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Sermons

God as Our Sustainer, Giving Us Strength

October 31, 2004

Bible Reading

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf they had made, burned it in the fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. . . .

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control, making them a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, "Whoever is for the Lord, come to me." And all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.'" The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. . . .

The next day Moses said to the people, "You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." (Exodus 32:19-20, 25-28, 30)

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a 'den of robbers.'"

(Mark 11:15-17)

Reading from Swedenborg

Those who have gone through temptation and conflict . . . long for a separation from evil. In fact, they sometimes have such a strong desire for this that they are furious at the evil, and want to drive it out. (Arcana Coelestia #1580)

Sermon

It is amazing how God works through us despite ourselves. God leaves us in freedom; we are not robots assigned to God's will. We are, however, constantly in the care and guidance of the Holy One.

Consider the Old Testament story of Moses' righteous anger. God worked through Moses, using his anger to teach a necessary lesson. Moses made his way back down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. These tablets were the work of God, inscribed both front and back. Upon his return, Moses heard, not the sound of victory, nor the sound of rejoicing because the Word of God had been delivered. Instead, he was greeted with the sounds and activity of idolatrous celebration.

Moses' rage is clearly documented. He chose not to withdraw to consider options, not to inflict shame and guilt upon himself and internalize the wrongdoing. He did not make excuses for the people or let them off the hook, nor did God. The record shows that God ordered the slaughter of the unfaithful at the hands of their own loved ones. About 3,000 men perished that day. Those were extreme times in a different civilization than today; Jesus eventually came to give us a new law and order. But the point is still relevant: God works through our anger for divine purposes.

There is a place in God's order for righteous anger. It can give us the strength to take appropriate action against that which we understand to be an act defiling God's name and purpose. Our anger, if in the right place, can give us courage to take action we might otherwise forfeit to insecurities and rationalizations. We must be sure, however, that our anger is justified and our actions are one with God's will and with divine order. This usually requires prayer and refection on our part. Yet there are times when we know instantly that what we are seeing or hearing is wrong.

Jesus was a man of deep feelings. In the story of the expulsion of the dealers from the temple, Jesus did not merely say what he thought, he acted it out. He pushed over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who were selling pigeons. He blocked the path of anyone attempting to carry anything through the temple. He then scorned them by saying, "Does not Scripture say, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples?' But you have turned it into a robber's den."

This was not an act of gentle passivity. This was not a quiet, polite reminder of appropriate behavior in the house of worship. It was a direct confrontation. The chief priests and scribes were afraid of Jesus because the people "were carried away by his teachings." The people saw Christ in action, heard his words, and believed. Jesus' anger moved him to activity that left a lasting impression not only on those who witnessed the scene, but on those who later heard about the event and were also led to believe.

Jesus was a man of action. He knew what was right and wrong. He did everything in his power to correct the wrongs he encountered--as in the story of the adulterous woman. The people were overly zealous in judging her. Jesus confronted their judgmental character, putting this challenge before them: "If any one of you has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." In the end, Jesus was left alone with the woman. He looked up and asked her, "'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' 'No one, sir,' she replied. 'Neither do I condemn you,' said Jesus. 'Go now, and sin no more'" (John 8:1-11). Jesus' corrective measures were accomplished by confronting the irresponsibility of mass hysteria, and then demonstrating the art of forgiveness.

The only way to forgive another is to forgive ourselves. Whatever participation we might have had in a bad situation must first be reconciled. This can result in gaining perspective on the situation, thus preventing unnecessary blaming and avoidance. Like those who walked away from the potential stoning, we also must recognize and admit our own part. Yet we must do this without taking on the responsibility of other people's contributions. Forgiveness does not mean dismissing the matter at hand. Instead, it involves bringing the matter out in the open, whether it be in the form of inquiry or direct confrontation. We must be prepared to receive responses with an open, caring, and compassionate heart from those we are confronting.

Moses was instructed to carry out an order that resulted in clarifying and separating those who chose to follow God and those who chose not to. Jesus cleared away those who would defile the place of worship; and in the story of the over-zealous judgers, he caused them to look at their own sinful behavior of unrighteous condemnation. These are principles of Christ. The emphasis is not so much on judging external behavior as it is on the precepts on which decisions are based.

We are held accountable for our choices and actions, both as individuals and as a community. In times of decision, confrontation, and self-inventory, God will sustain us. God is our source of strength. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will not turn away" (John 6:37).

When we turn to God for strength and direction, we will not be let off the hook. We will be confronted by the truths laid out clearly in the Holy Word. Life challenges us with difficult tasks that we would often rather avoid. Yet as we master the art of compassionate confrontation, forgiveness, and commitment to God, we will find comfort. For as Jesus says, "If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).

Prayer

O God, it is difficult, painful, and frightening to confront evil. Yet you have given us clear principles that forbid us to take part in evil or to condone it. Give us both strength and compassion as we confront the evil we encounter around us and within us. Amen.

Rev. Susan Turley