in Atmore, Alabama today. He had asked me to be his “spiritual advisor” as the system calls. The internet is full of information about him, his crime, and how people feel about it all. He committed the crime 25 years ago. He has been in a 5×8 death-row cell, 23 hrs/day ever since. And, in the mean time he became a Christian. I met him on a spiritual “retreat” weekend (in house, of course) as a pastoral participant, in a ministry to death row inmates at Holeman a couple of years ago. We had a long conversation then, and prayer, which was why I was chosen, by Glenn, to be there for him on his last day. I served communion to him and his family and other friends who were present. We read scripture, prayed, and shared some memories. He was deeply sorry for everything: sorry for what he had done on that “dark day” as he calls it, 25 years ago; sorry for all the pain he caused his victims and their families; sorry for all the pain he caused his own family; sorry even for the pain he caused to the people he came to know as a prisoner. In the end, the Glenn I knew was not the person he had been. He ate his last meal, but not alone. He intentionally shared it with the other 9 people in that “yard” room today.
He was led back to the “death cell” around 4:30. I joined him there for more prayer – mostly confession and repentance. More scripture. Then he was peacefully led away by a team of officers to the execution chamber and I was escorted out of the prison. Others were selected as witnesses.
I met with family and some friends outside the prison for a prayer vigil until after 6:00 when the execution was carried out. We prayed, sang songs, and stood around candles in silence. Some Mennonite friends who had been friends and spiritual family to Glenn for many years were there, all the way from Chicago.
This is still pretty raw for me. I may write more later; not now.
I’m sure you have heard many times this famous story of the “Samaritan Woman at the
Well.” Have you ever noticed that this is a story about hunger and thirst in which nobody eats or drinks anything? The disciples leave Jesus to rest at a well that has no rope or bucket. They go for food, and when they return, Jesus doesn’t eat any. A woman shows up with a bucket, Jesus asks her for help getting a drink, but she never does.
This is also a travel story: Jesus and the disciples start out in the South, in Judah, and want to get back up to Galilee where they are from. But at least by the end of this story, they don’t get there.
Nobody Gets it
This is also a “nobody gets it” story. The woman doesn’t get what Jesus means about living water, and the disciples don’t get what Jesus means about the food that nourishes him. At the beginning, the nameless woman is a bit put-off that Jesus, a Jew, is speaking with her, for two reasons: she is an un-accompanied woman, plus she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew. At the end, the disciples are put-off that Jesus is sitting there with this foreign unaccompanied woman – but they can’t bring themselves to speak of the scandal out loud.
This is also a story about worship; about the proper place of worship – is it our mountain or their mountain? But in the end, we hear it is not about mountains. It is not even about worship places.
Man and Woman at a Well
For those of you with a literary interest: this is also a “man meets a woman at a well in a
foreign land” story in which, contrary to “how it always goes” – like with Isaac’s servant and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and; Moses and Zipporah, nobody ends up engaged to be married.
Everything about this story subverts our expectations. Nothing goes as planned. Nobody (except Jesus) knows what is going on.
Who are we in this story?
Let me give us one more conundrum. Who are we to identify with in this story? Most often in a “Jesus and his disciples” story we identify with the disciples. We are with them in the boat in a storm on the lake, or we are with them in the the upper room at the last supper and in the garden on the night of his arrest – that’s normal. But what about in this story?
In one sense, we identify with the disciples in their role – they are with Jesus to learn from him, to observe him, to accompany him in ministry – that’s what we do. But on the other hand, we aren’t Jews, and this story is specifically about Jesus crossing that iron-curtain border and bringing Good News to non-Jews. For the folks reading this story first, right after the ink dried on John’s parchment, who were not Jews, like us, this is a story about the Good News coming to our kind of folks. We identify then with the Samaritans who received this very Jewish story from this very Jewish person, and found themselves all caught up in it.
Why do we need it?
Besides being a reversal of expectations story, what else is here? Why do we need this story? I believe this powerful story is like the well that Jesus came to that day: it has way more depth than we could ever manage to get to without a long rope and a long time. So we will have to just pick some crucial features and leave the rest for another time.
Us and the Woman
First, let’s look at the idea that we identify with the Samaritan Woman. Like her, we gentiles were outsiders to God’s long-standing promise to bless the world through Abraham – but we are so used to the idea that gentiles like us are included in God’s grace that, maybe unlike John’s first readers, that is no big deal (though it should be).
At least we should note that this is God’s characteristic: to bring good news to outcasts and marginalized people – and he is still crossing our borders in that mission.
But let us notice some other aspects of this encounter. Who initiated it? Jesus did. Behind
the scenes, God did. Did you notice that the reason Jesus and Co. went through Samaria on their journey northwards was because, it says, “he had to”(v. 4). Well, geographically, he didn’t have to go that way, but maybe there was a reason Jesus had to go that way. Maybe God was at work behind the scenes, making sure that Jesus would meet that woman that day.
In fact, one of the themes of this story is that the surface level is not the one that matters most. Jesus and the disciples are on a trip, tired, hungry, thirsty, and making logistical arrangements. But behind the scenes, God has them on a mission with a purpose. It’s not about physical water and literal bread, and it’s not a coincidence that they came to that well.
You are going to leave church today, to go home, or out to eat – your choice. Monday will come as all Mondays do and you will do what you do on Mondays. All of our days are like that. On the surface. But behind the normal routine of our lives, God is at work. There is a purpose for you being where you are. God has a mission, and we are all involved. There are people God will bring you in contact with, or has already brought you together with, for his purposes.
When Jesus assesses the situation, what does he see? Does he see Samaritans around an ancient well? Or does he see fields, white with ripe grain that unseen forces have planted and watered and prepared for harvest? The harvest is all about the way God overcomes all kinds of barriers to get to people with his love, just like he did that day – overcoming their initial resistance, overcoming the guilt they feel for their histories (like her – 5 men and now a man who isn’t a husband!) and even overcoming pre-conceived ideas about religion.
In our ordinary days, God has a purpose for us. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you are involved in it. Just believe that divine encounters happen all the time. You have a chance to be an “instrument of God’s peace” bringing love where there may be hatred, pardon where there has been injury, hope to people in despair, and light to people in darkness.
There is one last conundrum to notice. Jesus looked up at the fields and proclaimed an abundant ready-to-go harvest. All we need is more workers, so pray for more people to go out there and bring it in. But the opposite seems true today, doesn’t it?
Decline in mainline religion
Never, in America, has there been less interest in the church. Attendance in all of the old
Protestant churches is in rapid decline. Look around: where are the young families? Where are are the college kids? Where are the youth? Yes, it’s true that some churches are doing fine (mostly the contemporary ones that most of us would not find familiar nor comfortable). But nationally, the church is not doing well. And its worse in Europe.
No decline in spiritual interest
The odd thing is that interest in God and in spirituality is not in decline. It is now common to hear younger people say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Usually what they mean is that they have a sense that God exists and they have a desire to connect with him personally, but they do not expect that will happen inside a church building behind stained glass. They have a sense that God is Spirit, but they do not think that the religious forms they see around them, are going to help them. Many of us here today have grandkids who share that opinion.
This amazingly on-target text
This text is amazingly on target for them. The Samaritan woman wanted to discuss religion. She was concerned about places – which mountain was the right temple on? Which religion has got it right? Amazingly, Jesus did not get drawn on that question. For him, it was not about Mountains.
Yes, it’s true that Jesus knew that the rescue of the world that God wants to accomplish has its roots in the Jewish world – “salvation is from the Jews” (v. 22) he said; the story is the story that started with Abraham and God’s promise to bless the world through him. But the point is that the main thing is not now (and actually never has been) about a mountain or a temple. The main thing has never been about the surface level skin – the religious stuff – the forms, the music, the building, the windows.
For the post-religious and us too
This amazingly powerful text addresses everybody who is bored with religion, offended by religion, abused by religious people, and who expects nothing spiritual to come from any of it.
But this text also addresses people like the woman that day, people like us, who are thoroughly caught up in “religion.” To both of us, it says, God is out there, behind the scenes, at work, seeking people . He is seeking us in order to to rescue us from our self-absorbed, materialistic, sinful conditions, to help us find true food that nourishes the soul and living water to quench our deepest thirst. Listen to what Jesus said again:
23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
True worship is about responding to God’s seeking with everything. Mountains and temples
have nothing to do with it. Religious ritual may be helpful to some, but it is not the main point at all. True worshippers worship God, who after all, is a Spirit, in “spirit and truth” – with all they have, from the heart.
And when they do worship God in spirit and truth, when we worship God with our whole beings, what do we find?
That the material world that we get so caught up in and think is so important for our happiness; the bread and water of this world, are not nearly so important as the spiritual bread and living water by which God nourishes and satisfies his people. Are you hungry and thirsty at a deep level this morning? That ache is spiritual: God is Spirit – look no further.
There is a very practical direct implication of this that we should not miss as well. This is not just about us, finding the true spirituality of God in our lives. This is also about the way this frees us from our attachment to our material possessions so that we can bless others in need.
I love the way one of Jesus’ disciples, James, puts this point:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27)
Religion is not about mountains and temples; it is about loving God, who is Spirit, and because of that, reaching out to people in need of practical, tangible care. This is one of those purposes that God has put us here for.
In my daily prayers, I use the classical four-part structure ACTS, Adoration, Confession,
Thanksgiving and Supplication. Adoration is all about adoring God – or as our mission statement says, “Loving God.” Confession is about recognizing my own failures to love God in practice; in other words, sins. Thanksgiving is pretty obvious; counting blessings and giving thanks. Supplication is making requests, prayers for my family, the church, our nation and the world, praying for people in pain and need, praying for guidance.
The Prayer Sequence I Need
When I am in the first section of prayer, Adoration, I always follow the same pattern. This is not out of habit, it is out of need: my own need.
I first begin with Creation. Because I am most frequently conscious of the presence of God when I become aware of, and present to, a sunset or a cloud formation, or a song, I begin prayer by adoring God for Creation. I say things like, “I glorify you O Lord for creation, for everything that is beautiful, for sights, smells, tastes, sounds, for music, for vistas I see, for the wonder of color and harmony, for the transcendent call of a world bursting with the glory of God.”
Then I intentionally move to a sequence that always follows this order: I glorify God for being Good: always and only good. Then, for being All Powerful, All Knowing, All Wise, and Loving. This sequence is extremely important to me to affirm, but as I do, it is often an act of radical trust on my part, and not a description of what the present state of the world or of my life would lead me to conclude. Let me explain.
“God is Good”
First, I assert that God is Good: always and only good. He is not sometimes good and
sometimes less than good; he is always good. He is only good; not a mixture of good and less than good, but completely good.
I assert this as an act of faith – even though there are grave doubts about this that come up. How can a good God allow earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods and hurricanes? How is it good to let all this death and destruction happen?
Perhaps, as some say, God is good, but unable to stop the bad from happening. This is why after affirming the goodness of God, I move onto glorifying God for being All Powerful. I assert that God can do anything that is possible to do. This is also, clearly, an act of faith; it does not answer any questions. In fact it brings the questions into sharp focus. I affirm that God is both Good, and All powerful. But, we have earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods and hurricanes.
“God is All Knowing”
This is why the next quality I adore God for, in my prayers, is that he is All Knowing (Omniscient). This is where I find solace. This is the place, if there is any place, where the solution to the conundrum must lie. Why does a Good and all powerful God allow earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, and hurricanes? I don’t know – but that question is and always will be a question.
Some of the recently published atheists take this question as if it were an answer. They believe that it is obvious that any God who was Good and All Powerful would of course stop earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, and hurricanes from doing all the damage they do, so he must not, in fact, either be good enough to want to stop them, or if he is good, he must want to stop them but be unable to do so.
The Limits of Knowing
But the problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that what we know is what
God knows, and that’s the problem. What if God’s knowledge is really significantly better than ours? What if God knows things that we cannot imagine?
