You Feed Them, There is Enough

I’m not sure when the “holiday season” starts these days. Is it mid-September when I actually saw Christmas items on some store shelves? Or maybe right after Halloween? In any case, it’s probably by the time Starbucks releases their long-awaited holiday-themed merch. When the holiday season does finally begin, two things come to my mind: meals and giving. In both cases, whether we’re hosting a meal or preparing gifts, we naturally ask our selves the question: “Is this enough?

That question has permeated all of human history, including the history told in the Bible. And far too often, the world seems to shout back at us, “No! There’s isn’t enough!” And this is what makes Jesus’ life so baffling. In particular the fateful evening when he fed thousands of people using only enough for a few.

Having just been given the news of his cousin’s brutal and unjust execution, Jesus retreats, no doubt to grieve. But his grief would have to wait as thousands of needy people call on him. Led by compassion, he serves them until nightfall, when his friends state the obvious: they’re hungry, so let them go get dinner. Jesus’ responses are legendary:
“You give them something to eat.”
Surely in some disbelief, they remind him they have only enough for themselves. Then his second response:
“Bring it here to me.”

The rest is, as they say, history. So what was Jesus seeing that the disciples weren’t able to see? In short, that God created a world in which there is enough. The key is learning to experience it, and then give it away.

Jesus’ view of the world apparently resembles the Genesis 1-2 world: a world of overabundant resources, given by a loving Father. But that view was corrupted when the man and woman were deceived by the serpent. Remember, his deceptions were not generic, but rather laser-focused. First, he would plant the seed of mistrust: “Did God really say you could not eat…?” When that fails, he would plant the seed of envy: “That’s just because God didn’t want you to actually be in charge, to actually have the final say in your own life. I thought he put you in charge, but I guess not…” Mistrust and envy make a wicked fruit, and human beings have been eating it ever since.

But Jesus insists on undoing those lies and showing people the greater truth–a truth that will set us free from mistrust and envy, free to give of the overabundance of God’s world … free to give as God gives. Here are six basic principles I’ve gleaned out of today’s story, and the Bible overall:

Our Creator provides what we need. I know it sounds too simple, but this is where it starts.  This is step one in telling the serpent to slither away! But do we really live like we believe it?  Do we live like God will provide despite the circumstances, like he did through Jesus and Moses before him — bread to a hungry people in a remote place?  (If you noticed that coincidence, good job; you’re supposed to notice it!) 

Our Creator provides differently than the world expects. God might give us SOMETHING quite different than what we expected.  How many testimonies include the phrase, “I never expected this to happen, but…” God might give TO SOMEONE who is different than we expected.   Finally, the toughest one: God might give to someone MORE OR LESS than he gives you.  Part of trusting God is refusing to judge what God gives, and to whom he gives it.

Our Creator does not guarantee that we’ll understand his provision. Back to the garden we go!  The sin Adam and Eve commit is grounded in the hubris that comes with insisting that the Creator of the cosmos operate only at a level that we understand, or even more, that we approve of!  But a so-called “god” whom I can fully comprehend is truly just a figment of my imagination.  

Our Creator does guarantee that we will be an instrument for his provision. Yes, there is an intentional similarity between God provided bread in the desert with Moses and bread in this remote place with Jesus.  But there is one crucial difference. In the Sinai desert, the manna appeared each morning on its own.  But in the new covenant, the bread doesn’t just appear. God’s people give their own, and God multiplies it.  Same God, same gift — new method. Why would God choose this method?

Our Creator does not need our money, but insists on our trust. In the words of Bono, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”  Of course he isn’t.  What God desires from us is our heart.  The greatest commandment is not “Love the Lord with all your money.”  It is, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But here’s the thing.  The one who created our heart, mind, soul, and strength, knows exactly what guides them. And so Jesus taught… 

Our Creator gave us hearts that go where our treasure is. Note the order.  Most fundraisers will try to appeal to your heart, so that you will then send your treasure that way.  But Jesus teaches the opposite. Your treasure doesn’t go where your heart is — your heart goes wherever you send your treasure.  

You want to invest your heart in things that pass away?  So did Adam and Eve. But if you want to invest in that which will never pass away; if you want to take part in miracles; then listen to Jesus, as he says “Bring what you have to me.”  And watch him multiply it, not only for others, but your transformation as well.

