Prologue: In the Beginning Was the Word

Scripture: John 1:1-15

Most of us are familiar with the story of Christmas.  There is the virgin who gets a surprise visit from an angel with a job for her to do.  There is her unsuspecting fiancé, who nonetheless decides to stick around.  There is the journey to Bethlehem at 40 weeks pregnant, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable and swaddled and placed in a manger.  Sprinkle in some cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men and maybe some more angels to complete the scene.

This is the Christmas story as told mostly by Luke and a little bit by Matthew, and it’s the story that pageants are made of.

John, however, has a different story to tell.  For John there is no inn with no room, no manger, no virgin.  There are no shepherds or wise men or cows or sheep.  This story doesn’t take place in the Roman province of Judea – at least not at first.  This story doesn’t begin with the birth of a baby, or a trip to Bethlehem, or an angelic announcement, or even prophetic promises made long ago.

Instead it takes place in heaven, in creation, before creation, at the beginning of time.

This is the story John tells in the first chapter of his Gospel, the prologue, the poem that sets the tone for the whole Gospel to follow.

In the beginning, it goes, and we are instantly transported back to Genesis, to the very first words of the Bible.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.  In the beginning, God said “Let there be light.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  In the beginning, there was not just God the Father, the Creator, but the Word who was with God and who was also God.

There’s a reason we don’t make a pageant out of this story.  It’s hard to even preach on John without starting to sound all philosophical and ephemeral and otherworldly, which is exactly how John sounds – much less try to act it out.

In the beginning was the Word, in Greek, the LogosLogos means word but it’s more than just a word on a page.  It is reason, ordering principle, the “blueprint or Primordial Pattern for reality,”[1] (Rohr), the “creative plan of God that governs the world.”[2]  It is the source of our suffix –ology: theology, theo-logos.  It is, in a sense, wisdom, though there is a different Greek word for that; but in fact, in Proverbs we meet a character, Wisdom, who was “formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was.”  “I was there,” she says, “when he established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea, when he thickened the clouds above” (Proverbs 8:23-28).  Logos is all of these things.

But in its simplest form, Logos means word.  God’s Word is present with God in the beginning.

We’re used to thinking of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I suspect we’re less used to thinking of him as God’s Word.

Once, at a church bazaar, I picked up a book of Children’s Letters to God.  You can probably imagine the kinds of letters they collected: some cute, some funny, some poignant, many of them questions, things like “Dear God, how did you know that you were God?” and “Are you really invisible, or is that a trick?”  I have no idea where all these letters came from and have some suspicions as to whether they are all actually real, but they are worth thinking about, because I imagine we might have some letters of our own to write if we got the chance.  Some questions to ask.  Dear God, did this thing in my life really have a higher purpose, or was it just random?  Dear God, what do I do next?

It also made me wonder what God might say if God wrote a letter to us.

What kind of letter do you think God would write?

I think that maybe it would be a love letter, with words full of care and comfort or even passion for us, assuring us that we are beautiful, and that God loves us exactly as we are.  Or maybe it would be more like a letter of introduction, meant to tell us just a little bit about who God really is.  Maybe it would be a letter full of advice and instructions about how to live a meaningful life, or how to gain eternal life.  Maybe it would express some disappointment about the ways we haven’t followed those instructions. Or maybe it would be an invitation to God’s Kingdom banquet.

You can see why this might be a hard letter to write, even for God.  There’s a lot to be said, and words can only say so much.  You might of course say that the Bible itself is the letter God writes to us, and it’s true that the Bible contains pretty much all of the material I just said and more.  John, though, would tell us that rather than the whole of Scripture, Jesus is that letter God writes to us.

There’s the famous saying often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.” It’s a saying beloved by all of us who don’t actually like to the preach the Gospel in words, especially outside of church. But maybe that’s what God did, because God used human life itself to preach the Gospel.  Jesus’ very life, his whole life, from birth to ministry to crucifixion to resurrection, is what God wants to tell us.  It is hope and joy and welcome and conviction and mercy and justice and peace.  Jesus is God’s love letter, God’s letter of introduction, God’s instruction, God’s invitation.

And that is true precisely because those two stories I mentioned at the beginning – the Christmas story we all know, with the manger and shepherds and angels, and the one John tells that takes place from the beginning of time – are actually the same story.  This baby in a manger, surrounded by cows and sheep and shepherds and wise men, is in fact, God the eternal, God the creator, in whom and through whom all things were brought into being.  This child wrapped in swaddling clothes is none other than the God who gives us life, the one the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being.”  He’s not a messenger, not a representative, not an earthly Messiah.  Instead, in this small, human, vulnerable, finite baby we meet the second person of the Trinity, the one who has existed, loved, created, shined light, breathed life, for all time.  He is the very revelation of God.

In this baby, and the person he grows up to be, God says to us, “It’s me.”

And so each earthy detail of that scene at the manger becomes something more, something that points us to God’s eternity.

In Jesus, we have life, because he is the very source of life.  And that life is light for all people.

In Advent, the prologue to the church year and prologue to our Christian story, our work is to open ourselves to that life that is coming into the world. The ongoing work of faith is nothing less than to join our lives with his life, which he opens to us by becoming one of us.

And when we do, we, too, become light for the world.

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 519

Becoming God’s People: The God Who Goes Before Us

Scripture: Exodus 40:33-38

Today we come to the end of the book of Exodus.  We’ve been journeying with the Israelites for a while now, from slavery to liberation to wilderness wandering.  As I’ve been saying from the beginning, Exodus is the story of how people who were no people became God’s people.  But becoming God’s people isn’t just an automatic thing that happens.  Yes, being loved and chosen and remembered by God is pretty much up to God – that’s what we call grace – but understanding what that means for our lives and our journey is at least somewhat up to us.

When we first met the Israelites at the beginning of Exodus, they weren’t even slaves yet.  They’re a flourishing minority in a country that is not their native land where the majority is beginning to fear what their growing numbers mean.  It is that fear, along with a leader all too willing to exploit it, that leads to slavery.  But God hears the Israelites’ cries, and God remembers the promises that God made to their ancestors, that they would become a great nation.  So one day God shows up in a burning bush in the desert to an ethnically Hebrew fugitive from the law who just so happened to grow up Egyptian, and God tells him to go back home and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go.  (That fugitive from the law’s name? Moses.)

Pharaoh does not, of course, let the people go, and his hardness of heart leads to a series of plagues that God sends against him and the Egyptian people: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock.  Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Over and over, Pharaoh relents and then un-relents, until God decides to show him once and for all who’s in charge here.  That night each Israelite family slaughters a lamb and smears the blood on their doorposts, and at the stroke of midnight, every firstborn child in the land of Egypt dies.  Every one, that is, except for in the houses of the Israelites.  They have been passed over.

That night the Israelites set out in the direction of the Red Sea, with God going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When they reach the sea they can hear the Egyptian army catching up to them in the distance, but Moses spreads his staff over the water and they split in half, and the Israelites walk across the sea on dry land.  When the Egyptians catch up, of course, they are not so lucky; on the far shore, the Israelites are free.

And that, in a sense, is where the real story of Exodus begins. Because there the Israelites are in the wilderness, following a God who they don’t really know yet.  Yes, this God has led them out of slavery and into freedom, but what happens next?  Now that they are chosen, now that they are safe, what does it mean to be God’s people for the long haul?

