Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Golden Calf

Thursday Midweek Communion 22 March 2012

Reading Exodus 32

7 Then the LORD said to Moses, Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.

8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.'

9 I have seen these people, the LORD said to Moses, and they are a stiff-necked people.

10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.

11 But Moses sought the favour of the LORD his God. O LORD, he said, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.

13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'

14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.


You can almost feel the fear amongst the people of Israel. Moses their leader had freed them from slavery in Egypt, and led them to Mount Sinai. It’s not a high mountain – less than 7,500ft. I climbed it in just over a couple of hours. Mount Katherine next door is bigger. At over 8.600ft it was not covered by our annual travel insurance, and sleeping at the top in below zero temperatures was uncomfortable.

Moses had been gone a very long time. He was being taught the Law by God, and given the two tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed by the finger of God.

The people say to Moses’ brother Aaron that they didn’t know what had become of him. So they asked Aaron to organise the melting down of all their gold jewellery, and make a golden calf which was to be hailed as a deity in place of the one who really led them out of Egypt, not Moses.

It seems an odd thing to do, bearing in mind the wonders the people had seen. The plagues. The crossing of the Red Sea. The destruction of Pharaoh’s army, and so on. What good would a man made image be in God’s place?

You have to read the text closely to realise the image itself was not made as a god, but as a representation of God. After fashioning it, Aaron sets it up before an altar as proclaims: Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD. The LORD is in capital letters. So the sin that Aaron committed was to make a false image of God, and not an idol.

Meantime up the mountain an alert icon flashes on God’s tablet computer telling him what the people have done. God offers to scrap the experiment with Abraham’s descendants, and start again with Moses. But Moses, in an example of prayer, reasons and argues with God. How would it look to other nations if after all God has done for the Israelites he were to destroy them on the foothills of Sinai.

The story teaches us what sort of God we have. One who can be trusted. Who is faithful and keeps his promises, even faced with our sin and disobedience, however bad that might be. One who makes good out of evil. A God who listens to our feeble intercessions, and can change his mind. One who cannot condone wrongdoing, but can overlook and forgives even the most serious of sins.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Powers and Dominions

Third Sunday in Lent

Gospel John 2.13-22

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice.
Harden not your hearts.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!”

His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 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.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Account of Jesus interventionCleansing of the Temple. As if the animals had made the courts dirty. Probably you regard it as Jesus against commercialisation of worship of God, especially arrangements for animal sacrifice. Or Jesus against the priests who made money out of the crowds attending Temple worship at Feast of Passover.

Much more than all these things. Romans had total control of Judaea. Occupied land. Religion was not an exception. Romans controlled Temple worship.

Priests not appointed. Members of tribe of Levi. Born to the task. Duties to perform. Only they could do them. But they were not independent of the Roman governor. They colluded with Roman authorities. Both sides made money out of the status quo. Priests not really religious leaders, but were resented because of their inherited status and the way they feathered their own nest and distanced themselves from those who suffered under the harsh and violent rule of Rome.

Jerusalem at best of times was a tinderbox of rebellion and sectarian dispute. Time bomb waiting to go off. During Passover, Jews from all over empire would make a pilgrimage and visit the Temple. Crowds pressed on every side. Numbers swelled hugely. Always a potential for disturbance, so increased and oppressive presence of Roman soldiers.

In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out animals, people selling them, and moneychangers. He pours out their money and tips over their tables. And in doing this, he confronts not only the Temple authorities but the Romans whose coffers are swelled by the taxes raised during the festival.

Chief priest was appointed by Rome and served its interests. By attacking the system of raising money in the midst of Passover Jesus was confronting not only the religious leaders but the Roman officials who controlled the Temple. There was no doubting this would quickly attract their attention.

Reasonable to assume Jesus’ angry outburst aimed not so much at corruption of the worship of God, nor people making money out of it, but at the duplicity of the whole system, hand in glove with occupying forces.

Is this anything more than a history lesson? Yes – when we grasp what is really going on, and the enormity of what Jesus tried to do, we ask ourselves the question What does it mean to follow Christ?

During these weeks of Lent, we as Christians ask ourselves this very question, and we relive the events of Holy Week and Easter. What does it really mean to walk the way of the cross?

During Jesus’ trial, Pilate mocks him and calls him King of the Jews. He does this to taunt the chief priest. Here is your king Pilate says to the people.

The people reply that anyone who claims to be a king “sets himself against the emperor.” The priests confirm their loyalty to the emperor claiming “We have no king but the emperor.”

The consequence of challenging these two groups was death, and Jesus must have known this was inevitable.

Sometimes in our faith we may be faced with the choice of standing up for what is right, and challenging the authorities. We can think of Martin Luther King, Archbishop Tutu, John Sentamu and the bishops in Uganda, and Zimbabwe for example.

Sometimes the church fails in its duty and colludes with evil authorities for its own survival. We can think of Nazi Germany.

