Today’s reading is John 2:13-22.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The site of the temple was very historic. It was built on Mount Moriah where Abraham very nearly sacrificed Isaac. This is the same place where Solomon built his temple. The temple in the reading was one of Herod the Great’s major building projects. Construction started around 20 BC and, as John tells us, it took 46 years to build, although we know that it was not fully completed until 63 AD. The temple was comprised of the sanctuary, which housed the main part of the temple and the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Within the precinct, the open-air Court of the Gentiles surrounded the sanctuary. It was here that Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, had allowed traders to set up their stalls to help with the running of the temple.
During Passover, 300-400 thousand pilgrims came to the temple to exchange their Roman Denarii or Greek drachma into coins acceptable to pay the Temple Tax of half a shekel. Roman coins featured the image of the emperor, thus proclaiming his divinity. Therefore, these coins were blasphemous and not allowed in the temple. Traders of livestock or doves were needed to sell the appropriate sacrifices. Make no mistake, the traders were doing what Jewish law demanded. Yet, the temple itself was meant to be a place of prayer.
Zechariah, writing to the Jews returning from exile, portrayed a vision that, "Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty." (Zechariah 14:21) Similarly, Isaiah 56:7, written around 681 BC, reminds us, “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And, Jeremiah 7:11, who wrote to the people of Judah during his ministry between 627-586 BC, protests and asks, “Has this house which bears my name become a den of robbers to you?”
Caiaphas deliberately allowed the traders into the temple precincts, whereas they usually traded outside the temple in the Kidron Vallery. Jesus, in John’s account, at the beginning of his ministry, goes to the temple and is incensed, not with the actual trading, but the fact it was happening inside the temple. So, he drove them out with a self-made whip.
It is interesting to compare the report of John with the Synoptic Gospels. All three of the Synoptics record this episode at the beginning of Holy Week, i.e. the end of Jesus’ ministry. All three suggest this was the tipping point, the reason Jesus had to die. He had control of the crowd, and he was starting to meddle in the temple economy. It seems a logical place to write this story, but John has it right at the beginning, straight after the first miracle of turning water into wine. In John’s Gospel, there are three Passovers annotated. The period of John’s Gospel is at least two years, whereas the Synoptics have one year.
This story presents Jesus as a radical person. Jesus is angry and showing his humanity. John reminds us that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine. We also recall that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, again showing his humanity and compassion.
The question I ask, therefore, is when is it right to be angry? The history of this passage has influenced different responses. Origen, in the second century AD, said that the account was not historical but metaphysical. The temple is the soul of a person freed from earthly things to serve God. On the other hand, John Chrysostom, in AD 391, defended the historical account. People have used it to justify the use of violence by Christians, for example, Augustin of Hippo. In 1075, Gregory VII used it to justify his actions against the Simonic clergy. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived 1090-1153, used it to defend the Second Crusade; and John Calvin used it to support his action against the polymath Michael Servetus when he was burnt at the stake for the heresy of rejecting the concept of the Trinity.
So, where do we stand on our thinking of righteous violence? It seems to me that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) show a great deal about God as well as God’s people. The Israelites had just escaped from slavery in Egypt, where it was common to worship many gods. On Mount Sinai, God offers to Moses the Ten Commandments by which his people must live, the first being the very radical and scary commandment of having no other god but God. In Jesus’ time, the Romans and Greeks worshipped loads of gods, e.g. the twelve Olympians, so to demand they only worship one rather than have the protection of several was a scary, totally revolutionary concept.
God revealed that the creation of the world happened in seven days: six to create and the seventh to rest. This idea of working for six days and resting for one was for our good. God cares about God's people. In a world dominated by violence, when human life went unvalued, God gave the commandments of not killing, stealing or committing adultery. God was a God of community.
So, would a God who has laid these groundworks be happy with righteous anger? I think yes, but it cannot go beyond the confines of killing or being violent toward one another. There are Bible passages to help us when we feel or witness anger.
Proverbs 12:16 tells us that a prudent man overlooks an insult
Romans 12:17-21 says " Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Psalm 4:4: In your anger do not sin… trust in the Lord.
James 1:19: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
God wants us to love God and to love our neighbour. In doing so, we have to ensure that we do not uphold the status quo if people are being oppressed. Jesus cleared the temple, so we have to clear and declutter all the things that stop us from having a relationship with God. We have to cleanse ourselves and declutter ourselves from all the habits that lead us to do things that are wrong and lead us away from God’s presence. The temple was an awe-inspiring building. It spoke of the glory of God, but it is just a building. After its completion in AD 63, it was demolished in AD 70 when the Romans, after a 4-year siege, destroyed Jerusalem.