It turns out that maybe you don’t learn that in one big, cataclysmic event like a sea crossing.  You learn it in the wilderness, when you’re worrying about where your next meal and your next cup of water is coming from.  You learn it when you wake up one morning and there’s bread on the ground, and when you see water start gushing out of rocks.  You learn it when you commit to living in a certain way, by certain rules, that give you identity as a community and show the people around you who you are.  You learn it when you mess up and worship things that aren’t God and you fear that you’ve ruined everything and the journey is over, but it’s not over, God is still there offering you a second chance.

These are the lessons the Israelites have to learn in the wilderness as they are shaped and formed into a community of God’s people.

A few weeks ago, back in chapter 17, when the Israelites were thirsty and there was no water to be found, they asked a question that made Moses accuse them of testing God: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And of course that question has already been answered time and time again.  It’s been answered in the hail and the darkness and the splitting of the sea, it’s been answered in the manna that covers the ground and the bitter water made sweet, and yet it’s still a question the wandering people have to ask.  Apparently part of being God’s people is sometimes still having to ask.

It’s the end of Exodus, this very last part, when that question gets answered once and for all.

Last week we heard God giving Moses the instructions for building the tabernacle, the mobile proto-Temple that will be God’s dwelling in the midst of the people and travel with them from camp to camp in the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  Moses invites the people to bring their gifts to be used for building, and they do; they bring their gold and silver and yarn and leather and oil and wood until the workers complain and they have to be told to stop.  Then the tabernacle is built, exactly according to God’s instructions – the authors are very careful to let us know that it is built “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

As I said last week, this whole part about building the tabernacle is neither the most famous nor the most enthralling part of Exodus.  But it comprises almost half of the book.  It’s not an appendix to the story of crossing the Red Sea; it’s what the Israelites are crossing the Red Sea for, to be a community centered around God’s presence on earth. And in today’s text, finally, the cloud descends over the tabernacle and the Lord’s glorious presence fills it.  And with that, the curtains close on the book of Exodus.

And yet this is not the end of the story; it’s not even the end of the wilderness years.  The Israelites will continue to wander.  They will wander through Leviticus, through Numbers, through Deuteronomy.  They will wander for years, before they finally cross into the Promised Land.  They will go backward and forward and sideways and around in circles.

Rarely, I think, do we travel in a straight line through the wilderness, whatever our “wilderness” may be.

In a way it strikes me as kind of strange that Exodus ends right here, with so much wandering still to go.  Nothing is settled, nothing has come to a conclusion, promises remain unfulfilled.  But the story – this part of it – ends with this: God is with the people of Israel.

And it’s almost as if whatever happens after that is secondary, because if God is wandering with them, then that’s all God’s people need to know.

When I think about what I’m thankful for in the past year, there are plenty of things: the safe birth my daughter Lydia.  Two kids who are healthy, as far as we know.  A job I was glad to come back to after maternity leave.  But to tell the truth it’s been a pretty hard year, with my dad’s illness and death on the one hand, and this whole figuring out being the parents of two kids at one time thing on the other.  It’s been in many ways a wilderness-y kind of year.  Nothing feels like it’s hit equilibrium just yet.  And I know I’m not alone in that; we all have our own wilderness we have to wander.  But I admit that a lot of the time God has seemed distant.  Not angry, not unjust – just distant.  There have been times when that question the Israelites asked has come to mind: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And yet I continue to believe that even when I haven’t felt it, God has been there anyway.  I say that thinking of all the people who reminded me of that over these months – friends who have prayed for me when I didn’t have the words, people who brought meals, who stepped in to help when I had to step back.  These people, these moments, have helped me remember what was actually true no matter what: that God has still been there in the wilderness, and that God is leading me still.

That was always the promise to be fulfilled.  Not the Promised Land, but God with us.  Because God is with us, I can be thankful in the wilderness too.

There’s this tension at this time of year, I think, as we close out the Christian year worshiping Jesus as king of all creation, looking forward to the day when all that is wrong is made right, when the kingdom of God is fully come on earth.  And then we go ahead and begin all over again in Advent, with promises yet to be fulfilled, asking Jesus to come into a world that is still in the wilderness, and there is grief, and there is pain, and there is hate, and injustice, and brokenness, and if we’re honest none of us really knows what to do about it all.  And Jesus does – in Jesus we know that God is with us in all of it.  Jesus is our tabernacle.

There’s a lot that seems uncertain about our world right now.  We don’t know how our country’s going to come out of the next election.  We don’t know how our church is going to come out of our next General Conference.  We don’t know what climate change is going to mean for our future.  We don’t know what building a new church and being out of our church building for three years is going to be like for our community of faith right here.  In each of these cases we get to figure out anew what it means to be God’s people: loving our least loveable neighbors, standing up for the vulnerable, witnessing to a vision that is bigger than our own.

But the good news is that being God’s people means we may wander as we figure it all out – but we will never wander alone.

And because of that, we can put one foot in front of the other, moving forward in faith.

When it is time for the Israelites to set out, the story goes, the cloud that symbolizes God’s presence rises up from the tabernacle.  The people pack up their camp and they gather their things and they hoist the covenant chest onto their shoulders with long poles, and following where the cloud takes them, they march.

And they are thankful, in the wilderness, because God is with them and goes before them.  And in the end, that’s all God’s people need to know.

 

 

Becoming God’s People: The Gifts We Bring

Scripture: Exodus 25:1-9; 35:21-29

To open with a question today: Where is a place where you most closely encounter God?

Well, we’re at the point in our story where the Israelites need one of those places.  They have, of course, already encountered God on their journey: they have encountered God in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led them out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness; they’ve encountered God in the manna and the water they’ve found in the desert just when they thought there was none; they’ve heard God’s voice delivering the Ten Commandments from a shaking Mount Sinai.

Each one of those experiences has been powerful and each one has taught the Israelites something about who God is and what it means to be God’s people.  But the thing is that at some point in your journey, you need a place where you can reliably go to encounter God.  God might be found anywhere, but it helps to have that place where you know you can find God when you happen to be looking.  It’s part of what makes the journey sustainable over the long term.

That brings us to today.

We’ve been traveling with the Israelites in the wilderness for a while now, and last week, we heard the story of how this newfound relationship between God and people almost fell apart as soon as it was made official, with this little indiscretion involving a golden calf.  Today I want to back up a bit to just before that incident.  As I mentioned last week, while the people are getting antsy down in the Sinai desert wondering where their leader has gone, Moses is up on the mountain receiving instructions from God on how to build the tabernacle.  Remember, there is no Temple to YHWH at this point in time – obviously, you can’t bring a Temple with you across the Red Sea – and in fact there won’t be one for hundreds of years still.  But the tabernacle is its predecessor.  But God needs a place where God can dwell in the midst of the Israelites.  The tabernacle is a kind of mobile Temple that can be picked up and carried as the people move from camp to camp in the wilderness, and finally into the Promised Land.

Now, of course you can’t make any old tent and call it God’s dwelling.  This tabernacle has to be built according to very specific divine instructions.  I mean chapters and chapters of instructions.  When we talked before about the Red Sea crossing and the Ten Commandments, I called those the most Exodus-y parts of Exodus – the parts that come readily to mind from your Sunday School days or from the movies.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and call building the tabernacle the least Exodus-y part of Exodus, in the sense that I’ve read Exodus a number of times and still sometimes forget that it’s there.

