Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Psalm Reading for October 22, 2017


Psalm 99



This Psalm of praise extols the holiness of God as King over all. The character of Yahweh is declared three times:

He is Holy!

God’s holiness describes his unique separateness from all other reality.  God is, as theologians might say Wholly Other.  Creation is finite, and God is infinite and transcendent.

Some of the imagery in this Psalm describes a supernatural realm beyond the realm of normal human experience.  Yahweh:

sits enthroned among the cherubim.

Not only are the people to tremble but even the earth quakes because of his supernatural power.

The term cherubim is the plural form of an order of angels that appear at various points in Scripture:

  • They guard the entrance to Eden after Adam and Eve are expelled (Genesis 3:24).
  • The cherubim are represented as two figures of gold on the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18-22).
  • The Lord spoke to Moses from the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant between the two cherubim (Numbers 7:89).
  • When the ark of the covenant is installed in the temple after the reign of Solomon, prayers are directed toward the Lord who is perceived as seated above the cherubim (2 Kings 19:15, Isaiah 37:15-17).
  • In Ezekiel, the cherubim are part of the unearthly “wheel within a wheel” vision that appears to the prophet (Ezekiel 10). In this vision they fly and deliver God’s fire to be scattered over the city.

Needless to say, the cherubim are beyond normal human experience.

And yet this same God, who sits enthroned upon the cherubim and who is holy and transcendent and otherworldly, also reigns in human affairs:

The King’s strength also loves justice.
You do establish equity.
You execute justice and righteousness in Jacob.

Yahweh works not only through the ministering angels known as cherubim, but through his human agents:

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel among those who call on his name;
they called on Yahweh, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud.
They kept his testimonies,
the statute that he gave them.

There are actually three orders represented by these men —  Moses the prophet, Aaron the priest and Samuel the judge.

The Psalmist points out that the original self-disclosure of God is given in the pillar of cloud which guided the Israelites in the wilderness, and which filled the tabernacle in their camp when Yahweh met with Moses face to face.  And further, the decrees and statutes were also a form of God’s self-disclosure.

God speaks through the extraordinary and miraculous means of the pillar of cloud, but also through the moral and ritual guidance of the law.

And the Psalmist suggests that God’s self-revelation discloses the balanced nature of God, both compassionate and just:

You answered them, Yahweh our God.
You are a God who forgave them,
although you took vengeance for their doings.

Finally, in this Psalm there is a kind of “refrain” that is repeated twice (almost identically).

Verse 5:
Exalt Yahweh our God.
Worship at his footstool.
He is Holy!
Verse 9:
Exalt Yahweh, our God.
Worship at his holy hill,
for Yahweh, our God, is holy!

The reason for such worship is the same — God is holy and is worthy of our worship.


Why do we worship God?  Because we are exhorted to do so by a worship leader? Perhaps.  Because we see his magnificence in the world around us? Certainly.  Because of his characteristics of justice and righteousness and forgiveness? Of course.

But perhaps the most telling motivation for worship is simply the very nature of God — he is holy.  Holiness means that he is uniquely set apart by his transcendence, majesty and ethical purity.

This same sense of his holiness is suggested when the people are exhorted to:

Exalt Yahweh, our God.
Worship at his holy hill,
for Yahweh, our God, is holy!

The name revealed to Moses — Yahweh,  the “Tetragrammaton,” i.e., the four letters of the “I Am” (YHWH) — reveals the nature and identity of God.  We get the same sense from Revelation 1:8, where God says,

  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Our only proper response to the Creator and Finisher of all things, and to the Eternal One, is worship!


I ran across a wonderful little “meme” on Facebook recently, entitled “Leibnez’ Contingency Argument”  by Dr. William Lane Craig.  This is a fast-paced, fun, and visually entertaining Youtube  exposition on a very sophisticated argument for the existence of God.

I will try to sum it up as simply and briefly as possible:

  1. Everything which exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. If the universe had an explanation of its existence, that explanation must be God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, The explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

If the first three premises are true, then the fourth premise must follow.  Some people, the Youtube narrator suggests, might question the obvious logic of the first premise.  They picture Bertrand Russell smoking a pipe and saying “The universe is just there, that’s all. No explanation needed. End of discussion.”

The Youtube video then offers a wonderful little rebuttal to this nonsensical idea by picturing the viewer and a friend as two cartoon friends hiking through the woods and coming upon a shiny sphere in the middle of the forest.  You would wonder how the sphere came to be there, and you would think it odd if your friend said “There’s no explanation for it. Stop wondering.  It just IS.”  Not a very satisfactory answer, I daresay!

And the video goes on to say:  if the ball were larger, even to the size of the universe, the change in its size wouldn’t remove the desire for an explanation. We are predisposed to require explanations, scientifically and intuitively — and I would add theologically!

The Youtube meme continues and does an excellent job of demonstrating that while some things exist contingently (depending on the existence of other things – e.g., your birth depends on your parents), God exists necessarily because everything that exists depends ultimately on him.

I recommend that you check out this video on Youtube: Leibniz’ Contingency Argument.

I also recommend The Cosmological Argument: Richard Dawkins vs William Lane Craig

The bottom line for me is that I believe in and worship God not because of a philosophical argument — although I find that helpful and encouraging.  Ultimately, I believe because I have experienced God through Scripture and  through personal faith.

