Exodus 32:1-14 Philippians 4: 1-9
4 1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters,[a] whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion,[b] help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.[d] 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved,[e] whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
May God Bless to our understanding the words we hear today.
At first glance, it may not seem like our two scripture readings today don’t have much in common. On one hand, we have our ancestors –in-faith, the Israelites, camped at the base of Mt. Sinai making a golden calf out of earrings, and on the other hand we have the members of the early church in Philippi publicly arguing amongst themselves. On the THIRD hand we have us, thousands of years later, trying to figure out what we are supposed to get out of these readings to take us through our day to day lives. I believe that what we have here is a triangle of Greenbelt, Philippians and Israelites where we are all trying to figure out what matters in our lives.
Will you pray with me please? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
Is anyone else here a fan of the TV program Friends? I was a faithful watcher when it was on the air and I still catch it in a variety of re-runs. I always liked their opening theme song:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D O A
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week
Your month or even your year but
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)
I think the friends resonated with so many of us because they were just a bunch of people living their lives and trying to figure it all out, trying to understand what matters. While the people of Israel did not have a pithy theme song to accompany them through the desert they must have been feeling, at times, that it was not their day, or week or month or even their year. Think about it, they escape from bondage in Egypt and witness a whole series of events; the sea parts for them and then swallows up Pharaoh’s chariots, manna falls from the sky and water flows from rocks just when they need food and water the most. They have a great leader who seems to walk with God, and they have a promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey to look forward to. Shortly before our story today takes place they formed a covenant of faithfulness and care. God asked them to live as a “priestly kingdom and a holy people” and they responded: “everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” It was a covenant made to carry them through even the toughest of times.
From our vantage point all of these thousands of years later, all of this stuff sounds pretty good, but if you read Exodus you know, that all along the way the Israelites do nothing but moan and complain, they felt they were being greatly inconvenienced because they could not live life according to their wishes…and now, at the start of Chapter 32, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for too many days carrying on his long conversation with God and the people at the bottom of the mountain don’t like the wait, they had other priorities and more pressing things on their minds. The people identified Moses’ presence with the presence of God and in their minds, if Moses wasn’t there, then obviously God wasn’t there either, God had gone and left them on their own.
I think we would agree that we don’t like to be left on our own, especially if we feel that we are stranded in the middle of the wilderness, we want clear goals, we want an action plan, and we want to be reassured that everything is going to be ok. We don’t like living with ambiguity and it is hard for us sometimes to be ok with taking the good with the bad. One of life’s crises show up and sometimes, before we even go to God in prayer over it, we try to figure out how to solve it ourselves. I get the feeling, that more often than not we act just like the Israelites did and we run to someone else or something else to lead us out of our problems.
Knowing that, we can’t be too hard on the Israelites. Faced with some major uncertainty they were getting restless, they were feeling vulnerable, they were worried about what it would mean to be stuck in the desert without a leader, so they went to Aaron and demanded that he make a god for them who will “go before” them. Two of my former Seminary professors, Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note in their book Preaching the Old Testament, that the term “go before” in Exodus refers ONLY to Moses or YHWH, so what the people are really
saying is that they need someone or something new to stand in for God, they were not turning to foreign gods, they simply wanted something to stand in the place of God or Moses, something to reassure them.
How many different ways do we do that ourselves? We feel bad, or sad or upset and instead of turning to God we self-medicate with drugs, or alcohol or food. We read self-help books looking for answers, or we turn to the internet and we “google: something to help us feel better.
We worry that God cannot possibly provide for all of our needs and so we work long hours for more money, and we may get the money but what do we lose in return? Time with our families; time away from Sabbath? We put our faith and our trust in so many other things, things that we think matter more to us, things that we think are going to show us the way. Just like the Israelites we want to know that we are loved and cared for, and just like the Israelites, in our pursuit of something else to go before us, something else to stand in for God, we walk away from God’s promise to always be there for us when the rain starts to fall and we focus on all of the things that provoke our anxieties.
I am going to fast forward us to our New Testament reflection and Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There is continuity between Paul’s writing and the things that the Israelites are learning out in the wilderness. The same love and care, the deep wisdom and the many gifts that guided God’s newly covenanted people is also what is guiding and nurturing the early church and it is the same thing that is passed on to us today to strengthen and guide the church and her people on its way, over two thousand years later.
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is beautiful, full of a deep and meaningful message. It is a letter of joy and rejoicing and all the more interesting when we learn that Paul did not write this letter from the comfort of his home, he is not writing surrounded by his friends and people who love him, he is not writing on an especially good day, in fact is was defiantly not his day, week, month or year. Paul is writing from his prison cell in Rome, facing certain death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the Roman Empire and its values.
Paul is in prison, knowing he will die by execution when he writes this joyful, happy letter. In so many ways he is facing a future that is every bit as dire as the Israelites imagined theirs to be but Paul had figured out what the Israelites did not and what we ourselves often forget. God matters. God is not a convenience, God is not just for the good days, God does not just check in with us from time to time God is there always and it matters to us to have God in our lives…if you don’t believe me, just try going it alone through the bitter times of your life, if you don’t believe, just see how far and how well you do by getting another god to go before you as a stand in.
Knowing that Paul writes from his prison cell may affect how we hear his words, as he encourages his flock in Philippi to remember what matters in their shared life of faith. As a people and as a church Paul is reminding them that God matters, and it is God that should be at the heart of all that they do. It is a good reminder for us today, when we question why we are here, when we question what we are doing, when we struggle to find our way as a people and as a church we are called by Paul’s gentle words. “Rejoice…do not worry about anything…pray…the peace of God will guard your hearts…keep on doing the things that you have learned and received…”
Now, I am a champion worrier and to be honest, I have found that praying does not always alleviate my worries or fears, they are often still there, even after a good long session with God. But I do find that I am often not as afraid as I was, I worry, but I trust that God is going to help lead me through whatever it is that I worry about. I guess what I have finally figured out is that the important thing is that God does matter to me and I matter to God and its always better when I invite God along to go before me.
As we face our future as individuals and as the church, as we face our challenges together, the questions will come up about God’s call and direction in our lives, in our community of faith. What are the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable things that we think about together? How do we understand how God matters in our lives? How do we understand how God matters in the life of the church, and most importantly, how do we share that news that God matters until the whole world sings?
How do we do it? How do we remind ourselves and others that God matters? Well, we do it every day. We wake up in the morning asking God to go before us. We remember to invite God in, and to use Paul’s words: I leave you with Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. HA