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?

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

Who’s Helping Whom?

If you asked 100 people the question, “What is the Church?” you might get 100 different answers, or at least dozens of variations. From the very beginning of the Church, as recorded in Luke’s history known as the Acts of the Apostles, one of the Church’s most fundamental characteristics was caring for the vulnerable (see Acts 2:42-27, 6:3-7) And rightly so, as caring for the vulnerable is expressed over 2000 times in the Bible!

In one of the Bible’s most memorable and powerful depictions of the vulnerable, Jesus Christ even identifies himself as part of that number (see Matthew 25:31-46). So there is little debate about the role of the Church as a helper to the needy. What is less easy to conclude, however, is what that help ought to look like. And the troubling reality is that sometimes when we think we are helping someone in need, we might be actually perpetuating not only their deeper poverty, but our own as well.

When we consider what it means to help someone, in particular someone suffering from poverty, we must keep our focus on the larger goal: to seek holistic healing for others and ourselves.

For many of us, helping the vulnerable begins with helping to supply material needs. And note — this is a good thing! If you haven’t clicked the scripture above, go back and take a look. Jesus refers to food, clothes, and acts of healing. And yet, his examples also move from material needs to relational needs: visiting the sick, visiting the prisoner. As we mature in our helping endeavors, we begin to understand the underlying relational pain that both contributes and results from material lack.

But there is another level of maturity we must reach in our endeavors to help. We must recognize when our help has implicitly (and usually unintentionally) made us feel superior to those whom we’re trying to help. Until we recognize that natural tendency, even our help is liable to perpetuate the relational poverty from which — take note here — not only the “poor” suffer, but from which we all suffer.

Understanding that we are all impoverished, despite what is in our bank accounts, is perhaps the most fundamental step toward holistic healing. So here are five principles to consider when we want to help others as an expression of God’s love:

To seek holistic healing for others and ourselves, we remember

  1. We need healing as much as those whom we’re trying to help.
    One of the roles of the spiritual disciplines in our lives is to help us maintain awareness that God is God, and we are not. Through our reading of scripture, our prayer life, and our time in Jesus’ community, we’re reminded that not one of us is without the need for the Great Physician. But remember, this is not a binary truth — we are both in need of healing, and able to offer healing. So to the next point:
  2. We are multi-faceted beings.
    What a disservice we do to ourselves and humanity in general when we oversimplify what we are! Even the psalmist is overwhelmed by human beings: “What are human beings that you should care for them?…and crown them with glory and honor?” (Psalm 8:4-5). The beautiful complexity that we are as human beings is part of the very gift we offer someone vulnerable when we enter their story and commit to be present with them in their struggle.
  3. We all have talents and strengths we can use to empower others to discover and use their own talents and strengths.
    This morning, we were blessed to meet a family whom we know through our Safe Haven Ministry. What struck me right away was how much they clearly have to offer. Yes, moving to the US from the Ukraine is an enormous endeavor (the word “crisis” comes to mind) and creates great need that we can help meet. But these two parents and their three lovely children have so much to offer. The mother is in college classes. The father is commuting to his job as an electrician assistant. And the kids? Well, the kids just bless us by being there, don’t they?
  4. There are no shortcuts to lasting change.
    But of course, it has been only six months since they moved here, and while they are doing well the truth is that only one minute at a time will pass by. Their role in this city and relationship with this congregation will grow and mature at the same rate as anything else would. We dare not make the mistake of believing that an apartment and job are “all it takes” for them to be content. We choose to humbly commit to the long road of relationship and holistic health and prosperity under God’s grace. Because:
  5. Jesus is the ultimate creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the world.
    Here is perhaps the most important characteristic of our “help” as the Church. We recognize that every breath, and every morning, and everything we can give to someone else is grounded in a gift that was first given to us by our Creator. And moreover, that even having been given life, our life is also saved, rescued, preserved, and redeemed by the One who lived the life all human beings were designed to life. Jesus Christ, whose life was and is the perfect expression of being made in God’s image, resonating with God’s will, and expressing that will in the form of wholeness and healing for his neighbor, and ultimately for the world.

For Reflection:

  • Take an inventory: what experiences have you had of helping vulnerable people?
  • Looking at those experiences, do you find that you’re understanding the kind of superiority that “helping” can inadvertently lead us to feel?
  • Take an inventory: what experiences have you had of BEING helped when you were vulnerable?
  • Looking at those experiences, what was it like to be vulnerable and in need of help? Did you feel like you also had something to give, even in your time of vulnerability?
  • Consider: what kinds of “poverty” might there be in your neighborhood, which may or may not be a poverty of material needs?
  • Pray: ask the Holy Spirit to guide your mind toward how and where you are equipped to enter a process of holistic healing in your neighborhood, for others and for yourself.

“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: Stop Believing Half-Truths

What if you wrote a letter to your younger self? What age would you write to? And what wisdom would you share? The Bible actually has an entire genre of books called “Wisdom literature.” And much of the time, we know it is better to learn wisdom earlier rather than later. But it’s never too late.

So Pastor Aaron began this Fall teaching series with some foundational wisdom: stop believing half-truths. Half-truths need to be challenged because they are particularly deceptive. And frankly, that makes them more likely to be life-taking rather than life-giving. This was certainly the case with the serpent’s deception in the Garden. The way half-truths can steal life from people is not only something we know about intellectually; we experience the brokenness they create through our own experience and our pastoral relationships as well. So let’s look at THREE half-truths, what’s wrong with them, and the whole truths that answer them.

Half-Truth #1: “Everything that happens is God’s will.”
To get started, we have to get real about the need for biblical interpretation. The truth is that many theological positions can be supported by cherry-picking scriptures out of context (also called “proof texting.”) And to be sure, the sovereignty of God is undeniable in scripture. But so is the brokenness of the world, to which God responds with healing. Psalm 10:14, 17-18 proclaims that God is both King and the encourager of the afflicted. How could the affliction also be thought of as “God’s will”? The whole truth is: Whatever happens, God is sovereign, and able and willing to redeem it.

Half-Truth #2: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Perhaps one of the most destructive half-truths, one Barna survey found that 80% of respondents believed this saying was one of the ten commandments! And yet it never appears in the Bible. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church that those who do not wor do not eat. But that principle alone cannot be taken out of the context that those early Christians had become lackadaisical because of their belief that Jesus was coming so soon that their daily work did not matter. It is not a universal principle for all people in all times. By contrast, Psalm 18:6, 16 reminds us that when we are in distress, we need not “help ourselves,” but can call on the Lord and he will hear us. The whole truth is: God expects us to participate in this life but always gives grace and mercy.

Half-Truth #3: “God won’t give us more than we can handle.”
People usually mean well when they say this trying to encourage a suffering person. But the irony of the logic is that if it’s true, and we are actually finding we cannot “handle it,” it makes us the problem! It adds insult to injury, implying that in addition to our suffering, it’s our own fault if we can’t handle it. The truth is that there are numerous afflictions we cannot handle, which is exactly why God designs us to live in community. Moreover, the phrase “God gives” anything may be erroneous right off the bat, offering the bad theology that any affliction we experience is in fact God’s will, and he will afflict us right up to the point we’re about to break. (See half-truth #1.) The whole truth is: God will help us handle all the adversity we face.

For reflection:
1) These half-truths are usually shared with the best intentions. Have you ever shared them with someone? How does the idea that they are only half true make you react?
2) Have you ever been suffering and had someone share these half-truths with you? How did you react.
3) Understanding the Bible is difficult because it requires education and interpretation. Where can you go to get help interpreting the Bible so you understand it better?

Many 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: “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

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