The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 18 October 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: The Messiah
With the Track Two reading from Isaiah, and its reference to Cyrus we are put in mind of the notion of a messiah, an anointed one, a melekh mashiach (king messiah), a savior. This association with public political figures actually predates the connections with religious hopes and theology. A great number of our titles in Christianity were actually titles assigned to national leaders, such as “savior”, “lord”, and “messiah”. The Hebrew hopes saw a national leader connected to the Davidic line, anointed with holy oil by a priest. Isaiah expands that vision when he assigns the title to Cyrus the Great, king of the Achaemenid Empire (Persia). In a sense, Cyrus accomplishes a great deal of what was expected of the messiah. He releases those Jews held in exile in his kingdom and authorizes the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hopes surrounded the idea of the messiah included the unification of the Tribes of Israel, the regathering of Israel into the lands of promise, the rebuilding of the Temple, and bringing to fruition a time of peace. One can see how this was easily adopted into the theological talk about Jesus and his teaching.
First Reading: Exodus 33:12-23
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
This is a very interesting story about relationships: the people with YHWH, the people with Moses, Moses with the people, and especially Moses with YHWH. In order to understand the context of our reading you might want to read the verses that lead up to our reading, Exodus 33:1-11. In those verses YHWH reveals that the Israelites can no longer expect the presence of YHWH in their midst. They are called a “stiff-necked people.” The result is a sadness that is seen in their doing away with the wearing of their ornaments. Our reading is a contract negotiation between Moses and YHWH on leadership. Who is it that shall lead the people into the land of promise mentioned in 33:3?
It is not only the people who want to know their standing before God, but also Moses himself. He has gone out on a limb for YHWH, and now he wants to know if he has confidence in this relationship, and if YHWH has confidence in him. Moses wants to make certain that all the people enjoy a relationship of confidence with the God of Israel. But there is more. Made certain by God’s responses to Moses, Moses now wants to “behold (God’s) presence.” In a stunning display, God proposes to hide Moses behind a rock, passing by and shielding him from God’s glory with the palm of God’s hand. What a symbol of the leadership that was being promised to Israel.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. What is your relationship with God like?
2. Have you ever been made sad in your relationship with God?
3. How has God shielded you, and yet revealed God-self to you?
Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit
1 The Lord is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.
2 The Lord is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.
3 Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.
4 "O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."
5 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.
6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the Lord, and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
8 O Lord our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.
9 Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the Lord our God is the Holy One.
This is the final psalm in a series of “kingship psalms” (Psalms 96-99). Indeed, the first four verses repeat lines from previous psalms. There are three sections to the psalm: I) verses 1-3, God is king, II) verses 4-5, God is just and fair, and III) verses 6-9, God’s relationship with God’s agents. It is the final verses that speak well to the first reading and its concern about the relationship of God, people, and Moses. The psalm is full of symbolism, the cherubim and the ark, the mount Zion, the pillar of cloud, and the holy mountain. In these references to symbols and places, the whole history of Israel in its relationship with God is underscored.
Breaking open Psalm 99
1. What does it mean to say God is king, or better yet, Sovereign?
2. Where or when have you experienced God’ justice?
3. Who are the righteous people in your life?
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him--
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.
Isaiah is nothing here but a realist and sees things as they really are. It is a foreigner who is the savior of Israel, a Persian king who allows the people to return to The Land. The first three verses rehearse what God has done for Cyrus, listing his victories and successes. There is, however, a reason for this sponsorship, and it is outlined in verse 4, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen.” It is God who knows Cyrus, and who appoints him for God’s purpose. However, Cyrus does not know the God of Israel.
Then, as God continues the speech given to Cyrus, YHWH makes Godself known. In this expression, Isaiah makes known his own universalism. God is not just the God of Israel, but the God of all the nations, “so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me.” There are two interesting aspects to verse 7. In the first strophe God speaks as the creator, forming light and creating darkness. In the second strophe, “I make weal and create woe,” we have covenant language. This is very much like the “blessings and curses” that accompany any covenant. This is outlined in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” Heaven and earth witness the covenant, and the typical blessings and curses accompany the cutting of the covenant. Finally, God is named, YHWH, the actor who does these things. The point of this reading? 1. That God is the universal God, and 2. That God can use anyone as God’s agent to do God’s will.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. Do you know of a modern-day Cyprus?
2. How is your religion universal?
3. What are the blessings and curses that accompany your agreement with God?
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) Cantate Domino
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10 [Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12 Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13 He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.]
Again, we have a kingship psalm (see Psalm 96, above in Track One). The characterization of God is twofold: Creator (compare Psalm 95), and Judge (compare Psalm 94). The overarching emphasis, however – and this makes it a great match to the lesson from Isaiah – is that of universalism. God is the God of all the nations. “Sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.” There is a good reason to include the optional verses in your singing or reading of this psalm in this day. Verses 10-13 bear the burden of why we ought to sing a new song, why we ought to sing to God. God the creator has made the world “firm.” God is indeed a judge, but one who judges differently – not as the world judges. This God judges the world with righteousness and truth. All the reasons for a new song of praise.
Breaking open Psalm 96:
1. What might a righteous judge look like to you?
2. How do you judge others with truth?
3. What does this psalm say to our national leaders?
Second Reading: I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
This first letter to the Thessalonians begins in a standard manner with a thanksgiving. This one is unusual, however, in its length, and in the fact that there are three thanksgivings in the letter (1:2, 2:13, and 3:9). One commentator notes that the content of the thanksgivings really forms the bulk of what St. Paul wants to communicate to his audience. The first of these thanksgivings is for the faith of the people. He notes that they are models of faith, specifically to fellow believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. He sort of recites a history of these people in their faith, their conversion (verses 4, 5, and 9), Paul’s work with them (verses 5 and 9), their persecution (verse 6), and the urgency of the time (verse 10). The key here may be the references to the congregation’s persecution, “for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy.” Paul anticipates that this situation is going to continue into the future, and thus the purpose of this letter is to encourage this young congregation in their faith and steadfastness.
Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1. When did you become a Christian?
2. Have you ever had difficulties because of your Christianity?
3. How do you announce the Good News in your life?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 22:15-22
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So, they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Our reading for today is a part of a large pericope that is about questions asked of Jesus by his detractors. Of interest is the fact that two disparate parties are attempting to entrap Jesus. There are the Pharisees, with whom we are familiar, and then the Herodians, with whom we may be unfamiliar. The Herodians were supporters of Herod the Great and his family – a puppet king supported by the Romans. Thus, they would have supported giving taxes to Caesar, while the Pharisees would not have supported that. Jesus is put into a double bind. They want to color Jesus either as a Zealot, or a Collaborator.
In the text, the verb used to describe the giving of taxes is a verb not denoting a gift, but rather the payment of something that is due. Thus, Caesar receives his due, as does God. We are here seeing not a piece of casuistry but rather a piece of evidence that could be used in a latter charge against Jesus. Instead the interlocutors are “amazed.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. How do you manage the stewardship of your taxes?
2. How do you manage the stewardship of your contributions to the church?
3. How do you attempt to be a good citizen?
General idea: On being a citizen
Example 1a: Determining how we are led by God (Track One – First Reading)
Example 1b: Even those unrelated to your faith can be agents of God’s good favor (Track Two – First Reading)
Example 2: Being faithful during difficult times (Second Reading)
Example 3: Recognizing God and Caesar (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller