Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 30-31 provides the hope – the promise that YHWH will come to claim Israel as His; He will call them and collect them from the far ends of the earth. Here, in this book of doom and certain destruction and exile – which Israel have to endure – are these chapters full of promises of redemption. In these two chapters it is clear that YHWH, despite bringing judgment on her, has every intention of gathering her back together.

Why? Because He has promised to be God, and He will be. He is steadfast in an eternal sense, never losing sight of her no matter what. If you’ve ever raised kids, you know this place. Sometimes the frustration and disappointment is such that in the moment you’re ready for the cops to come get this kid. But even then, underneath, and certainly after the smoke has settled, it’s OK. Having the kid with you is more important than focusing on the poor behavior. Good parents don’t give up on their kids, even when it might seem the parents aren’t paying attention right now.

God has declared a covenant and He will remain faithful to it even if Israel isn’t. He will always accept her back when she wants to come back. We often emphasize that last part – “when she wants to come back,” but in these chapters, that isn’t the criteria. God wants her back and will come get her in His timing, not hers.

In these chapters, the actor is God, not Israel. Things will happen to Israel – bad and finally good things – but neither of them are dependent on her wants or behavior. When God is ready, He will come and find her.

It is in this context that YHWH says He will forget her iniquity, her sin. But the order isn’t, cleansing first and then finding, but gathering first and the forgiveness is a consequence of having been gathered. There aren’t any hoops for Israel to jump through. This is YHWH who wants her, and to have her He will forget her iniquity. Much like a parent does. The child is your child and has a place with you.

This has always been the arrangement, actually. God has chosen, built, nurtured, and protected Israel simply because He decided He would and promised to do just that. Israel does receive punishment for idols and abuse of each other; and Korah’s folks get swallowed up for disobedience. Even so, YHWH remains faithful to His covenant.

Jesus will come to Israel to collect her, to return her to YHWH without worrying about her status. Yes, there are some expectations of her – as there always have been as the people of YHWH. Living in conformance to His image, faithful trusting in YHWH rather than other countries and powers, even being satisfied as having YHWH as her king. But – and this is important – these are consequences not prerequisites of God coming for her.

That’s the point of knocking on the door, of being ready when the bridegroom comes, and even of a fruitless fig tree. YHWH has come for us! Let’s be His people! This is Jesus’ message. Not, fix yourselves first and then maybe YHWH will accept you; no, He has come and wants you back. Do you want Him?

For Israel, this is where John’s repentance comes in. Not as a prerequisite for God’s desire for you, but the result of your wanting to be with God. God won’t compel you, but He does want you. Do you want Him?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent

This Sunday's sermon text was the short story of the firey serpents in the wilderness. This is another in the long litany of Israel's failure to fully trust her God and her God-given leaders, in this case Moses.


Prior to this chapter we have had the story of Moses getting fed up with the whining and in turn whining to YHWH about the whiners. Moses wants to know why God has saddled him with these people. He argues that he didn't ask for this, he didn't birth these people, so why in the world is he being expected to be responsible for them?!

God's response is a rather benign, "OK, pick yourself some helpers and let them help."

Later, YHWH will Himself become fed up. So much so that he says to Moses, "Tell you what, how 'bout I wipe these folks out and start over with you as the Father of the Nation?"

Moses is being offered Abraham's place! We might think that Moses would jump at the chance, given his previous complaining, but he doesn't. Instead, he appeals to YWHW's reputation. "If you wipe them out then the other nations will think that you couldn't pull off what you set out to do. You said you would bring this people out of captivity and make them a great nation, and now you would start over? What are the neighbors going to think?"

So YHWH relents.


And so we get to our text. The Israelites, acting like people - like you and me - have just started out on their desert, foot-borne journey around Edom. Edom you see, had decided to not let Israel trudge through their country. Even though Israel had sent messengers saying, "we will stay on the main road and walk straight through; we won't bother anyone."Edom, even though they are extended family, is not dummy. 600,000 Israelites mucking around on your main highway is going to cause some interference with normal commerce and who knows, they may decide to start a fight. 

So, despite being cousins, the Edomites refuse permission.So Israel walks. And while she does so, the folks complain again about being brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness with no food and no water. But they have food - that manna stuff. I guess even if the manna is miraculously given by your God, too many days and weeks of it would take the shine off. 