But the instructions for and account of building the tabernacle actually make up almost half of the book of Exodus.  This isn’t just something tacked on the end of a story of slavery and liberation.  This is the whole point.

Because becoming God’s people means living in community centered on God.

Before God gets into all the details of how this tabernacle should be built – how many cubits on each side, and all that good stuff – God tells Moses to tell the people to bring offerings.  They should bring their gold and silver, their colored yarns and fine linens, their leather, their goat hair.  They should bring their acacia wood, their oil, their precious gems.  (For some ex-slaves on a 40-year journey in the wilderness, they don’t pack light.)  And those who have a skill – anyone who works with wood or metal or spins yarn or sets gemstones – they should come ready to be put to work.  The tabernacle, you see, doesn’t rise up out of thin air.  If you want a place for God to dwell in the midst of the community, you’re going to have to be a part of building it.

God tells Moses to make a chest to hold the covenant tablets, with rings on each side to fit poles through so it can be carried. God tells him to make a table, for offerings, and a lampstand of pure gold to go in front of it.  God tells him to make the dwelling itself, with curtains of yarn and linen surrounding the sanctuary, and more curtains fencing off the courtyard around it.  God gives instructions for the clothing the priests should wear, instructions for burnt offerings, instructions for incense offerings.

Becoming God’s people means becoming God’s people in worship.  The holy spaces and rituals of our lives matter, because they are what help us intentionally encounter God in our midst and live as God’s people the rest of the time.

It’s true that by the time Moses gets back down that mountain, things have already gone terribly awry.  We also know that that part of the story ends with a second chance and a new covenant.  With that resolved, it is time to start building.

So as instructed, Moses tells the people to bring their gifts – their gold and their silver, their colored yarn and fine linen, their leather and goat hair and acacia wood and oil and gemstones.  And he tells the people to bring their crafts and bring their skills. This is a project that takes everyone.

The people go, and they come back, bearing gifts.  They bring their gold and their silver, yarn and linen, leather and goat hair and wood and oil and gems.  In fact, they bring so much of it that the workers start to complain, and Moses has to tell them to stop.

Spoiler alert: This is stewardship season and I’m not here to tell you to stop bringing gifts.

But I do like to think about what it was that inspired the people to give so generously.  Because if you’re anything like me, this is not always your response when people ask for your gold and wool and precious gems – or your money. Instead I see the mail piling up on the dining room table full of opportunities to donate, and the GoFundMe requests on Facebook, and maybe I even see that Commitment to Giving card in my bulletin and I’m like, “Ugh, I just gave to you, what do you people think I am, made of money?”  Confession: no one has ever had to tell me to stop giving.

But my second confession is this: I do, truly, want to be someone who gives.  I believe that God has given me plenty to share.  And I believe that Jesus invites me into the kind of life where I’m sharing more and hoarding less, because that’s part of what abundant life means.

That’s why I like this image of people giving until they have to be told to stop.

During stewardship season I always try to make two points: the first is that giving is a matter of discipleship. From Old Testament to New Testament, giving is something that’s expected of God’s people.  It doesn’t always look the same: in the Old Testament people are commanded to tithe, 10%.  By the time we get to Acts we’re talking about all property being held in common.  I’m going to go easy here and suggest that 10% is a good start – or even 5% if you’re not quite there. And while I’m all for spontaneous generosity when the Spirit moves us, I think that living into this call to share and to give takes some intentionality and commitment. I know for sure that if I only give when I really feel the Spirit telling me to give, I’m going to give less than if I thought about it beforehand.

This commitment card in your bulletin is here to help with that intentionality and commitment!

The caveat here is that I don’t believe that God wants you to not be able to pay your rent.  The call to give is an invitation to rethink our priorities and share our abundance, and not a means of oppression.  We all have something to give; it may not be money.  That said, some of the most generous people I have known are people who have much less than I do.

This call to give also goes beyond just putting money in the plate at church.  I think sometimes we conflate stewardship with fundraising.  Stewardship is being faithful with your money and other gifts.  Fundraising is how we meet a church budget.

But! The second point is that this church does need your money.  This is our church, and it’s only as good as the investment that each of us makes in it – our investment of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Money is only one part of that investment, but it is a necessary part.

That’s why I’m inviting you, as part of your discipleship, to fill out this card and bring it back next week so we can celebrate the commitments we are making and pray over them.

I’ll tell you a secret, and that’s that I don’t like preaching stewardship sermons.  (It’s not that big a secret, I think I say it every year.)  Yet over the past couple years I’ve been surprised at some of the responses I’ve gotten.  There was the first-time visitor, a young adult, who asked if it would be OK if he turned in his commitment card a week late.  There was the mother visiting the area with her son who told me later that that sermon was just what they needed to hear.

I decided that maybe you all already get it more than I do: giving may be something we have to be intentional about, but there is joy in that commitment, too.

So let me ask you this: As the Israelites are building the tabernacle in the wilderness, what made them so eager to give?

As I said before, this is what the whole story is leading up to: God taking God’s place among the Israelites.  No longer are they slaves, no longer do they have to ask the question of whether God is really there or really cares, no longer are they a people without an identity, because now their identity is found in their relationship to God.  God is with them. They give to this project because they want to celebrate that fact and make sure others know it.  They invest in their community because it’s only in this community that they know and remember who they are: God’s people.

When I first got to Arlington Temple, I was told that our name is Arlington Temple because the people who first started the church envisioned it as a community center – the center of a community – just like the Temple in Jerusalem was back in the day. It wasn’t just a place of worship, but a place where people came together to honor God in lots of ways.  I think we have stayed true to that vision: we are a place where people come not just for worship, but for food and friendship during the week, for twelve-step meetings and work conferences, to pray in the middle of the work day, to practice the piano.  Even as we think about a new building in place of this one, we are keeping that vision in mind – this place isn’t just for us.

But the Jerusalem Temple wasn’t just a space to do things, it was the place where God’s presence was especially encountered in the midst of the larger community.  Just like the tabernacle that preceded it.  And I think we can say that about our church, too.

If you read that letter that got sent out with our Commitment to Giving cards, you know that I talked about the Community Thanksgiving meal we had last November as one of my favorite memories of this past year – coming up again next week! – and that’s because it encapsulated so well what I love about this place.  For two years now we’ve had this meal and intentionally invited those who frequent our church during the week but not necessarily always on Sundays, many of whom are experiencing hunger and homelessness.  It’s not about doing something for someone else, as though “we” have something to give and “they” don’t.  It’s about eating with each other, getting to know each other, joining two congregations into one.  And I saw that happening last year.  I didn’t see rich people feeding poor people.  I saw people bringing what they had and sitting at the same tables and sharing a delicious meal and conversation together.

And you know what?  I think there are actually not that many places where that happens.  But it does here.  And in fact I see it to a small extent almost every week when I look around the fellowship hall after worship.  And that is a witness to God’s love and inclusion, a witness to the welcome that Jesus embodied, right here in Rosslyn.  That is God’s kingdom, here, in the middle of our everyday lives and world.

This commitment card is an invitation to bring your gifts to help make God’s presence tangible in our community.

