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Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Exodus 33:12–23, 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 & Matthew 22:15–33

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Like most sayings, its precise meaning is probably open to interpretation. My own interpretation of that saying is that life is not a series of milestones to be checked off as we pass through each one, but rather it is a collective set of experiences to be embraced and learned from that we encounter along the way. If we focus exclusively on achieving the milestones – such as finishing school, going to university, starting a job, getting married, buying a house, starting a family, buying a bigger house, buying an expensive car, getting that job we have always wanted – then we might not be open to receiving the gift that comes from the experiences that happen to us in the process of achieving those things.

Those experiences can be both good and bad – joyful and painful – but whichever they are, they shape us into who and what we are. John Lennon once wrote, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”. We can spend as much time as we like on planning for our future, but then something is going to come along that is totally outside of our control and completely derail our plans. And what becomes of all that time and energy that we devoted to those plans? What else could we have done with that time and energy?

Just look at what has happened to the world in 2020 with the Covid 19 pandemic. Who could have foreseen at the beginning of the year that the year would unfold in the way that it has? It’s probably fair to say that life in lockdown has not been easy, or pleasant, for anyone. But I wonder, how many of us have spent much of our time and energy focussing on the question of when (and what) restrictions are going to be eased, rather than perhaps on just ‘being’ in the experience of the moment, regardless of whether the feeling of that experience at the time was good or bad? No doubt we have all struggled at various points during lockdown.

Moses also struggled, when he and the Israelites were on their journey through the wilderness. God had called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, which he had done, but after all of the problems that he encountered with the people during his time in the desert, he was perhaps questioning his purpose. He needed to believe that God was still with him, and that God would not desert him. Moses asked God to give him a sign, if he was indeed truly in favour with God, some sign that God was with him. God responded by saying to Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)

The Apostle Paul struggled at times as well, especially when it came to problems being experienced by the churches he had founded. This was the case with the Church at Thessalonica. The Letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest letter that Paul wrote. He had founded the church there with Silvanus and Timothy. It was the church that he was perhaps the proudest and fondest of. The Thessalonians were mostly non–Jews, who had turned away from pagan idols, and fully embraced the gospel, despite persecution. This persecution was more than likely from other non–Jews in the city, who were angry that the Christian believers had stopped participating in the life of the city’s pagan rituals.

After Paul was forced to leave there by local Jews, who were outraged by his preaching in their synagogue, he was concerned for both the welfare of the members of the church, and the sustainability of their faith. So he sent Timothy back there to check on both their situation and progress. Timothy returned to Paul with really good news: the Thessalonians were enduring their persecution, with steadfast faith and love. This news provided Paul with added encouragement to cope with his own persecution. The Thessalonians became a further reminder to Paul, of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to change and transform people’s lives in a positive and powerful way.

Over the previous three Sundays, our readings from the Gospel of Matthew have focussed on Jesus speaking in parables to the Jewish religious leaders, and the crowds that had gathered to hear him talk. He spoke to them in particular parables, such as the parables of the ‘The Father with Two Sons’, the ’Wicked Tenants’ and the ‘Wedding Banquet’, each of which were actually describing the behaviour of the religious leaders themselves. 

Behaviour which Jesus found abhorrent. He felt they were hypocrites, because in their roles as religious leaders, they should have been there to guide the Jewish people in developing closer relationships with God, and learning how to live their lives more in keeping with what God had intended for them. Instead they were too focussed on their own importance and power, and on a very narrow interpretation of how God wanted the people to live which, in the case of the Pharisees, was obviously based around the Torah.

We could argue that the Jewish religious leaders saw their own lives more in terms of a destination rather than a journey, a destination that perhaps they believed they had already reached! For them, life was about their own position in society, their own sense of importance, and strictly adhering to the Jewish law. There was no sense that they were open to the notion of life being a journey, where perhaps tradition could, and should change, to recognise those aspects of God’s nature (such as compassion, love and forgiveness) which were more important than adhering to centuries–old rituals of washing hands and preparing food in certain ways.

Jesus certainly tried to teach them that this was in fact the case. The religious leaders, however, were none too pleased that Jesus had used the parables to criticise them in front of the crowds. So they set out to trap Jesus, first with a question about paying taxes, and then with a question about marriage in relation to the Law of Moses. But in both cases Jesus confounded them with his reply, and amazed the crowd, with his answers.

There is a famous verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ (Eccl. 3:1 NRSV) In other words; everything changes, and nothing is permanent. If we become too fixated on our own narrow goals and objectives, and by trying to control every outcome in our lives, then we run the risk of failing to appreciate life’s precious moments as they are happening around us. 

Some Christians might argue that life is a destination, and that that destination is eternal life. Those same people might possibly argue that this is why it is important to live a good Christian life; to go to church regularly, to do good deeds, and to avoid committing sin. I would like to suggest a distinction, albeit a subtle distinction. 

Life as a Christian is a journey. A journey to become more Christ like. By living our lives according to the example of Jesus himself, we embark on the journey of forming a closer and deeper relationship with God. It is a journey that prepares us for our ultimate journey, which is that of eternal life with God.

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