Lord, as the Psalmist exhorts me, I exalt you and worship you because you are holy.  Thank  you for your forgiveness and your love.  Amen. 


"Psalm 99" uses this photo:  "M31 - Andromeda Galaxy (NGC 224) [Explored 5/9/2010 #20]" by Cyrus II is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Old Testament for October 22, 2017

Tintoretto’s interpretation of Yahweh’s presence passing by Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Start with Scripture:

Exodus 33:12-23



Moses has unique relationship with Yahweh.  From the moment he encountered the burning bush on the mountain, through the plagues of Egypt, leading the entire nation of Israel through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, his relationship with Yahweh has grown increasingly closer. Moses has not only conversed directly with Yahweh, Moses has seen Yahweh’s awesome power.  This relationship is incredibly intimate for a mortal man to have with Almighty God. We are told:

Yahweh spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).

But in our lectionary passage, Moses is feeling bold enough to quarrel with Yahweh — or at least ask difficult questions.  Here is the context — while Moses was at the top of the mountain receiving the law, Israel had turned to idolatry.  Moses interceded on their behalf to spare his people, but he had also erupted in anger and punished them with the help of his own brethren, the Levites.

Now Moses is experiencing profound uncertainty.  Recent events have seemingly shaken him.  Moses has gone to the Tent of Meeting, which is pitched outside the camp, to meet face to face with Yahweh.  And he begins to ask tough questions. Moses reminds Yahweh of the commands and the promises that have been made to him:

Moses said to Yahweh, “Behold, you tell me, ‘Bring up this people:’ and you haven’t let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’

Somewhat audaciously, Moses demands evidence!

 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your way, that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight: and consider that this nation is your people.

Not only is Moses “reminding” Yahweh of promises made, the way a man might address someone with whom he has made a contract, he reminds Yahweh of his special relationship with Israel.

Yahweh assures Moses:

My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.

The word presence in Hebrew is panayim, which literally means face.  This vividly suggests Yahweh’s personal presence that is to be with Moses.  And he is promised the rest that is suggested in the fourth commandment, which is the blessing of Sabbath rest.  This doesn’t merely suggest rest from work, but spiritual rest as well.  

But Moses isn’t satisfied!  He is persistent. Almost accusingly, Moses says:

If your presence doesn’t go with me, don’t carry us up from here.

There is a plaintive tone here.  Moses doesn’t want to envision a future without Yahweh; and he certainly doesn’t want to try to lead Israel without Yahweh’s help.

And Moses again restates to Yahweh the special relationship that Yahweh has with Israel. Moses in particular, and Israel in general, are to be a visible sign of a unique relationship:

For how would people know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Isn’t it that you go with us, so that we are separated, I and your people, from all the people who are on the surface of the earth?

The word separated is often translated as holy.  To be holy is to be separated, or set apart, from what is profane.  Moses is very aware of this unique privilege — but he is also anxious that Yahweh not abandon his people.  This may seem to be a very real possibility after the incident with the golden calf.

Yahweh again reassures Moses that he will keep his promises, and assures Moses of his favor, and that he knows Moses by name.  The concept of favor in Hebrew is closely analogous to the New Testament concept of grace — God’s unmerited favor and acceptance and blessing.

And to be known by name in Hebraic thought denotes a deep, personal relationship.  This is a reminder of Moses’ freedom to relate to God as with a friend, because God has favored him with this freedom.

And so Moses is now emboldened to make an inconceivable request:

He said, “Please show me your glory.”

Yahweh’s glory is difficult to describe.  It suggests the inherent character of God — not merely the metaphysical beauty and power suggested by the fiery presence associated with Sinai, but his very nature.  Moses is asking to see God himself!

Yahweh offers an alternative, because Moses’ request is simply impossible to fulfill:

He said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim Yahweh’s name before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.”

Moses may see the effects of God’s nature — that is, his goodness and grace and mercy — and hear his holy name.  This name — Yahweh (I Am That I Am) — was revealed to Moses in his first encounter with God, but it retains its mystery and power.

But included in this offer is a warning — to see God’s face, his glory, is simply impossible.  Mortal man doesn’t have the physical or spiritual capacity to endure it.

So Yahweh finds a way to accommodate Moses:

Yahweh also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock.  It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;  then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

This description is anthropomorphic, meaning God is described as having a hand, a back  and a face.  Obviously, God is Spirit (John 4:24), and transcends the physical dimension.  But here he uses language that Moses can understand.  No doubt, Moses did hide in the cleft of the rock, and could only see the “effects” of God’s glory as he passed by.

This pattern will appear again centuries later when Elijah goes to the same mountain (known as both Sinai and Horeb) seeking consolation from God.  Elijah also stood at the mouth of a cave — perhaps the very same in which Moses stood — and experienced his own theophany, when God manifested himself (1 Kings 19:8-18).

Moses has made an astounding request of God, and has received as much glory and favor as a mere mortal can possibly experience, short of heaven itself.


It may be argued that Moses had a unique relationship with God because of his distinct call and experience.  Perhaps that may be so, but we do well to remember that Moses was a mortal.  In fact, his own character was besmirched by a few major flaws that can’t be overlooked. He murdered an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave.  Later, his anger would trouble him again when he ignored God’s specific instructions at Kadesh concerning a water supply for the people (Numbers 20:1-20).  This last act of doubt alone is what is cited as the reason Moses could not enter the Promised Land.

