How Long?

When we read the account of the plagues against Egypt, one question that surely comes to our modern minds is this:  How could Pharoah have been so obdurate?

Anyone in his right mind would have buckled after only one or two of the sweeping, ruinous plagues that the Lord visited on Egypt.  Even Pharoah’s servants see that their ruler is being irrational.  “Can you not see that the land is ruined?”

It is a striking thing, this adamance of Pharaoh, and it is surely, surely, one of the points of the whole story.  That is, the story would not be the same story if Pharaoh had simply relented after the water had turned to blood.  There is a point to all this repetition; all this obduracy, all this adamancy.  God has told this story and has preserved it over millenia for us.  Why do we have this very, very strange story.  What is it there to tell us?

What is the point of this story?

Let’s think of Moses as the man who has heard the gospel.  God has acted in his life.  God has spoken to Moses and promised him liberation, freedom and life.  Life in a new land, flowing with milk and honey.  And God has enlisted Moses as a player in this drama of liberation, and God has promised to be with Moses and empower him to act against the status quo and to be successful in the liberation of Israel.

What happens?  Moses hears the gospel, is empowered by God, and he obeys God.

 

And they all lived happily ever after?

Not at all!

 

Moses meets resistance.  Boy, does he ever!  Resistance that is obdurate, adamant, irrational.  And so do we!

Next Sunday

Our old testament lesson will consist of the account of the plagues against Egypt in Exodus.  This is a very long lesson, I know, but we need to read the whole thing to get the picture.

The New Testament lesson will be Ephesians 6: 10-18

Turning Aside to See

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Old Testament Lesson:  Exodus 3: 1 – 5

New Testament Lesson: Philippians 4: 8Finally, brothers, whatsoever things are are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

On that hot afternoon in the deserts of Midian, while Moses was herding his father -in-law’s livestock, what did Moses see?

We are first told that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Reading that, and being, as we are, thousands of years away from the actual occurrence and knowing, as we do, that the story that will immediately follow will involve spectacular events – plagues of frogs and locusts, the Passover, the parting of the sea – our first impulse may be to imagine that the sight before Moses is overwhelming and unmistakable. That it simply could not have been ignored.

In fact, we are the generation of Spielberg and George Lucas, and we know, by golly, what the fantastic ought to look like. We have seen the stars in the sky melt into lines when the Millennium Falcon goes into warp speed, we have seen an extra-terrestrial creature toss spheres into the air where they hang suspended in defiance of gravity and began to orbit and rotate. We have seen that same creature levitate a bicycle and, as Neil Diamond put it in his song, “take a ride across the moon.”

Yes, we know all about the fantastic. We know what it looks like and we know if Moses saw a bush that was burning and not consumed, well, it is no wonder that he stopped and took notice. No wonder.

But for a moment this morning, I want to consider the possibility that what Moses saw there and then may not have actually been overwhelming. The sight of the burning bush may not have been Spielberg-like. It may not have involved a twenty-foot flame in which a winged angel floated. There may not have been orchestral music in the background as Moses approached the bush.

There are hints in the text that suggest that the scene might have been more subtle than all of that. In the first place, how humble a symbol or means of revelation is a mere bush? It is something small and common. It is not a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire. It’s not even a tree. Moreover, God Himself does not seem to take it for granted that Moses will even notice the phenomenon. Indeed, God does not speak until he sees that Moses “turned aside to see.”

In the preceding verse, we see that Moses’ consideration of the burning bush was a result of his reflection and decision. He is not stunned or frozen in his tracks. He does not fall immediately to his knees. He is not overwhelmed. Rather, he deliberates: “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”

For a moment this morning, I want to consider the possibility that what Moses saw on the mountain that afternoon was something that was, at first at least, just a little bit out of the ordinary. There are bushes aplenty. We can be sure that the desert at Horeb was loaded with scrubby plants. It may not even have been all that unusual for one of these brittle bushes in the desert sun to catch fire. What was unusual here was that the bush was not consumed by the flame. That startling fact was only obvious after some moments of observation and consideration. There is something different about this one. I will turn aside and consider.

