Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 18, 2011 - We Grumble; God Provides

Exodus 16:2–15 

On the night of Passover, Israel set out to leave Egypt. Following Moses, they went to the Red Sea and wandered up and down the edge of the Sea. There Pharaoh’s armies chased them, intending to bring them back to slavery. And, there God opened a path through the sea on dry ground with walls of water standing up on each side. They walked through the Sea to safety on the other side. Then, as they looked back, they saw Pharaoh’s armies racing up behind them, following the path through the sea that they had just crossed. But now, God sent the Sea back into its place, and the sea swallowed up the chariots and the horses and the warriors. And when the sea was back to its place, Israel saw that they were finally free from Egypt. They were free from Egypt’s rule, but they did not yet know how to be a people led by God. So began the 40 year Exodus journey through the wilderness of Sinai. This was the journey that defined Israel as a people; this was the journey that led them to know that they were now the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
            One day, they will arrive at Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and its covenant. But, they have many more lessons to learn along the way: lessons about themselves, lessons about life, and lessons about God. Along the way, the desert wilderness of the Sinai becomes one of their teachers in their journey to become a people.

I. As the journey begins, the children of Israel have no idea how to they will survive in the desert wilderness. I have traveled across that desert. There is little vegetation, few animals survive there, and water is scarce. People make their homes there, of course. But, they are not many in number as Israel was. And they are not traveling as Israel was. So, the people complained to Moses. You have to love their complaint:
"If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,
            when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread;
for you have brought us out into this wilderness
            to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

In just a few words they have gone from “I’m hungry”:
+to longing for Egypt -- where they were slaves,
+to imagining how well they ate – which they did not;
+to forgetting that God has led them out to freedom – which they did not have in Egypt.
The problem is that they do not know what do with freedom. This story is a great reminder that people do not automatically know how to deal with freedom. It is also a reminder that people can become comfortable with slavery, so much that they would prefer it over freedom.
            As we are beginning the 2012 Presidential Election process, this story is already a reminder to us that this nation cannot assume that everyone knows what freedom is. Freedom is not merely the license to live anyway you want without cost and without restraint – though some would want that. Freedom is the right to be heard in the public debate; it is the right to have a vote that counts regardless of your bank account, your party, the color of your skin, your religion or lack of it, OR your gender. Freedom as a citizen means your vote counts with no regard for any of those considerations.
            And freedom is costly. We easily give thanks for the soldiers who gave their lives to insure our freedom. And we should. But freedom is costly in other ways. Taxes -- there are some things that we want government to do. Paying attention to the campaign so you and I can vote intelligently; that is one of the costs. Taking time to vote. Living as good neighbors to our neighbors. Freedom must be written on our hearts.
            You and I might complain that life was easier when our parents took care of all the bills and fixed the house when it needed repair. You and I might complain that life was easier when we were children. But, unless we are in fact children, it is time for us to take up the responsibilities and costs of full citizenship.
            Israel was just learning the lessons of citizenship and faith. They began the journey into the wilderness with almost nothing. This journey will shape them into a distinct people with a great history and following a great God. It’s time for them to learn a lesson. It begins when they complain: they are hungry and tired, and they wonder if it would be better back in Egypt. So they complain about Aaron and Moses.

II. Now, God speaks in answer to the complaint.
[A.] Part 1:  "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,
            and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.

God will give from his rich storehouse so that the people will not need bread from Pharaoh’s storehouses.
            The theological point God is making to Israel, and now to us, is that God provides for his people. They do not need to look to their slave masters for their daily bread; it is God who provides for our needs. The difference is dramatic: as long as they look to their slave masters, then the masters hold their future; as long as they look to God, then God holds their future.
            The fact is that we can be bought, you and I. When we are hungry and worried about our survival, we too can be bought for nothing more than a meal. Slavery is just that close. Israel came to see that the choice between freedom and slavery is not just a matter of faraway politics; it was as close as their daily bread.
            [APPLIC:] So, let us give thanks to God for the gift of freedom. The experience of Israel in the wilderness is a constant reminder of the gift of freedom which God has given. God provides for us in the simple provision for our ordinary needs.
            God might have continued the big miracles and wonders that make great movies but little more. The problem with the miracles and wonders approach is that we would learn to turn to God only at the edges of life; we would never realize our need of God in the center of life where we live every day. By providing their daily bread, God reminded Israel that they would meet God daily. Thus, we have been taught to begin our meals with a prayer of thanks to God for bread. As God provided bread for Israel in the wilderness, so we are convinced and grateful that God provides bread for us daily.
            [APPLIC:] As you know, fall us upon us; Thanksgiving Day is not so far away. It is a day of football, family gatherings, trips to Grandma’s house, and all the rest. But, at its heart, it is marked by gratitude for God’s daily provision for our needs.

