Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
Anybody remember Seinfeld? There is an episode where Elaine had strained her neck trying to get a bicycle down from the wall in an antique store. Her neck is really bothering her and she impulsively says that she will give the bike to whoever can fix her neck. Kramer claims to know shiatsu massage and it actually works, so Elaine reluctantly gives him the bike. But the very next day the pain returns and she wants the bike back. So there was a disagreement over who really owned the bike. They go to Newman to settle the dispute.
Newman hears arguments from each side and they are both compelling. It is not easy, but he finally gives his decision: “Let the bike be cut down the middle and each party shall get half.” Elaine says, “OK, fine.” But Kramer says, “No, it is better for Elaine to have this bicycle than for no one to be able to ride it.” And Newman says that Kramer has proven himself to be the rightful owner.
That is a long way of saying that is a very well known scripture, even showing up in popular culture (and it was hard to resist telling a Seinfeld story like that.) But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves.
We have been making our way through the Old Testament this fall. Last week, after entering the Promised Land, Joshua asked the people to choose whom they would serve, and Israel renewed the covenant with God. Once established in the land, the nation was a loose confederation of tribes, with judges like Gideon and Deborah and Sampson leading the nation and establishing justice.
But there came a time when the people wanted a king, like other nations. God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said,” OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king. But don’t blame me if it goes south.”
The first king of Israel was Saul. While he looked the part, he was a poor leader. And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king. Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel.
Upon David’s death, there is a power struggle between David’s sons Adonijah and Solomon. We read about manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed. It is not pretty.
That is chapter 2 of 1 Kings. Our reading is from chapter 3. By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past. He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern. But he is young. He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start. He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.
For example, Solomon has just married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt. Yes, that Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years. This is a red flag.
Solomon has gone to Gibeon to offer sacrifice. This is one of the high places – places where other gods were worshiped. So it is a little surprising that Solomon was worshiping at this high place. Basically he is worshiping the right god at the wrong place. Between marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and worshiping at Gibeon, there is a little ambiguity at the beginning of Solomon’s reign. But God does not seem to mind much because Solomon offers his sacrifice at Gibeon and God shows up.
Solomon spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream. And God asks Solomon, “What would you like me to give you?”
Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order. It is beyond him. “I am just a kid,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
God was pleased by this and said, “I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for. I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”
The key word here in what Solomon is asking for is discern. “An understanding mind, able to discern.”
Discernment is more than knowledge. It is more than book smarts. This is not wisdom as in the mystical guru up on the mountain that you go and see and then have to reflect for days on what they said and what it meant.
The wisdom Solomon asks for - discernment - is knowing what is truly important. Knowing what really matters. And it is connected to action. We discern the best path forward. Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.
Discernment begins with humility. Humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers. This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit. If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.
Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God? He says, “I’m just a boy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need some help here. I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.” That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use.
Now we come to the story that we sort of started with. Our scripture includes an illustration of Solomon’s wisdom.
Two women come to Solomon to settle a dispute. We are told that the two women are prostitutes. You may wonder why that information needed to be added. Well, we really should not read any moral judgment into that. This explains why the two of them are alone, living together in the house. There are no fathers around, and the point is that it is just them. If anything, knowing this should add to our empathy. For a single woman, perhaps a younger widowed woman with no family to provide for her, prostitution was often the only means of providing for yourself.
We are presented with a heart-wrenching scenario. These two women each give birth three days apart. And then one child dies in its sleep. It is a mother’s worst nightmare.
One woman accuses the other of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child. The other woman says that is a complete lie.
They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and so they presented the case to the king.
Now so often we simply read this story from Solomon’s point of view, as an example of his wisdom. And it is that, but what about these women? What a horrifying situation. This is not just a puzzle to solve, and not just an investigative challenge for the king. This is a human tragedy.
There is no clear way to determine who is telling the truth. One gives this long story about how it happened, and we tend to think she is telling the truth, but maybe it is too long a story, you know? The woman with the shorter story just says, “That is absolutely false,” and maybe she is right. Of course there is no DNA testing available, no polygraph tests.
