Exodus 31-33, Psalm 27, Matthew 28
Our Utmost for his Highest
Exodus 31 – 33
On several occasions, I was invited by Bishop Michael Marshall, one of England’s finest preachers and the former Bishop of Woolwich, to preach at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, where he served as rector after retiring as bishop. It is a fashionable church in a lovely area of London.
The church was constructed in 1828, but was replaced by another church twice its size in 1890. The church is remarkably nine inches wider than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Most importantly, Holy Trinity Church was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The Arts and Crafts Movement took place between 1860 and 1910 and was led by artist William Morris, who was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. It began as a reaction to the impoverished state of the decorative arts in Britain and spread across British Empire and North America.
Some of England’s finest sculptors, designers and artists, including F.W. Pomeroy, H.H. Amstead, Onslow Ford, Edward Burnes-Jones and William Morris contributed to the fittings of the church. The church is a model of using the best of the best to design something spectacular to honor God.
The Church and the arts have always been closest. For centuries, the Church has commissioned artists to offer some of their finest works to glorify God. In 1924 Oswald Chambers published a book called My Utmost for his Highest. It is now considered a devotional classic. The notion of offering our very best to God, rather than what is left over, is found in today’s Old Testament readings.
In chapter 31, the Lord informs Moses that he has also called a man named Bezalel “to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” (Ex. 31:4) God has given Bezalel these gifts to glorify God.
Bezalel would have fit in perfectly with the Arts and Crafts Movement. As Chambers notes, God deserves our very best. The arts have traditionally been one of the ways that we have offered our best to God. Stunning stained glass windows, high vaulted ceilings, soaring transepts, elegant stonework, beautiful wrought iron, exquisitely-carved woodwork, beautifully molded pieces of silver and gold have all been used to inspire Christians to reflect upon the grandeur and beauty of our Creator.
God tells Moses, “I have given skill to all the skillful.” (Ex. 31:6) We in the Church are called to carry on the great tradition of commissioning artists to compose music and create works of art for our churches to lift the eyes of those who seek God toward the One who surpasses all that words can convey.
God then reinforces the importance of keeping the Sabbath as a day to rebuild and refresh our spirit in God’s spirit. We will never reach our optimal potential without having a day of rest and renewal. As parents, one of our chief roles in instructing our children how to have down time and worship God.
Chapter 32 is almost comical, yet it speaks deeply to us today. While Moses is away meeting with God on Mount Sinai, the Israelites become restless and demand that Aaron manufacture gods for them. It is ironic that after all that God has done for the Israelites that they quickly lose heart and desire to serve false gods. Then again, God has done enormous amounts throughout history to reach people like us, and we, too, seek false gods in all sorts of human creations – drugs, alcohol, gambling, technology, excessively large homes, etc. In the end, none of these can offer what God alone can provide.
God becomes furious and tells Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” (Ex. 32:10) Serving in a role similar to Abraham, who attempted to mediate with God (Gen. 18:23-33), Moses calms God’s wrath. Here we see a classic depiction of the God of the Old Testament, which upsets and offends many Christian readers. Be patient. Remember that these are humans conveying images of God. Not all of them are correct. God does judge us and cares how we act. There are repercussions for our bad actions, but God does not destroy people.
“Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind,” pleads Moses. Then “the Lord changed his mind.” (Ex. 32:14) This is a powerful little verse. I wish that our society would allow leaders to do as God did and to change their mind. So often, if a politician has an insight that shifts his or her opinion, we refuse to allow them to change and note that they were mistaken and have seen a better way of handing issues.
We need to offer those around us the ability to change. In his play No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Hell occurs, noted Sartre, when we refuse to allow those around us to change. When we type-cast people in roles saying “he is always selfish” or “she is so pretentious,” we often refuse to grant them liberty to be different from what they have been in the past. We deny their freedom to change.
So often, one person’s anger is transferred to another person. After a person cuts us off in traffic on the drive home, we arrive home become angry with our family. Anger is transferred than down the line. Here, God’s anger is transferred to Moses. We read, “Moses’ anger burned hot…” (Ex. 32:19) He smashed the Ten Commandments, ground the golden calf into dust and made the Israelites drink it.
Meanwhile, Aaron takes no accountability, claiming that the Israelites “are bent on evil” and made him do it. “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Ex. 32:23) His response is laughable, but mirrors much human behavior. Then Moses does the unthinkable. He commanded the sons of Levi to exterminate brothers, friends and neighbors, purging the people of all who have been seduced by other gods. The sons of Levi obey, and “about 3,000 of the people fell on that day.” (Ex. 32:28) It is one of the worst massacres in the Bible. Bad religion remains one of the worst problems in the world today.
In our own time, many of us exercise risky behaviors by ignoring what God’s truth, and there is always a price to be paid. God does not orchestrate mass murder, grave illnesses or torture. Unlike Aaron, humans must take accountability for much of the evil that occurs on our planet, but some things are beyond anyone’s control or blame, including various illnesses, tragedies and natural disasters.
