Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

File:Statue tripping.jpg

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

The angels are dancing

File:Angels dancing sun Giovanni di Paolo Condé Chantilly.jpg

Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Radiant with Heaven’s glory

File:Alexandr Ivanov 015 - variation.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 7, 2016

Year C

The Feast of the Transfiguration

As we stand at the threshold of Lent and its journey to Jerusalem and the cross and resurrection, this final Sunday after Epiphany takes us to the Mount of Transfiguration. There, the chosen one of God, anointed with the Spirit, and declared God’s “Son” at his baptism, is made radiant by the presence of God. It is a story sandwiched between two passion predictions. Jesus is pointing his followers to his destiny: he will suffer and die and on the third day be raised.

This teaching is beyond anyone’s comprehension. No one has imagined such a destiny for the Messiah. The disciples don’t understand. We don’t understand. God should fix things not suffer them, right wrongs not endure them. God should vanquish enemies, not be their victim.

This is why, if you read the extended version of the appointed text, you will hear Jesus say: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (And if you are reading the extended version, you should go all the way through their incomprehension in verse 45.)

Jesus is the crowning revelation of God. Like Moses at Sinai and Elijah in the cleft of the rock, Jesus climbs up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence. But Moses and Elijah appear not as Jesus’ equals, but to bear witness to him. They discuss his “departure”, his coming death and resurrection (literally his “exodus”), and in the end Jesus stands alone and the voice of God declares to the sleepy-but-startled-into-wakefulness, terrified-in-the-presence-of-God disciples: “This is my Son (a royal title), my Chosen; listen to him.”

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. And yet it is for the weary and heavy laden. It is demanding, yet full of grace. It promises life, but asks us to lay ours down. It forgives, but requires us to forgive. It loves, but requires us to love. It shows Jesus mighty against the demonic realm but helpless upon the cross. But even on the cross exercising kingly mercy.

It’s no wonder the disciples are confused. This is not the kind of Messiah for whom they have hoped. The Romans are forgiven not judged, enemies to be loved not conquered. Hundreds of years of foreign oppression goes unavenged, replaced by a mission to gather them all into the wide net of God’s mercy and grace. How can it be?

So here, in Sunday’s Gospel, we see Jesus bathed in the light of God’s presence. And here, with Peter, James and John on the mountain, God summons us to attend, to listen, to hear, to devour Jesus’ teaching and understand his deeds.

It is a vision meant to sustain us through Good Friday so that we are still in Jerusalem on Easter morn, ready to witness the eighth day, the day of new creation.

The Prayer for February 7, 2016

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice and worthy of your service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 7, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35
“As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” – Moses’ face shines from the radiance of God’s presence.

Psalmody: Psalm 99 (Psalm 2 is the appointed psalm; Psalm 99 the option)
“The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!”
– The psalmist sings of God as ruler of all, and of Moses and Aaron with whom God spoke.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
“We act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” – Paul, writing to defend his ministry and to be reconciled with the Corinthian congregation, uses the image of Moses covering his shining face as a metaphor of the fading glory of the covenant at Sinai compared to the more glorious covenant in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 (Optional: Luke 9:28-43)
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
– In a narrative rich with imagery from Moses on Mt. Sinai, three disciples see Jesus radiant with the Glory of God and consulting with Moses and Elijah. They hear God’s voice declare again that Jesus is “my Son”, bidding them to listen to him.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlexandr_Ivanov_015_-_variation.jpg by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

“I am only a boy!”

File:Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico00.jpg

Malachi, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Saturday

Jeremiah 1:4-10

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

We have history with certain texts. When an angel greets Gideon with the familiar words “The LORD is with you,” Gideon responds, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” I remember that text from when I was eighteen and the pastor read it at my brother’s funeral. The text never quite escapes that moment in time. And the promise lingers: though we do not see it, God is with us.

