My sermon at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), September 22nd, 2013.
Being a teacher, I must say, I know an assignment when I see one. And our text today contains an assignment. Jesus, the teacher, is asked a question – and then he gives an assignment. Listen to the text and see if you can hear it.
From Matthew chapter 9: 9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
We don’t really know what happened when the Pharisees walked away from Jesus. The rest of Matthew’s Gospel indicates that they didn’t really fulfill their assignment: go learn the meaning of mercy. Perhaps when they walked away, one of the Pharisees offered to google it on his iphone. Maybe another one grabbed a dictionary. Mercy – what does it mean?
Mercy – We used to play a game in elementary school that we called Mercy – where kids would see who could stand having their hands folded backwards the longest. So, after you couldn’t take it anymore, you would say, “mercy!” – and they had to let go.
Mercy – We talk about in sports too. If a team gets ten goals ahead in soccer, there’s a mercy rule, and the game is called early, to be merciful to the losing team.
When I was growing up in the south, we would say “mercy me” when we meant “wow” or “I’ll be darned.”
Mercy -I learned this on the internet–is the brand name of a hangover prevention beverage. Mercy me.
You’ve probably visited a hospital with the name Mercy. There are Mercy-inspired hospitals all around.
The urban dictionary defines mercy as the one thing Chuck Norris does not know the meaning of.
With all these nuances of mercy, it seems like we ought to know what it means. It seems like we ought to know it when we see it. But, like the Pharisees at Matthew’s party, sometimes we human beings want to settle for a dictionary definition. We want something we can measure. Something we can quantify. We want mercy to be reasonable and logical and sensible. We prefer measurable transactions – like sacrifices on the altar, like 10% tithes. We would prefer Jesus to give us a multiple-choice exam rather than an indeterminate essay assignment – like go learn what mercy means. Carol, my fellow professor, how will a teacher objectively grade an assignment like that?
In our text about mercy, the focus is on Matthew, the tax collector. In the New Testament, tax collectors are the worst of the worst kind of characters – tax collectors were guilty of taking bribes, they were contaminated by association with the monster Rome– hands dirty with dirty money bearing the Emperor’s likeness, so close to Gentiles that the Gentile could be smelled on them.
Just look who tax collectors get lumped with in Matthew’s Gospel. Tax collectors and sinners here in chapter 9 and again in 11. Tax collectors and pagans in chapter 18. Tax collectors and prostitutes in chapter 21. Everyone knows that bad company corrupts good morals. It makes no human sense that Jesus chose a tax collector to be one of the twelve. He may as well have chosen a pagan or a prostitute.
Just imagine what it’s like to be Matthew: One day he is sitting at his tax collector’s booth, wearing fancy clothes bought with poor people’s tax money, he is sitting in his booth with a big pile of coins – he looks all devious and calculating. He’s used to being invisible to “the good people,” like rabbis and their disciples. They usually pass him by on the other side of the road, keeping their distance.
But, then Jesus, the teacher, the respected rabbi, comes along and not only speaks to Matthew but calls him to become his disciple, and Matthew actually says yes. The text indicates he doesn’t second-guess himself. He just got up and followed him.
It’s one of those moments in the gospel where the writer is saying to us readers, “Stop. Look at this illogical moment. Write this down as your definition of mercy. An invitation for a most unlikely candidate to join the mission of God. Aha. This is mercy.”
But the short little story of Matthew’s calling doesn’t stop there. It just keeps on defining mercy. “What does it mean to receive mercy?” the text seems to say, “it means throwing a party.”
Let’s imagine this party at Matthew’s house: The way I picture it, Matthew had a nice house. He was a tax collector – they were rich. And in the scene we’re talking about here, it’s not like they went into a fenced-in backyard in the suburbs. They were probably in a courtyard. People all around could see the festivities, could see who was there. I imagine Matthew’s guest list was a topic of conversation among the neighbors like it was for the Pharisees.
In my neighborhood, people tend to notice who we’re having over for dinner parties- when visiting cars are in our driveway. When John and I first moved into our house, I remember one of my neighbors eventually getting the nerve to ask, “Why do you have all those cars at your house all the time? Are those your relatives?” John and I hang out with college students, and they tend to have old, as they would say, crappy cars. So every week or so, six or eight $1,000 cars pulled up into our driveway, and the neighbors wondered what kind of people we were hanging out with. They wondered about the guest list at our house. “Ohh, college students. Now I see, said the neighbor.” (with some amount of relief).
Sharing a meal was an especially sensitive issue in the culture of Jesus’ day, even more than it is for us today, because it declared a person’s class. You were only supposed to eat with people in your social and religious class. You were not supposed to eat with people who were below you. And, Matthew’s class was below the class of, well, just about everyone.
So, on this evening, I’m sure the neighbors were watching the coming and going at the party at Matthew’s house. And they were sizing up the caliber and the purity of Matthew’s guests.
But at this party, Matthew no longer fits the stereotype of a hated tax collector. We get a glimpse of mercy as we see Matthew sitting at the feet of Jesus, not only learning what mercy means for himself but giving mercy, sharing mercy, inviting others to the mercy party. Matthew, the disciple of Jesus, is now a conduit of mercy. If he accepted mercy for himself and clutched it to himself, it wouldn’t be a story that defines mercy. Matthew left his selfish way of living, and now, as a participant in God’s mission, mercy flows through him. “This,” the text says, “this is mercy. Freely you have received. Freely you give.”
Mercy: there’s no simple definition for it. How can we explain, how can we describe, a word that can have the connotation of a hangover beverage and at the same time describe the compassionate action of God in this world?
I tend to think of mercy, not as one particular event but as God’s long, tender strategy to reconcile with us, his loving kindness extended to human beings. By the mercy of God, we are reconciled – and we become ambassadors of reconciliation. Conduits of mercy.
Sometimes it’s helpful to define a concept with a metaphor. So, here’s one I came up with for mercy: I grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and I’ll never forget what it was like when my Dad taught me the miracle of gardening. I told him I wanted to be like him, I wanted to grow something, so he went to the kitchen cabinet in his straightforward, no-nonsense manner and broke open a plain old bag of pinto beans, and then he showed me how to get my dirt ready and make straight rows with haybail twine before dropping those beans into the dirt. I was hooked a week or two later when those beans had morphed into plants that broke through the ground and opened their little green arms to the sun. I gave them names. My little babies.
But, then, that particular year, the spring rain stopped. And the scorching Arkansas sun beat down on my little miracles, and every day they looked more and more pathetic. One night was cool, and we got a light drizzle, so in the morning, the plants perked up a little and my hopes were lifted. But, by noon the hot sun came back and burned away the moisture – it was like the plants were frying in the sun – worse than before the misty rain. My Daddy explained how that little bit of rain couldn’t soak down to the roots. It was a shallow remedy, a deceptive drink of water.
That’s how some people show mercy, says the OT prophet, Hosea. Like morning dew gone before noon, shallow mercy, false mercy, mercy that doesn’t cost anything, mercy that stays on the surface and doesn’t soak in deep. It’s not real mercy.
The kind of mercy God is looking for – it soaks to the roots. Write that down in your dictionary under mercy.
God’s mercy is not for shallow people who take shortcuts when they show mercy. It the old days of Hosea, the Israelites would get dressed up in religious clothes and walk to the temple with a religious walk and talk the religious talk and make a religious sacrifice in the temple. Sacrifices, you see, were measurable. Quantifiable.
Then they would leave the temple and exploit and manipulate and hate their neighbors. Their mercy was like dew on the grass gone by noon. They were not conduits of mercy. They were sponges of mercy. And when mercy is left inside a sponge, it begins to stink. “Write that down in your definition of mercy,” Hosea seems to say. “Don’t try to keep mercy for yourself. Mercy is not like dew on the grass gone by noon.”
I’m still learning what mercy is – I’m still making entries in my personal dictionary definition. Part of the very definition of mercy is that it’s a deep, ongoing, experience of God’s loving kindness – and we learn what it is when we do it more than when we talk about it or try to look it up in a dictionary.
Mercy is throwing parties for pagans and prostitutes. Mercy is seeing people who otherwise go unseen. Mercy is hanging out with the sick instead of the healthy. Mercy says a lot about who we eat with. Mercy comes to us with a calling, like Matthew – we are called to lives of mercy. Mercy is the greatest dinner party invitation of all times – Won’t you please join God’s tender strategy of reconciliation?
