Reflection for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity.

Today’s reflection is from Christopher Belk, who took the service here this afternoon. Thanks to him for sharing his thoughts about the readings set for today.

Exodus 33:12-23 

This reading is an episode which comes just after Moses first 40 day stay up Mount Sinai. God had given him the Ten Commandments (plus a lot more regulations). Then God told Moses about the people worshipping  a golden calfwhile he was away, and generally having a big party. God said he would destroy them all. Moses pleaded with God and God relented from that first reaction, though Moses in anger broke the tablets on which the 10 commandments were written and 3,000 of the people were put to death by way of example, and there was a plague as well. God also said he would no longer personally accompany such disobedient people in their onward journey, as he had been doing in a pillar of cloud by day or fire by night. He would just let them have an angel to guide them to the land he had promised them. 

So it seems God was moved by Moses prayers to relent still further, and to promise his continued presence after all. In Deutoronomy 9, Moses included his brother  Aaron in his prayers and God even forgave Aaron, though he was the one who originally made the golden calf. God’s mercy is not always logical by human standards  – “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 

But it seems that promise was still not enough for Moses.”Now show me your glory”, he prayed. So Moses went up the mountain for a second 40-day session, when he continued to pray for the people (Deuteronomy), the stone tablets were rewritten, and he received a great many more regulations to pass on, though many were the same as before. He had of course talked with God before, from the time of the burning bush, in Egypt before an during the Exodus, during his first session up the mountain, and in the tent of meeting where it says the pillar of cloud would come to the door of the tent while God spoke with Moses as between friends. Also, before the first 40-day session, Moses, Aaron and 70 elders were given a distant vision of God. 

But there was something different about this second session, because God did show Moses his glory as intimately as was safe for him, and when Moses came down again we read that this time his face shone because he had been talking with God, so much so that he had to wear a veil. The only other time when that happened was for Jesus during his transfiguration, unless you also count Stephen’s martyrdom when it says they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

Psalm 99

The psalm for today is based on the same story. You have to imagine this psalm being sung while people went up to Jerusalem in the time of David and after. They believed then that God particularly lived in the Jerusalem temple, where the two gold cherubim were fixed over the ark of the covenant, and the “holy hill” would have been Mount Zion. For instance, Daniel during his captivity in Babylon still prayed facing Jerusalem. But the motive for worship is not so much the geographical place as the holiness of God. The word for Holy implies separation or otherness as well as perfection– a spiritual dimension. In this spiritual dimension God reigns over and is near to all peoples, even where they do not recognise him, but particularly near to those with whom he is able to converse, prime historic examples being Moses and Samuel, and then par excellence Jesus.

Gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22

I guess millions of sermons have been preached on exactly what “rendering to Caesar” means in modern life. But Jesus was not interested in politics, or in laying down more regulations. This passage comes after Jesus had told several parables to show that the Jewish leaders had lost their way, and were more interested in regulations and laws and the temple than in coming near to God in the spiritual dimension. Moses and of course Jesus knew that the glorious spiritual presence of God was much more important than any amount of law; you could say the Pharisees had turned the law into their golden calf. Jesus is saying, forget your politics, and start asking God to reveal his glory (which of course he has done in sending Jesus, whom they did not recognise). Only after that will you be qualified to regulate others.

So do we dare now to ask God to show us his glory, when our attention is gripped by tragedies and struggles both personally and all over the world, not least in the Middle East? Of course we pray about these things, but we do need to remember the priority of seeking God just for himself, not just for what we want him to do. He reigns, and precisely how he reigns is up to him in the end. He is holy, we are not, but if we ask for his Spirit to converse with us we can be on the way, as Jesus promises to be with us always just like God promised Moses, but better because in Jesus we can see God without having to climb a mountain. Our first hymn is maybe too pessimistic in saying it is impossible for sinful people to see God: that tends to make us give up trying, but if we give up then Jesus came in vain.