For reflection:

  • Make a simple, bullet-pointed list of that which God has provided for you. Include material and non-material provision. Does anything surprise you?
  • Of that which God has given you, what can be used to provide for those around you? Again, include material and non-material things.
  • God calls us to be wise stewards of what we’re given. Are you giving to others (church, charity, etc.) in a way that you feel is wise?
  • The feeding of the give thousand also calls us to be ready to give in a way that feels risky, even ridiculous. Do you ever give in a way that feels like this?
  • What is one thing you could do to take a step out of “safe giving” and toward faith-informed “risky giving?”
  • If your heart goes where your treasure is, do you manage your wealth in a way that directs your heart toward God, what God cares about, and God’s promise to take care of you?
  • What is the interplay between providing for yourself, providing for your loved ones, providing for others in need, and relinquishing control of all your providing in the hands of God?

The Surprising Gifts that Come from Hard Times

November 1 is known in the Church calendar as All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember and honor those godly people who have gone before us in faith and life, and whom we’ve lost in death even while we celebrate their eternal life. At UPPC, for the past two years we have seen this day as an opportunity to contemplate the interplay between loss and redemption. This week, we were blessed by Brahms’ Requiem, which he composed as he processed his own grief and hope in Christ.

This interplay is very much at the heart of the Bible’s wisdom literature, including the book of Ecclesiastes, from which comes this famous passage on the inevitability of seasons in our lives. When we read it, we’re reminded of the truth that there is a time for all things. That said, we tend to strive for only some of the items on that list — the seasons we would call “good,” of course. But the reality is that all of those items are inevitable for all people in some form or another. The reality is that if we are alive, we will endure times of loss and the need for restoration.

The Japanese art of kintsugi entails the repair of broken pottery through bonding with gold. It is a beautiful proclamation that not only can we survive the experience of being broken and imperfect, but we can become more beautiful and valuable in the healing process. In kintsugi, the cracks in each pot are unique, and rather than being hidden are highlighted in beauty.

So the wisdom we might share with our younger selves this week is: “Pain is a catalyst for spiritual growth.” When we do more to become involved in the world and our communities, we set ourselves up for more hurt. It’s an essential ingredient to the love by which we live into the world. A teacher of Pastor Aaron’s once remarked, “One day, you will lose everything.” At first glance, this seems painfully dark and pessimistic. But insofar as “everything” entails the measurable phenomena of our lives (family, friends, health, wealth, etc.) it happens to be true. The “Teacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes is wrestling with this very inevitability and seeking to articulate the motivation behind living in a life so characterized by loss.

As followers of Jesus, we know that the material losses we endure, as rightfully painful as those losses can be, do not have the final say about our lives. And no, it’s not because we just close our eyes and brace ourselves for life’s pain as we await the “afterlife.” Rather, it’s because Jesus “brings gold into our losses.” We must never forget that Jesus is intimately acquainted with pain, loss, and of course death. And while we may be perplexed by God’s unwillingness to spare us of these things, we are also strengthened by the way God redeems pain to make us stronger, so that the world may also experience God’s love through us.

Consider Jesus’ disciple, Peter. In one night, eager Peter boldly claimed he would never deny his Master, and promptly did that very thing. Imagine how broken he must have felt when Jesus was crucified, and for the excruciating day that followed. Imagine also Peter’s tearful humility as he looked his risen Master in the eye on the seashore, only to be forgiven, restored, and put back to work for the sake of Jesus’ new kingdom. Here was a man, strengthened through the experience of being broken and restored.

For reflection:
– Consider your personal life. What aspect(s) of your life appear to be whole, but are actually broken?
– Kintsugi does hide cracks, but highlights and beautifies them. Are there broken parts of your life that you’re hiding, but which can be made beautiful?
– Consider your community. What people, places, or other aspects of your surrounding community are broken and in need of restoration?
– Consider the national and global communities. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your mind toward the broken people and places for which to pray.
– How could it change your view of contentment to remember that God is not only unafraid of brokenness, but willing to enter it, feel the world’s pain, and still offer healing and wholeness?
– The Hebrew word shalom roughly translates as “peace.” But its meaning is broader, more like “wholeness” or “complete contentment.” Take a few moments to describe what one day of shalom would look and feel like for you.

Six Hazards to Avoid on the Discipleship Pathway

I have recently been reminded of an important characteristic of being human — we are designed to practice and learn new skills. My main hobby and fitness regimen is Taekwondo, and for the past two weeks we have been practicing the fundamental steps of what’s known as a 540 spin hook kick. I would demonstrate it for you, but…I’m still practicing. Suffice it to say that I’m having to re-learn how to use my body in an entirely new way!

