Tag Archives: Moses

Undefended, powerless, but kept in God’s love

Today’s collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is pretty serious.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out the fear that paralyzes our bodies and neutralizes our souls and in it we pray that we may be not just defended, but kept in God’s love.

We get one thing right in this prayer. We ask for two things that we’re never going to get. And we get from God something “more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, the first thing we get wrong …

 

That we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body

Then the LORD said [to Moses], “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

Moses’ first efforts, unfortunately, made Pharaoh angry and he punished the Israelites by cutting off their supply of straw but requiring they make the same number of bricks each day. So their work was doubled and their bodies further harmed.

Ultimately, however, the LORD redeemed their bodies from slavery and the whip but immediately subjected their bodies to the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:2-3)

Reminds me of the “ex-leper” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who complains that Jesus has healed him: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade; the next minute, my livelihood’s gone! Bloody do-gooder!”

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Brian replies.

“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Ex-leper

We’re wrong to believe that we will be defended from bodily harm, just as we’re wrong to think that we’ll be freed from “evil thoughts.”

 

That we may be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul

Jesus is being cross-examined by the Pharisees and lawyers in front of a growing crowd when someone asks him: “Oh yeah, what about those Galileans who were killed in church?”

He retorts, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

The Galileans killed in the Temple by Pilate’s soldiers, their blood mingling with their sacrifices … or how about the eighteen people killed in the Siloam tower collapse?

Jesus asks, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

Or how about the nine people who died during the tornadoes this week?

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about the 41 people injured and 25 people killed by gun violence this week in Iuka MS, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Houston, Hazelwood MO, Daytona Beach, Glendale AZ, Hesston KS, and Belfair WA? (I had to Google to be sure I didn’t miss any.)

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about people on food stamps or unemployment?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

Or how about Bernie supporters? Trump supporters?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

These are perfect examples of what recovery programs call “stinking thinking,” the thought that this time (for me) it’ll be different. This time (for me) the rules don’t apply. This time (for me) the consequences won’t be so severe.

What a crock! And we know it, but we’re afraid to admit it. We’re no better than anyone else, and in our blindness we may in fact be worse.

But we do get one essential thing right in our prayer.

God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves

Moses gets it right.

“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God …. and Moses asked “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:6, 11)

christ-in-gethsemane-p

Paul continues in the same vein, using the Israelites in the wilderness as an example to the Christians in Corinth:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10)

Who are we to say we’re any better than our ancestors in the faith, any less likely to stray into temptation, any less likely to complain, any less likely to put Christ to the test?

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Jesus says.

“These things happened to them to serve as an example,” Paul writes, “and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

 

Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls

We are not defended from bodily adversity; we are not defended from “stinking thinking,” and we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Even knowing God’s name doesn’t work like a magic spell or give us special powers.

Richard Rohr suggests that even God’s name, I AM WHO I AM – or YAHWEH – is not a real name at all, but the sound of one’s breathing. (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

No wonder Moses doesn’t seem convinced. Instead of a name to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh, all he gets is the sound of his own breathing.

[IN] YAH

[OUT] WEH

Our chests tighten in fear [IN], and we exhale in relief [OUT].

We suffer and die [IN] just like anyone does, but we are given a name and a promise [OUT] to sustain us.

We struggle against oppression and violence [IN], even as we recognize it in ourselves [OUT].

I think I’m standing [IN], but I’ve got to watch out that I don’t fall [OUT].

We are not magically defended from bodily harm; we are not righteously defended from “stinking thinking,” and if we’re honest we’ll admit we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves – at least not any better than anyone else does.

But “in falling and in rising, we are kept ever precious in one love,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.

Falling rising Julian

And that’s what we get right in this morning’s Collect. We are kept ever precious in God’s one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our bodies are kept in one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our souls are kept in one love.

We are powerless to save ourselves,
but we ourselves are kept in one love.

+ + + + +

[IN] Keep us, [OUT] Almighty God.

[IN] Keep me, [OUT] O God.

[IN] O God. [OUT]

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12 Steps of Christmas | First Sunday in Christmas

Step Three – “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The readings for the Holy Eucharist on this First Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

I’m preaching this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin — so today’s reflection will sound a lot like the sermon that it is.

God as we understood Him

There is a supreme irony in reflecting on Step Three on this particular Sunday, given that the Gospel reading from John (which is always read on the First Sunday after Christmas) contains some of the most mind-blowing language about God contained anywhere in Scripture.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-18 passim)

So, let’s get this straight.

This baby, born in a feed trough in a stable to an unwed mother, is God.

This infant, born far from home because of a government requirement that everyone participate in a census, is Life.

This child, who will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary Jewish man living under Roman occupation, is Light.

This man, framed by religious leaders, arrested by soldiers, and killed by the state as a political criminal, is Grace.

What this man revealed to his friends by his life and teaching, is Truth.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that has made him known.”

OK, that’s perfectly clear, then. Everyone understand?

Grace and truth

Here’s the spiritual heart of John’s magnificent prologue: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

What we thought we understood about God has been turned upside down.

