Oct 13

Standing in the Breach

            Think about this: Have you ever defied God? Have you ever looked at a circumstance and said to God, “No. You can’t do this. I won’t allow it.”? Would you even dare to do something like that?

We spend so much time in church learning to be reverent and deferential toward God that we can forget that there is more to faithful obedience than being God’s yes-man or yes-woman. We expect our faithful speech to be full of praise and gratitude and thanksgiving. In recent times we have become obsessed with saccharine faithfulness. We have praise and worship services that gloss over life’s difficulties. It’s headline news when a saint like Mother Teresa or a church leader like Pope Francis or Canterbury Archbishop Justin Welby admits to wrestling with God over daily struggles of faith and discipleship. Our prayers are full of chatter about thanking you so much God, and loving you so much God, and being so amazed at how wonderful you are God.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with genuine thanksgiving. We celebrate Holy Communion every week here at Centre, and the main prayer we offer during Communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. It’s one of the oldest forms of Christian prayer. But thanksgiving and adoration are not adequate for some situations. Read the Psalms. There’s thanksgiving in them, to be sure, but there are also psalms that are not at all thankful. We find in them language of sadness, regret, lament, and despair. In a world broken by sin, we need to be able to talk to God about these parts of life, too. We need to be able to pray our grief to God. We need to be able to lament the ways the world works against God’s good purposes. We need to do so in private devotion as well as in public worship. And sometimes, on rare occasions, as hard as it might be to hear, we even need to defy God, to stand up to—not for, but to—God, to call God to account.

In this morning’s passage from Exodus 32, we have two examples of defiance toward the Lord. Moses has been on Mount Horeb for about forty days. Things are not going well in the Israelite camp, where the people are growing impatient. Finally they come to Aaron with an audacious request: “Look, this fellow Moses, where is he now? He’s abandoned us. Make us some gods to lead us into the Promised Land.” Has it been so long since God gave the Ten Commandments that they’ve forgotten number two, “you shall not make for yourself an idol,”? What’s even more shocking is that Aaron, the brother of Moses, the priest of the Lord, says to the Israelites, “Well, okay.” Aaron doesn’t just give his permission; he makes the idol himself! This is the first act of defiance in Exodus 32. It is not an example we should imitate.

Thankfully, the story does not end with Aaron’s sinful defiance. Having seen the Israelites’ blatant disregard for his laws, God, understandably, reacts angrily. Now, for us human beings, anger is a passion stirred up by events usually outside our control. It’s also an emotion or mood, a feeling that seizes our bodies. For God, anger is not a passion or an emotion. Anger is the other side of God’s love; God’s anger is how we human beings experience God’s love after we have sinned.

The Lord’s reaction to Israel’s idolatry is a declaration of final judgment to Moses, who is still on Mount Horeb in the presence of the Lord. The Lord commands Moses to descend the mountain to “your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” God has washed his hands of Israel. Once God had called Israel “my people.” Now God tells Moses they are “your people.” And then God issues the sentence: “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” Verdict: guilty. Sentence: destruction and transferal of covenant to Moses’ descendants. In other words, the end of Israel.

Moses hears the devastating judgment against his people, and instead of offering silent obedience, Moses begins to talk back to the Lord. Two weeks ago we read the story of God’s gift of water from the rock. In that story the Lord places himself on creation’s side, between Moses’ staff and the rock. Here, the roles have been reversed. God’s hand is prepared to strike Israel down, and Moses places himself between God’s anger and God’s people. Moses takes a stand against God. It is, to say the least, a gutsy decision. Moses has dared to defy God.

This second example of defiance, however, could not be more different from Aaron’s defiance. Aaron’s defiance is cowardly, sneaky, and faithless. Aaron gives in to the whims of the people. Perhaps he’s afraid of his life. Perhaps he’s no better than the Israelites who demand the idol. Whatever the case, Aaron’s defiance is shameful.