And yet despite his flaws, Moses was called a friend of God.  Becoming a friend of God begins with God’s initiative.  It is my conviction that God seeks this relationship with each of us.  What is required for us to deepen this friendship is our faithful obedience and ongoing interaction with God through prayer, even when we are faced with seemingly impossible adversity.

And in my opinion, prayer includes authentic honesty with God, the kind that Moses models.  He acknowledges the power and holiness of God, but he still asks questions and speaks quite frankly with God.  I see this same authenticity in Jacob, David and Job,  among others.  For real, flesh-and-blood, honest conversation with God, one only need look at the Psalms.

My own belief, to paraphrase Elizabeth Kubler Ross (the famous physician who did groundbreaking work on death and dying), is that it’s okay to be honest with God. God can take it!

We can logically draw the conclusion that God knows our minds anyway, since his Spirit searches our spirits, and he is omniscient.  We might as well say what’s on our minds.  When we do so, we are authentic with God, and our relationship with him is deepened.

And as we grow in our relationship with God, we may experience what Jesus said of his disciples:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you (John 15:15).


When I was in high school, one of my Dad’s many hobbies was photography.  From time to time our living room was transformed into a photographic studio, complete with expensive camera and an assortment of very bright klieg lights, all on tripods at various heights.

I remember one time when I was sitting, rather bored, as Dad adjusted his camera for the umpteenth time, waiting for my picture to be taken.  I watched lazily as a moth flew into the room and then circled, and then flew into one of the brilliant — and very hot — klieg lights. It was vaporized instantly!

I have thought of that image when I read the account of Moses asking to see the glory of God.  Especially when Yahweh tells him:

You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.

I admit I can only think about this by using analogies.  The holiness and transcendence and power of God are so great that he exceeds our physical capacity to withstand his unmediated presence.  Not to mention that he vastly exceeds our spiritual and intellectual comprehension.

I think of those lines from a T.S. Eliot poem:

human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Yahweh, the one whose name means I Am That I Am, is Reality.  Upon him all that is real and exists lives and moves and has its being (see Acts 17:28).

It is like those who would look at an eclipse — the rays of the sun are so bright that to look upon it without special glasses would cause blindness.  And yet here is the miracle — God has made it possible for us to see him by revealing himself to us in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human (see John 1:1-2,14;  Colossians 1:12-20).

And it is Jesus who becomes the “lens” through which we see God the Father:

If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you know him, and have seen him….He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:7, 9).

Without the mediating priestly ministry of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father and the Second Person of the Trinity, we cannot see God.  Through Jesus, we are able to see God through the eyes of faith.

Lord, I pray that my relationship with you may become so intimate that I can be completely honest and transparent, and that I might see you.  I know your love for me as revealed in the goodness of creation, your redemptive work on the cross, and the sanctifying presence of your Spirit.  You have called me your friend.  May I grow in my friendship with you. Amen. 

The Eternal Father Appears to Moses” by Tintoretto is in the Public Domain.

Gospel for October 15, 2017


Matthew 22:1-14



Jesus returns again to one of his favored themes — the Kingdom of Heaven.  However, he continues to confront the hostility of the chief priests and Pharisees head-on.  Here again, he offers a contrast between those who reject the Kingdom of Heaven and those who are invited instead.

The setting of this parable is a joyous occasion — the marriage feast of the king’s son.  We are mindful that the marriage feast is a familiar metaphor used to describe the great and joyful eschatological gathering at the end of time (Matthew 25:10; Luke 12:36; Revelation 19:7-9).

Of course, the identity of the king and the son are easy to decipher — God the Father and God the Son (Jesus, of course) are anticipating the marriage feast of the son.  And the king sends out his servants  (perhaps the apostles?) who invite the guests to the wedding, where the cattle and fatlings have already been slaughtered and barbecued.

But the invitations are spurned!  The king’s invitation is mocked, and the invited guests have better things to do:

But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his merchandise,  and the rest grabbed his servants, and treated them shamefully, and killed them.

Jesus is obviously mindful of his own impending death, and the persecution of his followers that will ensue.  And in his parable, the consequences when the invited guests refuse to attend are dire:

When the king heard that, he was angry, and sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Jesus doesn’t name the invited guests, or tell whom they represent, but it isn’t difficult to draw conclusions from his previous interactions with the chief priests and Pharisees.  They were sons of Abraham (see Matthew 3:9), and as such had been chosen from among all the nations as a representative and holy nation (see Deuteronomy 7:6-9).  But this invitation must be answered with faith and obedience.  And as the parable tells us, that isn’t their response to the marriage feast.

The king declares that the invited guests weren’t worthy — as they demonstrated by their treatment of the king’s servants.  So the king sends his messengers to invite all whom they can find:

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited weren’t worthy.  Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast.’ Those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good.

There are a couple of key theological points to notice here:

  • First, the invitation has now become general — the servant messengers are to invite anyone and everyone they encounter. There is hot food at a feast that will go to waste if someone  doesn’t come and eat it!
  • Second, we get a glimpse of grace. The messengers don’t discriminate between bad and good people — all are welcomed!  The terms bad and good may denote something more than personal morality.  Quite often we have noted that it is the good people (the respectable, the elites — i.e., the chief priests and Pharisees) who become self-righteous and reject the Kingdom of Heaven And it is the bad people who are the first to recognize their need for Jesus, and who respond to him in repentance (the tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles).

