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

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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

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 – 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


…There Your Heart Will Be

Over the last three weeks, we have been dwelling in what Randy Alcorn calls “The Treasure Principle.”  Pastor Aaron has meditated on scripture and experience that points to the simple fact that “God owns cattle on a thousand hills” and invites us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. The three basic principles have been:

  1. You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead.
  2. Learn from the legacy you inherited to create a legacy for the future.
  3. The only way to be free of materialism is by giving.

The challenge of applying the Treasure Principle is that we often forget those thousand hills that God owns and instead cling to “our” possessions, even though we know they can never give us abundant life and ultimately belong to God anyway.

In the story of the wealthy person wanting to inherit eternal life Jesus is stopped by a young man who “wants it all,” including eternal life.  It’s a good thing to want, but Jesus sees through his question to the deeper one:  “How can I squeeze in everything I want and still get heaven too?!”  So Jesus challenges the final obstacle keeping this young man from having a heart truly set free of the tarnishing treasures of this world.  He challenges him to let go of his worldly possessions.

It’s absolutely crucial that we revisit this story over and over again.  At least once a year as we revisit how we manage our resources.  Here’s the never-forget-nugget:  Jesus does not need his cash, but God wants his heart.  And Jesus makes it pretty clear: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What’s more astonishing still about this passage is the reward Jesus points us to.

People need to know WHY they do things.  It’s natural to found our actions on good reasons that transcend our own lives.  Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.”  And the same Jesus teaches that we can give generously, with cheerful hearts, because of what we know our relatively minuscule dollars and cents will accomplish in the hands of the Creator, by whose grace we live and move and have our being.

For reflection:

  1. Not all of our worldly possessions are “money.”  Can you think of anything that you would really struggle to let go of?  Why would you struggle?
  2. Here’s an even more abstract version: can you think of anything immaterial (like family traditions, personal beliefs or values, etc.) that a person might struggle to let go of?  Can immaterial “possessions” like these still be obstacles to an abundant life in Christ?
  3.  Do you think Jesus wants everyone to “sell everything you own” and give it to the poor?  Why or why not?  If not, then what is the deeper meaning of this saying for every single one of us to apply to our lives?

Many blessings,

MM

 

The Sacrifice of Giving

You are the treasure.

When we think about “treasure” it’s natural to wonder what that treasure is.  Talents?  Money?  Resources?  An actual trunk of gold coins?  Those may be tools that enable our work in various ways.  But they aren’t the treasure.

You are the treasure.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus describes the way God begins his work with things that appear to be small but can grow large enough for everyone to call home.

Over the past few years, University Place Presbyterian Church (UPPC) has demonstrated three qualities that are a testimony to the ways God is working in our midst.

  • UPPC is a family.

In 1927, Jesus’ people wanted to teach the gospel to families on the west side of Tacoma.  The startup met at the Narrows Tomato warehouse and affectionately referred to themselves as “The Wayside Chapel.”  One record states that attendance was around 22 people.  Mostly children!

What a reminder that the congregation we gather with weekly isn’t something we deserve.  This community is a gift from God, planted around 90 years ago, which has grown into a large and beautiful tree!

  • UPPC is a place where people find hope in Jesus.

The image of the “wayside” is so important to remember, because it refers to life in dynamic motion, rather than a people who give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines.  Before anyone understood what to believe about Jesus, people were drawn to Jesus himself, that is, they stopped along the wayside.  To eat and drink.  To converse.  To ask questions.  To seek healing and care.  To laugh and live life.

This organic way of living our faith is why we “embrace messiness.”  We like to say, we either are a mess, we were a mess, or we’re one dumb choice away from becoming a mess.  So welcome to the journey!

  • UPPC is a people who give sacrificially.

Here’s the thing — it’s not about money.  As U2’s Bono once famously said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash.”  Giving sacrificially is about wanted to live a real testimony of God’s provision.  In fact, it is the only thing about which God invites us to test him — God’s generosity.

Part of sacrificial giving is doggedly maintaining an open and inviting attitude.  It’s all too easy to become comfortable in our community, but the sacrifice of throwing wide the doors means that there’s one more person or family who can experience the love of God as the mustard seed continues to spread its branches across the world.

For reflection:

  1. If you can think of a time someone gave sacrificially for your sake, find a way to share that story with someone.
  2. Have you ever had the chance to give sacrificially, either of money, or time, or talents, or with an attitude of openness to others?
  3. Imagine your community 40 years from now; what part might you be playing now in building a community for that time?