And the good news is we’re still building. I don’t mean that literally, even though we are talking redevelopment of this physical space.  Our building, our Temple, is a resource, but it’s not why we’re here.  This is just home base.  It’s our starting point for bearing witness to God’s presence and the love of Jesus in this world around us.  Because the Israelites know who God is, the whole world can know who God is.  Because we meet God here, our whole community can meet God in us.  Here is where we remember who we are, here is where we are reminded of our story, here is where we hear our call, and here is where we are equipped to follow.

So bring your gold and your silver, your leather and linen, your wood and your oil and gems.  Bring your hands, ready to work. Bring your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.

And don’t stop now.  God is doing something here.  And God needs all of you to make it happen.

Becoming God’s People: A Factory of Idols

Exodus 32:1-14

This fall we’ve been following the Israelites on their Exodus journey through the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  On this journey they’ve been learning little by little what it means to be God’s people: to be remembered and chosen, to be free, to trust God to meet their daily needs even when the things they need seem hard to come by.  They’ve been learning that God is with them in their wandering even when sometimes they wonder if God isn’t.

They’ve also learned, by now, that being God’s people means following some rules.  And even if we, as Christians, don’t necessarily love this characterization of a faithful life as one of following rules, I think we can probably get behind the idea that being God’s people means intentionally living in a way that is pleasing to God – even when we mess up sometimes.  Last week we met up with the Israelites in the wilderness just as they are about to make this whole “being God’s people” thing official.  God says if you’re going to be my people, here are the things I expect from you.  And God gives them the Ten Commandments – and then a whole lot of other more detailed case laws as well.  And the Israelites listen to them all and they say, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” We’re in.

Today we’re going to get to the messing up part.

After the covenant is sealed, God invites Moses back up the mountain.  Moses starts up and once again a dark cloud covers the mountain, and on the seventh day God calls to Moses out of the cloud, and Moses steps in, becomes enveloped by heavy mist.  He stays there for 40 days and 40 nights.  While he’s up there God is giving him instructions for building the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile Temple where God will officially live in the midst of the Israelites as they wander from camp to camp there in the wilderness – we’ll come back to the tabernacle next week.  When God is done, God gives Moses two tablets, inscribed by God’s own finger with the covenant that has just been created.

It’s a pretty holy scene up on that mountain.

But the people are not up on that mountain, and they can’t see or hear what’s going on in that cloud.  What they know is that Moses seems to be taking his sweet time coming down.  And they start to get antsy.  You know that feeling when someone is late and you can’t get in touch with them, and at first you try to kind of go about your day as normal, everything’s probably fine, but as time goes on you get more and more worried that something has happened, and maybe a little angry in case something hasn’t, until you’re going down all sorts of rabbit holes and really working yourself up.  I’m pretty sure that’s how the Israelites are feeling here.

But Moses is also more than just a friend or family member who is late, he’s their leader.  He’s the one with the direct connection to this God they’re supposed to be following through this otherwise god-forsaken wilderness.  And if Moses isn’t coming back, they haven’t just lost him, they’ve lost God too.

And that really puts their future up in the air.

So they decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and official spokesperson, and they say “Make us gods who can lead us.”  They don’t want cloud and fire and mystery and holiness up on some mountain.  They want gods they can touch and see and wrap their minds around.

So what do you think Aaron says? I’d like to think that if I were Aaron, my first response would be something along the lines of “Uh, I don’t know, guys, I don’t really think that’s such a good idea.”  I mean, this is the person who will eventually become the high priest of Israel.  Instead – and I truly do not know what is going on in Aaron’s head at this moment – he says bring me your jewelry.  Maybe Aaron is getting antsy, too.

My own opinions aside, this is apparently the kind of leadership the people are hungry for.  They bring Aaron their gold jewelry, everything they managed to raid from the Egyptians on the way out, and he throws it into the fire and molds it into the shape of a bull calf.  When he’s done, the people look at this hunk of metal that had once been their bracelets and earrings and they bow down and they say, “Here are our gods who brought us out of Egypt!”

How soon we forget what God has done for us.  How soon we are ready to worship anything else.

Maybe the surprising thing is that the people need something to worship.  Their first inclination when they start to get nervous about their future and God’s role in it isn’t just to throw away the idea of God altogether. It’s to find something else to call God.

You might think that this isn’t the case anymore, in our modern secular society where more and more people every day seem willing to discard the idea of God – but I don’t know.  There are lots of other things we can worship, lots of other things we can put our faith in, even without calling it that.  Maybe especially without calling it that.  And by the way, I don’t just mean that as an indictment of our less religious neighbors, the Nones and the Dones.  I mean that for all of us.

In any case, once Aaron gets going, he really gets going.  He’s going to ride this wave of the people looking to him for leadership.  And so he takes one look at this calf he has created and all the people worshiping it and he says, “ You know what we need?  An altar! I’ll make an altar, and we’ll have a festival!”  There’s another way to read this, actually, which is that Aaron takes one look at the calf and sees what he has done, and he tries to walk it back.  “We’re going to have a festival to the Lord,” he says.  To YHWH.  This calf is the same god as that God on the mountain, just in a different form.  This is all still legit.[1]

Never mind that number 2 commandment: thou shalt not worship idols.

Either way, God is not impressed.  God sees what is going on from up on the mountain and God tells Moses he better get down there.  “Do you know what YOUR people are doing?” God asks Moses. “I have half a mind to just destroy them and start over and make a great nation out of you.”

Moses, alarmed, says, “Oh, no no, God, don’t be so angry with YOUR people.”  And God relents, though we get the sense that God is not yet over it.

I imagine this one of those times for Moses where you know you have to defend someone in a given situation because it’s your job, but you’re just waiting to be alone to really let them have it.  It’s like he’s is fighting for his kid against the teacher who wants to fail him, but on the drive home is going to let that kid know he’s grounded for a month.  With God placated for the time being, I imagine Moses gathering steam as he continues on his way down.  Finally he gets close enough to see and hear the general drunken raucousness going on, golden calf at the center, and his nostrils flare, and in one swift movement, Moses hurls down the stone tablets representing God’s covenant with the people and they shatter into pieces.  Then he takes the calf, grinds it into dust, adds water, and makes the people drink it.  (You don’t remember that part of the story from Sunday School, do you?)  Then Moses turns to Aaron and says simply, “What have you done?”

“Don’t blame me,” said Aaron, “I just threw some jewelry into the fire and out popped this calf.”  (I always liked that line.)

As I said before, it’s human nature to need something to worship.  Most of us probably aren’t too worried about being tempted to bow down to a golden calf.  Not literally, anyway.  But idols aren’t just metal statues.  Idols can be anything we worship that aren’t actually God.  What do you think are some of our modern-day idols, either personally or culturally?

“Human nature,” said John Calvin, “is a perpetual factory of idols.”

And yet I also think idolatry is a tricky thing.  The reason it’s tricky is because maybe we’re not always sure what we’re worshiping and when.  If we put a lot of energy into worrying about money, does that mean money is an idol?  If we revere a particular leader, are we committing idolatry?  At what level does our loyalty to a political party and its ideology veer into idolatry?  My guess is that when we do, or like, or revere, these things ourselves, they are simply parts of a faithful and well-prioritized life; but when someone else does them in a way that we don’t like, it’s idolatry.

Things I’ve heard called “idols” include Trump and Obama, America and Wall Street, contemporary worship music and old church hymns, even sometimes the Bible itself, when each literal word is raised above the Holy Spirit and the love that Jesus taught.

The theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.” Sure, we need money, but is it getting in the way of living a life pleasing to God?  How about really?  Sure, it’s OK to achieve success in our careers, but are we making choices in light of our ambition instead of our call?  What is our ultimate concern?

In the end – like with most forms of sin – the question probably isn’t “What are other people’s idols?” but “What are mine?”  Maybe that second commandment, rather than giving us a box to check off or not check off or just a rule to follow, instead invites us into reflection about what our ultimate values and priorities in life are.

And maybe the even more interesting question to reflect on is why, in fact, we as humans are so drawn to the worship of idols.

If I’m honest, I have some sympathy for those Israelites wandering in the wilderness, because I understand wanting to put my hope and trust in something tangible.  It’s hard, sometimes, to trust that God really knows what God is doing, or that God is even really there, when God isn’t someone I can see or have a conversation with.  It’s easy, especially perhaps in moments of high anxiety, to wonder if perhaps I’ve made the whole thing up.  Never mind that these people have literally just walked through the sea on dry land to freedom following this God of cloud and fire.  I like to think that if something like that had happened to me, if God showed up in my life in such a powerful and obvious way, that I would never have doubts again.  But the truth is that it doesn’t usually work that way.  I look back and I can see that thing God did as the result of so many other factors at play, in retrospect.  Or I simply wonder, as the Israelites have already done, where God is now.

In the wilderness of our own lives, we want to believe that someone or something is going to make it all OK, and we, too, want that someone or something to be something we can see, someone whose rallies we can attend, numbers in a stock portfolio, substances that make us feel a certain way – anything that makes that promise tangible to us.

And yet to live as people of faith means to live into the mystery of who God is, this God surrounded by cloud and darkness, this God we can’t see or touch or wrap our minds around, whose very presence with us we sometimes question.  This is the God who travels with us through the wilderness, this is the God who leads us to freedom, this is the God who names us as God’s people.

We long for something black and white, we long for something solid and gold, but God invites us into a life and relationship that is dynamic and mysterious and adventurous and hard but also full of love and grace and provision.

The day after the Golden Calf Incident, Moses goes back to have another word with God.  The future of God and God’s people is still up in the air.  Moses moves once again between his role as leader of the people and his role as intermediary with God, and angry as he is, he pleads with God to forgive them.

God’s forgiveness, in this story, is not an instantaneous thing.  You can read it if you want the details of the conversation.  I know some of these Hebrew Bible stories can shock us a little bit with a God who gets angry, who doesn’t seem to always forgive as easily as we would like to believe.  But I think it’s important to remember that while people’s understanding of God undoubtedly evolved and changed over time, this God of the Hebrew Bible is the same God we meet in Jesus – who also gets mad at the idolatry he sees in the Temple, and at people who make law and not love their ultimate concern.  Stories like these remind us that God’s forgiveness isn’t cheap – but it is real.  The story (at least this part of it) ends with God telling Moses to make two new tablets.  The covenant that was broken is renewed.

And that’s the good news for us, claiming our identity as God’s people today – our God is a God of second chances.  Our God renews broken covenants.

And when the people continue their journey into the Promised Land, it will be with this mysterious, powerful, inscrutable, gracious God in their midst.

 

[1] The CEB Study Bible, p. 138 OT

Becoming God’s People: A Rule of Life

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17

A couple weeks ago when we were reading about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea I said that I thought that was the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.  If any scene has stuck with you from Sunday School or Hollywood adaptations, it’s probably that one.

But I think today we’ve come to the second most Exodus-y part of Exodus: the Ten Commandments.  If another scene has stuck with you, it’s probably along these lines: Moses emerging from the top of Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand, while all the people watch on below.

But let’s back up and get there.  Last week we left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, facing hardship and deprivation, wondering if God was still with them, but also finding grace and provision along the way.  They eat manna and drink the water God provides in the dusty desert.  They fend off attacks from nearby tribes with God’s help.  They start to think about the structure of their community, and how conflicts get solved.  They will be wandering in the wilderness still for a while now, but we could say they are beginning to settle into the wandering, beginning to learn bit by bit what it means to be God’s people.

They have already been wandering for three months when they enter the Sinai desert.  Here God calls to Moses from the top of Mount Sinai, “Tell the people: You’ve seen what I’ve done for you, how I rescued you from the Egyptians.  Now, if you and all the Israelites obey me and keep my covenant, you out of all the nations will be my people, my treasured possession.  You will be a priestly kingdom and a holy people.”

Moses repeats all these words to the people down at the bottom of the mountain and he says, “Will you do it?” and the people say, “We will.”  God and the Israelites have been feeling each other out up to this point, each learning about who the other is and what they can reasonably expect and what life looks like together – and they’re ready to make it official.

God tells Moses to have the people consecrate themselves, to make themselves ready for something holy.  They wash their clothes and get ready.

On the third day there is thunder and lightning and a thick cloud descends over Mount Sinai.  There is the blast of a trumpet so loud, the text says, that “all the people in the camp trembled.”  They stand at the foot of the mountain and smoke billows up from the peak and the mountain trembles, too.

God calls to Moses, and as the people watch, Moses ascends, disappearing into the smoke.

And then, the text says, God spoke these words.  The ones we just heard: Have no other gods before me.  Don’t make idols.  Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.  Honor the Sabbath, and your father and your mother.  Don’t kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness, or covet. 

These things, according to God, are at the very core of what it means to be God’s people.  They’re not the only laws God will give the Israelites.  The next few chapters are full of more, and Leviticus comes after that.  But these ten are the core of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For something so at the core of what it means to be in relationship with God, though, I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Ten Commandments is mixed.  Many of us may still see them as the most basic tenets of what it means to be faithful, if not almost universal rules for what it means to be good and moral people.  There may also be those of us who question their relevance today, at least some of them – I’m going to guess we’re all on board with “thou shalt not commit murder” but what about taking God’s name in vain? It’s possible, also, that some of us may feel like something is missing – that if we were going to pick our top ten rules for being God’s people, we might have included others, like more about caring for the poor.

Some of us may see the Ten Commandments as all well and good but also think they don’t really matter so much anymore, because they represent “the Law” from which we as Christians are freed.  What it means to be God’s people (we might say) isn’t following commandments but having faith in Jesus.

But on the other hand we fight over whether they should stand in front of courthouses.  The Ten Commandments continue to have a hold on us, both culturally and individually.

There’s plenty that could be said, and has been, about every one of these commandments.  We could talk, for example, about whether the prohibition on murder extends to killing in war, or in self-defense.  We could talk about what it really means to take God’s name in vain – what if it’s more than just an occasional “oh my God,” but more about when we do harmful things in God’s name?  We could talk about all the idols we make, not just out of wood or silver or stone, but out of the things we put before God in our lives, like money and popularity and success.

But instead, I want to talk about the Ten Commandments as a whole.  The Israelites are, in the wilderness, beginning to learn what it means to be God’s people.  And one of the first thing God tells them is that being God’s people means living like God’s people.   This is not a chosenness that lets them get away with anything they want, it’s a chosenness that comes with the burden, and gift, of obedience and loyalty.

And since we understand ourselves to be God’s people and part of God’s continuing story, I think it’s worth asking what that looks like for us now.

