Monday, September 17, 2012

Wrestling for Presence

The people that Yahweh has delivered from slavery have just committed the very epitome of idolatry. By constructing this golden calf, they have forsaken God's deliverance, God's Law, and God's presence with them. Now, in the opening verses of Exodus 33, we hear that this act of idolatry is driving God away from God's people. Graciously, God still plans to fulfill the promise of a land for this people; an angel of God will go with them to drive out those who inhabit the land. But God's own presence will not abide with the people "lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."

But Moses won't have it. You can almost hear the accusatory tone in Moses' voice in v.12.
"See, you say to me, 'Bring up this people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways..."
Who talks to God this way? Where is Moses' deference? His respect for the Holy God? Then in v. 15 we hear: "If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here." Is Moses giving God an ultimatum? "God, if you aren't going to go with us then don't even bother sending your angel because I'm not going anywhere."

Perhaps what is even more remarkable than Moses' boldness is that God accepts it. In fact, Yahweh's course of action is changed. God was going to depart from the people but instead God now responds to Moses by saying "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Like Jacob, Moses wrestles with God and wins.

But Moses doesn't even stop there. He's won. He's changed God's mind and gotten what he asked for but still he pushes things even further, almost to the absurd. Moses says in v.18 "Please show me your glory." Moses wants to see the very glory of God and God finds a way to (mostly) grant this request as well. God tells Moses that he can hide in the cleft of the rock on the mountain and God will cover him with his hand while all of God's goodness passes by Moses.  Then God's hand will be removed and Moses will be able to see God's backside as God passes by.  (That's right. God is basically "mooning" Moses. "Moses, you asked to see my glory but this the best you get bud." And you thought God didn't have a sense of humor.)

There are a lot of really fascinating aspects to this passage of Scripture but there is yet one more I find most fascinating of all. Maybe its just the pastor in me, the part of me that so desperately wants to see people changed and transformed, that causes me to read the story this way. But the part of the story I find most fascinating is the change in Moses himself.

Do you remember the Moses of Exodus 3? Is the Moses who, here in chapter 33, wrestles so boldly with God, really the same Moses who was so fearful and timid in chapter 3? The Moses who was afraid to look at God in the burning bush is now the Moses who says "show me your glory". The Moses who offered objection after objection to God's call to deliver the people of Israel is now the Moses who wrestles God into staying with those same people. The Moses who said "Oh, my Lord, please send someone else" now boldly says "Don't you even think about sending anyone else." In Exodus 3, God promises Moses "I will be with you" and that wasn't enough for Moses.  Now God's presence is the only thing that matters to Moses. Is this really the same guy? What has happened to Moses?

Ten Plagues. Exodus. The Red Sea. Water from a Rock. Manna and Quail. Mt. Sinai. The Moses of Exodus 3 isn't the same person as the Moses of Exodus 33 because this is a Moses who has seen what God can do. As I've been working through the book of Exodus, I've pointed out a number of times that even though the people of Israel have been delivered they have not yet had their collected imaginations converted; they have not yet had their slavery so removed from them that they are able to re-imagine what is possible with God. But Moses has and can. In fact, it seems he refuses to imagine life any other way. Moses has tasted the presence of God in his life and it has changed him from a scared and timid shepherd into a man who wrestles with God and having experienced the presence of this mighty God, Moses refuses to accept anything less. Earlier I compared Moses to Jacob but that's not exactly right. After receiving a blessing from God, Jacob let God go. Moses has received blessing after blessing from God but he recognizes the one thing he can't let go, the one thing that is really worth wrestling for, is the presence of God.

In v.16, Moses says
"For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?"
Moses knows that the only thing that sets Israel apart is the presence of God. Do we, the Church, know this too? What if we were a people who, having experienced the presence of God in our lives, fought with every fiber of our being to never let go of that presence? What if our our defining characteristic was our constant cry to God "Show us your glory!"

Monday, September 10, 2012

From Idolatry to Imagination

I mentioned in my sermon on Exodus 25 yesterday that I think part of the reason so much detail is given in the instructions for constructing the tabernacle is that God didn't want any of it left up to the imagination of the Israelites. That's not because God considers imagination a bad thing but because imagination is not a neutral thing; it is shaped by our experiences and Israel has just had their collective imagination shaped by 430 years of oppression and slavery.  That is not an imagination which is prepared to produce a healthy representation of God. 

