Today’s readings are all about getting it wrong, and that’s something we can all identify with. The point is to realise you’re going the wrong way and do something about it. Don’t keep going the wrong way. Here’s a fun way to illustrate this:
You will need (for each team of two)
- A pair of tights
- 2 pieces of chocolate
- A blindfold
Put both pieces of chocolate down the same leg of the tights, right to the bottom. The game is to have a race and see who can get the chocolate first.
One person in each team wears the blindfold and must put their dominant hand in a pocket or behind their back. Their team-mate holds the tights by the waist.
However, once the blindfolds are on, quietly drape the legs with the chocolate over the arms of the team-mates, so that the blindfolded people will always start by searching down the wrong leg. No-one is allowed to tell them that they’re searching down the wrong leg.
The winner will be the person who first realises that they have gone the wrong way.
Everyone gets chocolate in the end, of course.
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.”
(C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
For a sketch on Luke 15, ‘The Stinky Son’, check out A(nother) Bucketful of Ideas for Church Drama (The Blue One)
I wonder how many of you have had a journey like this:
Taking my daughter round to a friend’s house. Not too long a journey, just down the A6 for a few miles, over that big roundabout (but don’t take the by-pass) and it’s the next village but one down that road, on the left by the village green, the house with very wide front door. I’ve been there a couple of times before and I can see it in my head. It’s just past the church, so it should be easy to find. No problem. 15 mins tops.
We set off, following my internal map, but 20 minutes later I’m still looking for this village green and the only church I’ve passed was a little Methodist chapel. Where is the one with the steeple? I didn’t think it was this far along. Ah, here’s the start of the houses. Finally!
Oh, a hotel? I don’t remember there being a hotel on the way. And why is the road bending to the right? I thought it was pretty straight.
Ummmn, that was the village green, but no church. And there were shops on the left, not the house I was looking for. Is there another green, perhaps?
And now the houses have stopped. Clearly it was not this village. Sighing, I untangle my sat nav and plug it in. Naturally, it says ‘satellite signal lost’ and shows me a map of my home. Of course.
I plough on. Maybe it was the third village down this road, not the second.
Another five minutes, and I’ve driven a lot further than the original 10 miles. There is no third village and the road is getting narrower. I’m expecting any minute to come upon a herd of goats happily nibbling on the greenery sprouting from the middle of the road where the white line should be. It’s not even wide enough to be a farm track. I think it probably leads to a rabbit hole.
And then! Salvation! The sat-nav wakes from its torpor and a map swings wildly into place. At the same time I round a stand of trees and there, straight ahead, bathed in glorious evening sun like a 1950s Hollywood starlet, is the spire of that flippin’ church I’ve been trying to get to.
On the other side of a reservoir.
I check the sat-nav. Yup. I’m on Bugs Bunny Lane sure enough. I’m probably the first person to have used this bit of road since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Tap-tap-tap-tappity-tap and the address is plumbed in.
Surely it can’t be too difficult to get to? I can see the church!
Yay! I’m only half a mile from my destination … if I had had the foresight to order the ‘flying’ upgrade for my car. But I didn’t, so it’s eight-and-a-half miles. Back the way I came. “Turn around where possible.”
A seven-point-turn (avoiding scratchy hedge on one side and ditch on the other) and I’m headed towards my destination by going away from it. And that got me thinking. How could I have made this a shorter detour?
Long story short: back to the big roundabout and down the other road, second village, house on the green. A whole flippin’ hour for a 15-minute journey.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s what Paul was saying in his letter to Timothy, recalling a time in his life when he thought he was on the right road, but wasn’t. By God’s good grace, Paul found his feet guided on to the right path, and Paul never forgot the mercy he was shown. Neither should we.
Jesus talked about people who think they are on the right path but aren’t in his parable of the ninety-nine people who (finger quotes) have no need (end finger quotes) of repentance. Yeah, right. He made this same point three times in Luke 15 – so he really meant it! The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son: all gone the wrong way, and all brought back.