In the Gospels, someone asks Jesus what the greatest of the commandments is.  He answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.  And the second,” he says, “is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22; Mark 12; Luke 10)

He’s not quoting any of the ten when he says that – he’s quoting other passages from Deuteronomy (6) and Leviticus (19) – but some scholars have pointed out that the Ten Commandments can be read in this light.  How do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength?  We have no other gods, we make no idols, we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain and we honor the Sabbath.  And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves?  We honor our parents, we don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or covet.  It’s at least a start.

The thing is that we may say we don’t need the law anymore because now we are God’s people in a new way; we’re God’s people by faith and we live that faith by loving God and our neighbors.  And yet if you’re anything like me, maybe you still need some help.  Because loving people is great, but if I’m honest I’m not always sure what that looks like or what that means, concretely.  And I believe in the Holy Spirit’s guidance on these matters, but also believe that having some things spelled out for me can help.

In monastic communities, they have what is called a Rule of Life.  This will say things like you gather for worship at these times; that you will spend the rest of your time in worship and study.  They say things like you wear clothes that are plain and cheap, that you regularly confess your sins, that you care for the poor and the old and the sick and welcome guests like you are welcoming Christ.  They also dictate the way you are supposed to relate to the other people in your community, both peers and superiors.[1]

All that is of course much more specific and detailed than the Ten Commandments, which are by and large very broad, leaving a lot to be filled in.  But I’ve found myself really attracted to this idea of living intentionally as God’s people and the way those specifics have the potential to shape our daily lives by holding us accountable to our priorities.  And I wonder if we can think of the Ten Commandments as the first Rule of Life.  It’s the one that sets a baseline for all other Rules of Life.

So here’s something for you to think about this week: if you were going to make a Rule of Life for yourself, what would you include?

We claim to be God’s people in the world.  How are we intentionally living that out?  What are we setting as priorities?  What makes us distinct from others wandering in this same wilderness?  Is it in how we spend our money, how we spend our time?  Is it in how we treat the most vulnerable members of our community?  Is it in being willing to confess our sin instead of defending it?  Some of all these things?  How do we spell out what it means for us to love God and love our neighbor?

How does the witness of the saints we named today help you think about that?

The good news is we don’t have to do it perfectly.  Living as God’s people isn’t about checking all the boxes all the time.  It’s letting ourselves be shaped and formed by God’s grace as we figure out what it means in practice to worship God in all aspects of our lives and to live well in community together.  And this grace isn’t even a New Testament concept, as we often make the mistake of thinking.  As we’ll hear about next week, Moses will barely be down from that mountain before the Israelites break about half of the commandments in one fell swoop (maybe you’ve heard of this little incident involving a golden calf?)  And yes, God gets pretty worked up about it.  And no, God doesn’t abandon them.  Because they are still God’s people, and there will be more chances.

And we are God’s people, and there are always more chances.

And still God calls us, over and over, to live like we know it: to live like we are God’s people.  Because it is through God’s people that God will achieve the very redemption of the world.

 

 

[1] I recommend The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister on the Benedictine Rule and its relevance today.

Becoming God’s People: Into the Wilderness

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7

Last week where we left off, Moses and the Israelites are at long last on the far shore of the Red Sea.  They’ve crossed the sea on dry land, they’ve watched the waters roar back into place, they’ve seen the bodies of those who previously enslaved them tossed onto the shore.  Finally, freedom is theirs.

It might seem like this is a good time for the curtains to close on a happy ending.  Maybe add a few scenes of the Israelites’ new life outside of Egypt just for a nice little denouement.  But as I said last week, this is still the beginning of the story.  Because now that they’re free, it’s time to figure out what it means to live in ongoing relationship with the God who freed them.

On that far shore of the Red Sea, safe and free and headed for the Promised Land, the Israelites look around them and they see – wilderness.

It’s rocky.  It’s barren.  And it’s vast.  And most importantly, it’s not where they are supposed to end up.

And yet here they are.

And here they are destined to wander for a time, caught in between the land where they were slaves and the land that finally awaits them.

The wilderness is an in-between time. It is a time of wandering, going back and forth, wondering why they are there, never seeming to make much progress in the journey at all.  As one writer put it, in the wilderness the Israelites are a people “stuck between promise and fulfillment.”[1]

Have you ever been in the wilderness?

One of the books on my shelf I return to again and again is called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  Its author, Lauren Winner, wrote it as a series of thoughts and essays about feeling like she was in what she called the “middle of her spiritual life.”  She found herself there after two major life events: her mother died, and she got divorced.  She had come to Christianity as a convert, with all the passion and enthusiasm that entails, but now, she said, “as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die too.”[2]

But it wasn’t dead, it was just changing, being tested and making room for uncertainty.  I think this is the kind of experience that can be described as being in the wilderness: somewhere between the beginning and the end, where you’re not really sure where the road leads or if you’re on the right road at all.  You might find yourself there in any number of ways that life doesn’t follow the straight and sure path you once envisioned.

But the thing is it’s in the wilderness that the real story begins to take shape, the story of becoming God’s people.

It’s not long after the thrill of victory at the sea that things start to get real.

The Israelites journey for three days with no water.  Finally they come to a place where there is water, but the water is bitter, not fit to be consumed.  The thrill of freedom is already beginning to wear fade.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at God.  This is about to become a pattern.  But then God shows Moses a special tree and Moses takes a branch from the tree and sticks it in the water and suddenly, the water becomes sweet.

There, the Bible says, God tested them.  God gives them a “statute and ordinance,” and God tells them that if they obey, it will go well for them. God doesn’t say what happens otherwise.

That night they camp at an oasis.

But it’s not long before things start to go downhill again.  This time, the people don’t have any food.  They yell at Moses.  “Why couldn’t God have just killed us in Egypt?” they say.  “At least there we had food.  Have you brought us out to this god-forsaken desert just to starve us to death?”

Moses takes it up with God.    That evening quails cover the camp.  And the next morning, the people wake up to see that fine, flaky bread has fallen from the sky.  Manna, they call it, from the Hebrew for “What’s that?”

But God tests them again, telling them to only gather enough for the day, not to try to hoard it for tomorrow.  It would not be entirely fair to say the people passed the test.  The extra manna they collect rots away, but still the manna keeps falling, every morning, for the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert.

That brings us to today, in the wilderness of Rephidim.  The people’s bellies are full, but once again, there is no water.  The people yell at Moses.  This time Moses yells back.  “Why are you testing God?” he says.  You see, the Israelites can test God too.

These years that the Israelites spend wandering in the wilderness are many things, but one thing is that they are a time of testing.  And that should be expected.  Remember, this is a new divine-human relationship.  The Israelites have followed out of Egypt a God who spoke to their ancestors, but who seems to have suddenly remembered them after many years.  God has nothing less than the redemption of God’s creation in mind, but it remains to be seen whether this is really the people who God will use to accomplish that purpose.

New relationships are always, in a sense, a time of testing.

I don’t necessarily mean in an overt way, though I do think back to old episodes of I Love Lucy that I used to watch, where Lucy and Ethel would dress up and put on wigs to try to catch Ricky and Fred in the act of flirting with other women.  (Yeah, sometimes I just like to go for the really modern pop culture references.) That’s the kind of testing that would raise some red flags in pre-marital counseling with me these days.  But in new relationships, boundaries must be navigated, common areas have to be sought.  I think of this even as the parent of a toddler.  How far can things be pushed?  How can I best get you to listen to me and follow my instructions?  Will you still love me if I push things too far, or if I snap and yell?

