20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 26 • 2014)
‘Endings and Beginnings’
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
As some of you probably suspect, I spent almost my entire day last Tuesday watching on the Internet the inauguration of Joko Widodo, famously known as Jokowi, as the new President of Indonesia for the next five years. I listened especially to his acceptance speech with much interest. He closed his speech by asking God to endorse his nation’s effort to achieve a better future. This remark reminds me of the phrase, by the grace of God, that opens the Indonesian constitution.
Like many other secular nations in the world, Indonesian constitution has religious overtones. The founding fathers of Indonesia believed that their freedom was a gift from God; that it was God who had delivered them from colonisation and imperialism that had shackled them for hundreds of years, just like the people of Israel believed that God was the One who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The foundational document of Israel that we heard a few weeks ago, the Ten Commandments, opens with words: I am the Lord your God who had rescued you from the land of Egypt. These words are similar to the words in the Indonesian constitution that attribute their freedom to God.
So, I think, it is very appropriate that the new President of Indonesia asked for God’s blessing in his inauguration. The future of the nation depends not on him, but on God who has given them their freedom. It is at those times when the President thinks that he or she is the only person responsible for the fate of the nation that the nation would go to the abyss. That, sadly, had happened before in the history of the nation.
This must have been the same reason why Moses was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. There was nothing wrong with Moses physically. We are told that even though he was 120 years old, his eyes and body were still in good shape. His strength had not been diminished significantly!
I watched Kitchen Cabinet on ABC last week, featuring Bob Hawke, Australia’s longest serving Labor Prime Minister, serving meal in his house. Bob Hawke today is different from his younger self during his heyday as the Prime Minister of this nation. His mind is still as sharp as it has always been, but his body has shown his old age.
Indeed, today, you can’t be old unless you have done plenty of medical procedures to make sure your body still functions properly: surgery to remove cataract from your eye, hip replacement, knee replacement, regular visits to the doctor or physiotherapist, multiple medications to take every day, etc. Like many people have told me: getting old is not for the faint hearted.
Not for Moses. He had no access to the kind of medical service that we have today, yet he was almost as fit as he was when he started his leadership. So, there was no reason for Moses not to continue being the leader of Israel. He was still physically capable of leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land.
Yet, here lied the problem. Moses had become so influential and powerful as a leader that he had become almost irreplaceable in the eyes of the people of Israel. We can see this kind of reverence for Moses in the ‘eulogy’ to him in the end of our reading today in Exodus. We are told that there had never been again a prophet like Moses in Israel; that he was the only person who could speak face to face with God; that he was unequal in the miracles and wonders that he did. For the people of Israel, he was head and shoulder above everyone else. He was up there, second to God only. It was not surprise that the people of Israel mourned his death for about a month.
So there was a clear danger that the people of Israel would replace God with Moses. That had happened before. A few weeks ago, we heard how the people of Israel worried when Moses had not returned after almost forty days and forty nights on top of Mount Sinai. The people of Israel had attributed their survival to Moses, their great leader, and not to God; thus when Moses failed to return, they tried to create an idol to replace him instead of trusting in God, their true leader.
So it was possible that the people of Israel would start worshipping Moses if he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. We have parallels in modern history. We have witnessed how rulers, in authoritarian states, have turned into godlike figures that are not only adored, but also worshipped not only by their close followers, but by ordinary citizens. We have witnessed how, as the result of their immense popularity and influence, these rulers could commit the most horrendous of crimes with impunity. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Sir John Acton, the Catholic historian and writer. The same thing could have happened to Moses had God not banned him from entering the Promised Land. So Moses was banned from entering into the Promised Land to make the people of Israel understand that it was God, not Moses, who was their true leader.
Friends, leaders come and go. As you walk through the entrance of this church building, you could see the list of different Ministers and Missionaries who had served this congregation. Different people from different backgrounds have indeed served this congregation throughout its life, but it was God who planted this church and it is still God who looks after it and who will continue looking after it in the future. Our ultimate hope shall rest not on our human leaders, but on God.
It doesn’t mean that our human leaders are not important. They can be very important. But their significance is limited and we have to acknowledge their limitation. All leaders in any organisations, including the church, become leaders by responding to God’s call to serve God’s people. Their leadership is not inherent in their being, but depends on this call from God.