If we understand the gospel as Jesus cleanses the Temple we miss the point. The open confrontation of civil authority regardless of the implication for the individual sticking their neck out and finding the guillotine.

What does it look like to follow Jesus in our own time and place? Who are our models of faith and why? Lent is a good time to think about difficult or unpopular decisions we might make as we walk the way of the cross. Or if we don’t have to make these critical decisions ourselves, supporting them who do and confronting the abuses they are up against.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Heaven and Hell

Reading Jeremiah 17

5This is what the LORD says:

   Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD.

6 He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no-one lives.

7But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.

8 He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

9The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? 

10I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.

Gospel Luke 16

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice.
Harden not your hearts.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.

20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores

21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried.

23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.

24 So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

25 But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.

26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

27 He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house,

28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

30 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Whom do you trust? It’s a choice we have to make all the time. Jeremiah says the person who trusts only in himself is cursed. Blessed is the person who trusts in God, whose confidence is in him.

The parable about Lazarus is about trust as much as it is about money or compassion. The rich man has every luxury, but each day ignores Lazarus who is dumped by his gate in abject poverty and want, not even able to fend off the neighbourhood dogs.

Both men die. Lazarus is in heaven. The rich man is tormented in hell. Not because of his past riches, but what he did with them. Or rather, didn’t do.

The desire for money to provide for your future is sensible. The Bible is full of people rewarded by God with prosperity for their prudence. But obscene luxury and a refusal to help the poor are both sins. Those were the reasons for the rich man’s fate.

Even after the realisation of death, the rich man still doesn’t get it. He treats Abraham as his equal. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus over to serve him with a cooling drink. He wants Lazarus to be consigned to his father’s house as a warning. Only someone risen from the grave will do. The rich man’s brothers will not trust in any messenger on earth, but only believe when the warning is irrefutable and impossible to doubt.

No, says Abraham. They won’t even trust a heavenly messenger. As Jeremiah says, trust not in man, whose heart turns away from the Lord. Trust in God, and have confidence in him.

Hellfire preaching is deeply unfashionable these days, but I think we do well to heed the warnings. If there is paradise, maybe there is the torment of hell? Perhaps not burning fire, although the absence of God would be hell enough without physical torture. Or maybe death is death – oblivion – for those who are not in heaven.

Jesus teaches of the afterlife. From the cross, he assures a repentant criminal “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Notice it’s immediate. There’s no waiting for the end of time.

But between one place and the other is a great chasm. No one can cross from the one place to the other, even if they want to. Frightening people in the way the church did in past times is wrong, but watering down the realities of the implications of the choices we must make does not help either.

So let’s use Lent for a period of self-examination and reflection. And as part of that process, read the gospels and consider before it’s too late what our lives are like, and what awaits us when our all too brief stay on earth comes to and end. Amen

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Everything amusing has a grain of truth

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Prayer–or the Golden Rule?

Midweek Communion at St Giles – St David’s Day

Reading Isaiah 55

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
   call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way
   and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
   and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   neither are your ways my ways,”
            declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.


Gospel Matthew 7

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice.
Harden not your hearts.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Ask, Seek, Knock

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.



Listening to gospel reading – might have concluded it is about prayer. One of those troubling gospel readings about faith and intercession. “Of course we all know God does not always answer prayer” – it’s a childish notion you might say, and anyway hedged about with provisos. For example, you have to have faith to move mountains. And in one passage, the only promise is that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask in prayer, not the winning numbers in the National Lottery.

Actually this passage from the closing portion of the sermon on the Mount is more concerned with how to treat one’s neighbour than prayer. The preceding few verses are a warning not to judge others. For you will yourself be judged in the same way, and it’s absurd to criticise the speck of sawdust in your neighbour’s eye if you own vision is obscured by a plank.

I wonder if you noticed any similarity between the gospel reading and the passage I read from Isaiah? It starts Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him when he is near. The reading from Matthew starts Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Seeking the Lord is what both have in common. Not asking for favours. And seeking the Lord not only directly, but through interaction with one’s neighbours. The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What Isaiah offers is that God, in his ‘otherness’ can still be found, and he will pardon our wrongdoing. His thoughts are not ours, and his ways far removed from human ones. Yet if we seek him out, God can be found.

Remember the man who knocks up his neighbour in the dead of night. A guest has arrived very late. The shops are closed. He has nothing to set before him. Why would his neighbour risk getting out of bed to help him? Because that man is his neighbour. And he will come to his assistance for that reason alone.

God wants the best for us – that’s the other theme running through both of these passages. His ways are far above ours, and we cannot fathom God’s thoughts, but we can be sure he will give good gifts to those who seek him in faith.

The punchline makes it clear. It’s not about prayer, but the Golden Rule. The conclusion is not about intercessions:

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you...

...and the promise implied is that God, like a good neighbour, will do the same for us and extend his hands full of good gifts.