Sunday, June 14, 2020

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 19:2-8
Psalm 100
Romans 5:6-15;
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-20)

For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.

I reached Psalm 100 in my study of the psalms last night. It was a welcome relief. Some of the psalms are very heavy, even depressing, especially from our New Testament point of view. Of course, we read them from our point of view, and I’ve come to understand those laments and imprecations much more as I’ve looked at the songs in a new way, but I was very glad to finally reach a series of happy psalms. Some of the psalms in the 90’s are very familiar to us; the words are found in the music we sing today. I found myself humming some of the old Vacation Bible School songs as I worked through those texts.

Unfortunately, many of our churches have had to cancel Vacation Bible School or replace it with something virtual. Our church has teamed with four others in town and they are all preparing a week of at home activities that are being shared with all four churches. Each week a different set of plans are sent to the congregation, then people are asked to share photos or thoughts on the Facebook pages. Though I don’t have children, I have played along a few days. One of the activities has to do with music. Each day there is an assignment to find a song on Youtube and listen to it as a family. These are not necessarily the typical VBS songs, but they are songs that speak to the message of the day.

The songs we teach to children about faith are simple, easy to remember, and have catchy tunes so the children learn them quickly. Those same songs often drive the mothers crazy the rest of the day because they are so catchy that the children sing them over and over again.

Music is a wonderful way to learn. When we were little children, we learned so many things through music. Sesame Street taught, and still teaches, valuable life lessons through the song. Which child did not learn their letters by singing the Alphabet Song? Every child in Sunday school learned about the love of God with the classic, “Jesus loves me.” Music is not only fun, but it also writes the words and ideas upon our hearts. They become so much a part of us that we find ourselves humming our favorite songs or hymns as we go about our daily task. The music in our soul keeps us close to the things we love.

The story is told about a famous theologian who, after giving a lengthy presentation on Christianity, was approached by a reporter who asked him to summarize his lecture. The professor thought a moment, and then said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” There are times when such simple words express more than elaborate dissertations on theology ever could. These simple and familiar words come from the song “Jesus Loves Me,” written by Anna Bartlett Warner. The song was written by Anna as a poem for inclusion in one of her sister Susan’s books and was set to music by William Bradbury. Anna was a Bible study teacher at the Academy at West point and shared the song with her students. The cadets were often heard singing it on campus. Who would have thought that such a simple song could become such a powerful witness of God’s grace?

So, as I read the psalms for my study, I thought about all those old Sunday school songs. I can hear us singing “I’ve got the joy down in my heart” and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart.” These songs remind us of the joy of living in a relationship with God, of being joyful in His presence. It is in the power of music that we are able to remember the simplest, but most important, things about God. He has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing or humming or words of praise, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world.

The best part of Psalm 100 is that it is the Gospel message. The psalmist invites the whole world, all nations, to enter the sanctuary of God to praise their Creator and Shepherd. It is a universal psalm that looks forward to the day when everyone will acknowledge the Lord and confess His Holy name. This is not a confession just from the head and mouth, but it is about living a life of thanksgiving. It is true that not everyone lives by this today, but we are called to go out into the world to share the Gospel message with others, to invite them into God’s sanctuary to join us in singing His praise. The Lord is good, His covenant love is forever, and it is for everyone.

This is why Jesus sent the disciples into the world. Of course, in today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples were still a small group and they were still babies in this new and different faith. The lesson begins at the end of chapter nine, and it is the first time we see the list of the twelve specifically mentioned. Up to this point, Matthew has reported about Jesus’ birth, early life, baptism, and temptation. He has described the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has given us the Sermon on the Mount, which is a description of what it means to be a Christian in the world. In chapters eight and nine, Matthew reports about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the amazing things that He was doing in the world.

Then Jesus told the disciples, “The harvest indeed is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The Twelve were the first, but the work would require so many more.

Matthew writes, “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these. The first, Simon, who is called Peter; Andrew, his brother; James the son of Zebedee; John, his brother; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; Lebbaeus, who was also called Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.” These were the men who were closest to Jesus. There were other disciples, others who followed Jesus from the beginning. They were also sent into the world. Luke tells of a second mission when seventy-two went to share the Kingdom of God with the nations.