Another news that made headlines last week was the death of Australia 21st Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. He was a controversial figure: a hero for many; a villain for others. Yet, there was no doubt that, during his ‘short stint’ as the Prime Minister of this nation, he brought a lot of changes that have shaped the social and political landscape in Australia until today.
On the day of his death, Anna Burke, Labor Member of Parliament and previous Speaker of the House of Parliament, posted a photo of her with her two brothers and two sisters. The photo was taken when her brother, Paul, graduated from Monash University; the same university where Anna, her two sisters, and her other brother also graduated. She then used the post to thank Gough personally. She said that none of them would ever have their university degrees without Gough’s vision for free tertiary education in Australia.
Indeed, just like the people of Israel adored Moses, many people in Australia today adored Whitlam. His wife of more than 60 years, Margaret Dovey, jokingly said, “I'm a bit tired of all the adulation. He's almost reached the beatification stage. I suppose the canonisation will come, with the obituaries.” Indeed, Whitlam was a giant both in his physical stature (he was 1.94 meters) and in his legacy that outlived his time as the Prime Minister. Unlike Moses, who could not enjoy the fruits of his leadership, Gough lived long enough to see how his reforms were implemented and influenced other policies after his time.
Yet, I doubt that Whitlam would consider himself as a giant. He himself must have known that the movement that he represented and the policy that he championed were larger than his own leadership. As significant as his role was in shaping the landscape of Australian society until today, Whitlam must have realised that he was only one part of the journey of our nation.
Indeed, he must have believed that there are forces beyond him that shape and guide life as we know it. Even though he was not a religious person (Whitlam considered himself as ‘post-Christian’ or a ‘fellow traveller with Christianity’), I think it is fair to say that he must have been a spiritual person. For him, his ‘Maker’ must have been the forces of family, society, and history. He, however, must have been humble enough to acknowledge that he was not identical with these forces; that his job was to help other people to understand and appreciate these forces.
Indeed, Whitlam must have known that his influence and time on earth was limited. On his 80th birthday, he said, “With all my reservations, I do admit I seem eternal.” Yet, he then admitted, “Dying will happen sometime. As you know, I plan for the ages, not just for this life.” He lived for another 18 years, two years shy of becoming a centenarian.
Yes, amongst the adulation from his supporters, Whitlam knew that he was a mortal being like everyone else. He must have agreed with the psalmist who said in Psalm 90 that we are like grass: standing tall in the morning, withering in the evening. Yet God is eternal and we will be a fool to depend our hope on one who is mortal and limited and not on One who is eternal.
The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church is clear: there is only one head of the Church: Jesus Christ, the resurrected crucified one who, in his Spirit, continues to lead and guides the church. The book of Acts had also made it very clear to the early Christian communities: the Spirit of God was the founder and the leader of the Church. In his letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul clearly stated that he didn’t want to flatter anyone in his ministry. His work was not to win them over to himself, but to Christ. He suffered mistreatments and insults in his ministry not so that other people would praise him, but so that they would accept God’s message.
Indeed, just like Moses and Gough Whitlam, the Apostle Paul had become somewhat like a legend amongst the Gentile Christians. Without his tireless ministry, the Christian faith would never break away from its Jewish heritage and spread to the rest of the known world. Without his ministry, the local church would never become a universal church. Without him, none of us would be here today. So, his popularity and influence amongst the non-Jewish Christians, our selves included, were well earned, yet he was humble enough to remind his followers that his work was not for his own popularity, but for the glory of God.
Friends, leaders come and go, but our God stays forever. We are to be grateful for all the leaders in the church and in our society. Yet they are all like grass that grow in the morning and wither in the evening. We are all to be thankful for all the leaders in our life, but none of these leaders can and shall replace the only ultimate leader of our life: Jesus Christ, the Head of the church and Lord of all creation; the One who died and is risen for us. We can follow our human leaders, but we need to always remind ourselves that our ultimate loyalty rests on the One in whose palm of His hand our names are written.
 Tony Stephens, Gough Whitlam Dead: Martyr for A Moment, Hero for A Lifetime, on http://www.theage.com.au (October 21, 2014)
 Same as Above
 Same as Above
 Same as Above
 See Paragraph 3 and 4 of the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia
 Isaiah 49:6