On the other hand, Moses’ defiance depends on the faithfulness Aaron so sorely lacks. If Moses did not have great faith, he could not have responded to God the way he does. Either Moses believes that the Lord will not condemn him for his audacity or Moses is willing to die for the people God has called him to rescue from Egypt. Moses’ defiance is bold, direct, and faithful. First, Moses reminds God that Israel belongs to the Lord, not to Moses: “O Lord God, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” Second, Moses points out that God’s reputation will be ruined if Israel is destroyed: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them?’” Third, Moses appeals to God’s deep relationship with Israel’s forebears: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven.’” The stunning part is: Moses’ defiance works. God relents and does not bring disaster upon Israel.

Each week this month we’re talking about what it means to be the church. Last week we looked deeply at the commandment not to lie; the church must be a truthful community. Today we discover that, sometimes, the church must be a defiant community, a community, like Moses, ready to stand up to God. When we look around and see the world overcome by sin, we should not wag our fingers or hope for God’s devastating judgment. We should stand in the breach, as the psalmist says, and pray for God to roll back his anger and pour forth mercy instead.

Such prayer only makes sense if God is already involved in our world. Such prayer only makes sense if we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ. Such prayer requires us to stand with great faith.

In fact, we offer this kind of prayer every week in the Great Thanksgiving. We recite the many ways the Lord has claimed us as his people. We offer up as a continual reminder the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is our plea for God’s ongoing mercy and love toward us and all people. It’s as if we’re saying to God, “We know human sin deserves your harshest judgment. But why should you destroy, God? You claimed us as your people when you formed us in your image. Don’t forget your Son Jesus Christ! Have mercy on us.” We stand in the breach. And we do this, not because we doubt God will love us, but because we are sure God will answer our prayers.

One last thing. Did you notice how God seems almost to provoke Moses into defying him? It’s as if God wanted someone to stand in the breach between him and Israel. It’s like God expected someone might come along who would offer himself on behalf of God’s people in order to turn back God’s judgment and open the floodgates of grace. We might even call such a person Savior. Amen.
Oct 06

You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor

            “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” It’s the ninth commandment, low enough on the list that it almost didn’t make the cut. It doesn’t have the prominence of “you shall have no other gods before me” or “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” “You shall not bear false witness” is not one of the two greatest commandments, according to Jesus. Despite this, or maybe because of it, after number six, “you shall not murder,” number nine has probably suffered the most at the hands of people looking for technicalities, backdoor exits, and loopholes. “You shall not bear false witness” really boils down to “you shall not lie,” which is how God puts it at other points in the Pentateuch. And that’s exactly where the problems begin for us, because we are all really good liars. We lie all the time. “How’s this dress look on me?” Lie. “What do you think of my new haircut?” Lie. “How much did you spend at the… grocery store, ballgame, bar, last night?” Lie. “Can you make it to my dinner party this Friday?” Lie.

            We lie so much and for so many different reasons. We lie to protect our reputations. We lie to acquire a position or stature we don’t otherwise deserve. We lie to dodge awkward social situations. We lie because we don’t know what else to say, or because we are afraid of silence. We lie for no good reason at all. We are all liars—and some of us are really good liars.

            Lying makes us slaves of our lies. In Exodus 20:2, God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Lying marches us right back into Egypt, binding us with vicious chains. So often we discover that to keep one lie going we must tell another lie—and another, and another, and another. We ties ourselves in knots with our lies, holding ourselves hostage to our own sin.

            Lying destroys community. We look down on politicians because so many of them have lied to us time after time. Advertisers lie to us all the time; I once heard an advertiser admit that he could be proud of the quality of work he did as an advertiser because he was really good at his job, but he could never be proud of being an advertiser, because his job was to lie to people.

More importantly, we use our knowledge of our own tendency to lie in order to justify our mistrust of others. We see a homeless man on the street, and we wonder, “Could he be lying?” We ask this question not because we know the man or his history but because we know ourselves. We think, “If I were in his situation, I might be lying. So he might be lying, too.” And then we use our own lying to justify crossing the street and denying the man the alms God commands us to give him: “I’m not going to give that man my money. He might be lying!”