“You have sinned a great sin,” Moses informs the Israelites. “But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (Ex. 32:30) This, however, is impossible for a human to do. As we read through the New Testament, we realize that only Jesus was able to create at-one-ment or atonement for us with God. As God’s only-begotten Son who was fully human and fully divine, Jesus was able to build the perfect bridge between God and humans so that the gift of redemption and salvation could flow from eternal God in our mortal lives.
God assures Moses that, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Ex. 33:14) Whatever challenges we face this day or throughout our lives, we would be wise to inscribe these words inside the cover of our Bible and memorize them. Let them be engraved upon our hearts and quickly come to our lips when we face trials and adversity. God’s presence will surely be with us and God will give us rest.
Moses asked God, “show me your glory” (Ex. 33:19), but God did not permit Moses to see God’s face, but he stood the prophet on the rock as God’s shekinah or glory or divine presence passed Moses’ eyes.
“The Lord is my life and my salvation…” (Ps. 27:1) When we grasp this deep in our gut, then as the psalmist notes, we can ask, “Whom shall I fear?” Perfect love casts our fear. If we are living in fear, then perfect love has not filled our heart. We must pray for God’s love to fill us and drive away all fear.
The author of this psalm makes but one request. “One thing I asked of the Lord that will I seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Ps. 27:4) If this is our one request, God will always grant it.
In God’s presence there is always beauty, peace and joy. Much of the journey of life is all about learning to ask for the right things. When we ask for the right things and limit our requests, all else is windfall, and we shall soon find that our cup runneth over.
Verses 5, 8 and 9 seem to hearken to Moses’ desire to see God face to face. (Ex. 33:19) We all need a vision of God to sustain us as we wander through the desert wilderness of divorce, failure, job loss, stress, disrupted relationships, financial hard-times, illness, mourning or despair.
The psalm concludes with a command, “Wait for the Lord.” It is repeated twice, bracketing the words, “be strong, and let your heart take courage.” (Ex. 27:14) Waiting is slow, hard work, whether we waiting on for the results from a medical exam, waiting to give birth or waiting to determine the next step to take in our life. God will act. What is needed now is patience as we wait upon the Lord to act.
As we have noted before, the most common expression in the Bible is “God is with us.” The second most common verse is “Be not afraid.” In this final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, both are found. On Sunday morning, after the Sabbath was over and Jewish men and women could resume their duties, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, went to the tomb where Jesus was buried.
A mysterious theophany occurred. An earthquake shook the ground. An angel descended and rolled away the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb and sat upon it. The angel’s appearance “was like lightning and his clothing white as snow.” (Matt. 28:2-3) This is clearly a divine encounter. Fear overcame the guards, but the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid…” (Matt. 28:5)
Each one of us is looking for something precious, which eludes us. We see it as beyond us, something that we must find, achieve, purchase, earn or receive. We live in fear that we shall not obtain it. When God enters our life, this fear disappears, and what we are longing vanishes. We realize that no amount of success or financial security, no prestigious title or relationship can supply what God alone can offer.
The angel informs the women that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of them to Galilee. “Go quickly and tell his disciples,” instructs the angel. We see the essence of evangelism. First, what we fear is but the absence of love. Second, what we seek is never where we are looking. Third, we are called to go on a journey. Forth, we must share what we find. This is Christianity in a nutshell. “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matt: 28:10)
Matthew informs us of a plot whereby the priests pay the soldiers to spread a lie that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body. Each person who denies that Jesus rose from the dead helps to perpetuate this lie. Despite two billion Christians, one out of every three persons on earth, 2,000 years of the Church carrying out Jesus’s mission and millions of martyrs who died for the Christian faith, some chose to believe was an ordinary human being. Hence, “this is the story still told among” many. (Matt. 28:15)
The key closing text bears Matthew’s defining stamp. Jesus instructs his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20) God is with us. Emmanuel. Our purpose on earth is to serve others. We discover our deepest joy as we serve others and share the Good News that Jesus Christ came and died for us that we might have life and have it abundantly.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (Ps. 27:1)
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path. (Ps. 27:11)
My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. (Ex. 33:14)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20)
If you miss a day or a few days, do not beat yourself up with guilt. Just get right back to regular Bible reading. The more it becomes a daily practice, the easier it becomes.
What false gods have you manufactured in your life? In what areas of your life are you failing to take responsibility for what you have done? What is the greatest fear that you currently face? Have you asked God to help you overcome this fear through perfect love? With whom do you share Christ? With whom are you afraid to share the Good News of Jesus Christ? What holds you back from doing so?
Gracious and Ever Patient God, you are more willing to forgive than we are able to comprehend. Forgive us for not being more ready to share your Good News. Transform our hearts, minds and souls so that we might become fervent disciples, bearing witness to your grace, love and mercy to all whom we meet. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania