Monday, October 3, 2011

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 - Struggling with God: When you don't like the rules

The Israelites have journeyed from Egypt to Mt Sinai, they consecrated themselves and on the third day Moses brought them to the foot of the mountain to meet their God. I can almost see the Israel as a young ancient eastern bride meeting her future husband for the very first time. She comes shyly, curious about this one with whom she is about to covenant to live for the rest of her days. Who has the match maker chosen for her? What is he like? Is he kind? Is he just? Is he handsome? She comes expecting to gain some understanding of who this person is, so she can have a glimpse of what perhaps the rest of her life will be like. Instead of merely getting to see her new husband, and perhaps exchange polite pleasantries, under the careful eye of Father, Mother and match maker, she gets a first hand look at the marriage covenant, the papers, the agreement. Her father does not make the agreement for her on her behalf, but the husband with whom she is covenanting to live, comes to her with the terms of the covenant. He tells her directly what it will mean to live in covenant relationship with him. What it will mean to be his bride and what is expected of her. What their life together will look like.

What we have here is the heart of the covenant, the heart of what it means to live as a covenant people, what it looks like when a group of people come together and join themselves with God. When people come together, and live as God is calling them to live this is the way that community will live.

The people who live in covenant relationship with God will, worship God and God alone, will have no idols, will not wrongfully use God’s name, will remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, will honor father and mother, will not murder, will not
commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. Jesus summed it up well, “You will love the Lord God and you will love your neighbor.”

These are the great commandments, this is the heart of how a community desiring to join together and join themselves with God will live. These 10 commandments, because that is what they are, they are not suggestions, guidelines, or statements; they are the articles of the covenant. God says, “This is how a community living with me will live.” These are the legal guidelines of the relationship which God is building with these people. These commandments are in a sense legally binding on the community which desires to join itself in relationship with God.

As wonderfully interesting, awe inspiring and fundamental as these covenant stipulations are, the people’s response is what catches my attention. Did you notice it when I read it? One of the hard things about coming to a passage which I have heard in one form or another since I was perhaps 3, maybe even younger, is that it is hard to not come to it with every Sunday School lesson, devotional, Bible Quizzing study sheet, Bible Study summary, and sermon which I have heard over the years all echoing in my head fighting for my attention to tell me what I already know about these nearly memorized words of holy scripture.

But this time, something immediately jumped out at me, and that was the people’s response to these words spoken to them by God. (If you read on into the next chapter it is very clear that God spoke these words, directly to the people, out of the thunder wrapped cloud that had descended up on Sinai.) Their response is to request that Moses speak to them instead of God. They did not want to hear what God had to say. They did not like what God had to say, or how God had to say it and wanted instead to speak through an intermediary. They did not want to deal with their God themselves they wanted a go between someone to run interference.

Last night a tremendous crime against humanity was committed in Stella’s bedroom, Cidra was hit in the face with Stella’s new ladybug light. As best as we can tell, Stella, enthralled with the light which shines stars on her ceiling in an attempt to stay off her fear of the dark, she picked it up and was spinning it around the room. In comes Cidra, who’s face manages to get in the way of the spinning Stella and her bug. What happened in the room does not really matter, what happened down stairs in the office is what I want to talk about today. Mike brought the children down, one by one to get them to explain to him how Cidra had managed to get hit by the lady bug. Mike was stern with them. When Daddy is being stern and serious for some reason it causes them to shy away and clam up. They don’t want to talk to Daddy when daddy is being stern. The funny thing is when this happens it does not matter what daddy has to say, at that point they would be willing to talk to anybody else other than Daddy.