It has been a good reminder that in addition to practicing new skills, we can also grow mature in those skills (proven by my teacher doing the kick like it’s no big deal). But ironically, sometimes it is our mastery itself that can become an obstacle to growth. Sometimes, to grow we must unlearn what we thought we knew and begin again.

“Dear Younger Me:  You won’t spiritually mature just because you are a Christian.  It takes practice to learn how to walk the pathway of discipleship.  And sometimes, you must forget what you think you know and start learning all over again.”

This series is based on the idea that we can share the wisdom we’ve learned through experience. While wisdom is often associated with a kind of deep knowledge, it also includes the idea of skill. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “wisdom” can also mean “skill.” So, to be wise is to be “skilled at life.” And to build skills, we have to practice.

Paul knew this. In this letter to the Ephesians, he spends the first half reiterating the heart of the Gospel — that by God’s grace we are re-created in Christ, into new lives. Here are the Gospel basics from ch. 2:1-10

  • We were all once dead in our sins;
  • But because of his great love for us, God made us alive with Christ;
  • For it is by grace we have been saved, through faith;
  • It is the gift of God, for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus 

And so, because by God’s grace we are given new life in Christ, we are called to a new way of living. The second half of Paul’s letter, chapters 4-6, get into those details. And that latter half begins with Paul’s eloquent description of the process of living this new life as we grow toward maturity. That process is like a pathway on which we are called to journey. It is not always smooth, of course. It has hills and valleys, caverns and caves, and there are many hazards to trip us up along the way. So here are six pathway hazards to avoid, and alternatives to do instead, as you walk with Jesus.

1. Reject excuses — Accept your gifts

There’s a difference between excuses and obstacles. Obstacles legitimately stand in the way of something. But an excuse is a false obstacle we create to let ourselves off the hook.   Instead, take an inventory of what God has given us — limited though it may seem at times — and say “with these gifts, I’ll move forward in my walk with Jesus.”

2. Leap over fear — Trust the process

Fear is based on our inability to know the future.  Like on a high ropes course, you may have seen others go before you, but still be wondering, “What if my rope is the first one to break?!”  When it comes to following Jesus, similar fears can trip us up. “What will my friends think? What if I look weird?  What if I don’t understand it? ” But instead of letting fear trip you up, trust the process and the sisters and brothers who have gone before you.

3. Beware of comfort — Find peace in discomfort

Everyone loves a comfy set of flannel PJs or new slippers.  But to learn or grow in anything, actually, requires a degree of discomfort.  Jesus actually did promise that we could have peace.  But comfort?  He actually promised we’d have the opposite.  So if we want to grow, we need to find peace in being (at least a little) uncomfortable. 

4. Sidestep blame — Take responsibility

One of the greatest recent changes in the institutional church is the realization that its primary role is to do what Paul says right here in 4:12: “to equip Christ’s people for works of service.”  When the institutional church is seen as the primary “doer” of ministry, it’s all too easy to blame the church for my own lack of spiritual growth: “The reason I’m not growing is because the Church isn’t doing something for me.”  But when we take responsibility for being functional, contributing members of the Church as Christ’s living Body, then we’ll begin experience spiritual growth.

5. Refuse passivity — Lean into the “hill” 

Passivity can actually lead to blame, because it’s characterized by having something done to me or for me — rather than an active pursuit.  If discipleship is like a pathway, then when that pathway goes up a steep hill, passivity will stop me or even make me fall backward.  It happens. We call it “backsliding.”  The alternative is to lean into the hill, and actively pursue spiritual maturity.

6. Resist riding others’ coattails — Walk your own walk.

This is a common experience in a community.  For example, it’s common in a marriage for one spouse to be spiritually maturing, while the other spouse basically tags along.  And what about kids?  As kids grow up, it’s easy for them to ride the momentum of mom’s or dad’s faith without growing into their own faith.  But as a professor of mine once said, “God has no grandchildren.”  You can’t inherit your parents’ faith.  And for that matter, God also has no in-laws; you can’t marry into the Body of Christ either.  So rather than trying to ride someone else’s coattails — vicariously applying their spiritual growth to ourselves — take one step at a time and walk your own walk with Jesus.

A couple parting thoughts:
1) Don’t try to think your way into spiritual maturity any more than you think your way into playing the piano, cooking a 4-course meal, or doing a 540 spin hook kick. You’ll only know what you need to practice when you start to practice.
2) It’s okay to try something in discipleship and realize it’s not helping you grow. It’s not a test, it’s a learning process. Let that thing go and pursue another avenue of growth with Jesus.
3) Visit UPPC.org > Pathways to see what discipleship opportunities there are for you in our local body. It’s updated every quarter. In the meantime, engage with the teachings on Sundays, online, or by listening to our weekly podcast Bible Jazz.

For reflection:
– When you think about someone being “spiritually mature” what kind of person do you envision?
– Do you have a way of measuring your own growth in spiritual maturity? Or does the goal seem too foggy to move toward?
– We teach that there are four discipleship fundamentals: Scripture Fluency, Active Prayer, Intentional Community, and Acts of Service. Do you have room to grow more mature in any of those?
– If you’re ready to get active in your own growth as Jesus’ disciple, do you know what your next steps are? Do you know where to find guidance?

In peace,
MM

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Lies I’ve Loved

This series, “Dear Younger Me…” is based on the wisdom we’ve learned through experience that we wish we could have known earlier. Half-truths definitely fall into this category, and Pastor Aaron started the series by addressing several. This week, we’ll look at two more.

  1. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” When I Googled this phrase, not only did I not have to completely type it out because Google auto-completed it for me, but I also got 6.8 million hits. Turns out it’s so ubiquitous, there’s a whole retail industry jumping on the bandwagon of this sentiment. You can even make your point while your make your dinner!

    The primary problem with this sentiment is how it oversimplifies scripture.

    Deut. 23:12-14 is rarely preached about these days, but 140 years ago it was highly relevant as churches debated the pros and cons of installing indoor plumbing in their church buildings. Besides being sort of funny to think about, it points to the need to always interpret scripture. And to interpret scripture means to incorporate some details into our lives while laying others aside, depending on what is relevant, helpful, meaningful, etc.

    It’s so tempting to believe that we can easily see “what God said” that gives our arguments a final KO punch, but scripture simply does not function that way. Even when we believe that scripture is divinely authored, we also acknowledge that it was penned by people (inspired though they may have been) in a literary and historic milieu which clearly influenced them. When we oversimplify scripture as though it were written in a vacuum, and especially when we pay attention only to passages that support our beliefs, we take the risk of (1) becoming lazy in our engagement with scripture, (2) weaponizing it to harm others, (3) assuming that we are the final authority on what scripture means and how to apply it to all people, at all times.

    It would be more helpful if the apron, coffee mug, or bumper sticker read: “God said it, I read it, then thought about it, wrestled with it, did some research, learned several points of view, prayed about it, and now I have an idea of how it ight matter in the world today, but I’m still learning.” But it might not sell many coffee mugs…
  2. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This one sounds so right, doesn’t it? What’s interesting is that Jesus never said it. We know that Christ came to save sinners. And we know God so loved the world… But Jesus didn’t say to “love the sinner.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said “Love one another.” He even said, “Love your enemies.” Why would he not add that we should also “hate the sin?”

    Probably because Jesus knew human nature even better than we do. The moment we believe we are able to love the sinner while hating the sin, we begin to put ourselves right back on that judgment seat, noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the 2×4 sticking out of our own faces. That is to say, we give ourselves permission to pass judgment on what other people do, and even more destructively, who people are.

    Now, to be sure, the Bible is clear about sin we must denounce: injustice, greed, idolatry, covetousness, etc. The point we’re making here is to not let ourselves fall into the habit of examining others’ sin while ignoring ours. So before we consider what it means to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” let’s start with this saying: “Love your neighbor no matter what — despite the fact that you are a sinner.”

For reflection:
– What are your initial thoughts about these two sayings? Do you agree or disagree that they are “half truths?” What is your reasoning?
– Why do you think it is so tempting to simplify what scripture says, or to read selectively? What challenges does scripture present that most people would rather not face?
– How do you go about showing love to a person whom you believe is making sinful choices, but in a way that does not outwardly condemn that person?
– How do you strike a balance between striving to be Godly, teaching Godliness to your community, while at the same time not passing judgment on people?

In it with you,
MM

Dear Younger Me: I Need Your Help

Jesus tells the disciples something that is at once comforting and endearing, and at the same time fundamentally challenging: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This week, our series took a different turn as youth ministry Rob Clark realized that in his letter to his younger self, he actually needed to ask for advice. Something like, “Dear younger me: will you teach me again how to wonder? How to notice the little but beautiful details of life? How to have faith?”

Have you ever taken a walk with a 2-year-old? It doesn’t go quickly. The little one is far too busy enjoying the world God has made and placed them in to be bothered getting to an actual destination! Every rock along the pathway has a story to tell!

