Sunday, June 18, 2017

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

All the people answered together, and said, ‘All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.

A dying man gave his three best friends - a clergyman, a doctor and a lawyer - envelopes with $25,000 each and made them promise that they would put those envelopes in his casket at his funeral. The man died and each of his friends did what they promised. Later, however, the clergyman admitted that he did not include the whole $25,000. “I sent some to a foreign ministry.” The doctor admitted that he didn’t include it all. “I donated most of it to a medical charity.” The lawyer was outraged. “Am I the only one who keeps his promises? I want you to know that the envelop I placed in the coffin had my own personal check for the entire $25,000!”

Ok, so this joke doesn’t say much about the lawyer’s faithfulness. He kept the promise in a way that benefitted himself while the two who did not keep the promise did so for unselfishly. The real question here is whether or not the promise itself was reasonable. Why would a man want $75,000 placed into a casket that would be useless buried under six feet of dirt? That’s not the point of the joke, of course, but it makes us wonder about promises.

I know that over my lifetime I’ve made promises that I could not keep. I suspect the same is true of every parent. We promise to play with our children and then get caught up in work. We promise to take our children to the park but we realize that we need to go to the grocery store to buy what we need for dinner. We promise that we’ll get our children the hot new toy for Christmas, but we can’t find it because every store is sold out. Promises aren’t always broken for self-centered or even unselfish reasons. Sometimes there is nothing we can do but break a promise.

We promise our bosses that we’ll get a project finished by a specific date, but everything goes wrong along the way. Computers break down, co-workers don’t do their part, or additional requirements add make the projected finish date impossible. Yet, the fault for breaking the promise falls on the one who made it.

The worst example of broken promises is divorce, but again it is sometimes the only option. I found a website today filled with brief stories of people who have experienced broken promises. Most of them were young and had been scorned by someone they love. They cry about how they can never trust someone again. Some cynical posts insisted that promises were made to be broken. Some insisted that breaking a promise is the worst thing that you can do to another person.

Perhaps that’s true, but we break promises every day. Have you ever gone over the speed limit? You made a promise when you signed the application for a driver’s license that you would obey all the laws. Speeding is breaking a promise. I suspect that most of us can think of some promise we’ve made that we have broken today. I keep promising myself that I’ll get more exercise, but my mini tramp is dusty. We have a million excuses; we may not even consider these things promises, but we fail to live up to them anyway.

Worst of all, we fail to live up to the promises we make to our God.

The people of Israel were at the base of Mt. Sinai. They had escaped the Egyptians, had made it through the desert to this place where they would hear from God. Moses went up and came down with the Word that if they obeyed God’s commands, they would be His people. They promised to do so. They didn’t keep that promise. As a matter of fact, Moses went up the mountain to receive the Commandments, and within forty days God’s people rebelled. They rebelled over and over and over again throughout their history. They repeatedly broke their promise to God.

God made a promise in today’s text, too. “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.” God could have, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, dissolved the relationship with Israel because they were unfaithful. Yet, our God is a merciful God, the God of second chances. They suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness, but God never abandoned His people. God is always faithful and He called His people to an extraordinary vocation: to be priests in His Kingdom, a holy nation.

The priests of ancient Egypt had an extraordinary vocation in their place and time. Modern priests (this is true of many different types of religions) are called and separated by their god to serve as mediators by offering sacrifices and teaching. This often means more than just religious service. Along with their religious duties, the Jewish priests practiced medical and judicial duties. They also were the teachers, providing both religious instruction as well as practical life lessons to the students. The priests were considered servants of God because they were doing the work God called them to do. That work often included very temporal duties for the sake of God’s people.

The priests of ancient Egypt were servants of their gods in a much different way. They 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, say 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, whatever it might be.

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.

God promised that His people would be a kingdom of priests if they kept His covenant. The covenant at Sinai was a conditional pledge from God that He would act as protector over Israel and assure for her a blessed place among the nations as His treasured possession. The people were being called to separation as a priesthood, servants of God, a holy nation. The people eventually let go of 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.

We continue to fail. We break our promises to God. We disobey His commandments. We live selfishly. We ignore the needs of our neighbors. We don’t realize it but our broken promises, even speeding, are rebellion against God. Yet, this God of mercy and second chances remains faithful to His promises. He continues to call us to be His priests in this world.

