Tag: Moses

Reflecting God’s Glory — Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday (Exodus 34)

Exodus 34:29-35 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
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                It is Transfiguration Sunday, which is a day that calls us to reflect on Jesus’ ascent to the top of the mountain, taking with him Peter, James, and John. When the group arrives on the mountain top, Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, whom many assume represent the Law and the Prophets. As the conversation continues, Jesus begins to glow, the divine radiance shining forth. As they watch this scene unfold, Jesus’ companions are overwhelmed by what they see. You might say that they are in awe of what they see. Not knowing what else to do, they ask Jesus for permission to erect tents for the three figures. As they ask this question, Moses and Elijah disappear from the scene, leaving Jesus alone with his disciples. At that moment a voice from the heavens rings out declaring, much like at his baptism: ““This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Lk. 9:28-36).
                The first reading from the Scriptures takes us to Exodus 34. Here again we go to the mountain top, and when we do, we see another divine encounter. In this scene Moses has gone up to the top of Mount Sinai to speak with YHWH. This is the second time he has done this. When we pick up the story, Moses is descending the mountain, carrying with him the two tablets that define the covenant God desires to make with Israel.  This is the second set of tablets, since Moses broke the first set after discovering that Aaron and the people had created a golden calf while he was on the mountain speaking with God (Ex. 32). This is the second opportunity for Israel to make covenant with YHWH, which occurs after Moses intercedes with God (Ex. 33:12-23). Once again Moses spends forty days and forty nights on the mountain, neither eating nor drinking. Communion with God, apparently, was sufficient (Ex.34:27-28). Having been on the mountain for forty days and nights, it’s time for Moses to return to where Israel camped out in Sinai.
When he arrives with the tablets in hand, his face shone with the glory of God, only he did not know this. That is, until he realized that Aaron and Israel were afraid to approach him because his face shone so brightly. In time he was able to convince them to come and hear his words, words given to him by God on the mountain. When he was finished, he put a veil over his face, until his next visit with YHWH. The fact that his face reflected the glory of God’s presence was a sign to the people that God was with them, and that God was guiding them through the auspices of Moses. The moment of transfiguration described in the Gospels, is an unveiling of God’s presence in the person of Jesus. The three disciples were drawn into the divine presence and saw how Jesus radiated with that presence. As for Moses, he reflected the divine presence by his countenance. It was a bit off-putting to the people, who didn’t know what to make of it. Thus, because the radiance of his face was so great, he covered his face with a veil, so as not to overwhelm his fellow Israelites.
The reading from the epistle, which comes from 2 Corinthians, has a bit of a different take on the situation. Paul saw the veil as a means by which Moses hid the fact that the glow was fading with time. He saw this as symbolic of the inability of Israel to discern the identity of Jesus as its Messiah. Only in Christ, Paul believes, is the veil set aside so we can see the glory of God present in Jesus so that we might be transformed (2 Cor. 3:12-18). Paul and Luke have this Mosaic encounter in mind. We have to be careful here not to read this story in a supersessionist mode, so that this becomes a word about God’s rejection of Israel. Instead, may we read this as an invitation to perceive the glory of God present in Jesus, a glory that Moses encountered as well. He experienced that transformation that Paul spoke of, but as a human being, he like us, must continually return to God’s presence lest the glory that is God fade. It’s not a one-time occurrence. For Luke, the presence is found within Jesus, and it is revealed through a momentary unveiling. For us, like Moses, we must continually return to God’s presence so we might increase in our reflecting of God’s glory. As Paul reminds us, we may have veils over our faces, which not only hide the fact that the glory of our encounters with God are fading, but these veils may prevent us from seeing what is true and what is right. So, maybe what was designed to protect is now a hindrance.
                How should we read and respond to this story? In both the Exodus encounter with the Divine and the transfiguration of Jesus, we learn something about the central figure. Moses had been dealing with a rather recalcitrant community, that questioned his authority. Having this sign of his encounter with God reflected in his face reinforced his claim to leadership in the community. As for Jesus, the unveiling, together with the heavenly voice, confirmed in the three disciples that Jesus was one to be listened to, even if they didn’t share the news broadly. But there is also a sense here of wonder or awe at being in the presence of God, even if you must hide in the cleft of the rock (Ex 33:17-23).
                There are many times and places where we can gain a sense of God’s presence. Being in nature can create within us a sense of wonder or awe, and if we’re attentive we will recognize in nature a reflection of God’s creative presence. Although our experiences of worship don’t always create within us a sense of awe at the presence of God, there are times when such occurs. We might even glow with the love and glory of God reflecting off our faces, while we sing something like “Shine Jesus Shine.”