The prophet Elijah, in a biblically famous moment of real anxiety, needed this reminder of youthful faith. He needed to hear from God, and God knew exactly how Elijah needed to hear from him — in the quiet. Ironically, this was on Mount Horeb, the very place Moses had heard from God, but not in the silence. Rather, Moses had heard God’s voice in the mysterious burning bush. It seems that God will be present with people in the way God knows we need him to the most. It doesn’t matter how many books we read, sermons or podcasts we listen to, or conferences we attend. If we are trying to force God to talk to us in a certain way, God might not. But if we relinquish that control — if we become like little children — then scripture’s testimony is that God very much will be noticeably present to us.

In today’s restless culture, one has to wonder what we’re losing when we lose our time in the quiet with God. When we lose our time walking with no destination. When we lost our time lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, just to…well, just to stare at the ceiling. In these moments, we remember that as little children, there was not much we really needed our parents to DO for us. But there was a deeply primal need simply to just BE with them. We’re no different now. We have a deeply primal need simply to BE with our heavenly Father.

We cannot really have a serious conversation about creating space for quiet in our lives without confronting our use of mobile technology. The ways we engage with the internet on our devices are not all “wrong” (though some are, let’s be honest.) But the way we use those devices has the potential to steal our childlike presence with God away from us. So here are a few tips to challenge yourself with this week:

  1. Go for a walk … and don’t count your steps. In fact, don’t take your phone at all (if you dare.) Don’t even take a watch. You’ll know when you’re done. And the world will continue to turn while you’re out there.
  2. Read a book printed on paper. It doesn’t update every five seconds, and it’s not as convenient as a Kindle. But you’re more likely to remember what you’ve read because of the multi-sensory experience of the feel of the cover, the smell of the pages.
  3. Create space to have your own thoughts, not just thoughts in reaction to others’. this is where social media and news have really taken their toll on us. What comes to your mind on its own?
  4. Have a “phone bucket” in your house where everyone puts their devices during important times like dinner, conversation, reading time, prayer, board games, etc.
  5. Give the members of your family (especially your significant other) complete access to your device. There is enormous freedom and trust in complete transparency. If there’s something you’re hiding, you’re not free.
  6. Give yourself permission to not respond immediately to texts and emails. And give grace to others when there’s a delay in their response.

For reflection:
– Which of these six guidelines will challenge you the most? Which the least?
– What are some of your favorite memories of childhood?
– How would you feel about spending an entire 12-hour day in total silence, including no reading or writing?
– If you could ask your younger self for advice, what advice would you ask for?

Many blessings,
MM

Breaking Sabbath: The Sin that Keeps on Taking

Look, according to scripture, everyone sins. Paul said “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means that there are ways of being and doing that go against God’s will, which is for us to have an abundant, fruitful life. We get it. And if you grew up going to church, you really get it. And for the most part, people are in agreement about obeying the commandments. I mean, we know it’s bad to steal, kill, and cheat on spouses, right?

But there is perhaps one commandment that is the most shamelessly ignored above all the others: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…” Sabbath is more than just “not working.” To keep Sabbath is to reorient our entire selves around a God-given rhythm that balances being and doing. It is, in essence, living according to how we are made.

We all struggle in one way or another with self-worth. And the world sends us a clear (but deceptive) message that our self-worth is tied up in our productivity. But we know better, in our heart of hearts. The psalmist put it this way: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me. Why? Because he loves me. And he knows I need to be recreated after a week of toil.

So as we explore the wisdom we with we could tell our younger selves, consider this: “Dear Younger Me: don’t fall victim to the sin of busy-ness that keeps on taking. Instead let God bless you with Sabbath rest.”

Here are three things to doggedly exclude and replace if you want to experience God’s joy on Sabbath:
1) Exclude: Work. Oh boy, this concept has created centuries of debate. But let’s put it this way: “work” echoes God’s description of Adam’s experience of “toil.” So let’s define work as “toilsome deeds which wear us down.” Activities we do on Sabbath, then, are the opposite. Avoiding work doesn’t mean sitting still and doing nothing. It does mean avoiding activities that weary us.
Replace with: Physically Restful Activities. Be honest with yourself about activities that restore you, and limit your Sabbath activities to those things. It might be knitting, hiking, listening to music, or napping. (But it’s probably not watching TV, by the way.) Don’t know what restores your body? Ask around, do some reading, try things. Not anything can be holistically refreshing, but many things can be.

