Saturday, July 28, 2012

Power of Presence

Seemingly far from the danger and intrigue of just a chapter earlier, the baby boy who survived in a world without baby boys has grown into a man.  He is doing nothing more extraordinary than shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, when the angel of the Lord appears to him in a bush that burns but is not burned up.  When Moses turns to take a closer look at this strange sight, God calls to him from the bush.

God calls because he has seen the affliction of his people in Egypt and he wants Moses to do something about it.  So God says to Moses "Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt."  Sounds great, right?  Except for the part where Pharaoh is the most powerful man in the world and the children of Israel are the inexpensive slave-labor engine of his booming economy.  I'm sure he'll give them up without a fight.

So Moses asks in Exodus 3:11,  "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?"  Over the course of the next chapter and a half, Moses will offer five different objections to God's calling - the final one more of an outright plea "Oh, my Lord, please send someone else."  Often these objections are understood as exposing a lack of faith on the part of Moses but considering the remarkable task to which God is calling Moses, his objections actually seem pretty reasonable.  Who wouldn't want some assurances when facing Pharaoh and his armies?

In fact, God's responses to Moses' objections are some of the most telling parts of this narrative.  To be sure, by the end of this argument Yahweh seems to be a bit annoyed with Moses (4:14) but no where along the way does God suggest that Moses' objections are out of line or irreverent.  Quite to the contrary, the Yahweh we find described in this story is one who engages in patient dialogue with Moses and takes time to answer his concerns.

Of course, those "answers" are not always the ones for which Moses might have been hoping.  When Moses asks "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh...?" God's reply could have taken a number of forms.  God could have told Moses why he really was qualified for the job.  God could have let Moses in on the plan for liberation, a step by step instruction on how to defeat Pharaoh.  But God's reply is "But I will be with you, and this shall be a sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain."  Although God is willing to take time for Moses' objections, God also gently reminds Moses that it is not his qualifications on which this mission depends.  Instead, it is the God who goes with him.  When the God of liberation calls, the most powerful promise that can be made is the promise of that God's presence.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Nameless Revolution

"Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live."  - Exodus 1:22

Maybe its because deliverance is in the title of the book -"ex odos" - literally, "a way out", or maybe its because the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea are some of the very first stories we learn if we grew up in church but either way we usually begin reading the book of Exodus knowing that deliverance is not far off.  As a result, it can be difficult to force ourselves to sit in the pure horror that is Israel's circumstance.  We can be so quick to jump to God's mighty acts that we rush over the desperate situation that made them necessary.  Never mind the brick making.  Pharaoh's edict of death alone is enough to qualify this as an atrocity, a genocide, a holocaust.  "Every son that is born to the Hebrews..."

Imagine the consequences of such a decree if fully enforced.  Did half the births among the Israelites, occasions that should have been joyous signs of life, instantly become occasions for mourning the moment the child's gender was revealed?  Did the sight of one's niece insight jealousy and pain because it was a reminder of the loss of one's own son?  When the Hebrew men went to make those bricks, did they notice that no young men were joining them in the fields?  When the Hebrew women went to the Nile to gather water for the day, did they do their best to ignore the infant sized corpse floating down the river or had they become so accustomed to this sight that they were now cold to these reminders of their oppression?   This is a Hitler/1994 Rwanda/current Syria kind of evil.  And an evil backed by the highest earthly power of the day.  What can possibly be done in the face of such an insurmountable and hope-stealing force?

In the midst of Pharaoh's death-dealing decree, life goes on.  A nameless Levite man marries a nameless Levite woman.  They have a child - a boy.  But this nameless woman refuses to submit to the most powerful man in the world.  She hides her son for three months.  Isn't this a fool's errand?  She can't possibly expect this son of her's to go unnoticed forever in an environment where there are no other boys walking the streets.  She could probably be executed for her disobedience but at the very least isn't she stealing precious food and resources away from the daughter she already has and wasting them on this child who has no chance of survival?  When she can't hide him any more she follows Pharaoh's orders but with her own subversive twist.  She does place her son in the Nile but she does so in a basket - or an "ark" to translate the Hebrew word more exactly - reminding us of another story in which God provided a miraculous way out in the midst of watery chaos and death.

Here in the story enters another nameless, powerless, woman.  She is probably even more weak and powerless than the decree-defying mother for she is really just a girl - she is the baby boy's sister.  This sister watches her brother from a distance "to know what would be done to him."  I imagine that she watches with the kind of hope that only a young child or early adolescent could muster; a hope that hasn't yet been corrupted and pared down by "reality," a hope that believes this baby boy could somehow survive in a world without baby boys.

Her hope puts her in the right place at the right time when yet another woman enters the story.  This woman does have some power relative to the other two since she is Pharaoh's daughter but surely even she would have no one to protect her if her father's wrath turned against her.  She has come down to the Nile to bathe, sees the child in the basket, and pities him in direct contrast to the law of her own father.  Now the sister sees the opportunity that only she, in all her naive hopefulness, could have possibly hoped for and (should we imagine her, previously unnoticed, breathlessly bursting out from her hiding place among the reeds?) asks "Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?"  The Princess of Egypt consents to the offer proposed by this unknown, nameless, and powerless little girl who then runs to get her mother so that the Princess can pay her to nurse her own son.

