Sunday 15 September 2019
Exod 32:7-14, Luke 15: 1-10
May I speak this morning in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nearly every morning at morning prayer, after praying for those things which we know we have to do and those people that we know need praying for, I pray something along the following lines:
“During the course of this day lead us into the path of just one other person in need of your healing touch today.”
Of course, that is always a dangerous thing to pray for because it is inviting God to mess up our well laid plans. So, after morning prayer on Thursday, when I sat down in the one space I had available this week to write a sermon, this sermon, the telephone rang and I was asked to go and visit someone in the hospice.
Of course, being honest with you, part of me metaphorically threw my arms in the air and said: Lord, I really need to write a sermon for Sunday, and part of me said, thank you for answering my prayer.
So I went to the hospice and it turned out to be a really prayerful and blessed time. The lady I visited did not wake up but I prayed for her, anointed her and spent a long time sitting with her while her family were able to take a break. It felt like a genuinely holy time and it was one of those times as a priest when you can feel that you have made a difference even though, to the casual observer, nothing has objectively changed.
But it has changed because prayer changes things. Prayer changes us, prayer changes others and, interestingly the lessons for today suggests that our prayers of repentance can cause rejoicing in heaven and our prayers of intercession can even change God.
Starting with that last, and perhaps controversial point, I was really struck by our first reading the morning, which is the story of the disobedient Israelites and the Golden Calf.
The Hebrews, including of course Moses himself, had been living in Egypt for generations and if you think about religion in ancient Egypt, Isis and Osiris and so forth, it was often focused on large golden statues, and these people had obviously soaked up a lot of that culture.
Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt – but he did not take them direct into the promised land, rather they went into the desert, were they were often hungry and thirsty and then Moses himself deserted them to go and sit on top of a mountain and take instructions from a God that they could not see or touch or understand. They must have felt abandoned and alone and far from everything that they could relate to or even pray to.
And so they decided to create an idol make out of gold, and they gathered together all their jewellery and melted it down into a mould and make an image of a calf or a bull to worship.
We can be quick to condemn them for their lack of faith and idolatry, but I am reminded of Paul on his visit to pagan Athens in Acts 17 – rather than simply condemning the rampant idolatry of that place he started by acknowledging that it came from a genuine religious impulse: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”
The Hebrews in the desert and the people of Athens worshipped that which they could make and see and touch not because they were evil but because they were inherently religious but also because they were human and it is so much easier to worship that which is seen rather than that which is unseen. We live in a culture that is far from God in many ways but I suspect that that same religious impulse to worship that which we can see still exists, but now finds its outlet not in golden calves or statues to an unknown God but in a million different forms.
Anyway, God sent Moses back down the mountain because of what the people were doing, and it is fair to say that God was displeased with the people. It had been God’s intention to lead the people out of slavery and into the land flowing with milk and honey where they would be able to know him once again as their God. And yet, before they had gone very far at all, they had not only been grumbling incessantly against Moses but now they had reverted to foreign religious ways.
The God we encounter in the Old Testament is sometimes unfairly characterised as being angry and wrathful, and we always have to be on guard against lazy stereotypes, but it is fair to say on this occasion that God was feeling wrathful:
“Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”
On the face of it this must have been a tempting offer for Moses. This lot had been a bunch of complainers, God had given him a direct instruction to get out of the way and, furthermore, promised to preserve Moses and make a new and great nation out of him. If Moses had said: “Not my will, Lord, but yours be done” I suspect that no one would have thought any less of him.
But Moses did something more interesting than that. He argued with God. He implored God. He stood up to God.
Moses interceded with God on behalf of his flawed people:
“Turn from your fierce wrath, change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”
And, guess what, in verse 14 we are told that “God changed his mind about the disaster he had planned to bring on his people.”
Now there are some who will say that God planned it this way all along, that his intention was to get Moses to pray for his people and thus to make him a better pastor and that, because God operates outside time, he always knew that this would be the outcome. Now, that may be true and I don’t know the mind of God, shocking I know, but the words of the bible seem quite clear on this – God changed his mind and changed his plans.
Because of the intercessions and pleading of Moses.
The more you think about it the more remarkable that verse is. God was persuaded to change his mind by a person. If I wanted to be really controversial I could say that, on this occasion, Moses taught God something about compassion.
Now you might say that Moses was a great man and a great prophet with a hotline to God, but surely he wouldn’t listen to me.
It’s worth remembering that Moses was not perfect either – at the age of 40 he killed an Egyptian. I know that I’m imperfect in many ways but I’ve never killed anyone and I’m not aware that anyone here has either, so that already puts us ahead of Moses on that score. When Moses was called by God he did not leap at the chance but said that God should send someone else (Gen 4:13) and, as we have seen today, Moses was not above talking back to God when he disagreed.
But the intercession of Moses this imperfect human man, on behalf of his people, changed the mind of God and changed the plans of God.
Ladies and gentlemen, when we pray it has an effect in heaven and possibly in the mind of God himself. Our intercession should not be a once a week affair but, given the state of the world and our nation at present, perhaps we ought to be interceding with God on behalf of all those around us constantly.
And our Gospel reading reminds us that it is not just our prayers of intercession on behalf of others which affects the life of heaven; we learn today not once but twice that the repentance and return of those who were lost, illustrated first by a lost sheep and then by a lost coin, causes joy and rejoicing in heaven:
“There is joy I the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
And here’s the thing: repenting sinners is not, or at least should not be, other people. Each of us this week, at some time and in some way, has been that lost sheep or has been that coin lost down the back of the sofa.
Yet, despite our lostness and despite all our imperfections and failings we have all managed to find our way back here today, to say sorry to God, to seek to do better, to intercede on behalf of others and to meet with Christ in the Eucharist.
This may feel like an ordinary sort of Sunday for you here in Hadlow but if we could see with the eyes of heaven we would see choirs of angels rejoicing as we repent of our sins and come back into the fold and, if we could see into the mind of God, we may even see his plans changing as we intercede for the world.
You matter to God. Your prayers matter to God. Repent often, pray often, carry the needs of the world to God in your heart and hear heaven resound with joy.