The Plan: Exodus 3.1-4.17

Could Jesus possibly say the words recorded in Matthew 23:23-4 without at least a hint of a grin on his face, while his disciples snickered at the image?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Who, in their right mind, would hire a blind guide or avoid eating a tiny little bug, but attempt to swallow a big, hairy, and smelly camel? I believe Jesus had a sense of humor because God also has a sense of humor. You can’t look at a wildebeest or a warthog without entertaining the possibility that God likes to laugh. Moreover, I do not believe we can read Exodus 3.1-4.17 without realizing God has a great sense of humor. In particular, I think God likes “comedy of the absurd.”

I first encountered “absurd comedy” in the early 1970s when I stumbled across the British comedy team “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The skit I saw was entitled “Philosophers’ International Football: Germany vs. Greece.” Basically, the viewer was to believe he or she was watching a soccer match between teams consisting of German and Greek philosophers.

On the German team were such famous thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche and Schleiermacher. And for the Greek, Plato played in goal and the Socrates was the striker. Instead of wearing soccer uniforms, the Greeks dressed in “togas” while the Germans wore fashionable attire hailing from the time period in which the philosopher lived. Except Franz Beckenbauer. He wore a soccer uniform because, well, he was a German soccer player from the late twentieth century.

Once the referee, Confucius, began the game instead of a quick start, all the players simply wandered around obviously lost in deep thought…as one might expect from a philosopher. Suddenly, Archimedes had an idea. He began kicking the ball and darting between the reflective Germans, and the Greeks ultimately won when Socrates scored the winning goal off a diving header into the German goal. Of course, an argument broke out between Germans and Confucius, but the content of the debate was more like a heated scholarly discussion than a sporting event.

To me this was wonderfully funny.

Of the comedians and comedy teams I know, I like Monty Python the best; and a central reason being the fact that to me much of life is resembles their skits: it is often a little crazy. Another reason I enjoy this type of comedy is the fact, as far as I can tell, occasionally when God intervenes in chaotic human affairs life becomes a little more absurd. Just look at Moses’ life.

You remember the background to the burning bush incident. God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, are in Egypt. The special, select, unique, and wonderful people of God are in that country. And what are they doing there? They are slaves and they have been slaves for over four hundred years. “Chosen” must have meant something different back then.

But a recurring point in this story, and the entire Bible, is that God isn’t unfaithful. He hears Israel’s cries and a savior is called—Moses. Moses is the best possible man for the job. He’s a murderer. He’s a fugitive. He has a speech impediment, and his practical work experience over the past forty years is primarily limited to watching sheep. Other than that, he’s ideal, or he’s at least as good as the plan.

Recently, I repeatedly read Exodus 3 and 4, and each time the story seemed more and odd to me.
First of all, God reveals himself as a burning bush, and says to Moses, “I have heard my people’s cries, I am sending you to Pharaoh to secure Israel’s freedom.” At this point, Moses asks what, to me, is a fair question to ask when a burning bush tells you to go to the very place where you are wanted for murder: “Why me?” As if to calm Moses, God replies, “It’s okay, don’t worry. I have a sign for you. And this is the sign. AFTER you go to Egypt and bring out the Israelites, then you will worship on this mountain” (Exodus 3.12). Perhaps I am a little slow, but my understanding is that signs usually come before events to warn or reassure. But God offers Moses a sign which comes after the event.

If I were Moses, I believe I would have immediately put my sandals back and left that place. But he was more diplomatic than I am, so he stays but raises a second objection: “What if I go and tell them their God sent me. They’ll ask, “What is God’s name?” What shall I tell them? God replies, “Just tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” Oh, great! This God doesn’t even have a personal name. He goes by a verb.

God continues with THE PLAN. “Once you are in Egypt, assemble the elders and tell them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers…appeared to me and said….’” By this time, I wonder if Moses is attempting to imagine how this meeting might play out. There he is in a crowded room with the assembled elders. There will be one little old guy in the back row who shouts out, “So. God appeared to you? The creator and sustainer of the universe appeared to you. What did he look like?” And Moses will have to be honest and respond, “He, ah, um, looked like a medium sized bush. But he wasn’t any old bush. He was on fire.” And knowing he has Moses where he wants him the same little elder will continue, “I see, and what was the first thing God said to you?” And Moses will have to reply, “Take off your sandals.” With that kind of imagery in his mind, Moses had to be wondering if THE PLAN could get any more absurd. The answer is “yes.”

God moves to the next point. “Now after the elders listen to you, go to Pharaoh, and say, ‘We’d like a three-day holiday so we can travel into the desert and sacrifice to our God.” (3.18). Right. First, slaves don’t get holidays. Second, they don’t get holidays which involve traveling three days away from their masters. And third, Pharaoh is probably smart enough to know they aren’t coming back.

Anticipating the objections, God says, “I know Pharaoh won’t listen, but I will change his mind.” Finally, a glimpse of reality! But, of course, it is only temporary because God then reveals THE PLAN’s next phase. “After I change Pharaoh’s mind and before you leave, every Jewish woman is to ask her Egyptian neighbor for gold, silver and clothing.”

Quickly Moses reviews THE PLAN. I go to Egypt where I am wanted for murder. I tell the elders that God appeared to me as a bush. Then I ask the world’s most powerful man to give the Jewish slaves a three-day holiday in the desert. Finally, before we leave, we ask the Egyptians for their valuables. Moses concludes this is crazy, and he’s having no part of it. Three more times he attempts to wiggle his way out of the call.

First Moses argues, “Look, the elders aren’t going to believe any of this” (4.1). But God reassures him that there are ways to convince the elders. God tells Moses to place his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake, and better still God tells Moses to reach out and grab it by the tail. Then Moses is directed to put his hand inside his cloak and upon removing it his hand is leprous. And here is my favorite line in the entire story: if they don’t believe the first miracle, they may believe the second (4.8). But if they don’t like either of those options, simply take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. It will turn to blood (4.8ff).

Moses knows a desperate moment when he’s stuck in it, and so he responds, “I can’t speak. I stutter.” God will not accept such a flimsy excuse and so he reminds Moses who created his mouth. Also, it is God who makes ears either to hear or be deaf. God promises to help Moses.

Finally, Moses draws together all the courage he has and says aloud what he has probably been thinking all along: “I don’t want to be a part of this scheme. Please, send someone else.” At this point, the Bible says that God became angry with Moses and said, “Your brother Aaron is a good speaker. Take him along with you. He will be your spokesman.” Evidently Moses ran out of arguments, because the next thing we read is Moses tells his father-in-law, Jethro, that he wants to visit his relatives in Egypt (Exodus 4.18).

What could have made Moses change his mind? On the surface, there’s not a lot which could or should have convinced Moses that this was a good idea. After he repeatedly attempted to wriggle out of the assignment, why did he come around and agree to participate?

I doubt that THE PLAN’s superior quality swayed his thinking. Some may argue Moses finally realized that he was working with God. If one reads Exodus 3 and 4 you will see that at least nine times, Moses hears God promise to help him. Simply because someone tells you he or she will help does not mean assistance will be forthcoming. No. Moses’ mind was not altered because of THE PLAN or the promises he received.

