A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
August 31, 2014
(Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6; 23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28)
Moses was, at one stage, a prince in the court of Pharaoh. Yes, he was uncommonly adopted into this position, and later exiled from it, but he was, in the now distant past, a favoured and privileged son of the powerful nation of Egypt.
But the plush memories of palace life are too painful to recall from here. Moses’ fortunes have changed, He is now a lowly shepherd working for his father-in-law. He follows sheep into the wilderness. His is, in the privileged culture he was raised, a despised occupation.
Moses, it would seem, has fallen very low.
But God is on the lookout for a the lowly. The Israelites are a vast, severely oppressed people and are in need a leader who understands. God has noticed their suffering, God objects, and God has chosen to work through one like them.
This burning, unconsumed bush, and this awkward shepherd combine to form God’s strange way of initiating Israel’s release.
Our passage makes much of Moses noticing this burning shrub. His curiosity causes him to turn. He is intrigued.
We are initially told that the bush is ‘the angel of the Lord’. But, as Moses investigates, it is the very voice of God that responds. God speaks because God saw that Moses noticed and responded to the presence of God’s messenger.
I wonder how you notice and respond to God.
You see, God is active in our world. This is a God who sees, who speaks, who investigates, and who surprises.
And this world-involved God has a plan. God knows the suffering of these chosen people and has ordained this time to lead them from slavery to paradise.
And God’s chosen instrument for this liberating miracle is this stuttering wilderness-wanderer: Moses.
Unfortunately, our exiled shepherd is not very interested. God’s scheme will involve Moses’ open association with the Hebrew slaves; it will imply a return to the land he fled, and; it will involve entering halls of power where his face will be well remembered. There will be challenges!
And so Moses makes his excuses. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ and ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you ,’ and they ask me ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’. Essentially: ‘what will I say to Pharaoh?’ and ‘what will I say to the Israelites?’
Being a middle man is not always easy. Moses looks ideally placed for this mission but still feels less than equipped.
Perhaps you relate.
But all God offers is a prophetic sign that the mountain on which they converse will become a place of worship. It is certainly a pointer for this nomad to to look for – but not of much immediate help.
God’s only other gift is a name: ‘I Am’. In the context of the list of Israel’s ancestors, it seems to imply that God is as active now as then. God points to the past, and self-names in the present.
It is a strange, unpromising beginning to Israel’s exodus from the strong arm of Pharaoh. But God has a habit of starting small.
The disciples, in our Gospel reading, embody this God-rememberngof the small and forgotten. Like Moses, they also object to God’s plan. Jesus is trying to open their eyes to his coming passion. Peter’s response amounts to complete bafflement at the very idea. Clearly Jesus is losing it!
After all, his are strange ideas: who ever heard of a suffering and dying Messiah? Messiah’s rule, nailing others to crosses. They never get nailed themselves.
Jesus is up against a deeply ingrained understanding of God. Neither the disciples – nor indeed the rest of the word – expect God to behave this way. It is far more comfortable thinking of God as more like us – self-preserving and prone to blast oppressive pharaohs from their thrones. Why this choosing of the humble Moses and this embracing of suffering?
The simple answer: God is unlike us.
And God is calling people to learn God’s ways: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Strangely, it is in this God-imitating journey from self that we find ‘life’, calling, and profit.
Jesus’ act on that cross was, before anything else, an of God-love. It was, at its very core, and invitation for us to humbly accept and to learn this life-giving way as our own.
And, according to Jesus, this is the only possible road to life. Taking our cross, denying ourselves, and following Jesus is the path to life now and into eternity. Hear Jesus’ words again: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.’
Such words echo loudly the path Jesus will take: suffering, death, and then resurrection. His laying down of himself leads to life – both his and ours.
This is, before anything else, a radical act of love for us and for all creation. It is hoped it will inspire our worship and adoration.
Of course, we know this story well. Yet this does not imply that we effortlessly respond. How do we follow one who moved from life to death to life?
Romans, as you know, outlines Paul’s understanding of the gospel in more detail than any of his other writings. By the time we get to chapter 12, Paul is outlining an appropriate response to the story of God he has been celebrating. He is not moving to another topic. He is continuing with his description of the gospel and its implications.
He has just asked us to offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’. It is not far from the language used by Jesus: ‘…take up your cross and follow’.
Both these calls can, dangerously, remain in the abstract. Paul must be aware of this as he writes. There is little here describing anything emotional. It is, rather, a description, from first to last, of action. The Roman community is invited to bless when they are cursed, rejoice with the joyous, weep with the weeping, seek harmony at every opportunity, and to associate with the forgotten. They are urged to seek peace, and not revenge. Paul sums up well: ‘overcome evil with good’.
It would seem the early church was encouraged to take Jesus’ call to love their enemies quite literally. And how could they do otherwise? After all they follow one who radically loved and called them before they even knew what was going on.
So do we.
Your minister, Bernie, suggested I follow his practice of summarising simply and clearly. Here goes: God is calling you to love in the same way as the humble crucified and resurrected Jesus. It is as you respond to this call that you discover the life for which God created you.