Collect for Trinity XX
ALMIGHTY God, you have built your Church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Join us together in unity of spirit by their teaching,
that we may become a holy temple, acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Exodus 20, Vv 1 – 4 & 7 – 9 & 12 – 20
Philippians 3, Vv 4b – 14
St Matthew 21, Vv 33 – 46
Had we included the appointed psalm within our Propers, our scriptural readings, then we should have heard Psalm 19, albeit in a responsorial version. Psalm 19 begins with those wonderful words that Josef Haydn used in his oratorio, ‘The Creation’: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy-work.’ These words come, of course, from that translation of the Hebrew Psalms found in the Prayer Book – which, unlike most of the other scriptural passages in that wonderful work are taken from The Great Bible of Miles Coverdale. Why do I mention Psalm 19? It seems to me that its words set the scene for a short study of theology to be found within today’s readings. Let us see if we can tease this idea out in a little more detail.
Psalm 19 gives us news of God’s wonderful creation, in which, if we believe the accounts in the book called Genesis, the universe and all that it contains was created by God in six days. Victorian theologians calculated that this event happened about six thousand years ago, but even with a simplistic understanding of the modern sciences of cosmology and astrophysics we know that their timescale was inaccurate by about fifteen billion years. That aside, the general arrangement of all things, the creation of order out of chaos, the sourcing of everything out of nothing, what scholars refer to as creatio ex nihilo, was, indeed, the work of God. Even CERN’s physicists, with their Large Hadron Collider, only wish to determine what happened in the moments immediately after the Big Bang; there are no plans to find out who actually created the singularity, that particle of infinite density that contained all the seen and unseen matter in our universe; the creation of which preceded the Big Bang. Although part of the particle physicist’s search is for something called Higg’s Boson, the so-called ‘God Particle’, it seems somewhat unlikely that God as the creator of that singularity or that particle will appear in any academic reports.
By verse eight of Psalm 19 the author is anticipating our reading from the Old Testament. He wrote, ‘The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.’ Thus we have a direct link with our reading from the book called Exodus, and to that book we must now turn.
From chapter 20 we heard a somewhat condensed version of what we know as the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: it was an abbreviated edition; an impoverished rendering. I am sure there was some disappointment felt by those of us who were used to hearing all Ten Commandments rehearsed in full before the congregation in our regular Sunday, Prayer Book services, those of us who learned them by rote and know them all by heart. But, never mind, at least we did get to hear parts of them and we were reminded that there are indeed ten, and the areas of our lives that they ought to govern. They constitute what the author of Psalm 19 referred to as, ‘The law of the Lord,’ which he further described as, ‘perfect, converting the soul,’ and, ‘making wise the simple.’ These same Ten Commandments, given, as we know, to Moses on Mount Sinai, constituted one of the early covenants between God and his chosen people. They represented the basis of an ordered society in which, as we read many times in the Old Testament, God said, ‘I shall be your God and you shall be my people.’ Despite God’s constant reminders, through the mouths of his many prophets, the people ceased to conform to his will and sinned by their disobedience. They seemed particularly to have fallen foul of the first and second commandments, which forbade the worshipping of other gods and the making and worshipping of idols. God’s many prophets, who spanned a half a millennium of Jewish history, from Elijah and Elisha in the ninth century through to Malachi and Joel in the fourth, could not keep the chosen people on the right path to God and true to his demands. The result as we know was dramatic action on God’s part. ‘Perhaps,’ he said to himself, ‘they will respect my Son.’ The prophets of old had predicted that a new leader would come, someone who they thought might, like King David, turn their fortunes and re-establish their nation. Their yearnings for this Messiah figure began in earnest in the year 587BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the people went into exile for some fifty years. Their longings resurfaced 500 years later when the Israelite Hasmonean rulers were overthrown by the power of Rome. God decided that this was the right time to send his Son, to create a Kingdom on earth and to draw all men back into a loving relationship with their heavenly Father and to obey his commandments.