There is a text from the Gospel of Mark that my high school youth group advisors wrote in a small Bible they gave me as I went off to college. It had a profound, almost haunting, influence on my life. There is a text in Psalm 11 that prompted me to risk accepting a call to inner city ministry in Detroit. There is a text in Romans 8 with which I struggled mightily for a paper for my Romans class in Seminary. In that struggle the secret of understanding the scriptures was revealed to me. And then there is this text in Sunday’s reading that was given to me as I headed off to a summer mission in Taiwan after my senior year in High School.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

All through the scriptures people try to avoid the task God lays before them. Moses claims he cannot speak. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips.” Saul demurs that he is from the least clan of the smallest tribe. Gideon is the youngest in his family. Jonah simply refuses and flees. Jeremiah claims no one will listen to a mere youth.

But it is the message that matters, not the messenger. It is about the word God speaks, not the vessel God chooses. God’s words can irritate us like a shutter banging in the wind, or haunt us like the wind through a poorly sealed window. They can sustain us like foundation stones or connect us like a bridge over troubled water. They can be a polished mirror of self-discovery or a whispered shame. They can raise up and cast down nations. And they will do these things no matter who speaks the words. It was a sermon from the most inept preacher I have ever heard that had the greatest impact on my life. It is the message that matters, not the messenger.

The word that Jeremiah speaks is not his own. It lives in him and through him but it is not his own. These are not the words of his passion or rage at corruption of his time. These are not the hopes and desires of his own spirit – there are others who are skilled in speaking in God’s name exactly what their audience wants to hear. The word Jeremiah is commissioned to speak is from beyond him. It is rooted in the tradition and springs forth from the Spirit. His task is to hear and to speak what he hears.

Such words are routinely dismissed – sometimes for some defect we find in the messenger – or simply because we don’t like what we hear. King Jehoiakim takes a knife, calmly slices every few columns from the scroll of God’s words through Jeremiah that is being read to him, and tosses it into the fire. But there is power in those words. They will do their work. They judge and condemn. They will also heal and forgive.

Jeremiah’s age matters not. What matters is hearing truly and speaking faithfully. For the power is not in the speaker; it is in the Word God sends us to speak.

 

Image: By Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca (www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/6221310983) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChrist_the_King_Church%2C_Monterrey%2C_Nuevo_Leon%2C_Mexico00.jpg

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

File:Staff at Sunset.jpg

Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Child sacrifice, divination, and the God who speaks

Thursday

Deuteronomy 18:9-20

File:Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic.jpg

Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic

15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

I decided to add the preceding verses, 9 -14, to the reading from Deuteronomy this coming Sunday. Moses is speaking to the people at the end of their long journey through the wilderness, as they are about to enter the land of the Canaanites. He warns them:

9When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. 14Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

It’s not the kind of thing we normally read in worship. A little too dark. A little too judgmental. It reminds us a little too much that these readings come from far away in time and culture.

But it’s important to be reminded.

Scholars debate whether the Canaanites actually practiced child sacrifice or whether this reference to passing through the fire refers to some ritual that does only that: a wave offering rather than an actual holocaust. My hunch is that these were real sacrifices – perhaps not routinely, but real nonetheless. Otherwise, why is Abraham on the mountain with his son and a knife? And why does Hiel of Bethel found the gates of Jericho on the sacrificed bodies of his sons Abiram and Segub?

Such a sacrifice is unthinkable to us – though we can cognitively understand the strange logic of giving to the gods your most precious possession to show them the depth of your devotion in hopes of gaining their favor.

But lest we think we are morally superior, we should consider how easily we also sacrifice our children. There are bodies of our young men being flown home from wars. There are children sacrificed to the sexual desires of their parents. There are children laying dead at the hands of a murder-suicide, children who crack under the pressure of success, children who wither while parents pursue wealth and power. We sacrifice our children on the altar of our parental happiness (You’ve heard it said about divorce: “the children will be happy if the parents are happy”. Really? We say that without blushing? Have you ever heard a child say that? We are not talking about violence in a home, mind you, or abuse, or such for which children would readily vote. And we’re not even talking about the painful, wrenching decision to divorce – just the way we rationalize it as a culture, as if happiness were the god we served.)

So we survey the bombed out villages, the refugee camps, the abused and abandoned children, and we have no claim to moral indignation at the ancient practice.

But God who revealed his name as LORD does. It was Pharaoh’s murderous plot against the infant sons of Israel that started the crisis in Egypt that led ultimately to the death of Pharaoh’s own child – a child sacrificed on the altar of the right to keep slaves.