            [B.] Now, God goes one step further.
5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in,
it will be twice as much as they gather on other days."

This is God’s provision for the Sabbath – just as God provided for the Sabbath in creation. But, this is the first time we have heard about it since Genesis 1 – 2. They had forgotten it, but God did not. God provided for the Sabbath.
            The message of God’s provision for the Sabbath is that Sabbath is not an afterthought; it is the gift of God from the beginning. [DEF:] The term "Sabbath" derives from the Hebrew word, "to cease", which was first used in the Biblical account of the seventh day of Creation. On that day, God rested after six days of working at creation. To keep Sabbath is to enter into the resting of the Lord. Because Sabbath is shared with God, it is a gift of refreshment and peace.

            [C.] Now, what follows are four statements addressed to the Israelites.
            This is God teaching Israel how to worship. In one of these, Moses and Aaron say to all the Israelites:
"In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD. . .

[ILLUS: My Dog Saw the Rabbit]

            There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the old men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.
            The old monk told him, "Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined in the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.
            After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt. "Do you understand," the old man said, "what I have told you?"
            "No," replied the young monk, "please tell me father."
            "It is simple;" said the older man, "my dog saw the rabbit."

In the wilderness, Israel saw God move among them. It was a memory they could not shake off.

            Worship begins with “knowing that it was the Lord” and “seeing the glory of the Lord.” This is the beginning of worship. A little later, Moses says to the people, “Draw near to the LORD. . .” – again the words of worship. We say almost the same in the invitation to the Lord’s Table at Holy Communion: “Draw near with faith, and take this sacrament to your comfort.”

[IV.] As I look back over this story of the manna in the wilderness, I am struck by the way God is teaching Israel the basics. These Children of Israel have just been led out of slavery in Egypt. In the most profound sense, their slavery defined them. The Pharaoh gave them the food they ate, told them when and where to work, how to get along with one another, and how to worship. They might have groaned under the burden of their slavery, but they did not know how to voice a prayer to God. They did not know what freedom would look like, even if it was handed to them. They began in Egypt with the signs of the Ten Plagues by which God led them out of slavery. But, once in the wilderness, they had much to learn.
            In a sense, the wilderness was the place of no rules.
            +They could worship any god they liked;
            +they could eat anything that did not eat them;
            +they could set any rules for living they liked.
They were truly on their own to sink or swim on their own terms. But, God in wisdom used that time in the wilderness to teach them and shape them into a people.
            [APPLIC:] As I have lived with this ancient story this week, I am increasing conscious that we are again traveling through a wilderness. It is a time in the nation …
+of social change. The recent Census has measured that change.
+of change in the role of work. What’s a 40-hour work week? The standards just keep rising. There are jobs and areas of study today that did not exist when I was in college.
+of divided politics in this nation.
We can fret that we are traveling through a trackless wilderness like the Hebrew children, wondering if we are going anywhere. Or, like the Hebrew Children, we can storm out of the house on Monday morning convinced that it is God who leads us to a Land of Promise, and it is God who is shaping us to be the a distinct and vibrant people who will know the joys and the responsibilities of freedom. Let us fight the temptation to go back to Egypt and its slavery; let us go forward in the conviction that a loving and wise God leads us forward.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 4, 2011 - The Passover behind the Last Supper

Exodus 12.1-14
[I.] I want to tell you a story that belongs to you and me; in fact, the Old Testament portion belongs to Christians and Jews together. This ancient story tells how we came to be a distinct people marked by our faith in God.
            The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years when God heard their cry of anguish. God sent Moses to go to Pharaoh to demand that he let Israel go. God had prepared a land of promise and freedom, and God was going to lead them out to enter that freedom. So Moses went to Pharaoh and told him, “The God whose name is ‘I am’ sends me to tell you to let his people go.” It was no surprise to anyone that Pharaoh did not believe this Moses, and it was no surprise that Pharaoh did not let Israel go.
            So, God began to deliver plagues upon Pharaoh and all Egypt to show him that this demand for the freedom of Israel was not one man’s claim; it was the claim of a powerful and relentless God. So, one plague after another was unleashed upon Egypt:
    1. Plague of blood
    2. Plague of frogs
    3. Plague of lice
    4. Plague of flies
    5. Plague of pestilence
    6. Plague of boils
    7. Plague of hail
    8. Plague of locusts
    9. Plague of darkness – 9 plagues so far.