Learning mercy, you see, is all at once an ever so simple and ever so complex assignment. Because mercy, at its core, is loving like our God loves.
May we be people of mercy.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Dr. John Mark Hicks (see previous post for full explanation). After DMin. students preached to one another in our journey through Exodus, our professor, John Mark, led us through a meaningful discussion about the last chapter of Exodus. For the purpose of this blog series, Dr. Hicks graciously prepared the following concluding sermon. -Sara
John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University and an adjunct professor at both Harding School of Theology and Rochester College. He has taught historical and systematic theology in schools associated with the Churches of Christ for over thirty years. He has published a number of articles in both academic and popular journals as well as authored or co-authored ten books. He blogs regularly at http://johnmarkhicks.com.
Click here for the text of Exodus 40
Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was Yahweh’s holy mountain. Yahweh descended upon it and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17).
We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.
Israel’s journey seems stalled, however. Israel arrived at the mountain only to pause. They waited. They waited forty days while Moses was on the mountain. And the wait was unbearable. They turned their wait into celebration when they fashioned their own gods out of the spoils of Egypt. They returned to Egypt in their hearts.
Moses interrupted their celebration and God’s consuming fire purged Israel of their last Egyptian fantasies. There was no going back to Egypt. Now was the time to choose. Will Israel continue its journey with Yahweh or will they whiter in the wilderness? Israel chose Yahweh.
The story still seems stalled. Israel came from Egypt to Sinai, but for what? To meet Yahweh, to be sure. But now that they had met their God, what is next? When will they leave for the promised land, or will they? How long will they wait?
Their waiting, however, is no passive resignation. They wait but they also prepare. God gave Israel a task. They had a mission as they camped in the shadow of Sinai. They must build a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign. For seven chapters in Exodus (25-31) they are given detailed instructions as to its structure and content. Then for six chapters (35-40) they implemented those plans. They constructed God’s tabernacle. They waited and they worked. They waited and they prepared for they could not even imagine.
This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of Yahweh. They did everything they were commanded (Exodus 39:42-43). They set up the tabernacle and finished the work (Exodus 40:33).
Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the Sinaitic burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.
Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.
Years later, as Israel still prayed for the return of the glory-cloud to the temple, John the Baptizer came heralding the nearness of the kingdom of God. John prepared Israel for the first Advent of the Messiah and promised that someday God’s people would not only be baptized in water but also in the Spirit. The Messiah, too, promised that one day the Spirit would descend upon the people of God to empower their holiness and mission. The risen Messiah renewed John’s promise of baptism in the Spirit even as he ascended to the right hand of God. The disciples then waited in the upper room in prayer and praise for the realization of the kingdom of God in the pouring out of the Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost, the day of first fruits, God poured out the Spirit upon all flesh. The church became a Spirit-drenched community in which everyone, male and female, slave and free, young and old, participated in the new life of the Spirit. The first Advent was complete with the advent of the Spirit who was now present within the church to commune, empower and lead the community of Jesus.
We now live in that moment. God has descended into the temple that is now our own bodies. We, both individually and communally, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God dwells among us to empower, strengthen and guide. God leads us through our own journey in the wilderness as we patiently wait for the second Advent of the Messiah.
We wait for the fullness of the kingdom of God to come. We wait for the moment when the New Jerusalem will descend out of the heavens on to a new earth. We wait for the glory of God to fill the earth. We wait for the earth to become heaven, the dwelling place of God with humanity within the new creation.
Like Israel at Mt. Sinai, in one sense Advent has arrived. God has come to dwell in the flesh among us and having ascended to the right hand of God has poured out the Spirit upon us. In other sense we still live in a season of Advent. We wait for the fullness of the reign of God upon the earth. We wait, but we do not wait alone. Like Israel in the wilderness, we carry the presence of God with us in our journey.
We wait, but we do not wait with resignation. We prepare for the coming reign of God. We are neither passive nor discouraged. We wait but we also announce and embody the presence of the kingdom of God even now. We wait and prepare for the final coming of God.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Mallory Wyckoff (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
A native of Clearwater, Florida, Mallory Wyckoff lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Tim. She does counseling work at a non-profit residential facility serving women ages 13-28 who struggle with life-controlling issues, such as eating disorders, self-harm, chemical dependency, unplanned pregnancies, etc. Mallory is pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry degree in Missional and Spiritual Formation from Lipscomb University in Nashville. When she’s not working or writing papers (so, basically never) you can find her running on trails or reading a book in the sun.
Exodus 32:19-35 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. 21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on theLord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves[a] for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.” 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.
On a Sunday afternoon, I got the call. “We need you to come in,” they said. “Sarah’s not in a good place.” I knew Sarah well. I had worked with her for months, spent hours in counseling sessions, poured great time and energy into her life. As a young and immature 17-year-old, Sarah had found herself pregnant. She knew she needed help, and she sought out healing and counsel, a space carved out to consider her circumstances and what steps she needed to take next. And so I worked with her. We spent time tearing down walls she had built in an effort to protect herself and prevent further pain. Her dad’s leaving at age 10 had left a deep, deep wound, one that she carried silently and professionally so that no one would know. We worked to find healing for the pain, to expose lies to the truth, to listen for God’s voice and be aware of his leading. And after several months of struggle and tears, Sarah decided to place her baby for adoption. She had come to discern that this was the path God was leading her on, and she was terrified. We worked hard to prepare her for what she would face, planned for the emotional and tender moments in the hospital, supported her as she chose the family that would call her son their own. And then the day came that her young body was ready to deliver life. Sarah had a baby boy and named him William. I was there at the delivery, there to support her and celebrate with her, and I was thankful for the miracle that is life.
Two days later as the nurses in powder blue scrubs prepared for Sarah’s discharge, something shifted. The plan that we had worked for months to prayerfully and intentionally craft began to dismantle, bit by bit, until finally I received the call. “We need you to come in,” they said. “Sarah’s not in a good place.”
On the drive to the hospital I prayed for wisdom, for the God of all comfort to move and speak through me, and I trusted that he would. Ministry is hard, I thought, but God is good.
9 hours after my arrival at Vanderbilt, after many brutally honest and difficult conversations, I faced one final conversation with a young and anxious couple. I walked down the long hallway with lights too bright to hide the weight I carried, and found them sitting alone in a waiting room full of old magazines and stale coffee. I sat in front of them, looked into their worried faces, and told them that the baby boy they had held just moments before, the sweet son they had named and painted a nursery for, would not be theirs. I told them that Sarah had changed her mind, had chosen to return to the abusive birth father and parent baby William. I’ve never seen anguish like that before. They broke, and I broke.
In the middle of the desert, God issued a call to Moses. “I have heard the cries of my people,” he said, “and I am sending you to Pharaoh.” This rather unwelcomed summoning to ministry led Moses to places I don’t suspect he ever imagined going, to people I don’t suspect he ever imagined meeting, and to troubles I don’t suspect he ever imagined enduring. A call to ministry is many things, but an open door to an easy life it is not.
Certainly, there were moments that I imagine Moses celebrated with incredible depths of joy and gratitude to Yahweh, moments he ran home to tell his wife about, stories that he told and retold to his children and grandchildren.
“And the bush was on fire but it wasn’t burning up, and then, then God told me his name!”
“So there I was, and I walked right up to Pharaoh and said ‘Let my people go!’ Can you believe that? I just walked right up to him!”
“So we’re terrified and we can see the Red Sea with the Egyptians on our heels, thinking this is the end, and right then and there, God just parts the waters and we walk right through!”
“And we were hungry and people started to complain, and then it began to rain bread and meat, enough for everyone!”
“Ooooh, and then, God met me on the mountain, and he took his finger and wrote on stone tablets! Can you believe that?! The very finger of God!”
Certainly, there were moments where following the mission of God led Moses to great heights that fortified his faith and brought him boundless joy.
We know these moments, when the husband and wife choose to forgive each other for past hurts and reconcile their broken relationship; when the young man we’ve discipled and poured into starts a ministry of his own; when the young woman in our church who has been afraid of her calling as a minister of the word takes the pulpit for the very first time; when the congregation embodies the humility and sacrifice of Christ in order to meet the needs of our community; when the elderly woman suffering with cancer receives a clean bill of health and is healed; when the young child emerges from the waters of baptism and claims Jesus as Lord. We know these moments. Moses knew them too.
