It’s time for a little truth telling, friends. I had a cute and funny opening written for this morning’s sermon – something about the return of 80s fashion and how everything comes back around for better or for worse – but when I sat down at my computer this morning, I erased it. Something about today doesn’t feel like a “cute and funny” morning. Maybe it’s because the weather is a bit dark and gloomy. Maybe it’s because of the darkness that is ever-encroaching during this time of year, eating up more and more of that precious daylight. Maybe it’s because of the somber events that we’ve witnessed on the national stage this week – impeachment hearings, continued threats from wildfires in California, and yet another school shooting, this time in Santa Clarita, CA. Maybe it’s because of some serious and difficult things going on in the lives of people I know and love. Maybe it’s just that time of year as we approach Advent – a season in the life of the church meant to be reflective and deliberate and measured. Whatever the reason, something about this morning feels like it requires a more serious, more contemplative approach to our text.
This morning’s text = a coming full circle for the people of Israel → It is a powerful moment of self-recognition, contrition, and repentance.
Story begins in a way that many of the previous stories have not – text: Josiah was 8 years old when he became king, and he ruled for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … He did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David – not deviating from it even a bit to the right or left. → Remember, in pretty much all of the Old Testament stories that we’ve read recently, we’ve encountered kings who did the exact opposite – kings who did evil in the sight of God, kings who worshipped other gods and led the people of Israel to worship them as well, kings who seemed to almost go out of their way to not follow God’s guidance and commands for the people.
A couple weeks ago = King Ahab → cream of the crop when it comes to evil and corrupt kings
And so just the beginning of this morning’s Scripture reading seems to be a turning and returning … a new page … a breath of fresh air.
What follows = fascinating story about remodeling and buried treasure of sorts and utter repentance
History behind the remodel/reform (from Rev. Dr. Mark Throntveit, prof. of OT at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): It seems probable that Assyria’s rapidly diminishing power was a major factor in [Josiah’s] reforms. Since political domination in the ancient Near East usually involved participation in the conqueror’s religious practices, Josiah’s religious reforms not only witnessed to his piety, they were also a strong reassertion of Judah’s political independence from Assyrian domination. → So this Temple remodel isn’t just a little DIY project a lá HGTV.
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = restoration and reassertion of Judah’s power and sovereignty as an independent nation in the region → restoring long-dominated and long-abused nation of Judah to a place of self-reliance and national autonomy
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = repairing and remodeling of the faith → restore the long-neglected and long-abused Temple, and indeed, the faith of the people of Judah, to its right and sacred glory
Discovery in the midst of the renovations = hidden “book of the law”
Scholars in agreement that this is some sort of copy of the 5 books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) – probably not the full books that we have today but some sort of collection of portions of them
Some scholars speculate it may have been hidden by previous priests in order to protect it in the face of some of the more forceful and dangerous counter-reformations of previous kings, including Josiah’s immediate predecessor – his father, Amon, as well as his predecessor before that (and grandfather), Manasseh, both of who were evil and sinful kings more along the lines of Ahab than Josiah
So one of King Josiah’s secretaries heads to the Temple in the morning to pay the workers and instead is met with this incredible discovery that was made by Hilkiah, the high priest. Hilkiah gives the scroll to this secretary who returns to the king and reads him the scroll. – text: As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes. The king ordered the priest Hilkiah …: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us.” → You can feel Josiah’s desperation and devastation in every word of this account. As soon as he hears these long-lost words of God, he is beside himself with shame and grief on behalf of himself and his people.
Heb. “kriah” = ancient tradition of expressing pain and sorrow
Mandated by Torah as part of the grieving process
1) outward expression of that torn feeling you have in your heart when you’re grieving
2) recognition that the body is only a garment that the soul wears à death is the opportunity to strip off one garment and don another
So in his response, Josiah is immediately and viscerally reacting to the spiritual disobedience of himself and his people as though it were a death – something lost, something to grieve. But perhaps there is also a layer of recognition that he and the people have the chance to strip off that outer layer of disobedience and sinfulness that they have worn for so long to expose a new layer of faithfulness beneath.
Supported by Josiah’s actions at the end of our reading – text: Then the king went up to the Lord’s temple, together with all the people of Judah and all the citizens of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets, and all the people, young and old alike. There the king read out loud all the words of the covenant scroll that had been found in the Lord’s temple. The king stood beside the pillar and made a covenant with the Lord that he would follow the Lord by keeping his commandments, his laws, and his regulations with all his heart and all his being in order to fulfill the words of this covenant that were written in this scroll. All of the people accepted the covenant.
And if that were all to the story, it would be perfect and beautiful and wrapped up nicely in a neat, little package with a bow. But friends, Scripture rarely (if ever) wraps things up that neatly for us.
On the king’s orders, Hilkiah, the high priest, seeks the counsel of Huldah, the prophetess – Huldah’s words ring out in the middle of our text: “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: … I am about to bring disaster on this place and its citizens – all the words in the scroll that Judah’s king has read! My anger burns against this place, never to be quenched, because they’ve deserted me and have burned incense to other gods, angering me by everything they have done.” → As much as we may like to, friends, we cannot ignore this portion of the text. It is neither healthy nor faithful to read a story like this in Scripture and only take to heart the easy parts … the light parts … the pretty parts … the parts that make us sit comfortably and contentedly in our pews and pat ourselves on the back. Today’s Scripture is truly a text of repentance – of returning to God with hearts and souls that are woefully contrite. In order to return to God in such a way, like the people of Israel, we have to acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake. We have to actively name that mistake and claim it within our hearts and our minds. We have to own up to it and bear the consequences.
BUT this is where we find light and everlasting hope in the good news of the gospel (from Paul’s letter to the Romans): All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. → Friends, God knows that we are not perfect. God has had plenty of experience with God’s people throughout the millennia to fully know and understand that we are going to make mistakes. We are going to turn away. We are going to disobey God, both intentionally and unintentionally. We are going to fall short in our relationships with one another, in our relationship with ourselves, and in our relationship with God. None of that is news to God. Trust me, God is aware. But God is also merciful and grace-filled. God is loving and steadfast in that love beyond anything we could ever imagine.
Frederica Mathewes-Green (Eastern Orthodox speaker, author, and theologian): God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition.
So this is what we’re going to do this morning, friends. We’re going to take an extended time to give you a chance to come to God with all those things that feel broken in your world – in your heart, in your relationships, in your faith, in your belief in yourself and God and other people. We’ve all got broken places. We’ve all got places within ourselves that are as ragged and raw on the edges as Josiah’s torn garments. Take some time to bring those before God this morning.