Picture Attribution: St. Vitale – Moses Receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=32149 [retrieved February 25, 2019]. Original source: Images donated by Patout Burns, Vanderbilt University.

 

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Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a monk named Benedict wrote a document that would direct how his fellow monks would live.  Used by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict laidout how monks were to live in a communal environment.  The rule provides order as well as helping the monks foster a sense of the relational nature of humans.

The Israelites crossed the sea and are now  “safe” on the other side.  Pharaoh and his army are gone. No more Egyptians to worry about.  But now they were out in the wilderness where they faced many unexpected challenges. In Egypt,  they followed Egyptian laws, but they weren’t in Egypt anymore.  They were now out in the wilderness. Rules were needed to help everyone get along outside the structure of Egyptian society and law. Common expectations and community norms were needed. The needed a rule, like the the Rule of St. Benedict.

As the people journey together, Moses presents them with a new Law from God.   The core of God’s Law for the Israelites is the Ten Commandments. Received by Moses and delivered to God’s people, these laws became important not only among the Israelites but also to many cultures and governments around the world.  In our own nation today, the Ten Commandments are widely accepted as social and spiritual norms.

It is important to note that the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews (actually the male Jewish head of households) and were not intended for universal use.  That said, we they can help us understand how we should live as Christians, what God expects from us and how following rules can be seen as an act of grace.

Engaging the Text

The Lord called to him from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites: You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.

-Exodus 19:3-5

It’s easy to see the Ten Commandments as rules to be on God’s good side.  But that’s not really what they are about.  In fact that aren’t really about us at all.  Theologian Rolf Jacobson notes that there are two things the Ten Commandments don’t do; they aren’t a pathway to salvation and they aren’t there to make you a better you.  Jacobson says the following:

The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.

That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,”per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.”The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.1

The Ten Commandments are for our neighbor and for God.  How do we relate to our neighbors?  How do we relate to God?  We aren’t blessed when we do good, but when we do good to the other and the other does good to us.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God.  The next four deal with our relationship to others and the last two deals with the desires of the heart.

We will look briefly at each commandment starting with the first one.

You shall have no other God’s before me. Don’t put anything or anyone ahead of God.  We are to pledge sole alligence to God. When we fail to love God, our neighbor is affected. As Jacobson notes, “When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.”

 Don’t make yourself an idol. God is supposed to come first over everything.  It is easy to think we could love God and something else, but God commands that there are to be no idols.

 Don’t use the name of God wrongly.We call upon God to forgive us when we sin, to offer praise, to seek healing. God’s name is powerful so we should use it with care.

Take the Sabbath off.    The Sabbath is a day to worship God, but more importantly, it is usually about rest and fairness. This commandment gives the poor a day of rest. It is also a reminder that in Egypt, the Israelites had to work without a day off. Now they are free from having to work all the time, so take the time to rest.

Relating to Others.The next four focus on who we take care of our neighbors.  That includes are parents. The first one of these commandments, honoring your parents is about loving the other, our neighbors.  In a more modern tone, we are to care for the elderly in our midst.  We are also not to take the life of another (again, to murder is to not care for the other), not stealing and not having sex with a person’s spouse.  Again, we don’t do these things to get on God’s good side, but we do it for the benefit of the neighbor.

State of the Heart. The last two commandments deal with the heart.  Don’t bear false witness against a neighbor and don’t covet anything of the neighbor.

An aside about how Jews might see the Ten Commandments. Protestant Christians tend to look at law and gospel or grace differently than Jews.  Starting with Martin Luther, we emphasize grace and sometimes see the law as something that is archaic and has nothing to do with our faith.

Jews, however, see this differently.  They see the law as a response to God’s goodness.  Theologian Geoff McElroy explains: 

At first glance the Decalogue seems to be a list of regulations, and that’s what we assume they are, a list of do nots.  But maybe they are more like a framework through which life, specifically life with God, is interpreted.

