30 July 2023

Obedience is not a popular word these days. It can feel rather authoritarian, conservative and legalistic. But, the readings this week invite us to explore this word in a different way. As a creative and loving response to God’s love and grace. And that is what God’s Kingdom is all about.

May our worship lead us deeper into God’s love this week, and lead us out into lives that embrace God’s ways.

Genesis 29:15-28: Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to receive Rachel as his wife, but then Laban tricks him and gives him Leah instead. So Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Rachel.
OR 1 Kings 3:5-12: At the start of his reign, Solomon asks God to give him wisdom so that he can govern God’s people well, and God, who is pleased with his request, agrees to grant what he asks for.

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b: A psalm of praise for God’s mighty deeds on behalf of God’s people, for God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant, and for God’s justice and greatness, all of which are intended to draw God’s people into obedience.
OR Psalm 119:129-136: The psalmist celebrates God’s law and prays for God’s mercy so that he can obey it, while grieving those who do not obey.

Romans 8:26-39: Paul reminds his readers that God’s Spirit prays for them, and that God works all things together for their good. He reassures them that God is for them, and that nothing can separate them from God’s love.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52: Jesus describes the Kingdom of God by use of parables: it is like the tiny mustard seed, growing into a large tree, like the tiny bit of yeast that permeates the dough in baking, like the treasure hidden in a field and like a very valuable pearl, and it is like a fishing net in which many fish are caught – the good ones kept and the bad ones thrown out.

If we were tempted to think that being part of God’s reign required nothing of us, we will be deeply challenged by this week’s readings because the idea of “obedience” flows through all of them. Jacob’s love for Rachel is a wonderful metaphor for how obedience works. He was willing to work long years in obedience to Laban because he loved Rachel so much that the years flew by like days. Solomon, as a new king, recognised how important it was that he led his people well, and in obedience to God, that he prayed for the wisdom to be a good king. In Psalm 105 God’s gracious and mighty works on behalf of God’s people are celebrated, with the clear understanding that this should result in loving obedience in return, and in Psalm 119 the psalmist, recognising the value of obedience to God’s law, prays for mercy so that he can remain faithful in his obedience. Paul does not specifically mention obedience in the passage from Romans, but he does indicate that God’s Spirit prays for us and works in us so that God’s purposes can be fulfilled in our lives – which is what obedience is about – and again, God’s initiative in loving us is shown to be the catalyst that leads us into lives of following and serving Christ. Finally, Jesus reveals what the Kingdom of God is like by telling stories of it’s subversive influence – the small things that have big influence – and the people who are willing to sacrifice greatly in order to attain it. Finally, he drives the point home when he indicates that not all will recognise or receive the kingdom, and these will ultimately miss out on the life it brings. Obedience, which is so often seen as religious legalism, or a dry and rigid compliance with the letter of the law, takes on a new vibrancy and attractiveness in the light of these readings. What the Lectionary is seeking to do here is to invite us into the kind of relationship with God where God’s loving action in our lives is recognised and celebrated, and in which, because of our love, we seek to do what God would want of us, and to open ourselves to the life that God seeks to give us. Perhaps St. Augustine’s words would be appropriate here: “Love God, and do what you like.”

GLOBAL APPLICATION: It’s an interesting thought to try and connect the idea of obedience with what is going on in the world, especially since we have tended to think of obedience in individualistic terms. But, when we think of the context in which obedience is asked of us, and the impact our choices have on the world, we begin to see the connections far more strongly. Obedience does not refer just to not doing certain things that we would think of as ‘sinful’ – usually related to sexual behaviour, the use of certain substances and whether we give our assent to certain doctrines or ideas. Rather, the world is created in such a way that certain things help it to grow, live and expand, while other things result in diminishing, death and contraction. Obedience, then, would be to co-operate with anything that gives life (what Matthew Fox refers to as “biophilia”) and to resist anything that would bring death (“necrophilia” in Fox’s scheme). It is when we recognise God’s presence, grace and love which seek to bring life, freedom and equity to our world, and when we experience a taste of this divine blessing for ourselves, that we find ourselves drawn to work with God and co-operate with God’s life-giving work. This is obedience in its most basic and most effective form. It is, first, the attitude of humility and openness that submits to God’s ways because they are what bring life. Then it is the act of giving ourselves to nurture life in whatever ways and in whatever places we can. For some this may mean getting involved in social, political or economic leadership and seeking to build systems that are increasingly just and liberating. For some it may mean doing the work of activism and standing publicly against injustice and oppression. For most communities of faith, though, it must mean seeking to embody God’s hidden kingdom, making the sacrifices to attain the treasure or buy the pearl of great price; trusting in the small daily kingdom acts that expand and grow into vast trees of grace and compassion; and reaching out in whatever ways we can as fishers of people to enable them to enjoy the benefits of God’s reign with us – teaching friends and companions the obedience that brings life not through argument, sermon or criticism, but through living Christ’s way and allowing them to see and experience the joy and life it brings through us. What small, sacrificial act of obedience might God be calling your community to make that has global impact and relevance this week?

LOCAL APPLICATION: In every life and community obedience takes the form of embracing Christ’s attitudes and actions in our daily interactions, our values, our ethics and our decisions. We obey God, and experience the hidden kingdom, when we resist the urge to take out our anger and frustrations (which are often directed at ourselves) on others. We obey God when we give of ourselves, our time and our resources to others sacrificially and joyfully. We obey God when we go out of our way to make others feel included, accepted, loved and served. We obey God when we refuse to do violence to, or ignore the rights of, other people. We obey God when we turn away from materialism and consumerism and live a simple lifestyle. We obey God when we spend prayerfully, and use what we have fully, wisely and with care and appreciation. We obey God when we refuse to enjoy benefits that others can’t or that are won on the back of others’ suffering.  And, we obey God when we live in such a way that others are attracted to the Christ they see in us. The essential call, then, is to live with wisdom (as Solomon requested), with integrity and faithfulness, with commitment (like Jacob) and with an awareness of the rhythms and movements of the kingdom which are at work around us all the time. Then, out of this mindfulness, we choose, moment by moment, to engage the world – and the people and creatures in it – from a Christlike framework. This means that obedience is not so much about ticking laws off a list. Rather, it is a Christlike, creative, moment-by-moment response to the people and situations we find ourselves in. It is searching for the movement and presence of God’s love in each interaction, and then obeying the promptings that this gives us. It is opening ourselves to the ever-present love of God, and allowing that love to drive us into acts of love that point others to God, and that bring healing, restoration and hope to those who most need it. Obedience is surprising, unpredictable and transforming, if we will only embrace the adventure of it.

This Hidden Kingdom
Your Kingdom Come

Hymn Suggestions:
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I Give You My Heart (Link to YouTube video)
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A Liturgy for the Celebration of Sacrifice

Video Suggestions:
Mustard Seed