I think the past enabled Moses to agree to an absurd plan dealing with an uncertain future. In the story, an important phrase dealing with the past is repeated four times: “…the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob….” More specifically, that which enables Moses to carry out God’s plan is his recollection of how God had successfully worked with previous generations.

When you think about it, God had a sense of humor even before Moses’ time. Abraham was told to leave his country and go to an unknown land, which turned out to be a semi-arid wilderness. And God promised Abraham a son. His wife, Sarah, saw the joke here because Abraham was quite old and they had no children after many years of trying God said, “Okay, you laugh, but you will call your child Isaac.” Even in naming the child, God showed his sense of humor because Isaac means “s/he laughs.” A modern translation may be something like “what a joke.” And yet, Genesis 24.1 reads, “…the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way.” Sometimes the path to blessing took Abraham through some bizarre territory and experiences, but God was faithful.

Then there is Abraham’s son, Isaac (He laughs). In Genesis 26 we learn that Isaac and his family were facing a famine and God told them to go to Philistia. Egypt would have been a better choice, but God directed them to the territory of the Philistines. Once there, trouble began because the local men thought Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, was very lovely and Isaac lies to them to save his skin. Again, God was faithful, and saves not only them, but, overall, they prosper. People came to make treaties with a guy named “He laughs.” Ultimately Isaac’s life ended the same way Abraham’s did: with Isaac receiving every conceivable blessing from God.

Finally, why God would work with Isaac’s son Jacob is a mystery…unless God had a sense of humor. Jacob’s most distinguishable quality was his ability to con people. For example, he stole his brother’s birthright. But that’s okay because upon falling in love with Rachel, Jacob was conned by his would-be father-in-law, Laban. And it didn’t stop there. Jacob conned Laban out of many sheep prior to leaving with his two wives. Ultimately, Jacob had many sons and there was the beginning of the nation which God had promised three generations before. Of course, the family ended up in Egypt and in slavery which eventually brought us to the story of Moses.

It is only God’s actions and faithfulness in the past which gives us confidence in the present, which often seems absurd and out of control. Equally important, it is only God’s track record which allows his followers to act in the future. God has repeatedly proven himself as the One who deals with the craziness we face. While this is easy to say, it is true. When bizarreness surrounds us, we should try to learn how to relax. We will not avoid craziness in life, but we can learn to live with it because God seems to work best in craziness. And God redeems our out of control lives and situations. We can never give up hope when facing absurdity. God has a track record of redeeming hopeless and crazy life situations.

If we could learn to live with this central theological idea, our lives will be considerably better. And we must allow God to work in whatever fashion God deems best. If God wants us to go with the flow of absurdity, then sit back and enjoy…as best you can. If, on the other hand, God immediately removes us from craziness, give thanks. God has a good track record of redeeming lost causes.

Finally, our quality of life will increase if we can learn to see life the way God sees it. This is especially true if we could see life’s funny and odd side. If God doesn’t take himself so seriously that he could come up with the Exodus plan, then we had better learn to relax and even perhaps laugh. Can you imagine being a sourpuss condemned to an eternity in the presence of a God who enjoys a good laugh? I’d rather not think about it. It is so absurd.

Silent Perhaps, But Not Absent

For much of the twentieth century, history was dominated by the clash between the capitalist West and the Communist East. Both sides seemed to be avidly involved in the drama that unfolded. And sometimes the events were simply stunning. The Soviet Union was a major player in these world affairs. Apart from helping to defeat the Nazis in World War II, many or most people would say the USSR’s impact on world affairs was less than stellar. What other conclusion could you arrive at? Stalin killing hundreds of thousands of his own people. Religion in general, and especially Christianity, was suppressed. The USSR dominated and violently controlled Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union interfered in the internal affairs of many developing nations. Not surprisingly, many people just assumed it would take a third world war to do away with either the USSR or its archival the USA. The Cuban missile crisis didn’t give them many other ways to see the future. The present was so bleak for so long. Humans couldn’t seem to get a handle on the challenge, and God certainly didn’t seem to be interested.

But no one had taken March 2, 1931 into account. For many it was a day like any other day. However, it wasn’t like any other day. It was the day Mikhail Gorbachev was born. As leader of the USSR, he introduced Perestroika, or “restructuring,” in 1986 and Glastnost, or “openness,” in 1988. On Christmas Day (of all days!), 1991, he resigned his leadership role and declared the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics non-existent.

What many people don’t realize is the fact that God may well have been at work, behind the scenes, in the notoriously “godless Soviet Union.” You see, while Mikhail Gorbachev is probably an atheist, he sends mixed messages about his faith or lack of faith, he is an atheist who is enamored with people who take God seriously. He said Pope John Paul II’s devotion to his followers “…is a remarkable example to all of us.” And of St. Francis, he said, “his story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life.” I would like to think that God was subtly working in this man’s life and by extension in the USSR so as to avoid the horror of another world war. I believe that because the biblical text suggests God does that. At least, Exodus 2.11-25 would suggest this is the case.

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. 16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. 18 When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” 21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. 22 She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but God isn’t mentioned in the first two chapters of Exodus until the very end of chapter two. There was no mention of God in last week’s sermon text, Exodus 1.8-2.10, apart from the fact that the two midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh “feared God” (Exodus 1.17). And God isn’t mentioned in today’s text until verse 23. That is rather odd because Israel could certainly have used God’s help. After all Pharaoh was trying to wipe out the Hebrews. He had enslaved them and forced them into hard labor. He declared that any Egyptian citizen could murder any Hebrew infant boy they came across. If there ever was a time for God to show up and do something amazing it was then. However, as the story plays out the only hope Israel has is a few women who decide to trust God despite what they see around them. They are women who are willing to risk their personal safety to obey God and use basic moral decency.

The silence and seeming absence of God was challenging in 1275 BCE, and it is challenging today. In the summer of 1989, my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given one year to live. My wife, Wanda, and I had recently experienced our second miscarriage. It wasn’t a good time. We were on the verge of giving up. God and I weren’t on the best of terms. And that is being generous. I was wondering why God wasn’t doing a better job of being God. I suspect I am not the only person who felt this way at one point or another in life. I know I am not alone…at least Matt Tuckey is with me. He gets how difficult this waiting on God is. This week on the church discussion page, in response to this passage, he wrote, “I want what I want now. I’m on your side, God, now act. Save me. To know/believe/trust in the greater story (than my own). I believe. Help me on my unbelief.”

When God seemingly isn’t particularly interested in changing the world around us, we are often tempted to act on our own and find our own solutions. That happens in today’s passage, and at some level it isn’t a bad thing. Twice Moses is deeply moved to act against an injustice, and that motivation is right. The first is when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. And the other is when the Midianite women are driven away from the well by shepherds. Moses is incensed at these acts of injustice and he is moved to act. But his record is 50/50. The first time he murders a man and ends up in exile. The second time is much better…he gets a dinner invitation, married and starts a family.