We don’t have to read this as one mother being calculating and manipulative. In her deep grief and pain and post-partum fog, who knows what she believes is true?
After hearing from these women, Solomon renders a decision: the living child should be cut in half, with each woman getting half of the child. Solomon does not necessarily know how this is going to turn out. But he is looking for the one who protests. He is looking for the mother who most values this life. He can’t even be sure that it will be the actual mother. But he discerns that given the situation, given that there is no forensic evidence to prove things one way or the other, that he can make a decision that is best for the child.
So he pronounces his decision and one mother says, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.” The other said, “No, he shall be neither mine nor yours.” And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its mother. The narrator tells us that this was indeed the child’s mother.
We focus so much on Solomon in this story, but how about this mother? Can you imagine the anguish she is experiencing? She says, “I would rather that my child live with this woman who has tried to steal him from me.” What an amazing thing. What a heart of love. What a remarkable woman. In many ways she is the hero of the story.
At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him. He was known as a wise ruler. Common people looked to the king for justice. Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king. Solomon did not ask for riches or political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.
He seems set up for a great run. But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly. I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king. He lost that sense of humility.
God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well. But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth. He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation. And he kept marrying more and more foreign wives.
Solomon asked for discernment. But he did not always live wisely. They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.
Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” A child knows she needs help. A child knows his need. A child is open to learning, to exploring, to asking questions. That attitude is the beginning of wisdom.
I took our dog Rudy for a walk yesterday. We passed a father and little boy who were getting in their van to go somewhere. They were in somewhat of a hurry but the boy was about to have a meltdown. I knew what the problem was. We had walked by their house before, and the kid wanted to see our dog. They were having a situation so we just kept walking but sure enough, here came this kid running after us. “Can I pet your dog?”
I said sure. He asked my dog’s name and I said “Rudy.” (It’s the same name as last time he asked.) And then he asked me, “Does Rudy like to eat bugs?”
What a great question. I told him not really, and since I knew they were in a hurry, I said, “Rudy and I have to go. See you later!”
Asking questions and knowing that there is a lot you don’t know. That is the beginning of wisdom. That is the path to discernment. And Solomon’s life, his entire reign is an illustration that this is the path we need to stay on our whole lives.
For Solomon and for us, the key is being wise enough to know we are not wise. Being secure enough to know our limitations. Being strong enough to consider the pain of others. Discernment is about knowing what matters the most.
Solomon shows wisdom not through the wooden application of rules and not by offering platitudes, but by listening and observing with empathy. And the mother of the child who lived shows discernment through love and compassion, and by seeking the best for the child she loved.
Today is Reformation Sunday, and I think this scripture speaks to the church in our day and every day. Humility and being able to listen and learn and grow is essential for the church. Particularly in such a challenging and changing time, we need discerning hearts and minds as we seek together to follow Christ and carry on Christ’s mission in our day.
May God grant us all such wise and discerning hearts and minds. Amen.
Saturday, October 29, 2022
Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
Saturday, October 22, 2022
Text: Joshua 24:1-28
We live in a world filled with choices – all kinds of choices. And choices can be just agonizing. If you are with a group of friends or family, or maybe it’s just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be an almost paralyzing choice. I’m not sure why that is, but we want everybody to be happy, and our tastes don’t always align.
Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose. For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult. There may be very appealing things about several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.
This fall we have been following the story line of the Old Testament, and this is recounted in our scripture reading this morning. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. None of that generation that crossed the Red Sea, not even Moses, made it to the Promised Land.
Our scripture today is Joshua’s farewell speech. He has seen a lot in his many years. The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel. There had been a covenant with Abraham that God would give him progeny and a land. There were plenty of descendants, but now, finally, the people had a land.
Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord, this covenant first made with Abraham and Sarah.
If you read through the book of Joshua, it can actually be disturbing. It is a story of violent conquests. I am not completely sure what to do with that. But it is the story of the Israelites taking and settling the land that God had promised them. Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from the book of Joshua:
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’”
Joshua called the people to put away other gods. For the Israelites, the other gods were gods of the Egyptians and the gods of the Canaanites, in whose land they now lived. There was a strong feeling that each land had its own gods, and there was an impulse to worship Cannanite gods –these were essentially the local gods.