These are things that have to be worked out together in real time.  And that’s what God and the Israelites are doing.

But of course this relationship between God and the Israelites is no ordinary relationship; it’s not a relationship between equals.  And that means the testing isn’t the same on both sides.  Maybe you remember this story from a little later in the Bible: When Jesus is in the wilderness, just before he begins his earthly ministry, Satan appears and tempts him.  In a vision, he brings Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem.  And he says, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for as it is written, God will send his angels to catch you so you don’t even hit your foot on a stone.” And Jesus says, “As it is also written, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”  (Luke 4:9-12).

Human beings aren’t supposed to test God.

If Jesus had done it, if he had thrown himself off of the Temple, he would have been demanding that God prove Godself.

And when the Israelites test God in the wilderness, demanding water, they’re doing the same thing.  The verse Jesus quotes to Satan even refers back to this wilderness period.  On the one hand, you can see where they’re coming from.  They need water.  It’s not like they’re demanding caviar here.  They’re not asking for special treatment, just fulfillment of their basic human need.  And I suspect that our most adamant prayers often do the same.  Most people don’t have a crisis of faith because God didn’t make them rich and famous.

And yet the last words of today’s passage are telling.  They tell us of the renaming of this place in the wilderness, from Rephidim to Massah and Meribah, because it was there, the story goes, that the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So far in the story, God has rained hail on the Egyptians, led the Israelites through the sea on dry land, brought them safely to the other shore.  When they’ve been thirsty, God has given them water to drink.  When they’ve been hungry, God has rained quails and manna from heaven.  When the Israelites test God by demanding water once again, by making water the condition by which they will believe that God is still with them, they forget all the ways God has already shown them God is.

And yet it’s such a human thing, to think that God is only with us and only watching over us when we have immediate and tangible blessings to point to.

In the wilderness of your own life, have you ever felt like God is testing you?  Maybe in a month when you weren’t sure your paycheck would stretch to the end?  Or during the long illness of a loved one? Or a time in life when everything just seemed to pile up and become more than you could handle?  Did it feel like God was putting all of that on you for a purpose, to see if you would be faithful even when it got hard?

Does God really work like that?  It seems kind of harsh.  And yet for these Israelites in the wilderness, maybe there are some things they need to learn, before they can move forward as God’s people.

Here’s what I discovered when I read the story again more closely.  God tests the Israelites, but God is never said to test them by depriving them of things they need.  The lack of water is not a test.  The lack of food is not a test.  Instead, God tests the Israelites by setting expectations.  Here are the rules I need you to follow.  Here is what it means to live as my people. Things like not hoarding your manna; trusting there will be enough again the next day.  The test isn’t how we’ll react when everything is taken away; it’s what we’ll do with the blessings that sustain us on the journey.

And then God sits back to see if God’s people will be faithful.

If you ever have been through a wilderness period in your own life, I wonder if you’ve been able to look back and find that there was beauty in the wandering, beauty in living in the in-between.  It’s the kind of beauty I think we often have to see in retrospect.  It’s not a place we want to be, we want to move ahead to the Promised Land, whatever that looks like, or at least be safely back in the familiar oppression of Egypt.  But the real story takes shape in the wilderness.  That’s where we learn and grow, where we figure out what we really need and what’s really important, who we are and who God is in relation to us.  Not in Egypt, not in the Promised Land, but in the wilderness.

Toward the end of her book Still, Lauren Winner tells the story of visiting a church out of town and ending up sitting near a woman who she says “looks like she has seen better days.”  She smells, she wears sunglasses through the whole service, she doesn’t sing the hymns or join in the responsive readings.  And then in the middle of the sermon this woman begins to tap her finger on her knee.  And she just keeps tapping.  And finally Lauren, without thinking, reaches out and closes her hand over this woman’s hand to stop the tapping.  She’s horrified at having done this, but then she says she realizes the woman doesn’t seem to be offended – instead, she realizes she is holding her hand.  And they hold hands for the rest of the service.

Lauren writes, “That is part of what I mean when I say it is life inside this Christian story that has begun to tell me who I really am.”[3]

And I add: even when the wilderness isn’t full of aha moments of growth and learning, or even when it is, maybe it is still full of small moments of beauty like this.

And in fact if you read later biblical traditions about this time in the wilderness, the record is mixed.  Some writers remember it as a time of grumbling on the Israelites’ part and well-deserved wrath on God’s part.  But some remember it as a time of grace and provision, when the Israelites, in the end, got everything they needed for their journey.

That’s what happened at Massah and Meribah.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at the people.  Moses yells at God.

And God tells Moses to take his staff, the same one he stretched over the Red Sea, and hit a rock.  And Moses does, and out gushes water.

And of course in the midst of it all it’s human to doubt, and human to despair, and human to wonder if God is really going to come through.  Because the wilderness is vast and barren, and sometimes we are there for a very long time.

But in the end, we look back and we say – God was with us all the time.

 

 

[1] Terrence Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, p. 187.

[2] Still, p. xv

[3] Still, p. 181

Becoming God’s People: Led to Freedom

Scripture: Exodus 14:1-31

When you think of Exodus, or Moses, the way you learned about them in Sunday School, chances are this is the scene that comes to mind first.  Some of the details may vary.  For example, the text says that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea and the waters were driven back by a strong wind.  In my mind, though, Moses plunges his staff into the water and there’s this explosion of water to either side as they split in the middle.  I think I may have gotten this from Prince of Egypt.  Nevertheless, the image has stuck.

Exodus is a story of liberation, and this scene at the Red Sea is arguably the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.

It’s also still the beginning of the story.

But let’s back up.  We left off with Moses last week at the burning bush, where God has unexpectedly shown up to have a word while Moses is going about his day tending sheep.  God has given Moses a job to do: go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.  And Moses, extremely reluctantly, has agreed.  So we begin, today, with Moses poised to return to the land he fled.

He heads out with instructions in hand.  He’ll get the elders of the Israelites together, tell them the plan.  They will go together to Pharaoh.  They will say, “Our God has appeared to us, and wants us to go into the desert to offer sacrifices.  Please let us go – for just three days.”

This is the plan.  They also know: Pharaoh won’t say yes.

Along the way, Moses meets up with Aaron, who God has appointed as Moses’ number 2, the spokesperson of the operation, and they go together to the people.  Moses has been afraid this whole time that the Israelites won’t believe him when he just shows back up out of the blue and says God talked to him.  He’s been afraid they’ll say not only who is he, but who is this God.  But they don’t.  They believe him.  I imagine they must be ready to accept whatever good news comes their way.

So Moses, Aaron and the elders go to Pharaoh and they say, let us go on this three-day journey to worship our God in the desert.  And Pharaoh says ha, ha.  Because obviously when you let your slaves go on a journey into the wilderness, they’re going to come back, right? Actually, it’s worse: Pharaoh doubles down.  These people are lazy, he says, that’s why they want a vacation!  Moses here is just trying to incite them to strike!  For that, I command you to make double the bricks!  What do you think of that?

The people get mad at Moses.  Moses gets mad at God.  Things are not off to a great start.

Or maybe they are.

Don’t worry, says God, when I’m done here, he’ll be begging to let you go.

