Moses: Fear vs. Experience

(Today’s message summary was submitted by Lisa Woicik, who gave the message at UPPC on July 21, 2019. Watch it at UPPC.org!

It doesn’t take long after the Israelites leave Egypt before they face what looks like impending death.  Camped at the edge of the Red Sea, they look up and see Pharaoh’s army fast approaching them.  Trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea, they respond, as any of us would – with panic!  Yet, Moses’ response is calm, confident in God’s deliverance. 

Does this seem like the same Moses who seemed to fear and doubt everything God asked him to do (see Exodus 3-5)?  Only a few weeks have passed since Moses let fear get the best of him and questioned God’s intent to help Israel (Ex. 5:22-23).  Now, when death seems to be knocking at the door, Moses is outwardly calm and confident.  How can that be?

When we look at this story, it is helpful to remember that Moses was still human.  He felt fear and panic just like the rest of us do. The difference between the Moses at the Red Sea and the Moses of Exodus 5 is that Moses now had experienced God’s faithful provision at least 10 times.  With each plague that God brought upon Egypt, God told Moses what would happen, Moses followed God’s instructions, and Moses saw God fulfill what was promised.  

Repeatedly experiencing God’s faithful provision allowed Moses’ trust in God to grow stronger.  Just like we trust that the sun will rise tomorrow because we don’t know of a time when it hasn’t done so, Moses’ faith in God grew stronger every time he witnessed God’s provision.  Because Moses was confident in God’s provision, he was able to set aside his fear in that moment and calmly do what he needed to do so that God could deliver the Israelites to safety.  

1.      How have you experienced God’s provision in your own life? 

2.  Have you ever had a moment when you were in full panic mode?  What did that look like?  What brought you out of it?  

3.      When is fear a healthy response?  What does unhealthy fear look like? 

4.      What is happening in your life now that seems unbearable?  How might you be able to practice setting aside your fear and take the next step trusting in God’s provision? 

Blessings,
Lisa Woicik

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Moses: Hardened Heart and Passover Lamb

Once Moses confronted Pharaoh, things started to move quickly. Moses warned Pharaoh that God would plague the land if he didn’t let the Hebrews go. He would eventually give Pharaoh not three, not five, but TEN chances to do the right thing. But rather than the plagues softening Pharaoh’s heart, his heart became “hard” and he would not relent. The “hardened” heart is also translated “heavy” (think hard like stone, which is also heavy) which even the Egyptians believed meant that Pharaoh was “unjust.” In fact, their belief system also said that he would be condemned in the afterlife according to the heaviness/hardness of his heart.

The tenth plague is indeed the most disturbing — the death of the firstborn of Egypt. As we read this story, we need to avoid any sort of “Enlightenment arrogance” by which we judge the goodness or badness of the story based on our understanding of right and wrong. Rather, we must defer to the culture of the day, as well as the fact that Pharaoh had been duly warned nine times beforehand, and even warned that this tenth plague would mean the death of the firstborn. And still, he did not relent.

The death of the firstborn sets the stage for the first Passover, which is one of the most important annual holidays celebrated by Jews to this day. So it was no coincidence that Jesus, who of course was Jewish, chose the Passover meal to explain the meaning of his own impending death. He took the familiar elements of bread and wine, used in the Passover meal, and transformed their meaning to reflect his own body and blood, as he would stand in as the once-and-for-all sacrificial lamb, whose death would mean freedom not from worldly oppressors only, but from the ultimate oppressors — sin and death. And not only for a particular people, but for the entire world. Now, Christians worldwide still celebrate that last supper and its meaning through the sacrament of Communion, also known as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.

For reflection:
– Do you celebrate the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper? If so, describe your tradition.
– It can be hard to imagine the same God who creates life also destroying it. Is it possible to bring our struggle with this aspect of God directly to God in prayer?
– If a “heavy/hard heart” was the symbol for injustice then, what might be a symbol for injustice today?
– What kinds of events/experiences can soften a person’s heart?

In Grace,
MM

Moses: 10 gods, 10 plagues

Pastor Aaron has a friend in Chicago who slow cooks a prime rib for 14 hours every year for Christmas dinner.  But one day in February, he got his natural gas bill, which was for more than $3000!  Turns out the outdoor natural gas for his barbecue had been running since Christmas Eve — for two months. 

This kind of rude awakening, after having done what you think you’re supposed to do, must be a glimpse into the kind of disappointment Moses and Aaron experienced after they initially confronted Pharaoh in Exodus chapter 5: ““Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me?” (v.22).

Have you ever prayed like this?  “Lord, don’t you care?  Don’t you care about the hostility in our country?  How long will extremists kill, and children suffer?  Where are you when my own family is falling apart?  What kind of God are you?”

God’s answer to Moses is a repeated promise, starting in chapter 6 verse 1: “Now you will see…”  What follows is the story of the ten plagues, starting in chapter 7.   What is especially interesting is the context of Egypt’s religious culture, and the way Yahweh’s plagues addressed their various gods.

In the plagues, Yahweh demonstrates lordship over the entire world, from the supply of the Nile to the fertility symbolized in frogs. The ninth plague, darkness, is the penultimate showdown between Moses, perceived to be a nobody, and Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the known world. Moses spent forty years thinking he was somebody, then forty years learning that he was a nobody, and his final forty years realizing what God can do with a nobody (D.L. Moody).

Even today, our battle is not against flesh and blood. What would Moses say to us today, when our expectations are disappointed? Would he encourage us to take part in God’s “long game,” encouraging us to trust in God’s eternal perspective rather than our own short-term point of view? Even today, we could ask, “Why would God allow Israel to suffer more after Moses obeyed?” But even that question presumes that we know how God should operate. We inadvertently presume we know best, especially from the darkness of our own suffering. And we may not be able to comprehend God’s activity in our lives. But what we can do is trust. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). This is also what Jesus is commended for (among other things) as he can empathize with our disappointed prayers. Jesus, who asked for God to spare him his suffering, just before the troops came to arrest him.

Do you ever give yourself the time to contemplate that God is at work even though you may not perceive it? Do you ever give yourself the time to ask, “Do I really trust?” It can be a frightening question, but it is the question of the faithful.

For reflection:
– What struggles have you had that made you wonder if God was present or cared?
– Did you find the ability to trust?
– If you did, how did you find it?
– If you did not, how did you cope?
– Do you know someone struggling to believe that God cares, or even exists? How do you relate to them?

In grace,
MM

Moses: Our Call, God’s Power

The actual, burned up bush from my yard.

In my entire life, I have never been near a burning bush. I really haven’t. I mean, campfires, maybe. I’ve seen some brushfires from a distance. But just last week, only a day after revisiting Exodus 3 and Moses’ “burning bush moment,” I was stunned when my next-door neighbor accidentally set aflame a bush that borders our properties. A real-life burning bush right at my house! But alas, this bush did burn up. And the only voices I heard were my neighbors’ and the firefighters.

Moses, on the other hand, did have a dialogue with God, which began in ch. 3 and continues in Exodus 4:1-17. In this passage, Moses has three more issues with the calling God is giving him.

#1: Authority. “What if they don’t believe me?” Moses asks. It’s basically a question of authority. Moses has a valid concern that the Israelites would not recognize that he has any authority over them or Pharaoh. They have no earthly reason to trust that Moses was sent by God. And funny enough, God agrees! So he gives him the grace of three signs to validate his calling. God shows Moses that his calling is defined by God’s authority.

#2: Ability. “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” After God shows Moses how God would display His authority, Moses skillfully changes the subject to his lack of ability to speak well. Literally, the Hebrew means “I am heavy of mouth.” What a sensory image of how Moses experienced his limited ability! But God answers again, with this echo of God’s own name in Moses exact point of weakness. The Hebrew literally reads: “I am with your mouth” (the NIV reads “I will help you speak.”) God shows Moses that his calling is reliant on God’s ability.

#3: Action. “Please send someone else.” Finally out of arguments, Moses reveals his real feelings. He just doesn’t wanna. Maybe he’s scared, maybe he’s stubborn, and maybe a bit of both. But Moses doesn’t want to act. He easily forgets that God isn’t telling Moses to be in charge; he is telling Moses to be obedient. God is the one who initiated this exodus plan, and God would be the one to enact it. And Moses learns that his calling is enabled by God’s action.

And it’s a good thing, too. Later, God would send a “new Moses,” Jesus Christ, who would perform signs and wonders, pass through the waters, and suffer in the wilderness, just as Moses did. But Jesus would do more than lead people out of physical slavery in a nation — he would lead people out of spiritual slavery in sin and death. And his calling was empowered by the Father’s authority, ability, and action.

For reflection:
– Have you ever felt “called by God” to do something? What was that like?
– “Calling” can mean a lot of things; what do you think it means in the context of following Jesus?
– Have you ever felt called to something and not been able to say “yes”? Why not?
– Is it possible God is calling you to something in which you have no authority? No ability? Are hesitant to act?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses – The Burning Bush

Fire. There’s just something about it. I mean, sure it is an essential ingredient in the creation of what we call “human civilization,” and sure we know what it is scientifically. But there’s still something mysterious about it that deeply resonates with us. Maybe this is why God’s presence appears in the form fire.

