “Which wolf wins?” Very quietly, the old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.”
I think this is a wonderful story and is absolutely true. What we read and what we see, who we are with, everything we do, feeds us. It feeds the good but can also feed the bad parts of our heart. So, we need to reflect upon how we look after ourselves, how we form our prejudices and think about what things we need to change to make sure the bad seeds do not get nourished, but the good seed is fed.
It seems to me the whole reason of God dwelling among us, creating the human race, giving us free will, was so that we could voluntarily choose love. In the decisions we make, we bring to the fore our experiences, our wisdom and our heart - both the good and the bad. So, if we remember that God wants us to choose love and to form a relationship with God, then let us remember that every decision we make should also be based on love.
The Three Annual Festivals
14 “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.
15 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
16 “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.
“Celebrate the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.
17 “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord.
18 “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.
“The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.
19 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God." (NIV)
This reading takes us to the very heart of why we have three festivals commanded by God. I thought we would use these to form a reflection. Harvest is a time of, not only thanking God for provisions, for the gathering in safely of the crops but also considering what we sow and what we reap. Let us firstly look at the Festival of Unleavened Bread. This bread is made without yeast because, at the Exodus, the Israelites had no time to prepare proper bread. Let us take a few moments to think about what we should get rid of in our lives; what can we do without; what bad habits have we got; what do we do that separates us from God?
The second reflection is upon the Festival of First Fruits. It traditionally takes place 50 days after Pentecost. What do we prioritise when it comes to God? What firstfruits do we offer? Do we give God our very best or just the best of what is left over? Let us reflect for a few moments about how we prioritise God in our lives and what firstfruits do we offer God?
Our third festival is the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths: the festival of in-gathering at the end of the harvest. Now let us reflect upon offering God praises, thanks and gratitude. We think of the countless blessings we have. In our attitude of gratitude, let us offer to God all the things to which we give thanks.
The text is Matthew 16:13-20
Also found in Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-20
Who am I? I have got lots of eyes but I cannot see.
I’m a bunch of needles.
Who am I? I’m as light as a feather get the vast majority of people cannot hold me for more than 5 minutes.
I am breath.
Who am I? I’m tall when young but short when old.
Today’s text is at the very centre of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then directly confronts the disciples and asks, “Who do you say I am?” This question and how it is answered, both by Peter and ourselves, is central to our faith. Where do we put Christ in our lives?
This story has been preached every year, so I thought I would like to look at something different, therefore, I have focused on where the action took place. Caesarea Philippi was established by Alexander the Great and its main feature was an amazing spring/cave, which fed the River Jordan. It is said it was so deep, they could not find the bottom. The whole area was made into a city by Herod the Great in 19BC and expanded by Philip, Herod’s son around 4BC. Philip strengthened the city and named it after Caesar and himself. It was on a main trading route between Tyre and Damascus but It was a very pagan city. The chief god worshipped was Pan, god of the forests, the wild, and of flocks. Pan was said to have the appearance of a satyr: the legs of a goat and the body of a human. This ancient god could produce ear-splitting sounds called “panic”, which caused extreme pain to anyone who heard it. Caesarea Philippi built a huge reputation of sexual immorality, animal sacrifices and maybe even child sacrifice.
So, why did Jesus take his disciples there? I am presuming it was not a boys’ day out… Why did he ask the questions in that setting? Was it just a coincidence, was it just conversation or was he using the backdrop of a place at the heart of badness, the heart of the devil, to proclaim he was the new life and, through him, God would be revealed. He was this Messiah, he was the anointed one, he was the Saviour. Where better to announce this than in the very heart of your enemy?
The next thing I pondered upon was the different between the Matthew text and the versions in Mark and Luke. It is only in Matthew that Peter is given the keys of heaven. Was Christ saying that he was building his church upon the rock of Peter or upon the rock of faith, saying that if you believe in Christ the Saviour, salvation will come? So, should we be building our faith upon Peter, whose authority is passed on from Pope to Pope to Pope, or should we be building our faith on our personal relationship with Christ?
I said, a few weeks ago, the feeding of the 5000 must have been a miracle, because the account is in all four Gospels, therefore, because the key being given to Peter only appears in one Gospel, does that make that part of the story less factual? But these are just my musings and I in no way wish to undermine the basis of the Roman Catholic Church. I do want to make sure, however, that when I answer the question posed by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?”, I say you are the anointed one that changed the priorities of my life, my life style, and everything about what I do. That is based upon my relationship with a living God, a creator of the universe who still has time to spend with me.