Nevertheless, we aren’t meant to see this parable as a pretext for universalism.  Jesus doesn’t leave that option open.  When the wedding tent is filled with guests, the king looks out over the guests and sees one man who hasn’t dressed properly for the occasion:

 But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing,  and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?’ He was speechless.  Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness; there is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be.’

This is a stark vision of judgment.  Obviously, the wedding clothing represents something far more important than a mere fashion statement.  It was customary at a wedding in ancient Israel for everyone to wear festive garments.  To do otherwise was to be disrespectful to the marriage party.  There is even the suggestion that the host of a wedding would often provide wedding garments to their guests — much the way some clubs provide blazers and even ties when they are required for dining.  But what is this wedding clothing?  I have tried to address this question in the Apply section below.

What is clear is that the failure to wear proper attire is a serious breach of protocol.  The guest isn’t merely asked to leave — he is tied and thrown into outer darkness.  This is obviously a figurative and vivid description of hell.

Finally, Jesus repeats the same phrase that he uttered in Matthew 20:16, when he told the parable of the laborers who came at different hours of the day to work in the vineyard:

For many are called, but few chosen.

In the context of the marriage feast, we are reminded that the king originally invites guests who refuse his hospitality, sometimes quite violently — and the king deals with them accordingly.  And then the invitation is issued to people not on the original guest list.  But even they must be evaluated for proper qualifications.  Again, more on that subject in the Apply section.


All of us are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb.  However, there are those who reject his invitation.  This suggests the freedom that God grants to us concerning our response to his grace.  We can accept his invitation, or reject it.

However, we can’t help but puzzle over the guest who is thrown into the outer darkness because he isn’t wearing the right outfit.  Obviously, there is far more going on here.  This wedding garment is more than a wedding garment.  But what does it represent?

Jesus doesn’t tell us, and searching the Scriptures yields only one likely explanation, from John’s Revelation:

“For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready.”  It was given to her that she would array herself in bright, pure, fine linen: for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. (Revelation 19:7-8).

We might be tempted to conclude that the wedding clothes are earned by the righteous acts of the saints. And there is a sense in which this is certainly true.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is very clear about the requirement for a fruitful life:

A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them (Matthew 7:18-20).

I know this offends the sensibilities of those of us grounded in a Pauline theology of sola fide (faith alone).  What is required of us is a sense of balance — we are saved by grace, which is received by faith.  But as Paul points out — although the works of the law and of the flesh aren’t capable of saving us because they are our works rather than God’s works, still there is a response that God’s grace draws from us.  As he says:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).

Faith is not merely an ‘assent’ to the truth of some doctrinal propositions.  Faith works through love!  The Greek root of the word work is energeia — where we get our word energy.  Faith is an active response to the grace of God that results in fruits.

As another of my favorite verses suggests, there is synergy between ourselves and God:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There is a dynamic reciprocity in this verse — we work because it is God who is working in us.  We respond to God’s energeia working in us through faith and obedience.

We are reminded that John the Baptist told people to:

produce fruit worthy of repentance! (Matthew 3:8)

But we must never forget that God is always the one who is at work in us — through his Holy Spirit, God convicts us of sin and brings us to repentance; it is God who justifies us by his grace through Christ; and God who completes his work of sanctifying grace in us as we obey him and keep his commands to love God and love neighbor.

We don the wedding garment because God has fashioned it for us.


The first time I watched the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? I was taken with the skillful storytelling, and the interweaving of songs with the story-line.  As an American Southerner, I have said that anyone who wants to understand some of the forces that have shaped Southern culture — for good or ill — should watch this Coen brothers film.

And as a Southern Christian, I was especially taken by the song sung by the young daughters of Everett Ulysses McGill at a campaign rally (of all places!).  Maybelle Carter’s song captures some of the features of Southern Gospel music, but also reminds us of a central theme in the parable of Jesus:

In the highways, in the hedges
In the highways, in the hedges
In the highways, in the hedges
I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord

I’ll be somewhere workin’
I’ll be somewhere workin’
I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord
I’ll be somewhere workin’
I’ll be somewhere workin’
I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord

If He calls me, I will answer
If He calls me, I will answer
If He calls me, I will answer
I’ll be somewhere workin’ for my Lord

We tend to focus on those who appear to be the main characters in Jesus’ parable of the marriage feast — the king, the son, the guests who spurn the king’s invitation, the outcasts in the highways who are invited, and the guest who is underdressed at the wedding.  But what about the servants of the king who go out at the king’s command and invite as many as they can to attend the feast?  Who are those people?

Are they not the apostles, the evangelists, the pastors, the missionaries, the Sunday School teachers, the Christian lay people who see their lives as an extension of the Great Commission, when Jesus sends us out into those highways and hedges:

Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).

Maybelle Carter’s song captures the Christian’s lifestyle that will always be somewhere workin’ for my Lord. 

Lord, your invitation to the wedding feast is given to all of us.  I pray that all may accept that invitation, but I am reminded that some do reject it.  May I do my part to be out in the highways and hedges inviting your guests to the great wedding feast of the Lamb. Amen. 

"You're invited" by Agnes L. Reynes-Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.