But this day, this story in Exodus 32, was not one of those moments. Moses had been with God up on the mountain, in the presence of the very creator of the universe, and received God’s account of how Israel was to live life, how their identity as a people was to embody God’s intention for creation and bless all nations. He had heard from God’s own lips what he was to do as the leader of the people of Israel, where God was going to take them and how he would lead them. Then suddenly, Moses got the call. “We need you to come in. Sarah’s not in a good place.”
Moses came down that mountain, leaving the very presence of a holy God and being met with gross idolatry and revelry and sin. The very people God had released from Pharaoh’s grip, had marched through the waters and fed in the wilderness, the very people he had commissioned Moses to lead—there they were, worshipping a god made of Egyptian earrings. The tablets broke, and Moses broke.
We know these moments, when we’ve prayed with a mother by her son’s hospital bed, pleading God for healing, and the boy dies in the night; when the alcoholic father we’ve counseled turns to the bottle one more time and his children bear the scars of his abuse; when it comes to light that the youth minister we hired has been sharing his bed with a young and impressionable girl from the youth group; when we summon the courage to speak the word and once again are silenced by those whose power is threatened by our unique voice as a woman; when we serve the Eucharist to a family refusing to reconcile with one another, feeding on their bitterness and pain instead of Jesus’ flesh and blood; when a young woman in the community longing to end the pain of trauma and abuse swallows a handful of colored pills and takes her own life; when our own family rejects our message and brands us with unfair labels and criticism; when we sit in our offices and sink for the weight of our own hypocrisy and brokenness; when we meet yet again to cry with the young family whose attempts at fertility have once again proved futile. We know these moments. Our churches break, and we break.
“God, why? Why did you let this happen? Did I do something wrong? Where did I fail? Did I not work hard enough or care enough or give enough? I am only in this thing because of you, because you met me in the wilderness and called me by name and invited me into your mission, and now, now the very people I’ve led are singing praises to a man-made idol? My own brother is the leader of their song and dance?” The idol broke. The tablets broke. Moses broke.
As the people are still sweeping up the dust from the burnt idol and their slaughtered kin, God sends Moses back into ministry, telling him once again about the land of milk and honey, of the promises still to come. And Moses pushes back. He’s experienced enough raw moments with God to know that this God invites pure honesty, that he delights in the dialogue. In desperation and grief Moses cries out, “You’ve called me to this mission and called me by name. I’ve seen amazing things and you’ve told me there’s more to come, but this is it. I need to know you’re here. I need to know you’re leading this thing, because if you’re not in this then I’m out.”
And God, in a strong but tender voice, calls back. “I am with you.” One more time Moses pushes back. “Show me your glory, God! I need to see it! I have to know you’re in this!” And one more time, God responds. “You will see me. You will find rest. I am with you.” We break. Our churches break. Tablets break. But God endures forever.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Naomi Walters (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Naomi Walters lives in Princeton (NJ) with her husband, Jamey, and their seven-month-old son (Simon). She grew up in Syracuse (NY), graduated in 2007 from Rochester College (MI) with a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, and received her M.Div. from Abilene Christian University (TX) in 2010. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry from Lipscomb University (TN). Naomi is the assistant minister at the Stamford Church of Christ (CT), and she works as an adjunct professor of Bible for Abilene Christian University.
Naomi’s Introduction: One of my goals in this sermon was to reimagine more positively a story that is often heard and interpreted in a negative light. The sermon does not, exactly, escape the pattern of “Israel had idols, and so do we” that is so common in sermons on Exodus 32. This interpretation seemed inescapable; the reader of Exodus 32 is compelled to identify with the Israelites.
An interpretation in which the reader identifies with Aaron leads to a sermon about “leadership-gone-wrong,” which (as you will see) does not align with my reading of what was happening in the making of the Golden Calf (in which Israel and Aaron were genuine – although misguided – in their attempts to worship God). And an interpretation in which the reader identifies with Moses leads to a sermon about the power of intercessory prayer, which does not seem to be the intent of the text itself, but rather a modern concept forced onto the text.
So, if the reader is (if we are) identifying with Israel in this story, then the sermon must be about idolatry. But it was my hope – within that common and familiar framework – to expand the concept of idol-making to include something more universal: the idea that all language for God is, in a hyperbolic sense, idolatry because all speaking of God limits God. If this is the “focus” of the sermon (that, like Israel, we try to limit God), then the intended “function” is to inspire humility in our speech about a God who is (and ought to be) more “mysterious” than “known.”
Read the text of Exodus 32:1-18 here.
Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good. You may remember that life has not been particularly kind to Israel. They were enslaved in Egypt building supply cities for a tyrannical Pharaoh. This Pharaoh took a murderous turn and many of their sons were killed. Pharaoh’s (step)grandson Moses – who they hear is also a murderer, by the way – shows up to help them and says God will set them free, but this naturally makes Pharaoh angry and thus increases the misery of their enslavement. They put up with a number of plagues that, if they were sent by God, probably ought to have been limited to Egypt, don’t you think? After they finally did escape, Pharaoh tracked them down and they were on the run.
More recently, they have just been wandering through the wilderness, hungry and tired, thirsty and tired, sore and tired. It took a long time for the Israelites to trust Moses, but just as they do, he disappears up the mountain. He disappears, and he doesn’t come back. It has been a long journey for them from Egypt, and though they are supposedly heading for the Promised Land, lately they’ve just been stalling at the bottom of this mountain.
I imagine that Israel was feeling insecure, confused, lost, and abandoned. And they have good reason to fear abandonment as a possibility; God did leave them alone in Egypt for a few generations. But God has also been faithful to them – protecting their firstborn from the final plague, making a path through the sea on dry ground, providing manna and quail and water for sustenance, and pillars of fire and of cloud for guidance. And God provided Moses, their leader.
Yes, God has been faithful, and Israel is not ready to give up yet. But Moses has delayed in coming down from the mountain, and the pillars of fire and of cloud are nowhere to be seen. So they ask Aaron to make them an image of the god who brought them up out of Egypt, something tangible to remind them that they are not alone, despite how they may feel. Wouldn’t God want them to be reassured of God’s presence?
They even sacrifice their earrings made of Egyptian gold – the spoils of their escape – to make this image. As all good sacraments are, this image is costly. And they bring burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being, just like God commanded. Perhaps their worship gets a little out of control at the end; but who hasn’t gotten a little rowdy in praise every now and then?
Israel has had a rough time of it, and they are doing their best. They know that God is everywhere, but right now, they just need a God who is somewhere. Israel’s request for an image of God is understandable. Their intentions are good.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. But as the camera zooms out – no, that’s not quite right – as the film cuts scenes, abruptly shifting to the top of the mountain, we see that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” What Israel saw as a representation, God apparently sees as a replacement. God is angry, full of wrath, intent on destruction. This is the kind of language that makes me uncomfortable when it is used for God’s enemies, not to mention when it is used for God’s chosen children.
But we can see why God would be angry. God clearly commanded: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth (20:4)…You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. (20:23)” I suppose a calf is an image of something on the earth. And, unfortunately, it is made out of gold. The indictment is strong.
So strong that God does not want these people anymore. God says, “Moses, your people, whom you brought up out of the land Egypt, have acted perversely.” This is a sort of “parental hot potato” that some of us may be familiar with. “Jamey, your son needs a diaper change.” “Ben, your daughter has a 10-page paper due tomorrow and you need to take her to the library tonight.” God is done with Israel; God refuses ownership of them.
The irony, of course, is that the conversation we have walked in on up here on the mountain was God giving Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, a sanctuary in which God would dwell among the people. But there’s no point in giving further instructions about the tabernacle now, because Israel has broken the covenant.
Perhaps Israel did have good intentions, but God’s reaction reveals Israel’s attempts at representation for what they really are: an attempt to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract. The sad irony is that Israel’s attempt to re-present God has ruined God’s plans to be actually present. As we look at the molten calf at the base of the mountain, we see a charred bush in the distance, and we are reminded that the glistening glow of a golden calf is no comparison to a bush on fire.