The challenge for us today is how do we respond to the question who am I?
Which animals have complete faith in Jesus?
Penguins, because they can walk on water!
The reading is Matthew 14:22-37 (also found in Mark and John) but to fully appreciate this reading, you need to read:
By combining the four Gospels we can get a fuller picture of this story where a boy offers five barley loaves and two fishes, which Jesus blesses and miraculously feeds everyone with twelve baskets of leftovers showing the abundance of Jesus’ grace. The main lessons of this story were to understand what gifts we have to offer, actually offering them to God to use and there is this element of self-sacrifice, that this boy offered all he had, which prompts us to question whether we offer all we have. It shows Jesus’ compassion and is set against a backdrop of John the Baptist being killed. Jesus needs to grieve, he needs to contemplate what this death means to his ministry, but far from going into a quiet place, crowds follow, so he heals, teaches and subsequently feeds the people.
This week’s text comes right after this event. Jesus is still looking for a quiet place to go. He dismisses the crowd, he orders the disciples to get into a boat, so that he can go into the mountainside alone and pray. He is clearly looking after himself; he understands that he needs to relax and to be with God, to not burn out. This is a very helpful picture for Christians, especially in the ministry, where there is a trend to feel that we have to burn out for God, that we have to continually offer. Bob Pearce, who founded World Vision, believed we should burn out rather than rust out. This beautiful text shows that self-care is part of our ministry; looking after ourselves is part of what we have to do. Self-evidently, if we do not look after ourselves, we cannot look after others.
Jesus then seeks solitude. Meanwhile, his obedient disciples who went into this boat are having difficulties with a storm that has brewed. It is at this time where they see this ghostly apparition and Peter responds, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
Now, I find this quite a revelation. Peter does not know for sure it is Jesus, there is panic and crisis on the boat. So, Peter reveals something of his own nature. He does not demand Jesus to “still the storm and save us”, for which there is a precedent in Matthew 8:23-27, but he asks Jesus to perform a miracle for him, which I think is quite self-centred.
Peter recklessly gets out of the boat, stupidity in itself. Yet, is not faith sometimes seen as being illogical? His miracle is that he starts to walk on the water. Anyone who has been in a crisis, however big or small, can now identify with the predicament Peter is in. He takes his eye off Jesus, he sees the overwhelming odds against him and starts to sink.
Jesus has strength while walking on the water to help Peter out. He is not just standing on water but he has enough purchase to haul a grown man out of the sea. We immediately start to question ourselves: what would we ask of Jesus to convince us that he is real? Would we ask for a self-centred miracle or a major one for others? What does that reveal about us? If we are in a crisis, keep your focus on Jesus. All you can do sometimes is shut out the world and be intent on trusting Jesus and knowing He is stronger than the situation in which we find ourselves.
This beautiful little passage has two miracles. Jesus walked on the water and then he stilled the storm. So, Psalm 107:29 should be read in conjunction with this: “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.” Peter leaves the security of the boat even though it is being tossed by the rough Sea of Galilee. Peter, not for the first time leaves security behind; he left the security of being a fisherman to follow Jesus, now he is leaving the relative security of the boat where his friends are. I suppose a question for us to ask is when do we leave our comfort zone, when do we branch out, leaving friends and family behind in order to follow our faith.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter is depicted as very much the leading disciple. He is emerging from the group as its leader, the rock. This story combined with Matthew 8:23-27 if gives us a very interesting insight. In Matthew 8:27, at the culmination of them being saved, we read: The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” Whereas, in Matthew 14:33, the disciples come to the realisation: “Truly you are the Son of God”. We see the gradual development of the disciples and this, of course, is how our faith grows. It grows by having a constant relationship with God. It grows by trusting God in evermore difficult situations until we come to the realisation of who God is for us.
In the boat in the storm, Peter asked for his own personal miracle but I was thinking about this and I asked myself whether we limit God by not asking God for enough. Are we very conservative in our requests for God? Perhaps this also limits our faith. Do we ask God for enough miracles or do we limit them because we limit God? I then wondered if we close our eyes to some of the miracles God does anyway.