And so they complain.

And complain.

If God was ready to suggest wiping them out earlier, He takes no time punishing them now. He sends serpents into the camps and people start dying. So many that the people come running to Moses, admitting their sin of complaining, and begging him to pray for them so YHWH will stop the plague of snakes.

Moses, instead of haranguing them, does pray for them. Moses is "the most humble man on the planet" we're told at one point. His prayers and friendship with YHWH are so special to YHWH that much later, the Prophet is told not to waste his breath praying for Israel. To make the point as strong as possible, YHWH says that "even if Moses prayed for them," He wouldn't hear the prayer.

Moses is one guy you want praying for you when you need prayer.

YHWH's response is not to drive away the snakes but to have Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then, if anyone was bitten by a snake, she could look at the bronze snake and they would live.

Pretty odd, huh? Didn't YHWH just tell them not to make graven images, or idols? So what's this all about? Earlier, YHWH did tell them not make images or idols. Some commentators see here two prohibitions. The first is not to try to confine YHWH to some sort of created being. YHWH is too big, too wonderful, too expansive to be represented by an image of one of His own creatures and so images purported to be of Him are disallowed. We might ask just why Israel would do such a thing, but they did. Even as the Law was being given, Aaron fashioned a calf, claiming it jumped out of the fire, and introduced it to Israel as "the god that brought us out of Egypt." So apparently this prohibition was well founded.

The other prohibition is about making idols and worshiping them. Idols to Ba'al, Ashteroth, Molech, and the rest, as bulls, trees, and whatnot are not to receive worship from Israel. And so two prohibitions - don't try to define YHWH by some creature image, and don't make for yourselves other gods entirely and worship them.

This serpent on the pole fits neither of those categories and is therefore presumably not a violation of the prohibition. At least Moses doesn't argue the point and he was the guy that received the Law - twice.

But Israel is made of humans, and she fails just as we do. Just as humans have throughout history. Some how Israel manages to keep track of this serpent and the next we hear of it is during Hezekiah's reign. Hezekiah is a "good" king and he immediately begins to destroy idol worship in Israel, breaking down the high places and destroying idols. One of those idols is this serpent of Moses.' Having received a name, Israel was making offerings to it and worshiping the thing these centuries later. Interesting how we humans will take things meant for our good and turn them into harmful and sinful things all the while thinking we are doing "right."

But the story doesn't end there. John is going to bring the serpent to our remembrance in chapter 3 of his Gospel. Here John says that just like that serpent, Jesus will be raised and those who look to Him will live. God has redeemed even this serpent that had been profaned by the very people it was meant to help.

That is at least one of the parallels of this story. Jesus, sent to purify the people, is himself profaned by those people - just as by us - and yet is redeemed by His Father and grants us Life. The stone that has been rejected has become the cornerstone of our Lives in God.

How do you respond to the blessings God gives you? Do you take them and then complain they aren't good enough? Do they become profaned through your pride and complaining? This Lent, review your gratitude and attitude. Give thanks for what you have and put off accumulating and upgrading.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent

The Ten Commandments are the epitome of "the Law," and the Law we are told was done away with when Jesus arrived. No more Law, just the grace offered by God through Jesus. Often then, we simply avoid or read over these sorts of passages, relegating them to a bygone age that is no longer applicable to the church.

We are wrong to do so. The Exodus version of the Law comes shortly after Israel's escape from Egypt. But not just that. It comes after complaints and the provision of food and water by God, and after the battle with Amalek. During this battle, Israel gains the upper hand as long as Moses' hands are held up. If he lets them down, Amalek gains the upper hand. This is an odd arrangement, but it is intended to demonstrate that it is Israel's God that wins this battle. And it must be because Israel is not a cohesive nation. She is simply been led out of captivity and fed in the wilderness; she does not have fully trained army and cannot defeat Amalek on her own. She needs God for sustenance and military security.

It is time for her God to form her into a real nation, a cohesive people with an identity. A people who will truly be the people of her God; who will in at least some concrete sense, be His incarnation among the nations. He begins this process here, by giving what appear to be rules.

