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

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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

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