I am reminded of a story concerning Napoleon at the height of his powers where people would write him requests asking for things that were impossible for him to grant. He was asked if this was annoying, however, he said not at all as it shows people think I am greater than I really am. In the same way, do we limit what we ask God for or should we pray huge prayers knowing that God is greater than anything for which we could pray?
So, my challenge to us all this week is to be aware and open our eyes and truly look and see the miracles that God is providing in the world and in our own lives. I wonder how many miracles we will be able to report back next week, for we must remember that we worship a God who created the universe and created us so that we could have a relationship with God. So, let us keep our eyes open and see how God is keeping God’s relationship with us.
A disturbing part of the text, which should not be taken literally, tells us if our right eye causes us to sin, we should gouge it out. If a body part causes us to stumble, we should cut it off and throw it away. Maybe Jesus is being humorous but he is definitely using hyperbole to express the point that we should not be doing certain things. In Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 9:6, God expressly tells us not to hurt ourselves. In Leviticus 19:28, God even forbids tattoos. I press this point because there is no way Jesus was telling us to hurt our bodies, which we should keep as a temple to God.
This text encourages us to examine our lives, recognising our struggles and conflicts. I recent advert for BUPA UK Mental Health Hub says, "There are 7 billion versions of normal. With 7 billion unique people on the planet, there’s no such thing as ‘normal’." We all have different personalities, we are all at different stages of our life, and we are all developing both physically and spiritually in different ways, therefore, it is not unusual for there to be tension and conflict in the world. God, I think, allows that, especially as he gave us free will, but the love that we offer through the grace of Jesus is accepting one another's differences, listening to other people's opinions and in so doing enrich our thoughts and quality of life.
No one forces people to become Christians. The Holy Spirit is at work, always. It is up to us as Christians to show the distinctiveness of life by putting God first, others second and ourselves third. This reading in Matthew comes after Jesus telling the disciples they had to be like salt and light. This passage helps us see more clearly how difficult it is to follow the commandments, especially in a society where moral values are turned upside-down but if we do want to make a difference, Matthew 5:21-27 inspires us to transform our lives and to be the disciples Jesus wishes.
My most recent sermon was based on Matthew 5:13-20 but to enjoy this reading more, you should also look at Isaiah 58:1-12 and the acrostic Psalms 111 and 112.
Salt and Light
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Law
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Deuteronomy 28 leads us to believe that those who are blessed are those with wealth, power and status. According to Matthew, Jesus started his ministry by challenging this. In the Beatitudes, which is Matthew 5:1-12, we read that those favoured are the humble, i.e. those poor in spirit; those who are hurting, i.e. mourning; the meek, those who hunger after righteousness; the merciful; those who are pure in heart, i.e. their motives and agenda for doing things is focused on God's love; the peacemakers, those who try to unite and bring people together; and those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, echoed in Luke, continues for three chapters: 5, 6 and 7, and might indeed be a collection of his sayings rather than one discourse. In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets out his stall and reveals that being a disciple is going to be costly.
The standard of following Jesus is high. Matthew 22:37-39 sums up beautifully all that is required: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself." In Matthew 7:12, what has become known as the Golden Rule reminds us to do to others what you would have them do to you. In John 13:34, Jesus adds a new commandment on to of the 613 found in the books of the Torah: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."
The scene is set, Jesus has a huge crowd of interested people and he has already invited them in by opening the gates for those who will be blessed by God. Then he goes on to talk about his disciples being salt and light.
Just for fun, I thought I would look on the internet for all the interesting uses of salt:
I believe there are 35 references to salt in the Old Testament and 6 in the New, so clearly salt is important. Indeed, Leviticus 2:13 reminds us that every offering of your grain offering should be seasoned with salt. The Hebrews harvested salt, especially around the Dead Sea. The Hebrews poured saltwater into a pit and let the water evaporate until there was only salt left.
We are called to be the salt. For salt to work, it has to be involved. If you just keep salt in its container, nothing will happen, but once you spread a little bit, then the flavour is enhanced and the chemical Sodium Chloride (NaCl) can start to interact with its surroundings. Jesus was saying to us that we have to be involved, we have to act with our surroundings and we have to improve things. Our way of life should be distinct from society so that we can show people how things should be done with God at the centre. There is an adage that says people do not care how much you know, they only want to know how much you care. So Christianity has to show love in action. As James says in his letter Chapter 2:14-26, faith without deeds is useless. So, if we are to be the salt we have to interact and improve the circumstances wherever we go.