Exodus 32 is a case in point. While Moses is on Mt. Sinai with Yahweh, the people at the foot of the mountain decide that they need to make gods for themselves. The construction of this idol is presented in direct contrast with the construction of the tabernacle. Whereas the construction of the tabernacle was initiated by God, this action is initiated by the people totally apart from any consultation with God. Whereas the tabernacle is constructed from gifts freely given by anyone who wished to contribute, here Aaron commands all the people "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." Whereas the instructions for building the tabernacle were orderly and well thought out, the construction of the golden calf is hasty and impetuous. In fact, in one of my favorite lines in all of scripture, Aaron portrays it as almost accidental explaining to Moses "So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf."  Seriously Aaron? My four year old comes up with more clever explanations for her behavior. I'm pretty sure some ancient manuscripts of this verse add "And Moses rolled his eyes."

In addition to being an affront to the construction of the tabernacle, the actions of the people are also a direct violation of the first two commandments given so recently at this very same mountain.  Not only that; the people even minimize the liberating work of Yahweh in the exodus, their very own salvation, in that they say upon seeing the calf "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" In this one act of idolatry, Israel has forsaken the salvation of God, God's law, and God's presence with them. In fact, if we listen closely we will likely even hear echoes of Genesis 3, the original act of idolatry, in this story. Like Adam and Eve, the people are eager to trust a voice other than the voice of the one who has provided for them.  Like Adam, Aaron passes the blame for his wrong doing. And just as there are serious consequences in the garden, so there are serious consequences here in the camp. Moses gives orders that lead to the death of 3000 Israelites (and its not absolutely clear that he was acting out of God's guidance rather than his own anger) and God strikes the camp with a plague on top of that. This is not just any story of any sin. This is the story of sin in Israel's self-identifying narrative. The very telling of the story is itself a confession. It says this is a part of who we are; a people prone to idolatry. 

It is often said that the first step to correcting a problem is admitting that you have a problem. Maybe that is how this story can function for us as Christians.  When we claim the Hebrew Scriptures as our Old Testament, we are saying that Israel's story is our story. Their failings are our failings too. If we are to read Exodus 32 as Christian Scripture then we must confess that we also are a people prone to idolatry.

With that in mind, I find it fascinating that this disastrous story, this paragon of sinfulness, begins with nothing more profound than a failure of patience.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."
Moses takes a little longer than expected on the mountain and from there everything else begins to rapidly unravel. I don't find that scenario fascinating because I think it is unusual or extraordinary but because I think it is such an apt description of the times we are most vulnerable to our idolatrous tendencies. It is precisely when God seems absent or quiet, the times when we can't perceive God doing anything, that we are are most likely to make God in our own image. I think this is one of the greatest temptations for the Church in America. It is so rare that we experience a genuine movement of God in our churches that rather than doing the hard work of continuing to seek God we decide to create our own God experience with our worship bands and our clever outreach programs and by doing so we threaten to make God even more absent in our lives. Every pastor find themselves tempted to do what Aaron does. When the people complain that they haven't seen God in a while, its much easier to ask the people to give more of their gold so that we can construct our best facsimile of God's work among us than it is to keep asking people to seek God.

I think we are so quick to fill that void, so ready to put something, anything in the place of God's absence because deep down we fear that maybe God won't show up. We are prone to idolatry because one of our greatest fears is that all that time seeking for God, waiting for God will turn up nothing and we would rather have something rather than nothing, even if its fake.

At its root, I think this failure of patience is also essentially a failure of memory. So quickly the people of Israel forgot who it was that delivered them from Egypt. I think the antidote to our failures of patience is to remind ourselves over and over again of what God has already done for us. I began this post by pointing out that our imaginations are shaped by our experiences. This might be the most important reason why we gather to tell the story of our faith week after week, why we must keep hearing the stories of scripture and telling our own stories of God's faithfulness. It is the hearing and telling of those stories which shape our imaginations and, like the Israelites, we are a long-enslaved people in desperate need of having our imaginations reshaped so that we might see what is possible with God.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The God Who Tabernacles

Before you read this post, you should read Exodus 25-26. OK... if not read it, at least take a glance at it. I'm pretty sure this passage isn't anyone's "life verse." In these chapters we hear God's instructions, ones which are approaching obsessive in their intricate detail, to Moses for constructing the tabernacle, the tent where God's presence will dwell with Israel as they journey through the wilderness.

So what's your honest reaction to a passage of scripture like this one? Boring? Irrelevant? Why all the bother with such detail?