Our country paid dearly on that altar, too.

This matter of child sacrifice is in a passage about divination, about the ways in which we try to gain secret knowledge and power from the gods. It is leading to this promise that God will not leave Israel without a prophetic voice.

Moses’ attacks the myriad ways in which we want to read the tea leaves, to access hidden and divine information to know what the future will bring, to know what we can do to guarantee success or to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Farmer’s Almanac does the same thing reading the coats of wooly caterpillars – and we have that wonderful little ritual every February to see whether the sun is shining on a rodent in Punxsutawney. We joke about these ‘divinations’, but we know the drill. If I could know which lottery numbers to pick – as vainly promised by my fortune cookies – if I could know what tomorrow brings, then I would be king.

But God is king.

It is our desire to be king, our desire to control, to conquer, to rule, to grasp the fruit from the tree, to be as gods, that leads to the death of children.

God is king.

And God does not deal with us by omens and tea leaves. He speaks. He reveals. And we are meant to hear, to receive, to trust.

This is the sweetness in this promise of a prophet: God will not stop speaking to us. God will not leave us without knowledge of him or his will. He will continue, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, to reveal himself, to encounter us, to proclaim his grace and love, to call us to fidelity to God and neighbor, to summon us to lives that mirror his faithfulness and compassion.

God will speak. And in case we have trouble hearing, he makes his word visible in water and in bread and wine. For you. For the world. For the lifting away of every debt of shame and sin. For the granting of grace and life. For the birth from above, the breath of his Spirit. Moses may be gone, and Isaiah, Jeremiah and David – but their words remain and God still speaks to us through them. God will not leave us desolate. He will speak.

As Jesus kept saying, “Let the one who has ears to hear, listen.”

 

Photo: By Credits: Pierre Holtz / UNICEF CAR / hdptcar.net at hdptcar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Drama in Capernaum

Watching for the morning of February 1

Year B

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

File:THE ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE IN CAPERNAUM IMG 2931 ITAMAR GRINBERG IMOT (14475139241).jpg

The remains of the synagogue in Capernaum that dates to the time of Jesus.

Sunday our readings begin with Moses promising that God will provide “a prophet like me from among your own people.” It is a promise that God will not leave the people without a witness to God’s voice – the voice they did not want to hear at Sinai. But the promise of a prophet like Moses becomes a hint of a prophet to come who will speak with the authority and power of Moses.

Against this backdrop, Jesus enters Capernaum with his new disciples in tow. Rising in the synagogue on the Sabbath he teaches with an astonishing authority – an authority that is shown to extend over the unseen realm as a man with an evil spirit cries out against him but is powerless before him. And with the psalmist we sing of the wonder and grace of God’s works.

“What is this?” asks the crowd. And the answer that has been proclaimed by Paul, that this Jesus is the Christ of God, is applied to a concrete question in the faith community: If the gods worshipped by the pagans are mere idols, what does it matter if we eat meat from their temples? It matters, says Paul, because you are the body of Christ. It matters because your sisters and brothers matter, and our freedom in Christ does not release us from the bonds of love.

The Prayer for February 01, 2015

Almighty God,
who by your word called forth the world
and summons us to life in you;
deliver us from every falsehood and deceit,
that we may praise your name,
and live each day to your glory;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 01, 2015

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” – Moses addresses the people after their forty-year journey through the wilderness, just before they enter the land, warning them not to imitate the religious practices of the Canaanites. Then, in a passage that will come to be heard as a promise of the Messiah, declares that God will raise up a prophet for them.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.”
– A psalm of praise that exalts the faithfulness and mighty deeds of God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – Paul continues to attack the distorted notion of freedom in the Corinthian congregation that fails to recognize the obligations of the members of the congregation to one another as the body of Christ.

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, Jesus enters the town and begins to teach in the synagogue, astounding the community with his authority to teach and to command the spirits.

 

Photo: By Israel_photo_gallery [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Into the fire

Thursday

Exodus 24

File:High Park fire near Poudre Canyon, Colorado.jpg16On the seventh day [the LORD] called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.