Despite Moses’ wonderful concern for justice, he didn’t come to grips with the fact that he is a broken and flawed person. While we should avoid “pop psychologically analysis” of any biblical figure, it is difficult to overlook that fact that he must have been struggling with a lot of issues. First, and foremost, who is he? As a toddler, he was raised as a Hebrew. Then he spent his youth and young adulthood as an Egyptian. But he murders an Egyptian and his “step grandfather” wants to kill him. And his biological relatives, reject his influence when he tries to help them. Ultimately, he finds himself wandering in the desert, until he is taken in by a Midianite family. In fact, what he names his first son, Gershom, is telling about how Moses sees himself. As we are told in 2.22, that name could be translated “I am an alien, living in a foreign land.” He realizes he doesn’t belong. Talk about rough self-images. Seemingly, Moses’ way of coping with his identity issues, and his failure to bring justice to his people, the Hebrews, is to abandon them to their fate in Egypt. Moses settles down in Midian. He gets married, starts a family, and helps his father-in-law with the family business.

I wish I could say Moses was a unique and, perhaps, a horrible person for doing that, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t horrible, but he was flawed and weak. And he wasn’t unique. He was a person like the rest of us. It isn’t that he didn’t care. He did care. He just didn’t always act well or wisely upon his deeply held convictions. And when he made a terrible mistake, he gave up. He moved away from the place that needed him. He settled down with a new focus. He did what many of us are frequently tempted to do: protect ourselves. It seems to be normal, or at least a recurring temptation, for humans.

While Moses’ life settled down, life in Egypt hadn’t settled down for his fellow Hebrews. The old pharaoh died, and the new pharaoh was no better than his father. In fact, in one verse it becomes quite clear things are terrible there: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” (Ex. 2.23) It was so bad that God entered the picture, having heard their groans and cries. And seemingly their cries remind God of a promise made to the Hebrews’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The promise was made by no one other than God, and the promise was the one mentioned last week. And the promise was to make Israel into a great nation to bless the other nations and be God’s agents of redemption for the whole of creation.

But that great nation was currently in horrid bondage and in no position to work with God to liberate the world. For that to happen, God needed a liberator to set the Hebrews free. God wanted someone who was well versed in Egyptian culture, politics, and language. Perhaps someone who had lived in Pharaoh’s court. God also wanted someone who understood the ins and outs of Hebrew life and faith. Maybe a person who was born a Hebrew and lived with a Hebrew family. God wanted someone who knew his way around the desert. Possibly a man who had led sheep, goats, and camels from one desert oasis to another. And God wanted someone who was humble and yet had a passion for justice. That person didn’t need to enact this passion perfectly. God knew a person who had such a resumé. All God had to do was convince Moses he was the person for the job.

I wonder if the details of that ancient story aren’t frequently repeated to one degree or another in our own times. People who have great strengths and passions are moved to act, and because they are not perfect and because they live in a flawed world they sometimes fail. And on occasion their failure is very memorable. It is so memorable, they tell themselves to avoid caring and acting in the future. Sometimes, other people push them into an isolated corner where they just settle down and find it difficult to engage the world around them. They opt for a quiet out of the way life. They don’t bother anyone, and no one bothers them. Meanwhile, the broken world still suffers. Broken people find no healing. And God looks for someone who will be a liberator. All that needs to happen is to convince them to work with God and use their unique life experiences, flawed as they are, to begin the liberation of the world and the people around them.

“Well. That’s Awkward.” or “The World’s Most Powerful Man Just Got Bested by Four Women (and One of Them isn’t Even a Woman Yet).”

As many people know Exodus is the second book in the Old Testament. In reality Exodus is more like a new chapter in the continuing story which began in Genesis. In fact, the very first word in Exodus is “and.” That tiny word signals that the story is continuing. When my wife asks what I would like for dinner I could say, “I would like a medium rare steak and lima beans and mashed potatoes.” However, I usually just reply, “I don’t know. What do you want?” Because the story begun in Genesis continues into Exodus many things which happen in the first book need to be considered when looking at the second. In fact, there is one story from Genesis which is crucial background to the Exodus story we will look at in this sermon.

Back in Genesis 17, after God called Abraham to leave his home in Ur and travel to what is now Israel, God made a promise to Abraham. Abraham was told that his descendants would become a great nation. And we learn eventually that the reason for this development is that Israel would be a witness to the other nations regarding God’s goodness and love for all creation. And the ultimate goal of making Abraham and his descendants into this nation was the redemption of creation and all of humanity. Sadly, the plan wasn’t straight forward…there were lots of twists and turns because, well, neither humans nor creation are perfect. One of those twists was a famine in Palestine which forced Abraham’s descendants to travel to Egypt for food. And they ended up staying there for decades. Still the plan to make Israel a great nation seemed to be working because in Exodus 1.7 we read, “…the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” It is all good, right. The plan is working, Israel is in the process of becoming a great nation. And then this happened.

1.8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph [one of Abraham’s descendants who worked for the king of Egypt]. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2.1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. 5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.

6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 1.8-12, 15-17, 22; 2.1-10)

The writer of Exodus crams so many interesting points into this opening story, but I want to focus on an all-powerful ruler who thinks he is going to stop God’s plan to redeem humanity and all of creation through Israel becoming a great nation. We are never told who, exactly, this pharaoh was. He may be just a symbol for any tyrant who thinks he is going to keep control of his country while ignoring and even acting against God. At any rate, the fact is that as pharaoh, he is one of the most powerful men in the world, and if he lost control of his country he would lose a lot. He is wealthy. His money would be gone. He has no rivals in his country. His security would be gone. He has armies who do his bidding. He would be defenseless against his enemies.

Therefore, he thinks he is going to end the threat he sees to himself and his country: the Hebrews. Pharaoh is worried that the Hebrews, who have grown significantly, may side with his enemies, and overthrow his reign. He is worried that he might have all his power slip through his fingers. And so, he schemes to remove what he sees as a threat. We are left with the impression that he is totally intent on wiping out the Hebrews because he has three different plans…and to do something three times in the ancient Hebrew mindset is to say he was totally dedicated to the agenda. Of course, this agenda of wiping out the Hebrews puts him on a collision course with the God of the Hebrews because as you will recall God promised to make Israel a great nation. What is intriguing, to me at least, is how God goes about stopping the most powerful man in the world: God’s agents are four women. Actually, it is three women and a girl.

Pharaoh’s first plan is to simply enslave and oppress the Hebrews. They became forced labor building his cities of Pithom and Rameses. Who knows what he was thinking when he came up with this idea? Work them to death? Work them so hard they wouldn’t have energy to engage in sexual intercourse and have children? Whatever his motivation, it failed, and failed gloriously. 1.12 reads, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” It is time for “Plan B.”

Pharaoh’s second option is to enlist the Hebrews to ensure their own demise. He contacts the Hebrew midwives and tells them that when they are attending births, if the child is a boy they should kill him. I honestly do not know why he thought that would work. Perhaps, he thought he was intimidating and they would knuckle under. He is, after all the most powerful man in the world. People should be afraid of him. They should obey him. But we are told that the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, were more impressed by their God than pharaoh and they met the king’s scheming with their own creativity. “Well,” they told pharaoh, “you know Hebrew women don’t give birth like Egyptian women. Hebrew women are really fast. We can’t keep up with them. By the time we arrive the children are already born.” And pharaoh seemingly believed them. He may have been the most powerful man on earth, but he didn’t seem to be the smartest. What Shiphrah and Puah didn’t tell pharaoh was the fact that they were intentionally saving all the Hebrew baby boys…that is the thrust of 1.17’s “they let the boys live.” A better translation of the phrase would be “They saw to it that the boys lived.” They were very intentionally refusing to obey pharaoh’s orders. Today we call that “civil disobedience.” And for a second time we read, “So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.” (Exodus 1.20) Let’s face it things aren’t going well for the most powerful man in the world, he was just bested by two women whose main skill was delivering babies…and being faithful to God. He failed a second time.

