Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Service Date: 
15 October, 2017

Worship was led by The Revd. Dr. Walter Houston who preached on the theme of leadership and its features and give examples of a bad leader in Aaron who simply gave the people what they wanted and Moses, a good leader who was prepared to stand up for his people and if necessary die for them .Later, Jesus and Paul led by example. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for his pe0ple and that requires us to imitate his love and forever offer our grateful praise. 

Hymns: 

Rejoice and Sing 94  Give to our God immortal praise

Rejoice and Sing 717  Give praise and thanks unto the Lord (setting of psalm  106 verses 1 - 4)

Rejoice and Sing 567 Thy hand, O God has guided

Rejoice and Sing 532  Lord of creation, to you be all praise

Sermon: 

Readings

Exodus chapter 32 verses 1 - 14

Psalm 106 verses 6, 7 and 19 - 23

Philippians chapter 4 verses 1 - 9

Matthew chapter 22 verses 1 - 10

Leadership is a quality we are constantly in search of, or to put it another way, we tend not to be satisfied with the leaders we’ve got. In this democratic age we talk about ruling ourselves, but we are always looking out for leaders. Football clubs turn over managers the way fashionable ladies change their wardrobe. In politics we are confronted with it just now more obviously than ever in this period of party conferences: a personality cult develops round Jeremy Corbyn, while Theresa May’s leadership is under threat and seemingly the more so because of a series of mishaps during her closing speech that were hardly her own fault.

What are the qualities that we should look for in a leader? There are quite a number. Vision, charisma, steadfastness, rapport with the people he or she leads… all these, at least, and you can probably think of others. I am going to pick out some important points in the leaders who feature in our first two Bible readings this morning, which may make us think about the meaning of leadership.

The story of the golden calf is one of the masterpieces of the biblical storyteller’s art. The first people who appear in the story are the followers, the people of Israel, who become discontented because their leader, Moses, has been away for a long time, and they’ve no idea when he’s going to be back. Fearful and superstitious, they turn on his second in command, Aaron, and suggest that a good substitute would be a concrete symbol to act as a focus of loyalty: ‘gods who will go before us’.

Now this is direct disobedience to the first of the Lord’s commandments that they accepted before Moses went up the mountain and disappeared: ‘You shall have no other gods before me; do not make for yourself an image of anything in heaven above or in the earth below or in the waters under the earth.’ Aaron’s obvious responsibility was to talk them out of it. Instead, he just gives in to them, asks them to give him all the gold they’ve got, and makes of it the golden image of a calf, and says ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ The plural ‘gods’ seems odd as there is only one calf, but it is put that way because the storyteller wants to remind us of the action of king Jeroboam of Israel, told in 1 Kings chapter 12. He sets up bull-images in the two border temples of the kingdom, Bethel in the south and Dan in the north, and according to the Kings story says the same words: ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Israel.’

Aaron could have said that he was not enticing Israel to worship another god. Everyone knew that it was the Lord, the God of Israel, who brought them out of Egypt, so that in saying ‘this brought you out of Egypt’ he was identifying the calf image as an image of the Lord himself, and in fact the celebration that he calls for is ‘a festival to the Lord’. But what we call the second commandment clearly forbids the worship of images, regardless of who they are intended to represent. Is God like an ‘ox that eats grass’? When Moses confronts Aaron later in the story he makes two pathetic excuses, first, that the people were out of control—so he didn’t know how to control them or didn’t have the strength to do so, and secondly, that after collecting their gold and putting it in the fire, ‘this calf came out’, as if it made itself and wasn’t anything to do with him.

So much for Aaron, a very bad example of someone who is not a leader, but just gives the followers what they want.

But what about Moses? In the part of the story we have heard we don’t see him interacting with the people, but when he comes down from the mountain he shows his strength of character when he subdues and severely punishes the people whom Aaron was unable to control. Here he is only in dialogue with God. Yet this dialogue shows better than anything else in the story just how good a leader he is.

We see God telling Moses about what is going on down there, and he goes on: ‘I see this people, and it is a stiff-necked people: obstinately disobedient. Now let me alone, let me alone, that I may consume them, and make of you a great people.’ He is proposing to destroy the people of Israel as a whole and call a new one into being among Moses’ descendants, the same way he had with Abraham before, just as in Jesus’ parable he destroys the city of the people first invited to the wedding and calls together a new people from the byways.

Just to digress for a minute about the parable. This version in Matthew is rather different from the better known version in Luke, particularly because of this strange interlude in which the king sends his army to destroy a city while the dinner is waiting on the hotplate. Obviously this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Probably Matthew has put in this episode to allude to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This whole block of teaching by Jesus is addressed to the religious and political leaders of the Jews, and the parable tells them that if they fail to listen to what Jesus is saying, they will be replaced by others, like the prostitutes and tax collectors whom we heard about two weeks ago in the reading from Matthew. But Matthew is writing after the war with the Romans that ended with Jerusalem’s destruction, and he has put it into the parable. According to Matthew, Jesus had warned the leaders long before that their city, Jerusalem, could be destroyed if they did not listen to his call.

