11/04/17 – Following the Light

Following the Light

October 29, 2017
21st Sunday after Pentecost /Reformation Sunday
Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Reverend Denise Clark-Jones


Our Old Testament reading today is part of Moses’ final sermon to the Israelites. Moses had run out of time, but he wanted to make sure that when they did inhabit the land promised, they would be faithful to God. I must confess, I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the end of Moses’ story. Couldn’t God have, at least, let him set a foot in the Promised Land?

The Psalm that is paired with the reading from the Jewish Torah, our first five books of the bible, is Psalm 90. It is the only psalm ascribed to Moses. I say “ascribed” because Moses could not have written the psalm since he would have been dead for many hundreds of years. The Psalmist wrote:

“For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.5You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”

God is not bound by time, but we are. Moses had run out of time. Of course, we all must die, but after all, he went through with those “stiff-necked” Israelites it seems unfair that he didn’t get to enter with them into the Promised Land.  Moses never chose to be a prophet, he had that honor thrust upon him. Either Moses was not nearly as good at saying no to God as we are, or God was much more persuasive to him. I guess if a burning bush talked to me, I would pay pretty close attention too. Nevertheless, Moses faithfully followed God’s instructions and led the Israelites out of Egypt. He had to wander with them for 40 years in the wilderness, not because of any wrongdoing on Moses’ part, but because of the Israelites’ weak faith of convenience.

In his 40-year trek in the wilderness Moses’ couldn’t leave them alone for a minute or they were worshipping golden calves or plotting insurrection.  But for one lapse of judgment, all those years of faithful service seemed to be for naught for Moses. God showed him the Promised Land but did not let him live to enter in. Moses did all the years of hard work and all Joshua had to do was a waltz in with his army leading the way.  It was the generation of Israelites that came after Moses that got to live in the land God promised their ancestor Abraham. It makes Moses look more like the Israelites’ servant than a leader, doesn’t it?

On this day that we celebrate as Reformation Sunday, it is appropriate to remember that Jesus lived and fulfilled his ministry during a period of time, which could be called the Jewish Reformation. It was during this period of history that rabbinic Judaism was born. The gospels tell us Jesus was known as a rabbi, a teacher. The era of priests moved into rabbinic Judaism as it is practiced today. Jesus never saw himself as the founder of a new religion, he saw himself as a reformer, a teacher who would lead the Jewish people back to its foundation, back to obedience to God and love of neighbor written in the Torah and the writings of the prophets. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was teaching that his people should be following that law God wrote on their hearts, not claiming righteousness by virtue of adhering to rituals while failing to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.

Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers did not start out to divide the Church in Western Europe into Roman Catholics and Protestants. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg chapel as a demand for changing what had gone wrong with the Church. Likewise, Jesus challenged the religious leaders – the priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes—over abuses of power and espousing obedience to rules over love, justice, and mercy. This was also the motivation behind the Protestant Reformers protesting the Roman church’s religious leaders for their abuses of power and putting Church doctrine above Scripture. With the invention of the printing press and the widespread distribution of the Bible translated from Latin into German, more and more lay people could read the Scriptures and challenge the authority of priests, bishops, and even the Pope.

In Jesus’ face-off with the religious leaders, it was a lawyer that posed the question he hoped would entrap Jesus into discrediting himself. The type of lawyer Matthew names was not a civil lawyer, but an expert in religious law. The lawyer figured that Jesus would be forced to answer in such a way as to either appear foolish, uneducated or heretical. He asked: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds with a quote from Deuteronomy:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” “This is the greatest and first commandment.” Then Jesus adds a verse from Leviticus, the book of laws: “and a second is like it: “’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus wasn’t cheating on his answer. He was still giving one commandment because in the translation from the Greek of that time, Jesus’ use of the word, “like,” when he said, “like the first,” does not mean similar, but that it is equally important and inseparable from the first. Loving one’s neighbor is inextricably bound to one’s love for God (New Interpreter’s Bible p. 425-6, vol.VIII)

Jesus then went on to stump the religious leaders with a conundrum regarding his authenticity as the Messiah. At the same time, he let them know that their assumption that the Messiah would be a warrior-king in the mold of David was wrong. He left the experts at debating religious law speechless.