Most of us here, are not scientists; I’m certainly not. I have read some books written by scientists, especially physicists (some atheists, some Christians) who try to explain in plain language what they are learning, nowadays, about the universe. I cannot claim to understand them. From the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to chaos theory, the universe turns out to be an incredibly complex place that only the smartest of the smart can begin to comprehend. And this is how it is for the facts that we are able to know – and who knows how much else is out there left to be discovered?
We all know about some basic scientific facts, like gravity. Most of us have been taught that the earth’s core is molten, not solid, and that earth’s crust that that we see and live on, is resting on plates that move. When these plates collide, enormous pressure is exerted which is occasionally released, which gives us earthquakes. When this happens under the ocean, a huge amount of water is displaced, forming a wave we call a tsunami. If no one is around when it comes ashore, it’s as harmless as a typical wave on the sand, no more. But if it hits human settlements, it causes enormous damage and death.
Question: is it possible to make a physical world differently? Can you have a planet with a crust that people can live on and not have it resting on moving plates? Can you have a planet that can support life without having oceans? Who could answer that question? Is it possible – just possible – that God knows that there is no other way to have a physical planet that supports life than this?
Is this the “best of all possible worlds”?
Back during the period of history we call the Enlightenment, a philosopher and writer named Voltaire wrote a comically satirical book entitled “Candide” in order to lampoon the philosophy of a man name Leibniz. Leibniz said that God created this world, as it is, because, of all the possible worlds that could have been made, this was the best way to make a world. Therefore, this world, as it is, is the “best of all possible worlds.” In Candide, Voltaire keeps bringing up examples of suffering and cruelty that happen in this “best of all possible worlds” to mock the idea that this world is as good as it gets.
But what if Leibniz was right? What if there is no other way to make a real, physical plant inhabited by truly free human beings?
I do not pretend to know the answer, but in faith, as an act of trust in God, I am willing to allow for the possibility that the problem of evil and pain in the world is a problem of my ignorance in contrast with God’s infinite knowledge.
There are other aspects to this that we simply do not have time to go into here, today, but this is a start.
Japan sits at the juncture of three of the earth’s moving plates, and consequently has many
earthquakes and sometimes, tsunamis. The fact that they have chosen to build nuclear reactors near the sea, under these circumstances is a human-made problem, the responsibility for which cannot be laid at God’s feet.
But back to prayer. After adoring God for being Good, All Powerful, and All Knowing, I next glorify God for being Loving. This too is an act of trust. How is it possible to believe that God is Love when we see such suffering and evil? If he loved people would he not stop such horrible tragedies? The only thing I can say is that he must know things that are un-knowable to limited, finite creatures like us.
And so now we are ready for the text for this second Sunday in Lent, 2011. I imagine that this is probably in the top three of the most familiar texts of the whole bible (along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer).
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, the bible does not give an explanation for the evil in the world but rather describes God’s response to that evil. God’s response can be summed up in one word: love. The ultimate expression of that love is found in Jesus.
The Christian Narrative
The Christian narrative that we have just read is the story of God’s response, the reason for it, what he did, who benefits from it and how it all works: the why, the What, the Who and the How of God’s response to the world’s pain.
It starts with Love; love is the reason God is motivated to act.
16“For God so loved…”
Who does God love?
6“For God so loved the world…”
Can it possibly get any clearer than that? Are there any caveats or exclusions here? I see
none, from God’s side. The only exclusions available are from our side: are we willing to fall backwards in trust, believing that there are Arms that will catch us? If we do, we will find ourselves caught up in arms of love.
Love does not stand at a distance and watch; love gets involved. So immediately we see that God’s love for the world produces action.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
Jesus is God’s ultimate response of love for the world; for us. In Jesus we see God at work in the world. And how does he work? He walks down a dusty Palestinian road right along beside people, as one of them, sharing life, sharing food, fishing, attending weddings, and mourning at funerals.
He mixes with people – all kinds, leaders, peasants, workers, women, children, soldiers, blind people, lame people, lepers, foreigners, demon-possessed people, adulterers, zealots; can you think of any people he didn’t mix with?
And when he is there among people, he brings God’s love to them. He feeds people who are hungry and in wilderness moments. He touches people and heals them. He pronounces God’s forgiveness and tells them to pick up their beds and get walking.