And in that glow of the golden calf, we also see ourselves. Don’t you feel a little stiff-necked? I know I do. Can’t you feel the strain in your neck from tilting your head to try to see God, way up there at the top of that mountain? I know I can. Like Israel, I feel like I have been on a long journey. Maybe you do too. Although there are times that we are led by a pillar of fire or of cloud, more often it seems like smoke and mirrors. Although there are times that we are sustained by manna and quail and water in the wilderness, wouldn’t it be nice to be out of the wilderness altogether? Although there are times that God makes a path through the sea on dry ground, more often it feels like we are barely treading water. Although there are times that we are certain we are on the move with the mission of God, more often we are sure that we are just stalling at the bottom of a mountain, wondering: Why is God so long in coming?
And what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Our necks are stiff, tired, and sore from straining to see God all the way up there. But we are not ready to give up yet so we proceed with something. We know that God is everywhere, but right now, we just need a God who is somewhere. So we heat up the oven and we look around, grasping for the nearest thing that we can melt down and reshape into some representation of God, something to sustain our congregations and perhaps to sustain us along the way. These images of God that we create with our words each Sunday might be a lot like the real thing. They might be close enough that we go to bed Saturday night thinking, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
And sometimes, it is! But just like Israel’s festival, it is all too easy to start out well, with the burnt offerings and sacrifices of well being that God commanded, and somehow end up getting rowdy under a small golden statue. Because there is sense in which all our attempts to represent God are really attempts to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract and radically free. There is a sense in which all language for God is idolatry – seeking a minimum of what God must be, or a maximum of what God can be.
But God defies all such attempts at minimum limits or maximum boundaries. In fact, God defies even the boundaries God puts on Godself. The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
This sounds familiar: And God saw that the earth was corrupt and said to Noah, “I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Yes, this sounds familiar, so when God tells Moses he’s going to consume Israel, I’m thinking: Break out the gopherwood; it’s time to build a boat! But that’s not what happens.
Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?…Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” And God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God planned to bring on God’s people.
The wrath of God in the face of our idolatry, our flawed attempts to represent God, our well-intentioned failures, are not the final word. This god is no unmoved mover, no statue, no molten image. This god is not a tyrannical Pharaoh, who would not even change his mind after all the plants, animals, and firstborn children were wiped out. This god can change his mind. This God defies even our need for God to be unchangeable. So every time we speak of this God, we run the risk of constructing an idol, of limiting the God who is profoundly abstract, radically free, and infinitely surprising.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Sheila Vamplin (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Sheila Vamplin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice who also teaches piano lessons for a change of pace. She has worked with churches in Italy and Croatia and returns there regularly with her Croatian husband. She leads “Saturday for the Soul”retreats for women at the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis and was thankful to be assigned the passage on Sabbath, believing it to be a spiritual practice as needed as it is neglected in churches today. Sheila blogs at www.folkflocksflowers.
Sheila’s intro: Speaking to a room filled with ministers, praying for wisdom to speak a word specifically to them, caused me to see this passage in a whole new light. . . . From Exodus 31:12 The Lord said to Moses: 13 You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
Hello. My name is Sheila, and I’m a workaholic. I hit bottom at age 18 and wound up in the hospital. Seriously. So I have been in recovery for almost thirty years now.
You know, this would be a hard thing to admit in front of you, except that I feel quite sure many or most of you are workaholics, too. We live in a time and place that encourages addiction to work. Work means power. Work means status. Work means worth. We get pats on the back and admiring comments for staying busy and appearing to be continually productive. We in ministry do work that makes us especially vulnerable to work addiction. Even if money and status are not our goals, souls are thought to be at risk if we don’t work ourselves to death. And beyond that….we really do care about souls!
The text today is addressed to Moses. Moses, a man who grew up in a palace as a son of the Pharoah, the mightiest man (in the eyes of men) in Egypt. Moses, who surely grew up with a sense of his own importance, probably being groomed for important work within the royal family. Moses, who felt such a strong desire to make a difference that he killed a man. Moses, who fled to Midian, letting go of the power and status he had been accustomed to those first forty years of life, and settling into life as a shepherd. Any unhealthy attachment he had to power and status probably lessened in those years. It was a time of recovery for him, a time of learning he wasn’t as important as he once thought. Not in the ways he once thought.
And now, at this point in the story, Moses has been called by God. He is once again in a position of power—only now he is much more aware of the power of God that makes his own role possible. On the mountain in the presence of God, he has just received extensive, detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle, the place where God will meet with his chosen people, instructions about worship. Very, very important work, this. More important than construction of pyramids or whatever he might have once done in Egypt. He has very important work to do. He has very spiritual work to do.
And here, right here, God brings up Sabbath. He says pointedly, “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths.” You yourself. In Italian if you want to say something is really beautiful, you say “bella, bella.” In the Hebrew here, it is the same, “You, you are to speak to the Israelites.” Something about this message is crucial not just for the Israelites but also for Moses. Could it be that God already knows Moses will take on more than he can handle, needing a Jethro later on? That he will take things into his own hands and strike a rock when he needs to rely on God? “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites,” God says, and then he goes on to give the longest passage in scripture about keeping Sabbath.
Keeping Sabbath. For many of us, we grew up hearing, “We don’t do that. That’s in the Old Testament.” And for other reasons related to Jesus’ words about Sabbath and the lack of a command for it in the New Testament. Industrialism, capitalism, and workaholism surely have something to do with it as well.
Keeping Sabbath. What would it even look like for us today? In recent Church of Christ memory, we have no rules, no models, no tradition. It may mean we have to work out our own Sabbath-keeping with fear and trembling.
The various passages on Sabbath relate it to various themes. What stands out in this passage is the relational language. Sabbath is a sign between me and you. Sabbath is for the generations to come. Sabbath is given so you will know that I , the LORD, sanctify you. It is holy for you. It is holy to the LORD. It is perpetual covenant, throughout the generations. Sabbath is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel.
Sign. Covenant. Between you and me. Holy, that is, set aside, for you and the LORD. There is something very intimate about this thing called Sabaath. It’s not just a day of rest because we don’t need to overwork, though that’s true. It’s not only a reminder that God is the one in charge of the universe, though that is certainly true.
Could it be that God wants to be sure His people, these people He has called and chosen and delivered and lavished longsuffering love on….longing love on…these people he has never forgoteen….will remember Him? So they will stop what they’re doing at least once a week and spend some time with Him? Could it be that He knows if they don’t do this, they will fall prey to the lure of power and status and greed, and they will wither away in the weariness of workaholism? Trying to fill that God-shaped hole inside themselves…. with their own effort and the sense of accomplishment it provides?
If so, this will eventually lead them away from Him, away from the commands He has given them to recreate a holy way of living, and will then simply add to the polluting of Creation, dishonoring His name and the covenant He made with them. And so by not keeping Sabbath, they will cut themselves off from life-giving community. By profaning Sabbath, they will themselves bring death to themselves and the community by alienating themselves from God, their only hope.
The word “keep” is important here. It is not just to observe, but to “protect,” “watch,” “defend.” Any of us in a marriage covenant know that it’s not enough to just notice the fact that we are married. We have to protect the covenant, watch out for it, be very intentional in making time for it. The same is true in our relationship with God.
Back before my freshman year of college, I fell in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s books. You know, those “children’s books” that say much more than a lot of literature for older readers does. In her book Meet the Austins, one of the characters shares a poem that I memorized back then and never forgot. Since I haven’t quoted any Hebrew, I hope you will indulge a bit of slightly older English. Because I think it speaks very poignantly to God’s hopefulness in ordaining Sabbath as a practice-and His sadness when it is ignored:
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says —
“This is enow Unto itself —
‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full inside, there is no room for Me.
Maybe Sabbath per se is not a command for us anymore. You’ll have to decide for yourself what to do with that. Or maybe you want to keep Sabbath, but struggle with that workaholic inside that says, “You’re wasting time!” Well, this may help—
A minister friend of mine hoped to pursue a doctorate. But out of nowhere, his 40-something year old wife became pregnant. At 57, he now has a two year old with significant disabilities and has no more hope of doctoral work. Recently he wrote a piece called “Church Is a Waste of Time” which concludes:
Sometimes as a father I have the chance to sit with my sleeping child, or even hold him. It is not terribly productive, and as I age it hurts my elbows and wrists. The sleeper does not bond with me; sleepers are notoriously oblivious to things. What does happen is we are together. Not talking. Not sharing. Just me loving you, little sleeper. The blessing is just being with God together, wasting time.