2) Exclude: Buying & Selling. This one will feel like paddling against a tidal wave. The whole world of goods and services are at our fingertips every day, and usually 24 hours a day. It seems crazy to avoid getting gas or groceries, or meeting that friend out for coffee, just because it’s Sabbath. But we are more than consumers. We are spiritual beings who ultimately subsist on every word that comes from the mouth of God. That means we can wait to place that Amazon order until tomorrow.
Replace with: Spiritual Replenishment. Have you ever asked yourself the question: “What gives me the most joy?” It’s not the same question as “What do I do for fun?” Activities that bring us joy replenish and refuel our spirits. And much of the time, they’re free! Spending time with loved ones, reading, walking, and so forth.

3) Exclude: Worry. We might think we’re not working when we glance at that work email. But mental and emotional work can be just as taxing (and sneak up on us!) Depending on what you do for a living or lifestyle, consider how susceptible you are to having worry sneak up on you; and consider your ability to say “no” for a day a week to that worry.
Replace with: Soul Restoration. It can be challenging to think of “activities” that would qualify as “soul restoring,” and we’ve probably already listed a few ideas. But this morning Pastor Aaron put it best when he said, “Dream with God! Make time to celebrate!” I love the image of the child and baby in the cover art because it’s a reminder of how freely we are made to imagine, dream, and feel the free joy of simply being alive.

Here’s the good news this week, folks: You are a creature. You are not the Creator. You aren’t made to go without sleep, to solve the world’s problems, or to constantly produce. God offers — no, commands — the gift of rest because God loves us and wants us to experience life in all its abundance.

For reflection:
1) What is the biggest obstacle you face that makes it hard to keep the Sabbath?
2) Have you ever had a negative experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it negative?
3) Have you ever had a positive experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it positive?
4) Do you believe the world would survive (and thrive) if, in theory, everyone on earth had 24 hours a week of whole-self rest?

Blessings,
MM

Moses: Idolatry and Identity

After rescuing Israel from certain enslavement or death and providing for them in the desert wilderness, God gave them commands by which to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other. The foremost command was to avoid worshiping false gods. That foundational commandment could be likened to wedding vows: have no other “spouse” than me. And the people agreed! They were even given plans to build God a home, the tabernacle (a sort of “mobile home,” actually) so God could live as closely as possible to them.

But when Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to meet with God on behalf of the people, the people let their anxiety overcome them — again, perhaps because of their mistrust — and they broke their covenant with Yahweh. In fact, they did what most people do in the face of anxiety — they reverted to the familiar. In their case, a goddess of Egypt — a golden calf upon which their Egyptian predecessors had relied.

In addition to breaking their covenant in an internal manner (spiritually, emotionally), they even melted down their gold to fashion the calf. This was the gold which was to be used to celebrate the God who had saved them in the creation of his tabernacle (dwelling place). And with that gold, they created their idol. Like adding insult to injury, this action would be like a newlywed who takes his or her new wedding band and gives it to someone else.

What is stunning and sobering as we remember this event in Israel’s history is how quickly it happened — and how quickly it happens to us, too. We were created to worship. It comes as naturally to human beings as eating and breathing. We don’t choose whether we worship, but we do get to choose what we worship. Having trouble identifying what you might be placing on that pedestal? Consider the kinds of sacrifices you make in your life — what you spend the most time and money on, for example. That to which we sacrifice our most valuable resources (time and money) might be one of our idols. What we worship will determine what we are willing to sacrifice.

God is understandably angry at his people’s stubbornness (or impatience, etc.) but this is when Moses really shines–from this point on Moses will be referred to as the “great high priest” because he intercedes on the people’s behalf, for the sake of God’s glory. He shows God he knows that God is the main character of the story, whose plan they are living out, whose plan is to redeem the entire world.

For reflection:
1) What idols draw your love and loyalty away from God? marked by repulsion from corporate, Christ-centered worship? Jesus is for the Body. To know him is to know his Body.
2) have we made Yahweh into an “idol,” like a small fixed statue we want to control and manipulate? When religion becomes secular, power-seeking resource?
3) How can we resist simplistic interpretations about God’s judgment and mercy? So we don’t cherry pick scripture to serve our own worldview? Because the mercy we want from Jesus is only meaningful in light of God’s authority to judge.

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: “Like No Other”

We’ve been dwelling in Moses’ life as told through the book of Exodus since springtime, and it has been a very rich journey. And now we arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses will receive from God perhaps what Moses is most famous for: the Ten Commandments.