This sounds completely foreign to our modern sensibilities. I mean, an awful lot of people today are not interested in worshiping any god, let alone be tempted to worship multiple gods. And we certainly don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from.
But we know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, our own version of other gods in the land, and they can be very appealing.
So Joshua gathers the people and asks them to recommit to the worship of God. Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
And the people respond. “Sure, we will serve the Lord.”
But Joshua is not convinced. Talk is cheap. He thinks that the people are too glib in their response, that they are not taking this commitment to God seriously enough. It is easy to say, “Yes, we will serve the God of Israel” and then go on living life exactly as they were before.
But God does not want casual, verbal pledges. This is a commitment that affects every area of life, and Joshua reminds the people that this is not a casual matter, but a life-changing one.
The theology class has been viewing and discussing a video series that takes a topic or question each week with several scholars and pastors speaking about that particular question. Last Sunday one of the speakers made a very interesting comment. I don’t remember who it was, but this person said that in the first 400 years of the church’s existence, the big question was how we lived. Loving your neighbor as yourself. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. Trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as a disciple of Jesus.
But after the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion, it was much more about belief. Do you believe the right things about God and Jesus? It is a lot easier to say that yes, I believe A,B, and C, and then go on living your life, than to really take seriously living each day as Jesus leads us.
I think this is something like the concern that Joshua had with the people. And it is a massive issue for us. It is a massive issue for the church in the year 2022.
In 1972, just 5 percent of Americans claimed ”no religion” on the General Social Survey. In 2018, that number rose to 24 percent and it is no doubt higher today. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the reasons people are turned off to the church is because so many claim the mantle of Christian faith but do not live in ways that reflect the life of Jesus. In other words, saying you are a Christian is easy but living a Christian life is a lot tougher. And actions can definitely speak louder than words.
One of the reasons it is so tough to faithfully follow Jesus is because of all those other gods out there. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We don’t use that word a lot anymore – well, basically we never use it except for quoting this Bible verse – but he is talking about wealth and acquiring things, homes and vehicles and all of the latest and greatest stuff. He is talking about bank accounts and investments and retirements funds and “getting ahead,” as we say. All of this can edge out God as our top priority.
There are plenty of other local gods we have today, and I’m not just talking about the Cyclones. But the Cyclones would be a good example in that you can’t put ultimate trust in those local gods because you can’t always count on them, can you?
But I am thinking more of things like social standing, fitting in, keeping up appearances, being admired. Such things can take precedence over all else.
I am thinking of all kinds of addictions and addictive behaviors that can control us and take first place in our lives.
I am thinking of political leanings and ideologies and bandwagons we can hop on that can become all-consuming and become more important than our commitment to Christ – which may have been what steered us toward those understandings in the first place. It is so easy to baptize whatever is important to us as “Christian” – to kind of remake God in our own image.
And I am thinking of so many good, healthy, positive activities that can kind of crowd out other things, even crowd out worship, even crowd out serving the Lord. It turns out that those local gods still are a powerful draw.
What Joshua says to the people in just one sentence is really powerful. He says choose this day whom you will serve. Toward the end of his life, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, he knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again. Choose this day. This is not a time to hem and haw about it, not a time to form a subcommittee and study it. Choose this day. It is either or. Either choose to serve God, or don’t.
But here is the thing. That question is in effect asked of us every day. It is not a once and done kind of thing. Because again, serving the Lord is not so much about believing the right stuff, it is about choosing day in and day out to live in a way that shows love for our neighbor. To live in a way that sides with God’s justice and mercy and kindness and goodness and forgiveness, and not with the local gods that do not have those same concerns.
Choose this day, and choose every day.
And then Joshua says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith. It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community. “As for me and my house.”
We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family. But we can bear witness to others and influence others. And surely that influence starts in our own homes. Christian faith is deeply personal. It is a gift of God. But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share. We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.