But these are not real rules for rules sake. These expectations are given to Israel for two reasons which may in fact be reduced to one. The first reason is that this God, YHWH, is the God who has brought Israel out of captivity, who has fed her, provided water, and has now defeated her first enemy in the wilderness. He has done all this because of his steadfast fidelity to Abraham to form a people, to bless them, and to use them as a blessing for the world.

The list begins with YHWH reminding Israel that it is He who has formed her and brought her out; who has nurtured her and continues to nurture her. She shall have no other gods before Him precisely because He has done these things for her. She can appropriately do no other and it is right that she pay homage to YHWH.

The directive to remember the Sabbath is not arbitrary but here is based on YHWH's own resting. Work and then rest is fitting for people and this rest will remind them whose people they are. Later the reason for keeping the Sabbath will shift to remembering that YHWH has brought them out of slavery, out of Egypt. The Sabbath becomes not just rest from work, but rest from slavery - an entry into rest. In the New Testament, this rest becomes the freedom and rest we find in God. Remember the Sabbath because it represents YHWH's rest. This is not a worship day although it will become that in Israel. The Sabbath is for you, not YHWH and it represents your entrance into His rest.

There is another aspect of the Sabbath. It is necessary that no one and no thing work. You are not allowed to work and you are not allowed to let - or direct your servants, children, or even your livestock to work. The mention of livestock here reminds us that the Noahic covenant applies to "all flesh" including animals. YHWH's concern is not just for Man, but the greater creation. 

The remaining rules are not flat arbitrary rules either. They are all based on the need to form a people, and a people who will live as the image of YHWH. All of these rules reflect a people who care for others, who refrain from taking advantage of their neighbors. Why do we not murder? Because we cannot so hate or take advantage of our neighbors.Why do we not covet? For the same reason. Why do we not commit adultery? Because our God is steadfast and if we are to be His image, so must we be. The same considerations support the other specific rules.

We find then that these rules reflect the values and character of YHWH and if we are to truly be His image, they must reflect our values as well. These are not rules either for God or for us. Rather they are expressions of who is our God, and who we are expected to become. Israel then is intended to become YHWH's people, to incarnate His image in this world.

And this is the calling of all disciples of the Creator.

To be Him in this world.

When we read these commandments then, we read them not as arbitrary rules but as expressions of who our God is and who we are made to be. Our calling is the same as Israel's - to be the incarnation and presence of YHWH among the nations.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Second Sunday of Lent

Second sunday in Lent -- we are a quarter of the way through this period of reflection and reorientation. How are you doing?

The text for this Sunday from the Jewish Scriptures comes from Genesis 17, YHWH's reiteration of His promise to Abram. Abram and Sarai have been waiting for a quarter century and have made at least two mistakes along this journey. So YHWH decides the time has come despite these less than faithful episodes and He is prepared with three new names. Abram will be called Abraham and Sarai will be called Sarah. He doesn't ask them to try on these new names to see if they like them. He just announces them.

The third new name? God's. Maybe because of their doubting, God here says his name is El Shaddai - God Almighty. Usually we think of a mighty god at the head of an army, or causing earthquakes, or striking people with plagues. Not here. Here, this mighty God is going to use His might to keep His promise and grant a child to an old man and a barren old woman. El Shaddai will demonstrate His might by being able to keep His promise.

Abraham is told he will be the father of nations, of kings, of decendants like the stars and the sand. In fact, YHWH uses the past tense - I have made you the father of a multitude. When YHWH says something, it's as good as done. There is no doubt because He is El Shaddai. Abraham is not the only one to receive a blessing this day. Sarah receives a similar blessing. From her will come princes and kings and nations. YHWH specifically mentions and blesses this old barren woman in the same language He has blessed Abraham. Sarah will be a full participant in this endeavor,

God is faithful. Would you like proof? Look in the mirror and what do you see? The fulfillment and ongoing fulfillment of that promise. You are the result of that promise -- you are one of those stars, one of those grains of sand. And what more, you are part of the blessing for the world. Carriers of news of the kingdom of God, dispensers of grace, lovers of all.

Not only are you the issue or result of the promise, but as a blessing for the world, you are that promise. During Lent is a good time to remember that and to put ourselves back on track. Give it a shot.

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