So, so much has been written about the Ten Commandments, and even more has been presumed. You might see them outside a courthouse, or tattooed on someone’s arm. They are part of the foundation of western civilization, whether we’re aware of them or not. So let’s take a couple of moments to recap what Pastor Jim Mead taught us today.

What the Ten Commandments are NOT:

  • They are not a set of moral principles. Frederick Buechner said that principles are what people have in place of God. The Ten Commandments are the opposite of that — they are the foundation by which respond to God’s love and join into covenant with God.
  • They are not a pathway to God. Take a look at verse 6: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Do the Commandments begin with expectation? Or do they begin with grace? The relationship always begins with God’s gracious willingness to advocate for people, even to rescue us. And this did not change when Jesus came on the scene. Jesus fulfilled the covenant relationship with the Father, showing us what it means to respond to God’s grace by loving God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. That love can be expressed through following his “torah,” or instructions.

So what ARE the Ten Commandments?

  • They are instructions to live as we are designed. Human beings, made in God’s image (see Gen. 1:27) are designed to function in particular ways. We aren’t fish. We aren’t elephants. We are human beings. That means we are designed to live in ongoing connection (“relationship”) with the living God, and with each other in mutually loving community. But living as designed is a choice God allows us to make (not true for other creatures, right?) An aspect of God’s image in us is our ability to choose to live contrary to our design. The problem is that just because we choose it doesn’t mean it works. For example, if you drove a 2002 Toyota Tundra (like Jim does) you could operate it as designed, or not. By design, you’d change the oil, rotate the tires, and get occasional tune-ups. Against design, you might ignore those needs, or even try operate it as a boat (which would work, but only for a couple seconds.)
  • They are the foundation for our part of a covenant relationship with God. Like wedding vows, life gets more complicated than the few scenarios we recite on our wedding day. If wedding vows had to list every possible challenge we’d face in our covenants of marriage, the ceremony would last months! Instead, our vows outline the foundations of our covenant, the range of life experience in which we’re committing to partner with each other. After all, we get married because our spouse is “like no other.” Just as God is “jealous” for us, since God is like no other, too. The wedding day is a foundation for the marriage, just as the Ten Commandments are the foundation for the covenant we live with God. Some people resent the idea that God would have expectations of us. But would it be a living, loving relationship if God expected nothing of us?
  • They foreshadow God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to fulfill God’s Torah (again, “law” or “instructions”) the way the Israelites were supposed to have done, but couldn’t. Jesus doesn’t do away with it or revise it. He fulfills it, on our behalf, in his own life. And the life God designed us to have is fulfilled in Jesus, too. Jesus lived as we can live. His death conquered the sin and death that separates us from God. His resurrection seals God’s promise that we are made for everlasting life. The Ten Commandments are the day-to-day foundational expression of the greatest commandments, as taught by Jesus:
    37 “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

For reflection:
– Have you heard of the Ten Commandments before? What has been your impression of them?
– What do you think about the idea that God has expectations of us?
– Have you learned anything new about the Ten Commandments? What do they reveal about God’s character?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: “Delegate or Suffocate”

In 2001, I knew an older gentleman in Beflast, Northern Ireland named George. One day, George approached me after a sermon I gave and said, “That was a good sermon, Mike. There is one thing though…” He leaned in: “You’ve got to get your hands out of your pockets! It makes you look like a lazy man!”

Safe to say I don’t think I put my hands in my pockets up front for a long time after that. George really valued being known as a hard worker, and that “Protestant Work Ethic” is very much part of the American landscape, too. It’s just that, no matter hard hard a person works, they cannot do all the work alone.

In Exodus 18:13-27, Moses had been given a specific task by God — to judge God’s instructions and teach them to the people. But the line waiting for his counsel was dawn-to-dusk and ran round and round the block! He needed help, and his father-in-law Jethro knew it. Taking Jethro’s advice, Moses shared his responsibility with capable, trustworthy, God-fearing people, and together they could accomplish that specific task. God’s will is discerned and lived out in devoted community.