The thing is, it is “wasting time” moments that are sometimes the greatest moments. I think wasting time with God is a wonderful waste of time; wonderful and life-giving and tied up with the purpose of life. Maybe I am oblivious, too, as He holds me in His arms and just loves me beyond my knowing and experiencing. Maybe that makes God happy. If it does, then “wasting time” may not be a waste of time….
I used my earlier Exodus sermon as a starting point for speaking in chapel at Rochester College. I was able to re-imagine God’s Word in Exodus 3 and 4 on behalf of my audience of college students. I kept the introduction the same but changed the focus for my audience:
I want you to imagine, for a moment, what it was like in back in ancient times. Back in the days before kids punched one another digitally on a Wii. Back in ancient times before kids hunted down and killed soldiers on an Xbox 360. Back before kids gathered around Nintendo Gamecube to imagine themselves as Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat on NBALive. Back in the real ancient days even before PacMan or Atari. Back in the ancient days . . . . . say about 1975, how did a girl like me, growing up on a farm in LaCrosse, Arkansas, population 42, pass the time, without the benefit of screen time?
Life was quiet. And in times of quiet, you find so many things to be curious about. So curious about the terrapins on the pond bank, that you might sit still for a whole hour, waiting for them to come out of the water so you could see their strange reptile-heads. So curious about the cow graveyard in the backfield that you might defy your Daddy’s rules and sneak a peak at skulls and bones. So curious when the first black gum tree turns bright red in the fall, you might walk half a mile to check and make sure it’s not some strange bush on fire.
So curious that you might step back from that flaming red tree and wonder to herself – does God still call people today, people like me, like he called Moses at the burning bush?
Life on that farm was quiet. Quiet with a capital Q. From our perspectives today, we might say it was boring with a capital B. There was a rhythm of work and rest. It was hard work, but it was also real rest. There was time for listening to God because our ears weren’t so full of noise. Our lives weren’t so frantic.
I think that perhaps what we’ve forgotten in our noisy-busy world today is that when you are quiet, you find time to do what Moses did in our text –To hear the call to join God’s work in this world.
There’s a lot we don’t know about God’s call on our lives and how it works. It’s certainly mysterious. That call for our lives may not come through a burning bush, but I’ve seen evidence that God still calls people. It may not be a high profile calling like the one Moses received, but I know people who exude the call of God.
Chris chose a text from Isaiah to guide us this year. It begins like this – Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth.
Is it possible that our lives are so hectic today that we rush by the equivalents of a burning bush – God calling our names? Could we be so focused on screen time that we miss God time and people time? Are we such frantic consumers, working to buy things, working to get ahead, working to pay the bills that we have not heard, we have not understood the Lord, the everlasting God, the creator of heaven and earth?
As I think about it more, I think the mundane cycle of life Moses experienced in Midian must have been a welcome experience for him, something he appreciated. Because before living in Midian, he had lived in Egypt, a busy, industrial machine of a country where slaves frantically built cities for Pharaoh, a man who was deluded into thinking he was god.From the day Moses was born, he lived in a world dominated by oppression and slavery. As Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, he was free from slavery, safe from oppression, as long as he closed his eyes to violent brutality when his Hebrew brothers and sisters were beaten, as long as he closed his ears to the cries of Hebrew mothers whose baby boys were drowned in the Nile like an unwanted litter of kittens. The life Moses experienced in Egypt did not leave space to hear God, to understand the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth. But then he escaped Egypt and lived a more simple life in Midian, where he could solve most of the problems he faced with nothing more than a shepherd’s staff. It was a quiet life, where a strange burning bush in the distance could grab his attention.
So just imagine how Moses must have heard these jarring words coming out of that burning bush, breaking into his quiet life and reminding him of the tragic situation of his relatives in Egypt-
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians . . . . the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
It’s really quite a job description God gave Moses. He told him: Go to Pharaoh (the most powerful man in the world who refers to himself as god) and bring my people out of Egypt. Free them from slavery. Even in more recent history, we all know that people who call out The Oppressors do not fare well. Just last week, when I visited the Henry Ford Museum and looked at the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, I was reminded that people who speak against slavery don’t fare too well. And when I was in Memphis, TN earlier this summer, looking at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered, I was reminded that people who speak against oppression don’t fare too well. This was quite a job description God gave Moses- and I can understand why Moses would prefer to mind the sheep in the wilderness instead of take the job he was being offered.
That’s the thing about joining God, about heeding the call of the everlasting Lord, the creator of heaven and earth– it’s not an easy calling. It inherently includes risk, and it may not make a lot of sense. We don’t get quiet and still so we can hear God and enjoy a self-centered, zen lifestyle, complete with lots of “me” time. We are prayerful, and we cultivate quiet so we may hear the call to join God’s work in this world.
It’s a delicate balance – this balance between work and rest.
I’ve seen students here at Rochester College embrace God’s call, and it’s not always a call to church ministry – God calls people to all kinds of work. Ben Nelson graduated from RC a few years ago with a degree in Psychology, having discerned a calling to serve students as a high school social worker– he finished his masters degree in Social Work at Wayne State just weeks ago, and he got his first job at a high school in Hamtramck – It won’t be easy, but he’s been called. Jessica Brooks graduated from Rochester in May, and she posted on FB recently – “I just got a big-girl job as a social-worker. God is so incredibly good.” From the day I met Jessica in my freshman Bible class, I saw that she was determined to serve God with her life, and she did it while she was a student, and she will keep doing it, because she discerned not just a major or a job, but a calling. Stephan Henning graduated from RC a year ago, and he has an interesting job combination – he’s a 4th grade elementary school teacher and was just recently named the head men’s basketball coach at Oxford High School. In a press release, Stephan showed that he comprehends what it means to be a person of calling, a person who thinks outside himself:
I definitely want to extend things outside of basketball to show the kids that, no question, it’s great to compete and win games, but more importantly, it’s great to be young men in the community they live in. That’s the aspect I want to bring to the Oxford culture,” he said. “Especially with my basketball program – you should always carry yourselves the right way and know that people are watching you. Wherever you are – whether it is the mall or the movies, you represent the program and (you need to) represent it the right way.
It turns out that God can use us in ways we cannot imagine. There are some mysterious, strange miracle stories in the Bible, like Moses and the burning bush. But if you ask me, the greatest miracle of miracles, the greatest wonder of wonders – is that the creator of heaven and earth calls people like you and me to join this mission of God, to make a difference in our little corner of the world.
And when we receive our burning bush moments – when we hear, when we understand that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth, we receive a promise, the same one God gave Moses: “I will be with you.” It’s the same promise Jesus gave his disciples: “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.”
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Grant Standefer (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Life is good! We make a decent living. We enjoy our children and our grandchildren. We occasionally get to play a little golf or hike in the mountains or walk on the beach or go see our favorite sports teams. We’re setting aside a little bit for retirement. It’s not exactly exciting, but herding sheep in the deserts of Midian is pretty good.
Then God breaks into the mundaneness of our Midian and speaks to us. It may not be a burning bush. It might be a book we are reading, or a passage of scripture we are sitting with, or a particular set of life-circumstances, or a conversation with a friend…or an adversary, or a dream, or a still small voice during a time of reflection. Like my friend, Stephanie, the Girl Scout leader who decided for their good deed that they would hand out bottles of cold water to the homeless on a hot day. She decided that the girls would hand out bottles of water because homeless people creeped her out and she didn’t want to touch them. You can hand a homeless person a bottle of water without having to touch them. When she did so, however, God did something in her heart and filled her with an overwhelming sense of love for the homeless, and now this middle class stay-at-home mom from the affluent suburbs of West Knoxville, who didn’t want to touch a homeless person, leads a homeless ministry called Water Angels!
Just like Stephanie, God breaks in to the mundaneness of our Midian and says, “I have heard the cries of my children. Go lead my people out of Egypt!” Or, address the marginalization and even oppression of women in a particular religious heritage. Or, like my friend Dan Riley…God said lead Calvary Baptist church out of debilitating bondage to legalism. Or, walk with others as they desperately seek freedom from the cruel master of addiction. Or, like my friend Sam Polson who pastors a large megachurch that had little involvement with our city, and God said, “Lead this church to have my heart of compassion for others and walk with those who long to leave the tyranny of poverty behind.” Or, serve and love girls that are enslaved by eating disorders, self-mutilation, or addiction. Or, faithfully and patiently serve and facilitate the deliverance of those who suffer the debilitating effects of mental illness. God breaks into the mundaneness of our Midian and says, “Be a part of my work of liberation and deliverance in the world.”
