While the Hebrews sat through the nine plagues – they had to have had a thought, at least a time or two, “What the heck?!” In a time span of 2 or 3 months up to a year max, the people had endured, along with the Egyptians, water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness – honestly, it sounds a little like our last 6 months, although ‘what the heck’ is assuredly the ‘G’ version of many of our comments.
As we consider the plight of the Hebrews during this time, we have to keep a couple of things in mind.
1. The Hebrews were slaves, subservients, and oppressed by the Egyptians.
2. The Hebrews were foreigners in the land of Egypt and treated as such. Even though they knew of no other home, they were still ‘away from their home.’
3. The Hebrews knew very little of their God. They were immersed in the gods of Egypt. To them, their God was a very distant being. Primarily, they knew enough about God to cry out to him when they had no one, and no where else, to cry out to.
4. Even before ‘The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them’ (Exodus 2:23-25). God had already heard and answered their cries, Moses, the answer to their cries, was already living in the Pharoah’s palace.
The Hebrews had suffered their own afflictions during the first nine plagues, plus more placed on them by a vindictive Pharoah, but they were spared the tenth plague, the plague of death. Following this plague, the Egyptians were ready for the Hebrews to leave.
The Hebrews had to have been in a state of wide eyes and wide open mouths as they left Egypt. The wonder of leaving, the wonder of freedom, the wonder of deliverance had to have been overwhelming and unfathomable. They looked ahead with excitement and back in shock.
Their eyes got a little wider, soon they were on the run. Pharoah was after them and they were in need of God again.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
God heard their cries and rescued them by parting the waters. Then they were hungry
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” they screamed. “We are hungry,” they complained.
God gave them food…for every day. Then they were thirsty,
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And, God gave them water.
Then, they had to battle Amalek and his people.
“What the Heck, God?” What the Heck, Moses?” They screamed.
And God gave Moses his staff, the staff that had turned the water, and now, he gave the people the mission of helping Moses hold up the staff during the battle.
God gave them victory.
God took a people who did not know him, therefore could not trust him, and he grew them up. He heard their cries, his rescue of them was in place before they recognized their need, he strengthened them in struggle, and along that way he introduced himself.
He taught little by little as they were ready to hear, ready to receive, ready to apply.
He did this as the lessons were appropriate, as the people were ready to hear. He said things through Moses like:
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.”
When our oldest son, Caleb, was around 3 years old, one afternoon he purposely threw a toy at his sister Grace, hitting her on the head. It hurt and as she was crying Caleb was asked if there is anything he wanted to say to his sister. Without a moments thought he looked at Grace and said, ‘Catch the ball next time Grace.’ We realized that question was probably not going to work with him so we switched the question to ‘Was that a good choice?’
It is a very simple question for a little person who was just learning about choices. Over the years since, we have asked that question in progressively more complex forms, as he grew in his maturity enough to consider the nuanced complexities. Those increasingly difficult questions were finalized a couple of weeks ago, when I, on the final time I would ask that question with any authority, asked ‘Do you take this woman….’
He was ready for that question, he was ready to answer.
God is working this way with the Hebrews, accepting them where they are and growing them up. They will not always be successful, they will not always listen, they will not always follow, regardless, God still starts where they are.
It all begins with us being honest before God, it is that same honesty through out our life that permits God to continue leading with us from where we are taking us where he needs us to be next.
Oddly, it was the honesty of the Hebrews before God that produced their complaining. They had no pretense before God, their complaining was truly honest.
That complaining place soon, after they learn and grow, will not be an honest place, however, right now, right there, it was.
Soon, they will understand their choices and God will begin asking, “Is that a good choice?”
Later, complaining is not going to be a good choice because it will not longer come from a place of honesty. The complaining will instead come from laziness, from self inflicted ignorance, from disobedience. It will no longer be honest.
But for now it is honest, for now this was an honest place for them to be, for now it was exactly where God was able to meet them.
