Questions and Reflections

Category: Exodus

Reflection: Re-learning the old story

At the last minute, I made the executive decision to change today's reading from the Hebrew Bible. Rather than spending time in the book of Isaiah, I took us back to the opening chapter of the book of Exodus 1:1-2:2. We'll hear this passage again in August when we focus on Moses's origin story. But today I want to focus on a different part of the Exodus story: Pharaoh's order that all male babies of Hebrew descent should be killed.

The last major story at the end of the book of Genesis is centered on Joseph (aka Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). He had become, over time, an important leader in the Egyptian government. After using the gifts God gave him to interpret dreams, he managed to save himself and the kingdom from ruin. A famine decimated the wider area but Egypt thrived because Joseph saved all the excess wheat they grew during plentiful years. His family (including his 11 brothers) and their households (including wives, kids, slaves, employees, and more) crossed the border into Egypt, become economic refugees. They did not know that Joseph was now a high-ranking official but, in a very colorful moment, the family was reunited and old grudges were forgiven. The Hebrew people settled inside Egypt, building homes and raising their families. They retained what made them culturally unique and assimilated only slightly into the wider culture. As time went on, the people in Egypt grew weary of the Hebrew people. They feared the Hebrews would replace them and the Egyptians would become marginalized. So in an act of political violence, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people but that didn't satisfy the Egyptian xenophobia. They chose to do more. So, in a terrifying moment, the Pharaoh ordered male newborns to be killed once they were born. With the death of the male babies, it was assume the Hebrew women would be forced to marry Egyptians, transferring any wealth and property to the Egyptians or they would just die out. The Pharaoh ordered a genocidal act and the Hebrews, including their midwives like Shiphrah and Puah, did what they could to resist this command.

As you listen and read our story from the gospel according to Mathew today, keep in mind this Exodus story. The parallels are intentional and help us understand what Matthew chose to describe. When we forget the story of the Exodus, we end up missing the deep spiritual terror seen in the genocidal act Herod the Great ordered on the children of his people.


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Reflection: Change Your Mind

What do we do with a God who changed? I realize that's a bit of a provocative statement because we believe (and I believe it too) that God does not change. Yet we are often confronted by a God, especially in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) who does change. In today's story from Exodus 32:1-14, God's mind is changed when confronted by Moses. The story began at Mount Sinai. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites encamped around the holy mountain. Moses went up the mountain to talk with God but stayed hidden in the clouds for a bit too long. With Moses gone for so long, the community grew nervous. They were in a land they were unfamiliar with and had no clear vision of where to go next. Moses gave them a sense that God was with them but that was now missing. The community needed some tangible connection with the divine. So in a moment of need, Aaron, God's high-priest and spokesperson, helped build a golden calf to be worshipped and celebrated. Moses, not knowing what had happened in the camp, was informed by God about the building of the idol. God, very abruptly, chose to renounce kingship over the community by calling the Israelites "Your [aka Moses'] people." The community turned away from God and deserved to be punished. God let Moses know that God's judgment was about to come.

Yet one of the interesting things about this text is also what it doesn't say. Although anger and wrath were mentioned, nowhere does the text explicitly say: "God's anger flared up." Instead, that phrase was reserved for their dialogue. It's implied but never fully stated that God was angry. What God does say, however, is for Moses to "let me alone." This command, at first, seemed simple enough. But God was probably using a bit of reverse psychology. God wanted Moses to ignore God's command. God wanted Moses to intervene and Moses did. Instead of accepting God's commitment to violence or God's invitation to clone Moses for the nation itself, Moses defended the people worshipping the idol below. The community that rebelled against God and often against Moses was the community Moses said God must protect. God’s promises were not directed towards perfect people. God's promises were made to the broken, the imperfect, and those who often fail. God's promises were, and still are, made to people just like us.

God, in the end, changed God's mind. God articulated a desire to Moses and then rescinded it. Moses stood up to God by reminding God of God's own character. God is faithful; God is slow to anger; God is love. God's own unchanging character means that God's mind will often be changed. God will offer forgiveness, grace, and mercy, before wrath and violence. God will keep God's promises because those promises are what's truly unchanging about God. So when we talk to God in our own prayers, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is be a bit like Moses and remind God of the promises God has already made to us and to our world.


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Reflection: Light Shine

When was the last time you put on a face mask? Face masks (or facials masks) are one of the quintessential skin-care products that, in theory, transform your face. They are thin sheets covered in oils or a creamy paste you slather over your face. After leaving it on for a few minutes (or overnight), you peel it off to reveal a re-invigorated you. The mask (in theory) cleans your pores, removes wrinkles, moisturizes, firms up the muscles in your face, and makes you look years younger. The Face Shop, a beauty manufacture based in South Korea, sells dozens of face masks based on natural products. You can buy a mask infused with kelp, olives, cucumbers, blueberries, potato, rice, bamboo, and honey. If you use it correctly and often, the face mask is supposed to make you look healthier and younger. In other words, after you wear these masks, your face will shine.