I was at a training event a number of years ago with a guy named Ed White. He was a church consultant, happened to be a Presbyterian, and he told about a woman who worked in their Synod office. She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian. But she started missing work on Mondays. A pattern developed. She would call in sick on Monday. Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable. Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday. But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.
People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict. They gave her a choice. She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.
So she went for treatment. The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside. She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults. When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs. She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.
There is good news and bad news in this story. This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free. She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord. She had a new life. That’s the good news. The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through that extensive drug treatment program, she was the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary.
What was different about her? The difference was the people she surrounded herself with. The difference was her community.
We need one another. We need the household of faith. As we make choices, we need the community Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him. We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next. And it is a lot easier to do that when you are part of a family of faith.
The people said that yes, they would serve the Lord, but Joshua had his doubts about it. He said, “No, you won’t. You can’t do it.” He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy. God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment.
You know, Joshua was actually right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way. But Joshua was also wrong – or maybe it was a little hyperbole to get people to actually listen. His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it. In fact, God had already repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so. The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven. But it is not cheap grace.
Joshua’s words are words for us today. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” It is a choice for all of us to make, every day. And praise God, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace. Amen.
Saturday, October 15, 2022
Text: Exodus 19:1-8, 20:1-17
How many times have we heard it? “You can’t dwell on the past.” Past hurts, past failures, past disappointments. Sometimes it is best just to let it go. Forget about it and move on.
I have known folks who served in the Second World War and Korea and later Viet Nam who very rarely spoke about it. They had seen and experienced terrible things, and I suppose they just wanted to forget.
There are people who had really tough childhoods, with anger, violence, abuse in the home. Maybe some of you did.
And there are people who grew up surrounded by wealth, in big houses, showered with everything they wanted except for the only thing they really wanted, which was love.
Sometimes we think the answer is to just forget about it. Forget about it and move on. Sometimes this strategy can serve us well, like the placekicker who has missed a couple of extra point attempts. You just have to forget about it, like it never happened. It can be hard to move forward otherwise.
So we have to wonder, a little bit, about the way God goes about relating to the Israelites. Because it is all about remembering. Before getting to the first commandment, God says, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, who brought you out of slavery. You weren’t citizens, you had no land, you were strangers and aliens in a foreign land. You broke your backs to fill other people’s pockets. You were living, but just barely. And I brought you out of slavery. I brought you out of Egypt. Remember that.”
The Ten Commandments are often seen as moralistic rules devised by a God who is just waiting for us to mess up. But that is not what they are at all. The commandments were an act of love. Instead of saying, “forget about it,” God says, “Remember.” Remember that you were slaves, and so when you are in your own land and a stranger comes along, remember that you were once a stranger. When there is opportunity to take advantage of others, remember how you were treated. And when you start to think that everything you have accomplished is by your own doing, remember that I have brought you out of slavery.
The Israelites had not known freedom for 400 years. They did not know what it was to live as free people. And without some guidance, freedom can feel like chaos.
There are those intersections, sometimes in rural areas and sometimes in subdivisions, where there are no stop signs. You’re never quite sure who has the right of way, and it can be dangerous, especially out in the country when the corn is high. Those intersections can literally be accidents waiting to happen.
Some guidelines for living, some basic rules for behavior, can be a real gift. Fair and just rules, rather than being a straitjacket, can be very freeing. Living in community demands that we practice a way of living that gives freedom and at the same time nurtures and protects all of the members of the community.
When you have been enslaved for 400 years, freedom can be really hard. Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery. Through the ten commandments, God got the slavery out of the people.”
After surgery a few years ago, our dog Rudy had to wear a cone - the cone of shame, as they call it, that goes around the neck to keep a dog from messing with the stitches. It was kind of a pain to take the cone off and put it back on, so early on, I held his bowl of food off the floor so he could get at it with the cone on. When the cone came off, at first he wanted me to hold his bowl for him while he ate. He had gotten used to life with a cone.
The Israelites had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh. They had learned to live in fear. But the God who led the Israelites to freedom is a God who longs for us to live in the freedom of love and grace, not in the bondage of fear. God gives the Law, the Ten Commandments, as a way of living for a free people. They are a way of living that will allow us to flourish.