There is an order to Matthew’s list. Peter is listed first and we know from the scriptures that Peter was the one chosen to lead the other disciples after Jesus was gone. The book of Acts tells of amazing works of power. Peter raised the dead and healed the sick, signs of his authority to do what God called and gifted him to do. Andrew, Peter’s brother, is a key character in the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry. Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus. Andrew was also a disciple of great faith who handed Jesus a small boy’s lunch as a way to feed thousands of people. Next are listed James and John. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle and were present with Him at the transfiguration and are part of other key moments. Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas are mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew is identified as a publican or tax collector. We know little about the second James, Thaddeus and the second Simon. Judas Iscariot is the betrayer.

Jesus gave the disciples the power to heal and the authority to do His work. These words are very similar but they are different. When we look at Matthew the tax collector, we see that in his vocation he had power and authority. The power was in being able to collect the taxes. It takes a certain talent to get people to give their money to the rulers, and Matthew seemed to do well at their job. He also had authority to do it, which was given to him by the Romans. He had power, the ability to do the job, but he could not have done it on his own. I doubt the Roman government would have stood for a guy collecting taxes without the authority, especially since a freelance publican is not likely to give his take to the government.

Matthew not only had the power to collect taxes, he had the authority to do so. The Roman government gave Matthew the right to exercise his power. Roman authority made his claim of vocation legitimate. The disciples not only had the power to heal the sick and cast out unclean spirits, they also had the authority that Jesus gave them which came directly from God. That authority continued to be passed from generation to generation through God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.

The twelve apostles would never be enough to continue the work of Jesus Christ in the world. The mission on which Jesus sent them in today’s story was just the beginning. They were just learning how to be His messengers, how to use the power, and how to handle the authority. They had so much more to learn and Jesus would spend years teaching them. For that moment, however, it was just twelve men going out into the world to share the Kingdom of God with others. Jesus said, “Pray therefore that the Lord of the harvest will send out laborers into his harvest.” Even today we need more people to share in the work of Christ. The world gets bigger even as it gets smaller. There are more and more opportunities to take the Gospel to others, and never enough laborers. It isn’t an easy task, but God gives all that is necessary. Then He calls us, as He called the apostles, to share freely all that He has given.

Jesus sent the disciples into the world with nothing. They were not to take extra money or clothing, not even an extra set of shoes. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time packing light for even a weekend excursion. I take everything I need so that I’ll be prepared. The apostles were commanded to trust God. They were expected to enjoy the hospitality of the people in the towns they were visiting, staying in one place for a time so that they could meet and teach the villagers. I know people have traveled this way for thousands of years, but I can’t imagine not knowing where I will sleep or find a meal on my journey. They didn’t have a LaQuinta or McDonald’s every few miles.

The disciples were sent on this first missionary adventure and told not to force themselves on anyone. If they were not welcomed, they were not to stay. Jesus said, “Shake the dust off your feet.” Remember, these were new disciples, not yet trained. This story gives us confidence to know that Jesus doesn’t expect us to do work we are not yet trained to do. They had power and authority, but they did not yet have everything they needed to fight the spiritual battles they would face.

He assured them that there would be consequences for the rejection. “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.” This does not seem very merciful. However, we have to remember that this was a training mission. The disciples, though gifted and authorized, were inexperienced. How could they convince people when they were not really familiar with everything Jesus would teach them? Unfortunately, those who reject the disciples might not have the chance to hear the good news again.

The work would not be easy. Jesus said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves.” Some people will not only reject them, some might even threaten them. The people were often afraid after Jesus did miraculous things, like the time he sent the demons into the pigs. Jesus was able to get through those tough times, but the disciples might not have had the faith to do so. It was better for them to leave the places where people rejected them than to face spiritual, emotional and physical harm. Jesus said, “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” They were not being sent into the world to be hard or harsh; wisdom sometimes means leaving unbelievers behind.

Though the work they were being called to do was difficult, Jesus reminded them the source of their power and their authority. He encouraged them to not be anxious because God would give them the words to speak. It is His Gospel that is spoken through His disciples. The same is true for us today. Sharing the Kingdom of God is not something we can do by our own power. It is His power that brings healing and restoration. He approves those whom He calls and gives them (us) the authority to do the work. He speaks through us. The word that saves is His. When we face those tough times, we need not worry for God is with us. We have a job to do, we are priests in the Kingdom of God.