Until this point in Moses’ “origin story,” God has appeared pretty much as a passive, distant character. Only at the end of chapter 2 does God appear to be active, but in the background of the story. Here, in Exodus 3, God appears powerfully on the scene. So powerfully, in fact, that God becomes the main character of the story.

When God appears to Moses in the burning-but-not-consumed bush, he tells Moses to remove his sandals because Moses is standing on holy ground. The presence of God is sacred, or set apart, from the ordinary. So the inevitable day-to-day grime that appears on the bottoms of our shoes has no place there. It’s a reminder that even though God wants to be near us, and even to be known by name, our proper posture toward God is one of deep reverence (what the Hebrew calls “the fear of the Lord”).

So what is it about God that we revere? Of course there are the “qualities” that we read about like omniscience and almightiness. But look at what God is doing here. God sees… God knows… God is concerned… God has come. God’s compassion and action for oppressed people inspire our reverent awe.

What follows is a dialogue between Moses and God that is among the most memorable in the Bible. Moses asks questions and God answers. Moses’ hesitation about the task God is calling him to do is palpable. But Moses becomes for us one of scripture’s most powerful examples that if you want to know God, you have to go with God.

The concept of “personal conversion” has a precedent in scripture, but combined with the staunch individualism of our culture it can lead to a “personal religion” that is indifferent about the state of the world. But Pastor Aaron put it best when he said “Salvation is a full contact sport.”

For reflection:
– Think back: have you ever experienced a sense of “calling?” Would you say it was God calling you? If not, where did the calling come from?
– Tell the story: If you have had an experience of calling, what was it?
– Look forward: Are you in a season of change? In what way might God be calling you now?

Blessings,
MM


Moses – A Broken Shepherd in the Desert

It’s a long way up from the Nile delta to the Midian wilderness — about 7,000 feet! Some historians say it would have taken Moses a month to get there on foot as he fled certain death at the hands of Pharaoh, which would have been his punishment for killing an Egyptian.

Ironically, as Moses ascended toward Midian, he descended in the social ranks, from a prince of Egypt to an insignificant shepherd — someone Egyptians at the time would have believed to be beneath dignity. But Moses stood up for another injustice, this time toward someone other than his own people — Midianite shepherd women. Eventually Moses was able to marry and start another life…a life that would become his first forty years in the wilderness.

Though now a foreigner in a foreign land, Moses had already grown up as an outcast in Egypt. His name in Egyptian means “son” but was usually affixed to a father’s name also. But Moses did not know his father, so “Moses” indicates being a son without a father — doubtlessly a source of great pain for him.

Oftentimes, pain leads to one of two basic outcomes. Pain can breed resentment in our hearts. It can isolate us, tempting us to believe that no one understands us. Pain can tempt us to long for the greener grass we are sure is growing in other fields. Pain can even tempt us to believe that God has abandoned us, or that there is no God in the first place. But pain can lead elsewhere, too. Pain can strengthen us, similar to the way hard work strengthens our muscles. That which removes our comfort (like resistance) can actually result in strength rather than weakness! Pain can also cultivate perseverance, humility, discipline, and faith. Okay, I’ll do it — I’ll quote the movie Star Trek V. Captain Kirk is tempted to let an alien force remove all of his life’s pain (including the death of his son), but Kirk wisely insists: “I want my pain. I need my pain!”

Within a month, Moses’ entire life had changed, and not in a direction he would have wished. We can only wonder how often he thought back on his crime of passion. We can only wonder at the pain of letting go of the dreams of his young adulthood. And while God had not “forced” Moses into this challenge, God would be willing to shape Moses within it, and even teach Moses how to lead a stubborn flock in the wilderness (he had no idea whom he would lead later in his life). Moses would learn that just because life is hard doesn’t mean something is wrong.

In a world that tries to sell us easy answers and quick fixes, are we willing to dwell in our own wilderness long enough to let God shape us there?

For reflection:
– Have you ever had a season of “wilderness”? Tell someone the story.
– What has been your experience of pain, and what was its result in your life?
– Are you in a painful wilderness right now? Do you have someone you trust to talk to about it?
– If you have a story of being strengthened as the result of pain in your life, whom do you know that could be inspired by your story?

Many blessings,
MM

“In the Dark till I Met the Light”

Today was special at University Place Presbyterian Church — the children’s choir known as the Alleluia Singers put on their first musical theater production: Nic at Night by Kathie Hill. It was a wonderfully creative way for our community to gather, worship, and hear God’s word in a new way.