Psalm Reading for October 15, 2017


Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23



The selected verses from this Psalm offer us just a slice of the salvation history of Israel.  The Psalm covers the Israelite’s escape out of Egypt, their perils in the wilderness, the temptations to idolatry when they arrived in Canaan, and even alludes vaguely to the nation’s exile and return from Babylon.  The Psalm is called a todah, a Psalm of Thanksgiving.   But there is also a distinct tone of confession and lamentation.

The Psalm begins in a mood of exuberant praise for God. The phrases in this first verse are familiar to those who read the Psalms often. In the Psalms, the exhortation to the community of faith to Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good is found in part at least nine times, and the reference to giving thanks shows up at least twenty-one times.  And the phrase that describes the character of Yahweh God as good appears at least five times (the Psalms referenced include Psalms 7, 9, 18, 30, 33, 54, 94, 97, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 111, 118, 122, 135, 145).

We are reminded that this characteristic — that God is good — is also what God has said of his creation (Genesis 1:31).

The next phrase in this song of praise is also frequent in the Psalms, and occurs at least thirty-four times:

for his loving kindness endures forever.

The word for loving kindness is actually one word in Hebrew — hesed.  It is also translated simply as kindness or love. And, as Sandra Richter, professor of Old Testament at Weston College points out, hesed is a term that really describes covenant loyalty and faithfulness.  God is faithful to his covenant, even when his people are not, as we shall see.

The Psalmist expresses the insufficiency of language and worship to describe and honor  all that God has done:   

Who can utter the mighty acts of Yahweh,
or fully declare all his praise?

The Psalmist then turns his attention away from the transcendent, and focuses on the human:

Blessed are those who keep justice.
Blessed is one who does what is right at all times.

These are, in a sense, Old Testament beatitudes — statements about those who are blessed. The word blessed, surprisingly, may simply mean happy, though the Biblical context tends to make the word seem more religious. The Psalmist is suggesting that blessedness or happiness is connected with ethical and moral behavior.

What follows from verses 4-6 is both an entreaty and a prayer of confession.  In the prayer of petition, he prays for Yahweh to remember him, and renew the promises of salvation given to the whole nation, who are the heirs of God’s promises.

But there is also the recognition of corporate sin by Israel:

We have sinned with our fathers.
We have committed iniquity.
We have done wickedly.

This is the prelude to the litany of confession, in which the Psalmist connects the sins of the present nation of Israel with their ancestors.

Specifically, he reminds them of their idolatry — then and now:

They made a calf in Horeb,
and worshiped a molten image.
Thus they exchanged their glory
for an image of a bull that eats grass.

This is a parallel to the Old Testament lectionary reading for this week, from Exodus 32:1-14.  This moment, when Israel demands that Aaron make them a god of gold, becomes the poster child for the dreary history of idolatry and false gods that will tempt Israel and draw them away from God in the centuries to come.

Saddest of all, these Israelites who had experienced the amazing miracles performed by God, developed a kind of spiritual amnesia:

They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt,
Wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome things by the Red Sea.

In just a few brief verses, the Psalmist has alluded to the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red sea — some of the central events of the Old Testament salvation history.

But here, the Psalmist is making a different point.  There are consequences to spiritual amnesia, moral morass and idolatry:

 Therefore he said that he would destroy them…

And then there is immediately a moment of redemptive promise, grace and mercy: 

Therefore he said that he would destroy them,
had Moses, his chosen, not stood before him in the breach,
to turn away his wrath, so that he wouldn’t destroy them.

This wonderful image, that Moses stands in the breach, is a military metaphor — that when the walls have been breached, the heroic warrior stands in the gap to defend the city.  The oddity here is that the destroyer from whom Moses defends Israel is Yahweh himself!  This is vivid imagery to describe the heartfelt intercession of Moses for Israel.

This moment is perhaps the biggest test,  and the moment of true greatness, for Moses.  God’s chosen  — Moses —  has placed his people ahead of himself, and God’s righteous and justifiable wrath has been averted!

Needless to say, this positive outcome is not what Israel deserves, but it is an example of God’s loving kindness that endures forever.


The worship of Almighty God includes many elements — praise and thanksgiving for God’s goodness and enduring loving-kindness;  the faithful telling and retelling of the salvation history; petitions for blessing, salvation and prosperity.

But can worship ever really be complete, or fully authentic, without confession of sins?  Total honesty about our lives and our ethics reveals that we really aren’t so different than our ancestors.  We may not be as crude as our ancestors in worshipping a golden calf, but we do worship our own gods and goddesses that displace God.  And when we create our own theological constructs and then seek to baptize them as though they reflect classical, Biblical doctrine, are we not guilty of idolatry?

Then we also become guilty of spiritual amnesia.  And if not for the intercession of our own Great High Priest, we would all be in grave danger:

It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us (Romans 8:34).


The television show American Idol, featuring singers competing to be named America’s Idol for the season, debuted in 2002.  The concept of ‘idolizing’ performers, celebrities and ‘stars’ was by no means new.  In fact, it can be argued that the show was the culmination of an American cult of celebrity worship that began in Hollywood in the 1930’s, and has continued to the present.

Until we recognize that Rock stars, movie stars, athletes, and other celebrities are not the moral and spiritual examples that we should follow, this culture won’t change.  When these performers can acknowledge that their talents come from God, that is laudatory.