What we thought was a set of perfectly sensible regulations and statutes and commandments and ordinances — rules that would set us apart as better than others — turns out not to help at all.

What we thought was life was really Law — and we can never live up to what the Law requires. The evidence of our failure is all around us, most especially in the cynical way we talk about principles and values and then just do whatever the hell we want.

Step Three asks us to consider how well our independence has served us. “This brave philosophy, wherein each man plays God, sounds good in the speaking, but it still has to meet the acid test: how well does it actually work?”

Should his own image in the mirror be too awful to contemplate (and it usually is), he might first take a look at the results normal people are getting from self-sufficiency. Everywhere he sees people filled with anger and fear, society breaking up into warring fragments. Each fragment says to the others, “We are right and you are wrong.” Every such pressure group, if it is strong enough, self-righteously imposes its will upon the rest. And everywhere the same thing is being done on an individual basis. The sum of all this mighty effort is less peace and less brotherhood than before. The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin. (37)

Into this bitter, barren ruin is born a baby, and John asks us to believe that he is the creative Word of God come to live among us, full of glory, full of grace and truth.

Elsewhere in his Gospel, John says he has “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Our independent, intellectual, self-sufficient selves balk at this idea.

The paradox of willingness and grace

The explanation of Step Three continues, “The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are” (36).

What we start to realize is that when Law comes first, we can never succeed — we are crushed by our failure to live up to its demands.

But when grace comes first, we find that all we have to be is willing to take the next step. Our willingness helps us to exert ourselves in the tasks placed before us.

All of the Twelve Steps [what Richard Rohr refer to as “the coded Gospel”] require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principles and so, we trust, to God’s will. It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. (40)

The paradox of willingness is that depending upon God makes us more free.

The paradox of grace is that it makes us more willing to pay back what we owe to God who gave away everything — power, might, majesty, freedom, even his human life — in order to live among us, show us his truth, and reconcile us to himself and to each other.

In the words of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

The opening of John’s Gospel is another hymn: “From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace comes first, and always has since the time that the Word was with God, making the light that shines in the darkness. Grace comes first.

All that God asks of us in return is that we be willing, willing to follow the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, as best as we can understand him, along “the way to a faith that works” (34).

I’m willing to try today. How about you?

Saving health among all nations | Holy Cross Day

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:7-9)

Keep this nation under your care

When Jesus says, “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” (John 3:16), it’s easy for us to forget that he isn’t wearing a rainbow wig and holding up a poster in a football stadium.

Jesus Saves 39014501

Jesus is not addressing American Christians and football fans. He is not suggesting we wear black “John 3:16” eye paint to Lambeau Field.

Instead, Jesus is deep in a private, nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, a “leader of the Jews” who is trying to understand what Jesus is doing and teaching in Jerusalem at the Passover.

Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God, though the “cleansing of the Temple” — knocking over the tables of the moneychangers and driving them and the sacrificial animals out with a whip of cords — probably upset Nicodemus’ sense of order and respect.

In their quiet, late night conversation, he struggles with Jesus’ words about seeing and entering the kingdom of God — he is confused by the idea of being “born again” and “born from above” and “born of water and the Spirit.”

Jesus asks, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?”

Then he continues to teach Nicodemus about the kingdom of God and about salvation.

Let your way be known upon earth

Jesus builds on what he has just said about who can see and who can enter the kingdom of God.

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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 (John 3:13-17).

He uses a strange image for the kingdom, reminding scholarly Nicodemus of a passage from the Book of Numbers about a mysterious cure. The people of Israel in the wilderness were sick, dying from venomous snake bites, but they were cured when they looked at a bronze serpent held up on a pole.

It would have been a particularly odd image, since the bronze serpent had later been destroyed by King Hezekiah (reigned 715-687 BC) during his reforms of the nation and its worship (2 Kings 18:4).

According to the Wikipedia article on him,

Hezekiah purified and repaired the Temple, purged its idols, and reformed the priesthood. In an effort to abolish what he considered idolatry from his kingdom, he destroyed the high places (or bamot) and “bronze serpent” (or “Nehushtan“), recorded as being made by Moses, which became an objects of idolatrous worship. In place of this, he centralized the worship of God at the Jerusalem Temple.

Several hundred years later, having just upset the business of the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the kingdom of heaven is like the bronze serpent people used to look to instead of going to the Temple as their leaders said they should.

Your saving health among all nations

In John’s Gospel, Jesus does signs — like the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the Temple — and teaches about the kingdom of God. “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen,” he says.

When he refers to the bronze serpent, he makes a point to describe it being lifted up, just as the Son of Man will be lifted up.

Jesus is describing another sign — the ultimate sign — that will testify to his identity and open the kingdom of God to those who believe.

Like the bronze serpent brought healing (salvation) to those poisoned by snakebites, the sign of the Cross will bring eternal life and saving health to all who suffer.

No longer is the healing work of God limited to the people of Israel, no longer is salvation contained in the Temple at Jerusalem, but rather saving health is available to all who look on the Son of Man lifted up.

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.