And then he takes up what we moderns would call the “nuclear option.” He tells all Egyptians that they are to throw all the Hebrew baby boys in the Nile River to kill them. Seemingly, any Egyptian could kill a Hebrew baby boy without fear of prosecution. In fact, their leader told them to act lawlessly in order to wipe out the Hebrews.

In Exodus 2 the story shifts from the big picture to one Hebrew family, unnamed at this point, who has an infant son and an older daughter. In a delightful and ironic twist, this family saves their son by doing the very thing pharaoh orders Egyptian citizens to do to Hebrew baby boys with the intention of killing all of them. They put their child in a basket and put him in the Nile River. The baby’s brave older sister follows the basket floating down the river and sees her brother is saved…by none other than pharaoh’s daughter. Unlike her father, this young woman has “pity” on the child and eventually takes him into pharaoh’s household even though she knows he is a Hebrew child (2.6). But first the baby’s sister bravely approaches the princess and asks if she would like to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child. The response is yes and the princess even offered to pay for the child’s care.

Do you see what happens in this part of the story? Pharaoh’s scheme to eliminated all Hebrew baby boys is used to save the one child who God is going to call to liberate Israel from Egyptian bondage. Israel will be a great nation, and God takes pharaoh’s twisted scheme and “straightens” it as the plan for redemption moves forward despite pharaoh’s total dedication that this should not happen. And not only that, but Pharaoh’s evil plan can’t even convince everyone in his own family to play along…because his daughter refused to do his bidding AND she uses his money to save this child. And all this happens because one young girl is brave enough to ignore the most powerful man on earth and do what is right to save her brother, and another young woman refuses to obey an evil plan.

As I read and re-read these verses and this opening story in Exodus I was increasingly impressed by the way it plays out. It reminds us of ideas that we should never forget despite what we see happening around us. Most importantly God is intently focused on redeeming all of creation, and God will not be stopped by anyone. The most influential and powerful people on Earth can scheme, but God’s plans will move forward. It doesn’t matter if people are totally dedicated to derailing God’s program. Redemption will take place.

Additionally, I find it humbling that often the human agents God uses to keep the redemption plan on track are the very people I am tempted to overlook. In the ancient world, and in some places in the modern world, women didn’t have high social standing. They weren’t powerful nor influential. In this story, God’s preferred agents are three women and a young girl. Three women and a young girl who choose to be faithful to God and what is right confront and confound the most powerful man in the world. They stop him in his tracks, and his plan, not God’s, is ultimately is derailed.

For me, all of this raises the interesting question: Where in our world does God want to do something positive and redemptive and God is simply waiting on someone to respond to the divine invitation to participate in redemption. Those “someones” are very probably not the people with power and influence. They may be, but they are probably someone like you and me. They are stay-at-home moms, nurses, teachers, shop owners, administrative assistants, factory workers, environmental experts, counselors, social workers, business people, computer specialists, and many more. But they are just ordinary people being called to God’s extraordinary work. Seemingly, those are the people with whom God prefers to work when he redeems humanity and all of creation.

At the End of the Day, or the Sermon on the Mount, We Have a Choice.

Well, with this week’s sermon on Matthew 7.24-29, we have arrived at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but one of the dominant themes in Matthew 5-7 is that there are two alternatives people face. Jesus clearly makes the point that there is the old way and there is his new way. We saw this in chapter five where almost every sub-unit began with something like “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, but I say to you….” Or in chapter six, we saw Jesus saying something like “Your peers practice their religion this way, but I am telling you that you should do this….” And in chapter seven, Jesus very clearly lays out the two alternative ways by referring to broad and narrow roads, good and bad trees, good and bad fruit, talkers and doers and in today’s passage wise and foolish builders.

And the choice before us isn’t casual, like what should I wear to church or even what should I wear to the big job interview. Today’s passage leaves us with the impression that the wrong choice would be disastrous. The wrong choice is like a house collapsing around you. The problem is the choice involves change, and change is extremely challenging. To be honest change involves the unknown, and that is unnerving. And to move into the unknown you need energy, wisdom, and courage. And to be even more honest often change situations need lots of energy, wisdom, and courage. And sadly, we don’t always have the “right quantity” of those three elements. However, as we saw two weeks ago, Jesus reassured us in Matthew 7.7-12, the “Ask, Seek, and Knock” passage, God does and God wants to bless us with what we need to be faithful.

In Matthew 7.24-29 we read:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

Let’s begin by looking at the last two verses, where Matthew sums up the crowd’s response to Jesus’ teaching: 28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. These two verses refer to his teaching style or methodology and not the content of his teaching. He taught on his own authority and not like the scribes. What does that mean? The Jewish teachers of the Law in the first century ALWAYS taught by referring to the previous teachers of the Law and the way they viewed it and applied it. They referenced the previous generations’ ways of understanding a particular aspect of Judaism. They looked to the past and “tweaked” it for their time. And that approach meant there were NO significant departures from the previous generations’ understanding of how to be Jewish.

But Jesus was different. He didn’t reference and build on the teachings of previous generations. In fact, as we saw in chapter five, he felt quite free to “set aside” what they said. That is the nice way to put it. Another way is to say he ignored them. Not surprisingly, Matthew tells us this “astounded” the people listening to Jesus. The Greek word there could be translated “panicked,” “overwhelmed,” or “shocked.” In other words, they weren’t ready for Jesus’ teaching method which simply swept aside hundreds of years of “how” the Jews were supposed to go about knowing what to do. While the scribes looked to the past on how to live, Jesus looked to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Big difference. Unnerving difference. Everyone should have been shocked, because they didn’t have the old ways to lean upon. The future was open to something new and very different.

To be honest it wasn’t only Jesus’ teaching style that scared people. The content of his teaching was rather unnerving as well. We have seen this for the past number of weeks. Jesus raises the bar so high at times, we sit there and wonder, “How? How can this ever happen? And if I try this, it probably won’t end well.”

Never mind avoiding murder…don’t even get angry at people.

Never mind not committing adultery…don’t even lust over another person.

Don’t limit your love to your friends and neighbors…love your enemies.

When you are trying to be religious and pious, do it for God and not the people around you.

Don’t worry.

Don’t judge.

Don’t rely on yourself. Ask, seek, knock. God wants to bless you.

To be fair, while Jesus does set the bar high, but remember in 7.7-12 he also says God is more than willing to help us live out what he calls us to be and do. And still we often lack confidence. We are normal. We find ourselves wondering if we can do what Jesus asks for. Moreover, we honestly don’t know what it looks like because Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of Heaven is so very different and better than our limited human vision. In my family’s current life, we are dealing with a physical parallel to this “spiritual” challenge.