Moses is saved by being placed in the very river that Pharaoh meant to be the means of his death.  He is drawn out of that river by Pharaoh's own daughter and his mother will be paid to nurse him out of Pharaoh's own treasury.  Pharaoh's edict of evil has sown the seeds of its own demise for it is this same Moses who represents the end of Pharaoh's seemingly endless power.  It turns out that all it took to topple this insurmountable and hope-stealing force was three women who refused to submit to the deadly ways of the Empire.

There is another important character in this story who goes unnamed:  God.  To be sure, by the end of the book of Exodus we will know this God and his magnificent, plague inducing, slave liberating power quite well.  He will be named with many names (I Am, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, compassionate, etc.) and show himself to be the one true God over all of creation.  But before all the fireworks he calls Moses through the quiet, calm burning of a bush.  Apparently God refuses to light these fireworks alone.  God wants a servant through whom he can work...and that servant, Moses, does not exist apart from the subversive acts of these three women.  Their civil disobedience is not accompanied by the obvious displays of God's power which Moses will enjoy.  Indeed, here at the oppressive and hopeless beginning of this powerful story - in the midst of the brick making and infant murdering - one might wonder if there is even a god who is worth naming.  But it seems this is how the inauguration of God's kingdom always takes shape; not with brute force and obvious displays of God's power and presence but in the anonymity, weakness and vulnerability of an infant, of a cross and a tomb, of three women who refuse to submit to the powers that be.  These are the makings of God's revolution.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Strength in Weakness

The Corinthians have finally done it.  They've finally pushed Paul over the edge.  They've been constantly questioning Paul's authority as an apostle and Paul has steadfastly refused to give them the kind of confirmation for which they've been looking; he has refused to boast to Corinthians about his qualifications.  But now in 2 Corinthians 10, Paul's tone changes drastically - so drastically, in fact, that most scholars believe that chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians are actually a separate letter written later than chapters 1-9, at time when Paul's relationship with the Corinthians had deteriorated even further.  Now, in these chapters, Paul finally begins to boast.

This boasting reaches its climax in chapter 12.  There Paul says he knows a man (a roundabout way of talking about himself) who 14 years prior to the writing of this letter was caught up into the third heaven, into paradise, and heard things so majestic that he can not repeat them.  This is exactly the kind of thing the the Corinthians have been looking for all along.  We can gather from 1 Corinthians that this church was one which highly prized rapturous spiritual experiences.  In that letter, Paul is constantly reminding them that the real mark of the Spirit's presence among them is not showy, ethereal experiences like speaking in tongues but the ordinary, every day task of loving each other.  It seems that because the Corinthians were having these great spiritual experiences and Paul never talked about having any such experiences of his own, the Corinthians began to believe they might actually be more spiritual than the apostle who brought them the gospel in the first place.  In spite of these accusations and the tension that runs through the Corinthian correspondence, Paul refused to reveal that he had exactly the kind of visions which the Corinthians valued so highly - until now.

But even here, in his boasting, Paul turns the discussion back to weakness.  He gives into the Corinthians demands just for a moment to let them know that he has a whole life of spiritual experiences that he has not boasted to them about because he doesn't believe those experiences are what make him an apostle.  Rather it is imitating the weakness and vulnerability of his Lord which makes him a true messenger of the good news.  So Paul says he will rather boast in his weakness.

Specifically, Paul speaks of his weakness as a "thorn in the flesh".  He doesn't tell us exactly what this thorn was (see commentaries for endless speculation:  sexual temptation, being small of stature, persecutions, weak public speaker, some other physical or even mental illness) but he does tell us that it was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the greatness of his revelations and visions.  Contrary to the Corinthians opinion, Paul's spiritual experiences are actually so extraordinary that he needed an affliction of some kind just to check his ego.

Even more remarkably, the great Apostle Paul asked God on three separate occasions to take away this thorn and his request was never granted.  Instead, Christ responded by saying "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Paul concludes this paragraph by saying
"Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
This is not a pithy little word of encouragement destined for a refrigerator magnet to remind us that God is still with us even though we are having a crappy day.  It is fundamental to Paul's understanding of Jesus and his own ministry as one of Jesus' ambassadors.  It is a foundational conviction of Paul's post-road-to-Damascus life that when God wanted to demonstrate his world-changing, reality-altering strength he did it through the weakness and vulnerability of his Christ hung on a Roman instrument of execution.  Likewise, as followers of this Messiah we are meant to imitate his example.  It is not that this powerful God merely happens to be with us in our weakness, true and important though that is.  It is that Christ reveals to us that God's very way is weakness.  It is not something God merely tolerates but something God chooses.  That for all the glory and might of the Triune God, there is eternally and permanently weakness within the life of this God as well and in the upside down kingdom which Christ establishes weakness is actually strength.

We often think of weaknesses as obstacles to ministry.  We don't have enough money or space or people in our church to do certain things.  The people who are here feel like they can't contribute because they are too old and their bodies ache too much.  And so we pray repeatedly for God to bless us.  And we should.  But after we've offered that prayer a number of times and the blessing we are seeking hasn't come maybe we should begin to consider that our very real weaknesses are not obstacles to ministry but the very means by which God intends for us to minister.  So that we might imitate and embody the weakness of our savior.  So that God's power might be displayed instead of ours.  So that we may lean forward into the coming kingdom of our crucified and risen Lord.