This is exactly what the Israelites are doing in this passage. They do not want to talk to God themselves. Here God is offering to have a personal, relationship with the entire community, the likes of which have not been seen since God walked with the Adam at the dawn of creation. God is willing to descend upon the mountain at whose foot they are standing and speak directly to them and let them know what it means for them to be God’s people and for God to be their God, but they want nothing to do with it. They do not want to talk to God. They do not want a direct relationship with the God of universe. They are not sure about a God who comes up on a mountain in a cloud, with thunder and speaks to them sternly about the seriousness of the covenant they are making together. It is easier when they feel somewhat removed from the God with whom they are dealing. It is easier to deal with this God when they meet God at the rock and Moses makes the water flow. It is easier when God uses Moses to turn the bitter water sweet or in their minds remove things one more step and begin to the think that it was the staff of Moses that caused the waters to part so they could pass through on dry ground.

They like the God they only see through Moses, they like the God they only hear through Moses, they like the words of God when it is passed down through Moses, besides it is a whole lot easier to grumble against Moses than is this great, mighty, powerful God who speaks commandments from a cloud with a voice like thunder.
God is scary and the commandments that are the way of life of those who covenant to live in relationship with God are harder than they sound. The people knew this. They heard the words of God that day. They saw the agreement; they saw the marriage covenant and wanted an intermediary to speak on their behalf to shelter them from the reality of what it truly means to live as the people of God, to be the bride who God was calling them to be. In many ways, God was too much for them; too big, too powerful, too demanding, to loving, too caring.

God was not merely giving them rules about how to worship, rules on how to sacrifice. Being the people of God was harder than cutting of a nearly unnecessary part of their body that nobody could see anyway, being the people of God meant that they had to change the way the lived their lives. Being the people of God did not merely affect their “spiritual” life, how they worshipped, where they worshipped, who they worshipped and what they did when they worshipped, it affected every part of their lives. It affected how they spoke, what they said about others, their familial relationships, what and who they wanted, and what they did about what and who they wanted. It affected how they lived in relation to God and it affected how they lived in relation to every other person around them. This was not just making an agreement about which God they choose to worship, this was about adhering to a new way of life.
God does not call us to simply live by a new set of rules. God does not merely call us to come to church on Sundays and make nice with the people of God we encounter there. God does not want just our spiritual lives. God does not merely want our worship. God wants us to completely change our whole lives. To change how we interact when we are not at church, God cares about who we worship, why we worship and when we worship, but God also cares about how we treat others. God does not want us to speak wrongly about God, but neither does God want us to speak wrongly about others. God loves us and desires our honor and praise, likewise God expects us to honor our parents. God love us and is a jealous God, God will not share us with other gods, and thus God wants us to assume that other people are just as jealous about those whom they love and that they do not wish to share those whom they have covenanted to love with us. Nor are we to desire their stuff, or take it. And on no account are we to haul off and kill them for just any reason. God does not merely care about who we worship, and when we worship, God cares about all our relationships, who we are when we are not worshipping, how we treat others when it is not the Sabbath, these things matter just as much to God as our focused allegiance and love.

These “rules” are not easy. And many times a God who is all up in our business is not easy not an easy God with whom to be in relationship. It may seem easier to pull away to desire an intermediary, to put space between us and God, so that we don’t have to really deal with the reality of the relationship, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of what is required of us. To put the church between us and God, allow the manual to be our guidelines. To set up a system that allows this relationship to be easier, more manageable, a system that does not quite require so much out of us. We don’t want to be direct in contact with a God who gives so much and asks so much. Who wants to have a finger in every aspect of our lives, who wants to have a say in all that we do and in how we act with each and every person in our lives. Who cares what we say, what we do, and how we act toward others. These rules, these expectations, these commandments demand too much. Let us find an easier way.

These ten commandments; only worship God, do not have and idols, keep the Sabbath holy, do not speak wrongly about God, honor your parents, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not speak wrongly of others, do not murder, and do not covet. Sound easy, but they are more than just a check list, they are a way of life. They are the backbone, the heart, the inner workings of a relationship with God. This is about loving God and loving neighbor, as a way of life, a complete and utter change that requires us to wholly commit all aspects of who we are and all the relationships in our lives, whether they be who we worship, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, they guy who pumps our gas or that lady we pass every day on our way to work, all our relationships, every part of our lives is handed over and given over to a new way a life, a way of life that may not be easy but a way of life that is what living a community that is in relationship with the God of the universe is.

Exodus 17:1-7 - Struggling with God: When God is hard to trust

The Israelites are making their way across the wilderness. They have left the Red Sea filled with the chariots and the Egyptians floating its waters behind them. They have ventured out on this grand adventure with the God of their ancestors who has promised to lead them back to the land which God had personally given to their ancestor Abraham and his descendants, who was them. Even though God was in many ways leading them to the home they never knew they had, in many ways, they are walking in the spiritual footsteps of Abraham, to whom God said, “follow me and I will lead you to land which I will show to you.” Stepping out into that wilderness and following a God they barely knew they had, who had done, great things, terrible! (In many ways) Yes, but great things none-the-less.

God had sent the plagues, which did not end so well for anyone who was not a God-fearer, and then when the Egyptians had chased them across the wilderness, after saying they could go. God divided the water for the Israelites to pass through safely but the result was not the same when the Egyptians attempted to follow them in to the “dry sea.” But the end result was that the Israelites were free.

And there was much rejoicing (yeaahhh). But it soon stopped, they were running out of water and were getting mighty thirsty, and just in time they came upon some water, but it was unsuitable to drink, it was bitter so God made it good to drink, sweet. Then as they traveled they realized their rations were not going to be enough to get them where they needed to go so God daily provided food them, which fell from the sky and was more plentiful than they would need.

Which brings us to where they are in our passage today, they are still following God to the Promised Land and find they are thirty once again. And begin to fret about having enough water. You might want to think that this is a little repetitive, hasn’t God already provided them with water? Well the thing about being thirsty is as soon as you run out of water, it does not take more than a couple of hours of hard walking in the hot sun to make you thirsty again, and while your body can go a surprising amount of time without food, it can’t go very long at all without water. So here they are somewhere between Egypt and the “land to which God was taking them.” And they are out of water. This time there is not even a hint of bitter undrinkable water in sight. And this does not make them happy. As they set up camp that evening Moses can hear the rumblings among them. And as they settle down that evening with their roasted Quail dinners and their sweet like honey manna bread they find that the meal is not as satisfying with nothing with which to wash it down. And the people begin to mumble and the mumbling turns to grumbling, and grumbling turns to rumbling. Why did Moses bring out into the desert? Did he do it so we could watch our animals and our children die of thirst? What the people are beginning to really wonder is “Is God really among us?”

Moses begins to fear that they are so angry that they might attempt to stone him, so he goes to God with the problem. “God, these people might just up and kill me, if they don’t get some water, here real soon.” God tells Moses what to do, so the next morning he gathers up the Israelites and has the elders come with him and they go up to the Rock of Horeb, where God is waiting for them, Moses takes his staff, the same one God used to part the red Sea and he hits the rock with the staff and God causes the water to flow forth and the people are able to drink and are satisfied.
At the hour of their greatest need the people are satisfied; satisfied in more than one way. Satisfied, in that their thirst is abated and satisfied in that by providing water God answers their desperate question, “Is God really among us?” God shows them that they are not alone. They were not brought out into the wilderness to die, not by Moses, not by God. God is a God who will provide.
Thousands of years of hind sight cause us to look back on the Israelites and call them, “silly.”

“Those silly Israelites, didn’t they know that God would not take them into the wilderness and leave them there to be killed by wild animals, starvation or even thirst?”

“Don’t they know that is not how God acts?”

No they don’t. They don’t know God, not really. This is the beginning of God’s relationship with these people. They really did not know the one true God of all creation from false gods that were worshipped by the Egyptians. When Moses came to them to bring them up out of slavery, was really their first introduction to YWH God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thus far they had seen that God was a powerful God, who could out magic the court magicians of the Egyptian court. This was a God who could call down death on their enemies and control the forces of nature, making a dry path through the sea. This God could take bitter water and make it sweet. YWH God was a God who could cause it to rain bread in the morning and quail in the evening. But here they are thirsty and there is no water to be found anywhere. Can they trust this God to provide what does not exist?

Was this new God, still among them? So far God had proved to be faithful and true but
they were still learning. They were still coming to an understanding of exactly who this God, the God of the universe, this “I am that I am” truly is.
It is the same with us. Sometimes we wonder, “WHO is this God we have chosen to follow?” When we are truly honest with ourselves each of us can find that we are just as unsure about God as the Israelites in this passage:

“Can I trust God?”
“Can I trust God with my money?”
“Can I trust God to meet my daily needs?”
“Can I trust God with my hopes? My dreams?”
“Can I trust God with my parents, my children, my livelihood?”
“Is God really with me today? Will God be with me tomorrow?”
“Is God among us?”

I can remember laying on a make shift bed, snuggled underneath a top sheet laying on top of a fitted sheet wrapped around a comforter in a tiny little one room apartment, that very little food in the cupboard. My computer was sitting on a box. My clothes were stacked in neat piles in the corner and my newly completed Greek homework was resting on top of my brand new seminary books which were stacked on a bookshelf, which was one of few pieces of furniture there. Lying on that “bed” in the dark crying to God, asking God, “Why?” I had moved halfway across the country to attend seminary. And my life had almost immediately fallen apart around me. Here I was alone, hungry, laying in the ashes of what were my hopes and dreams, still slugging through my homework, beginning Seminary, because I did not know what else to do. I felt so lost.

In that moment I knew what it felt like to be the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness toward Mt Sinai. It felt like God had brought me out to this wilderness call the “Midwest,” a land that was flat and desolate and a city which simply was not a city, not anyway that I would consider a city a real city. And I wondered if God had brought me out here and leave me, not so much to die, but to fail, to shrivel up and live a shell of the life I had once envisioned I would live. I wondered if God was still there.

It was not that God had not worked amazing miracles in my life before. It was not that God had not proven that God was trustworthy to provide exactly what I needed all along my journey thus far, but this time felt different. This time might really be the end of me. This might really be the ruins of my life, this might really be the time that things were too big for God; this time I really felt like there was no place I could go, there was no way that things would ever be right or good again. It had all come crashing down around me and there was nothing anybody could do to fix it, perhaps not even God.

There are times in our lives when we look around us and we wonder; “Where is God now? I am lost. There is not enough money to make it the next month. I am hungry. I am thirty. Can God really be here among all this?”

These are not the questions of some silly Israelites who lived a long time ago and have nothing to do with us. These are our questions. This is the tenuous relationship we are building with God. Even when we have seen God work miracles in our midst in the past, when we come to this new thing, this new trial, this new fear, this new part of our journey through life, we have to learn once again that God can be trusted, we have to learn once again that God does, will not forsake us or leave us. And it is ok. Each time we find ourselves in these kinds of places we will come a little closer to, a little more confident in trusting God. It will be just a little easier than it was last time. Each time we find that we are hungry, thirsty, lost, in need and cry out to God, we will find it easier and easier to trust and know that God is there, that no matter what is going on, no matter what we have done, no matter what life throws at us, no matter what kind evil befalls us, God is still among us and God will always provide exactly what we need, and in all things, when we turn to God we will be filled and be satisfied.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 - Struggling with God: When You Don't Like what God is doing

Once upon a time a long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a prophet of God named Jonah. We don’t know if Jonah was a particularly good prophet. We don’t know if he was respected by the people or by the king, what we do know is that God came to the prophet Jonah one day, while he was out and about doing prophety stuff and told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and tell them exactly what disgusting horrible no good people they were and that it was making the Lord the God of all things very displeased with them. Jonah did not think this was such a good idea. Instead of going to Ninevah to give them the message that God had given to him to give to them, he decided to head in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh and get on a boat and sail as far from Nineveh as he could think of getting, Tarshish.
Now before we get all judgmental on Jonah, I don’t know about you but I believe if I was in his position I would find listening to God pretty hard as well. You see Ninevah wasn’t just any ole city. It was the capital city of the country which had invaded their country, killed the weakest, taken way the brightest and the best, and stripped the country of anything that was valuable, ruined the fields, burned the crops and then expected the people who were left to come up with a tribute to pay them for the this privilege.

Now not to defend Jonah, because of all the Biblical prophets, I would be the first to tell you that Jonah does not deserve any defending, but we need to be honest with ourselves when it comes to the position that Jonah was in. God was not simply asking Jonah to love his enemy, God was not simply asking Jonah go and give a message of God to his enemy, God was asking Jonah to go deep into the territory of an enemy who had nearly wiped out his people, destroyed their land and was taxing the life out of all those who were left. These were not simply people who went around slapping other people with fish (as the Veggie Tale Movie portrayed) but these were people who had were daily causing suffering for Jonah, his loved ones and for the country in which he lived.

It would almost be like expecting one of the original Boston Patriots to get on a ship, go over to Britain and share the love of God with the King and parliament while the king’s troops waged war on his friends, neighbors and relatives back here in Boston. Paul Revere, or Thomas Jefferson, or John Hancock had they been in Jonah’s position would not have done it and I would venture to say that you or I would at the very least hesitate if asked by God to do something like this as well.

So once Jonah got on the boat and the boat headed out to sea, God sent a mighty
storm. The storm raged and Jonah slept. The storm raged and his shipmates began calling upon all their different gods to spare them and the ship captain noticed that one among them was not praying to his God to be spared, so he woke Jonah up and commanded him to get about the business of praying to his God.

When all the praying did not seem to be working, the passengers and crew cast lots to see who was responsible for this calamity, because truly somebody’s god was unhappy and they needed to know whose and why. When the lot fell on Jonah they began a game of twenty questions with Jonah, to try to determine what exactly he did to make his god so very angry with him and what they needed to do to appease his god and make the storm storm. He answered all their questions and took the responsibility and even suggested that God might stop the storm if they threw him into the sea. God had not said anything to anybody about throwing anybody into the sea, perhaps Jonah thought death was preferable to preaching to the Ninevites. Jonah’s shipmates thought this was a pretty silly idea and tried to do everything within their power to save the ship before they gave in to Jonah’s suggestion and threw him into the sea. Immediately the storm stopped and the ship was saved. All the people on the ship praised God, repented and believed that Jonah’s God was the one true God. Jonah is apparently a good prophet even when he is not trying at all.

God, not wanting Jonah to die and still wanting him to go preach to the Ninevites, sent a big fish to swallow Jonah whole. Then through some unexplained miracle the fish did not begin to digest him. And there Jonah sat for three days. After a while Jonah calls out to God thanking God for sparing him by allowing the fish to swallow him (I may point out here that Jonah not once apologizes for doing the wrong thing) and God’s answer to Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving seems to be, “That’s nice, your going to Nineveh, don’t bother to thank me for the ride.” And the fish spits Jonah up on dry land. Where upon God once again tells Jonah to get himself to Nineveh and act like a prophet and preach. And Jonah, being a wise man, decides that not going to Nineveh had not been working out so well for him, so he would try actually going to Nineveh. So off he went to Nineveh, to tell the Ninevites that God did not think too highly of their way of life and so forth.

Jonah goes into the city, preaching, gloom and doom and destruction and a strange thing happens, the people of Nineveh, listen and when they listen, instead of throwing rotten fruit or tossing him in a dungeon for preaching a message that would probably amount to treason in most places, they listen to him and repent. The people of Nineveh, repented, believed in God, declared a fast and put on sackcloth to let God know that they were serious about this. When the king heard about all this, he was far from angry and calling for Jonah’s neck in a noose, as some kings might be if a conquered enemy waltzed in to their capital city and began to proclaim destruction upon that city, the king instead he also repented, put on all the outward signs of mourning and repentance and declared a fast, in hopes that the Lord God would repent of destroying the city, forgive them of this misdeeds against God and against God’s people.

And what do you think God does at this point? God forgives them, God repents of destroying the city. And so ends the part of the story of Jonah of which we all are most familiar. And here, where those of us who grew up listening to Sunday School teachers tell of the greatness of Jonah and the greatness of God’s forgiveness left off, is where our passage picks up this morning.

Jonah gets angry and throws a hissy fit because his front row seat to the destruction of Nineveh turns out to be a front row seat to their repentance and God’s subsequent forgiveness. He actually admits to God he did not want to come to Nineveh in the first place, not because he was afraid because they were his enemies, but because he did not want God to be merciful and forgive them should they repent. He basically said, “I hate these people, and I know you are big on the forgiveness thing and I did not think that after all the Ninevites have done to my family, my friends, my neighbors and my country, that they deserved forgiveness. They deserve to be destroyed, and repentance or not I still believe they deserve to die, every last one of them. As he sits there waiting for God to send fire from the heavens and torch them all, a plant grows up that gives a little relief from the Sun but then it dies and he gets angry at God about it. God calls Jonah to task over his attitude and the fact that he care more that stupid weed than he does for the numerous men, women, children and animals on whom he wished destruction. And the story leaves us there with Jonah on the hill outside of town and God’s rebuke ringing in the air.
You see Jonah is not the hero of this story. Jonah, never gets it. He never understands. Jonah never wants what God wants. He never repents of his hard heartedness. He never does what God wants him to do for the right reasons. It seems in the end he only went to Nineveh, because it beat the belly of the whale and it would give him front row seats to the destruction of his enemies. All this leads me to believe that Jonah was never really a very good prophet of God.
If you have seen the Veggie Tale cartoon version of this Biblical tale Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber tell you that the point of the story is to not be like Jonah; to instead listen to God when God talks to you, to desire the salvation of your enemies and to accept that God forgives everyone even those whom we would not think are worthy of God’s forgiveness.

One of the wonderful things about this story is that EVERYONE in this story save Jonah repents at some point in this story. Jonah’s shipmates repent and give praise to God. The people of Nineveh including their horrible evil king repented and come to believe in God. In the original language, even God repents, twice in fact, God repents of the storm and causes the sea to be calm once again and God repents of destroying the city of Nineveh. But not once does Jonah repent. Jonah, does thank God for the fish, but that is the best thing he does in the whole book. The narrative closes, with Jonah chastised by God, on the hill angry that God did burn and entire city of living breathing people to the ground.

So there are only two “characters” in this story. There is unrepentant, stubborn, angry Jonah and there is the almighty, merciful God. As the story closes who is in the right? Who do we want to be like? Who should we strive to emulate? The answer is obvious. I mean seriously, no one wants to be like Jonah sitting on a hill in the heat of the Sun calling down fire on your enemies and cursing God for God’s forgiving nature. The only choice is to NOT be like Jonah, to be like God, which of course is what we aim for as Christians anyway. We aim to share the love and forgiveness of God with our world.

It is easy to look at Jonah and say we won’t be like Jonah, but how many of us cheer when our enemies fail. How many of us have ever wished calamity upon those who have sought to do us harm? What how would we feel if we found out that God had forgiven our worst enemies? The gospel calls for us to love where the is hate and for prayer where there is persecution.

What a wonderful God we have who forgives even those whom we would deem unworthy! There are some we may secretly desire never truly know the love and forgiveness of our God. There may be some in this world whom we really hope will “burn in hell.” But God desires to forgive all, all who repent and turn to God will be forgiven. In this story we should be routing for Jonah’s pagan shipmates and rejoice when they come to believe in God, and our hearts should rejoice when God forgives every last one of the Ninevites when they repent and call out to God. Our God does not only love and forgive the worthy. God does not love and forgive the good. God loves and forgive ALL who will repent and believe.