God, his people, and the wilderness
[The people of Israel] set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. (Exodus 19:2-8 ESV)
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the labourer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 9:35-10:20 ESV)
The sun is out a lot more now. The grass is growing; the lawns need mowing. Spring and summer are times of growth long before the harvest and the storage of food for the winter. With our supermarkets we may not be as seasonally attuned as past generations but we know – and like! – this time of the year – people seem to be smiling more.
In the Christian Church with its church seasons, aligned as they are to the northern hemisphere we are beginning a new season as well – and it, too, is a season of growth. We see the green – growth is the order of the day as the Church learns what it means to use the gifts of God – the Means of Grace – to be the people of God at this time and in this place. And that’s what every person with a faith or a philosophy or a world view does – learns to live according to it in their time and place. Perhaps the events of their lives challenge their perspective – people do change their views – people become Christian who weren’t and sadly people leave Christianity too – but it’s not just us, it is happening in all religions and philosophies – there comes various times when people are ‘put to the test’ by circumstance – a fire, an election, a fear for the future, a doctor’s
diagnosis, injustice, corruption, and so on – and people emerge either stronger in their beliefs and views or not. So we enter this green season of the Church Year with a desire to learn, to grow in our faith because times have come or will come – or we find ourselves in them – when our faith, our belief is challenged by the here and now. Things like faith, belief, points of view are never really static – if they are ‘frozen’, they are decaying. We all want our relationships to improve – fights to end, reconciliation to happen, and even for good relationships to get better. It’s the same spiritually – we would like doubts to end, sins to be less dominant, and good relationships with God and others to get better! We want to grow!
I want to weave the readings from Exodus and Mathew together. Separated by about 1,500 years they have the same ‘ingredients’ – God and his people in the wilderness. It’s easier to see this in the first reading – because the people of Israel had been rescued out of Egypt – and God had powerfully and dramatically and supernaturally acted to defeat the Egyptians and feed and water the people as they journeyed to the base of Mount Sinai. God had called them to himself and was about to establish a covenant with them so that they would be his people – described as a ‘kingdom of priests’ and a ‘holy nation’ – and through them bring about his plan he made promised Abraham – that through these people all the world will be blessed.
We know the history – what happened next. The people agreed – they liked the idea but didn’t have the follow-through. Essentially they wanted to take and be waited on by God rather than live with God in a relationship of living through our decades from birth to death, family and work with each other and with God. By nature we hunger to be god, to control things so that we can be waited on – and even at the mountain the people of Israel would do things their way – even turning God into a golden calf. God and his people in the wilderness – didn’t start all that well but God persevered.
With Matthew’s account we’ve come forward over a millennia and God has started again – something he had done on numerous occasions choosing the remnant, choosing the unlikely but the people of God are stubborn and our DNA seems wired for rebellion so God was going to make a new covenant on the inside – written on their hearts he revealed through Jeremiah – and in Jesus or Immanuel we have ‘God with us’ – truly human, truly God – and Jesus is gathering people around him. We still have God and his people in the wilderness. Again Jesus is offering life with him – not on our terms but on his – for discipleship is a following, not a leading – and through his apostles, Jesus is getting things ready. There’s still lots of work to do – it is called ‘Kingdom of God’ work – bringing about new life – healing, blessing, exorcisms – in the name of Jesus. For the moment it is focused on the descendants of Mount Sinai – later the work – the message – the living – will go out to Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
But Jesus also gives his disciples a world-view context, a global perspective – that this new life with him isn’t going to be received with welcomed arms universally but strangely it will be rejected – the thirsty will push the water away; the hungry won’t take bread; and instead the world will attack and persecute; ‘they will be wolves to you as lambs’ Jesus says.
I’ve sometimes likened these chapters 9-11 in Matthew as the ‘fine print’ of discipleship. You might want to read them – actually you definitely should read them – because Jesus sets out clearly that a relationship with him is primary and that he sends us back into our situations and relationships as his follower – or agent, ambassador, child, friend. On a bad day, Christians can hear this as rules and drudgery. On any day the world hears it as loss of individuality and fanaticism. But it is still the same as before – there is God, his people and the wilderness.
In our 21st century Britain we probably don’t usually think of our context as a wilderness – we’re too busy trying to manipulate it politically, economically, and socially as the best paradise we can make at the moment – or maybe we just want to redecorate. However after nearly two millennia on from Matthew this story of God, his people and the wilderness hasn’t gone away. Sure we have many churches and denominations – which isn’t helpful – and we’ve had centuries of the Church trying to run the world in some form because we’ve interpreted ‘kingdom of priests’ and ‘holy nation’ as the Church telling people what to do to be good. (Isn’t that the world’s summary of what churches are for?)
And what we have forgotten is that we – God’s people – live because we are carried – we don’t see the eagles’ wings as such – for us it is looking where Jesus told us to look – the Scriptures, water, bread and wine – and there we can find healing, blessings, even exorcisms or at least a breaking of the devil’s lies and
hold. And the mystery is that through these means Jesus makes his disciples holy – he touches them with water, bread and wine, and his absolution – and a kingdom of priests – where we are called to serve because that’s what priests do – serve – serve those around them with deeds as are needed – and with prayer.
Yes, we live in affluence in comparison to much of the world – relatively peaceful most of the time – in one sense the future is always uncertain – but this image of the wilderness is a good one to keep in mind – not to denigrate or depreciate our surroundings – we do live on a beautiful blue ball in a vast universe – but to have the perspective of a disciple, a child of God which in our case means that our focus is all about Jesus and the God who serves.
That’s what we want to grow in – learning how – having the humility and the perspective that no matter our identity in this world, our position in society, our surroundings, the disciple of Jesus is here doing what Jesus did – seeking to serve – growing in our ability to serve those around us. After all, whenever we come into God’s presence all he ever does is serve us!
- Exodus 19:2 - 8
- Matthew 9:35 - 10:20