Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Meantime: The Mountain's Getting Closer...

This week we are going slightly off lectionary in our Exodus journey to include a passage that is not part of the lectionary readings: Exodus 18:13-27, which you can read here. Our epistle and gospel readings will be from the lectionary--Philippians 2:1-13 (a passage, in my opinion, that you can never read enough!) and Matthew 21:23-32, which can be found here.

When God commissioned Moses from the burning bush, God made Moses a promise: "This shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you," God said to Moses: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). God made it clear even before Moses' mission to be God's agent of liberation began that their voyage out of Egypt and towards the land of promise would include a return to this place where Moses first met God, where God made God's self known as the hearer of the oppressed and the great I AM. It has been a long road back to the mountain, but by Exodus 17 and 18, Sinai--the mountain of God's presence, of God's promise--is just beginning to take shape in front of them. Something big is on the horizon, literally and metaphorically.

Like any long trip, however, the last few minutes can seem neverending, making you feel like that destination cannot come quickly enough and, in fact, may not get here at all. At the beginning of Exodus 17, there is another water shortage, and quarreling breaks out among the people yet again and leads Moses to cry out in exasperation--if Moses were an overwrought mother, it is at this point that I could hear him yell something like, "Don't you MAKE me pull this car over and separate you all!"

The water need is addressed yet again by a God who apparently handles roadtrips with exceptional patience and grace. As soon as they've all been refreshed, though, comes a bigger problem: the Israelites face their first attack, by the Amalekites. Here we get a glimpse of the future as Joshua--who will take over leadership of the people when Moses no longer can lead--steps into his first starring role. Yet Moses remains integral to the battle--amazingly, it is only as long as he holds up his staff--the staff that parted the waters and brought water from the rock--that the Israelites find themselves ahead in the battle. When his arms grow tired and begin to sag, others hold up his arms for him, keeping his arms "steady until the sun set" (I love this image from Exodus 17:12).

And so, many challenges must be overcome before the people can set up camp at the base of the mountain and come to that much anticipated place of worshipful encounter with God. Yet, in the beginning of Exodus 18 we find that before they can climb the mountain the Israelites have one more thing to accomplish: reunion and reconciliation with some of their estranged family, the Midianites. Moses now sees his father-in-law Jethro, wife, and two children for the first time since he returned to Egypt, and these branches of the family tree of God's people are reunited in worship and fellowship and peace. God's family, at least symbolically, is coming to the foot of Mt. Sinai more whole than they have been since Cain turned on Abel, Ishmael was cast out, and Jacob deceived Esau. In this reunion, the way is opened for Jethro to be an unlikely but important voice in shaping Israel's future (which we will talk about in our text this Sunday).

Fighting and reconciliation--these are the movements through which God's people move as the mountain grows closer in their sight. Will these experiences of anger, violence, and then restoration make the children of Israel ready to hear God's words from that hill and learn what it is they truly left Egypt for?

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