And, after all the excuses and protests we say “yes.” And there is some initial exhilaration and there are even some victories. We plunder the Egyptians and look at all the great stuff and say, “Cool!” We look down at the dead bodies of Egyptians floating in the water on the banks of the Red Sea and sing, “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.” But then comes Marah, and the water is bitter. The elders call a special meeting to talk to you about some concerns that have been expressed. We get through that crisis and God provides a period at Elim where there are 12 springs and 70 palm trees. Then comes the desert of Sin and we don’t have any food, and the people want to go back to Egypt because at least they had pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted. Your boss calls you in to meet with her about some things that have come to her attention. Then we come to Rephidim and there is no water. Your inbox is full of hateful emails, and people are tweeting and blogging about you. Then the Amalekites attack. People leave for other churches and start withholding their contribution. And if things weren’t bad enough, the in-laws show up and start telling you how to run things! The addict we have given our life to steals the narcotics that we have in our medicine cabinet for chronic kidney stones, or the recovering alcoholic we have walked with for several years falls off the wagon, drinks himself to death, and we perform his funeral one Sunday afternoon. And we come to Sinai. The closest I’ve been to Sinai is the southern tip of the Dead Sea, or Midland, TX, or Lubbock, TX, but that’s close enough. It’s blistering hot, sand is everywhere, the wind is blowing, and we’re wondering what on earth are we doing here and there are all sorts of questions and the future seems uncertain.
At this particular point in the Exodus narrative, God gives instructions to Moses for a tabernacle, a place for his dwelling in the midst of his people. And the very first thing he tells Moses to build is a chest covered with gold for the testimony. (Read Exodus 25:10-22) In this text God says twice, “Put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.” Once God says, “I will…give you all my commands.” God also says to Moses, “There…I will meet with you.” Right in the middle of camp of God’s people is going to be the tabernacle, and in the heart of the tabernacle is the chest of the Testimony. Moses sees it, and we see it, and we are reminded that God’s words and God’s presence are with us. Every time God’s children move, with all of the sand and the heat and the struggles and the problems Moses sees, we see, the ark and we remember we are not on our own, we are not alone. The One who called Moses, the One who called us on this mission is with us. We have God’s words. We have God’s presence. And we are, therefore, encouraged to continue the journey, we are encouraged to walk on. We can return to the mundaneness of our Midian. We can. But who wants to.
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Travis Sharpe (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Travis A. Sharpe is a husband, a father, a minister, and most importantly a follower of Jesus. He lives in Chattanooga, TN where he is the lead minister for the GraceBridge church. He also is part-time bible faculty at Boyd-Buchanan Christian School. His life has been changed by studying monasticism and practicing spiritual disciplines and has a passion for helping guide others through the process of spiritual formation. His doctoral project is centered around developing a discipleship program based on spiritual disciplines.
Sermon Text: Exodus 24:1-12
Introduction: In preparation for the sermon I asked myself, why does this text need to be repeated? What do we need to hear? There is clearly Eucharistic language. We are being invited to a feast where God serves as host. At the same time, there is covenantal language. But Israel is not just agreeing to a covenant, they are being consecrated for vocation, for mission. While we are being invited into relationship with God, this relationship requires something of us.
Throughout Exodus there is a reminder to tell the stories to your children and grandchildren, which is why I choose a grandpa for the narrator. The sermon is couched as a first person narrative because I want the audience to get into the story of the text, to feel the tension that is inherent. The tension of a God who is wholly other and intimate friend. A God who at times shows up in lighting and thunder and at other times as a welcoming host. The blood motif is both revolting and compelling so I try to highlight that tension, and ultimately what it may have meant for Israel. Since I focus on the blood and the consecration ceremony I allow the Eucharist language to be alluded to in a way that hopefully the listener will hear without direct appeal.
Invited To The Feast, Consecrated For Life
It always started the same way…Grandpa, tell us one of your stories. We loved to hear Grandpa’s stories. He had a way of weaving a tale that would leave us spell bound for hours. He would draw us in to that climatic moment, and even if we had heard the story a thousand times he would make it seem like the very first telling. We each had our favorites, each of the grandkids. The story of the midwives, the story of the Sea. My personal was the plague of darkness; dark light, dark light, back and forth, so funny, so amazing. Grandpa, for his part, would always pretend to be too busy. Not now, I need to check my eyelids for holes. Not now, I’m doing an experiment to see how many times I can rock back and forth in this chair before the bottom breaks. Silly excuses that even as a child we knew weren’t true. But after alittle bit of pestering, he would smile, sit us on his knee and begin a tale that took us to far off places and amazing adventures. Typically he told the same tales over and over again, but sometimes, if we kept at him long enough he would reach deep into his memory and pull out a new adventure. I’ll never forget the time he told me about the feast on the mountain. I only remember him telling it once because it wasn’t as exciting as the other adventures. There was no daring rescue, no unforeseen experience, no evil imposing foe. But this one for some reason stuck with me and left an impression.
We’d been invited to a feast, he began. It seems so strange to think that we’d been invited to a feast. For the last few weeks we’ve had nothing but manna and water; manna and water, manna and water, there’s only so much you can do with manna and water. In fact, it’d been since our last night in Egypt when we feasted on lamb. The food was so good and the memory so clear that we could still taste the lamb on the edge of our tongues. Ever since that night we’d been on the run. First from Pharaoh and his army, and after the adventure at the Sea just slowly out into the wilderness to the foot of the mountain. All the time, manna and water, manna and water. But now we’d been invited to a feast. A feast in which we will dine on some of the greatest delicacies we could imagine. Our mouths are beginning to water, our taste buds can already sense the pleasure ahead
But wait, not so fast, the feast is on the mountain. And not just any mountain, the mountain, the mountain where God is, the foreboding mountain with the dense cloud and rolling thunder. Moses had already told us to stay away from the mountain. He’d set up limits all the way around and told us to remind our children don’t go near the mountain, if you go near the mountain you will die. At first it was kind of a test, who can get the closest to the mountain without touching it, while our parents chased us away. But soon that game ended. Because even if we didn’t believe Moses at first, then we saw what took place on that mountain. We saw the think cloud descend. We heard the thunder, we witnessed the lightning. We felt the rumbles as the ground was shaking beneath our feet. And as the thunder continued to role and the lightning fell from the sky, the mountain shook from the rumblings of the earthquake and dust and smoke started to rise from the ground and circle the mountain like the smoke of a kiln; we didn’t have to be reminded again, we were crying out in terror. Moses, you go up the mountain, you talk to God. We’re going to stay here, we don’t even want to hear his voice because we are too terrified. We gladly stayed away from the mountain, we weren’t about to approach.
But now, we’ve being asked to come. We’re being invited to a feast: on the mountain, in the presence of God. I’m not sure I want to go. I’m not sure I want to be in the presence of God. He’s frightening and scary. I’m not sure I’m ready for that type of encounter. It would be a whole lot easier to just stay here, to stay where I am, to not take the risk. It would be a whole lot easier to avoid the mountain altogether. I mean, we could die if we go on the mountain. Maybe that’s it, maybe he wants to bring us up there to make an example of us, to show the community his power. This isn’t like eating dinner with a friend or a coworker, this is eating with God. I’m not so sure about this, maybe I’ll turn down the invitation. But how many opportunities do you have to feast with God? How often are you invited to a banquet with the king? And this is not just a feast, it’s a celebration, it’s a moment of consecration. We’ve already seen what God can do; his power over Egypt, his power at the Sea. He’s promised to be our God, and for us to be his people. So as fearful as the proposition sounds, we need to attend
But before we go there is a ceremony that needs to take place. Moses is always conducting ceremonies. Put your staff out, gird up your loins, put blood over the doorpost, pull in the animals from the field. Moses likes the show, the ceremony. Moses has called the entire community together. The last time he did this was when we all got scared and ran away but this time seems different. This time there is no fear, there’s no trembling, there’s no warning to stay away. Moses calmly relays the words that God has spoken to him; rules for us to follow, commands to keep God as holy and no one else. You have one God and one god only, he says, there is no room for multiple gods, multiple deities fighting for our allegiance. In Egypt we could serve multiple gods, pick different ones at different times, decide which one best meets our needs. It was like going to the convenience store and picking out the god you want. But not any more, now there is only one choice. And this one choice demands allegiance, all of our allegiance. We have to be all in, everything is in service to Yahweh. Then he reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt, that we’ve been on the side of the oppressed and while the natural tendency is to reverse the system and now that we have freedom to put others under our control, we’ve been called to a different purpose. We’ve been called to treat others as God has treated us, to have this great system of equality. There is no room in God’s Kingdom for those who oppress the poor, or take advantage of the weak. And he reminds us that there is no place in our society for violence or hatred or envy. Sure, we witnessed our enemies drawn in the heart of the sea, but in God’s economy there is no room for violence, it goes against God’s very nature and we must represent God in all things. We must root out these human tendencies, these fleshly desires, and sacrifice them on the altar. And he reminds us that as we long for justice, we must grant justice to others. To be reminded that all of us, whether we are strong or weak, the powerful or the powerless, we all deserve to be treated fairly and equally; dishonest scales, lying lips, unfair business practices just won’t work. Moses tells us these words, the words that came from Yahweh, and then he asks a simple question…will we follow? Will we follow? Will we give up our own desires for god’s? Will we place God above all others? Will we die to self and bury our flesh in order to rise to new life. Will we follow? We have a choice; we can walk away, we can choose our own path. Will we follow? And while the choice is there it’s amazing how quickly the people respond, and with a determination that sounds as if it is from one strong and confident voice, we will do it. Then Moses smiles, and we get the hint that God smiles too.
