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God will go before you
Exodus 23: I won’t get rid of them all at once lest the land grow up in weeds and the wild animals take over.
The Lord promises his people that he’ll not only be with them but will also go before them. Before they ever arrive in Canaan the Lord will already be at work there, preparing the way for them. The inhabitants of that land will be visited by “Terror” and “Despair.” Just the thought of the coming Israelites will cause them to withdraw, yielding the land to them without a fight. However, the Lord also tells them that the withdrawal of these heathen people won’t happen all at once. If all human beings desert the land then the weeds and wild animals will take over and Canaan land won’t be as wonderful as the Lord wants it to be for his people. While I know it didn’t work out, I can’t help but imagine a very different picture from both the books of Joshua and Judges. As I consider this passage I find myself thinking of God’s work in my life. As one of God’s people I have some precious promises. He’s with me and he’ll make a way even when there is no way. However, that doesn’t mean all the battles are already won. Like the people of Israel, I’m to trust in the Lord and to move forward, believing that, by his grace, I can face whatever obstacles might arise. It would be nice if all the signal lights in my life were permanently on green even as I sit in the driveway, but it doesn’t work that way. I have to move out in trust and allow the Lord to help me through the rough areas one step at a time.
Take Away: God’s work in my life is that of unfolding grace, him making the way for me, one day at a time.
Living as one of God’s people
Exodus 22: Don’t be stingy as your wine vats fill up. Dedicate your firstborn sons to me.
If anyone thinks the Law given at Mount Sinai is all about the Ten Commandments or at least is filled with regulations concerning their religion they need to spend some time in the second half of the Book of Exodus. The regulations stated here are a mulligan stew of civil, personal, and religious rules and regulations. The Lord’s just as interested in telling them how to settle a property dispute as he is in telling them how to conduct a worship service. For instance, he tells them that as they prosper in the land he’s giving them that they’re to live generous lives. Then, in the very next sentence he tells them that they’re to dedicate their firstborn sons to him. For these people, there’s to be no difference between their “religious” lives and their “secular” lives. Instead, they’re to live their “whole lives” under the authority of God. Refraining from eating the meat of some dead animal they find in the field and making sacrifices only to the Lord God are both filed under the heading of “be holy.” A lesson for me in all this is that my life as a whole is to be lived under the authority of the Lord. I’m to live a generous, honest, compassionate life. Not only am I to dedicate my children to the Lord, but, as my “wine vats fill up” I’m to be a generous person, sharing the blessing the Lord has given me. The two, secular and religious, are really just one, living as one of God’s people.
Take Away: My entire life is to be lived as a person of God.
The frightening side of God
Exodus 19: Warning! Don’t climb the mountain.
Of all the appearances of God on earth in the Bible the coming of the Almighty to Mount Sinai is the most impressive. Earlier, the Lord appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Now he appears to Israel in a burning mountain. There are thick clouds, thunder, earthquakes, and the sound of trumpet blasts. The people are warned to keep their distance or die. As I read this event I find myself wondering why God came in such a dramatic way. Centuries earlier, he came to the first man and woman for a quiet conversation in the cool of the day. Later on he wrestled with Jacob through the night. However, here at Sinai the appearance of the Lord is the most dramatic event to have ever happened on the face of the earth. I think the Lord’s making the point that he’s not a God to be trifled with. If he’s to make Israel into his own people they must grasp something of his holiness. They need to see him as more than a God who gives them free food each morning and who helps them win battles. Instead, they need to see the awful power of his holiness. This is a God to serve, to reverence, and to obey. Before Moses ever begins his unforgettable encounter with the Divine there are lessons to be learned. We Christians focus on an entirely different view of God. We see him as a meek Carpenter who loves us even to a cross. That, of course, is a correct view of the Lord. However, there’s more to him than that. Each of us must spend some reverent and fearful time at Sinai if we’re to begin understanding who God is.
Take Away: Mt. Sinai is a good place to take some “reverence lessons.”
The Ten Commandments
Exodus 20: I am God, your God.