Symbol of the destruction that Josiah and the Israelites had to go through to find their way back to God
Symbol of the strong, steadfast nature of God in the midst of all the turbulence of our world and our lives
Prayer for wholeness:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
ruler of all creation.
We praise you for the abundance of your blessings.
To those who ask, you give love;
to those who seek, you give faith;
to those who knock, you open the way of hope.
Help us to serve you in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1918, made radio receivers as a young boy, and started working at an AM talk radio station at the ripe old age of 14 when one of his teachers told him she was “impressed by his voice.” He started as a janitor, moved up to filling in on the air reading commercials and news briefs, and eventually ended up with his own show on ABC syndicated stations nationwide. By the time his illustrious career came to an end with his death at age 90, he had won just about every radio broadcast journalist award there was as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For millions of Americans, his voice was the calm, velvety voice that narrated stories that touched their hearts and lives for decades. [PLAY PAUL HARVEY CLIP] After those now-infamous words, Paul Harvey would weave together his own particular blend of history, narrative, and personal commentary.
Stories as touching and innocent as a story of a man trying to save a flock of birds on Christmas Eve and instead finding a renewed sense of faith
News stories as momentous and history-altering as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Following that famous phrase, Harvey would present a different facet, a different angle, a different element of a story – something you probably hadn’t known or considered before. More often than not, it was a more human element, a more personal connection, or a twist in the story that revealed some profound element of faith. Friends, today is our Paul Harvey moment in the midst of all this Old Testament meandering we’ve been doing. Today is our “rest of the story.”
Weeks leading up to today = lots of stories of the people of God in the Old Testament
Elijah the prophet taking on the prophets of Baal and the deterioration of the people’s devotion
In all of these stories, we’ve heard the people’s side. We’ve heard about the people turning to God and away from God. We’ve heard about the people trusting God and doubting God. We’ve heard about the people acting for God and acting against God’s will.
But today’s Scripture is wholly different. In today’s Scripture, we hear from God. Today’s Scripture is, in fact, the rest of the story.
Today’s text = from book of Hosea → Now, Hosea is a challenging little book.
One of what we call the 12 minor prophets (major prophets being Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Lamentations) → all of the writings of the minor prophets are fairly “doom and gloom.”
REMINDER: job of the prophets was to bring God’s word to a people who had strayed in an attempt to bring them back to God
Necessarily includes calling the people out for their wrongdoings AND detailing the terrible things that will happen if they don’t repent and return to God
NOT a popular message → prophets = not popular people
Very little is known about the prophet Hosea himself
Historically somewhere between 750 and 724 BCE → period of heavy political, economic, and religious turmoil in Israel
6 kings on the throne during Hosea’s time → all but one assassinated
Corruption in highest levels of court and government was rampant
Borders of the northern kingdom of Israel constantly threatened by kingdom of Judah to the south and kingdom of Assyria to the east
Practice of religion at the time had become intimately interwoven with various Canaanite religious practices (worship of Baal, rituals involving golden calves, cultic fertility sacrifices, etc.)
Suffice to say thing in Israel have gotten pretty horrible.
Hosea’s unique framing of his message = metaphor of marriage
Nation of Israel as a whole = unfaithful spouse who has turned away from God
People = children of that marriage
First 10 chs. of Hosea are full of stark, no-holds-barred, call-it-like-it-is recriminations aimed at Israel
E.g. – Hear the Lord’s word, people of Israel; for the Lord has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land. There’s no faithful love or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murder, together with stealing and adultery are common; bloody crime followed by bloody crime. … My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Since you [priest] have rejected knowledge, so I will reject you from serving me as a priest. Since you have forgotten the instruction of your God, so also I will forget your children. → And that’s probably one of the most G-rated parts. Truly, all, Hosea is a very difficult book to read. It’s full of agony and hurt and abandonment, and all of that is felt, not by the people but by God. God has not turned away from the people. The people have turned away from God.
Today’s passage = unique and even refreshing moment of grace and love and light in the midst of a grim text → speaks of God’s love in pure, unadulterated, unequivocal terms
Text: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them. … How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. → You can hear God’s anguish in this. You can hear God’s yearning. You can hear God’s heartbreak. You can hear how desperately God misses the children who have so willingly and so easily turned away despite all that God has done for them. It is truly both stunningly painful and stirringly powerful to read.
Margaret Odell (prof of religion at St. Olaf): This poem of YHWH’s anguished love for the beloved child Israel stands as one of the most poignant testimonies to divine love in the Old Testament, if not in the entire Bible. Quite possibly the earliest expression of God’s love in the Bible, it is also the most passionate, as it portrays God’s heart in conflict with his plans, his compassion averting his anger.
Up to this point, much of the Old Testament stories that we read have been the “turning away” stories from the point of view of the people. Today, we hear a stirring, heart-rending reminder from God of just how much that turning away tears at the heart of God. It is, indeed, the rest of the story, and that story is LOVE. You see, friends, that is how big God’s love is for us.
Love that overcomes “turning away”
Love that overcomes waywardness and faithlessness
Love that overcomes excuses and exceptions
Love that overcomes even God’s own frustrations and intended consequences
Text: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
“Ephraim” = Israel (interchangeable in this text)
Admah and Zeboiim = cities completely and permanently destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah
Love that overcomes anything and everything just to get to us
Scholar: This is not the story of the “prodigal” son who, having struggled with his own bad choices, finally turns and comes home. This is the story of a prodigal God who – in anguish, heartbreak, and the fiercest love – comes seeking out the children who have strayed.
“But,” you might be saying, “I haven’t strayed. Not that much. Not really. Not intentionally, anyway.” And that may be true. But the reality of life and faith and the brokenness of the world around us and the world inside us, friends, is that we have all strayed – in big ways and small ways, in intentional ways and unintentional ways, in simple ways and in complex ways, always in ways that hurt God.
Description from Fall Breakaway workshop → turning ever-so-slightly bit by bit until God is completely out of sight
Friends, we are not perfect … at least, not the last time I checked. And even despite our best efforts … on our best days … with our best intentions, we cannot love God perfectly. But the good news is that God can love us perfect. The good news is that God does love us perfectly.
1 John 4: God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. … here is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.
This is why I say what I do and we profess what we profess whenever we come to the table. “No matter who you are … no matter where you come from … no matter what you bring with you this morning, you are welcome.” God’s love is big enough to love us through all our ups and downs, our turning aways and running aways, our doubts and our frustrations and our messes and anything else we think might be “too much.” The point is that with God, there is no “too much.” No. Matter. What. God loves you. God loved you before it. God loves you in the midst of it. And God will love you after it … no matter what “it” might be. Loves. You. Full stop.