With the Israelites’ history as people who have just emerged from slavery in the background, Brian McLaren paraphrases the commandments in this way:
1. Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.
2. Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words, either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanized, or killed!
3. Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name.
4. Honor the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.
5. Turn from self-centeredness by honoring your parents. (After all, honor is the basis of freedom.)
6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:
7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,
8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and
9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviors or characters.
10. In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire. Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.
I like McLaren’s version of the commandments because they remind us that these are rules for living in community. This is the way God’s people are to live together and a way of living that will allow a community to thrive in freedom, to live hopefully and joyfully.
Now as we read the commandments, some of the wording, sounds strange and maybe even troubling. “Do not worship idols for I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
It is troubling to think that God would punish children for the sins of their parents, but you don’t have to read it that way. In that day, three or four generations might live together, all under the same roof. The adversity a person might suffer for breaking the law really would affect several generations – right there and then. That was just reality. And so this statement about children being punished for the iniquity of parents serves to illustrate all the more that the law represents a way of living in community and that it is not just for us, it is for the sake of others as well.
A further illustration of this is found in the commandment regarding Sabbath keeping. It is easy to be plugged in and available 24/7. More and more people have the chance to work from home, which can be great, but it can also make it harder and harder to really stop working. Hard work is highly valued and some of us can feel guilty if we are not doing something. Whether or not it is attached to our job, there can be this feeling that we always need to be productive.
I heard about a company that requires fathers to take paternity leave. They don’t allow it; they require it. We live in such a work-oriented culture that when a woman takes maternity leave, it can sometimes hurt her chances for advancement. At the same times, there are a lot of companies that offer paternity leave to men, but few fathers will take it because they don’t want to be seen as slackers or as not being serious or responsible employees.
So, this company is now requiring everybody to take maternity or paternity leave. They say they wish requiring it wasn’t necessary, but at this point it seems the best course to take.
There is no doubt that rest and family time and our lives beyond our work lives are not necessarily valued. In this kind of world, keeping the Sabbath is not an arbitrary rule from a God who doesn’t want us to have fun; it is a great gift. It is freeing.
The command regarding Sabbath says that nobody is to work. Not you, not your children, not hired hands, not even animals. This command is for the sake of everyone; it has within it a measure of mercy, especially for those who have to toil at hard labor – and the Israelites were told to remember – they knew all about that.
And then, honor your father and mother so that your days may be long. By honoring parents, by honoring elders, we create a culture in which we will be honored as we grow older (which to be real honest sounds more important all the time).
In Mark chapter 12, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Do you remember that? He answers “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” This is a summary of all the law. If you love God and love your neighbor, that pretty well covers it.
All of the commandments fall under the categories of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. The first three have to do with our relationship with God. Sabbath is about relationships with both God and others, because we not only observe a day for rest and worship, we also are to provide it for others. The remainder have to do with relationships with our neighbor. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
We live in a world that is exponentially more complex than the world of the Israelites as they waited to enter the Promised Land. But these same rules for living, this same law, can free us. It can provide the boundaries that will allow us to thrive and prosper and grow.
The Ten Commandments, in a sense, help us to remember. To remember who we are, to remember what is important, and to remember the God who frees us. The commandments help us to get our bearings in the storms of life and lead us on the path to freedom.
The Ten Commandments certainly provide rules for living. But Biblical scholar Eric Barreto, a Baptist who teaches at Princeton Seminary, says that “Ultimately, the story of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is less about proper behavior than it is about identity. Who are we? What is our relationship to God? What is our relationship to one another? We tend to separate these foundational questions, compartmentalizing each to a separate realm of reflection, but the [commandments in Exodus tell us these are all connected.]
God is in the business of setting people free. And far from throwing cold water on our party, the Ten Commandments are meant to allow us to live joyfully and fully and freely, with God and with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Saturday, October 8, 2022
Text: Exodus 14:5-16, 21-31
There are those epic stories that are remembered and retold and passed down from generation to generation.