You and I all know the rest of the story. Moses encounter with God in the burning bush was, to put it lightly, momentous. From this encounter comes the confrontation of Pharaoh, the plagues against Egypt, the Passover, the Exodus, the giving of the law, the entry into the Promised Land.

There is more, of course. The life of Moses led to the establishment of Israel as a nation and from that nation comes the prophets and, finally, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, through whom all the world is saved.

All of life. All of human history. All of God’s revelation of Himself to humanity turns on this one conversation. All on Moses’ decision to turn aside.

What can that mean for you and me this morning? Where might you and I see something just a bit out of the ordinary and take heed?

Look at the world around us. Things fall apart. Men and women are sick and lonely and bound up in the webs of their own passions. Do you, even for a moment, doubt that?  If men and women are not alienated from each other and confused about the nature of the world and of life, then why are we awash in pornography?  Why do men substitute the fake for the real?  Paper for flesh and blood?  Why have we given up on the promise of love and union?   If men and women are not lost in their own passions and their own empty philosophies, then why are we awash in drug addiction? They are underfunded and overspent. They are alienated from one another.  They are unsatisfied and restless.  They are bored and disengaged from anything that might inspire them or lead them into meaning and purpose. They have no center or conviction, but take the path of least resistance. Thus they have no victory; they leave no legacy; they make no contribution.

All around us we see the principle of entropy at work – a gradual decline into disorder.  This is at work, long term, in the physical world, but it is moving far more rapidly in this social order we live in.  The culture coarsens.  Institutions are undermined.  Oppression looms.

All of this is nature. All of this is fallen, human nature. These bushes are burning, but they are consumed.

Look carefully. Do you see any bush that is not consumed? Do you see even one thing that runs counter to the way of all flesh? Is there anything that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous?

Then turn aside to consider these things, for in them you may hear the voice of God.  In them you may hear the promise of the gospel. Christ is among us and He will show Himself to those who turn aside to see and He will bring us into a new life, into a life of participation in His plan of salvation. His plan to bring men and women out of bondage and into freedom, light and life.

Afternoon Post, July 3, 2015: The Burning Bush

July 5, 2015

 Old Testament Lesson:

The Burning Bush

 Exodus 3: 1      Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

New Testament Lesson: 

Hebrews 1

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

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As our lesson begins this morning, we find Moses minding his own business.

The early chapters of Moses’ life read rather like a suspense novel. As an infant he is dramatically rescued from the state-ordered genocide of all male Hebrew babies. On top of that, his rescuer is actually a princess, who adopts Moses and raises him in the Pharaoh’s own house, with Moses’ mother (her identity unknown to the princess) acting as the in-house nursemaid.

When Moses reaches maturity, he learns of his Hebrew identity and comes to sympathize with his people who are held in bondage in Egypt, toiling to make bricks for Pharaoh.   One day he witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and his temper flares and he “looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Pharaoh immediately learns of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian and he “sought to kill Moses.” When Moses learns that he has been made, he flees eastward to the land of Midian to escape Pharaoh’s wrath and to avoid prosecution and execution for the killing of the Egyptian.

In Midian, Moses finds himself once again in providential care. He immediately ingratiates himself to a landowner, Jethro, a man of substantial influence there, who gives Moses his daughter ( Zipporah, meaning “little bird”) to Moses for a wife and brings Moses within the family to live under his protection and providence.

All of that would make a fine Hollywood movie. Lots of amazing, fortuitous scenes, high-level intrigue and even a murder and escape. Really exciting stuff.

But in our lesson today, life has settled down for Moses. He’s gotten married, had some kids and gone to work on the farm. We can imagine that life has gone from a thrilling adventure to something more like domestic routine and we may imagine that, as our lesson begins, this day is like any other. Moses is out in the pastures with the cattle, making sure that they are safe and getting proper nourishment. This day looks about as routine as a day can be.

Some of us may find it impossible to personally relate to the early chapters in Moses’ life. For many of us, we don’t see our lives as being so dramatic and consisting of close calls and miraculous rescues and narrow escapes. But one thing we probably do understand quite well is routine. That is, by now at least, we understand the drone of daily duty; we understand the notion of one day looking very much like the last and anticipating that nothing will change tomorrow. And it is that kind of mood or perspective that seems to pervade as our lesson begins. Moses is “keeping the flock of his father in law.” Ho-hum.