I want to leave you with a song this morning – a song that speaks to that holy, perfect, infinite, pursing, forgiving, all-encompassing love of God.
Halleljuah, indeed. Amen.
“The faith that I profess is rooted in a belief in a God who loves us deeply, desperately, and with a passion that cannot be contained. This God is always seeking us out, wanting to be with us and wanting us to experience the very best that life has to offer. This God is protective because we are loved so damn much.” – Rozella Haydee White from Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World
 Stacey Simpson Duke. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Hosea 11:1-11, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 296.
I want you to take a look at your bulletin cover this morning [see image above]. This is a meme I’ve been seeing make the Facebook rounds lately, and it makes me chuckle every single time I see it.
READ MEME: “Me trying to ask someone for a favor: Hey could you help me with this thing? Absolutely no pressure though. Totally ok if you can’t. If you’d father run me over with a car that’s cool. Are you mad at me?” → Full disclosure: Part of the reason I chuckle at this is because this is exactly the way I ask for favors. Many of you probably know that from various messages or emails you’ve received from me.
Maybe it’s the Midwesterner → Minnesota nice on steroids, right? You’ve heard the old adage that you have to ask a Minnesotan if they want something 3 times, right? “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” “Oh, no. That’s okay.” (2 minutes later) “Are you sure I can’t offer you a cup of coffee?” “No, really. I’m fine.” (5 minutes later) “Really, I can get you a cup of coffee. It’s okay.” “Well, I guess I’ll take a cup of coffee.”
Maybe it’s the introvert in me → not wanting to put someone out
Maybe it’s just the “me” in me …
But I know I can’t be the only one that asks for favors this way, right?
Lots of ways that we soft ask for things
“Could you maybe …”
“Would you possibly …”
“I might like you to …”
Lots of ways that we couch our requests in a way out for the person we’re asking
“If you want to …”
“If it’s not too much to ask …”
“When you have time …”
“But …” “But …” “But …”
And all this hesitation and bet hedging certainly doesn’t stop with asking people for things, does it? How often do our prayers sound like this as well? “If it’s your will, God … when you make a way, God … maybe … possibly … but … but … but …”
TRUE: persistant little petition in the Lord’s Prayer “THY will be done” → And in the past, I know we’ve talked about “thy will” vs. “my will” and how important and impactful it can be to leave ourselves open to the moving of the Holy Spirit and the potential of God’s calling and leading in our lives. I think “Thy will, not my will” qualifies as a prayer couched in uncertainty. But there’s a big different between declaring our openness to God’s direction and hedging our prayers because we’re not really sure God can handle them. We’re afraid that God won’t “show up.” We’re so concerned we can’t handle a “no” response to our prayers that we don’t even want to give God the opportunity.
Today’s Scripture reading = exact opposite attitude → Strange as it may sound, I love this Bible story because it’s so excessive. It’s so sensational. It’s so over-the-top. In it, Elijah embodies such a wildly audacious Plus, he’s sarcastic as all get out, and how often do we encounter a little snarky sarcasm in the Bible, right?
Last week: splitting of the whole kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah → very end of last week’s Scripture reading
Jeroboam made king of the northern kingdom of Israel → worried that the people would go back to King Rehoboam (southern kingdom) because the temple was in Jerusalem and Jerusalem was located in the southern kingdom
Bottom line: people needed a place to worship SO Jeroboam set up 2 golden calves to worship in the northern kingdom → Do you remember me saying last week that that was foreshadowing of more trouble to come? Yeah … that trouble comes TODAY.
Shannon Meacham (colleague and fellow YCW): Last week’s reading ended with two golden calves and a dagger in God’s heart with the words that echoed Aaron at Mt. Siani. After weeks of skipping books and centuries, this week we move only 6 chapters to hear how bad things have really gotten.
A handful of kings in between Jeroboam and King Ahab in today’s passage – IMPORTANT POINT: all of them “did evil in the Lord’s eyes” in one way or another, mostly by leading people away from worshipping God → Now, you may also remember those pesky, sort of obscure rules that we read a few weeks ago. You know … the Ten Commandments! That first rule was something about not having gods other than the Lord God. Yeah. Uh oh.
Today’s king = Ahab → And as far as wayward kings who did evil things are concerned, Ahab was by far the worst! – text (1 Kgs 16): [Ahab] did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He served and worshipped Baal. He made an altar for Baal in the Baal temple he had constructed in Samaria. Ahab also made a sacred pole and did more to anger the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of Israel’s kings who preceded him.
Quick history lesson: “Who was Baal?” = god of storms and fertility worshipped by a number of ancient Middle Eastern cultures including the Canaanites (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine)
So this is who the prophet Elijah is up against.
Today’s text = not Elijah’s first run-in with Ahab
Previous encounter: Elijah telling Abah that Israel will suffer a severe drought because of Ahab’s wicked ways → As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly something Ahab enjoyed hearing, so Elijah’s already on the wrong side of King Ahab’s temper.
Hear that tension in the opening part of today’s reading – text: When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?” Elijah answered, “I haven’t troubled Israel; you and your father’s house have! You did as much when you deserted the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals.”
Bulk of today’s story = dramatic scene straight out of Biblical soap opera
Villain: Ahab, the corrupt and evil king
Hero: Elijah, the prophet of God
Pawns/stooges: 450 prophets of Baal
Drama: one singular, solitary prophet (Elijah) essentially challenging great, overwhelming hoard of Baal’s prophets to a duel → It is a duel of belief. It is a duel of fire and sacrifice and pageantry. It is a duel of prayer vs. prayer, god vs. God.
Elijah challenges prophets of Baal to build an altar, sacrifice a bull (one of the most expensive and sacred offerings), and call on Baal to light the fire on the altar – text: “Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire – that’s the real God!” And all the people answered, “That’s an excellent idea.” → Now, there’s a really important point embedded in this portion: Elijah’s audience. In preparation for this scene, Elijah has called “all the Israelites” to witness because, after all, Elijah is attempting to turn the people’s attention and devotion back to the Lord God. That’s his ultimate goal, right? He’s not going through these crazy, elaborate paces just to show off to a bunch of false prophets and a dangerously maniacal king. He’s doing it for the people.
Makes this point clear – text (Elijah basically calls the people out): Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” → super funky Heb. in this portion of the text
Scholar: The Hebrew word translated “opinion” is related to a word meaning “tree bough” that might have been fashioned into a crutch creating “unequal legs” and causing an unsteady gait. Elijah is calling the people to pick the god behind whom they can steadily walk. → So basically, Elijah is calling out the people’s wishy-washy attitude toward God and their faith up to this point. They’ve been flip-flopping back and forth for generations, and Elijah says, “You know what? Not anymore. It is time to choose. And by the way … here. Let me help you make that choice.”