But the true celebrities should be those who seek to direct us toward God, who acknowledge their dependence on God, and who intercede for and serve others — and I don’t simply mean preachers, missionaries and Sunday School teachers.  I’m including Christians who teach in our schools, patrol our streets in police cruisers, sell insurance, care for us in hospitals, and many, many more who are faithful day in and day out.

They don’t seek to be worshipped.  They would be horrified at the thought.  Instead, they seek to direct the attention of others toward God.

We don’t worship idols — in stone or on stage.  We worship God alone, and him only shall we serve.

Lord, forgive us when anything arrests our attention and keeps us from our full and complete devotion to you.  And inspire us to intercede for those whose heads have been turned by the bright lights and glittering idols of this world. Amen


"Worshiping Yourself" by timchallies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Old Testament for October 15, 2017

“Exodus 32-4 -This is thy god, O Israel: Mobile Phone Obelisk” [by Ze’ev Barkan]

Start with Scripture:

Exodus 32:1-14



There were several moments of crisis between Moses and Israel in the book of Exodus:

  • The first crisis came when Moses led Israel out of slavery — they found themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. They complained bitterly and asked sarcastically were there no graves in Egypt, so that we have to die in the wilderness?(Exodus 14).
  • They murmured when they had no water to drink — twice!  (Exodus 15:22-26; 17:1-7).
  • They whined for the meat pots and bread that they had when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 16:2-3).

In each case, Yahweh provided what they needed — deliverance, water, and food.

However, our lectionary text for the Old Testament this week recounts the greatest crisis up to this point.  Moses has been up on the mountain for forty days while receiving the law from Yahweh.  The Israelites grow restless. Despite all that they had witnessed — the parting of the Red Sea and their safe passage between those walls of water; the pillars of fire and of cloud that guided them through the desert; the provision of quail and manna; and, yes, the fire and smoke of Yahweh’s glory that descended upon Mount Sinai before their very eyes (Exodus 24:15-18) — despite all of this, the Israelites take matters into their own hands:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.”

How extraordinary, that they ask Aaron to make them handmade gods!  Aaron is the brother of Moses, who has been his spokesman and right-hand man, and is the first chief priest, anointed and ordained by Yahweh himself!

Perhaps it isn’t so strange that they should ask for gods. We remember that they were only recently delivered from Egypt, with an impressive pantheon of gods, goddesses and idols.  These Israelites aren’t accustomed to a God whom they cannot see or touch.

But what is strange is how Aaron responds.  Instead of refusing to accommodate the people, he tells them to bring their golden earrings to him.  The gold is melted down and molded into a golden calf!  How ironic, that in Exodus 20:4-6 God’s second commandment of the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) prohibited the making or worship of idols and images. And at this very moment, Moses is up on the mountain, in the process of receiving these Ten Commandments from God.

What may seem even stranger is that after Aaron fashions this golden calf, he builds an altar before it, and proclaims a feast — in honor of Yahweh!  In effect, he has cast this molten god, and is naming it Yahweh, because that is who they are to worship as they worship this calf.

There is strong evidence that many ancient Middle Eastern cultures worshipped the bull, as a symbol of power — among them the Babylonians and Canaanites. Apis, the Egyptian god was in the form of a bull; and the word Ka which denotes one of the three divisions of souls in Egyptian theology, was often depicted as a bull.

Needless to say, the symbol of the bull seemed a fascination for these newly liberated slaves, who still felt the magnetic tug of their former overlords in Egypt.

The feast day to this golden calf, which is now called Yahweh by Aaron, incites the modern imagination as we read of it:

They rose up early on the next day, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

This description of worship seems conventional enough for a people who offer sacrifices, and feast together communally.  However, we are told that the Hebrew word letsachek (to play) has more sinister connotations — implying sexual behavior not unlike that in the fertility cults of the Middle East.  The same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 39:14 when Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of sexual assault.

Clearly, the Israelites have already violated at least four of the Ten Commandments:

  • You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).
  • You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:4-5).
  • You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).
  • You shall not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14) was no doubt violated.
  • And we might throw in a fifth transgression: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant (Exodus 20:17). If we define covetousness as an analogue to lust — desire for something one craves — this certainly would seem to apply.

Obviously, Yahweh knows what’s going on down the mountain, and he advises Moses of the behavior of his people:

Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go, get down; for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’”

And Yahweh also warns Moses that there are consequences for such behavior.  He calls the Israelites a stiff-necked people — meaning stubbornly disobedient — and tells Moses that he will destroy them, but spare him.  This is quite an offer.  Although Israel would be annihilated, God says to Moses:

I will make of you a great nation.

We can only imagine how Moses received this offer, but it must have presented a difficult decision for him.  He is being offered the same unique covenant that his own ancestor Abraham was offered centuries earlier — that he would be a great nation.

But Moses had come too far to turn back now.  He had confronted Pharaoh in his own lair.  He had presented himself as Yahweh’s representative on earth.  He had, with the power of Yahweh, brought the Superpower of Egypt to its knees with the ten plagues.  He had led his people — six hundred fighting men strong, not counting the women and children — through the Red Sea. He had put up with their complaints, providing water, quail and manna with God’s help.

So Moses intercedes for his people.  One can almost see the tears in his eyes:

Moses begged Yahweh his God, and said, “Yahweh, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, that you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand”

This is the prelude to a fascinating prayer by Moses on behalf of the Israelites.