Above all else, the church must be a community of people who refuse to lie. Not every Christian has believed this, unfortunately, and some Christians have tried to dream up circumstances where lies are permissible, or even commendable. But we Christians must never lie. Why that is so takes us to the very heart of the Ten Commandments.

You see, the Ten Commandments are not just ten really good ideas for how to live a good life. They are not a set of rules that we can check off each day, or over the course of our lives. The Ten Commandments are about a way of seeing and understanding the world and all that we have as something given to us by God in love with the expectation that in love we will offer something back to God. So the first four commandments are about the Lord offering himself to us and us offering our worship to the Lord, and not to other gods. The next three, concerning parents, murder, and adultery, are about God’s gift of human community and our refusal to sacrifice that gift for our own shortsighted greed. Commandments eight and ten are about God’s offering of what we need to live on this earth and our offering of thanksgiving instead of grumbling and jealousy.

The ninth commandment against false witness is about something just as fundamental: God’s gift to us of speech. Or, we might say, God’s gift to us of our word. “She’s as good as her word,” we say. Or, “I give you my word.” Or, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). That’s why it’s so important that we Christians refuse to lie. When we lie, we don’t just deceive other people; we don’t merely rupture bonds of trust and respect. When we lie, we betray ourselves as people who do not trust in the Word—even, and maybe especially, when we think we are lying for a good cause. More than that, John 1 tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” If we want to follow Christ, we must be people in whom God’s Word can dwell. Our word must become more and more attune to God’s Word. In our lies we reveal that it is a false word, the enemy of God’s Word, that lives in us. It is as simple as this: will our word be the Word of God in Christ Jesus or not?

The opposite of lying is not unwisely running our mouths when we should be silent. If you feel that you absolutely cannot tell the truth, you can always be silent. It’s better than lying. But the true opposite of lying is confession. To confess is to offer our word in harmony with God’s Word. Our confession can be as simple as, “Jesus is Lord,” and as complicated as the Nicene Creed we’re about to speak. Our confession acknowledges our shortcomings—“I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”—and our sin—“Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.” Confession happens in worship and in private devotion, but it also happens when we refuse to lie, no matter the cost to us. Confession happens when we see that our lies are a way of trying to control our world instead of trusting in God’s Word. As Christians, our lives should be lives of confession.

True speech lies at the very heart of who God is, because the Word of God is also the Son of God. The ninth commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor is also a commandment to offer our word to others in the same way God has offered his Word to us. May we be found truthful in our speech, even as he is the True Word. Amen.
Sep 29

Strike the Rock

            Two years ago I was in the mountains of Western Maryland for a week of vacation at my family’s stomping grounds just west of Deep Creek, near Oakland. My mom’s family is all from out that way, and we’ve made annual pilgrimages since I was a kid, but it was my first time back in years. A lot was familiar; the eighty-year-old cabins hadn’t changed much. Some things, however, were different. The biggest difference that I remember was stepping out to take in the mountain landscape and seeing, about 10 miles away, gigantic wind mills cluttering the skyline. New construction for cleaner energy. They were huge, and they were ugly.

            Now, I’m a fan of renewable energy, and I’m not going to play the “Not in My Backyard” card. I don’t want those turbines torn down. They’re better than the destruction wrought by the coal industry, which has blown the tops off mountains just to get to hidden deposits of anthracite. Still, I’m saddened that the price of this renewable energy source is damage to the beauty of this special place.

            I couldn’t help thinking about that place and those wind turbines when I read the lesson from Exodus 17. At first I couldn’t figure out why—the lesson is about water, not wind. Eventually I realized what it was: in Exodus 17, the Lord says to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” The Israelites are thirsty. They need water. And God tells Moses to strike—not to ask, not to touch, but to strike the rock with his staff. Even this good thing, this necessary thing for God’s own people, comes at the expense of another part of creation. The rock must be struck.