Then Moses gets to work. He starts writing down all the words that were spoken. He sets up twelve pillars to commemorate the ceremony. He sacrifices some animals and collects the blood in a basin at the side of the altar. And then just before we head up the mountain he starts sprinkling the blood on us. At first we step back. This is disgusting, to be drenched in animal blood, covering our clothes, and running down our hair and on our skin. It’s disgusting, but even more so it’s terrifying, it’s convicting, because we know what this means. This means that God is consecrating us for a special task. This means that we haven’t just been rescued because we deserved it but we’ve been rescued for a purpose. God wants us to join him in some task, some mission to the world. And just as Moses tosses blood on Aaron and consecrates him for the priesthood, we are going to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation set apart not for our glory, but to be participants of spreading God’s glory to the world. And that as this blood is tossed on us there is no turning back. We can’t accept the task and walk away. We can’t join the mission and half way through decide it’s not for us. So we hesitate, unsure if we are ready, unsure if it’s really the life we want, unsure if we can handle the responsibility. We hesitate; but we go.
And as the blood is dripping from our eyes we approach the top of the mountain, the abode of God. But it’s not just a pavement made of glass that we see, a table has been spread. A feast has been prepared and God is serving as host and inviting us in. God, this strong and powerful opposing figure who comes down in fire and lightning shaking the foundations of the earth is now welcoming and kind, inviting us to relax at the banquet. And we sit down and feast on the best bread and best wine we have ever tasted. And we remember the past. We remember what God has done for us. We remember how we were slaves in Egypt but with a mighty hand and powerful arm we’ve been redeemed. And we look to the future. We look to our task, to the mission that God has for us that we have been set apart for. And somehow we instinctively know that this feast, this bread and wine, is inwardly strengthening us for the task ahead. And while the immensity of the task is daunting, there is peace, and there is calm in the presence of God.
Then Grandpa stopped, and I’m not quite sure if he meant to say what he said next but he did. I’ve often thought that maybe he was just thinking out loud and I got to hear it. “I’ll never forget the blood,” he said. That blood pouring down my face, setting me apart, on mission with God.
And then he stopped, he looked me in the eye and made sure I was giving him all of my attention, and he said to me, “being a Kingdom of Priests, that’s a big responsibility, a big responsibility.” Then he paused, and then he smiled. “But you can handle it. You can handle it. Now, on your way child, there’s work to do.”
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Ben Ries (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Born and raised in Davenport, Iowa, Ben Ries moved to the Pacific Northwest when he was a junior in high school. He is a graduate of Cascade College (BA, Biblical Studies), Abilene Christian University (MDiv), and is currently working on a Doctorate of Ministry from Lipscomb University. Before accepting the position of preaching minister at Church of Christ at Federal Way in 2010, Ben served as a youth minister or preaching minister in Oregon and Washington since 1998. Ben and his wife, Jen, have been married 15 years. They have three children, Emma (13), Aiden (11), Izzy (9) and a 5-year-old greyhound dog that is really fast, has awful breath, and is incontinent.
Exodus 19:1-8 “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
It is the miracle in Exodus that no one seems to talk about. Defeating the Egyptian army is nice, the parting of the Red Sea is impressive, the manna from heaven and the water from the rock is extraordinary, but it’s the miracle we witness today that seems the most implausible to me. Moses sets before the people the words that the Lord commanded him to and…”The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Really? All the people answered as one? All the people? One gigantic unanimous, “Yes!” Anyone that has worked with any group of people knows that a snowball has a better chance in hell than an entire group of people agreeing on anything, especially when that one thing is something as big as committing to the purposes of God for the sake of all creation.
Surely, they didn’t know what they were signing up for. I say we write this off as an act of fidelity birthed from blind, adolescent love – an irrational commitment you would expect from someone who’s only know this new lover for three months. Standing together at the foot of Mt. Sinai that day, did Israel really know what they were signing up for when God invited them into this relationship? Ok, we can admit that the previous relationship with Egypt was an abusive one. Egypt did not love, cherish, and protect Israel as it should have. And, you have to admit that what God has done up to this point has been pretty remarkable. Swooping down, rescuing Israel from the certain death of slavery and then flying to heights where the fiercest army could not harm them, and the surrounding waters could not stop them, and where empty plates and cups were met with manna and water. But did they really know what they were getting into? Did they have any idea the sort of demands this new relationship would ask of them? Did they know they would be asked to walk away from all the many gods they had grown accustomed to worshipping and give all their allegiance to this one they had been brought to? Did they know they would be asked to no longer be defined by what they produced or acquired but by what they gave and relinquished to others? Sure, God had done a great deal for them, but did they really know what they were signing up for that day when they proclaimed that miraculous, unanimous “Yes!”
“God has done a great deal for us!” my father proclaimed on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1990. Standing together in the waters of baptism my father spoke of the many things that God had done in my life. God had provided a loving family that would stop an army if they had to, a nurturing church that would not let me drown, and moments of grace and mercy that even my 12-year-old self could recognize as food for my heart and water for my soul. God had done a great deal for me, but truth be told, when my father invited me to obey the voice of God and keep his covenant that evening, I did not know what I was getting into. I did not understand the demands this new relationship would ask of me. I had no idea that I would be asked to walk away from the gods of consumerism, materialism, and patriotism and give all my allegiance to this one who I had been brought to. I did not know that I would be asked to no longer be defined by what I produced, or how put together I seemed, or even the homiletical brilliance of my weekly sermons. I was not fully aware that day of the costs that the pursuit of justice, and the love of mercy, and the commitment to walk humbly would require of me. Sure, God had done a great deal for me leading up to that moment, but standing in the waters of baptism on that day I did not know what I was signing up for when I joined in the miraculous, unanimous, “Yes!”
And I wonder if standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai that day if Israel’s miraculous “Yes” would have been unanimous had they known what lie just ahead of them. Had they known that their future would entail years upon years of desert and desolation and wandering, would they have been so quick to commit their entire existence to this new lover who just recently walked into their life? Would any of us have been so quick? If we could go back to that day when we stood with the faithful and joined in that miraculous, unanimous, “Yes,” would we still do it if we knew that this life with God would not be all milk and honey? Would we still do it if we knew there could be long seasons of depression, or divorce, or cancer, or addiction, or church splits, or broken relationships, or any of the other types of deserts and desolations and wanderings that the people of God are not exempt from?