One part of Moses' story (Exodus 34:29-35) we don't always teach in Sunday School is about what happened to Moses when he encountered God. We tend to focus on his message, the commandments, and the golden calf but we ignore how Moses changed. Moses, while talking to God, did more than receive divine ideas to pass on to the people. According to Exodus, each encounter with God changed Moses himself. After meeting God, Moses' face shined. In fact, he glowed so much, he veiled himself when he talked to other people. When Moses walked back down the mountain to talk to the community, the divine light went with him. It lingered on his face, reflecting through Moses and into the community that was all around him.

As baptized followers of Jesus, we carry that divine light with us at all times. When we were baptized, a thin cross of olive oil was gently placed on our forehead. We were sealed with a sign of the Cross and that oil, lingering on our forehead, shimmered in the light. Even though the oil eventually wore off, the Cross never will. That seal was the ultimate face mask, a sign that God, through the community, has claimed us as God's own. Regardless of our later choices and doubts, God never stops loving us because God, through Jesus, has placed his light on us. We are bearers of God's light into the world. We are always carrying the Cross of Christ with us. We are the beloved. The people around us might not always see how our face shines but we can, through our actions, act like it does. We can let our light shine - because that light will never end.


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Red: Blood in Exodus

Our first reading is Exodus 12:1-14.

It was my first year in college. I was picking up some lunch while on campus. I don't remember why the glass Snapple bottle slipped from my fingers but I do know what happened next. I caught the bottle but I was too late. The bottle shattered on the ground while my hand was around it. A deep gash tore through one of my fingers. A trip to the university health center was in order. 

At the health center, I was prepped for stitches. The nurse asked me if it would be okay for a student volunteer to watch the procedure. The student was thinking about a medical career. I said, "Sure. The more the merrier." The physician assistant invited the student (and me) to watch the simple procedure. The finger still bled but I was fascinated. I tried to get the best position possible to see my finger put back together. The pre-med student looked at the still bleeding finger. She then ran out of the room. The sight of all that blood was making her nauseous. 

In our reading from Exodus tonight, blood is central to the text. The ancient world did not have the medical knowledge we do. How the body functioned was a mystery to them (and is still a mystery today). But the ancient world did know the importance of blood. Blood flows. Blood is pumped through the body. Blood makes life happen. 

And life is what the blood on the door is all about. Each family gathered together to take the life of a lamb (its blood) and make a sign on their door. The angel, checking each household, would see the sign of life and passover their house. The life of the lamb does more than keep the family safe. The life of the lamb also invites the family to experience the entire Exodus story. A story where God's people are moved from slavery into freedom; from suffering into abundant life. God doesn't want God's people to just survive. God wants God's people to thrive. 

The story of Maundy Thursday is what a thriving life looks like. A life that thrives is a life that gives. A life that thrives is a life that serves even those who betray it. A life that thrives is a life that sees Jesus, serves everyone, and always loves. 


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Telling Our Story

The First Reading is Exodus 17:1-7.

Our Mid-Week Lenten Soup & Study this year is combining decluttering with Luther's Small Catechism. Both movements, I think, asks us to change how we view our stuff and our faith. Decluttering isn't about throwing things away; decluttering is about what we keep. Luther's faith is centered on keeping close to a God who keeps us close. Our journey of faith isn't helping us approach God. Faith is helping us see the God who is already with us.

One way we see God is by telling the stories of the people we grew up with. We share stories about our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors (if we know them). When we talk to someone who doesn't know us very well, we might focus on the positive stories first. We talk about challenges that were overcome and all the good things that happened. We wait to share the negative things (violence, anger, frustration, broken relationship) until later. 

But our story from Exodus 17 doesn't do that. The Israelites are rescued from slavery by God. They go into the wilderness to escape Pharaoh and his army. They overcome exciting challenges. They are doing a new thing. We expect to hear stories showing how they survived and thrived. But should we also hear their complaining? Why does scripture share their screw ups? The stories we tell (or share on facebook, instagram, and snapchat) are stories where we try to look our best. We usually do not share our negative stories. But God's story includes people who complain, people who are thirsty, and people who wonder what God has done for us lately. When we are at our most broken and even we wouldn't stay near us, God still holds us close. God doesn't ask us to only share perfect stories. We are called to share every story because God is with us, even then. 


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Six Days Later

Our First Reading was Exodus 24:12-18.

