After getting dumped by my latest "boyfriend," worrying relentlessly about my sister in med school, and suffering through FOUR fever blisters, I finally got my sermon written and delivered it this morning at First Baptist. Enjoy...
This is a tricky passage. Quite frankly this is a tricky chapter. We read earlier in the service the verses preceding those designated here by the lectionary. And the story tells us Israel is in trouble. But let’s go back a little further. In chapter 19, Moses went up on the mountain to receive the ten commandments, and in chapter 32 he returns back down to find the people that God led out of Egypt, the people God protected with clouds by day and fire by night, the people He brought through water safely, delivered from the Egyptians, and finally fed with food falling from the sky, Moses returns down the mountain to find the very same people who experienced all those things worshipping a fake cow built out of gold. Classy.
How quickly we forget what we have been given.
And how often we experience that same loss ourselves. We support our spouses through law school and then they leave us for their secretaries. We raise our children to the best of our ability even when we didn’t know what we were doing and in a fit of discontent, they drive out of our driveway and out of our lives. We give our money to an organization that we really believe in and respect, only to watch it be convicted of embezzlement. Or we love our churches only to discover that they too are filled with forgetful people who fight and split to start new churches not under the conviction of outreach, but under the influence of separatism and anger.
How quickly others forget how much we give them. And how quickly we too forget what we have been given.
Mortified at the naked prancing of his leaders around the idol fashioned out of bracelets and trinkets, aghast at the people bowing and chanting, praying and beseeching the oversized calf that three weeks earlier hadn’t even existed, Moses throws down the stones with God’s laws of love for the Israelites and stomps off to exchange words with his disobedient, forgetful people.
And God has a few things to tell them too.
In verse 3 of chapter 33 God says to the Israelites, “You go on up to the beautiful land that I have prepared for you. You go on up there you ungrateful people who I used to consider my own. But I’m not going. For if I were to go with you pompous, prideful people, I would become so angry I would destroy you.
Whoa. Quite a contrast from the “God is so good, God is so good…” that we sing in children’s choir. “I am so angry with you that were I to go with you, I would consume you,” God says. And the people get the message.
Realizing their folly at placing their trust in an object made of their own hands instead of in the love of a real and relational being, they rip their clothes, throw off what jewelry they were still wearing, and begin to weep and cry, mourning their loss.
All seems to be a lost cause. Yes, the people got out of Egypt, yes, they will have a beautiful, bountiful land to live in, but at what cost? They lost their God, their livelihood, their life.
But hope is not gone, for Moses puts aside his own initial anger and goes to talk with God.
“This nation is your people,” Moses reminds God. “How will anyone be able to tell that I and these people are yours if your presence is not with us? How will we be a distinct, unique nation, designed by your Hand if you take away your presence? Please God,” Moses pleads. “Please go with us.”
The people knew that without God’s presence they were lost. And they were at a loss as to how to get God to come back. But luckily for them, reminiscent of Abraham who pleaded with God on behalf of Sodom, their leader Moses pleads with God on behalf of them.
And God agrees. And God chooses to go with them.
Well, that’s one heck of a story, you may complain. What a fickle God to choose a people, deliver them, and then when the going gets tough, God gets going. Give me a break. Why did I give up my Sunday morning for this? Why would I want to participate in the worship of an inconsistent God like that?
And all of a sudden, we become just like the people in the story.
However what if the point of this chapter is not necessarily to tell us about God or God’s nature? At the time this chapter was written (which actually covers several hundred years because it is composed of three or more fragments of different stories pieced together by one author), but at that time 2700 years ago, the Israelites were still developing their theology of God, who God is, God’s nature, God’s relationship to people. The Old Testament reflects their developing theology. So I think this story may say less about who God is and more perhaps about who Moses is.
This is a story of a leader who saw the fickle nature of the people he had been given to lead, and instead of abandoning them in anger, he goes before the almighty God (who we know could have destroyed him with the blink of an eye) to argue their case.
And that is a beautiful story of leadership: a man who would put his own neck out on a limb for his people. Moses was afraid. In verse 12, he frets because he fears tackling the task of leading the people into the Promised Land alone. He tells God, “Hey, you haven’t sent anyone to go with me!” And he reiterates (perhaps to encourage himself even more than God), “I know you love me,” he says, “so please, go with me.”
And in the true form of a leader who loves his people, “and please God, go with them too.”
This story is a challenge for me. I’d imagine it is a challenge for every minister. I can’t imagine being the pope and having the pressure of being the priest of millions of people. I can’t imagine the daunting task of pleading their case before God. Fortunately though, I’m Baptist. And as Baptists, we have this beautiful little distinctive called “priesthood of the believer.” Now, this theology can mean several things. It affirms that an individual, you can read the Bible and interpret it for yourself using the brain God gave you. You don’t have to rely on a priest to tell you what the Bible says and what precisely it is supposed to mean. Priesthood of the believer also means that as a child of God, you can go to God whenever you want and wherever you want in prayer. You don’t need to rely on a priest to do it for you. You don’t have to go to the church, to the confessional and to the priest to talk to God. You have the authority as a child of God to pray to God in sorrow, anger, joy or confusion whenever and wherever you want. And priesthood of the believer then, allows you the privilege to petition God on behalf of your “people,” your community as well.
You are a lucky congregation. I’ve been here at this church for a whopping month and a half and in those 46 days, I’ve experienced many things. I’ve seen you rally together at only a moment’s notice to raise over $10,000 in one offering one Sunday to help victims of Katrina. I’ve watched you give up your Labor Day to gather and store items to ship off to evacuees of Katrina and then of Rita who we didn’t even know was coming. I’ve seen you get off of work to walk the neighborhoods of Austin to learn how FBC can better serve its community. I’ve seen you give up sleeping in on Sunday morning to teach or even just attend Sunday school, committed to your friends that you may only see once a week. I’ve seen you give up two Saturdays in a row to build Habitat houses. I’ve watched you open your checkbooks when you noted a need. I’ve seen you writing cards to those homebound or in the hospital. I’ve seen you offer your gifts of music, organization, economics, all your expertise and passions to help this community grow emotionally, worshipfully, exponentially, spiritually.
And I’ve seen some other things too. I’ve seen you bicker and argue and mumble under your breathe. But that’s nothing new. We are people living in community, and we get tired, haughty, distracted and forgetful of the love we’ve been given.
We can be so beautiful and we can be so blind.
You are lucky too, not only to be living with one another in a community who loves each other, but you have people that you have called to work full time as your leaders, and I want to tell you this morning that they love you very much. Roger, Louise, Dorothy, Kevin, and Doug are all committed to leading and loving you. Marshall, Ginger, Janet, Judy, Kathy, Jack and others are all committed to serving and loving you. And I want to affirm in you today that even though I have been here only a short while, your love overwhelms me, and I too am committed to serving, leading and loving you back. You are a lucky community and I think Moses would have been proud.
You see, I bet there are times when God looks over at us and thinks, “what in the world was I thinking loving a people like that?” Perhaps there are times when God wants to abandon you, me and us as a whole. It’s naïve to think that today we are doing so much right in our materialistic, individualistic world that we never disgust God.
But when we get off course we can take heart, for we have not only the pope and the priests and our pastors and ministers to intercede before God, but each other.
And because God loves us and is committed to his children, God’s presence goes with us.
I met with a man earlier this week who told me a story. He said that many years ago, he became involved in a lawsuit, the victim of someone who wanted to rake him over the coals, milk him for all he was worth. And he wasn’t worth much. In fact, he couldn’t even afford a lawyer. So he was going to defend himself. But the night before the trial, he ran into an old friend who happened to be a very affluent, effective and prestigious lawyer in the state of Texas. As they were talking, my friend asked his old friend for some advice on the case. The man replied, “Well, who’s your lawyer?”
“I haven’t got one.” my friend said.
“Well you do now.”
So the next day they were standing in court, my friend the defendant and his lawyer, and then the prosecuting lawyer and his client. The judge shuffled in, rustled around with some papers and finally looked up. His eyes opened wide when he saw the famous lawyer defending my friend. “Sir,” he said, “What is a man of your reputation doing working on a two-bit case like this?” And without batting an eye, the lawyer said, “Judge, I’m working pro-bono. I believe in this man and I believe in his case and I’m here to defend him.” Almost immediately, the prosecuting attorney began to move to dismiss the case because of the power this lawyer brought to the room. Later that night as my friend drove home his eyes welled up with tears as his thoughts turned from his generous lawyer friend who defended him to his Savior Jesus Christ who would one day stand beside him before an even greater judge to intercede on his behalf.
First Baptist, we are a people who need to continue interceding for each other and for the world around us. This world is hard, and we cannot combat it alone. We need to continue to be people petitioning God on behalf of each other and begging for God’s presence to remain with us. For it is not a budget or a building or a program or a pastor who will either ruin us or make us more, but a community of people interceding for each other and begging God to go with us.
And God is faithful, and so must we be.
On the front cover of your bulletin is an excerpt from a song by Lori Chaffer called Hush. I think the words and the story it tells is beautiful:
When you feel like the days just drone on and on
And you feel like the night’s so quickly gone
And on the inside you feel like your heart’s just gaping wide.
And on the inside you feel like no one’s on your side…I am.
I am. I am.
October 16, 2005
First Baptist Church Austin