Many blessings,

MM

 

The Treasure in Giving

Matthew 6:19-24

Matthew 13:44

Have you ever been on a treasure hunt?  It’s a popular theme for stories, right?  Maybe Treasure Island was the most famous for a long time, but currently, Pirates of the Carribean is probably the best-known.  (Are there treasure hunt stories that don’t involve pirates, actually?)

Jesus told a very brief parable about treasure.  Just one verse.  In it, the character is willing to do whatever it takes to acquire a great treasure, i.e., to make short-term sacrifices for long-term joy.

As we move into a season of giving, Pastor Aaron reminded us this morning of the great legacy UPPC has of sharing what God has given us out of a sense of joyful anticipation, and not from compulsion or guilt.  The Bible draws a clear parallel between our spiritual lives and how we manage our wealth, which Randy Alcorn calls the Treasure Principle.

On Nov. 11, we looked at the principle that “You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on ahead.”  It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t teach us to renounce wealth, but to relocate it.  To avoid investing our time and treasure into that which fades and rusts, and rather to make choices with eternity in mind.

For reflection:

  1. When you make financial choices, what are your top priorities?
  2. If you could fast-forward to the end of your earthly life, what would you most want to be able to say about your legacy?
  3. If Jesus calls us to “relocate” the focus of our time, talent, and treasure, pray and ask God where you could relocate yours.  Consider keeping a journal of any ideas that come to mind.

Blessings,

MM

 

Requiem for the Living

In one of his most well-known invitations, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV).

Today at UPPC, we experienced Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living.  The ironic title suggests that the deepest longing in the human heart for rest — assurance, peace, safety, and love — is not something reserved only for those whose earthly lives have ended, as a requiem traditionally would be.  Rather, the piece acknowledges the onerous burden life can become and invites all listeners to accept Christ’s invitation to rest.  Dr. Forrest remarks of the piece: “Let the music speak for itself, and hopefully it will compel all to simply listen for and hear the still, small voice of God.”

In the deepest recesses of our hearts lay the desire to hear this voice.  Like a homesick child after the lights have gone out, there is a wave of dread that washes over us when we realize that neither mom nor dad are in the room next door.  A similar dread emerges when the broken world in which we live casts the future into doubt, and the lights seem to go out on hope.  But this is when it is all the more important to remember the vision that John received while in his own quiet place, in exile on a remote island.  The vision began not with an explanation of the past, nor a foretelling of the future.  Rather, God’s revelation to John began with an image of the present — the eternal present — on which all other divine revelation must rely:

“Immediately I was in the Spirit. And look!
A throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne”
(Revelation 4:2).

In that place of eternal light, we see the One who understands our weariness and invites us into life with himself, and we are invited to join in with the rapturous response of the living beings surrounding the throne:

“Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!”
(Revelation 4:8)

For reflection:

  1. An invitation is one half of a conversation, the other being response.  How might you respond to Christ’s invitation to come to him and experience rest?
  2. Experiencing rest is not always easy.  What external obstacles keep you from rest?
  3. What internal obstacles keep you from rest?
  4. If you have experienced divine rest in Jesus, perhaps someone you know needs to know that it is possible.  With whom could you share your experience?

Prayerfully,

MM

 

Seeking to Understand

(Today’s post is by UPPC minister of youth, Rob Clark!)

This Sunday we addressed the topic of “seeking to understand” in our befriend series at UPPC.  Our primary scripture came from Job 2:11-13, because it’s a picture of friendship that many of us desire.

We began by giving a brief theology of the church: the church is described in Scripture as a family with God as Father, and us as adopted siblings.  We used Ephesians 1:4-5 as a baseline: Ephesians 1:4-5 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”  This gave us the framework for the message.

As siblings, we are called to seek to understand one another—even those who are on the outside of our sphere of friendship.  We looked at the story of the bleeding woman from Mark 5:21-43 and noticed two things: 1. Jesus was in a hurry to heal Jairus’ daughter, but still took the time to stop and listen to the story of the bleeding woman.  2. Jesus gave her a new title—from unclean to “daughter”.  The title is significant because he identifies her as a fellow sibling whose story has value.