All of this is meant to show us God. God is love. God is with us, to walk through our lives with us, not to condemn us, but to save us. He goes all the way. In the end, he allows all of the evil of the world to focus on him. He is crucified, dies, is buried, but that is not the end of the story. God raises Jesus from the dead, disarming the powers of evil, conquering death, the final enemy.
And now God’s love is extended to us to receive, embrace and to trust. We are invited to believe this version of the cosmos. We are invited to see God’s love expressed in Jesus, and to fall back into God’s loving arms, trusting him to be there for us, to save us.
We are invited to take up Jesus’ life of loving response to the pain in our world. When we see
earthquakes and tsunamis, we see people suffering, and we respond out of love; we give. We find ways to feed hungry people. We help build houses for people (as we are doing right now through Habitat for Humanity). We work to bring healing and health care to people. We extend God’s welcome and embrace to all people, without exceptions; without exclusions.
Disasters and tragedies like those we have witnessed in Japan challenge our faith. They push us to the edge. But we come together to affirm that we believe in a Good, All Powerful, All Knowing, God of Love. He loves us, in spite of everything, and he loves the world. He sent his son to show us his love, and to give his life for our salvation. Now, as his people, we have been charged to live as he lived, to love as he loves, and to trust, even when we do not understand.
Wilderness. We have to talk about wilderness. We have all been there at one time or
another. Everyone has their own version of wilderness. I have been there. Everyone has their own triggers for bringing on the wilderness.
Experiencing loss does it for a lot of people – loss of wealth, loss of a child, loss of a spouse, loss of a marriage, loss of good health or mobility, loss of the future we had believed in.
For other people wilderness comes from doubt – is there really a God out there? Disasters like we have just been witness to in Japan with such great destruction and loss of life, and the earthquake in Haiti a year ago, bring up the problem of pain in the world. While some people instinctively grasp onto God in the face of tragedies, others get pushed out into the wilderness of wondering why such things can happen. The possibility of a good, loving, powerful God just seems hard to believe.
I wonder what pushes you out into wilderness experiences? All of us have our own triggers, and yet the experience of wilderness itself is similar for everyone. You feel abandoned and alone; hope seems to have vanished. Help is nowhere in sight.
One little sermon is not going to solve this. There is not going to be a tidy bow on a neatly wrapped answer-package at the end today. If wilderness were that easy to solve, we would have solved it long ago. But what we will will see today as we look at this powerful text, is what we need for the next time of wilderness we will go through.
Israel, Jesus, and us, in wilderness
What we need to know first is that the experience of wilderness is the quintessential experience of the people of God. It’s not just you. Israel spent its first 40 years as a people wandering in wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness. In fact, the experiences of Israel and Jesus have much in common, and much to teach us about our own wilderness experiences.
Hunger in the wilderness
It starts this way:
3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Israel and Jesus had to deal with the issue of hunger. Wilderness is always about hunger.
Israel gets out into the wilderness and immediately complains of a lack of bread. God provides them with manna. Jesus fasts for 40 days and is famished. The voice of the evil one asks why not make loaves of fresh bread out of these sun-baked Palestinian stones?
Looking around for an instant solution is the temptation. But what if there is no such thing as an instant solution because the hunger comes from the heart instead of the stomach? Then, the temptation is to find a mask for the hunger pains. Everybody has their own preferred poison for this. All of them work as a short term pain-relief. None of them works on the root cause. Most of them cause damage as they pass through our lives, leaving us that much more in wilderness.
Let us observe Jesus in wilderness, and take a lesson. The hunger cannot be satisfied with anything short-term. The hunger is God-shaped. Only God will fill it.
4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Three times the evil one will come to Jesus to try to drive a wedge between him and his calling to be God’s Son. Each time Jesus will quote from Deuteronomy. This should be a warning to anybody who ends up in wilderness without having been nourished by God’s words before he got there.
This is not a game. Something has to be there, inside you already, before you get to the wilderness hunger, to keep you from reaching for the poison in a moment of weakness. To be self-indulgent at such a time is to guarantee that the wilderness is not going to end any time soon.