[10. Death of the firstborn] When all this was not enough to convince Pharaoh that he must let Israel go as Israel’s God required, then Moses went one last time to the court of Pharaoh to deliver this warning:
            4 Moses said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5 Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6 Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt such as has never been or will ever be again. 7 But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites--not at people, not at animals--so that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Ex 11.4-7)

And with that strong warning, Moses left the court of the Pharaoh. He went to the Israelites to prepare them for the coming of the Lord.
            This tenth plague stands out because this was the only plague in which Israel had a part to play. It is a part that continues to mark Jews as the descendants of Israel; it is a part that prepares Christians to join Jesus in the Last Supper. But, I’m jumping ahead of our story.

[II.] The scripture we read today is God’s instruction to Moses.
[B.] 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month
            they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.

            In a shepherding society, lambs would be available but valuable. Families did not eat meat except on special occasions; this was to be a defining occasion. By keeping these instructions they are going to become part of God’s visitation against Egypt. The intention is that everyone must take part in the ritual; no one should be left out.
            This is more than an old story; it is an order of worship for Sunday church. Every generation of Israelites is commanded to do this just as those who did it on the first night. As Terence Frethem explains this:
            When Israel reenacts the Passover, it is not a fiction, as if nothing really happens in the ritual, or all that happens is a recollection of the happened-ness of an original event. The reenactment is as much a salvation event as the original enactment. The memory language is not a “soft matter, recalling to mind some story of the past. It is an entering into the reality of that event in such a way as to be reconstituted as the people of God thereby (1).

[C.] 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male;

            That is to say that this must be the sacrifice of a valuable animal – one they could have sold at the market for top dollar. And more than its value, it calls Israel to come before God bringing its best. This is not the time for pocket-change or second-rate. This is the time to make the commitment of yourself and your treasure in a way that shows your commitment to God.
            [APPLIC:] This, of course, is the way we are still called to bring our offerings to God. When the offering plate is passed by you, don’t settle for a gift of pocket change – the coins you will leave on the dresser tomorrow morning when you get ready for your day. Bring your best as your offering. By bringing our best as our offering to God, we make the commitment that shapes us as Children of God.

[D.] 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts
            and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.

            The blood smeared on the doorposts serves as a sign both to Israel and to Yahweh that no harm will befall the family during the night of destruction of the first-born. Understand that this blood was not just a marker, as if any colorful stuff would do. The blood was the life of the sacrifice given for the people who lived in the marked houses. The blood of the sacrifice is shed so that Israel’s’ blood might be spared.
            Remember that on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples were sharing the Passover Meal. Do you see how Jesus redefines the meaning of the blood?
+In the Passover story, the blood of the lamb is shed so that Israel’s blood might be spared.
+In the cross of Jesus, the blood of the Lamb of God is shed so that the blood of those who believe in him might be spared.
At the Last Supper, Jesus redefined the meaning of the Passover to make it a story of redemption for all time and all creation.

[E:] 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire….
            9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire….

            As a sign of God's decisive action, the people must prepare their meal in a hurry. The lamb is not to be dressed; rather the whole carcass is to be cooked in one piece. Even the cooking is done in the speediest manner. They cannot take the time to heat water and boil the meat. So the people are told to roast the meat over a fire.
            This is the language of sacrifice, not the language of a dinner cookbook. If this is only a dinner, then how the meat was cooked would make little difference. But, this is a sacrifice and thus the method of preparation is part of the ritual.

[F.] 11 This is how you shall eat it:
            your loins girded, your sandals on your feet,
            and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.