I'm sure at least one of the reasons it can be difficult to stick with reading chapters like these is that its just not easy to get excited about the construction blueprint of... well, any blueprint isn't exactly edge of your seat drama but especially the blueprint of a building that we've never seen and isn't a part of our everyday life. But I think there is also a theological reason why we often fail to recognize the truly great significance of the tabernacle at this point in Israel's story.

As modern Christians, I think we pretty much take the presence of God for granted. After all, along with being all-powerful and all-knowing isn't God also ever-present? There is no place that God is not.  Furthermore, we believe that God's presence is always among us as a church.  We believe that God's Spirit goes with us in our everyday lives. Of course, I believe those statements to be true but I also think that in a world of fast food and faster computers where everything is available to us at our convenience we have come to think of God's presence in the same way: always readily available to us and therefore not particularly special.

This was not the experience of the Israelites. We must remember that it was not so many chapters ago in this story that the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. The experience of a slave - the experience of 430 years of slavery- is not the experience of a God who is near but of one who is distant and dispassionate. What is the cry of the abused and oppressed if not "Where is God now?" or "Is there a God at all?". Even once God has delivered the people of Israel and even as God is giving these very laws to Moses, the people's experience of God is still one of distance. This is the God who envelopes the mountain with smoke and storm and says that anyone who comes too close will die.  This is the God of whom the people essentially say to Moses "That's close enough! You speak to God for us!".

It is within this story of a God who is so tremendously and wholly other that this transcendent One begins to give instructions for how his house should be built. A house! A dwelling for God! A place where God's presence can reside with the people of Israel. Its not enough that God delivered this battered and abused slave nation.  Its not enough that God has covenanted with these people and promised to be their God and they be God's people.  Now God is going to shack up with them as well! And not even on some high mountain but in a tent right in the middle of Israel's camp that can go with them where they go. God is drawing up plans to be present right in the midst of God's people.

But the tabernacle is even more than that. It also is another step in God's rehabilitation project with these former slaves as God continues the work of transforming them into a free and holy people. I believe that is why instructions are so obsessive in their detail.  Although we are not told the explicit purpose or symbolic nature of every instruction, we are told that Moses was instructed to build everything according to the pattern he had seen on the mountain. This tabernacle was not to be modeled after temples of Egypt or any other culture or left up to the Israelite imagination which was still largely held captive by the realities of Egypt. The tabernacle was to be by God's instruction alone, every last a detail a reminder that this was not any God but the liberating God of the exodus who was dwelling with these people. The tabernacle itself was to become a means of converting Israel's imagination from the way of Pharaoh to the way of Yahweh.  Like stain-glass windows telling the story of Jesus for illiterate church-goers in the middle ages, the tabernacle would be a beautifully ornate and tangible picture of the God who had delivered them and continued to dwell with them.

In the first chapter of John's gospel, we hear that "the word became flesh and dwelt among us." The word translated as "dwelt" in this verse is the very same word used to describe God's dwelling in the tabernacle, the clear sense of John's words being that Jesus is now the place of God's "tabernacling" with    his people. Likewise, in Mark's gospel we see at Jesus' baptism that God's own Spirit descends upon and into Jesus in the form of a dove. Each of the gospels and Acts also tell us, each in their own way, that Jesus would also pour out this same Spirit on his followers. Paul goes so far as to call the Corinthians the "temple of God," the very place where God's Spirit dwells. And in his first epistle, Peter calls the churches of Asia Minor "living stones...being built up into a spiritual house." Hebrews describes Jesus as the pioneer of our faith who has opened up and new and living way for us into the holy of holies, that is, into the very presence of God.  And Revelation reaches the apex of its vision of new creation when it says that in the new Jerusalem there will be no temple because God has finally made his dwelling fully and completely, directly and unmediated with God's people for all eternity.

The consistent witness of scripture, even with its many voices and varied images, is that we serve a God whose goal throughout all of eternity has been and will be to dwell among us. The instructions for the tabernacle in Exodus remind us that this is no small thing. This is a holy God whose presence is not to be taken for granted. But we also believe that presence is no longer limited by tabernacle or temple. It was made available to us in the beautifully ornate and tangible presence of Jesus who helps us to re-imagine what is possible with God in this world and thereby shapes us into a people where the Spirit of God tabernacles until that day of new creation when we will dwell fully and completely in the presence of our liberating and tabernaling God.