450 prophets of Baal build their altar, prepare their sacrifice, and spend “from morning to midday” parading around the altar and calling out to Baal to light the fire … But … NOTHING.
As if that embarrassing silence wasn’t bad enough, the added bonus is that Elijah starts taunting them! (This is where that snarky sarcasm comes in.) – text: Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” → And Elijah’s spiritual trash talk ends up having quite the effect on the prophets. – text: So the prophets of Baal cried with a louder voice and cut themselves with swords and knives as was their custom. Their blood flowed all over them. As noon passed they went crazy with their ritual until it was time for the evening offering. Still there was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.
Elijah’s turn = builds his own altar using 12 stones (one stone for each of the 12 tribes of Israel) → But then Elijah ups the ante even more. To his altar of wood and stone, he adds water. Not just a dribble. Not just a little bowl. Not even a single, full jar of water. Elijah has those around him fill four jars with water, then douse the altar not once, not twice, but three times, so much so that the abundance of water basically creates a moat around the altar!
Historical point: jars that Elijah calls for are not cute little mason jars but massive jars used to catch rainwater for various purposes → similar to the jars that Jesus uses to turn water to wine at the wedding at Cana in gospel of John
Capacity = 9 gallons per jar (do the math: 9×4 = 36 gallons per trip TIMES 3 trips = 108 gallons of water)
And remember, they’re in the midst of a severe drought … and here’s Elijah, pouring gallons upon gallons upon gallons of water on his altar. This, friends, is a Biblical throw-down right here. Without a doubt!
Elijah’s prayer: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. I have done all these things at your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” → Elijah is essentially laying down a big ol’ “PROVE IT” to God before all the people of Israel. All his eggs are in one basket. And that basket … is on fire. Literally. Or at least, it’s about to be. Elijah’s ask here is not It’s not couched in escape clauses and possible outs and “maybe-possibly-if-but” language. Elijah’s ask is big. It’s bold. It’s ostentatious. It’s wildly audacious. Elijah is literally calling on God to show up in power and presence, in essence and extravagance, in sparks and flames and blazing glory.
God does not disappoint – text: Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench! All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed.
Friends, it’s certainly true that sometimes, God’s answer to prayer is not the answer that we’re seeking. And it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to put ourselves – our deepest desires and most desperate hopes – out there when we cannot hear or see God, when we cannot prove God like Elijah did with fire from heaven – not to the world around us, not to those who laugh at or question us … not even to ourselves. But here’s the thing: if we don’t take that risk … if we don’t leap out in faith … if we don’t ASK, we don’t give God the opportunity to be audacious in God’s abundance and grace. We deny God the chance to show up in our lives in extravagantly unanticipated and unexpected ways. And we deprive God of the opening to work through us to inspire faith in those around us – people we know as well as people we don’t. So be brave. Be bold. Be wildly audacious. Because you never know what kind of spark God is just waiting to forge into a wild, faith-fed blaze. Alleluia! Amen.
Okay, all … pop quiz this morning. Let me know if you can tell where these statements come from.
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
Give up? Those statements are four of the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of Wittenberg Castle church on Oct. 31, 1517. Friends, today is Reformation Sunday.
Quick church history lesson
Luther = German priest turned theology professor → grew to reject a number of Roman Catholic teachings of the day
Salvation through grace, not salvation through works
Importance of making Scripture accessible to regular people → translated the Bible into German (only in Latin up to that point = only priests could read it)
Flat out rejection of selling of indulgences – practice of people basically buying their deceased loved ones’ way into heaven (skip the punishment and postponement of Purgatory)
Wrote 95 theses (vast majority of which were counterpoints against indulgences) in 1517 → refused to renounce that and all the rest of his writings/views despite the demands of both Pope Leo X and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor → both excommunicated and declared an outlaw in 1521
Luther’s actions that day were the flashpoint for what we call the Great Reformation → spurned the development of a number of different theologies and Protestant traditions
Today: upwards of 200 different Protestant denominations just in the United States … and that doesn’t include all the individual churches that designate themselves as “non-denomination” or “Bible churches” → dividing lines between those denominations are many and varied
Divided along cultural/heritage lines (e.g. –German Lutheran vs. Norwegian Lutheran)
Divided along polity lines (episcopal vs. congregational vs. presbyterian)
Divided along theological lines
What’s a sacrament and what’s not?
Who can participate at the Table and who can’t?
Baptism – age? dunking or sprinkling? efficacy of rebaptism or “once baptized, always baptized”?
Probably most recent split happened in the Presbyterian Church (USA) = development of ECO (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) → splintered along lines pertaining to LGBTQ issues among others
As we well know, the Church is no stranger to division, is it? By this point, our shared Family Tree as Christians is a pretty gnarled, complicated, crazy-looking mess. But this division is far from the exception in the history of faith as well.
Phyllis Tickle: church “cleans out its attic and has a rummage sale” every 500 yrs. → massive shift in the life and structure and theology of the Church every 500 yrs.
Roughly 500 yrs. after Jesus = era of the councils (Council of Nicaea, Council of Constantinople, etc.) → set what books would be considered Scripture and what wouldn’t, set what was acceptable (orthodox) theology and what wasn’t (heresy), laid out some of the creeds we use even today (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed)
Roughly 500 yrs. after the council = the Great Schism → divided the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) with the Eastern Church (today: various Orthodox traditions – Russian, Greek, etc.)
Roughly 500 yrs. after the Great Schism = the Reformation with Luther and all those who came after him
Roughly 500 yrs. after the Reformation … TODAY → We are indeed overdue for another vast and sweeping change in the way and life of the Church. Or maybe we’re in the midst of it.
Going back even further = division in our Scripture reading this morning
Rehoboam = son of King Solomon, grandson of King David
Jeroboam = placed in position of regional power by King Solomon → led a revolt (hence the reason our text said he “returned from Egypt where he had fled from King Solomon”
Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the rise of first King Saul and then King David as the monarchy of Israel and how the establishment of that monarchy was against God’s wishes and counsel for the people of Israel. Through the reign of Saul, David, and David’s son, Solomon, the people of Israel remained a single kingdom – the 12 tribes (descended from the 12 sons of Jacob excluding Joseph) all united today. Today’s Scripture is the end of that union. → today’s Scripture = the division of the kingdom into the Northern Kingdom of Israel (10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (2 tribes)
Sub-title of today’s section: “How Rehoboam lost the kingdom” → And what does that loss boil down to today? How did Rehoboam lose the kingdom that his father and grandfather had worked so hard to build up and maintain? Through division.
People (along with Jeroboam) come to King Rehoboam and say, “Your father made our workload very hard for us. If you will lessen the demands your father made of us and lighten the heavy workload he demanded from us, then we will serve you.”
King Rehoboam unsure of what to do → tells the people to come back in 3 days and consults his advisors
2 sets of advisors: the older ones who served his father, Solomon, before him VS. the younger ones (King Rehoboam’s contemporaries)
Older advisors: “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.”
Response born out of experience
Response born of out wisdom
Response born out of respect for the people
Younger advisors: “If my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!”
Response born out of ambition
Response born out of pride
Response born out of elitism
King Rehoboam decides to listen to his younger advisors → text: The king then answered the people harshly. … When all Israel saw that the king wouldn’t listen to them, the people answered the king: “Why should we care about David? We have no stake in Jesse’s son! Go back to your homes, Israel! You better look after your own house now, David!” Then the Israelites went back to their homes, and Rehoboam ruled over only the Israelites who lived in the cities of Judah.
The rest of the Israelites turn to Jeroboam to rule them → Jeroboam, in fear that their allegiance will once again flip and they will return to King Rehoboam, sets up golden calves for them to worship in Bethel and in Dan (foreshadowing for more trouble to come!)
Division, plain and simple, right?
But I want to go back to the middle of the story today and focus on the advice of King Rehoboam’s older advisors. – older advisors in the text: “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.” → “If you will be a servant to this people … If you will be a servant.” This, friends, is the key.
Outright divisiveness we’re facing in America today
Neighbor against neighbor
Friend against friend
Family against family
Divisiveness born of intolerance and an unwillingness to listen – truly listen! – to the “other side”
Not half-listen while I try to think of the next thing to say
Not pretend-listen so they think I’m listening and will, in turn, listen to me
Not ambush-listen so I can pounce on something they say and demolish it with my clearly superior argument/talking point
Certainly not the first time we’ve faced strong, deep divisions as a country
Just a couple examples:
1960s & 1970s → Civil Rights, Vietnam War, McCarthyism and communism
Civil War and the decades that surrounded it
But it cannot be denied that we are living in a highly contentious, combative, and toxically polarized time. “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.” Jesus talked a lot about what it meant to be a servant.
John: This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved one. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
Mark: Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the servant of all.
Luke: But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.
Matthew: You should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.
Archibald Macleish (American poet and former Librarian of Congress): Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worse when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answer for everybody else. → Friends, let us take the hard questions from Scripture this morning – the questions about how we divide amongst ourselves and what that division is doing to our souls as individuals and as the church, as the human race and as Americans. Let us take those hard questions and sit with them, wrestle with them, ask them of ourselves. We have seen what division brings time and time again. Maybe it’s time to give a servant’s heart a try. Amen.
[PLAY A FEW BARS OF “Footloose”] → Classic, right? The wildly-popular 1980s movie about the new boy in town going toe-to-toe with the staunch and stodgy town minister over the issue of what?
Kevin Bacon = Ren McCormick, new boy in town who lives his life through dance
Dances when he’s happy
Dances when he mad
Dances when he wants to have fun
Dances to “get the girl”
John Lithgow = Rev. Shaw Moore, local minister who believes there’s something inherently inappropriate and wicked about dancing → does everything in his power to keep Ren and all the rest of the local youth from dancing (especially since Ren’s dance to “get the girl” is aimed at Rev. Moore’s oldest daughter)
Ren takes his place at the microphone to address the city council as well as the gathered crowd → argue to allow high school dance within city limits
And what book does he quote from in support of his argument for the power and value of dance? He quotes from the Bible. He read Psalm 149, and he speaks of King David leaping and dancing before God.
Ps 149: 1 Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song; sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful! 2 Let Israel celebrate its maker; let Zion’s children rejoice in their king! 3 Let them praise God’s name with dance; let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre! 4 Because the LORD is pleased with his people, God will beautify the poor with saving help. 5 Let the faithful celebrate with glory; let them shout for joy on their beds. 6 Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, 7 to get revenge against the nations and punishment on the peoples, 8 binding their rulers in chains and their officials in iron shackles, 9 achieving the justice written against them. That will be an honor for all God’s faithful people. Praise the LORD!
And with our Scripture reading this morning, we got a little taste of David’s story, both the political side and the dancing side.
So let’s talk about David. As we make our way through the Narrative Lectionary, our goal is to take in the whole, overarching scope of the Story of faith, right? Well, we certainly can’t do that without talking about King David, can we?
David’s thread in the Story of faith is a long, colorful, and complicated thread → probably takes up the most space within the entirety of Scripture (possible exception: Paul’s travels as they’re recounted in Acts)
Begins when prophet Samuel goes in search of a king to replace Saul
REMINDER: Saul = anointed king by Samuel when the people of Israel demanded a king (against God’s wishes) → Saul does a good job ruling for a little while (following God and God’s commandments) → eventually stopped listening to God and is rejected as king
Samuel goes in search of a new king à finds David in the field tending his father Jesse’s sheep à Samuel anoints David
David is taken into Saul’s service as a musician and armor-bearer (though Saul is unaware that this boy has already been anointed as his replacement)
David defeats Goliath and befriends Saul’s son, Jonathan
Saul becomes suspicious and jealous of David → Saul pursues David and tries to kill him multiple times → David escapes time and again through various means
This part of David’s life – when he’s running from Saul and trying to avoid being captured and killed but is also still functioning as a soldier for the people of Israel and going into battle for his people – is a really complicated and fascinating part of the story of faith. We don’t have time to go into it in detail today, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, delve into 1 Samuel 18-31.
Eventually, Saul is killed in battle → David is anointed king for a 2nd time – anointed as king of Judah → But because of conflict between the house of Judah and the house of Israel (different tribes under the greater umbrella of “people of Israel”), David only ruled over the people of Judah for the first seven and a half years of his monarchy.
1st part of today’s Scripture reading (from 2 Sam 5) = David finally being anointed as king over people of Israel as well
Moment of powerful unity
Moment of dynamic hopefulness
Text: All the Israelite tribes came to David at Hebron and said, “Listen: We are your very own flesh and bone. In the past, when Saul ruled over us, you were the one who led Israel out to war and back. What’s more, the Lord told you, You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will be Israel’s leader.” So all the Israelite elders came to the king at Hebron. King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. → Anointing number three … third time’s the charm, right? With the first anointing (in the fields with just Samuel and the sheep as witnesses), David was accepted by God as king. With the second anointing, David was accepted by – the house of Judah – by a faction of the people as king. And with this third anointing, David is finally accepted by all the people as king. And how does David celebrate? Probably not the way you think.