For American Baptists it might be the story of Roger Williams fleeing for his life from Salem, Massachusetts in the dead of winter, getting assistance from the Naragansett Indians and establishing Providence, Rhode Island as a place that provided religious liberty to people of all faiths. Or maybe the story of Ann and Adoniram Judson, who traveled to India as Congregational missionaries. On the voyage, through their study of the Bible they decided that they were actually Baptists. And when they got to India, officials would not allow any missionaries into the country. So they continued to Burma, while Baptists back in the US raised money, and they became our first international missionaries.
For Iowa State fans, maybe it is the story of Jack Trice, the first African-American football player at the school and only the second Black athlete at a major university. He died of injuries suffered in his second game he played, against the University of Minnesota.
Maybe your family has an epic story about your great-great grandparents arriving on the boat or maybe the story of how your grandparents met.
There are those stories that are told and retold. Our scripture today, more than any other, was that story for the nation of Israel. It is the most important story of the Old Testament.
The crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Egypt sets forth the idea that God calls people from slavery to freedom, that God provides, that God will never abandon us, and that because of that, we have nothing to fear. This is the great story for the Jewish people, and for Christians all of these ideas will come to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Last week, Joseph and his family were in Egypt and after a lifetime of intrigue and family rivalry, things seemed to going great. But in our scripture this morning, the Israelites are in slavery. What happened? How did they get to this place?
Joseph and his brothers and their families settled in Egypt and remained long after the famine. The family grew numerous, so much so that it made the Egyptians nervous. Long after Joseph’s efforts on behalf of the nation were forgotten, the Israelites began to be seen as a threat. And in time, they were forced into slavery.
Four hundred years after Joseph had come to Egypt, the Israelites were “oppressed so hard they could not stand,” as the old spiritual that we sang puts it. The Pharaohs had some serious building projects, and they needed the cheap labor. The Israelites were treated harshly, brutally. God heard their cries and called Moses as a leader, speaking to him through the burning bush. A reluctant leader at first, Moses nevertheless went before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.” But of course Pharaoh was not going to do that without a little push, a little incentive.
So God sent plagues upon the Egyptians, one after another. It was basically one big disaster movie, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, water turning to blood. Yet Pharaoh was stubborn. Pharaoh still would not let the people go. But God told Moses, one more plague and Pharaoh will relent and will in fact drive you away. It was the Passover, and every firstborn in Egypt died. There was a great outcry in the land and Pharaoh relented.
The Israelites packed up quickly – so quickly they didn’t wait for their dough to rise, and this is where unleavened bread for the Passover meal comes from. As God had promised the people, the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, and they gladly gave it to get them as a parting gift to get them out of the land – a kind of reparation for the 400 years of forced labor.
So the Israelites left. They took the bones of Joseph with them, as he had asked so many years before. God went before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They camped in the wilderness by the sea. They were free.
But when the reality of their leaving actually hit him, Pharaoh had a change of heart. Pharaoh forgot about the plagues and thought about what he was losing. The economic engine of the nation was just walking away. Egypt would not be the same once the Israelites were gone. And to give in to the Israelites meant a massive loss in his reputation and prestige – it was a loss for his personal brand.
So he hurriedly got his army ready, with 600 choice chariots along with all the other chariots – apparently there were 600 limited edition turbocharged chariots, along with a lot of standard-issue chariots - many soldiers, and top members of his officer corps. We read a lot of information about military infrastructure, reminding us of the massive power differential between the Egyptians and the Israelites.
And so just at the moment when it seemed that the Israelites’ fortunes had changed, just at the moment when they were beginning to feel the exhilaration of freedom, here came the Egyptian army. The people saw the Egyptians advancing on them, this mighty army coming their way, and of course they panicked. The Red Sea was before them and there was no escape. They were terror-stricken.
“What, were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die?” they asked Moses. “We told you to just leave us alone and let us serve Pharaoh.”
How could they have wanted to stay in Egypt? How could they have witnessed all of the plagues and miraculous signs, how could they have seen God work wonders to bring them to this point, just to wish they had remained as slaves?
Well, their cries and complaints actually ring true. It is just human nature. As bad as things may be, it can be easier to hold on to what we know than to journey into the unknown. Fear is a powerful thing, and the hell we know may seem better than the heaven we don’t know.