But what starts out as just another routine day does not end that way, for while the cattle are grazing, Moses sees an amazing sight:

And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.

Wow, “that sure doesn’t taste like tomato juice.” This is not just another day.

It is quite easy for us, as modern readers, to understand and relate to what Moses did upon seeing this amazing thing. He “turns aside to see this great sight.”

Of course he does. Who wouldn’t? Who would not drop whatever it was they were doing – particularly if it was something has dull as keeping the flock – and turn aside to behold this wonder, this thing that had never been seen before?

Who wouldn’t? Well, that might be a better or closer question than we imagine, for the text seems to show us that God did not assume that Moses reaction would be what it was. You see, the text is very deliberate to tell us that God did not speak to Moses immediately, but only upon seeing that Moses “turned aside.”

That little detail speaks volumes. It tells us something about God and about ourselves and about the relationship between us. God did not speak to Moses until He saw that Moses “turned aside” to see this amazing sight. God did not assume that Moses would turn aside, but waited to see if he would.

What does it tell us about ourselves? Just this: That we have the freedom and maybe even the propensity to ignore the amazing and to turn away from the fantastic. That is implicit in God’s hesitation here. God knew that this amazing sight was not a guarantee that He would get Moses’s attention. Rather, God knew that Moses would have the freedom not to turn aside and behold, but to turn away and ignore.

You and I may find it hard to believe that there is any lesson here for us. We may feel certain that if we were ever confronted with such an amazing sight as a bush that “burned and yet was not consumed,” we would turn aside not just from watching the cattle, but from anything that held our attention before. Just give us one such chance, we might say.

But, not so fast. Let’s go on to other aspects of the story. At the end, we’ll return to the notion that we would have been quick to drop whatever it was we were doing and turn aside to see God’s miracle.

What does this detail tell us about God? Only this: that He does not overbear or crush human personality, but waits for one who will listen.

Now, let’s turn for the moment to the nature of God’s message to Moses. What was it, exactly, that Moses gained by turning aside to behold the burning bush?

What he gained was the gospel. What he gained was the good news of freedom and justice and love and purpose and meaning. God was about to set Israel free from its long bondage and toil in Egypt. He was about to grant justice to his people who had been oppressed there for generations. He was about to do the very thing that Moses desired and more than likely thought would never be achieved.

What’s more, God was about to involve Moses in this process of liberation. From this day forward, Moses’ life would no longer consist of boring routine in the pastures of Midian, but of confrontations with the greatest ruler in the ancient world and of battles with that power; battles that God would finally win. His life would now consist of bold action against evil and he would witness and play a part in miraculous acts – the Passover, the parting of the sea – that he could never have imagined and that would be remembered throughout the history of the world and be celebrated by millions until this very day.

Moses, by turning aside to behold the burning bush, was granted a new life – a life of meaning and purpose and victory and liberation and gratification of heart’s desire.

All of that is well and good, you might say. But how does it apply to me? I have had no mystical experience in the desert. No bush has ever burned before me. I have heard no voice out of the fire.

This morning I want to ask you: Are you so sure? I am not for a moment suggesting that any of us need to take up jobs watching cattle in desert pastures in the hope that we will see a burning bush. No, the miracle before us is brighter than any flame and more remarkable than the sight Moses saw. For the bush that burns and is not consumed is Jesus Christ.  For the scripture tells us that in times past, God spoke in “divers manners,”  that is, in many different ways. Through angels, for example.  In a burning bush, for example.  But in these last days He has spoken, and He speaks, through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Like the bush, Christ is right in front of us. He is in plain view. We have the testimony of the scriptures in our very hands. We have the fact of the church that has survived the comings and goings of kingdom after kingdom through the centuries. We have evidence around us of changed lives – Charles Colson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, William Wilberforce and so many others, some of whom we have known personally.

Have we actually turned aside to behold this marvel that is above all nature? Or have we turned away to return to the mundane, thinking that nothing is new and nothing will ever change?

God calls us to this new life. To live in accordance with His will and under his protection and providence. To join, heart and soul, in this great story of liberation from sin and from the powers of evil? Will you join in?