Sunday, October 12, 2014

God cares about our choices

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I came across a very interesting article during the week. A historian, going through the Vatican archives, found a document, purporting to be written around the year AD 31 by a fairly obscure Roman officer and amateur historian by the name of Marcus Velleius Paterculus. In it, he describes a journey he took in the Near East, during which he mentions a visit to a town in what is now the West Bank of Jerusalem. While he is there, a leader of some kind arrives, called Jesus of Nazareth, with many disciples and followers in tow. The people of the town flock to him. He visits the house of a woman called Elizabeth, who has just given birth to a still-born baby. He says a prayer in Aramaic that Velleius can't understand. And to his amazement, the child is restored to life and begins to cry and squirm.

Whether the document ultimately proves to be authentic or not, it does serve as a reminder that the Gospels, and indeed all the books of the Bible, do not tell us every possible detail and each and every story that happened during the times they describe. The writers picked and chose each story for a reason. Consider our reading today from Exodus. The Hebrews spent over 40 years in the desert between the time they left Egypt and arrived in the promised land. Certainly a great deal more than we have in Sacred Scripture must have happened to so vast a throng of people over such a long period of time. So clearly what we do get is carefully chosen vignettes, chosen for their particular importance and power to teach us valuable lessons.

Today's Old Testament reading has always tended to provoke in me the reaction of 'what were they thinking?' There they are, God's chosen people. They have been rescued from slavery by God's sending the 10 plagues upon the Egyptians; they escaped from the pursuing enemy when by God's power the Red Sea was parted and the army of their enemies destroyed; they have been provided with manna from heaven to eat; and water from barren rocks to drink. They have seen many other examples of God's power and love for them. And yet, when Moses is gone for a short period of time, to converse with the God whose power and might they should have no doubt about, they fall back into heathen ways. They demand that an idol be set up, a calf made of gold; they offer sacrifice to this thing they have made with their own hands and worship it; and they revel in its presence – and by 'revel' commentators suggest we think the worst excesses of the Roman Empire (generally, it should be noted, as imagined by the fevered imaginations of Hollywood film-makers!).

Reading it, we know they are surely going to get it in the neck in the most severe way, and in due course they do. And at some level they must have themselves known an almighty clout was coming for breaking several of the newly minted 10 commandments. So again we find ourselves asking 'what were they thinking?'

And the answer is, I think, that temptation is a powerful force. So powerful that people will wilfully delude themselves into thinking that God doesn't see, and if he does, he doesn't care. Temptation whispers in our ear that we can get up to whatever shenanigans we want to, that we can do what we like; and when we worry it soothes us that that it is our right to behave as we wish, free from all criticism or consequences.

But of course, God does care. If he did not, we would not have passages like the one today from Exodus that shows that he very much cares when his laws are broken. Similarly, St Paul would not have written what we hear in our epistle today, urging us to stand firm in the Lord, to behave in ways that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing to God, and worthy of praise; and that we should keep doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in him, that is, living a life that is in accord with the Gospel of Christ. If God did not care, we would not hear words like those from our psalm today: 'Blessed are those who observe what is right and always do what is just.' If God did not care, Jesus would not have told the parable we hear in our Gospel today, where the first invited guests lose out on their chance of the kingdom … and the one who comes, but is careless and disrespectful is cast out … not every one, as you well know, who calls him 'Lord Lord' will enter into the kingdom.

And he cares because, as St Paul reminds us many times, this life is but a training ground for the next. It is not all there is. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven who happen to be living in the kingdoms of this world. And yet how many of us live as if we did not accept that reality? We did do not put a fraction of the effort we expend on our careers, education, personal appearance, social life, or leisure activities, as we do on our own spiritual growth, on our daily striving after holiness. It is as if we say with our heads: this life is brief, and eternity is long, so preparing for heaven is the most important thing of all; but say with our hearts: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die and there is nothing after the grave, and if there is, he doesn't care what we do in this life.

That is not to betray the Christian life as some kind of a joyless struggle, a grim rejection of all that is fun in this life in order to assure ourselves of eternal bliss in the next. As St Paul tells us in first Timothy, the discipline of our faith gives us the promise of life both here and in the hereafter. Think of it like this: the person who lives a healthy lifestyle, eating sensibly, taking some exercise, not drinking too much, getting to bed on time, enjoys his way of life just as much as the person who keeps to a far less healthy regime; taunts that the way he lives is 'boring' are met with bewilderment; for not only does he enjoy the way he lives, he has the added bonus of knowing it is good for him. So it is with the Christian life; not only is it full of joy for its own sake, it carries the added benefit of knowing that it is preparation for eternal life as well.

Returning to the recently found document we began with, it would be nice to think that Velleius' parchment is genuine. As I said, he's fairly obscure: even I, who has a degree in that area, and even tutored university undergraduates in Roman history, don't recall ever coming across his name, even in a footnote, though I suppose it must have been there. If this is real, it will make him the most well known of all the historians of his time, in the sense of being a household name. It would be nice in particular because it is most likely the last thing he ever wrote. Velleius died the year it was written, AD 31. We are not sure why, but scholars speculate that he may have been executed in the aftermath of the plot by Sejanus to seize power from the emperor Claudius, whom Velleius' is known to have written favourably about. And it would be nice too to have a little more information about Jesus.

But if it is not genuine, it doesn't really matter. While we might like to know more about the life of Jesus – or indeed lives of the Hebrews, the life of St Paul, and those of the other Apostles – we know enough; we have we what we know from Sacred Scripture. We have enough to know that God loves us, cares for us, cares that we obey his Holy Laws, and fills us with his Grace so that we may do so, in order that we may at the last be with him in the place we were created to be – with him in heaven. Amen

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