Part of Scripture that we didn’t read today (part that fills in between 2 Sam 5 and 2 Sam 6) = David leading the army of Israel to capture Jerusalem and defeat the Philistines → Granted, there’s a lot of battling and conquering that happens throughout the Old Testament. This is just a small part of it. With this battle and this conquering, David does something that becomes incredibly culturally, religiously, and politically impactful: he establishes Jerusalem as the Holy City for the people of Israel.
Certainly an action that continues to have cultural, religious, and political ramifications even today, right?
2nd part of today’s reading = David calling to have God’s chest brought to the city
“God’s chest” = “the Ark of the Covenant” → special chest that was created to house sacred articles of the covenant with God (most notably the tablets containing the 10 commandments) → But it was more than just a special, fancy box. The lid of the box was known as the kaporet or the “mercy seat. Two gold cherubim on either end of the lid created a space with their wings which was believed to be the space in which God would appear. So bringing God’s chest into the city was a powerful, sacred, and highly significant act because it establishes Jerusalem as the place where God lived.
Scholar: The ark, a large box, functions as God’s throne; a visible place for God’s invisible presence. The ark went ahead of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
See in the text just how significant and moving this act was: David and the entire house of Israel celebrated in the Lord’s presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals. → different translation (NRSV): David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
So here’s the thing: we’ve talked about all the ups and downs that David has already been through in this short life. Remember, our Scripture reading this morning said that he was only 30 when he was anointed king of the house of Judah (2nd anointing) and 37 when he was anointed king over all Israel. So in his relatively short life up to that point, he had been through a lot. He had gone from a simple shepherd boy to a secretly-anointed king to an armor-bearer for the king to a national hero to the best friend of the king’s son to a fugitive and a battle commander … to the king. And in the face of all of that … maybe because of all of that … David danced.
Danced because he was happy
Danced because he was relieved
Danced as a release
Danced to honor God
[PLAY SAME FEW BARS OF “Footloose” AGAIN]
Even though he was probably exhausted … even though he probably had a lot on his mind … even though he probably had worries and uncertainties and fears and a to-do list a mile long (being a king and a conqueror, after all) … even though he had been through some terrible thing, some scary things, some dark and painful things … David danced.
Brings to mind words from Ps 30: You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Many psalms traditionally attributed to King David à this is one of those psalms
Now, I hesitate a little to say this because I know that sometimes, when you’re down in the depths of whatever you’re facing and people tell you things like, “It’s bound to get better” or “There’s always a silver lining” or any of those other sunshine-and-roses-everything-is-happy platitudes, it can actually have the opposite effect. It can make you more frustrated, more anxious, more depressed, more angry, more discouraged. But even after everything that he had been through, David danced before God. David let God take that mess that he had been in – mess of political intrigue, mess of war, mess of leadership thrust upon him, mess of grief and exhaustion and fear. David let God take that mess and change his mourning into dancing. David let God bring light to his darkness. David let God bring love to his loss. David let God bring passion to his pain. David let God bring the Holy to his hopelessness.
That’s why the words of our next hymn are so powerful → convey dancing in the face of some pretty awful things
“I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, but they would not dance and they would not follow me …”
“I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back …”
“They cut me down and I leapt up high. I am the life that will never, never die …”
And remember … not all dancing has to look the same.
Maybe your dancing looks vibrant and effusive and energetic like David and the people of Israel dancing “with all their might”
Movement that conveys joy
Movement that conveys passion
Movement that conveys celebration
Maybe your dancing is slower, more measured, more contemplative à more “movement with a purpose” than anything
Movement that conveys belief
Movement that conveys intention
Movement that conveys resolve
Maybe your dancing is simply moving your finger or tapping your foot
Movement that conveys faith even in fear
Movement that conveys courage even in pain
Movement that conveys hope even in uncertainty
In the midst of his mess, David let God move him. David let God bring out the magnificent in the midst of that mess because that is the nature of God: goodness, mercy, love, and hope above all else. These are the things about God that will not change. These are the things about God that reach into our hearts and our souls no matter what we’re facing. So friends, let me ask you: How is God moving you? What will your dance be? Amen.
CHARGE & BENEDICTION
 Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford. “Footloose,” released Jan. 1984 by Columbia Records.
Footloose, written by Dean Pitchford, released Feb. 17, 1984 by Phoenix Pictures and Paramount Pictures.
I want to introduce you to an idea this morning: the concept known as the Mere Exposure Effect.
Basic idea: the more you hear something, the more likely you are to like it and believe it → In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us.
Also called the Familiarity Principle
Coined/proposed by the late Robert Zajonc, Polish-born social psychologist who immigrated to America after the end of WWII
First time you hear a song on the radio: “Meh” → find yourself enthusiastically singing along after hearing it over and over again for a few weeks
Pretty central thought process behind advertising, especially TV advertising → same commercial over and over and over again is supposed to work its way into your brain and make you want to buy whatever it is they’re trying to sell you
Extreme e.g.: Home Shopping Network – talk about the same object for an hour → talk at you and talk at you and talk at you until you finally give in (for 4 easy payments of $29.95!)
Darker side of mere exposure effect = the more often you hear a lie (no matter the source), the more likely you are to believe that lie … Even when you know it’s a lie. Even when it’s a lie that you’re telling yourself.
Fascinating. BUT … what does that have to do with the 10 commandments? What does that have to do with faith? “Lisa, why are you telling us about this?!” I’m so glad you asked. J
Today’s Scripture = probably one of the most universally-recognized Scriptures out there: the 10 Commandments → Scriptural narrative with quite the circuitous, sordid story behind it (not quite the simple “up and down the mountain” that the various movie versions of this story like to portray)
Today’s passage from Deut is actually the 2nd iteration of the 10 commandments that Moses gives to the people → 10 commandments 2.0
(Last week: read beginning of Moses’ story up to the point where God called Moses from the burning bush)
Next: Moses returns to Egypt, tries to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go → 10 plagues of Egypt → finally convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go
Moses leads the entire nation of Israel to the banks of the Red Sea → they discover that Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and is coming after them with the full force of the Egyptian army → parting of the Red Sea → people of Israel cross safely to the other side while Pharaoh’s army is obliterated by the waters crashing back together
Finally safe from Pharaoh for good, the people begin their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land → But the people start complaining
Complaining about lack of water
Complaining about lack of food
Complaining about lack of leadership
Complaining about lack of a plan
Complaining about how much they have to walk
Every time they complain, God responds with a provision … but every time, the Israelites find something new to complain about. There’s always something that they’re dissatisfied with.