And so here they are, on the edge of the sea, Pharaoh and his army approaching, the people melting in fear. Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see God’s deliverance.” And then God says to Moses, “Why are you crying to me? Tell the people to move forward.”
The people did so, and as Moses stretched his arms, the waters parted. There is a Midrash, a Jewish story based on this text. (Actually there are a lot of them.) But in one, a man named Nokshone was the first one into the water. The waters were up to his knee, up to his hip, up to his chin before the waters parted. It took great courage for the Israelites to keep walking.
However we imagine it happening, it took bravery and it took faith to enter those waters. Water, of course, represented chaos and destruction. We had the story of Noah’s ark and the great flood just a few weeks ago. In the story of creation in Genesis 1, when God creates all the creatures living in the sea, do you know the one creature that is singled out specifically? The great sea monsters. The Psalms talk about sea monsters as well. To walk into the sea – even if the waters are parted - is to face chaos and great danger.
So the Israelites walked through the waters on dry ground. The pillar of fire and cloud that had been ahead of them, representing God’s presence, now went behind them. The Egyptian army followed, but they became confused by the pillar of fire and cloud. The chariots became stuck in the mud. And when Moses stretched his hand again, the waters covered the Egyptian army.
This escape through the waters is retold again and again through the Old Testament, and in the New Testament as well. Chapter 15 is filled with songs of jubilation at the great victory.
It is an amazing escape to freedom. Now as you read this scripture, you may be like me. While this is an amazing display of the power of God and while this calls for jubilation, there is also a lot of death. We lament the violence and loss of life. It is kind of like the flood – for the Egyptian army, pretty much everybody dies.
But in a sense, this is what happens, what has always happened with empires that coerce and oppress and enslave. This story says something about the power and the hubris of such empires.
God had sent plague after plague, but Pharaoh would not relent. Eventually the refusal to listen to God and the power of this one man proved very costly.
It’s not that all of these Egyptian soldiers were bad people. They did not have a lot of choice in the matter. They had to serve Pharaoh. They had to follow orders. We can imagine many of them saying that trying to cross the sea in chariots, even the new turbocharged models, is a really, really bad idea. When we read that the Israelites walked across on dry land – maybe that means it wasn’t a river and that it was doable. It’s not like it was a paved highway. It’s not like it was I-35.
Even after terrible plagues and the loss of life of so many children, Pharaoh still could not imagine just letting these Israelites go. And so he orders the Egyptian army to continue to pursue. But the chariots get bogged down. And by the time the higher ups realized what was happening, it was too late.
Essentially, in its hubris and power hungry-ness, the empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction. Even after the plagues – even with clear signs that this was a very bad decision – Pharaoh just could not help himself, and it leads to great suffering. And now we are not only talking about an ancient story, are we?
In many ways, this is a very contemporary story. The people said to Moses, “What, did you bring us out here to the wilderness to die? We told you we would rather stay and serve Pharaoh.”
Well, the fact is, when we leave behind those things that have a hold on us, it can be painful. It is not easy. It often has to get worse before it gets better.
There are all kinds of things we would like to change, maybe know we need to change, but holding on to what we have is just easier than moving on toward what we can’t yet fully see.
The Israelite experience of freedom, so far, was deeply confusing. They were freed with gifts of gold and silver, and then they were pursued by an army. The pillar that had been leading them moved behind them, and they started to walk right into the sea. Freedom, at least at first, can feel like chaos. It’s not easy.
We can be like the Israelites, clinging to ways of living that are unhealthy, that are maybe even killing us, but at least are familiar. We can hold on to patterns of behavior that are destructive, not life-giving, but it just seems easier to continue as we are than to change.
But God’s word is, “Move forward.” Nothing ever changes unless we take that first step. What is that first step for you? How do you need to move forward? And what about us, what about First Baptist Church? After a strange and difficult 2+ years, what do we need to do to move forward?
I would invite you to give those questions some thought and prayer. And as we take those steps, as we move forward, we have the assurance that God goes with us. Amen.