  • Notice first that he is reminding Yahweh that these are his people, not Moses’ people as Yahweh has said earlier.
  • Second, Moses references God’s mighty acts of liberation in bringing Israel out of Egypt — but he suggests that if God destroys them, it will vindicate the Egyptians:
    Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘He brought them out for evil, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the surface of the earth?’
  • Third, Moses begs Yahweh to turn from his wrath and repent of his evil intentions toward his people! This seems audacious,  at the very least, for Moses to call God to repentance!
  • Fourth, it is now Moses who reminds Yahweh of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel when God promised them:
     ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of the sky, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your offspring,  and they shall inherit it forever.’”

And this Almighty God, who created all things, and led Israel with a mighty hand out of Egypt, heeds Moses!

Yahweh repented of the evil which he said he would do to his people.

It must be said that Moses had developed a unique relationship with Yahweh God, that enabled an intimate and honest level of communication.  Later, when he is described as communing with God in the Tent of Meeting outside of the Israelite camp, we are told:

 Yahweh spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).


There are three key take-aways from this pivotal Biblical story.

First, we are warned about the perils of idolatry.  At first blush, the sins of the Israelites are patently obvious.  Just as they longed for the meat pots of Egypt, so now they seem to be longing for the familiar gods and goddesses of their slave masters.

But what is really surprising — and disturbing — is that they turn to their spiritual leader Aaron to provide this idol.  And he obliges them!

And even more outrageous, when Aaron fashions this golden calf, he declares a feast day — to Yahweh!  This is a warning to us about idolatry and heresy.  We are in grave danger when we create our own idols, and call them Lord.  And that also is true when we create our own theological constructs and opinions and enshrine them as Christian doctrine, instead of looking to God’s Word and the classic teaching of the church.  

Second, we see a defining moment in the relationship between God and Moses that becomes an example to us.  Moses is given the opportunity by God to make a decision that would have been personally very enriching to Moses — God offers to make of Moses a  great nation, just as he had once promised to Abraham.

Is this a test? Is God measuring the leadership and commitment of Moses?  We can only speculate — if so, Moses passes with flying colors.  Moses thinks of these recalcitrant, stiff-necked people that he has led out of slavery; and he thinks of the message that would be sent if Yahweh destroyed them — and he intercedes for them.

Has he come to love these complaining people?  Perhaps.  And he has come to see that it is not merely his own success that matters, but the existence of Israel as a nation, and God’s own reputation!

We are reminded when we come to this Book, the Bible, that our life in God is not merely about our own personal salvation and fulfillment, but includes the entire community of faith.  That is why we intercede for the church as a whole.

Third, we see something that many would tell us is simply impossible — God changes his mind!

Yahweh repented of the evil which he said he would do to his people.

Is that even possible?  If God is omniscient (he knows all things) and foresees all things (Romans 8:29),  how can he change his mind?  We are puzzled also when we read a passage like Numbers 23:19:

God is not a man, that he should lie,
nor the son of man, that he should repent.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?

Is this a contradiction?  Perhaps a hint from a theologian with the venerable wisdom of Augustine may help us.  Augustine points out that when the Bible describes the character of God, it is impossible for human beings to fully understand God.  Isaiah 55:8-9 points out that God’s ways and thoughts are not our thoughts, and they are higher than we can comprehend.  So, how can we know anything about God?  Augustine tells us that God accommodates our understanding by describing his own character and being in terms that we can understand.

An example of this might be the description of the baptism of Jesus in the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form like a dove (Luke 3:22).  Is the Holy Spirit an actual dove?  Of course not!  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Third Person of the Trinity.  But in order to make his presence understandable, the Holy Spirit accommodates the perceptions of those who are watching so that they can connect the Holy Spirit’s being and nature with something in their own experience.

So, God seems to be accommodating the understanding of Moses by repenting of his evil intention to destroy Israel.  God is not evil. And God is not unaware of what he will ultimately do.  In my view,  because God is eternal, he sees all time as eternally present, and thus ‘foresees’ that he will spare Israel. But his capacity to change direction reminds us that only God is radically free.  There are profound metaphysical and theological issues here concerning time, eternity and causality that would require a book to address.  Suffice it to say, we haven’t the capacity to understand how God’s  “foreknowledge” and his ability to change his mind can both be true.  So we resort to Paul’s comforting words:

now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But we also should take some comfort here — our prayers can make a difference.  Moses pleads for his people, and God hears his prayers.  We see this also when King Hezekiah prays personally for Yahweh to spare Jerusalem from the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:15-20) , and when he prays for his own life.  He is sick and dying, and Isaiah the prophet advises him to put his house in order — Yahweh has decreed that he is to die.  But when Hezekiah prays, Yahweh relents and gives him fifteen more years (2 Kings 20:1-6).

Prayer makes a difference.


Idolatry can be very subtle.  Today we tend to identify our idols as those things that we worship instead of God — success, pleasure, beauty, talent.  But there are times that we worship a golden calf that we have deceived ourselves into thinking is God — much like Aaron declared the golden calf to be Yahweh.

It might be our own theological opinions that we cherish — in contradiction to what the Scriptures actually teach.  Our golden calf might be a style of worship that we are sure is the only proper method.