            The rock must be struck for water so that they people may drink. The ground must be furrowed to plant food so they can eat. The trees must be cleared so that they can build shelter against the elements. It seems that we human beings can have nothing without attacking some other part of creation. In fact, I heard recently that with every major human migration has come an equally significant event of species extinction—whenever a large group of human beings moves from one place to another, we inevitably destroy a species that had been thriving in our new location. Wherever we go, we strike the rock—or whatever else is at hand—for our own needs.

            Friends, this is not how things ought to be. God did not create the world so that human beings could destroy it. In fact, I imagine that if the Israelites had found themselves in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, instead of in the wilderness, Moses could have walked right up to the rock and said, “Excuse me, rock, but could I trouble you for some water?” and the rock would have gladly bubbled forth streams delicious and refreshing. The world of Moses and the Israelites, however, is not the Garden of Eden. Their world is our world, the world after sin has entered. Moses must strike the rock.

            The reality of human sin is three dimensional. Sure, our sin messed things up pretty badly between us and God—the first dimension. But it also dramatically altered the way we relate to other human beings—the second dimension—and to the rest of creation (the third dimension). We see all three dimensions even in the seven verses out of Exodus 17 we just read. The Israelites, who can’t seem to go forty-eight hours without finding a reason to doubt the Lord, start complaining that they are just dying of thirst. You’ve heard of doubting Thomas, right? Here we have doubting Judah, doubting Manasseh, doubting Benjamin, doubting Israel. It’s as if they’re saying, “There’s no way God could save us now.” Sin, in the form of stupid doubt, has crept in again, rupturing the relationship between Israel and the Lord. The first dimension of sin.

            Israel’s complaining targets Moses, too. Moses, their leader, the one who stood up to Pharaoh, the one by whose arms the sea parted for them and then swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses the great prophet; the Israelites say he’s brought them into the wilderness to die. They’re angry. So angry that Moses tells God he’s afraid the Israelites will stone him to death if something doesn’t change quickly. Relationships among human beings, damaged almost beyond repair. The second dimension of sin.

            Then there is the rock Moses strikes. The third dimension of sin.

            It’s unfortunate that environmentalism has become such a political football. For Christians, the matter should be pretty straightforward: first, we are called to good stewardship of creation; second, because of our sin, we cannot completely avoid damaging other parts of creation in this life. And when we do harm creation, we shouldn’t celebrate it as if God had made us to be tyrants of his creation. At least the Israelites have the sense to name the rock Massah and Meribah, an enduring reminder of Israel’s sin in the wilderness. Lament is also faithful worship.

            There’s one more thing about this story, something that really gets me. Did you notice where the Lord is in this story? Not what God says or does—whereGod is. God doesn’t remain in heaven, distant from all that’s taking place in his creation. The Lord says to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God places himself directly in Moses’ path, on the very rock Moses must strike for the people to drink. As he always does, God places himself on the side of his creation, taking on the same burden that fallen creation must bear.

            Imagine. Moses is in the middle of the wilderness with a weary people, a people parched and impatient. They have risen up against him, demanding something to drink. Moses doesn’t have a drop more of water than anyone else—they are in a desert, after all. He turns to the Lord, afraid and frustrated. God responds to Moses and to his people’s bitter complaints with a generous offer of water. All Moses has to do is walk over to a rock, accompanied by a few of Israel’s other leaders, and hit the rock with his staff.

            So Moses chooses elders, good people who can witness to God’s faithfulness and calm things down. He gathers them together; they walk toward the rock. And there, standing between them and the font they so desperately need, is the Lord. There’s no way around. If Moses wants to save his people, he’ll have to strike the rock. And if he strikes the rock, he’ll have to strike the Lord first. So Moses walks up to the rock, looks his God in the face, raises his staff, and strikes the rock of his salvation. Water—just water this time, though one day it will be water and blood—water gushes forth, streams in the desert run as never before, fountains pour out from the rock for the sake of the people of God. And that rock was Christ.