If you graduated Sunday School you should have an idea of what this looks like.  God unleashes a series of ten plagues on Egypt, designed to show God’s strength against the power of Pharaoh.  Do you remember what they are?  Call them out: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock.  Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness.

That’s nine.

Between each plague, Moses tell Pharaoh to let his people go – on a three day journey to worship God in the desert, of course. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened – sometimes by God, sometimes by Pharaoh himself.  And at times, as the plagues get worse, Pharaoh relents.  And un-relents.  He will not let the people go.

Finally, it is time for the last plague.

God instructs the Israelites to prepare.  They should slaughter a lamb, smear the blood on their doorposts.  In this way, God will make a distinction: God’s people, separate from the rest.  We could say this is symbolic of the whole story of Exodus: God making a distinction between this one chosen people and the rest.

As the clock strikes midnight (let’s pretend, I don’t think the ancient Egyptians had clocks that struck midnight), God strikes down all the firstborn children of the Egyptians – everyone, the story goes, from the oldest child of Pharaoh to the oldest child of the prisoner in jail.

And finally Pharaoh says Go.

The Israelites waste no time.  Pharaoh has changed his mind before.  They grab their things.  They don’t let the bread rise.  Hearts in their throats, they march.  “The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt,” we read, “ready for battle.” And in front of them, the God who will lead them to freedom: present in a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

And sure enough, Pharaoh changes his mind.

He summons the troops.  They prepare the chariots, ready the horses.  They catch up to the Israelites where they are camped for the night, on the shore of the Red Sea.  Israel looks back and sees the army approaching, the sound of horses in the distance.  They had gone out ready for battle.  They didn’t want to actually fight.

Stand your ground, says Moses.  Watch what God’s about to do.

He stretches his hand over the sea – and the waters split in two.  The Israelites march.  The Egyptians gain ground.  But God makes the wheels of their chariots stick.  When the last Israelite is safely on the far shore, Moses stretches his hand out one more time and the waters roar back into place, taking the Egyptian army with them. In the morning, bodies litter the shore.

I think we are right, from a modern perspective, to ask some questions about who God is in light of all these events.  If God is God, we might wonder, why couldn’t it all have been a little bit easier?  Why couldn’t God have just made Pharaoh say yes?  Why did God seem to want Pharaoh to say no?  Just to make a stronger point? Is that the kind of God we worship, punishing people for things they had no choice in?

And what about those firstborn Egyptians?  God heard the cry of the Israelites in slavery.  Did God likewise hear the wail that went up when their families found each firstborn member dead?  Why couldn’t God have ushered the Israelites safely across the sea before the Egyptians got there?  What about bodies on the shore screams “Our God is an awesome God”?

Is that the kind of God we worship?

I think we’re right to ask these questions and I don’t think they have any easy answers.  The answers all get into how literally we read the Bible and how much we are willing to chalk up to human understanding which is limited in any given place and time. God, in my own modern understanding, doesn’t smite people to make a point.  Even in early Jewish commentary, it was said that though the Israelites sang a song of victory when they saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, God stopped the angels in heaven from singing.  “How dare you sing for joy,” God said, “when my creatures are dying.”[1]  I don’t think there’s any way to get around contending with the fact that the people who first lived and told these stories might have told them a little differently than we would now.

But in this story we also learn something else about God, something that holds true throughout time, something that continues to be revealed in new ways throughout the ongoing story of Scripture, and that is that the God we worship is a God of liberation.  God wants God’s people to be free.

ASK: What does it mean to be free?  The obvious answer is not to be enslaved or imprisoned.  But I’d say it means more than that. To be free means to be able to live the abundant life that God created all of us for.

This is specifically true for this one group of people in the story who God chooses for a particular relationship.  But as the story of Scripture continues to unfold, it becomes clear that it is also true for God’s whole creation.

It is true for starving children in Yemen, for Rohingya Muslims in Burma, for civilians running from shells in Syria.  It is true for girls sold into sex trafficking in Thailand, child laborers in Bangladesh, Appalachian communities in the grips of the opioid epidemic, children in camps and cages on the US-Mexico border.

The Exodus story tells us that God is willing to confront the Pharaohs of this world, the forces and powers that keep God’s children bound.  God doesn’t watch from heaven as an impartial witness, the unmoved mover.  God chooses sides.  And the side God chooses is the side of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the suffering.  And God intends to make it right.  Maybe it will seem like God has forgotten, but as we read last week, God will remember.  God wants God’s people to be free.

It is true for young black men caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, for homeless people who long to get off the streets right here in Rosslyn, for people with mental illness left in limbo by our healthcare system, for gay people who have been rejected by their families or kicked out of church.

And, it is true for all of us imprisoned by fear, by greed, by anger, by hopelessness, by the power of sin that weaves its way into our own hearts and our own lives.

Because when we meet this God again much later in the story, when we meet the God who becomes flesh in Jesus, we are reminded that sometimes the things that enslave and imprison us aren’t outside systemic forces, but inside, personal ones.  Jesus comes to confront both the forces of individual sin and brokenness and the systemic sin of the Roman Empire, which as it turns out aren’t so far apart.  And while confronting the powers of Egypt may look like hail and locusts and bodies cast on the shore, confronting the powers of sin looks like dying on a cross.

The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea gives rise to many questions, but maybe another question we could ask is who we identify with in this story.

Last week we talked about the call of Moses to use his unique history and passion to be part of God’s redeeming and liberating work, and how we are called to do the same.  And so if we are to identify with Moses, the question is, who around us needs to be set free? And how are we called to take part in that work that God is doing?

But maybe it isn’t Moses we’re supposed to identify with here.  Maybe it’s the Israelites.  They are God’s people, just like we understand ourselves to be.  And if that’s the case, what is it we need to be freed from?  What outside or inside forces hold us captive?  And what would freedom from those things look like?  How might God be trying to lead us there?

But there is a third possibility, and that is that we might identify with the Egyptians in this story.

I don’t necessarily mean Pharaoh; I’m sure most of us don’t have that kind of power to decide people’s fates, for good or for evil.  I mean the ordinary Egyptians (by the way, this has nothing to do with modern Egyptians, just the ones in this story) –  the ones for whom the sight of Israelites making bricks is just a normal, daily occurrence; the ones who are ready to carry out Pharaoh’s commands; the ones who see injustice and oppression around them and don’t ask questions, or the ones who deny it exists altogether.  The ones who eat the food and wear the clothes made by slave labor, who deny the racial inequality in our country, the ones who just don’t think we should press too hard for change.  The ones who don’t realize that this is a form of bondage in itself, because as the saying goes, none of us are free until all of us are free.

They are also God’s creation.

We are also God’s creation.

And I think the answer is we can and should identify with all of them, at different times and in different ways and perhaps to greater or lesser extents depending on our social location, but all of them: that we are the ones who participate in the forces of oppression; that we are the ones called to be part of God’s liberating work in this world on behalf of others; that we are the ones who need to be freed.  It’s all of them, sometimes all mixed together so we can’t even tell them apart.

And God’s liberating work continues: in us and around us and despite us.

And the good news is, God knows what we are up against.  And the good news is, God calls us to be part of something new.  And the good news is, by God’s grace, when everything seems hopeless, the seas will part, and we will be free.

And freedom is still the beginning of the story.

 

[1] https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/why-did-we-sing-when-the-egyptians-drowned-1.54039