Presumably Moses can also see that the top of the mountain is “like a devouring fire,” but he goes up.  He was not a young daredevil ready to compete in an ancient X-games; according to Exodus 7 he was eighty years old when they left Egypt.  We can joke that the prospect of a fiery death seemed preferable to continuing to lead this contumacious people, but I marvel at the faith that walks into that unknown fire.  Even if the fire on the mountain is no more than lightning – the mountaintop is not where you want to be in a thunderstorm.

Moses had seen the fire of the burning bush, seen it blaze yet not consume.  And he had seen God’s power in the afflictions that came upon Egypt for their refusal to turn from oppression.  He had seen God’s act of deliverance through the sea.  He had seen the mystery and wonder of manna from heaven and water from the rock.  But there is nothing in human experience that could tell him what would be the outcome of answering the voice and walking into the cloud.

But he answers the call.

“Come up to me.”  Moses is not the only one God summons, though for all of us the fire is different.  Abraham was summoned to leave his home for a promise.  Joshua is summoned to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Gideon was summoned from his hiding place to save Israel from the Midianites.  The boy Samuel is summoned by the voice in the night calling his name.  Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah, the prophets, each is called to go forward into the unknown by a promise: Isaiah, with the ground shaking and the temple filled with smoke and the seraphim crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The stories that come to us are mostly the big stories, of kings and queens and prophets who received God’s call in crucial moments.  But all of us are summoned, summoned to enter into God’s presence, summoned to hear the voice of God, summoned into the Spirit’s fire, summoned to be servants of God in the world around us.

The faithfulness of Moses is not more important than the maid who speaks to her mistress, the wife of Namaan, about the prophet who could heal him – or Ruth, the Moabite, who shows faithfulness to her widowed and now childless mother-in-law.  But these “big” stories are told and remembered because they sustain us when we are called up the mountain, when we are summoned to draw near to God, when we are beckoned into the unknown.  These narratives encourage us when we get up each morning and face the coming day knowing not what may come, but trusting God to meet us there.  They help us go forward, even into the fire.

“Your people”

Wednesday

Exodus 32

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Li...

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Lippi (1457–1504) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;

The pronouns in the first reading are intriguing.  Speaking to Moses, God calls the Israelites “your people.”  But Moses answers God saying, “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?”

We can laugh as God and Moses argue over to whom this “stiff-necked” people belong, but a very important conversation is taking place.  Who stands behind the exodus?  Who stands behind the humbling of pharaoh?  Who stands behind the parting of the waters?  Has Moses come out of Egypt with a ragged band fleeing oppression, or has God brought them out to meet him at Sinai?  Did Moses deliver them or God?  The leaders of faith communities often get this wrong – as do the people themselves.

At this point in the narrative, of course, this is a question for Moses.  He is on the mountain alone with God.  The people have remained behind.  They didn’t want to hear the voice of God directly.  It frightened them.  It confronted them with all the might and majesty and holiness of God.  Waiting behind, however, they have grown fearful.  They press Aaron to make for them a visible manifestation of the divine – a golden calf.  Rather than stand before the mystery of the infinite, they want the concrete.  Rather than worshiping God by the observance of his teachings, they want to worship in the way of the nations – a carnival of feasting, drunkenness and “dancing” (a euphemism for sexual behaviors). Drink and dancing are a shortcut to altered states of consciousness; much easier than prayer, obedience and submission to the holy.

But the argument between Moses and God is not that neither wants to claim this people. Moses is being tested.  His heart is being revealed.  Does he imagine that he is the hero of this narrative or God?  Has he brought the people out or has the eternal and ineffable one called them?  Something very important happens when we realize that we are not the hero of our own story.

The greatest temptation is that Moses should become the new Abraham – God will dispose of these “stiff-necked”, rebellious people and create a new people of God born from Moses’ descendants.  But Moses doesn’t fall.  He calls God to remember his promise to Abraham.  He calls God to remember that God himself has brought out this people.  He calls God to be the God he has shown himself to be – a God of mercy.  In calling God to faithfulness, he shows his own faithfulness.

In the end, the narrative says that God repents.  The people have not changed, but God has changed.  Instead of his suggestion that he destroy this people, he will forgive.  He acts in keeping with his nature: he saves.

And then pronoun changes:

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

God is again God.  And we are once again God’s people.