Having grown up in Africa and experiencing the harsh sun conditions there, my wife’s eyes have developed cataracts. She needs surgery, but for that to happen she must stop wearing her contacts so as to allow her eyes to “regain” their original shape. She has worn contacts for almost fifty years because her vision is so weak. So, for the immediate future, she will have to deal with eye sight which is far from ideal while she wears only her glasses. She won’t be able to see as clearly as she’d like. We are told that once the surgery happens her eye sight will be vastly improved. In fact, she should only need reading glasses. But for now, her vision is impaired. Similarly, when it comes to envisioning the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus introduced us to, we have trouble seeing it as clearly as he did. It is as if we have cataracts. Additionally, we tend to look backwards to how we have “done our religious life” in the past, while he looks forward to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t always see what he sees. And that makes it difficult to follow him.

I suspect Jesus knew that what he was asking of us is difficult and challenging. He also knew that our decision to follow him and his teachings will make a huge, and positive, difference in our lives, our church life and the world around us. And that is why he tells the short parable in verses 24-27. There are two builders. I assume they are both skilled builders. Perhaps they are not equally experienced or equally committed to proper and hard work, but we are not told one was a good builder and the other was shoddy. What sets them apart is where they decided to build. The one man took the more challenging route, and built on rock. I can’t imagine that would be easy in ancient Palestine. Maybe there was digging involved and lots of it until bedrock was located. Or maybe exposed stone had to be leveled and chiseled to have a relatively level foundation. Living the expectations of the Sermon on the Mount is like that man’s building project. It is difficult, but since it is God’s plan it will last because the Kingdom of Heaven will last.

The other builder took the easy route and build on sand…seemingly without site preparation. He found a place with a view and easy access to supplies, and he built. Like the scribes who relied on their centuries of inherited tradition, he went with what was at hand. He did what was acceptable and easy. And Jesus warns his listeners that the former, the life in the Kingdom of Heaven, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, will last while the latter, the accepted traditions of people will eventually come crashing to an end. The one is hopeful and a source of joy. The other is simply a disastrous mess.

To be honest there is too much at stake for a “business as usual” mindset to be your, mine or our congregation’s way of living. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” My friend Stephen Gallaher alters that line a little when he says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be who you’ve always been.” To be honest, we can’t afford to “do business as usual.” And we can’t afford to do that because looking to the ways of the past aren’t helping us to live better lives. Look at the world around us and people’s lives all around us. Look at your own life. Things don’t change for the better when we simply repeat the same way of living that we have always lived. Repeating the old ways isn’t helping our neighbors to know there is an alternative to “business as usual.” Looking to the accepted ways of the past doesn’t give anyone hope that there is a better future known as the Kingdom of Heaven. Living the old ways will never help us live a life on earth that reflects the life to be found in heaven. And Jesus specifically called us to pray that that would happen.

Here’s the take away:

Look at your life and ask yourself: What would my life look like if I was more intentional about even one of Jesus’ teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount?

How might you creatively live that one teaching?

If you don’t know how, pray that God will show you how.

And when you realize how hard it will be, be resolved to build on Jesus the rock which we are called to build upon.

And pray that you have the strength to live the life here that will be lived in heaven.

If Your Friends Jump off the River Bridge, Would You Jump Also?

While it may not be an obvious place to begin a sermon on Matthew 5.38-48, I need to tell you one thing about my family. The men have proudly served in the U.S. Army. My cousin Joe is a Viet Nam vet. My father was part of the occupation force in Italy when the Italians surrendered. His brothers Bill and Joe served in the Pacific and European theaters respectively. My uncle Leck was a career NCO, serving in WWII, Korea, and two tours of duty in Viet Nam. And my dad’s second youngest brother, Bob, died in a North Korean POW camp.

As you can see I am not a likely candidate to preach on a biblical passage which talks about loving enemies and turning the other cheek. I grew up assuming it was good to be in the military, and especially good to be in the Army. I was told there were times when you just had to use force to resolve disagreements. Moreover, I am not a pacifist by nature. In fact, deep inside of me there’s a problem…but more on that later. So, you must be asking, “How did he get here?”

The credit (or blame) goes to Reverend David Wilkerson. He is the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, the founder of TeenChallenge, and an evangelist in the Assemblies of God Church. He was the evangelist the night I was converted, and I prefer the word “converted” to “saved” because it hints at the importance of change in a person’s life once they become Christians.

I vividly recall that evening. When invited, I went “up front”, and Dave Wilkerson talked to me afterwards. I have no idea why he singled me out, but he did. I was rather confused…I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, having made this “decision for Christ.” He told me to go home and read the Bible starting with Matthew. So, I did. And it wasn’t very long until I knew I was in trouble because it doesn’t take long to get to these words of Jesus in Matthew 5.38-48:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What had I just signed up for? It looked as though I had a choice to make. Who did I believe: my family or Jesus? How should I deal with those situations where wrong is lived out? How should I look at others who do wrong? How should I look at myself? Although I loved my dad, uncles, and cousin, I concluded Jesus was right. Let’s see if I can begin to explain why.

Before we go very far I must point out that ultimately, this sermon isn’t about the military or pacifism. Those topics are related to our subject, and they are topics which I enjoy talking to people about. The real topic, however, is how do Christians live in a world riddled with evil, wrong, and injustice. I am concerned about the daily manifestation of evil and injustice in our lives. The chances are very slim you or I will ever meet a member of Al-Qaidia face-to-face. But the odds are very good that someone will treat you unfairly or violently, whether that violence is physical or psychological. And this mistreatment could occur today or tomorrow. Perhaps, this already happened yesterday or last week or last month or a year ago. How did you respond? How are you responding? How will you respond? And more importantly, how does Jesus want us to respond? Do we casually and thoughtlessly accept the age-old wisdom of treating others the way we have been treated and hating our enemies, while loving our friends? Or do we take Jesus seriously by looking at the evildoer differently? By looking at ourselves differently? By considering the fact that God treats everyone graciously, as noted in Matthew5. 45?

I have realized for a long time that Jesus, despite his popular image, was and is difficult to “get along with.” And it isn’t simply because he asks us to do difficult things like avoid retaliation or love our enemies. He’s difficult because he asks us to recognize this problem inside each and every one of us. He asks us to stop being naïve about who we are. One of his assumptions behind Matthew 5:38ff is the fact that we all have a capacity to do evil, to be evil, unjust, unfair, and unloving.

N.T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, argues that contemporary people are naïve and immature about evil. In particular, we are naïve when we believe the other person is evil and unfair, but I am okay. In Jesus’ day it was the Romans and Gentiles who were seen as evil, but many Jews believed they were okay, God’s special people. But Jesus says, “Really? They are bad and you are good? Is it that simple? If you act like them are you really better than them?” Jesus told his peers, and us, that there is a streak of evildoing potential in everyone.

Given the right situation and circumstance it is all too easy to choose evil and injustice. Our nature seems to be oriented toward self and self-promotion and often wrong is the end result. Admittedly, few of us are murders, armed robbers, rapists, drug-traffickers, and so on. But haven’t you ever done or said something which killed another person’s self-esteem or stole someone’s good reputation or destroyed someone’s sense of security? Have you never hurt another person by your words or actions? I have. And I like to think I am “normal”, which means I am not alone in this matter. I am not the only one stuck with this internal problem. I want to take the easy path. I would like revenge for the times I am ignored, ridiculed, or belittled. I would like to follow the easy way of only loving the people who love me in return. There is something wrong with me.

The beginning of our salvation is our admission that we are no better nor any worse than anyone else. We, like everyone around us, have a problem: it is easy to be evil. At a very simple level, Donald Miller’s Christmas story illustrates this. In his wildly popular book, Blue Like Jazz, Miller tells of the very first time he realized he had a serious problem.

“This is how the bomb fell: For my mother that year I had purchased a shabby Christmas gift—a book, the contents of which she would never be interested in. I had had a sum of money with which to buy presents, and the majority of it I used to buy fishing equipment, as Roy and I had started fishing in the creek behind Wal-Mart.

My extended family opens gifts on Christmas Eve, leaving the immediate family to open gifts the next morning, and so in my room that night were wonderful presents—toys, games, candy, and clothes—and as I lay in bed I counted and categorized them in the moonlight, the battery-operated toys of the greatest importance, the underwear of no consequence at all.
So in the moonlight I drifted in and out of anxious sleep, and this is when it occurred to me that the gift I had purchased for my mother was bought with the petty change left after I had pleased myself. I realized I had set the happiness of my mother beyond my own material desires.
This was a different sort of guilt from anything I had previously experienced. It was a heavy guilt, not the sort of guilt that I could do anything about. It was a haunting feeling, the sort of sensation you get when you wonder whether you are two people, the other of which does things you can’t explain, bad and terrible things.

The guilt was so heavy that I fell out of bed onto my knees and begged, not a slot-machine God, but a living, feeling God, to stop the pain. I crawled out of my room and into the hallway by my mother’s door and lay on my elbows and face for an hour or so, going sometimes into sleep, before finally the burden lifted and I was able to return to my room.

We opened the rest of our gifts the next morning, and I was pleased to receive what I did, but when my mother opened her silly book, I asked her forgiveness, saying how much I wished I had done more. She, of course, pretended to enjoy the gift, saying how she wanted to know about the subject.

I was still feeling terrible that evening when the family gathered for dinner around a table so full of food a kingdom could feast. I sat low in my chair, eye-level with the bowls of potatoes and corn, having my hair straightened by ten talking women, all happy the holiday had come to a close.

And while they ate and talked and chatted away another Christmas, I felt ashamed and wondered silently whether they knew they were eating with Hitler.” (pp.9-11)

Are we like Hitler? Not exactly. But it is easy, as easy as spending money at Christmas, to act in ungodly, unfair ways when dealing with each other. As Miller writes a few pages later, “I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” (p. 20)

There is a second reason why we find Jesus a little “off-putting.” It is the standard which he sets for us. You will notice he doesn’t say, “Everything will be okay, if you are slightly better than Hitler.” Or, “If you are less judgmental than that incredibly judgmental person at work.” Or, “If you aren’t as racist or sexist as your neighbor.” Rather, he says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is a rather tall order. He frustrates us when he sets the bar so high.

He tells us, and in the original Greek it is an imperative verb, not a suggestion, to love and pray for those who oppose us. And Jesus’ reasoning is simple: that’s how God, your Father, treats people. If you are truly a member of God’s family, you will live by God’s mores and values. Jesus is relying on very simple logic here. No doubt you have already figured this out when you started “hanging out” with other teenagers or went to college. If you are parents of pre-teen children this lesson is coming at you faster than you realize. You were raised with one set of values and expectations and your friends were raised with a different set. When I did something my friends viewed as “normal” but my mother didn’t I would hear this line: “If your friends jumped off the river bridge, would you jump off the river bridge, too?” That question was a not so subtle way of reminding me I have violated a family expectation.

Let me share one of my family traditions. My wife, two sons and I know exactly what we will eat at the evening meal on January 25: haggis, mashed potatoes and turnips (haggis, tatties and neeps). And we do that because January 25 is Robert Burns’ birthday. And Robert Burns was the national poet in Scotland. Every January 25, Scots and people of Scots ancestory around the world are eating haggis, tatties and neeps. Because that is what people who are proud of being in the Scottish family do. Similarly, Jesus says, if you are in God’s family you will love and pray for your enemies, because that is what our Father does. As God’s children, Jesus calls us to imitate God’s way of dealing with evildoers.

God treats everyone the same: all people receive the sun and the rain. I suppose this reference to the sun and rain could mean a number of things, but in an agrarian society like first century Palestine, I believe Jesus is suggesting that God gives people, all people, what they need to survive and live. He doesn’t ask if the person is evil or good. He knows they are both, and he gives everyone what they need.

While we can’t control the sun and rain, we can provide love and prayer, the vital ingredients for healthy relationships. In fact, Jesus tells us that in a sick world where evil is the norm, people who follow him inject two crucial antidotes: love and prayer. His followers are God’s constructive agents for the healing of the world. In a world which so often seems driven by hatred and destruction, Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives. We forsake the ways of the non-believers. And when we live lives driven by love we model alternatives to “business as usual”, we provide hope for a better world and we point to how the world will be when God is fully in control. We reject hatred and retaliation because they leave the world mired in evil. We reject hatred and retaliation because the God we worship is loving and calls us to do the same. It is how we live in God’s family.

Not only do Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives, we are specifically told to pray for our enemies. To be very honest we can only begin to theorize as to why this was important to Jesus. Here is my theory: the prayer Jesus has in mind is intercessory prayer, where the person praying “stands between” God and the person for whom we pray. Intercessory prayer is designed to benefit the person for whom the prayers are offered, in this case the enemy. I suspect Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies so that they may be changed from doers of evil to doers of good. But there is more: we, too, benefit from praying or interceding for our enemies. By standing between them and God, we are continually reminded of how God sees and loves them. By praying for them, we are humbled and reminded that, without God’s help we, too, can be doers of evil. With less evil in the world, God is honored and his creation is moving forward to its full redemption.

I want to close with two stories and a few questions. My uncle Leck was, as I mentioned already, a career NCO in the U.S. Army. I knew him as an incredibly gracious, kind, and ironically, peaceful man. I assumed that was because I was family and a kid. I further assumed he was different “at work”, after all he was a master sergeant. He had to be a tough guy. But one Thanksgiving morning I learned just how wrong I was. My family was visiting him and his family at Fort Bragg. Uncle Leck took my dad and me with him when he went to check in on how the meal preparations were going at the base. As soon as he walked into that large busy kitchen, everyone turned and shouted, “Hey Sarg, Happy Thanksgiving.” Everyone was grinning and smiling at him. It seemed clear to me, that they really liked him. And then I saw why that was. He walked around the kitchen, asking various soldiers how things were going, he encouraged them, and even asked if they had or would be able to talk to loved ones back home. And he treated every soldier the same, whether he was black, white, or Hispanic.

I also remember his funeral. I was shocked at the two scripture passages he specifically requested. Both were critical of war and hatred; they spoke of the hope that someday there would be peace on earth. This man, who served in World War II, Korea and twice in Viet Nam, had seen enough. I suspect he knew there were better ways to overcome evil. In fact, I know he knew there were better ways. After all, I observed him first hand that Thanksgiving morning.

How are you going to respond to the evil and challenges in your life? The public figure who drives you crazy every time he or she opens his or her mouth? The aggressive and dangerous driver? The troublesome co-worker? The annoying and bothersome neighbor? The family member you have come to despise? Will you take the easy way of retaliation and hatred? Or will you step up to Jesus’ challenge to be loving and prayerful?

“Murder, Anger, Name calling & General Mayhem: This isn’t What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like”

To be honest as I was working with today’s passage (Matthew 5.21-26), I had some difficulty locating the focus. These six verses range over topics including murder, anger, name calling and being embroiled in a court case. What was the connection? And while I wasn’t initially sure what held these verses together, I knew it was something important. There is talk of “liability” in at least four places and two entire verses are about being drug into court and being thrown into prison…which is slightly better than being thrown into Gehenna or “the hell of fire” (verse 22). I am thinking, “There is some really important law being talked about here, I better get it right. There is a lot at stake.” However, the very last commentator I read, Douglas Hare, Matthew, p. 51, pointed out that this passage (and the next five passages) are not about Jesus making new laws; rather it is Jesus talking about a new life: the new life in the kingdom of heaven. It is Jesus beginning to unpacking how we live as salt and light in a world desperately needing alternatives to business as usual. The passage reads:

5.21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5.21-26)

This unit and all the units in chapter five begin with something like “You have heard that it was said….” And then they refer to some Old Testament laws that Israel was not to violate. Those passages cover moral actions like murder, adultery, divorce, lying, retaliation and hating enemies. They are all specific boundaries not to be crossed by people who called themselves the “People of God.” Jesus says, in essence, in the old days people told you never, ever cross this or that line, and they happily allowed you to wander right up to it…so long as you didn’t cross it. But I want you to know, Jesus continues, that every specific boundary is merely a particular point on a dangerous trajectory. And, so you need to be careful about the trajectories upon which you find yourself.

What does that mean? Good question. Let’s put it this way. No one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I believe I will commit adultery today…or maybe tomorrow.” Instead they were lying there yesterday or last week thinking, “That new person at work is kinda attractive. She was really kind to me. Or he went out of his way to be helpful. I wonder if s/he is interested in me. I could be interested in her/him.” Or no one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I think I am going to lie to my colleague today.” Instead we are laying there thinking, “It was great Mary loaned me her car yesterday when mine was in the garage. I don’t know how to tell her I put a dent in it backing out of that parking space. I think I will tell her it was dented when I came out of the grocery store.” Jesus says when you start thinking along those lines you are already on a dangerous trajectory, which may end up breaking the law. But you have already started living out a pathway which doesn’t end up in the kingdom of heaven.

In the opening two verses (21-22) Jesus warns his followers about the trajectory which potentially ends in murder. Ultimately, murder is the end result of someone deciding that another person’s life has no worth. The victim is, in essence, disposable. And he or she can be done away with. Jesus says remember there are a number of steps you have to take before you arrive at that terrible point. The next-to-last step is being incredibly angry at someone. If you are angry enough, out of control enough, you could lash out and do serious harm to a person. But before that, you have to make a huge assumption about them, and that assumption is this: they are useless…at least to you they are. The word raca (v. 22, translated “if you insult”) is almost impossible to translate, but it is an abusive term of contempt. It means you have no time or respect for someone you see as hopelessly incompetent. It means you think the world would be better off without them in it. And the word moro (also in v. 22 and translated as “you fool”) is a slanderous term calling someone’s moral character into question. It is a way of assassinating someone’s character or ruining their reputation.

At the end of the day, when you are lying in bed you might be able to say, “Well, today I didn’t actually murder anyone and I feel good about that.” But Jesus says his followers also need to ask themselves, “Did I even wish someone was dead because I think they are useless?” Ask yourself, “Did I assassinate someone’s character?” We aren’t faithful only when we avoid the last stop on the murder trajectory, while casually moving through life creating interpersonal chaos and ill will. We are successful when we get off that destructive trajectory all together.

If that isn’t challenging enough, Jesus ends this passage by reminding us of something we’d rather not hear: sometimes, we are the raca or the moro. It is one thing to have to live with useless people or morally suspect people, but somedays we are another person’s loser, and Jesus reminds that this is a real possibility in verses 25-26. There Jesus creates a scene where you or I are the “offenders.” He depicts it as a court scene, where someone (me or you) has done something to upset another person enough to call in a third party to make a judgment about our bad behavior.

As much as I would like to deny this has ever happened, I must admit is has. I like to think I am an “average guy” which means I am not unique on this aspect of life. And that means you have probably found yourself in the same situation…having done something incredibly hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to another person. We don’t want to, but we must, admit to ourselves that some days we are the raca or the moro in another person’s life. And that reality should humble us, and remind us to be gentle with the racas and moros who cross our life paths. And don’t forget: when we looked at the Lord’s Prayer two weeks ago, Jesus reminded us that forgiveness was foundational to the kingdom of heaven. I assume it foundational in getting off the murder trajectory as well.

Now if you have been following closely, you will realize I skipped two verses: 23 and 24. And these verses are a subtle, but important, suggestion for how to get off the murder trajectory. On the face of it, Jesus’ advice looks simple: if you are going to worship and remember there may be “issues” between you and a “brother or sister” go home and take care of the conflict, the raca/moro “stuff,” and then go back to worship. We think, “Oh, our religious life with God should somehow connect to our lives with each other, and that is true. Jesus seems to be saying God isn’t especially interested in your worship if you are running around calling people names or giving people a reason to call you names.

But there is more to these verses than that. The context is making a sacrifice in Jerusalem…verse 23 says, “…when you are offering your gift at the alter….” But when Jesus said this he was in Galilee where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Jerusalem, where the temple is located, is a three day walk from Galilee. Essentially, Jesus’ advice looks something like this: after you spend three days walking to Jerusalem, once you have changed your money to purchase your sacrifice, and then you remember you have a bad attitude toward someone at home, just let your sacrifice there, spend three days walking home, work out a reconciliation, and then walk three days back to Jerusalem to make that sacrifice. Of course, this will actually take a week, because there will be a Sabbath in that time span and you can’t walk very far on the Sabbath. I am sure your sacrifice will be waiting for you.

Admittedly, that advise is bizarre and overdrawn. I doubt Jesus expected anyone to do that. What he probably did expect was for people to be very careful about how they treated each other every day. And they certainly should never leave for Jerusalem without attempting to resolve conflict with fellow believers. In fact, his words at the beginning of verse 25 would reinforce this: “…Come to terms quickly with your accuser….” That expression looks like a legal term, doesn’t it, given the following context? It kinda looks like Jesus is suggesting we “settle out of court.” But the essence of the Greek text isn’t legal at all. In fact, Jesus is literally saying, “make friends with your accuser.” And that “make friends” advice also applies to the situation when you are tempted to accuse someone of being a raca or a moro. I suspect it is almost impossible to tell a friend that he or she is utterly and totally useless, and it is even more unlikely you will assassinate a friend’s character. Ultimately, working at being a friend to people is the first place where we get off the murder trajectory and on to the kingdom of heaven trajectory. Befriending people is one of the alternative hopes Jesus’ followers can offer to people who are unfamiliar with the kingdom of heaven.

Do Not Be Afraid.

I realize this is an odd way to begin an Easter sermon, but what are you afraid of? Confined spaces? Lightning? Long tall bridges without high safety barriers? Personally, I don’t do well with heights or snakes. The heights thing is real. The snake thing is more like a “preference.” And that preference makes mowing a slight challenge at our home. The front yard is pure suburbia complete with a lovely manicured lawn. The “back forty,” which is what I call the back ¼ acre, is surrounded by woods. There is a pile of brush. I try to mow it only four or five times a season because I am sure there are snakes there. Actually, I saw one once. Every time I am about to mow back there I warn my wife about my plans. I tell her that if the mower stops and she hears me screaming like a small child she should come help me. You see, she grew up in Africa where there are cobras, both black AND green mambas, and boom slangs…all of which are deadly. I reckon that kind of experience puts her in a good place to deal with the garter snakes at our house.

In ten short verses of Matthew 28.1-10, the word “fear” is used twice and the phrase “do not be afraid” appears twice, as well. Obviously, today’s passage is disturbing…or should be disturbing to the reader. And that may baffle us. It is Easter. We are supposed to be happy and excited…in a good way, right? Yes. Yes, indeed. Sometimes, however, even good excitement makes us tremble.

Matthew 28.1-10

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

On that first Sunday morning, I suspect it was “back to business” as usual for Jesus’ followers. Admittedly, it wasn’t technically “usual.” After all, they had just lost a very dear friend. And their hopes and dreams were crushed. And I assume they all were unbelievably depressed about what had just happened. Moreover, they all had to face a few nasty realities. First, they weren’t as brave as they thought…after all they all had abandoned Jesus in his time of need. Secondly, Rome didn’t roll over and die just because a rural prophet, as impressive as he was, said the kingdom of heaven was near. In fact, the emperor still had all the power. All that talk of the “kingdom of heaven being at hand”, was just that: talk. And so, the two women named Mary went to Jesus’ tomb to look at it. Perhaps, they went hoping-against-hope it was all a bad dream. Perhaps, they went simply to continue quietly mourning their loss. Perhaps, they wanted one last look before returning to their mundane and difficult lives in Galilee.

They may have thought they were going to quietly and properly mourn Jesus’ passing, but that isn’t what awaited them. As Paul Sokolofsky pointed out on our church sermon discussion page: “Raising from the dead, lightning, moving boulders, fear, joy, people running…this is just craziness!!” I would point out that he forgot the earthquake. But yes, it was craziness. It was anything but “business as usual.” I wonder why they didn’t expect something out of the ordinary. Jesus, after all, had mentioned that the kingdom of heaven was near. He had promised them a new world was about to break into their sad reality. He had mentioned that God was about to redeem them and creation. Jesus had promised that the world they knew was going to be turned upside down. He specifically said, “the first will be last and the last will be first” (19.30). And he suggested that the ways of the powerful won’t last (20.20-28). There was a new world coming.

And it began on that Sunday morning. I love the way Matthew makes this very point. In the midst of all of this chaos, the people who should pass out, don’t. And the people who shouldn’t pass out, do. The women, weakened from grief and restless and sleepless nights since Jesus’ death, should be on the ground. The Roman soldiers, strong and burly and perhaps battle-hardened, should have been there defending the tomb. But as it turns out, the Romans are on the ground totally unconscious and Jesus’ female followers are awake to witness his resurrection. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, indeed. The new world, the kingdom of heaven, had arrived. They didn’t have to wait very long for that prediction to come true. Easter is the day the world turned upside down, and it began that very first Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I don’t know about you, but if everything I knew was falling apart, even if those things were terrible, I would be afraid. Not knowing what you can count on makes you a little apprehensive. The women at the tomb knew what they could count on. Romans executed people. Those people were buried. End of story. And here they were in front of an empty tomb, surrounded by Roman legionnaires who were scared-to-death and passed out. I would be afraid, too. What kind of world were they living in?

Obviously, it is one they were not ready for. And that is more than a little unsettling. In verse 8, Matthew tells us they were afraid. But we are also told they were twice told to not be afraid. First in verse 5 the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid” And then he adds, “…indeed, he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” In fact, the women saw Jesus earlier than that. In verse 10, The risen Jesus himself, tells them, “…do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The world they were NOW living in was one in which God had just “undone” everything they had known. The Romans had sealed a tomb. God unsealed it. The Romans had executed Jesus. God had raised him from the dead. Everyone one and all of creation was subject to sin and death. God had just set us and all of Creation free.

Is it even possible that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived that first Easter morning? We look around ourselves today, and we ask that question. And it is a fair question. We watch the evening news, and it isn’t hopeful. We look at the relationships all around us, and many are either strained or broken. We have some days when we just have no clue as to how life can be so fouled up. And we are tempted to say, nice story, but I am not sure.

We forget that for roughly 300 years, the early church, our spiritual ancestors, believed that because of the resurrection of Jesus they had been set free from the power of sin and death and even the oppressive power of Rome. And because of that first Easter Sunday they had the audacity to live like it was true, despite the world around them telling them otherwise. And not only that, but the first Christians continually reminded their friends and neighbors, and themselves, that Jesus promised to return in the future. They lived their lives in a way that lined up with the kingdom of heaven which began with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and would come fully with his return. And eventually, the world around them stopped and took notice because their lives were convincingly different. We, however, have forgotten that we live in the “in between times.” We have forgotten that the “business as usual” world is passing away. And even more importantly, we often forget that we are God’s agent to facilitate that “passing away.” We forget that we are witnesses to what God has done in the past and will do in the future. We forget.

Or maybe we are simply afraid. Afraid of the tension between the old and the new world. Afraid of what we might lose when the “business as usual world” passes away. Afraid of who knows what? And our fears help us forget the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid…he is going ahead of you.” And we even forget Jesus’ own words, “Do not be afraid.”

Rituals or repeated actions help us to remember and overcome our fears. They provide us with a mooring in a life of upheaval and turmoil. Of course, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave us an action which is designed to help us remember who he is and was, who we are, and the fact that we live “in between.” From the very beginning of the Church, Christians celebrate this ritual as an act of thankfulness, hope, and remembrance. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 11.26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” When we take communion we look back to his death and resurrection as well as forward to his return. We remember that God began the new world, the kingdom of heaven, in Christ and we look forward toward the day it comes in its fullness.

When my wife and I lived in England in the 80s we worshiped with a wonderful Anglican congregation. Every Sunday when we observed the Lord’s Supper we said three sentences, as a part of the Anglican liturgy:

“Christ has died.”
“Christ is risen.”
“Christ will come again.”

Every Sunday these sentences were said prior to participating in communion. Every Sunday.
Thirty-five years later I still remember those three sentences. They are good words to say or think when taking communion. Even more importantly they strike me as fundamental to our faith. They are good words to remember, period. Moreover, they are good words with which to frame our lives. And they are good words to use when we find ourselves afraid.