Anyway, it is this kind of revolutionary upset, replacing one chosen people by another, that God is proposing in the Exodus story. But first, remarkably, he says ‘let me alone’. This is extraordinary. How can Moses stop God doing what he wants to do? We shall see.

But what a temptation for Moses!  To become the ancestor of a chosen people, another Abraham! In place of a people who have shown themselves unworthy of it. But he resists this temptation. He sets himself to plead for this unworthy people, to save them from destruction. Why? Because he is responsible for them, because he has been commissioned by God to lead them out of Egypt and into the promised land. Because they are his people, and he must defend them from all dangers, even from God. This is what leadership means for Moses. Only someone who is totally committed to the people and ready to die for them, as maybe Moses might have to, is a proper leader: even if it means standing up against God. As someone has finely said, ‘Aaron could not restrain the people: Moses could restrain even God.’ He ‘stood in the breach’, as the Psalm expresses it, to turn away God’s wrath.

Cleverly, Moses appeals to all the reasons which ought to make God change his mind. ‘Why does your anger burn against your people (God had called them ‘this people’) whom you brought out of Egypt’. They are God’s people, not just any people, and it will have been wasted effort if he now destroys them. ‘Why should the Egyptians say, “He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth?”’ It’s a matter of God’s reputation: does he want the Egyptians sniggering that he chose this people and then turned round and destroyed them? But he leaves the most important reason to last. ‘Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and said, “I shall make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and all this land of which I said I would give it to your descendants they shall inherit for ever.”’ In other words: you promised, and you cannot go back on your word. And if the other reasons aren’t enough for God, this one finally makes him change his mind.

But may be this is what God meant to do all along, and when he makes his dreadful threat he is counting on Moses to respond in the way that he does. But is it the reasons that Moses offers that count, or is it  the respect that God has for Moses as a leader utterly dedicated to his people? Moses has gone out on a limb for the people he leads, and has come away triumphantly successful.

Now look at the completely different aspect of leadership which we can see in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He loves them and is proud of them, ‘my joy and my crown’, he calls them. But that doesn’t prevent him seeing where they are falling short, and calling on them to make things better. His women colleagues Euodia and Syntyche have evidently had a bad falling out, and this concerns him: he says they ‘have struggled with me in the work of the gospel’, and he is sad to hear they are not seeing eye to eye.

Then, after he has told them to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’, and given them various other final words of advice, and blessed them with the peace of God, he thinks of a few more things he could say, beginning with the famous command ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable (or ‘serious’) and so on, think of these things’, and he goes on: ‘whatever you have learned and received and heard in me, keep on doing those things.’

Any teacher or leader might say, ‘whatever you have learnt or heard from me’. But Paul says ‘whatever you have seen in me’ is to be imitated. He is not just saying ‘do what I say’, he is saying ‘do what I do’. The best sort of leaders are those who don’t just sit aloft and tell people what to do, but act in the way they expect others to act. In another place, he reminds his mostly poor converts that he worked hard (as a tent-maker according to Luke) so as not to be a burden on them, and says ‘you do the same, work hard and don’t expect other people to feed you.’ He would have no credibility at all in telling them that if he didn’t offer a model for imitation himself.

So there you have two striking but very different models of leadership. Our leader is Jesus Christ, setting aside all political and other secular leaders, and in him we can see both these aspects of leadership very plainly.

I’m not one of those who would say of any dilemma in life ‘What would Jesus do?’, because Jesus had his own unique mission which none of us are called to. But in the daily course of life we see how Jesus spent himself for those he came to save: how he prayed for them, laid hands on them, responded to every individual in the crowds who came to him for help: to put it in a nutshell, he loved them. And this love and commitment to everyone who applied to him is a model for his followers to imitate. None of us will be able to act with that universal love and total commitment: but the model is there: a leader who did not just teach us to love each other, but did it himself.

And then there is another thing. In the end, when his enemies were closing in, wouldn’t it have been easy for Jesus to give them the slip: to tell Judas one thing and then go somewhere different, and then head for the hills? Very easy. But then we would never have heard of him, and it’s not what he did. He went to Jerusalem knowing it was his enemies’ stronghold, he taught there openly, he let Judas go and tell the chief priests where they could find him, and when they came he surrendered himself into their hands. As Moses would have been prepared to do, he made the supreme sacrifice for our sake; he stood in the breach to prevent our sins from overwhelming us.

And in his teaching he suggests that we are called to follow him also in this giving of himself in service and sacrifice. ‘Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy to be my disciple.’ The point is not that Christians have to be martyrs. Martyrdom isn’t something we should actively seek, but rather we should be ready to suffer if we have to. It certainly doesn’t mean that we, sitting comfortably at home without being persecuted, can criticise Christians from Iran or Pakistan who flee to avoid persecution. On the contrary, we need to welcome them and fight to make sure they can stay. But we can honour those who have not been able to avoid it and suffer bravely because they are Christians.

Obviously this is not all that we could say about Jesus as a leader. But it is enough for now. He shows the way for us as his disciples. We can imitate his faithful love and live in grateful praise for his offering of himself for our sake.