This means a few things:

  1. Living God’s will requires various responsibilities. Like a symphony or sports team, the task is shared (in this case, discerning and living God’s will) but the responsibilities can vary. Moses had the responsibility of oversight and final accountability to God. The other judges had responsibility over varying numbers of people. And don’t forget the people — they had the responsibility of actually obeying the counsel they were given!
  2. Living God’s will requires cooperation. It’s one thing to know your responsilbility. But it’s another to harmonize yours with others’ so that you act as a single unit. There are two key points of view on this:
    – Moses/Leader: Sometimes you’re the one in charge, and cooperating with others’ responsibility means (a) sharing control, and (b) trusting.
    – Judges/Cooperative Team: Sometimes you’re not in charge, but you’ve been asked to take on some responsibility. To honor God in that, the team must (a) say “yes” (not much can happen without that), (b) have a team attitude (a begrudging ‘yes’ can be worse than a ‘no’!) and (c) maintain perspective on the larger goal. This last one is key. The “God-fearing” men that Moses needed to choose would have to maintain the perspective that their job as judges wasn’t actually about them, and it wasn’t about Moses. It was about God and blessing the Israelites with God’s will so they could live the abundant lives God wanted them to live.

Here’s the great news (thank Jethro!) When we live God’s will as a devoted community, “everyone will go home satisfied.” That includes the people receiving the counsel and the ones giving it. It’s not God’s will that some people get served while the servants go home exhausted, burned out and cynical. Burnout isn’t righteous; it just gives us a chance to feed our egos. Rather, God’s will is that we share in the responsibility of governing the world in such a way that there is balance, health, and satisfaction.

For reflection:
1) In what ways do you play Moses’ role, as the one in charge? At home? Work? Church? Elsewhere? What challenges do you face as one in charge?
2) In what ways do you play the ‘judges” role, as the one being entrusted with responsibility? At home? Work? Church? Elsewhere? What challenges do you face as the one being given responsibility, but not ultimately in charge?
3) Jesus also entrusted people with responsibility — what can we learn about the character of God by today’s passage, or in the many other ways God expects people to share the responsibility of living out God’s will?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: Water, Whiners, and ‘What is it?’

Oh boy — this scripture seemed pretty straightforward at first, but as I delved into it I discovered so many treasures! Let’s jump in…

The Israel-ites (that is, descendants of “Israel,” a.k.a. Jacob) are safe. Phew! God has rescued them from certain death at the hands of Pharaoh and/or drowning in the Red Sea. Moreover, God has provided for them for the last month and a half in the wilderness. He purified water for them, will teach them so they can live disease-free, and led them to an oasis (Exodus 15:22-27). But here’s the thing about hunger — today’s hunger makes yesterday’s food seem a long, long way off.

The Israelites’ anxieties rise back up to the surface in an irrational accusation that Moses and Aaron have fooled them and are planning to kill them all (Ex. 16:3) And God answers their anxiety with still more provision! He will “rain down bread from heaven” he promises. And there are three reasons for his provision that we can learn from this passage.

  1. God provides in order to test us. This is not quite as “lovey-dovey” as I would have hoped. It’d be nice to read something like “I will provide because y’all are just so awesome.” But that’s not the first reason God gives. He provides for them to “see whether they will follow my instructions, or not” (16:4). While it might not look good on a Hallmark card, it does make sense. Whenever we’re given resources, we have a responsibility to consider how to use them. It’s like when I got my first credit card — would I spend within my means? Or would I test the limits? The choice is ours.
  2. God provides in order for us to know him. The Hebrew word for “knowledge” (yada‘) refers to a whole-self kind of knowledge that includes intellectual awareness, but especially experiential knowledge that we gain as a process. In fact, it’s ironic that God wants them to “know,” and their response to the gift (manna) is “What is it?” They don’t “know”! But God doesn’t need them to “know” what it is. God wants them to gather it, eat it, and live! Their “knowledge” of God will result from putting their faith into action, regardless of their understanding.
  3. God provides in order to sustain us. Thank God that he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). And what provision! The Israelites are afraid that everyone will die, but God’s response is that “Everyone is to gather as much as they need” (16:16). Not only would they get enough, but it would also be tasty! The manna was said to have tasted like honey. And meat? What an indulgence! Throughout history, only the privileged get meat. But here, this ragtag group will eat the same abundance they ate in Egypt, but with an added treat — FREEDOM.

For Reflection:
– Describe a time when you felt God had provided for you. What did God provide? Was it enough?
– When God provides for us, how might we “take the test” and use that provision to follow in his instruction?
– Describe a time when you felt pangs of need. What did you need? How did that need make you feel?
– When you’re waiting on God to provide, how might you remain open-minded to the notion that God’s provision might perplex you, (that is, make you say “What is it?”)
– Are you willing to be perplexed in your walk of faith? Willing to lack understanding but follow Jesus’ anyway?

Many blessings,
MM