This is the grace we spoke of last week, it is God’s ‘patience through the complaining’, it is a ‘multiple chances’ mindset, it is a ‘as long as you can be pursued, I will pursue’ determination of God, it is the honest state of the character and nature of God. It flows through God’s love and bathes us in his mercy as long as we are willing to be in the tub.
Thousands of years later, during the week of the cross, Jesus is in the Temple square teaching his followers and other interested bystanders. This was not an unusual situation, it was a very typical ordinary sight. After all, it was a very Holy Week. It was the week that many Jewish pilgrims would make their way to Jerusalem for the week long festival of Pesach, or Passover, commemorating the Jewish deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
The streets, and the Temple Square, were packed. Rabbis would be in the different areas of the square teaching there followers and others, just as Jesus was doing. However, the presence of Jesus was of particular interest on this day to everyone, including the High Priests and other religious leaders.
These leaders in Jerusalem, as opposed to the Pharisees and others leaders that we have seen conflict with Jesus up to this point, these leaders had a much more powerful responsibilities and authority. It would not have been uncommon for them to be listening to the various lectures being given by the teachers and rabbis, checking for accuracy and attempting to weed out any false teaching and heretics. They also had actually authority and power to confront and remove heretics if needed, in extreme cases they had the authority to discipline or turn over to the Roman government for punishment.
On this day, Jesus was teaching, and there was a lot of interest.
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The leaders asked Jesus.
Jesus heard their question, it was not a bad or inappropriate question to be asking, it was their job. The problem, however, was their heart. Jesus knew that this was not an honest question, they, in asking, were not being genuine. Their goal was not about authority, their goal was to discredit Jesus’ actions and words. Jesus answered their hearts instead of their words.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus, in looking at their dishonest hearts, knew that they wanted to get rid of this ‘Jesus Problem.’ He had entered the city to the cheers of the people, and when these leaders had requested that he calm the people down before they get out of control, Jesus’ response had been,
“If I quiet them then the rocks will start to scream and shake.”
Jesus was a problem, the leaders were hoping to squelch the problem right now. However, now their dishonesty was seen by Jesus. They had known that Jesus would ascribe his authority to the Father, and would back it up scripturally – however, they had also known that the crowd would be easy to manipulate. If the leaders could fashion their words just right, they could easily appear to be the ‘real spiritual authority’ to these ‘mindless’ followers of Jesus. The leaders, like many political and religious leaders before and after them, felt certain that a few key vague words and ambiguous accusations would easily manipulate the crowd. Which, by the end of the week, they did.
Now, however, Jesus saw their dishonesty, he answered their hearts not their manipulative words.
Jesus asked again “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The leaders huddled up. The usual deceitful tactics of calling Jesus a ‘liberal’ or saying that he ‘was not really Jewish’ were not going to work, at least not now. Jesus, in front of the crowd, had placed the leaders in a corner where their dishonesty was on display
This crowd still loved John the Baptizer and to say he was not from God would make the crowd upset. If they said that John’s authority was from God, they would be affirming the authority of Jesus.
It was a lose-lose situation. Either way, they were not going to walk away winners, and either way, they were going to walk away in a mess of trouble.
Finally, they dishonestly said, “We don’t know.”
To this, Jesus responds with a parable of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One of the sons says that he will work but does not, the other says that he will not work but does.
One had dishonestly said ‘yes’, the other had honestly answered ‘no’. The dishonest son was not pursuable, he had no intention to work, so he used deceptive words to hide his heart. The other had no intention to work, was honest about it, and then, was open to change. He was pursuable. He worked in the vineyard.
Jesus was comparing the religious leaders to the dishonest son. They knew God, they had the avenue to read the prophets, they had the ability to recognize Jesus. In accepting their roles as leaders they had said that they would look for the Messiah, now, when it was time to do the hard work, they rolled over and went back to sleep.
It was an odd comparison, the crowds probably didn’t realize what was happening except that it was uncomfortable, but these leaders did. They had made the choice to not be pursuable by God, so they rolled back over and looked for an easier way to rid themself of this ‘Jesus problem’.
God had listened to the hearts of the freed Hebrews as they entered the unknown and learned to relate to an unfamiliar God. God listened to the hearts of the religious leaders in the Temple Square. God listens to our hearts.