Nic at Night creatively tells the story of the pharisee, Nicodemus, covertly meeting with Jesus one night. This densely packed theological passage in the book of John contains one of the Bible’s most memorable proclamations:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In the story, some local kids take notice of this high-status teacher sneaking around at night trying to meet with Jesus, who though a rabbi is garnering a reputation for going against rabbinical tradition, and even breaking God’s law. Nicodemus meeting with Jesus surely would have been frowned upon by his contemporaries.

In the process, Nicodemus learns as much about himself as he does about Jesus. In a moving solo, he sings the song “In the Dark” and admits:
“I was in the dark till I met the light; my cold, cold heart turned to Jesus Christ. I was in the dark, still my eyes could see, that even in the dark He was loving me.”

If only we all could meet with Jesus face to face! And yet, because of the Holy Spirit, we can meet with the risen Lord and know Jesus in a personal way. There are numerous opportunities for this, and I want to highlight a few:
Alpha will meet in the Wayside Cafe on Sunday evenings 6-8pm starting June 16 through July 28 (with a one-day Saturday retreat on Aug. 10 and a concluding session on Aug. 18).
ConneXions is a mid-size group that explores together what it means to put our knowledge and faith into action and lifestyle. They meet every Sunday at 9:30.
– There are several others through the summer, including women’s group The Well, men’s group True Men, and several weekday Bible studies. Find out more at UPPC.org “Pathways.”

May the beginning of your summer be a blessed season! We’ll continue our series on Moses next week!

In Grace,
MM

Moses – Murderer, Fugitive…Prophet?

“Will all the world’s oceans wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, instead my hands
Will stain the seas scarlet,
Turning the green waters red.”
— Macbeth, Act 2 scene 2

William Shakespeare had a remarkable gift for translating mere concepts into emotional realities.  In the above scene, Macbeth is suffering from the guilt of killing his king in order to take over the throne.  We all understand the intellectual concept of guilt; these words of Macbeth help bring the experience to life. 

Sometimes we forget that before he became a hero and the greatest prophet and priest of ancient Israel, Moses himself personally experienced this kind of guilt (Exodus 2:11-15). He had committed murder.  He had hidden the evidence.  He was on the run from the king.  We can only imagine his thoughts and feelings as he ran from the luxury of his adoptive royal family and off into the desert.  What will he do now?  Will he ever see his friends and family again? What must God think of him — the same God who had rescued him as a baby — now that he is a man?  Moses’ guilt and shame cannot be underestimated.  

In that moment, Moses could have never foreseen what God had in store for him. He knew he was a murderer and fugitive, but he could not have known he would one day be God’s prophet and lead the Hebrews to freedom. He could not have known just how true it is that God reveals redemption through broken people.

One of the fundamental revelations in the Bible about God is that God shows mercy to sinners. God is so often remembered only for the portrayals as wrathful, but anyone familiar with the Bible will remember that God has mercy even on the world’s first murderer, Cain, by offering him protection. God has mercy on Abraham, who is lauded for his faith but still made many mistakes. God will have mercy on Moses, though he cannot see how. And in the 21st century we sometimes take for granted God’s supreme act of mercy, when he destroyed sin and death on Jesus’ cross.

But God’s mercy does not spare us the hard lessons, as God shapes us through our failures. Surely Moses had been shaped by God’s mercy toward him when he asks God to extend the same mercy to the impatient Hebrews. And of course we don’t always enjoy that shaping. Jesus referred to it with the metaphor of a plant being pruned so that we will bear more fruit. Ouch. But we know that failure is one of life’s best teachers, so it stands to reason that God would utilize our failures to help us mature.

In those painful moments, it’s crucial to remember that God’s plans for us are far greater than we can imagine. Sitting by that well in Midian, looking down at his guilty, murderous hands, being chosen by God to lead the Hebrews to freedom was probably as far from Moses’ mind as the east is from the west. But this is also the distance from which God is willing to remove our sins from us (Ps. 103:12). So putting our faith into action as we work through our guilt and shame can sometimes be as simple (though not easy) as gritting our teeth and remembering what God has done for us in the past, including the distant past through people like Moses.