Sure, we have a handful of experiences of God’s faithfulness, and they might be significant, but standing together and answering as one, “Everything that Lord has spoken we will do”…to join in this miraculous, unanimous “Yes!” with no guarantee that our lives will be safer, or happier, or healthier seems to me to be, at best, blind love and, at worst, utter stupidity. And then I look to my left, and standing with me is my daughter who (though she is only 13-years-old) feels this genuine pull to care for the kids in her middle school who are picked on. Why? Because God has been faithful to her and she has heard a call into God’s purposes. And then I look to my right and I find my neighbor and my friend, Alan, who has bi-polar and is tired of the stigma and silence that surrounds mental health in our faith communities and refuses to be quiet about it. Why? Because God has been faithful and he has heard a call into God’s purposes. And then I look in front of me and there is my friend, Jen, gifted and called to preach. And though I have been called to a position of power, a position that is currently not available to her, it is (more often than not) she who talks me off the cliff of quitting ministry, reminding me of the beauty and grace and mystery found in this thing called church. Why? Because God has been faithful to her and she has heard a call into God’s purposes. And then I look behind me and I see my sister-in-law, Jess, and though brain cancer took the life of her husband far too soon…there she is, caring for two young children, loving a community, and bearing witness to the kingdom of God. Why? Because God has been faithful to her and she has heard a call into God’s purposes. And then, I look beyond them and I see this endless sea of God’s people standing with me, no, standing with us – go ahead…look around you today. Here we are, surrounded by and participating in all these stories of God faithfulness, stopping an army here, and parting a sea there, and providing manna and water from unexpected places in unexpected ways.
And though we might be tempted to speak of God’s faithfulness in my life, together, we know that the lines between God’s faithfulness for one person is not so easy to distinguish from that of another. Just as when my daughter suffers, a part of me suffers or when Jess grieves a part of me grieves. We also know that God’s faithfulness to you is somehow, mysteriously God’s faithfulness to me as well. No longer is it my story or your story, it is our story! And then, standing together, we look up and who do we see, but Moses coming down from the mountain. And he brings us in close and he says to us, “Hear the word of the Lord: You have seen what I have done, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” And together we stand at the foot of this mountain, bound together by these handful of experiences of God’s faithfulness and we lean forward and with every part of our being we respond to this invitation and we proclaim miraculously, unanimously “Yes! Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do!”
The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Wilson McCoy (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Wilson McCoy is the Associate Minister at the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN. Before he began working with them in 2010 he completed undergraduate and graduate degrees from Lipscomb University and Abilene Christian University. During those years he worked with churches in Nashville, TN, Brisbane, Australia, and Ballinger, Texas. Currently his ministry at College Hills consists of working with Young Adults, LIFE Groups, and regular preaching and teaching. Wilson likes to drink coffee all day long, run sporadically, read required and non-required books, root for the Chicago Cubs, spend time with his wife Jessica, and listen to his favorite band Wilco. You can contact him by email: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @thewilsonmccoy.
Exodus 17:1-7 : From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
Massah and Meribah. Memory is a strange thing when you are a leader of God’s people. There is this tendency and temptation to polish up the past and make it look better than it actually was. To smooth out the rough spots and shine up the good ones. In fact, on occasion, I have even been know to utter the phrase “the good ole days” as if there ever was such a thing.
So I am not sure why I did what I did that day. I can still remember it like it was yesterday—there I was standing by that damp rock, looking around at all of those relieved faces, and I pulled out our map, unfolded it, flattened it out, brushed off some sand and pressed down hard and wrote: Massah. Meribah. Test. Quarrel. You know I’m still not sure why I did it.
Maybe it was because I did not want the people to forget. I know they had been through a lot. Bricks on top of bricks. Days of labor turned into years of oppression. Aching backs and heavy hearts crying out to the heavens. And then to show up in the middle of the wilderness, to look around and see nothing but a dry and weary land with no water. And when you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere it’s easy to get upset and overreact. Trust me, I know what it is like to get upset in the middle of the desert and overreact.
But they also had been through the frogs and the flies and remained protected. They had been through those waters of deliverance. They had been given sweet water instead of bitter. They had been given food to eat to fill their empty stomachs. The very hand of God had sustained them.
So I thought by Rephidim this would all be different, that they would all be different. And yet they did not even acknowledge God, wouldn’t even say his name. They thought it was all about them and me. That I was out to get them—that I took them out of Egypt to kill them.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” I could not believe my ears. Those stiff-necked, redeemed people of God still didn’t get it. They did not realize that even though they were standing in the middle of the wilderness they were creating a whole other wilderness in their hearts by their lack of faith. And so I wrote it down for them to remember. Massah. Meribah. Test. Quarrel. Maybe it was for them. Or maybe I wrote it down because I did not want me to forget. Like I said, I’m a leader of God’s people and that’s a strange and hard place to be. Whether you’re leading one or a thousand, whether you are acknowledged as a leader or not (I’ve been in both places)—that place of leadership can be so difficult and so uncertain. And sometimes it can feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, and it’s even harder when the people you are with only make you feel more lost. So Rephidim was difficult. In the middle of nowhere, not sure what our next step should be… what do you do but cry out to God? What else could I do?
And you know what? God spoke to me. Now I’m not sure how you feel about those things, not sure if you believe they can actually happen, but it did. He did. He spoke to me. He told me to take some elders, to take my staff, to go to a rock at Horeb and strike it. He told me that water would come because he would be standing on the rock. It still seems odd even today.
And right in the middle of God telling me all of this, right in the middle of me trying to absorb to oddness of it all, God said, “and go.” Go—and with that word the strangest thing happened. So strange you might not even believe it.
In that moment, of all people, I thought of Abraham. And I thought of that moment when God told him to “go”—away from familiarity and walk into uncertainty. To walk into the barrenness. To walk into the middle of nowhere. And that a people would be produced from a barren place. Abundance in the midst of scarcity. God was going to create something in the midst of nothing…again. And in that moment I believed that God could actually do it again through me. It was like Abraham’s memory came right up into my present moment. It was as if his story was somehow becoming my story pushing me from behind and telling me I could go just like he did. It was like I was being called to live that old story in a new way.
And so I went, and I gripped that thick heavy staff with my old hands and I came down hard, and—water. Streams so strong it was like the water was alive—living water—streams of living water pouring out of that dry rock, and the people were quenched,
God comes through. God provides. God is faithful. God creates ways out of no ways. God brings forth water from rocky places in the midst of rocky people so they might live. And God did that in the middle of the wilderness of those people’s unfaith. And he did it through me and with me. God gave his unfaithful people water through my act of faithfulness. Can you believe that? I barely could. And I was afraid I would not remember later. And so I pulled out my map and I wrote it down. Massah. Meribah. Test. Quarrel. Because I did not want to ever forget.
But you know what, as I have gotten older, and as I have looked at that map so many times since then, I now realize that’s not the only reason I called the place what I did. See I knew it was not going to end with me because I knew that God was not done with these people. I knew he was going to keep shaping and moving them—even if it took them to the ends of the earth.
And I knew there would be others—like me—who would find themselves between a rock and a hard place, in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of unfaithful people. And I had this hope, I have this hope, that they will pull out this map and they will see those names, and they will remember. That they will remember God, and how God used me for his people. And in the same way Abraham’s memory pushed me to go, maybe their memory of this moment, of me even, will push them to go and live out that memory in new ways.
To remember and to go. To remember that God provides in unorthodox ways and through unorthodox people. To remember that God is on up ahead of them.
And they will take whatever they have been given. And they will go into that barren, broken place, into the unfaith, into wilderness. Into Massah. Into Meribah. And they will go and see how God provides through them. Massah. Meribah. God will be faithful.
Reflections on the Sermon
This sermon was an attempt to make the memory of the wilderness wanderings in Exodus 17 a present tense experience for the listeners. To accomplish this goal I decided to experiment with a first person monologue from the perspective of Moses that could be overheard by the audience. In this overhearing I hoped for them to be indirectly invited into the story, and to be left to imagine what it means to lead the people of God in their given context in light of this experience of Moses and his leadership.
This angle of leadership seemed most appropriate due to the fact that the majority of the original hearers of this sermon had positions of leadership in their various contexts. So often the interpretation of these wilderness stories focuses on the faithfulness of God or the faithlessness of the people. But Moses’ perspective is also an important one that resonates deeply with those who lead the people of God in both seen and unseen ways. The hope was that this angle would provide a fresh reading and preaching of the text.
Most important, though, was the hope that this sermon would remind leaders of the fundamental truth of the book of Exodus and all of Scripture—that God works with humanity to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. I ultimately wanted this sermon to be hope-filled by reminding the hearers who God is and how God works. Everyone needs to be reminded of this important truth, especially those who find themselves in dry and difficult circumstances like that of Moses—God still provides through our acts of faithfulness.