God’s Covenant with Moses (8:30am)
Topic: Our Purpose Scripture: Exodus 19:3–19:8, Psalm 103:6–103:14
The covenant with Moses marks a new twist. With Noah and Abraham, the emphasis was all God. Here we have a portrayal of human personality, with all its flaws and strengths. The summons is from the Lord, of course. The human part rises to prominence. Call comes by way of biography: Moses is the blessed baby who escapes death in infancy on an improvised raft, and lives a privileged childhood in Pharaoh’s house. He’s the hot-headed youth whose anger issues result in a criminal record and refugee status. He marries into a distant family and settles down to tend his father-in-law’s sheep. One day, while minding his own business, a voice speaks to him from inside a burning bush. Covenant and call are blended into Moses’ life journey and the plight of the people.In the course of history there have been leaders and liberators who might have been happy and successful, building their portfolios and enjoying themselves. They just couldn’t shake the sense of moral responsibility, and were driven to set people free. Harriet Tubman was like that. She escaped slavery and could have led a peaceful existence in the safety of the North. Such was her passion for others, and for human decency, that she went back to the heart of the Slave Power at great risk to herself. She led the oppressed to the Promised Land—otherwise known as Pennsylvania—and later served as a Union spy in the Civil War. She worked for full freedom for ex-slaves and for women throughout her long life, well into the Twentieth Century.
In contrast to Noah and Abraham, Moses was no model of malleability. Others might be awed into compliance, or simply possessed an unquestioning obedience. Not Moses. He was full of hesitation, reservation, and trepidation. Before he did what he was told, he had just a few questions. Such as, “You sure about this, Lord? Why me? What if they don’t believe me? When they ask me your name—demanding to know, ‘Who says so?’ what should I tell them? Can’t my brother do the talking—he’s a much better public speaker than I.”
Moses, who received the Decalogue, conducted a decades-long dialogue with divinity. It seems that not only is it okay to talk with the Lord about our uncertainties—it’s expected. We are to explore the contours of our call, and thus embrace it more fully. Some of us have spent time trying to run away from God’s purpose for our lives. We had a friend in Montana who was very active in church. He had a big regret that he never pursued what he felt he should have done in life, which was to enter ordained ministry. It took him a while to realize he was fulfilling his call in a different way. God works through our flaws and missed cues, and liberates us from our Egypts of sadness and regret. God works through people who are hurting, and can channel our anger or fears into constructive change.
Moses’s path through life gave him what could be called creative distance. He was of his people, yet he was somewhat apart from them. He, a Hebrew, had grown up in Egyptian culture. There is great value in young people going off to college or some form of national service. They see things from a different angle. They get exposed to a range of different ideas. They are taught, we hope, not so much what to think as how to think. One of the many benefits of steady immigration into our country is the creative power of other cultures in our midst.
The call carried Moses and the people out from oppression, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and into the wilderness. That historic act of salvation by the Mighty One of Israel shaped their self-concept forever, right down to our own day. In the desert, they were stripped down to bedrock—the bare essentials of food and water, utterly dependent on God. Now they were ready—or should have been—to receive the core of the covenant: the Commandments. Moses as intermediary ascended the summit of Sinai, while the people waited below at base camp. They grew impatient during their leader’s mountaintop experience. As some teens have been known to do when their parent are away, the people broke the boredom by throwing a party. They danced lasciviously around a golden calf formed from their melted jewelry, and who knows what else, egged on by Edward G. Robinson. Clearly, they needed the behavior-modifying laws that were about to be delivered to them.
Moses the liberator was thereafter labeled Lawgiver. He took on the very different task of governing. It’s a transition from rebel leader to Establishment ruler that few in history have pulled off. George Washington might qualify. John’s gospel tells us, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We can see, however, that the life of Moses exhibits the marks of God’s miraculous, sustaining, forgiving grace. By the same token, the teachings of Jesus bring a new law. The Sermon on the Mount has been termed a second Sinai, a Law not written on tablets of stone but spoken by the savior himself. The New Commandments are often overlooked or dismissed as impossible. So much of what goes by the name “Christian” bears little relation to what Jesus actually said. Surveys tell us that young people are massively turned off by the prejudice and hatred against whole groups of people that are associated with Christianity in the public’s mind.
At Culver’s this week we had a discussion with our 7-year-old about the Ten Commandments. I guess that’s one of the hazards of being a PK, or PGK (preacher’s grandkid). We talked about which commandments she thought most important. Her list varied somewhat from that of Moses. I do think her commandments reflect the influence of our wonderful Children’s Ministry at First Pres. Here are some from her Top 10 List:
- If you know God, don’t say you don’t know God.
- Never wreck God’s creation.
- Don’t abandon people when they need you.
- Don’t hurt God’s feelings.
- No guns in school, church, playgrounds, or other public places.
- Don’t eat more than 1 candy a day.
I like the third one down: don’t abandon people when they need you. That’s a strength of our church. We are a caring church. Matt and I hear that a lot. The slogan of our Scottish church was, and is, “Nec Tamen Consumebatur: it burns, but is not consumed”--like the burning bush. John Calvin in Geneva took it as a metaphor of his Swiss congregation. The church, he explained, is often afflicted and persecuted—it burns. But it is never finally defeated, never consumed, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Our congregation might be in one of those times when a number among us are experiencing major challenges of health, and grievous and untimely loss of loved ones. The fire of affliction burns, and it hurts. Yet, challenge tests our strength as a community. We are a caring church. Matt and I hear that a lot. Our people do what they can to care for, pray for, and uphold those who are going through the fire, and not abandon them.
The call that came to Moses, and God’s covenantal love in Christ, are ours as well. Because of that great reality, we stand fast—we keep going—and we know that, in the Lord, our work is never in vain.