Salt cannot lose its taste, however, it can be contaminated to such an extent that the salt is no longer distinctive. It can be added to things, which makes the salt bland. Jesus warns against this by talking about salt losing its taste, so we must be careful about being contaminated, for example, being contaminated by society and enjoying the comforts of technology, which remove us from worship and take us away from God's presence.
Jesus then goes on to say we must be the light of the world. The usefulness of light is that it removes darkness. When young, many a scary monster disappeared when the light was turned on. Light enables us to see the world as it really is. Light causes growth. Light transmits messages either by code or from a lighthouse as a warning sign. Light can guide and light shows us the path.
I light a candle. How far away do you have to be before you can no longer see this candle, or what do we have to do to stop you from seeing this candle? Jesus has the words of eternal life, as Simon Peter says in John 5:68, and now his disciples have been told to spread the word to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near and that people can have a new relationship with God, creator of the universe. By loving God, loving your neighbour and loving one another with a sacrificial love, that the Greek word agape sums up, and acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, will lead to eternal life.
So we are beacons of light: either a candle or a lighthouse; but we have to shine as a light to the world (Philippians 2:15). I read that you can see a naked flame 1.7 miles away but, of course, we can put things in front of the flame that would stop you from seeing it or extinguish the flame. Jesus warns us not to hide our light under a bushel, which in essence is an 8-gallon wooden bucket. The image is there: shine, don't allow a bucket to be put over you so that your light cannot show guidance or even warmth to others.
How can we ensure we worship correctly? Micah 6:8 reminds us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. Isaiah 58:6-9 confirms what true worship is. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"
What stops us from being salt and be foolish instead? Not being active in the community and allowing ourselves to be contaminated by the standards of today rather than the standards of God. What stops us from being light? Allowing our light to be hidden or diverted or extinguished. If we can remain salt and light then we will be bearers of hope that through Christ our sins are forgiven, a new life created, our relationship with God restored, and eternal life, in whatever form that will take, is assured.
5th January 2020
Readings: Matthew 2:1-12
Let me first concentrate on the "Wise Men". Certain readings go together and so with Matthew, you also need to read:
Nowhere do we have the number of visitors from the east but because there are three gifts, we assume there were three. Nowhere does it say they were kings and nowhere does it say they were wise men because, I believe, magi actually means astrologers. I read that magi is the plural magoi, which in Greek means Zoroastrian Priests. These priests prepared horoscopes.
Zoroaster was Persian, living in the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no concrete evidence on when he lived and was one of the first rulers to follow a single god. This god's name was Ahora Mazda, meaning "wise lord". He believed in one universal god who was all good, uncreated and a supreme deity. Zoroaster was born from a 15-year-old Persian virgin, therefore, miraculously conceived, and started his ministry at 30 after defeating the temptations of Satan. He predicted other virgins would conceive prophets and the Zoroastrian Priests believed they could foretell by reading the stars when these prophets were born; they were star-gazing with a purpose. Matthew's text, therefore, was not only for Jews and Gentiles, because the Magi were Gentiles, but also for the Zoroastrian religion.
As an aside, when I was researching, I wondered who was the first ruler to espouse a monotheistic religion. It was none other than Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun, who reigned 1353-1336 BC. Akhenaten was a Pharoah during the 18th dynasty and worshipped the sun god Aten, however, he was disliked and subsequent pharaohs tried to write him out of history and reverted to polytheism. Around the same time, Zoroaster and Akhenaten were looking at the possibility of there only being one god.
The three kings, which we will call them for simplicity's sake, appear to have been given names from a Greek manuscript dating around 500 AD. The more I read, the more confusing the various attributes of the three kings became. Over time, various characteristics and traits have been given. The three kings cover the three ages of men as well as come from three geographic areas, showing they are representatives from the known world at that time. With no sense of certainty, I offer the three kings names and their gifts:
The story of the three kings is said to happen two years after the birth of Jesus, so them coming to the stable is poet license. In Matthew, Jesus is a child and the kings visit a house.
What of the three gifts? King Herod was going to kill all children under the age of two in Bethlehem and so, for the reading of Hosea to come true, the Holy Family goes to Egypt so that they can be called back out. It may well be the money needed to live in Egypt was financed by these three gifts.
My normal caveat to my sermons is that any new information I find, I offer to you in faith for you to take on board or not. I just thought I would let you know these are some of the thoughts that surround the story of the three horologists.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon