September 28, 2014 – The Lord will fight for you

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Exodus 13:17-22, 14:5-14

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people….

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

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Pentecost 16   September 28, 2014     ‘Canticle of Moses and Miriam’ (Ex 15), Exodus 13:17-22, 14:5-14; Exodus 14: 19-31  The Lord will fight for you*******************************************************

Moses gets the word from God and shares with Israel – and in the midst of a time of terror – when evil seems bound to triumph – still the word of God says – “do not be afraid – Stand firm – See the deliverance the Lord will accomplish for you…

The Lord will fight for you. You have only to keep still.”

But how hard it is – for most of us, most of the time – to keep still… We know the psalmist (ps 46) says “Be still and know that I am God.” We know God says of Jesus “This is my Son, my chosen – Listen to him!” We know we should be still before God, that we may hear God speak.

Yet how hard it can be for me to keep still. How hard to shut down all the voices that chatter in my mind. And really trust God… Even when chaos and terror seem close at hand…

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Many parts of the book of Exodus stir up emotions, rather than stilling my soul. Baby Moses in the River Nile, floating in a basket alone. Big sister Miriam following, watching, trying to save baby brother… as the drama begins…

Moses then demonstrating the power of God to Pharaoh – calling down plagues on Egypt til finally Pharaoh relents and let’s Israel go…

Now we’re into yet deeper drama, again at the water’s edge. Again death threatening, as the armored chariots and mighty armies of Egypt come closing-in on Israel by the Red Sea… Pharaoh having changed his mind…

Moses, Miriam, and their brother Aaron have all grown-up to be the leaders of Israel. But as the chariots of Egypt draw closer, Israel complains fearfully, bitterly to Moses – “why did we ever follow you out of Egypt – just to die here in the wilderness?

And Egypt’s chariots and mighty armies are bearing down in full battle array…Ready to kill or recapture Israel… It’s hard to keep still… and trust God.

And not nearly as dramatically, but – this is also kind how I feel some Monday mornings, at the start of the working week… And Saturday late afternoons when a sermon should be long since done… but isn’t…

Still I’m trying not to be overly dramatic, and to be calming my soul, and straining to hear – Moses say again, now, I hope, up-close and personal, for me:

Don’t be afraid. Stand firm. The LORD will fight for you. Just be still.”

And yes, I know, he’s serious. Moses is getting every word straight from God. Who, told him, remember, “never mind if you’re not a good talker – I’ll give you words and teach you how to speak them…’

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The word of God is a freedom word. The first five books of the Bible are one long lesson in how we humans fall again and again into slavery – and what it takes to get free – truly free – and stay free.

Yet even before we’ve left slavery, Israel’s already resisting freedom. Complaining bitterly to Moses, saying, ‘who do you think you are, taking us out from Egypt? At least the food was good there, and we had steady work.’ (We worked steadily almost-to-death – and the food was barely enough to keep us alive. But that’s not how we remember slavery – when we’re facing new challenges we’d rather not face… And – )

Human nature doesn’t change. The contemporary recovery movement reminds us – nobody gets free from slavery without God, our Higher Power, and plenty of peer group support, and good listening… (and–)

Whether we’re talking recovery from literal slavery, or slavery to drugs, alcohol, money, security – work, self, or anything that enslaves us – getting free takes a struggle, and staying free takes prayerful persistence.

Even when we make a clean break from slavery – calling on God and receiving God’s help – even when God dramatically parts the waters for us and sets us free – still, our ways of thinking and living have been shaped for a long time by slavery. And God, knowing full well how hard it is for us to break out from our habits– leads the people by a round-about route – to keep us from trying to return to our old familiar patterns of life in Egypt…

God knows how hard it is, not just to break free from slavery, but just as hard, to break free from slavery-ways-of-thinking. Slavery attitudes that draw us back down into Egypt. (And yes, Egypt is a metaphor now for slavery. We’re on a spiritual journey now…traveling spiritual terrain now… )

And knowing no one else knows the way – God graciously commits to come with us – all the way – on this freedom journey…

Going ahead of us – leading the way forward in this exodus journey – as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night…

But here in the dark of the darkest night, with Pharaoh’s armies closing in – suddenly the angel of God in the pillar of fire and cloudy presence moves – around, from in front – and rejoins the march – leading, now, from behind…

A move that God still makes…Often without us noticing…

Sometimes, when we don’t see God in front of us leading obviously – we slip into thinking – “God is on vacation – And I’m in charge…”       But –

The word of God says – Be still and remember – only God is God. Even Moses isn’t leading Israel… Though, of all the patriarchs and prophets in the bible – no human stands closer to God than Moses; not till we get to Jesus. (High on the mount of transfiguration today, we see Jesus revealing himself in glory to disciples, with nobody but Moses and Elijah from all the past of Israel, flanking him on either side.) Moses is in a category almost by himself among leaders of the faith… But even Moses plays second fiddle, always, of course, to God – who alone delivers God’s people into freedom… (Yes, God is always teaching us to be more like God. But we’re the students, God’s the teacher. And – )

The Lord will fight for us. But we do need to be still – to be able to see when God indeed is fighting for us… Often in ways we’re not fully aware of… Because we’re looking in only one direction. Not noticing God behind us, protecting and pushing.

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Being still and fully focused on God isn’t easy. Paul Tournier, medical doctor and Christian writer, a practitioner of silent meditation, says, “Modern people lack silence. They no longer lead their own lives; they are dragged along by events. It is a race against the clock… If your life is chock-full already, there won’t be room for anything else. Even God can’t get anything else in. So it becomes essential to cut something out. I’m putting it as simply as I can.”

Dr. Tournier talks, in his book, A Listening Ear, about his own struggles with learning to be still. At first, he says, he would sit for a whole hour and hear nothing at all from God. Which was frustrating, but he took it as a challenge. He became curious about his inability to do something which, he says, children usually do easily – often coming up with detailed and accurate descriptions of everything important to them in life in about five minutes of silence. Because, Tournier says, children haven’t yet learned to hide their real feelings from themselves and others. “Silence has the power to force you to dig deep within yourself,” he says. Eventually he began to write in a journal as part of his meditation, which helped him focus on God rather than random thoughts. (I’m trying this too.)

Even hearing God speak through holy scripture often isn’t easy. As Henri Nouwen has written, “The Bible does not speak to us (– ) as long as we want only to use it. But when we are willing to hear the Word as a word for us, sacred scripture can… penetrate into the center of our hearts. This is far from easy, because it requires openness and the constant willingness to be converted, and led to places where we would rather not go.”

Sometimes we don’t read the bible because we fear it will take us where we don’t want to go. (Never mind that the hardest parts of the bible are usually milder than the evening news…) The drowning in the waters of judgement of Egypt’s armies is one of those places I’d rather not go. But I’ve found that when I listen closely for God’s word, judgement is really never the last word. I take comfort in ancient commentaries, in which God tells the angels, who are singing for joy as Israel crosses into freedom – to stop – and weep and mourn for Egypt’s dead first, before rejoicing. (In other versions of this same teaching, God scolds the Israelites, saying, “why didn’t you pray harder for my people, the Egyptians?” Even terrorists should receive our prayers. Because Jesus said “love your enemies and pray for them…”)

Still, here scripture tells us that God, who, yes, loves us unconditionally – will also let us reap what we sow. In the absence of true repentance and changed behaviors – whatever we do to others will come back to us. Consequences happen for one and all. So we listen carefully even for words of correction from God. Lest we become Egyptians ourselves.

And for Christians the exodus is a holy parable and metaphor now for the resurrection life we enter into in Jesus Christ. The ultimate exodus that Jesus is talking about with Moses on the mountain, in the cloud of God’s presence…

Exodus is a living lesson in salvation – a life-long journey with God and each other in Godly community. Helping each other become better able to be still – and listen for God. Praying for friends, neighbors, enemies, all… Worshiping with Moses, Miriam, Jesus and all the angels of heaven. Serving the Lord. Serving our neighbors. Celebrating together what God’s done already in our lives… Celebrating also what God is preparing us to do together next…

Because this journey does continue… And it takes the whole church and all our lifetimes – to bear all the fruit of salvation God expects of us. The fruit of love and joy, peace and patience. The fruits of the Spirit in our lives that are, most often, what convinces others to join us in this journey.

Like Israel, coming out from Egypt, we too still experience the trials and testings common to humankind as we travel the wilderness of this world… But now we’ve tasted God’s freedom. Now we sing together, forever, the Lord’s songs of joy and freedom… All the way to the Promised Land…

Thanks be to God. Amen.