And so it begins. This God who spoke to Moses through the burning bush, this God who brought the plagues to Egypt in securing their freedom, this God who delivered them at the Red Sea now describes how they’re to live. He didn’t bring them up out of Egypt so they could do their own thing, living as they pleased. The Lord God brought them out of slavery to be his own people. Their relationship to their God is going to be very different than the Egyptians relationship with their gods. The very first thing their Redeemer does is state Ten Commandments to them. These Commandments are just as focused on how a man treats his neighbor as how a man relates to his God. In this new relationship with the Almighty they’ll treat the Lord with absolute reverence, but they’ll also treat one another with respect, honesty, and fairness. One doesn’t have to be Jewish or Christian to recognize the brilliance of the Ten Commandments. In just a few words the foundation is laid for a God-fearing and just society. To this day there’s no finer expression of how society can function at its best. This gift from God to his people is every bit as impressive as was his parting the Red Sea for them.
Take Away: We can find no better set of rules for living than what we find in the Ten Commandments.
What an offer
Exodus 19: Everything God says, we will do.
The miracle at the Red Sea has provided a deliverance that will be remembered forever. However, what’s about to happen is intended to form these newly freed slaves into a people of God. They’re camped at the foot of Sinai and the Lord is stating his plan for them. If they’ll listen obediently to his words they’ll be a unique people on the face of the earth: a kingdom of priests who enjoy the blessings of the Almighty. The elders of Israel immediately respond that “everything God says, we will do.” I know that I’m standing at the beginning of what will be a long, failure-filled journey. They won’t even break camp at Sinai before there’s a massive spiritual failure. Still, if I stop looking ahead and simply consider this exchange, I’m impressed by what I see. First, The Lord’s making the wonderful, amazing promise of connecting their lives to his. They don’t deserve it but in an amazing act of grace the offer is made. Second, they say “yes.” Again, I know that many failures are coming, but in this time and place, when God offers them this unlikely partnership, they respond with just the right answer. In spite of the fact that I know things aren’t going to always work out as they should I also remember here that had they said, “No” the story would end here and now. In saying “yes” to God they open the door to an unprecedented relationship with him. To some extent, all human beings receive this same offer from the Lord. We can respond that we’re not worthy or that it’s too hard or that we’re likely to fail. Know what? He already knows all that. Still, the offer is there. When the Lord calls my name, I can respond no better than these ancient Israelites did: “Everything God says, we will do.”
Take Away: I can’t do better than saying the “big yes” to the Lord.
Having a Moses Complex
Exodus 18: This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out…you can’t do this alone.
Moses is overwhelmed by his responsibilities yet he presses on. From morning to night he deals with the issues of leadership as this nation of former slaves struggles with issues of personal responsibility. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, visits and sees what’s happening. Moses needs to get organized by surrounding himself with capable assistants. That will be best for him, for the people of God, and even for the leaders he enlists. To do otherwise is to invite disaster because Moses does have a job to do and if he burns himself out trying to do everything he’ll end up doing nothing. Moses accepts the word of wisdom from Jethro and surrounds himself with competent, God-fearing, loyal people. I think we pastors sometimes have a “Moses complex.” It isn’t entirely our fault. The “higher-ups” are very pastor focused and our lay people will cheer us right into the grave as we try to do it all. We’re wise to spend some time listening to old Jethro and begin handing some things off to good people who are likely more gifted in specific areas than we are anyway. That will free them up to do what God gifted them to do and it will also let us focus our energy doing what we’re called to do in the first place.
Take Away: Leadership doesn’t mean doing everything.
Having a small role in a big deal
Exodus 17: But Moses’ hands got tired.