3 mos. after leaving Egypt, they reach Mt. Sinai → Moses goes up on the mountain to commune with God → receives the first set of the 10 commandments → That’s in chapter 20 of Exodus. What follows is a lot more instruction from God about how things should be done – festivals, offerings, justice, worship, owning property, Sabbath, priestly duties and vestments, how to build a proper lampstand, and so on and so on … 11 chapters worth of instructions … which means Moses was up on that mountain with God for a long time, and the people started getting antsy, and nervous, and frustrated. And they started complaining … again.
People surrounded Moses’ brother, Aaron (right-hand man) and started demanding that he make a “new god” for them out of gold → collect all the gold throughout the camp → melt it down → fashion it into a gold calf → start worshipping the golden calf while Moses is still up on the mountain
God warns Moses about what is happening at the camp → Moses returns to find them worshiping this false god → Moses is so angry with the people that he hurls down the first set of tablets containing the 10 commandments and shatters them
And because of the people’s disobedience and lack of faith, God causes the Israelites to wander around in the wilderness for 40 yrs. before they can set foot in the Promised Land. The entire first generations of Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt died during the wandering before God finally led them back to the banks of the Jordan River – the border of the Promised Land.
And it’s on that border that we find ourselves with the first part of our reading this morning. The wandering is over. The Promised Land is literally in sight. The people have demonstrated their faithfulness to the God that has wandered with them these 40 years. And it’s time to move forward. So God says, “You’re ready. So let’s try again.” And Moses says, “Let me remind you of what’s most important.” – text: Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them.” = God’s version of the Mere Exposure Effect
Repeating important words so that Israel could hear them again
Repeating important words so Israel could internalize them again
Repeating important words so Israel could believe them again
Repeating important words so they could become a more integrated, tightly-woven part of the fabric of Israel’s story again
Critical nature of this is backed up by the 2nd half of our passage this morning: These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates. → This is Moses giving the people the words of God once again, imparting them and entrusting them to the people in hopes that in hearing them again – in hearing them once and exhorting them to repeat them again and again and again – that those words of obedience and reverence and righteousness and compassion would become more and more a part of the people’s identity the more they heard them.
Mere Exposure Effect: the more the more you hear something, the more likely you are to like it and believe it → In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us. And Moses was doing everything he could to make these words emphatically, unrelentingly, sacredly familiar for the people.
Interesting because, while they’re specific, they’re also incredibly universal
Words spoken into a specific context at a specific time
E.g. – description about keeping the Sabbath is long and speaks of oxen and donkeys and God leading the people out of slavery in Egypt → clearly words for a specific time and specifically for the people of Israel
And yet they’re words that have stood the test of time. They’re words that echo throughout generations down to us today. – Kathryn Schifferdecker (prof. and chair of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): This passage – and what follows it – also speaks to us, the umpteenth generation removed from Sinai. We are addressed by these words! We, “all of us here alive today,” are called upon even now to enter into and recommit to that relationship with the God of Israel. That is the rhetorical force of this passage. That is the rhetorical force of all Scripture, really. Scripture seeks to inform, but even more, to transform, to invite us to enter into the story of God and Israel, and the story of Christ and the church, and therein to find our own story. → This was a word of faith and hope and transformation and relationship for the people of Israel millennia ago, yes. But it is still a word of faith and hope and transformation and relationship for us today.
Actual break-down of the 10 commandments = 5 for God, 5 for people
Don’t desire after and try to take others’ relationships/possessions
They’re similar to the first set in that they’re also about respecting and holding as sacred the lives and dignity of others.
Common thread between the first 5 and the second 5 = relationship
First 5 = invitation to right relationship with God
Second 5 = guidance for healthy, gracious relationships with others
They both set out parameters for what a considerate, compassionate, sincere, sacred relationship can and should look like – respectful, loving, valued, and honored.
Reaffirmed in a similar way by Jesus = the Greatest Commandment (Luke’s version): A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
Echoes the words of the 2nd half of our passage today
Echoes the sentiment of the 10 commandments (first 5 = love God, second 5 = love others)
And friends, not only are these words that are still relevant in our world today, they are words that are desperately needed in our world today – a world in which we seem to have forgotten the value of those who don’t look-like-me-sound-like-me-live-like-me-pray-like-me … a world in which we have more people in need than ever before … a world in which people are degraded and discriminated against every single day for the color of their skin, the language that the speak, the person that they are, the level of their bank account, the person that they love, and on and on and on … a world in which basic human dignities are denied to people every single day … a world in which we cannot seem to disagree anymore without fighting and finger-pointing and name-calling and threats … a world calling out for genuine, loving, sacred relationships between neighbors with every fiber of its being. Today is World Communion Sunday, y’all. All around this country and more importantly all around this world today, people who don’t look-like-me-sound-like-me-live-like-me-pray-like-me are gathering at the Lord’s Table to be in and celebrate right relationship and sacred community with God and with one another. We’re all sharing the same loaf. We’re all passing the same cup. We’re all lifting up prayers of confession and adoration, praise and petition to a God that hears all, no matter the language or accent or wording. Today we come together around this table with one another and with the whole world. So let us come with the love and reverence and compassion and desire of God written on our hearts and on our minds. And when we leave this table, let us leave as God’s ever-present, ever-powerful, ever-relevant, ever-needed word to the world: LOVE. Amen.
No joke, y’all. I couldn’t make that stuff up if I tried! The point being that names have significance, right?
Significant to us
Significant to others
Even the hint or suggestion of a name has power.
Prince changing his name to a symbol (1993)
Much more personal example: my initials before I got married = LJP → one of the main garbage collection companies around Le Sueur = LJP … So all of the dumpsters and garbage bins around my parents’ house say … LJP. Yup. Names, right?
Elie Wiesel quote: “In Jewish history, a name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins. To retrace its path is then to embark on an adventure in which the destiny of a single word becomes one with that of a community; it is to undertake a passionate and enriching quest for all those who may live in your name.” → “A passionate and enriching quest.” And so we come to our Scripture this morning … a selection of readings from the beginning of Exodus in which sacred name is first stolen, then re-given, and finally reclaimed. So let’s take a closer look at these phases.