The purpose of priests was often different in the ancient religions. Take Egypt, for instance. The priests of ancient Egypt did not serve the people. They did not preach or teach. They did not act as doctors or judges. They were set apart to meet their god’s every need, from sun-up to sun-down. At the break of day, the Egyptian priests sang a hymn calling their god to awake for the day. The priests then opened the sanctuary door, the place where their god slept, and said a prayer over the image of the god so as to bring it back to life again. The god’s image was bathed, anointed and purified. Linen clothes were removed and fresh garments were put on the image. The sanctuary was cleansed with incense. Perfumes and cosmetics were applied to the image. Food was laid out for the god. The sanctuary was sprinkled with water, natron (which is a salt mixture harvested from dry lake beds,) and resin. The doors were closed and sealed. This ritual happened three times a day. The priests spent their lives serving the physical needs of the god of their temple.

We see God from a much different perspective. Our God does not need to be aroused in the morning. He does not need to be cleansed and clothed. He does not need meals laid at His feet or baths of water, natron and resin. We do not give God anything because everything we have is His.

Our Old Testament lesson is from the story of the Exodus and we see the Hebrews at the end of a journey. It is just the beginning, but they had just arrived at the base of Mount Sinai. They finally met the God that had redeemed them out of Egypt. He was the God of their forefathers, but they had lost touch with Him. They had nothing to instruct them in the way they should go, only the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even Joseph’s memory had been lost to the people after four hundred years of living in that foreign land.

Moses went up on the mountain to speak with the LORD. God answered, “You 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, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This is what is called a “suzerain-vassal covenant.” It is a promise by a greater party that is dependent on the actions of the lesser party. In other words, it is an “if, then” covenant. If Israel will be obedient to the Law, then they will live under the guardianship of the LORD their King. Many of the ancient kingdoms were like this: the king owned the land and the fortress. If the vassals wished to be protected in time of war and danger, they had to be invited inside the walls of that castle. Since all was owned by the king, the people even needed him for their daily bread. If they wanted food to eat and a place to sleep, then they had to obey the law of the land. This is the type of covenant that was established between God and Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Moses took the message of God to the people. “If you obey, you will be His people and He will care for you.” They eagerly agreed. “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” Yet, we know that the Bible shows us that they could not keep that covenant. They often turned from God; they even did so while Moses was getting the Law! They created a golden calf and bowed down in worship to that god while Moses was in the presence of the true God. The god of the idol, like the gods of those Egyptian priests, could never have taken them out of Egypt. They thought Moses was dead and returned to the life they knew. Sometimes following God means having to wait, trust, and suffer. We’d rather have control of our own life. We’d rather pack everything we need for the journey so that we will be prepared. We try to use our own power even though we are really powerless.

God promised that His people would be a Kingdom of priests if they kept His covenant. This was not a priesthood like those in Egypt, although the priests of God do serve Him. They would serve Him, however, by serving others. They were His treasured possession, blessed to be a blessing to the world. Unfortunately, they forgot their calling and let others act as priests, mediators between God and man. Modern Christians still set aside certain people to do very specific work of God. Yet, the promise in today’s Old Testament is still meant for us. Peter applied that same promise to Christians in his first letter (1 Peter 2:5) called to serve God as His priesthood and to dwell in this world as a holy nation.

That’s what the disciples were sent to do on that first missionary journey. They were to serve God by sharing His grace with those who would listen. They had the power to heal and the authority to invite others into the Kingdom of God, into the sanctuary to sign praise and thanksgiving to the God who is Creator and Shepherd. We follow in their footsteps and do the same.

It is not hard to see the appropriateness of today’s Psalm since it is a song of thanksgiving and joy. It is the song we should sing each day, no matter what we face in our journey of life. We prepare when we travel in our world today: we plan our trip, decide what to pack, and reserve hotel rooms. We do this because the nature of hospitality is different in our world today. Yet, when it comes to matters of faith, when it comes to sharing the Gospel, we are called to live as they did: trusting in God to provide all we need, sharing everything freely because we have received it freely.

None of us are perfect. We fail and we suffer the consequences of our failure. We make mistakes, but faith brings us through our times of suffering, as we persevere through tough times with God’s promises as our firm foundation. We will break our promises. We will even break our promises to God. Yet, we can trust that God will be faithful through the rough times; He will give us all we need to be the priests of His Kingdom, to be His holy nation. We have reason to shout for joy and sing songs of thanksgiving, drawing from those simple songs that have been written on our hearts, those powerful witnesses to God’s Good News that He has called us to take to the whole world.

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