[The following is clearly oriented to the common life of Engage Community Church, but you are welcome to read and think and pray along with us.]
If this week taught the residents of South East Texas, around Houston, anything it taught them that when you are facing a crisis, you need to act differently than you normally do. You need to look out for your neighbors’ well being. You need to share. You need to take risks that you normally would not take in order to help people. No question about it. A hurricane like Harvey makes you a different person with a different agenda.
At least that is the case for a little while. I suspect the same thing will happen in that area that happened to my hometown in 1972 during and after Hurricane Agnes. During the crisis, we were different people. After it passed and we had cleaned up and things returned to “normal.” We reverted to our old selves for the most part. We forgot how we could be. We stopped being the people who were intent on saving our community and helping improve our little part of the world, for the most part.
Exodus 18.1ff paints a picture of what life could be like for people of faith who have gone through a crisis or two and whose communal life has settled down. If you know anything about the Hebrew Bible, you know Israel didn’t always “get it right,” but I think they did in chapter 18. In that chapter, they are still close enough to their crises to try to live up to what they learned in their times of trouble.
Scholars puzzle over why chapter 18 is here in the Exodus story. It’s a family reunion of sorts. Moses’ father-in-law comes for a visit and brings Moses’ wife and two sons back to him. And it is about Israel getting its communal life organized. It is a bridge between the chaos of enslavement, the Exodus, having no food or water, attacks from the Amalekites and settling down once the ten commandments and the Law are given. But it’s more than that. It is a picture of Israel remembering and acting upon those memories and living in anticipation of the receiving the Law. It is a picture of God’s people remembering how they got there and who they were called to be.
While the first part of the chapter looks like a family reunion, there is much more going on. The reason Jethro goes to see Moses is laid out in 18.1: “Jethro…heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” He has heard rumors about what Moses and Israel had experienced, and so he travels to see Moses and hear for himself. Verses 8-10 have a simple repeating pattern to describe Moses and Jethro’s conversation
• Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done…(v. 8)
o …how the Lord had delivered them (v. 8)
• Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done (v. 9)
o Blessed be the Lord who has delivered you from Egypt (v. 10)
In other words, Moses is giving a testimony to Jethro about how YHWH saved, redeemed, and delivered Israel from evil and dangerous situations. Moses is remembering and reporting about what scholar G. Ernest Wright referred to as the “God who acts.” And, in turn, Jethro confesses, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods….” (18.11).
And what happens next after Moses’ reports what YHWH has done for Israel? They worship. Jethro, Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel sacrifice to God and eat in the presence of God…which is ancient Israelite worship. We shouldn’t be surprised. We repeatedly heard over the past few weeks that Pharaoh was to release Israel so they could sacrifice and worship God in the wilderness, and now that they are free, they do it. What is intriguing is their motivation. They don’t worship because they have to do it. In fact, the Law about how to worship hasn’t been given yet. That comes in a few chapters. Their motivation is one thing and one thing only: a God who acts in their midst to save and redeem! “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you…” (18.10).
If the better motivation for worship is responding to God’s gracious acts, how does that inform what we do throughout the week and on Sunday morning? We are at a key point to ask and answer that question. Worship is a wonderfully complex experience, but at the very least we need to factor in how our week has developed, where we believe we saw God move in our midst, and find ways to incorporate that into our worship services. To be honest, I don’t know exactly how that can or should happen, but together we can figure it out.
In my mind, the second story in this chapter also comes as an encouragement as we look to our future together as a congregation. Verses 13-27 tell us about Moses and Israel trying to “get it right” with respect to justice and fairness within Israel. They at least remember that, in large measure, they were freed from Egyptian bondage because YHWH despises injustice. Therefore, Moses was dedicating a lot of time to serving as a judge and arbiter for Israel. That’s the good news: they remembered and attempted to be a just society. The bad news? The system they initially established didn’t help them accomplish that task. It was ineffective.
Jethro sees this and warns Moses that he’s going to “wear” himself out if he keeps this up. Jethro suggests Moses finds people who are able, respect God, are trustworthy, and hate corruption and make them judges to ensure justice and fairness. Israel doesn’t have to follow an old and ineffective system. They can institute a new organization. And they don’t have to wait for direct orders from God. Seemingly, God trusts them to use common sense to come up with a system that helps them achieve what God had directed them to do: be just and end injustice.
I find this story to be an encouragement for a number of reasons. First, we do not have to continue as we are or as we have been since the beginning of Engage. We don’t need to have the same focus we started with. But if we do change focus, we need to be sure we do it to be faithful to what we sense God is calling us to do and be now. Moreover, the forms or structures we create need to help us accomplish what we are called to be and do. While the past should be respected, it is not to be worshiped or protected. I suspect I am preaching to the choir here, but it does bear saying out loud.
Second, I believe this story reminds us we all have a role to play in our congregation’s future and planning for that future. Just as Moses listened to Jethro and enlisted many other judges, we need everyone’s advice. We need to listen to each other. I am not saying we will do everything everyone comes up with. But together we can, and will, create something to honor God. And as Jethro says to Moses, “God will be with you!” (18.19). I refuse to believe God will ignore our desire to creatively and faithfully worship and serve him. And that means I believe God will be with us as we think, pray, and form our future together.
So, what would I like you to take away today? Well, let’s start praying and thinking about these:
• How can we condition ourselves to see God moving in our daily living and how can those observations move us to worship?
• How can we organize our worship time to highlight what God has been doing in our lives Monday through Saturday?
• Start praying, thinking and talking with each other about our church’s mission to our communities.
• Start praying, thinking, and talking about our programming, as limited as it will be due to our current size, which helps us be better implementers of the work God gives us.