But, to have been nourished by ingesting God’s words over the course of many meals may mean you have something to hear besides the voice of evil when you are out there all alone and hungry.
The experience of wilderness continues like this:
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Wilderness is more than aloneness and hunger; it’s all about magical thinking; looking for the miracle bail-out that will suddenly end the pain. We pray for miracle cures, miracle reversals, miracle changes in us and quick transformations in others. We want God to spring into action and rescue us, and so prove himself worthy of our trust.
But, the suggestion to “Throw yourself off, and let God catch you” comes out of the mouth of the evil one. A faith that needs to put God to the “save me now” test is not real, and it provides no help.
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
In fact, the wilderness itself is the test. God is there; the sense of abandonment is the
illusion. The valley is dark; it is indeed the valley of the shadow of death and it feels terribly evil. But although there is not enough light for our pupils to find anything to focus on, nevertheless, the shepherd is there. No wilderness lasts forever; he will lead us out of that valley, one step at a time; one day at a time. Wilderness is not the time for a test, it is time to trust.
All the kingdoms of the world
Wilderness is finally, like this:
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Wilderness is about our panicked need to get out of wilderness. Israel grew weary of waiting for Moses on the mountain; it was just too hard to be in that place of uncertainty and danger. So, quick, make a golden calf; bow down and say, “get us out of here; now.”
For Jesus it was the offer to get to the glory of the resurrection without going through the frustration of slow-learning disciples, through the agony of opposition from leaders, and through the suffering of crucifixion. The evil one suggests, “Just worship me, and all the suffering goes away. You will get all the kingdoms of the earth, for the price of one little bow.”
Jesus reaches into Deuteronomy again:
10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
For us, it is the temptation to give up the struggle because following Jesus, especially in the wilderness times, is so counter-cultural. Other gods are much less demanding. In our culture, the temptation to bow down to that which is not God – even if it is wealth, family, nation, or status is to avoid the way of the cross.
We are called to “worship the Lord God and serve only him.” He is the one who showed us what that means, even in the wilderness.
Learning from wilderness
Wilderness teaches us that evil is real. We will be subjected to alternative voices offering
“solutions” to our aloneness, hunger, and suffering. None of them live up to their promises.
Someone has famously said, “the only way out, is through.” This is certainly true of wilderness. The only way out of the wilderness is through the wilderness.
I don’t know what the name of your wilderness is: grief, fear, doubt, maybe addiction, loneliness or regret. I do know that you are not alone. You are not alone in experiencing what the people of God have always experienced – including our Lord himself. I do know that you are not any more alone out there in the wilderness than they were.
We are subjected to temptations in those wilderness times – strong temptations; voices offer all kinds of alternatives to us. Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection; a time to hear the only voice that can get us through; God’s voice.
Listen; he is telling us:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
This is not a quick and easy solution; but this is the way through the wilderness.
Is it possible to feel exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful all at once? Perhaps that’s
what some of the people of Libya are feeling right now, especially in the “free” Eastern part; maybe the people of Egypt feel the same.
In fact, feeling exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful all at once over the downfall of an Egyptian dictator is exactly what the Israelites felt when they came to Mount Sinai.
Picture this: here is a group of people who have been horribly oppressed slaves – bricks without straw – under a genocidal tyrant that had tried to exterminate all their male children. They just barely managed to escape with their lives, after an impossible sea-crossing with a superpower army of chariots (the tanks of the ancient world) in hot pursuit.
On Eagles’ Wings
They get to the other side, and begin to make their way out into the desert bad-lands, where “scarcity” barely begins to describe the lack of food and water. Somehow they scrape by for three months and finally find their way to a mountain. They are not home, they are not at an oasis, they are not safe. What is going to happen?
Moses tells them what God has told him to say – this is that famous “eagles’ wings” passage:
Exodus 19:4 “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
That part about “if you obey my voice” calls for a response, so we read:
8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. 9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
Everything, We Will Do
Pause right there for a moment – did you catch that? The people have committed themselves to do everything the Lord tells them to do – and this is before they hear the law which Moses is about to climb up the mountain to get.