Thus to our Gospel: in it Saint Matthew quotes Jesus using the very words that I have suggested that God the Father himself may have used. The parable that Jesus gave his listeners was about a landowner who developed the potential of his estate. He planted a vineyard, fenced it in and built a watchtower. He then leased it to tenants. Keen to benefit from the results of his labours the landowner sent his agents to collect the rent, either in cash or in kind – our translation suggests the latter. All the emissaries were beaten or killed because the tenants thought that they could, by so doing, keep the gains of their labours. Saint Matthew, in our lesson, used the words, ‘Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son”’. However, when the owner’s son came the tenants thought that they could gain the property for themselves by killing him. In these words we get a paradigm of God’s concern for his people. Through his prophets he had promised a Messiah – this proved to be no less than his only begotten Son, the second person of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. Jesus, later in the same passage, reminded his hearers of his expectation of rejection, a repulse implied in the parable that he had just told them. He reminded them that the scriptures, which we can find in Psalm 108, at verses 22 and 23, said, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing.’ Jesus, who would be handed over to representatives of the same sinful men who had down the ages disobeyed God and his commandments, would suffer humiliation, scourging and a shameful death on a cross, but would not be ultimately rejected. Indeed he would become the cornerstone of what would soon be known across the world as the Christian Church. As that cornerstone Jesus would be able to enter into a new covenant with God’s people – all of God’s people, because this new covenant was not just restricted to those who had initially been chosen by God, it was open to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The laws that God had imposed, the Ten Commandments, would still stand – in chapter five of his Gospel Saint Matthew quotes Jesus saying, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ Yet this new covenant would be with the Son of God, one who had taken our flesh and had lived among us, a perfect, human life. Here was someone who understood temptation, understood human foibles; understood human weakness and frailty; understood us! We have, then, seen God’s Creation, his early covenants with his chosen people and this last covenant brought us by his Son. What has Saint Paul to add to this in his letter to the Christian Church at Philippi, a portion of which we heard as our Epistle? Chronologically this epistle was written long before Matthew put quill to papyrus or stylus to clay tablet. Paul probably wrote this letter in the mid 50s or early 60s – by contrast Matthew may not have written his Gospel until towards the end of the first century. However, Paul was familiar with many of the actions and words of Jesus; he certainly understood the idea of a new covenant replacing an old covenant. Saint Paul reminds his readers that he is a Jew, and thus a direct descendant of that first covenant made by God with Abraham, the first Jew, and legislated for through Moses in the Ten Commandments. He makes his position quite clear: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of a Hebrew, a Pharisee.’ All these are of the Old Testament covenants. ‘Yet,’ he continues, ‘whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.’
For the sake of Christ Paul is prepared to put behind him his studies of scripture and the law, the Torah, the study of which had occupied most of his formative years. For Christ’s sake he is prepared to suffer the loss of all things; to use his words, ‘to regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.’ He does not want to have a righteousness that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ. Put simply, Paul says he, ‘wants to know Christ in the power of his resurrection.’ His words that concluded our reading were, ‘I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’
Have I argued the case for a structured theology in miniature in today’s Propers? From God’s Creation, through his early covenants, from there to the final covenant made with us through his blessed Son and so on to the establishment of a world-wide church that had its roots in the former but is truly blessed in the latter. We are members of that church, a church that exists today in all parts of the earth. We are all constituent members of God’s Creation and have the heritage of the Old Testament covenants. Equally we are part of the New Testament covenant that Jesus brought us with his blood. These features of our faith are as true today as when Paul and Jesus expounded on them, in Palestine and northern Greece, in the first century. We tend to remember the words of the New Testament as being, perhaps, more relevant to us. Let us not forget the much of the Old Testament still applies to us and to our Christian lives. We should be prepared to continue in our studies of both Old and New Testaments as, to use Paul’s words, ‘we press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’
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