What did Moses do during his first six days on the mountain? Before my bible study this week with other local Lutheran pastors, I never noticed this detail before. In our text from Exodus today, the Israelites are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After escaping slavery in Egypt, they are learning how to live together. God is in the center of the community, covering Mt. Sinai in a cloud. God summoned Moses so Moses heads up the mountain. For six days, Moses is up there before God calls for him. So what does a person do when they're waiting for God?

This text is full of allusions to other stories from scripture. In the story of Genesis, God worked for six days before resting on the seventh. During Noah's great flood, the ark finally lands on a mountaintop as the water recedes from a rainstorm that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. People of the faith like Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob met God on various mountaintops and usually built on the spot where they saw God. And in earlier parts of the Exodus story, God is a cloud providing shade from the sun during the day and God is a cloud of fire providing light at night. In one short text, we see God as a creator, protector, savior, judge, and all-powerful presence. But we also meet a God who sometimes makes us wait.

The text doesn't tell us what Moses was doing while he was waiting for God. He knew he was in God's presence. The cloud gave that away. Yet, even Moses had to deal with God being silent. I imagine Moses took care of himself during those six days. He cooked his meals, slept outdoors, and kept himself busy. Moses kept living his life while waiting for God to finally speak. And I imagine we know what Moses waiting game feels like. We will hear in church today words of hope, promise, and hear how Jesus is here, right now, for us to eat and drink. Yet we might wonder why we can't hear God speaking. I wish I had an answer for your why. But I don't. Instead, we all have a story where even Moses had to wait. He had to keep living while he waiting for God to speak. But God's silence does not mean God isn't present. When we can't hear God, God is still there. And God's presence means God will speak and that, someday, we will finally hear. 


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A Reflection on Moses' Shining

Our first reading is Exodus 34:29-35.

Next week (February 7) is Transfiguration, the Sunday when today's reading from Exodus is usually read. On that Sunday, we witness a story in the gospels where Jesus meets Moses and Elijah on a mountain top. The disciples watch as Jesus talks to these two prophets, with everyone lit up like the sun. Jesus is transformed. His typical wardrobe is replaced by a brilliant white robe. The disciples see Jesus as Jesus truly is: God's light in the world. This light Jesus shines is the same light that Moses experienced during his 40 years in the wilderness. Nothing we make or touch can truly radiate the true divine light that God gives. God's light is more than just a fancy firework show. God's light gives life to whatever it touches, causing God's servants to radiate that light as well. Moses, when he comes down the mountain after being on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, can't help but reflect what God has given him. 

Last Sunday, as I dug out from the snowstorm, I noticed that the bright sunshine was giving me a tan. The brilliant sun was reflecting off the two feet of snow, right onto my face. The light was overpowering and I wish I had shades. Even in the depth of winter, after a snowstorm so huge we canceled church worship services and towns up and down the east coast canceled school for days at a time, the brilliant light still shined. That light left its mark on me while I tried to dig out of my driveway. And it lingers because my face looks like I went to the beach. 

This brilliant light is the God we want. We want a God that shines. We want a God who lingers and who gives us a piece of this divine light to share with others. Even when we're bogged down in the storms of our lives, we have this God who still shines. But this God doesn't only shine. This God isn't only restricted to the mountain tops. This God is a God who is heading to the Cross - a story we'll experience once Lent starts on February 10. 


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A Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

A few months ago, I brought this text to our Confirmands, asking them what they think when they hear the word "commandment." And they said what is usually said: commandments sound a lot like laws or rules. The Ten Commandments sound like a short list of can'ts. Now we can agree that these can'ts are pretty solid and are actions we shouldn't take. But by seeing the commandments as can'ts, we lose sight of God's "can." God feels like a god who cares only about rules and maybe keeping a detailed record of our behavior on some giant spreadsheet, adding up our failures and mistakes. A God who is only about can'ts is going to be a God that keeps us from doing anything because we're afraid of what rule we might be breaking. 

But I believe that verse 2 is really the point of the Ten Commandments. God reminds Moses and the people of Israel that God brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery. Their prior existence was constrained. They were the property of others, with no opportunities to live in free and full relationships with each other and with God. God is reminding the people of Israel that they're now starting on a new chapter in their lives. No longer are they people held captive by others; they are now embarking on a new journey of being God's people. They're building from scratch a new community and a new life. God isn't giving the people of Israel rules just to tell them what they're not to do. God is giving these commandments to the people of Israel to tell us this is how you live a free life. These commandments are about living in community with others. Their prior lives were lives that were limited. Now, opportunities abound. God is calling them into a new community knowing that their lives will be full when they are helping others thrive.

Jesus famously summed up the commandments in this way: they're about loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus didn't see the commandments as can’ts; he saw them as what they bring forth—love. Jesus knew that when his friends, family, and neighbors thrived, he himself thrived as well. The commandments are an invitation to help us find ways to help our neighbors thrive because it's through our relation with each other that God's love is seen, felt, and made known. 


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