            All these actions are to be performed in an atmosphere of readiness and urgency. The time is at hand! It's a rush. They're dressed with sandals on their feet and staff in-hand, prepared to go at a moment's notice. In other words, what God is about to do is decisive. We have reached the climax of the plagues against Egypt. Death will only pass over the homes with doors painted with blood and will enter the homes of the rest to strike the firstborn. This will be the decisive act. It will release the Hebrew people from slavery into freedom.                                 
            [APPLIC:] A student of one of the great rabbis asked him why Israel had to eat the Passover dressed for a journey. Why didn’t God just set them free? The old rabbi pointed out that God could only offer the moment. Until the people decided that they would leave their slavery and begin the journey to freedom, they would always be slaves. They had to decide.
            As someone pointed out this week, the people of Libya have been under a dictator for four decades. If they have a different form of government, they will have to take responsibilities they have not held for 40 years. They have to decide.

[III.] So, Moses calls all the families of Israel to offer a sacrifice. He provides a detailed ritual for the sacrifice. Because we are not familiar with the ritual of sacrifice, let’s talk about this just a moment. While we use the term “sacrifice” as a metaphor and nothing as messy as blood will every touch this altar. The Israelites, in contrast, literally sacrificed animals as part of their regular worship in the Temple. The Bible mentions sacrifices of goats, sheep, cattle, and birds. This was the world of regular worship in the O.T. and -- in Jesus’ day -- the regular worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus talked about sacrifice, it was something he had seen for himself.
            Gerhard von Rad explains that sacrifice had three meanings for the ancients:
+gift – especially of the first fruits,
+and atonement.
            The gift of the first fruits comes from the conviction that the whole harvest belongs to God. So, in token of our obligation and gratitude, we give back to God what is holiest, the first-fruits or the first-born. Thus, the ancient farmer would sacrifice the first-fruits of the field or the flock as a way of giving thanks and dedicating the whole harvest to God. This is where our Christian conviction about tithing comes from.
            Communion in sacrifice is the conviction that God is sharing this meal with us. God is the unseen guest at the meal. In ancient times, a covenant between two families or kings would be sealed with a ritual meal. The idea was that God was the unseen guest at the meal who stood as the witness and guarantor of the covenant that had been established.
            This is the reason we celebrate our biggest occasions with a meal today:
            +Thanksgiving Dinner is rooted in offering our thanks to God, the unseen guest at the feast.
            +Weddings often call for a banquet. The bride and groom have made their vows before God.
            +The signing of a business contract is often followed with a dinner.
In each case, God is the unseen guest and witness at the meal. This becomes the earliest meaning of communion.
            The third meaning of sacrifice is atonement - repentance and cleansing from sin and anything which separates us from God. We have replaced this in modern times with the prayer of confession in church. In ancient times, it was understood that a sacrifice was an expression of repentance for our sins and our confidence that God is willing to forgive.
            For the Children of Israel, living as slaves in Egypt, all of these meanings are at work. As they ate the Passover lamb, they were grateful that God was leading them out of slavery and into freedom. They were turning away from the sin of Egypt, repenting of the sin of getting comfortable in that slavery. And, this meal placed them in a ritual shared with God – communion.

[IV.] Now you see how the Last Supper, which we share today gathers up all of these meanings.
+First, as far as the disciples knew as the supper began, Jesus was merely hosting the regular Passover meal on the night that he was betrayed.
+Then, it was a meal of thanksgiving. For the disciples on that night, it was thanksgiving for the ancient Passover feast by which God led them to promise and to freedom. For disciples like us, it is thanksgiving for Jesus and his willing sacrifice for our salvation.
+Then, it is a meal of communion – sharing the bread and wine with Christ, who is the not the unseen guest at the table; Christ is the unseen host.
+Finally, it is a meal of atonement. In Christ’s cross, we realize the depth of our separation from God and the cost Christ paid that we might be restored. In this meal, we make the turn back to God through Christ.
            So, you and I are invited to the Lord’s Table. It is a table of sacrifice.
+It is invitation;
+it is the gift of our first-fruits;
+it is our returning to God in atonement;
+it is communion with Christ;
+it is a renewing of our commitment with God.

            Knowing all this, I am surprised that Christians leave church planning to relax all afternoon after Sunday services. Communion sounds like a call to action. It comes as a call to freedom and out of slavery to all the things that would enslave us. Come to communion with your suitcase in hand. Wear your hat and your gloves. But don’t bring your keys; you won’t be going back to that old life anyway.

1. Frethem, Terence. Exodus, a volume in the Interpretation Biblical Commentary Series, John Knox Press, p. 139.
2. Von Rad, Gerhard, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 253.