Jewish tradition about the Decalogue gets this in a way that post-Pauline Christianity has seemed to have lost.  For many Christians, the Ten Words are “law” vis-à-vis the gospel or good news of God revealed in Jesus and even though we’ll still think following them is a good thing, they are seen as something distinct from the concept of God’s grace, as things that we as humans have failed to live up to and thus we need saving.

But in Jewish tradition, the Ten Words are a response to grace.  The Jews traditionally order their commandments differently; what the Jews regard as the first commandment or word, many Christians just dismiss as a prologue or introduction to the commandments.  But in Jewish tradition, the first commandment is not to have “no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”  (Exo 20:2).

In other words, the first word of life with God is to, “Remember what God has done for you!” 2

Conclusion

As Christians, especially  Protestants, it’s easy to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun.  Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law.  That we are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin.

However, these passages were originally written by and for Jews,  so we need to see how Jews responded to these Commandments.  Jews tend to see the Ten Commandments or Ten Words as a response to grace.  The Ten Commandments are a response to grace.   The law is the vehicle for grace.  

It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God.  Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from.  The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done.  If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods.  If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly.  If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.

Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance.  He writes:

The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.3

Like the Ten Commandments,  Communion reminds us of God’s wondrous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ.  How will we respond?  If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response.  We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.  

  1. Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher, June 15, 2014.
  2. Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings, 2008 (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/)
  3. Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p.17.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In our last lesson, we talked about Joseph the great-grandson of Abraham who was sold in slavery in Egypt.  He becomes the head caretaker in the house of Potiphar, only to be pestered by Potiphar’s wife and her advances.  He is then falsely accused when he rejects her temptations and is placed in jail.

But all is not lost for Joseph.  We are told over and over in this story that God was with Joseph and indeed, God was present in both good times and in times that were challenging.  He is released from prison becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and saves his family from a local famine.  Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s kin come and live in Egypt, a happy ending. But of course, it wasn’t a happy ending.  Today we talk about Joseph’s descendents as they leave the place that was one a refuge and became of place of hardship.

Engaging the Text

13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

-Exodus 14:13-14

As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt.   The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects.  A people who were once guests were now slaves.

Enter Moses.  He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child.  Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter.  God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.  Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God.  A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.

But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews.  This is where the story beings for us.

Pharaoh sends his army on chariots to catch the Hebrews who are stopped at the seashore.  Word gets to the Hebrews of the advancing Egyptian army who naturally, freak out.

Moses tells the people to calm down.  See God’s work of salvation at hand.  God was going to save the Hebrews once and for all in spectacular fashion.

It seems that God is working long before the showdown at the sea.  Jewish commentaries note that God had the Hebrews take a circuitous route to the promised land instead the more direct route- which would make a great escape route back to Egypt if things got dicey.  This wandering would make it seem like the Israelites were lost, which then prompted the Egyptians to attack. (Beshalach Aliyah Summary, Chabad.org.)

It’s important to note that the two pillars that led the Hebrews, a cloud and fire are examples of God’s presence.

While the common story is that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, some biblical scholars think they crossed the Reed Sea, which is shallow and surrounded by marshy land.  East winds can push the water away. The Egyptian army gets bogged down in the soggy soil.

Did all of this happen at the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?  If it’s the Reed Sea, how could the Egyptian army be drowned in shallow water? Who knows.  The story was handed down orally and there  is a possibility the story became “bigger” with each telling. Whether it happened at the Red See or the Reed Sea; whether it was winds that pushed away the shallow water or a huge wall of water is not the main point of the passage.  The point is that God saves the Hebrews from oppression.  The people see the power of God and place their trust in God.

 

 

Conclusion

This text is a well-known one not simply because the story has been told over and over, but because of movies that have dramatized the event.  In Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments the most memorable scene is when Moses (played by Charleston Heston) lifts up his rod and the mighty waters are swept away for provide a corridor for escape. 

While we know Hollywood’s telling of this story, what does this story have to do with our own story?  How do we see ourselves in this larger story?

The story of the Israelites in Egypt has been a story that resonated with African Americans.  Bogged down by slavery and then official segregation, Blacks in the United States looked to these passages as assurance that God was on the side of the oppressed and that someday, Pharaoh would be toppled.

Beyond this application, what does this story mean to you?  What does the liberation of a people thousands of years ago by God have anything to do with us today?

 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.