Our lives have to be built upon the foundation of a righteous God who loves justice and mercy. So, as well as decluttering ourselves to remove the obstacles preventing us from coming to God, perhaps we should look at the various laws we follow. There are many poor people in the world, but what are the systems that keep them poor, and how can we challenge those systems so that the kind of world that God wants for God's people can be fully realised? That is our challenge for Lent, that we not only look at ourselves, but we also look at society and think how it could be improved so that God's love, mercy and justice can be offered to all.
This sermon was first preached on 7th March 2021 at Western Road URC via Zoom
The two readings for today’s sermon are Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12.
The theme for today is authenticity. I recently had a phone call from a friend who was so happy to tell me the fruits of his metal-detecting. He had discovered a beautiful coin, which when polished glittered like gold. He told me it must be valuable because the coin's date was 48 BC. He was crestfallen when I mentioned it must be a forgery. 'How can you say that?' he cried. 'You haven't even seen it!' I said, 'BC stands for Before Christ. How could the coin have been minted 48 years before an event had happened?'
Let me first concentrate on the book of Micah.
5 This is what the Lord says:
“As for the prophets
who lead my people astray,
they proclaim ‘peace’
if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
who refuses to feed them.
6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
and darkness, without divination.
The sun will set for the prophets,
and the day will go dark for them.
7 The seers will be ashamed
and the diviners disgraced.
They will all cover their faces
because there is no answer from God.”
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10 who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
Zion will be ploughed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Micah was an 8th century BC prophet, writing between 742-687 BC, making him a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. I enjoy the book of Micah, particularly his succinct formula for life. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Micah, in the text, condemns the other prophets, highlighting that what comes out of their mouths is dependant on what you pay them. There was collusion between the prophets and the heads of Israel. They hid the truth and supported ways that were contrary to the will of God. This is not uncommon today. Many studies present in such a way that the results will support what the sponsor wishes them to say.
Micah was very concerned that the ways of Israel were contrary to God’s will. The prophet Hosea says God desires "mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
Similarly, the Prophet Amos, when writing to the Northern Kingdom between 760-750 BC, before Micah was born, said God hated Israel’s religious feasts. God would have no regard for Israel's offerings, and God would no longer listen to the songs or music. God preferred that justice should roll like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 paraphrased)
In the text, Micah prophesies that Jerusalem will fall, which indeed it did to the Babylonians in 597 BC. Micah, Amos and Hosea are the background texts to the reading in Matthew.
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The first thing to note is that Jesus is an unauthorised teacher. He certainly had not gone through the training that rabbis needed. For me to be a minister, I had to go through three years of training alongside three years of following trained ministers, passing exams up to degree level and interviews. Only after I had satisfied the requirements of the ministerial procedure, could I be ordained. Jesus came on to the scene without the formal training. Indeed, when he did speak in synagogues, he was thrown out. (Matthew 13:53-58)
The surprise of the Gospel is Jesus does not condemn the teaching of the Pharisees. There are six thousand Pharisees in the time of Jesus, and they were students of the law, experts giving counselling so that the people of Israel could live a life resulting in heaven. They were well respected, and Jesus acknowledged their importance by telling people they must do what the Pharisees instruct.
The complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees was what they did not practice what they taught. Jesus listed a whole list of things where the Pharisees were falling short. Alongside not practising what they preached, the Pharisees were unwilling to do what they demanded of others; the Pharisees loved to show off, they revelled in their titles and having the recognition of others. In short, they misunderstood their calling.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. By fulfilling, he had the bigger picture of God’s world in mind. Instead of the minutiae, Jesus took the Law and transposed it from being a burden to being a help. Matthew 12:1, when they caught Jesus picking grain on the sabbath, is an example of the humanity of God coming first and the Law second.
God’s Law is a gift to help us live in relationship to God and one another. It is this bigger picture that Jesus brings in his ministry, using the law to show Gods compassion and tolerance. Jesus brings no new ideas, he uses the tenets of the Old Testament all the time, but what he does do is refresh them and uses them in the context of the day.
Jesus also promoted the idea of servanthood. As a servant, you mould yourself around your master. In this way, his disciples were to live, moulding their lives around God via his son Jesus, using their teachings and powers to bring healing and wisdom wherever they went. Jesus was often in conflict with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees, so following Christ was no easy discipleship. But their words needed to equal their actions, and this is the gift that Jesus’ ministry brings.
The Pharisees were literate, whereas the vast majority of the population were illiterate. The people of Israel needed leadership, and it was Jesus showed them how to live, restoring their relationship with God. So today, as followers of Christ, we must mould ourselves around the teachings of Jesus. That is our calling. We are free to accept or refuse. By accepting, our lives will change as our purpose, our values and our beliefs realign to that of God, our loving and gracious creator.
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.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon