You know, I feel very sorry for Moses. There he is, doing his best to lead his people to the Promised Land, and what happens? They do nothing but grumble! They keep telling him they'd rather be back in slavery in Egypt, thank you very much, quite ignoring the fact that when they were in slavery, they hated it! But first of all they didn't have anything to eat, and then, when God provided manna for them – and nobody knows what manna was, exactly, only that it was edible and tasted good – they got bored of it, and wanted meat, so God sent quails for them. And now here they are grumbling because tonight's camping place doesn't have any fresh water for them. Moses is very fed up, and also slightly afraid of a riot and stoning, so God intervenes and tells Moses to hit a certain rock with his staff and water gushes out. And the people of Israel stopped grumbling, until the next time!
They were never contented. And nor, in many ways, were the Pharisees from our Gospel reading. They were not bad people, of course; they really did want to follow God, but they had misunderstood what was wanted, and thought that in order to be God's person, you simply had to follow the law absolutely exactly. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.
Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were, quite without realising it, imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why. And, of course, somewhat inevitably, they tended to be rather proud if they managed to live as they thought right, and then they looked down on those who didn't live as they did, believing God would exclude them.
And they find Jesus' teachings very unsettling, especially when he starts telling them they're being totally hypocritical, fussing about how many mint leaves to tithe but ignoring people who are in need. Unsettling and disturbing. So they ask Jesus by whose authority he is speaking.
Now this was a trick question, of course. If he claimed a human source for his authority, they could discredit it. If he said it was just his own thoughts, or, worse, if he claimed it came from God, they could stone him for a heretic. It could be that some of them genuinely wanted to know, but many would have hoped he'd blunder. But he didn't. He turned it back on them – okay who gave John the authority to baptise? And that, too, was a trick question. If they said John's authority was from God, Jesus could legitimately ask why they hadn't believed him, and if they said it was merely human, well, what would the people think – they believed John was a prophet sent from God, and weren't going to stand for the Pharisees telling them different!
And then Jesus tells them the lovely little story to show how it's not always the obvious people who are first in line for the kingdom of God. The two sons, one seemingly more than willing to help his father in the vineyard, the other with some excuse or other not to. And then the role reversal, the first son failing to go, despite having said he would; the second son finding he was free after all and going to help. And he was the one who found favour with his father that day. “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
And if you didn't believe John, Jesus implied, you aren’t going to believe me, either!
So what do these readings have to say to us this morning?
I think it's very much about our expectations. What do we expect from God? The people of Israel expected God, through Moses, to provide for their every want. Not just their every need – which he manifestly did – but their every whim. They wanted leeks and onions and all the delicious food they'd left behind in Egypt. They wanted to be free, but they didn't want to pay the price of that freedom! They wanted to be in the Promised Land already, without having to travel there, if that makes sense. And whenever things got slightly uncomfortable for them, they grumbled and moaned and whined – on one occasion, you may remember, they even went so far as to worship another god in the shape of a golden calf. They wanted God to do things their way.
And the Pharisees also wanted God to do it their way. They wanted God to say they were doing it right, their tithes and their keeping the law in infinite detail would make things all right. God would, they hoped, accept them because they kept the Law. Which was all very well, but not when it turned into that they hoped God would reject those who didn't keep the Law! They definitely wanted God to do it their way!
I have a horrid nasty feeling that we are all too apt to do this, too. I know I do. It would be nice to be able to manipulate God, to make God do things our way. In many ways, it would be nice to be able to take responsibility for our own salvation. We can't, of course, any more than the Pharisees could. They tried to be saved by keeping God's law exactly perfectly, just as we try to assume we are saved because we have committed ourselves to be Jesus' person. But they weren't, and we aren't. We are saved by God's grace alone, and we can do nothing to change that.
That sounds as though I'm preaching about predestination and stuff like that. I'm not. As Methodists, we believe that everybody needs to be saved, and that everybody can be saved, can know they are saved, and can be saved to the uttermost. But the point is, while I know that God has saved me, whatever I might mean by that – and I don't always know, so don't go asking me – I know that God has saved me, but I have no way of knowing about you. You know, yes. You know, and you will doubtless tell me, that God has indeed saved you, but I have no way of knowing unless you tell me. And you have no way of knowing about anybody else, and nor do I.
We can't make God do things our way. We'd like it if people were only saved if they prayed the sinners' prayer, or whatever, and then expressed their faith exactly like we do. Human nature, that is. The Israelites wanted God to do things their way, to provide all sorts of delicious food for them whenever they wanted it, not just camp rations. They wanted to have arrived in the Promised Land without having to go there.
We have to remember that it was the son who worked in the vineyard who did what his father wanted. The father still loved the son who changed his mind and didn't go – that was never the issue. He still loved him, but he wasn't best pleased about it, all the same.
So what is it God wants us to do? Obviously to believe, to have faith. And to stop trying to manipulate him! It really isn't easy. I was upset by something earlier this week, and found myself praying, “Lord, if you do that, I'll never speak to you again!” What I should have been praying, and what God gave me the grace, eventually, to be able to pray, was: “Lord, if you want to do that, you're going to have to change me to enable me to accept it, because I certainly can't right now!” I dare say God could manage very happily if I never spoke to him again – but I'm not sure I could!
Seriously, though, it can get like that, can't it? Another rather silly example – someone on Facebook posted a comment that I considered judgemental, and I was going to post “Judge not, that ye be not judged” on his status, when I realised – or God pointed out to me, whichever – that if I did that, I'd be being just as judgemental as I was planning to accuse him of being! Oops!
It isn't easy to do things God's way, rather than to try to make God do things our way. That is always the temptation – I know it's one of my persistent temptations, and I shouldn't wonder if some of you share it. We want our own way; we think we know how the world should be run, and we think God is very silly not to see it the same way as we do. Okay, when I put it like that, it sounds ridiculous – but isn't that exactly what the Israelites were doing? What did God think he was doing, they wondered, making them camp here where there wasn't any fresh water? Isn't it exactly what the Pharisees were doing? What did God think he was doing, they wondered, sending this laughing young man to tell them they'd got totally the wrong idea about God?
The good news is, of course, that we can catch ourselves doing it, and repent. I don't mean having to grovel and tell God how awful we are – often, it is enough just to laugh at ourselves. “Oops, I did it again!” as the song says... And if we can and do commit ourselves to doing things God's way, then next time we try and do it the other way round, we might catch ourselves just that wee bit earlier.
And yes, sometimes it isn't at all easy. If things look as though they might be going in a direction we would hate – illness, a threatened job loss, whatever it might be – it's not at all easy to say to God, “do it your way. Thy will be done!” Often we know God's going to have to change us before we can accept it.
But we do, in the end, have to say “Thy will be done!” to God. If we keep on and on saying “Do it my way!” eventually God might just take us at our word – and leave us to get on with it. And, as I said, I don't know about you, but I don't think I could cope with a universe without God, could you? Amen.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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