Present, Half-Present, or False Presence?

October 11, 2020*

By Pastor John Partridge

Exodus 32:1-14                      Philippians 4:1-9                   Matthew 22:1-14

Have you seen the television commercials for car insurance that has a salesman that travels with a partner that is an emu?  In one of those commercials, the salesman recalls having a conversation, about insurance naturally, with a guy on an elevator who was listening to the radio with earbuds and was never even aware that the salesman had been talking to him.

It’s (a little) funny.  But has that ever happened to you?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and, after talking to them for a while, turned and discovered that they had left the room and you had been talking to no one?  Or, have you had a conversation with one of your children, or your spouse, or a co-worker, and discovered, at some point, that they were so distracted by something else, that they had no idea what you had been saying, or perhaps even been aware that you had been talking to them?  It’s a but like talking to a wall.

As odd as it may seem, scripture tells us that God has these same kinds of interactions with his people, times when we simply aren’t present, and others when we’re only half there.  But God doesn’t want followers who… well, maybe if we listen to this story from Exodus 32:1-14, we might understand better.

32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us godswho will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

The people of Israel started coming unglued as soon as they thought Moses was overdue in coming back down the mountain.  For them, Moses had come to represent God.  They were, in effect, following Moses instead of God.  If Moses had gone missing then, by their reasoning, so was God.  The people depended on the presence of Moses rather than on the presence of God.  And so, rather than fall to their knees and pray, or to seek out God’s presence in some other way, they created a false god and a false presence to take God’s place.  And that, as you know, did not go well.  Our God is a jealous God and does not permit dual loyalties or a people who are not fully present.  God does not share his presence with other gods, nor with people who do not follow him, nor does he allow his followers to split their presence, or their loyalties, with other gods.

And just in case we are tempted to say that this somehow exclusive to the Old Testament, we see exactly the same thing in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 where we hear these words:

22:1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

In Jesus’ parable, the King, whom we know is God, prepares a wedding banquet for his son and invites his most favored subjects to attend.  Remember, that in that day, and even somewhat in the twenty-first century, the invitation of the king is much like a command performance.  An invitation from the king is not really something that can, or should, be refused or ignored.  But still, they refuse to come.  And so the king sends even more servants proclaiming how awesome the food will be at the banquet, but some were not present, they ignored the servants and they ignored the invitation, and others were openly hostile and murdered the servants in an attempt to silence the invitation.  And the king was so angry, at both groups, that he sent his army to destroy them all and burn their city to the ground.

But the story doesn’t end there.  After the king wipes away all those who ignored his invitation, he invites the uncommon people, the unfavored subjects, the people who are ordinarily ignored and forgotten.  Since the movers and shakers and most favored subjects wouldn’t come to his banquet, the king invites the people of the streets, the poor, the ordinary, the street sweepers, laborers, criminals, and anyone else that they could find.  And, most likely, since they were the people without much money, the king offered them clothes worthy of a king’s banquet for them to wear.  And they wore them.  At least they all wore them except for one man who tried to have things both ways.  He was half-present.  He physically came to the banquet, but he refused to wear the wedding clothes that the king provided.  He was trying to be both a part of the king’s banquet and yet still clinging to a part of his ordinariness.  He was, in other words, lukewarm in his support of the king.

And that didn’t go well either.  The king had him tied up and thrown out of the palace into the darkness because, as we have already seen, he was a jealous king who does not permit dual loyalties or a people who are not fully present. 

And that brings us to a situation that we find in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.  In Philippians 4:1-9, we read these words:

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche using words like “companion,” “at my side,” and “co-workers.”  These women were truly present for Paul and present as servants of God.  Paul urges the people of the church to be present through their gentleness (because you just can’t be “virtually” gentle), to be present with God through requests, prayer, petition, and thanksgiving and, in exchange, God will be present in their lives by pouring out peace and by guarding their hearts and minds.  Paul says that if we focus our thoughts on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, and if we put into practice the things that we have learned from our teachers, then we will truly be living lives that are present with God.  Simply put, whenever we act, or think, like Jesus, we are present with God.  And, by doing so, we will discover that God is present with us.

We worship a jealous God.

God will not talk to the wall.

We cannot be absent.

We cannot fake our presence.

We cannot be half-present or have divided loyalties.

We must live lives that are truly, and fully, present with God.


 

 

You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/VUwBkvSYvYA

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

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