The new year

Wednesday

Exodus 12 (A Maundy Thursday text)

File:PikiWiki Israel 14865 Jewish holidays.jpg2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

God commanded Israel to make the month of Passover the first month of the year. At the full moon came the sacrifice of the lambs and the meal when the ancient story was told: they had been slaves in Egypt and God had set them free. I don’t know when Canaanite culture around them – or Egyptian culture, for that matter – had celebrated the new year other than that it was associated with the natural world and the cycle of the seasons (Baal was the God of the storm and the new year came with the return of the rains). But God has placed his people out of step with the society around them.

The New Year is for us, too, the time of new beginnings, the time of starting over, the time of leaving the past behind and embracing a future that we all hope will be better. There is no small measure of irony in the fact that our culture seems to celebrate such a day of new beginnings with behaviors that are rarely ennobling. I suspect that getting drunk and hoping to get lucky are indicative of our fear of time rather than our trust in the future, our fear of our mortality and the fleetingness of our days.

For Israel, their feet still wet from the waters of the Red Sea, God declares that Passover will be the beginning of their year. It is an act of Lordship: God is giving his people a new calendar than the one given by their slave masters. This day of new beginnings is not linked to the return of the sun or the fertility of the fields but to God’s act in time when he led them through the sea out from bondage. This day leads all the rest. This day defines all the days to come.

We have not made Easter the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, but these are still the days that define all the rest. Every Sunday is a festival of the resurrection; every morning the dawning of the new creation. We live now in the realm of light and life. We live now in the realm of grace and truth. We are defined by an empty grave. We are freed from shame and the fear of death. . “The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God stands forever.” “(Isaiah 40:7-8) “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)

We still get up and go to work. We still worry about the future and our children. We “marry and are given in marriage.” We still struggle with our inner thoughts and desires, our aches and angsts. But we are sons and daughters of the Most High, emissaries of heaven, agents of blessing, the heart and hands of Christ. We are inheritors of the kingdom – and participants even now. We are children of the resurrection.

All our days are defined by these days, all our hours by these hours – by the new commandment, by the redeeming sacrifice, by the empty tomb, by the commission to go and tell.

A life-giving river

Wednesday

Exodus 17

Overflowing river beneath Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Photo credit: dkbonde

Overflowing river beneath Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite
Photo credit: dkbonde

5The 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. 6I 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.”

Do we need to know that the limestone rocks of Mt. Sinai drip with ground water, and striking it could open a porous layer containing water?  The narrative does not describe a small band at Sinai poking the rocks in order to survive.  The narrative announces that by the command of God and the hand of Moses a river flowed from Mt. Sinai (here called Mt. Horeb) down to Rephidim and watered the whole people.

The story has roots in the ancient experience of the people.  They know there is water to be found in the wilderness if you know where to look – just as they know there is that strange stuff manna, secreted by bugs and falling to the ground like frost.  But the story is no longer about a small band surviving in the desert – it is about a great people for whom Sinai becomes a fountain of a river of life.

It is not story grown into legend, it is memory grown into proclamation.  A refugee people found in the word of God a life-sustaining reality.  So the descendants of Jacob, now in exile in Babylon, lost in a new wilderness, can hear the message that the word of God will be their sustaining power.  It will preserve them from perishing.  It will give them life.

Numbers 1:46 gives the number of males 20 and older as precisely 603,550 identifying exactly how many came from each tribe (Exodus 12:37 rounds it off to 600,000).  We do not know what the number means or where it comes from.  We do know what it preaches: God is able to supply all our needs!

No matter how many people are carried away into exile, no matter how many people are scattered among the nations, no matter how many of God’s people find themselves under the lash of slavery, under the sorrow of hunger, in danger of perishing from thirst, God is able to deliver his people.  God is able to provide.

And the life-giving, sustaining, renewing, joyous gift that enlivens us flows from Sinai, flows from the place where God will speak and God’s law be given.  There the instructions for the tabernacle/temple will be laid out.  There the commands to love God and neighbor.  There the teaching on faithfulness.  There the warnings against turning to idols.  This is our river of the water of life.