This means that they have committed themselves to doing everything – not just the Exodus torah, but all that God says – now and in the future – all the ways Deuteronomy will expand on the law, all that the prophets will say in the future – no exclusions. The people have affirmed: “When God speaks, we will obey.”
Now, this exhausted but happy-to-be-free multitude of former-slaves is about to become terrified. As it turns out, this is no ordinary mountain; Moses is going to meet God there. So, precautions are necessary. Moses warns them:
12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.”
The warning was indeed necessary: this next scene had them all shaking in their sandals:
Ex. 19:16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.
A Mediated Voice
Now they feel more terror than anything else. The idea of meeting God seemed good from a theoretical perspective, but up close and in person – that’s another story. Maybe it would be best not to be so close. Maybe Moses should be in between, the mouthpiece that acts as a safety-shield from God’s terrible, dangerous God-ness.
Ex. 20:18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
Moses bravely ventures up the God-invaded mountain. He receives the Torah, God’s laws, the mandate from the mountain, and comes down to instruct the people, with the evidence that he had been with God written on his face:
Ex. 34:29 “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. 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.”
Wanting and Not Wanting God
We all share this strange conundrum about being human. We were born with an in-born longing for God; we feel it. We get glimpses of God’s presence in that feeling we get at sunset or when the sun-beams stream out of thick clouds, or when the music goes to that place in our hearts, or when the painting speaks to us. We long to be in the place where we can hear the voice of God.
But then, we also have this instinctive fear of getting too close. What might God do if we really met him? What might change in us? What might need to be changed about us? Would it be safe, or should we stay back lest we touch something we could not survive?
In Act II of this great drama, we see another group of people feeling exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful, who have been attracted to a young Galilean preacher named Jesus.
He comes to a mountain. Not alone, but with disciples he goes up. God is there. There is the cloud, the bright light, the voice from heaven. Moses, the law-giver is suddenly there, along with Elijah, greatest of prophets, both who have spoken the word of God to the people. Jesus’ face shines like Moses’, but more than that – his clothes become dazzlingly white.
What the Voice Says
The voice from heaven proclaims,
5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The presence of God – in fact the un-mediated voice of God is overwhelming.
6 “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
Now we have come to the central core. Now we have come to the ultimate solution to the human conundrum. In the time of Moses, to touch was to die. That was then, this is now.
The New Touch
The core of Christianity is that God comes to us in the form of Jesus. Now we experience God in Jesus. What has changed? Is he less God? Less awesome? Less awe-inspiring? Not at all – notice we have left them all lying on the ground, terror-struck. But now, instead of forbidding touch, watch this:
7 “Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Jesus has come to touch us with the presence of God! Jesus has come to be Emanuel, “God with us,” not just in theory, and not just watching us from a distance, but to come up and to touch us, skin to skin.
So what? What now? What happens in the life of a person touched by Jesus? Jesus has a purpose for us. He begins this way, saying to us:
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
We are to begin by asserting the awesome holiness of God: “Hallowed be thy name” as Jesus taught us to pray, but then comes the next line immediately, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.”
We were never meant to stay on the ground, groveling. This is not about building religious shrines on mountain tops, as Peter suggested. This is about getting up off the ground, leaving the fear behind, and following Jesus. He has a purpose for us.
And what is his purpose? It is to take us back down the mountain to the place where the people are.
It is not an accident that the church has built schools and hospitals around the world across the centuries. Rather it is a direct consequence of our core understanding of our calling. We exist as a church, not to stay up on the mountain enthralled in a cloud. We have been given the mandate of recognizing Jesus as God’s Beloved Son, so that we may, as the voice said, “Listen to him.”
Everything, We Will Do
We are here to commit ourselves, just as the Israelites did, to doing everything he says, without exception.
It is not an accident that we tutor kids, that we reach out to people in need across the street, that we build Habitat for Humanity homes. It is because we have heard Jesus and are committed to putting his words into practice that we extend our welcome to people in recovery, people who are different, people who are lost souls.
What is Jesus saying to us, today?
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Let us go down the mountain with him! People are waiting for people who have been touched by Jesus, and who listen to his voice. They are waiting for us, the exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful people of faith.