For reflection:
1) Can you recall a time when guilt was weighing you down? Did you work through it? How?
2) Guilt for wrong actions can often transform into a sense of shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me.” Are you wrestling with self-messages of shame? Are any of those messages undeserved?
3) God never appears in today’s passage, just as God doesn’t appear in 2:1-10. Does it encourage you to know that sometimes God may not be obviously present, and nevertheless working behind the scenes?
4) We often feel paralyzed by our own guilt — has it ever occurred to you that God’s will is in no way disabled by our guilt?
5) Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians believe that sin itself has been put to death (2 Cor. 5:21). While we still live repentant lives, how does this once-for-all act of Jesus change how we think about guilt?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: Faith in Action

Have you ever played the game “Would You Rather?” Just in case you haven’t, it’s basically a conversation starter where a person is presented two options and has to choose which one they’d “rather” do (or eat, or take part in, etc.) The options are usually good fodder for middle school campfires, especially if they’re silly or disgusting. But the idea is elemental — what would you do in the face of a dilemma? Before Moses was even born, two Hebrew midwives were presented with a great dilemma: Would you rather disobey God or the most powerful person in the world?

Shiphrah and Puah (noteworthy that they are remembered by name) are credited with perhaps the first ever recorded moment of civil disobedience. The king of Egypt commanded that they kill newborn boys, forcing them to either disobey him or God, who is the only creator and destroyer of life, and who had created a covenant with their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They chose the latter, of course, and ultimately saved newborn Moses’s life.

One can only wonder what it would have felt like for Shiphrah and Puah in the moment. How much thought did they put into their decision? Did they fully grasp the potential consequences? Whatever their process, the fact is that they chose the hard right instead of the easy wrong. The question is: what would each of us do in their situation?

A popular assumption about God is that God sits far off observing human beings and occasionally “intervenes.” It’s a pervasive assumption which even our prayers often reflect. And to be sure, there are plenty of stories in scripture when God imposes supernatural power into the natural world to enact God’s will. But we should be careful not to let those stories eclipse the more frequent narratives in which God’s will is fulfilled through the obedient actions of ordinary people. During the earliest months of Moses’ life, four ordinary women acted in faith, and through them God set the stage for freedom for his covenant people.

For reflection:
1) Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma? What was it like? What did you choose to do, and why?
2) When we face an ethical dilemma, what are the intrinsic fears that drive our ultimate decision? What can we do to overcome our fears and choose based on truth and wisdom?
3) The midwives were rewarded by God for their obedience. Do you believe God rewards obedience today? Do God’s rewards need to fit our criteria of “reward?”
4) How is God calling you to “faith in action”?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: Fear of the Hyksos

Heroes sometimes come from unlikely places. Spider-Man is an otherwise ordinary teenager. Bilbo Baggins is a simple hobbit from the shire. In the non-fiction world, Malala Yousafzai was just a girl who wanted to learn, and now she is a Nobel laureate. Terry Fox was a kid from British Columbia whose legacy still inspires millions every year.

Moses was an orphan and then a prince; a murderer and then a fugitive; a shepherd and then a prophet. Eventually, the book of Deuteronomy would remind us that Moses was even one who saw God face to face.

The reason Moses’ infant life was endangered in the first place was because he was hyksos, that is, a foreigner in the land of Egypt. And when the Hebrews multiplied in number, though they had done nothing wrong, the Egyptian pharaoh feared that the hyksos would try to rebel and claim power over the region (Exodus 1:5-14). Pharaoh ordered systematic infanticide to control the Hebrew population. Had it not been for the courage of several women, we may never have known about Moses or even about the Jewish people at all. Pharaoh’s decree was one of the earliest attempts at ethnic cleansing in what would become a repeated phenomenon in history.

Xenophobia literally means “stranger fear.” A phobia is an irrational fear, which of course leads to irrational behavior. So when this kind of fear dominates one’s mind, as it dominated pharaoh’s mind, great destruction can be the result.

So, centuries later when Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, word of his birth made its way to the Judean king, Herod. Herod let his fear dominate his mind in the same way pharaoh had, which led him to the same decision: a eerily similar decree to murder the firstborn boys of the region in order to maintain his power.

Can you imagine the kind of destruction that can occur when it’s not a single monarch who succumbs to such powerful fear? When it’s a group, or even the majority of a population? Unfortunately, history has recorded plenty of those examples, too. So as we move into the second week of our deep dive into this study of Moses, let’s reflect on our own “stranger fears,” and ask God to challenge us and empower us not to give in to fear of the hyksos and instead reflect Jesus’ gracious love: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

For reflection:
– In what ways do you struggle with fear of those who are different from you? (It’s okay, we all do in one way or another.)
– Can you identify the source or foundation of your fears?
– Which of your fears are probably irrational?
– How have you let fear lead you to act contrary to how Jesus calls us to act?
– What is one step you can take this week to overcome your fear and by led by love instead?

Blessings,
MM