And then John will tell us that this Word has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  And this Jesus will turn water into wine, cleanse the temple, open blind eyes, give bread to the 5,000 and offer the woman at the well living water – water that will overflow abundantly within her in an imperishable life.  True freedom will come, says Jesus, “if you abide in my word.”

The people cry out against God, accusing God of bringing them out into the wilderness to destroy them.  But Moses will take the leaders on to Sinai and release this water that is our joy and our life forever.

From Shittim to Gilgal

Wednesday

Micah 6

5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

File:PikiWiki Israel 29616 Jordan River.jpg

Jordan River (Lehava Activity 2013 Pikiwiki Israel [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The translators of the New International Version break this verse into two sentences, adding again the verb ‘remember’ plus the words ‘your journey’ to clarify the meaning of the third line so that it reads: “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.”

I like that line.  I also like the Hebrew that just hangs out there “from Shittim to Gilgal.”  It is one of those little phrases that the hearer understands.

Shittim was the last encampment after 40 years in the wilderness.  From there they crossed the Jordan River and made their first encampment in the Promised Land at Gilgal.  From Shittim to Gilgal represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is like saying “the grave is empty” – you don’t have to explain whose grave, when and where; we know what this means.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  Israel had been led out from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them it seemed as though their journey to freedom would fail.  But the breath/wind of God blew through the night and at morning there was a path.  They crossed on dry ground.

Forty years later, Israel is again at the edge of its promised future.  King Balak of Moab, the kingdom east of the Jordan River, fearing this great host, hires the holy man/prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse on this people.  Words are power; they create what they speak.  It is a powerful weapon.  But every time Balaam opens his mouth, out comes a blessing. God has chosen to bless.

But the Jordan is at flood stage.  God tells the priests to lead the way and stand in the river holding the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s promise and presence.  God promises that, again, they shall cross on dry land.  As the priests step into the river, the flow of water ceases – and the deliverance from Egypt is lived anew as the people enter in to the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise.  Slaves are free.  The homeless receive a home.  The landless receive a land of milk and honey.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  But there is a wound in this story.  For at Shittim the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the god of Moab, the Ba’al of Peor.  After all God had done, after the 40 years wandering due to their faithlessness, in sight of the fulfillment of God’s promise, they are led astray to bow to other gods.  They are faithless – but God is faithful.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  From Good Friday to Easter.  From our frailty to God’s unfathomable faithfulness.  Remember.  The prophet says these two words: from_Shittim to_Gilgal, and the whole story of faithlessness and faithfulness is spoken.  And the people of Micah’s day are asked to remember – and to return: to return to the path of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their faithful God.

Freeing those who are bound.

Friday

Acts 16

The story of the Philippian jailor is familiar: Paul and Silas are in prison when an earthquake breaks off their chains and opens the doors.  But the narrative is not about how God saved Paul and Silas.  It is about saving the jailor and the young woman bound by dark forces.

Paul and Silas are servant/slaves of the Most High, as the young woman has loudly proclaimed.  The jailor is bound in service of the city and empire, the young woman to masters (lords) who exploit her infirmity.

The jailor’s service leads towards dishonor and death: his prisoners have escaped and he is responsible, so he draws the sword to end his life.  The young woman’s service keeps her subject to the seizures perceived to be the touch of the gods and, therefore, moments of revelation.  Her words at such times are puzzles to be sure, riddles like the oracle at Delphi from whom her condition is named.  (The Greek says she has a spirit of Python: the serpent sent by Hera to prevent the birth of Apollo and his sister whom her husband Zeus had conceived with Leto.  Python guarded Delphi until slain by Apollo.)

Against this backdrop of fickle gods, human empires, and lives bound, come the servant/slaves of the Most High who are free even when in chains, for whom prison doors have no power, who sing even in the darkness of night.  It is service to the God who opens the grave – the God of the exodus and the return from exile – that leads to a true and everlasting freedom, to an eternal healing, community and life.