As priests we do not serve others, we serve God by serving others. Perhaps that sounds confusing, but it is all about our focus. There are many people in this world who do great and wonderful works for others. There are people who feed the hungry and clothe the poor. People who have no faith in God or Jesus have compassion on those who need shelter and companionship. There are non-religious people who are concerned about justice and mercy. They are good people. However, God was calling the people of Israel to be a kingdom of priests, to be people who served God. Keeping the covenant meant living as God had called them to live, with Him as their King. We are called to do the same, to do everything we do for the sake of God, to serve Him with all our hearts. As a priest in the Kingdom of God, we have one focus and that is our Father in heaven.

At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the people were preparing for the journey into the Promised Land. It would be a difficult time because it would take them many years to arrive at their destination. God would test them, they would fail; He would lift them up again and again. Through it all, they would see that He was with them always. They did not always believe, but He was always faithful. The disciples were preparing for a much different kind of journey in today’s Gospel lesson. They had no time to prepare; Jesus sent them off with nothing. They had no burdens, no maps, and no money. They had only faith, the authority Jesus gave them and His instructions.

The disciples had to trust that there would be a family waiting to take them in for the evening. Hospitality was different than it is today: you could knock on someone's door and you would find a warm fire and a hearty meal. Yet, not every homeowner was hospitable. The disciples could expect some compassion on the road, but they would not always be welcome. They would also face those who would not receive their message. The world does not want to hear the truth and their journey would not be easy. They would face hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt.

Though they would take the power of God to heal bodies, hearts and minds, they would be cast out of villages and left without proper food and shelter. Yet, if they walked forth in faith, God would provide all they needed. Jesus tells the disciples, “Freely ye received, freely give.” They were never to expect payment for the gift they were given. Jesus gave them the Gospel message and the power of God without concern for his salary. So, too, the disciples were to give freely.

We can only do the work of God because He has given us the authority and the power to do so. There would be no message to share if Jesus had not died on the cross. The Kingdom of God would still be under that covenant given at Mt. Sinai, a covenant dependent on our obedience to His Law. Paul tells us that our peace with God is not based on our ability to walk rightly, but rather it comes because we are made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ.

Faith in Christ is not easy; the disciples faced hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt. However, they were greatly blessed. Paul writes, “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him.” God demands our faithfulness, but knows we could never be faithful and so He sent Jesus to be faithful for us.

Jesus sent the disciples into the world with nothing. They were not to force themselves on the people. If they were not welcomed, they were not to stay. Jesus said, “Shake off the dust of your feet.” Then He told them the consequences of rejection. “It shall 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 yet really convinced of everything Jesus would teach them? Unfortunately, those who reject the disciples might not have the chance to hear the good news again, and so the consequence of their rejection was a day of judgment against them.

The work would not be easy. Jesus said, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Some people will not only reject them, some might even threaten them for the things they would do and say. The crowds were often afraid after Jesus’ miracles. When He sent the demons into the pigs, the crowds begged Him to leave them alone. Jesus was able to get through those tough times. The disciples might not have been so lucky. It was better for them to leave the places where people rejected them than to face spiritual, emotional and physical harm. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” They were not being sent into the world to be hard or harsh. Wisdom in this case meant 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. “But when they deliver you up, don’t be anxious how or what you will say, for it will be given you in that hour what you will say. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” 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.

The apostles were taking a message of hope into the world. The people to whom they were taking that message were probably not very hopeful. They were an oppressed nation, oppressed not only by the Roman government that ordered their secular lives, but also the religious government that were merely puppets to Rome. The Law was a burden they could not carry and they saw the leaders who should be their examples living self-righteously without mercy or grace. They had no control over their lives and they had no hope for tomorrow. They were relying on the things that fail - human beings, human rules, and human government - and they had lost touch with the God who gives a hope that does not disappoint. God will always be faithful to His promises, and we can sing His praises.

As I read today’s psalm, I remember the wonderful music that we all learned in Sunday School, at Vacation Bible School or at summer camp. I can hear children’s voices 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 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.

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. This gives us reason to shout for joy and sing joyful songs, to give Him thanks and praise His name!

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