Midway between the Hebrews deliverance and the moment of Jesus in the temple, we have another applicable moment. Isaiah and Jeremiah were working to bring the people back to God before the destruction and exile took place. God called the religious practices of the people phony, he called their personal faith insincere, he called the religious establishment corrupt and in collusion with the politicians. He called them dishonest.
God listens to our hearts; God responds to the cries, our questions, our struggles; God takes our hearts where they are and, with our honesty, takes us to where we are ready to be. This is the outflow of love that carries God’s grace.
The constant question for us is –
What is your heart honestly screaming out to God?
In our epistle reading this week we returned to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church at Philippi had a special place in Paul’s heart, he had a special affinity for the the folks at Philippi. I will be honest, the manner in which he writes to this group has always been difficult for me to justify. He tells the church that they are to have the same love, the same mind, that they are to always agree – but then, at the same time he says to them ‘Work out your own salvation.’ It would seem that he was saying be the same and, recognize your personal individuality. He is calling the church to do two opposing things at the same time.
Be the same, and be different.
Aristotelian thought was very common at the time, it emphasized the importance of the whole, of the group. The processing of this train of thought was that the health of the group is more important that the views of the individual. So, if you thought differently than your group you were to acquiesce, to just accept the group think and rid yourself of your thoughts and views. This meant that if you had a problem with the thinking or actions of the group it was best to go along, if you struggled with something the group had made a definitive decision on you were to go along and not ever let the group know of your struggle, if you were to feel a need to stick with your views, if you needed to share about your struggles, if you couldn’t agree entirely with the group, you needed to leave the group if you couldn’t change.
This thought process has been mastered by the church, especially since the American evangelical movement begin in the 1940s. It was also having a potentially devastating impact on the church at Philippi. We will learn in chapter four that there is a battle going on within the church between two individuals. The rest of the church is being forced to take a side, to agree with one or the other of these disgruntled individuals. It was not permissible to be objective, you could only love both sides if it was conditional and at a distance.
So, Paul said ‘be of the same mind, be of the same love, agree.’
How was this a solution? It would seem to affirm their Aristotelian leanings! I was still struggling with this as I woke up this morning.
Then, we found that our Presidential campaign sign had been removed from our yard overnight. As we went out to look, we saw that everyone who was supporting the same candidate as us was also missing their campaign signs. Our street is a political anomaly for Oklahoma, our yard signs consistently support the ultimate loser of the race.
In many ways, Norman as a whole has that reputation. We are, at least, more diverse as a population than most of the state.
That is not to say we don’t disagree. This past year this has become obvious as a group has made a very strong backdoor effort to take control and change our city codes, our education system, and more. This group has used the word ‘unite’ for their identity. However, as they have progressed their ‘unite’ has not been very unifying. As I considered our missing sign, the evidence that it was a problem for someone that our opinion was different that their opinion, God brought Paul’s plea to the Philippians to my mind and my heart. Paul was not saying they all had to be the same, but that the core of their thinking, the strength of their love, their fellowship, their mercy, their compassion was to be the same regardless of their own particular journey of salvation. Christ was their center, their journey was guided by him. It would not always look the same however.
When our political agenda, our economic strategies, our income, our education, our money, our poverty, our individual journeys begins to divide us within our faith – when we easily accept someone called a ‘liberal’ as bad, a ‘radical’ as too extreme, oddly, both of these words were used to describe Jesus, when we quickly accept, we have left Jesus for the group.
The church is called to called to be a place where individuals can be honest with each other and honest before God. Not judged or condemmed. The church is called to be a place where everyone is permitted their honest struggles and questions. If people cannot be honest the church can never encourage each person in their salvation journey.
Paul, said that if we can grasp this Godly form of unity, of honesty, we will show your love for each other. You will be united in your goals and in the way you think.You will not let selfishness or pride be your guide. You will be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. You will not be interested only in your own life, but you will care about the lives of others too.
It is a picture of a people who love God and others, all others. It is a people who are honest before God.