But the key is to notice how Jesus interacted with this woman’s story. He listened to her.  He didn’t constantly interrupt her story with his own experience and advice—although he was obviously qualified to give it.  He didn’t throw a bible verse at her in hopes that would alleviate her pain.  He listened.  Which is one of the main keys in seeking to understand. Listening is the first key to understanding.  The second is to ask good questions.  We identified three good questions to ask those that we desire deep friendships with:

  1. To take a note from Jesus, the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”
    1. In other words, dig into how you can be more supportive. What areas in our friends life where we can be a better friend?
  2. How are you doing, really? –look for specific things in the persons life to ask about.
  3. From Gotman—who you heard a lot about during the marriage series. He often encourages us to ask open-ended questions starting with, “how have you…”
    1. How have you changed in the last year?
    2. How have you changed since you’ve had a kid?
    3. How have you been supportive lately to your spouse?
    4. How have you been coping with your loss?

 

However, when it really comes down to it, asking good questions only works to deepen the relationships once we are in a place with our people that allows for us to ask these kinds of questions.  The reality is that good questions are just words.  If we want to have depth and intimacy in our relationships, we have to convince someone that we can hold their pain.  That we won’t just give an easy answer or throw a bible verse at them.

You can’t expect people to undress in front you unless you undress in front of them.  Once we are vulnerable with someone, it creates space for them to be vulnerable with us.  It comes down to having a hospitality of the heart—which essentially means we have a space where we create it to be welcoming and inviting for someone to share.  And this hospitality comes from doing our own work– to be on our face before the Lord recognizing our own brokenness and willing to be groomed by him.

If we want the kinds of friendships demonstrated in Job, we must first seek to understand ourselves, and then seek to understand the other by earning the right to ask good questions, by cultivating a safe place–being vulnerable with the ones that we want to be to be vulnerable with us.  But, to do that, it requires us to be able to connect with our own brokenness.  I love Henri Nouwen says when talking about hospitality in his book, Wounded Healer, “What does hospitality as a healing power require?  It requires first of all that hosts feel at home in their own house, and second that they create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.”[1]

 

It starts with feeling at home in our own house.  Being connected to the brokenness within us.  And out of that, we can then connect with the brokenness of the other by creating a free and fearless place for them to enter in to.

 

Ultimately, this is what we need to do:

  1. Create a hospitality of the heart—a place that is safe for pain and brokenness to be held.
  2. Show that we are willing to go there ourselves.
  3. In that place, ask good questions. And as those questions are being answered, remember how Jesus interacted with the bleeding woman.  With posture of being quick to listen and slow to speak.

 

[1] P. 95-97

Overcoming Fear & Prejudice

“God, I thank you that I am not like sinners.”

This paraphrase of the words of “prayer” from the Pharisee character in Jesus’ parable, found in Luke 18:9-14, can be called a lot of things.  Pompous.  Arrogant.  Proud.

Prejudiced.

This word, which denotes passing premature judgment on someone, is a buzz word in our culture.  In the case of this Pharisee, his prejudice is obviously about other people—he doesn’t know those sinners, right?  But he is also acting as his own judge, ironically letting God know, “Hey, you can take the day off!  It turns out I’m innocent!”   For him, apparently it’s easier to put on the armor of prejudice than it is to face the reality of his own brokenness.

Turns out we can be prejudiced about others, and even ourselves, just like this Pharisee character.  But judgment about others and ourselves is reserved for only Jesus Christ: “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).  Paul offers an ingenious explanation of this in his letter to the Corinthians:

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (from 1 Cor. 4:1-5)

The good news is that this means we are free to befriend the whole world.  Think of it — when we meet people who are different than ourselves, even if those differences contradict our values and beliefs, we can still be free of passing judgment on them.  Moreover, we can be free of any judgment others may pass on us.  Finally, we can even be free of judging ourselves, which we ultimately lack the wisdom and objectivity to do, just as we lack those qualifications for judging others.

Of course we are still told to be wise and discerning: “Judge correctly” (John 7:24).  But it is possible to exercise unprejudiced discernment, which takes everything into account without presuming to pass final judgment on anyone.  And it opens the door to worldwide friendships.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever been constrained by prejudice?  Either prejudice you hold about others, or vice versa?
  2. Have you ever had a prejudice about people that you later were able to overcome?
  3. In what ways does fear lead to prejudice?
  4. Character takes practice — what can you, or someone you know, do to practice living without fear or prejudice?

Many blessings,

MM