I will confess to a realization I came to years ago.  I was pastoring a growing church.  My denomination placed a high priority on church growth.  So did I.  And I found that when church attendance was good, I felt really good about myself.  When attendance was low, I felt low.  I soon realized that attendance had become my golden calf.  Only it wasn’t just attendance that was my idol — attendance became my measure of my own value.  Instead of looking to God alone for my significance, I was really worshipping my own ego!

That was an idol that needed to be shattered.

Lord, forgive me when I worship anything other than you.  And thank you that you do  hear prayers and answer them — whether I understand how or not.  Amen. 

Exodus 32-4 -This is thy god, O Israel: Mobile Phone Obelisk” by Ze’ev Barkan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Gospel for October 8, 2017


Matthew 21:33-46



Jesus continues to confront his adversaries, using a parable as his medium.  Previously, he had confounded their challenge to his authority through key questions; he had also pointed out their unrepentant pride with a parable about two sons (Matthew 21:23-32).

Now Jesus tells a parable with a familiar setting — a vineyard.  The vineyard and the vine were familiar Old Testament symbols, signifying the nation of Israel (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-3;  Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10; Ezekiel 17).  Telling such a story, featuring a familiar image for Israel, would certainly arrest the attention of the chief priests and Pharisees.  Surely they understand that he is talking about Israel, and specifically about them.

In short, here is the outline of the parable — the landlord has planted a vineyard, complete with wine press and tower.  He leases this vineyard out to tenant farmers — basically, they are sharecroppers.  When the landlord sends his own employees to collect his share of the yield, his servants are beaten, killed and stoned to death.  When he sends his own son, assuming the tenants will treat him with honor, they plot his death.  Their logic is that once the heir is dead, they will get his inheritance.

After telling this parable, Jesus returns to his interrogative method — he asks the question:

When therefore the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?

Somehow, the Pharisees and priests have gotten involved in the story.  They seem oblivious to the point Jesus is making, and describe in colorful terms what will happen:

 They told him, “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will lease out the vineyard to other farmers, who will give him the fruit in its season.”

Once again, Jesus springs the trap, using the very Scriptures that these men should know, from Psalm 118:22-23:

Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures,
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
the same was made the head of the corner.
This was from the Lord.
It is marvelous in our eyes?'”

This metaphor was another fairly familiar Old Testament image (cf Isaiah 28:16).  The cornerstone of a building is considered foundational — it unites two intersecting walls.  Jesus picks up this image from the Psalm and applies it to himself as the Messiah — saying that those who reject him will find themselves crushed by that stone.  This image of the cornerstone will be repeated by other New Testament writers, signifying that Jesus is foundational to salvation and the church, and that one’s response to him will determine one’s destiny (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5-7).

Jesus now makes it quite clear — without parables, questions, dialectical method — exactly what he means:

Therefore I tell you, God’s Kingdom will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation producing its fruit.  He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust.

The point is taken — the tenants of the vineyard represent the chief priests and the Pharisees, and also all their predecessors who rejected the prophets who came on behalf of God.  Now, Jesus is prophesying his own death represented by the son of the landlord.  But he is also warning the leaders that the tables will be turned — the son who is killed is also the cornerstone.  And when they reject him, they will be crushed. God will raise up a new nation which produces fruit — this new nation will be the church.

This time the adversarial leaders get it.  They realize Jesus is accusing them of rejecting both the prophets, and the Son himself:

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he spoke about them.

But they are stymied.  Just as Jesus had paralyzed them earlier by asking where the authority of the popular John the Baptist came from, now the leaders are aware that they are powerless:

 When they sought to seize him, they feared the multitudes, because they considered him to be a prophet.

His arrest and the execution will come, as Jesus knows.  But he uses his popularity with the people as a screen. He will choose the time and place that he is to offer up his life as a sacrifice.


Our study of the Bible includes the Old Testament for a very good reason — it is impossible to fully understand and appreciate the New Covenant introduced by Jesus without understanding that he fulfills the promises and hopes of Israel.

The images in this passage — the vineyard, the cornerstone, the allusion to Psalm 118 — all remind us that the story of the New Testament is continuous with the Old Testament.

And we must be careful not to read any anti-Semitism into this passage.  The chief priests and Pharisees do fail to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, in fulfillment of the prophecies.  But the first believers, the early church, and Jesus himself were Jews.

What they do see is that the promises of God, the Messiah, salvation, and the church, were to be for all people — Jews and Gentiles alike.  Paul interprets this very well in a passage that deserves to be quoted in full:

Therefore remember that once you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “uncircumcision” by that which is called “circumcision”, (in the flesh, made by hands);  that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace;  and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and to those who were near. For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God,  being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone;  in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

This passage not only reminds us that Christ is our chief cornerstone, but that all who believe are now incorporated into the household of God, both Jews and Gentiles now made one in Christ.


The tension is building as Jesus draws closer and closer to the end.  His parables and his questions are surgical. Jesus exposes the hostility of his adversaries, which becomes more and more apparent.

But Jesus also makes it clear to us just who he is, and what we should believe.  He is the Son, who is rejected by the tenants and killed.  And he is the cornerstone of our faith and our church — and those who reject him reject him at their peril.  But to those who believe — what he has done is marvelous in our eyes.

Lord, you are the cornerstone of my faith.  May I build my life on your foundation. Amen.

"Lectionary reflection for this week based on Matthew 21.42" by Baptist Union of Great Britain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.