The first of what will be a seeming unending number of battles is taking place. Their background as slaves affords these Israelites little preparation of combat. King Amalek, on the other hand, is a fighter with a trained and disciplined army. He sees the Israelites as easy prey and attacks them. The thing he doesn’t know is that Israel is under the protection of God Almighty. God’s man, Moses, climbs to a high point and raises that famous staff to the Lord. When he does, it’s almost as though God’s power flows from heaven, through that staff, into Moses, and then out to those defending the nation. These slaves fight like soldiers. However, Moses’ arms grow weary and he lowers the staff. When he does, the tide of the battle turns and Amalek’s forces begin to gain the advantage. Two men, Aaron and Hur, come to the rescue. They provide Moses a place to sit and then they hold up his arms and staff. Victory is theirs. As I read this story I see that God’s teaching them that (in the words of Jesus) “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Their victory on this day is clearly linked to Moses, the staff, and the action of Aaron and Hur. It’s a great victory, the first of many, but there’s no way they can take credit for it. Also, I can’t help but comment on the support of Aaron and Hur. Neither is God’s man for this moment. Clearly, that’s Moses. However, they become literal “supporters” of God’s man, lifting him when he can’t go on. Generally speaking, that’s our role in life too. We lend our support to those God is using in unique ways. In so doing, we play a small role in the big deal of God’s work in this world.
Take Away: It’s nice to have a part to play, even when it’s mainly just supportive of others.
Exodus 16: It got wormy and smelled bad.
It doesn’t take long for the 600,000 people to go through their food supply. Now, they’re out in the wilderness and wondering where their next meal will come from. One of the methods used by the Lord to meet this need is the introduction of a unique food source. It appears like the morning dew, tasting like bread and honey. Each morning the people literally “pick up” their breakfast. Thus begins what will be an ongoing provision of the Lord that will continue for four decades. Except for the Sabbath, each morning begins with their going out to receive this blessing of the Lord. Right off some people try to hoard this heavenly bread, but that turns out to be a bad idea as day old manna gets wormy and stinks. This blessing from the Lord can’t be stored up. Instead, it has to be received anew each day. Centuries later Jesus will teach his followers to ask their Father for their “daily bread.” This reminds us that, even as it was for the Israelites, the Lord provides but that each day requires a renewed trust from us. I’m not against hearing folks share precious memories from days gone by, but as I watch these Israelites collecting their manna, I’m reminded that if yesterday’s blessing’s all I’ve got, well, I haven’t got much.
Take Away: God’s blessings are made new in our lives every day.
Exodus 16: Who are we in all this? You haven’t been complaining to us – you’ve been complaining to God!
It’s been two and a half months since the Red Sea parted and they passed through on dry ground. Two and a half months since they saw their enemies drown in the sea and since they celebrated their liberation. Now they’re out in the wilderness. It’s a difficult adjustment for the Israelites. No more comforts of home as they transition to becoming a nomadic culture. Change comes hard. As they long for the meat and bread they ate in Egypt God graciously responds through Moses and Aaron that he will provide for them. These leaders relay God’s message but they also include a word of warning concerning their complaining. This journey is not in their hands. Abraham has been dead for centuries, but they have yet to learn what he learned: the just shall live by faith. The problem with complaining is that it places us outside the life of faith. The God of the Red Sea is the God of the wilderness. He’s also the God of my everyday life. He expects me to place my faith in him in the days of miraculous victory and in the days of the wilderness as well.
Take Away: Complaining and faith are incompatible.
Praise and worship service
Exodus 15: Who compares with you in power?
When Moses tells the people to “stand still” he’s more right than wrong. While it’s true that they need to “move forward” in response to what God is doing, it’s still God who provides their deliverance. They don’t exactly “stand still” but they never raise a hand in their own defense. It’s God who provides the victory. Now they’re celebrating. Moses leads the way with his song of victory: “Who compares with you among gods, O God? Who compares with you in power, in holy majesty, in awesome praises, wonder-working God?” Moses turns their hearts in the right direction. Even more than being about victory over the army of Egypt, this celebration is about God at work in their world. Obviously that victory is no small thing. Still, God’s incomparable, powerful, majestic, wondrous work is the real reason to celebrate, whether it has to do with Pharaoh’s army or not. After all, this is God’s story even more than theirs. In my life there are many good things to celebrate, but beyond all that is the Reason behind the good things. I’m glad to join Moses in this praise and worship service.
Take Away: Celebrate the good things but don’t forget to celebrate the Giver of those good things.