But what of the Israelites and the Golden Calf? Ah, there is so much in this story I hardly know where to start. But here are some points we could ponder:
The people wanted a tangible symbol (v1). Nothing odd about that. God had understood they’d want some visible manifestation when he led them from Egypt. But who exactly is their focus? Moses brought them out of Egypt?
Remember they’ve not heard the bit about ‘don’t make idols’ yet. Sure, the ten commandments are listed in chapter 20, but that’s at the start of God’s conversation with Moses that lasted until chapter 31, and Moses hasn’t come down the mountain yet. So we can’t be too down of them for making a shiny cow. It was the normal way to worship a god back then, same as everyone around them was doing. So the problem was not the cow per se, but that it was taking their eyes off God. I wonder what things I am doing that are just normal, what everyone does, but that are taking my eyes off God?
Aaron calls their celebration a feast to the Lord (v5), and he offers sacrifices on an altar. Were these being offered to God or to gods? Did Aaron mean the calf as a focus for right worship? What exactly did he think was going on? (I seriously have no idea what was going through his head.)
Verses 7 and 11 are hilarious. They read like two parents of a naughty child: “Your people, whom you brought up …”, says God (v 7). “Oh, no, don’t saddle me with them’, retorts Moses, ‘they’re your people, whom you brought out. Your problem, not mine.” (v 11, I paraphrase slightly.)
Aaron seriously messed up, but he is still consecrated as high priest a few chapters later. I’m not sure I’d have still appointed someone that unreliable to such a key position, but then, I’m not God.
Exodus 32:1-14 Lexham English Bible
And the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered opposite Aaron, and they said to him, “Come, make for us gods who will go before us, because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring it to me.” And all the people took off the rings of gold that were on their ears and brought it to Aaron. And he took from their hand, and he shaped it with a tool, and he made it a cast-image bull calf, and they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
And Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron called, and he said, “A feast for Yahweh tomorrow.” And they started early the next day, and they offered burnt offerings, and they presented fellowship offerings, and the people sat to eat and drink, and they rose up to revel.
And Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go, go down because your people behave corruptly, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt. They have turned aside quickly from the way that I commanded them; they have made for themselves a cast-image bull calf, and they bowed to it, and they sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’”
And Yahweh said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and, indeed, they are a stiff-necked people. And now leave me alone so that my anger may blaze against them, and let me destroy them, and I will make you into a great nation.”
And Moses implored Yahweh his God, and he said, “Why, Yahweh, should your anger blaze against your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and wipe them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning the disaster for your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by yourself, and you told them, ‘I will multiply your offspring like the stars of the heavens, and all this land that I promised I will give to your offspring, and they will inherit it forever.’”
And Yahweh relented concerning the disaster that he had threatened to do to his people.
Luke 15:1-32 Lexham English Bible
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were drawing near to hear him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes were complaining, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”
So he told them this parable, saying, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the grassland and go after the one that was lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he returns to his home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
Or what woman who has ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found the drachma that I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
And he said, “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. And after not many days, the younger son gathered everything and went on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth by living wastefully. And after he had spent everything, there was a severe famine throughout that country, and he began to be in need. And he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to tend pigs. And he was longing to fill his stomach with the carob pods that the pigs were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have an abundance of food, and I am dying here from hunger! I will set out and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight! I am no longer worthy to be called your son! Make me like one of your hired workers.’ And he set out and came to his own father. But while he was still a long way away, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight! I am no longer worthy to be called your son!’ But his father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! And bring the fattened calf—kill it and let us eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the slaves and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has gotten him back healthy.’ But he became angry and did not want to go in. So his father came out and began to implore him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Behold, so many years I have served you, and have never disobeyed your command! And you never gave me a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours returned—who has consumed your assets with prostitutes—you killed the fattened calf for him!’ But he said to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and everything I have belongs to you. But it was necessary to celebrate and to rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead, and is alive, and was lost, and is found!’”
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Lexham English Bible
I give thanks to the one who strengthens me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful, placing me into ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, but I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord abounded with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But because of this I was shown mercy, in order that in me foremost, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his total patience, for an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, to the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Lexham English Bible
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