Super abridged backstory → reminder of the basics of Joseph’s story
Favorite son of Jacob (Isaac’s son, Esau’s twin)
Ambushed by his brothers → sold into slavery in Egypt
Servant in a wealthy house in Egypt → landed in prison → ends up in front of Pharaoh because of his ability to interpret dreams
Ends up in position of incredible power in Egypt → re-encounters his treacherous brothers (who don’t immediately recognize him) when they come begging for food in Egypt in the midst of a massive drought
Finally reveals himself to his brothers and moves all of them, their families, and their father, Jacob, to Egypt so he can continue to care for them
Beginning of this first portion of today’s story = generations later: Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. → A new king came into power. A new Pharaoh. And he didn’t know Joseph. He didn’t know all that Joseph had done to save the people of Egypt – Pharaoh’s own people! – let alone all the other people of the region who came to buy grain from Egypt during the famine (and all the gold that put into Egypt’s national coffers). He didn’t know the prestige and honor that Joseph enjoyed, despite being “the other” – a stranger in a foreign land. A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.
Result: [Pharaoh] said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against, us, and then escape from the land.” … So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. → So the Israelites – the descendants of Joseph and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham – who had been enjoying life as simple citizens of Egypt up to this point are suddenly stripped of their identity as normal citizens. They are stripped of their identity as protected. They are stripped of their identity as respected. They are stripped of their identity as free.
First part of this story brings other haunting historical events to mind
Africans forcible brought to this country as slaves à most often given the names of their slave owners (if any name at all)
Jews and others interned in concentration camps and stripped of their names during the Holocaust à given only a number instead
Native Americans forcibly stripped of their culture, their language, their indigenous names and even their families when they were marshalled into Indian Boarding Schools in late 19th and early 20th centuries
To say nothing of what is happening and has been happening on our own southern border.
Pharaoh’s solution = no less appalling: The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” → But being strong, faithful, determined women (the only people in this entire passage, including Pharaoh, to actually be named, mind you!), Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s orders and let the male babies live also … which brings us to our 2nd
The salvific work of Shiphrah and Puah in action: a baby boy born to Israelite parents, allowed to live and thrive and be loved by those parents, hidden until they could hide him to no longer, then sent down the river in a basket with a hope, a prayer, and a sister to follow him … just in case.
Moses’ basket finds its way into the hands of none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter as she’s bathing in the river
Basket and the baby inside = plucked from the river and saved DESPITE obviously being one of “them,” of “the other” – text: When [Pharaoh’s daughter] opened [the basket], she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
Moses’ sister pipes up and offers to find some “random” wet nurse for the boy to raise him until he’s a bit older → Pharaoh’s daughter accepts → Moses’ sister runs to fetch her own mother (Moses’ own mother) to raise the boy until he’s old enough to be taken into Pharaoh’s house and adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter – text: After the child had grown up, [his mother] brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”
More to this name than meets the eye
Simple presence/existence of the name itself = meaningful → Moses is the only name mentioned in this entire part of the story. His mother gets no name. His sister gets no name. Even Pharaoh’s daughter gets no name. Only Moses. The Hebrew child. The one who wasn’t supposed to be in the first place. He gets a name.
Moses = supposedly Egyptian named used in many other royal names throughout Egypt’s history BUT far more to it than that → Walter Brueggemann draws undeniable parallels between name (Moses) and Hebrew word for “draw out/deliverance” (always an act accomplished only by God): What may be a royal Egyptian name is transposed by the proposed etymology into Israelite praise for deliverance. Thus the rescue of little Moses from the waters anticipates a larger rescue to be wrought through the power of Moses.
Meaning of name speaks to God’s power in Moses’ life
Meaning of name speaks to Moses’ call in the future
Filling in story gap with super abridged version of Moses’ story
As an adult, Moses sees a slave driver abusing a Hebrew slave → attacks the slave driver and kills him
Somehow must have grown up with the knowledge that he was one of the Israelites – text (part we didn’t read today): One day after Moses had become an adult, he went out among his people and he saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.
Moses flees the wrath and justice of Pharaoh → ends up in Midian (modern day Saudi Arabia) → gets a job tending flocks of sheep for Jethro, priest of Midian → (also falls in love with and marries Jethro’s daughter) → For all we know, Moses is perfectly content to live this life – the life of a shepherd in the desert – hiding from Pharaoh and his past and his identity. Hiding from it all. But God had other plans.
This last passage = incredibly powerful passage because the reclaiming of sacred identity is actually three fold here
Moses’ reclaiming his identity as an Israelite → Think about it for a minute. Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house – the house of a man who had outlawed and done his best to eradicate Moses’ very existence. Surely he didn’t grow up learning the Hebrew ways and traditions. Surely he didn’t grow up participating in Hebrew worship and learning Hebrew prayers. And once he had fled to Midian and married the daughter of a priest, he more than likely assimilated to the cultural and spiritual practices of his adopted family and nation. And yet God found him there in the middle of the desert. God came to him in a burning bush. God literally called him by name. – text: When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. → In this encounter, Moses comes full circle – back to a faith and an identity that had long been denied him, both by circumstance and by his own inattention.
God reclaiming the identity of the Israelites as God’s own protected people – God says this straight out in the text: Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land … Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them.”
God recognizing the plight of the people as God’s own plight
God recognizing the pain of the people as God’s own pain
God recognizing the need of the people as God’s own need
Popular saying: “God, break my heart with what breaks yours” (call to/prayer for a missional heart/mindset) → This is sort of the reverse of that. It’s God saying, “I see what breaks your heart, and it breaks mine, too, because you are my beloved children, and I am your God.”
God reclaiming God’s own identity as sovereign and sacred, unfathomable and undeniable → comes in God’s response to Moses’ seemingly-simple question
Question (reveals Moses’ fear, inexperience, and self-doubt): But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
God’s response = both achingly simple and staggeringly complex: God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.” – Heb. “Yahweh” (YHWH) = sounds like breath, derived from Heb. word “to be” → This formulation makes God both intimate and incomprehensible – as powerful and vital as breath, as near as our own heartbeat and breath but on a global scale.
Brueggemann: This God is named as the power to create, the one who causes to be. This God is the one who will be present in faithful ways to make possible what is not otherwise possible. This God is the very power of newness that will make available new life for Israel outside the deathliness of Egypt.
And that is where we enter into this story, all. This is where this grand Story of faith intersects day in and day out with our own stories. Maybe you’ve been given a name you don’t desire, a name you don’t want to own or claim. Maybe you’ve been stripped of some element of who you are, either by your own actions or by the malintent of others. Maybe you’ve been filled with doubts in your own God-given call and identity like Moses. The Good News is that the God who called out to Moses from that bush … the God present in faithful ways to make possible what is not otherwise possible … the God whose name is as essential as the very breath in our lungs … the God who reached down into history to free the Israelites and encouraged them to reclaim their own sacred identity … this God reaches down to us as well. This God calls us as well. This God cares for and loves us as well. Your sacred identity is sure: beloved child of God, summoned and called, named and claimed. Forevermore. Amen.