Their leadership skills had much to be desired. They were not willing to learn from someone who could teach them. When they came up short in their understanding of the law, they tried to discredit their opponent. In the coming chapter you will read that when they failed to discredit Jesus, they made threats. When their threats fell on deaf ears, their final solution was to get rid of him any way possible. Jesus embarrassed the religious leaders that opposed him, which threatened their own authority. Their authority over their flock was more important to them than feeding and tending their peoples’ faith in God — not a good model for leadership or for one who proclaimed to be a faithful Jew.

We read in our epistle reading from 1Thessalonians that Paul also presented himself as a leader — one in the model of Christ. Like Moses and Jesus, Paul was concerned with running out of time. Paul wanted to make as many disciples for Christ as possible before Christ came again. Paul believed that Christ’s return was imminent. He was busy starting new churches, so he kept up with the ones he had already started by corresponding with them in letters.

His letter to the Thessalonian church is believed to be Paul’s first and oldest letter. In today’s reading, he asserts that the church in Thessalonia needed to financially support their missionaries. As much as we clergy don’t like to talk about money — and you can tell Paul was a bit apologetic about it –it is necessary for the church to continue to do its mission.

Martin Luther was concerned that the Roman Church had ceased to be faithful to its mission. Some of Luther’s 95 complaints, which he nailed to the door of Wittenberg Chapel, were about money. These complaints were not a question of the church having money, but about how the money was obtained and spent. Selling salvation to finance the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s lavish lifestyles was a source of great resentment for the congregations. Today we remember that day, 500 years ago when Luther made his accusations against the Roman Church. This day was not the beginning nor the end of the Reformation, which led to the split of Western Christianity into the Roman Catholic and the Protestant faiths. Others had come before Luther and others, like John Calvin, came after in the Reformation movement. As Presbyterians, we say we are a church that is Reformed and always reforming.

This was not the first major theological dispute with global repercussions. About 500 years before the Church had split into the Roman and the Orthodox churches. Biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, has observed that there has been a major reformation of the church about every 500 years. That puts us at the start of another Christian Reformation. It will be interesting to see what happens. We are a part of it right now; but, like Moses, we will not see the church of the future. We will watch and participate in the church’s future and what we do now will direct what the church is becoming.

Currently, I am working with another pastor and the Presbytery’s “interim general presbyter,” to direct the Committee on Ministry’s function and process. We are reading a book together as a foundation for leading discussions with the COM members about how to move forward while remaining faithful to the Church’s ultimate mission. In this book by Gil Rendle, The Math of Mission” the author tells this story:

“A mother sent her young son out on a pitch-black night to be sure the barn door is locked on the family farm. He leaves but comes back inside within seconds. When his mother asks what is wrong, he says he can’t do what she asked because the night is too dark, and he can’t see the barn from the house.  So, the mother hands him a flashlight and sends him out again, only to have him return a second time in less than a minute. When she asks what’s wrong this time, the son says that he still can’t find the barn because the flashlight isn’t strong enough for him to see that far. The mother sends him out a third time, saying he doesn’t need to see the barn. ‘Just walk to the end of the light,’ she instructs her son.” (p.25)

That is what we are called to do in this church. We are called to follow the light of Christ with the promise that if we do, we will reach the goal to which God is leading us.

On this day of remembering the Protestant Reformation, the scriptures remind us that the ultimate reformer in the church is the Living Christ. It is Christ who has inspired and empowered all church reformers past and present. As members of this local church, we are called to participate in the reformation to fulfill Christ’s Greatest Commandment. In a time when worldly powers attempt to woo us or frighten us into allegiance, we must stand with our brothers and sisters proclaiming God, is Lord in all things, not only the church but in government, commerce, society and all endeavors of which are Christians are engaged.

Christ i constantly at work calling the church back to its reforming roots. Christ works in and through us to give us not only a Church reformed, but lives that are reformed, always being reformed, according to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The Word of the Lord.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois