Sunday, October 25, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: God's House

Over these past many weeks, we have been moving through the Hebrew scriptures under the theme, Promises Made, Promises Broken. We have learned about the great promises that God has made to humanity. And ways in which humankind has made and often broken promises, both to God and to one another. 

This idea of promise - or covenant - is one of the most important themes in the Bible. The covenants in scripture are the background upon which the entire narrative of God and of God’s story of redemption are built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. 

From Genesis on, God enters into a series of formal, covenanted relationships, one after another, in order to rescue God’s world. Understanding these divine-human relationship stories are central to our understanding who Jesus is. That for us, is pretty important, isn’t it? So, we’re going to remember, for just a few minutes, these key biblical covenants. 

We began the fall at the beginning. Creation. God made this beautiful world and placed humankind in it to care for it and to partner with God to bring more good out of it. But the humans don’t want to partner with God. They rebel and try to create a world on their own terms. It’s this broken partnership that the Bible gives as an explanation for why we’re stuck in a world of corruption and injustice and death. So God selects a small group of people and makes a new partnership with them. God’s purpose is to use this covenant relationship to renew God’s partnership with all humanity.

There are four central covenants in the Hebrew scripture through which God is forming a covenant family into which all the world will be invited. In the first covenant with Noah, God promises him, his family and all living creatures that God will never again destroy earth. No matter how evil it becomes.

In the second covenant with Abraham, God enters into a partnership with him. And promises Abraham a huge family that will inherit a promised piece of land in Canaan. And that through Abraham and his family, all humanity will be blessed. 

The third covenant is with this huge family that eventually became the nation of Israel. God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt and promised to make them God’s treasured possession. A holy nation. Set apart. And with whom God would personally dwell in their midst and bring into the land originally promised to Abraham. God would be their God. And they would be God’s people - a kingdom of priests that would show God’s goodness and glory to all the nations. 

Today, we come to the fourth covenant. Beginning last week and continuing today, we find that Israel has entered Canaan, the promised land. Eventually, to be like the surrounding nations, they demanded a king. God appointed Saul. Yet, he fails to obey God. And so, God chooses another king for Israel. David. Son of Jesse. From the tribe of Judah. King David becomes a successful leader, overcoming Israel’s enemies. Uniting the tribes. And establishing Jerusalem as the political center of Israel, where he builds his palace - a “house of cedar.” Then, in the chapter before today’s reading, David restores the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Making it, not only the political center of Israel, but it’s religious center, as well. It is here where our story begins. In 2nd Samuel, chapter 7.  

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:1-17 NRSV)

One of the first things we notice in this story is that the narrator does not refer to David by name. Instead, he is always called “the king.” This is to underscore that David - and not Saul - is now king. It also underscores his role as the leader of the nation Israel. Yet, when God speaks, beginning in verse 5, God always refers to him as, “my servant, David.” God knows him by name. 

It isn’t long before David gets a grand idea. He has a house to live in. It’s time to build a house for God. Something stable. And permanent. And secure. 

Now it’s not entirely clear here what his motivation is. Was he simply coming from a place of gratitude for all that God had done for him and for Israel? Or maybe this was a way to stay in God’s good graces? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a way for this earthly monarch to attempt to contain the heavenly monarch. To put God in a box. To control God.  

But, whatever David’s motivation is here, it is clear that he does not fully understand the nature of God’s grace. Whatever God has already done for David, God will continue to do more. To make for David a great name. To give him rest from all his enemies. And, for Israel, to plant them so they may live in their own place, secure. Where they will no longer be disturbed or afflicted by evildoers. 

But, the promises don’t stop there. It is in the next verses where God pivots on David's use of the word, “house.” Promising unconditionally to make a new kind of “house” for David. Not a dwelling place of cedar, but a dynasty. And from this dynasty, from this royal line, will come a descendant. A Messiah who will rule God’s kingdom. Forever. And ever. And ever.

As we hear this story, I’m struck by its similarities to the Reformation. One of the main catalysts for action at the time of the Reformation was the desire of the church to build a bigger and better house. It was the selling of indulgences to collect funds for this newer, bigger cathedral that set the Reformation in motion. As if God can be contained in a building. 

The story of King David. The story of the Reformation. All of these are stories of God’s great reversals. God recentering the direction of the action, putting God’s promises once again, front and center. And driving the question, “What is God doing?”

In this year 2020 with all the terrible things that have happened and the chaos that seems to surround us. As we have been pushed beyond the walls of our churches into this virtual place is this perhaps, another of God’s great reversals? God recentering us, once again, to ask the question, “What is God doing?” And, as God is once more being placed at the center, how might our own imaginations be reshaped for how we are, in fact, seeking to live out God’s will in our world today? 

What we do know, though, from the stories we have heard this fall is that God keeps God’s promises. It is this that we, as God’s people, cling to today. God keeps God’s promises. And God will find a way - a surprising new way - to be faithful. And, as with David, to shower us with grace upon grace upon grace. 

And so I end this now, where we began this morning. In Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. Amen.

Preached October 25, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Reformation Sunday
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Luke 1:30-33

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: Fear and Idols

Before today’s reading, we have both some catching up to do from last week’s story. Plus, a little remembering.

When we left off last week, the Pharaoh had finally agreed after the tenth plague and the Hebrew Passover to let God’s people go. In the intervening chapters, we read the story of Israel’s journey to freedom. Their passage through the Red Sea and God saving them from the Egyptian army.

Israel is led by Moses into the wilderness and eventually to the foot of Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is also known as Mount Horeb, which, coincidence or not, is where Moses was first called by God to lead Israel out of slavery. It is on Mount Sinai where God comes down to be with God’s new people, Israel.

Now before we move on, we need to remember back to Genesis and to the Garden of Eden. It was in Eden that humanity was in the presence of God -  in a close and good relationship with God. Access to God’s presence, though, was eventually lost because of the rebellion of humanity. It was then that God came to Abraham and made him a promise - that through him God would bring blessing to all of the nations. But, there was a second promise to Abraham. That through him the relationship with God would be restored along with access to God’s presence. 

Which brings us back to Sinai. God come down to the top of Mount Sinai. But God’s presence is anything but comforting. So, the people send Moses up the mountain to meet with God. 

Up until now, God hasn’t asked anything of Israel. But now, God invites them back into relationship - into covenant. And with this, God is going to ask them now to do something, giving them a whole set of laws, beginning with the ten commandments. The idea is that if Israel obeys the terms of the covenant, they will be so shaped and formed by God’s laws, teaching and justice that they will become a kingdom of priests to show all the nations what God is truly like. The people accept this invitation eagerly. 

So, Moses goes up a second time to meet God and to receive all of these laws, along with lengthy and detailed instructions on the building of a tent. It is this tent that will be the tabernacle, where access to God will be restored and Israel and God can live together in peace.

But, then, something goes seriously wrong, which is where our story today picks up.

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”

Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”

But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.  Exodus 32:1-14 (CEB)

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what happens when fear kicks in. Up to this point, Moses has for the people been the representation of God. But, as he is delayed in coming back down from the mountain, the people begin to be afraid. As they wait at the bottom of the mountain, their anxiety builds. These people who have been traumatized by lives lived under slavery, who have been liberated in an amazing, yet terrifying, way by God, begin to be afraid. Then, when Moses doesn’t return, day after day, one can only wonder what they are thinking. That this God had brought them out of slavery, that Moses has abandoned them, and that they will simply perish in the wilderness. 

So, they turn to the one remaining representative of God in their midst. Aaron. Our English translation doesn’t give it justice. In fact the language in the original Hebrew suggests that they confront Aaron angrily and demand that he do something. Israel had just agreed to the rules and they immediately mess them up. Even as Aaron tries to bring them back in, it is impossible. Because the fear has taken hold of them.

I wonder how often this happens to us. How often fear takes hold of us and we allow it pull us away from God and from who God wants us to be. And if you say that this never happens to you, perhaps you are the one most living in fear.

Up on the mountain, we see a God who is angry and who wants to destroy the people. “Your people,” God says to Moses. “Your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt - they are ruining everything.”

God then proposes a backup plan - that God will destroy the people and make a new nation from Moses. It’s not clear whether God is completely fed up with Israel or whether this is just some kind of test for Moses. But, then, God tells Moses to leave - to give God some space so that God’s anger can burn hot.

It’s an uncomfortable image of God for us, isn’t it? It messes with our concept of a God who is tender and compassionate and reframes it to remember that there is this ferocious side to God who doesn’t abide people doing things in violation of God’s covenant. It makes us a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But, isn’t it true that, if we have tamed God then we, too, have begun to worship a false god like Israel? And, perhaps, need to be reminded that God is a power that is not to be trifled with?

Moses responds. His approach is interesting here - perhaps a little bit of reverse psychology. He figures out what will matter to God and then helps God remember. First, he appeals to God’s reputation. “This will look bad for you. You brought Israel out with such power. How will this look to all the nations?” Then, Moses appeals to God’s character and reminds God of God’s obligation under the covenant. “Remember the patriarchs and your promise to them? Do you want to break that promise?” 

Then, our story tells us, “the LORD changed his mind.”

This entire mountaintop scene may make us a little uneasy.  It may make us struggle between a biblical understanding and a philosophical understanding of God. Isn’t God, after all, unchangeable? Steadfast? Faithful? 

Yet, the twist to this story is that, by its end, Moses has helped God to remain unchanged - by keeping God’s covenant with Israel. By sticking with the original plan. God was about to change, but Moses has talked God into keeping God’s original promise. Unchanged. Steadfast. Faithful to God’s own promises. 

This is the God we know, the God we trust. The God described just a couple of chapters later: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in covenant faithfulness. Forgiving sin, but not leaving the wicked unpunished. (Ex. 34:6-7)

Perhaps that’s the most important message for us in this text today. We, who are followers of Jesus, God’s Son sent to us to redeem us. To restore us back into relationship and into the presence of God. No matter how many times we mess up. No matter how often our fear drives us away to other gods. God continues to seek us out. Relentlessly. Steadfastly. With covenantal faithfulness. 

May this give us comfort in times of fear. In times of anxiety. And at every time in our lives.  Amen.

Preached October 11, 2020, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Exodus 32:1-14; Luke 22:33-34

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: Bitter and Sweet

Today, we are transported forward in time. Last week, we heard the story of Joseph and his brothers and how, in the midst of an evil committed against Joseph, God used this and turned it to good. Eventually preserving Jacob, Joseph’s father, and the entire clan from famine. At the end of last week’s story, we heard that Joseph and his brothers and all of their families remained in Egypt. 

Today’s story is some 400 years later. It comes from the book of Exodus. It’s important to note that this book begins with these words: “Now a new pharaoh came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” In the chapters that precede today’s texts, we learn that this new Pharaoh is concerned with the growing power of Israel in his country. He fears that they may take over, because they have grown to be a large number of people. And so, to prevent this, the Pharaoh enslaves Israel.

Eventually, God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery to freedom. He will impose a series of plagues on Egypt - nine, in fact - to convince the pharaoh to let Israel go. None of them work. The pharaoh refuses to release them. 

So, God plans a tenth and final plague. It is here, where our story today begins, in Exodus, chapter 12. 

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole Israelite community: On the tenth day of this month they must take a lamb for each household, a lamb per house. If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the number of people who will be eating it. Your lamb should be a flawless year-old male. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You should keep close watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month. At twilight on that day, the whole assembled Israelite community should slaughter their lambs. They should take some of the blood and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. That same night they should eat the meat roasted over the fire. They should eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. It is the Passover of the Lord. I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. --Exodus 12:1-13 (CEB)

I want to point out to you the opening verse of this reading. It’s really pretty fascinating. God tells Moses and his brother, Aaron, that this is the beginning of time for Israel. Their calendar is being reset. 

This is an important moment for Israel because it is from this point forward that their life will begin as God’s covenanted people - these descendants of Abraham, through whom God has promised to bless all people.

As we read the rest, we see that these instructions - or this liturgy - includes a very special meal. And a specific way to remember it. Each family is to take a lamb - an unblemished lamb - and keep it in the household for four days. And, then, they are to slaughter it. This lamb that has become part of the household, with whom the children have likely grown fond - after four days, they are to slaughter it. And, then, to prepare it and eat it. Leaving no leftovers. 
This isn’t a relaxed meal together. Israel is to be prepared to leave, to escape the bondange they have been experiencing. They are to eat with their clothes and their sandals on. Because God intends to kill the firstborn sons of Egypt on this night. The only thing that will save Israel’s first born sons will be the blood of the slaughtered lamb, painted on the doorpost. This ritual will prepare them for the journey and for their salvation. 

Our reading continues in chapter 13.

The Lord said to Moses: Dedicate to me all your oldest children. Each first offspring from any Israelite womb belongs to me, whether human or animal.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day which is the day that you came out of Egypt, out of the place you were slaves, because the Lord acted with power to bring you out of there. No leavened bread may be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going to leave. The Lord will bring you to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. It is the land that the Lord promised your ancestors to give to you, a land full of milk and honey. You should perform this ritual in this month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. The seventh day is a festival to the Lord. Only unleavened bread should be eaten for seven days. No leavened bread and no yeast should be seen among you in your whole country. You should explain to your child on that day, ‘It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ --Exodus 13:1-8 (CEB)

The ritual coming out of this night will become the basis from this time forward of every Passover remembrance for the Jewish people. It will be known as the Seder meal and will consist of roasted lamb, representing the sacrifice made on this night. Included will be bitter herbs, as a reminder of the bitterness of life in Egypt. A paste made of fruit, nuts, spices and wine or juice - called the charoset - will bring to mind for Israel the mortar and bricks they made as slaves under Pharaoh. There will also be a vegetable, representing the backbreaking work of slavery. Finally, matzah will be included, reminding the Israelites of the unleavened bread, eaten that night, because there no time for the dough to rise. This ritual, this meal, will help Israel remember that the cost of freedom is high. That the gift of freedom often brings with it innocent victims. And that the destruction of oppressive systems comes with a price. Freedom isn’t free. 

When we are freed from this time of COVID, I wonder if we will begin to mark time in a new way - BC (before COVID) and PC (post-COVID). I wonder if we will be changed by this experience, like Israel. I wonder if we will remember. Will we, like Israel, engage in the rituals of remembering? It was this ritual of remembering that would begin to shape and form Israel as a people. It was this ritual of remembering that prepared Israel for the next steps - to go into a future unknown, led only by a God, not well known to them, but who knew them well. It was this ritual of remembering that would connect every future generation to this very moment - bringing them back to the point of liberation so they might remember, as our text reads, “what the Lord has done for me.” For me. This ritual marked a new day, a new calendar for Israel.

We, like Israel, are people of ritual. Ritual that shapes and forms us. That prepares us to go into an unknown future. That connects every generation to the moment of the sacrifice of our own Passover lamb. When we worship, when we remember our baptism, when we hear God’s Word, when we “take and eat” in communion, we, like Israel are being shaped and formed into a people - into God’s covenanted people. Not forgetting the cost of our freedom. But remembering what the Lord has done for us. For you. For me. And we are being prepared to go, dressed and with our running shoes on, led into an unknown future by a God who is faithful. Who overturns oppression. Who leads us out of bondage. Who keeps promises. And who remembers us.  Just as God Israel’s cries and remembered them so very long ago. 

May we be shaped by our own rituals of remembering. May we trust God’s promises. And may we live freely into the new day, to do God’s continuing work of liberation in our world. Amen. 

Preached October 4, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 18
Readings: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8; Luke 22:14-20