Reading Ramblings – September 20, 2020

Date: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Context: The overflowing grace of God the Father through the atoning death of God the Son on our behalf, brought to us through faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit might seem like welcome news. It ought to be – and it usually is for us. But are we as happy to see that free gift extended to others we think are less worthy than we are? That’s a tougher question, and a good barometer of how much we still like to think our good behavior earns us extra brownie points with God. The grace of God is not an invitation to licentiousness. It is not cheap soas to be presumed upon as our due. But it is lavish. Extravagant. Bewilderingly so at times, and that is what we need to hear. If God is willing and able to receive even those who come to him late and at the last moment, then He is willing to receive you and I in our sinfulness at whatever time the Holy Spirit is able to break through and show us our gaping need for his love and forgiveness.

Isaiah 55:6-9 – We had the first five verses of this chapter as the Old Testament reading about 6 weeks ago. In those verses God extends his invitation not just to his own wayward people but to those beyond the Hebrew people. But to receive God’s extravagant grace and gifts means first acknowledging our need for them, that our own ways and efforts are deficient to say the least, and completely wrong-headed at worst. But a clock is ticking. God will not extend this grace forever. A day is marked for judgment. And short of that, each person has a tock clicking in their own lives, and none of us can be sure when the ticking stops. Therefore, we should take seriously God’s invitation as soon as we are made aware of it (v.6). This requires not simply the appropriation of God’s grace but the process of dispossessing ourselves of those traits and qualities and practices that are no longer appropriate with such grace (v.7). We are wrong to presume God does things the way we do, and whenever we presume to have God safely in our pockets we can be sure we are in danger of not having God at all. The life of repentance is just that – a life. Daily and hourly. Not a one-time conversion experience but a constant turning and retuning ourselves to the Word and will of God.

Psalm 27:1-9 – Powerful words for our day and time! When fear is so prevalent, when it is deliberately being fostered and stirred up in people, this psalm should remind us whose we are and that fear does not dominate us. We who are in Christ, how is it we think fear has a permanent place in our life? These words build our confidence. There is nothing that will defeat us permanently. Sickness and disease may take our life prematurely. Injustice and violence might constrain us or take our life prematurely. But there is no thing and no one who can defeat us eternally. The worst that can happen is suffering and death for a time. And then we know we will dwell in the house of the Lord, in his temple, in his shelter, under his tent, upon his rock. All words of protection and strength. God remains our salvation, and the powers of evil in this world and the effects they produce will one day be judged and sentenced and banished and we will be free of them to live in joy and perfection. This is not just a wistful hope but a certainty that can and should strengthen our hearts and minds and hands for the present time and the current challenges.

Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 – We leave behind Romans and move on to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church in Phillipi was the first European Paul founded, on his second missionary journey as detailed in Acts 16. He visited them again on his third missionary journey (Acts 20), and writes to them now to thank them for a gift of financial support they have given him, to convey Epaphroditus back to them after his recovery from a serious illness, and to inform the Philippians of Paul’s current status as a prisoner of the Roman Empire, making this one of Paul’s four letters during imprisonment. Time and location of writing are uncertain, with arguments being made for Ephesus, Caesarea and Rome. The strongest (and most traditional) arguments favor Paul writing this letter from Rome during his first imprisonment there circa 60 AD or later, and most probably about 62-63 AD. The sections in today’s reading refer not just to his imprisonment, but how the Holy Spirit has used his imprisonment to further the Gospel and encourage and strengthen fellow believers by his witness. A reminder that even in dire circumstances we are never beyond the ability of God the Holy Spirit to use for his good purposes of furthering the Kingdom of Heaven, even if we ourselves are not rescued from our temporal predicament.

Matthew 20:1-16 – If you want concrete examples of what the psalmist says about God’s ways not being our ways, look no further than this parable. Continuing on from Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 19 about the first being last and the last being first we have this story where that is literally true – the last to be hired are the first to be paid, and the last to be paid were the first to be hired. In fact this parable is bracketed by similar sayings of Jesus about the first and the last, and the grammar of the parable’s beginning, For the kingdom of heaven is like makes it clear the parable is linked to Jesus’ prior teaching and is an explanation and example of it. The parable is about how things work in heaven, and by extension, in the life and work and ministry of Jesus himself as the advent of the kingdom of heaven. It is how the kingdom of heaven looks in this present world, rather than a commentary on how things will look on the Last Day. How does God treat his creatures. Equally. Therefore it is not up to us to compare ourselves to others – believers or otherwise – and conclude we are more beloved of God, more deserving of his love, more entitled to greater reward.

What a challenge this was and is. Jesus’ day was not so different from our own in the oftentimes cutthroat effort for self-distinction and the merit possible with it. We compare ourselves in almost every respect to those around us, whether on the basis of weight, looks, height, education, professional accomplishments, salary, spouse, children, zip codes, vehicle makes, designer clothing – the list is nearly inexhaustible. Against this culture of competition and self-advancement Jesus makes the assertion that heaven does not function this way. The disciples may have a unique role on the day of judgment (19:23-30), but even this ultimately does not distinguish them in the way we typically think, a qualitative or value distinction. All are equally valuable to God the Father who has created, redeemed, and sanctified all of his people equally.

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