Fences: Do They Keep Good Things In, or Bad Things Out?

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Do fences keep good things in or bad things out? I guess this might depend on your disposition—similar to are you a glass half-full person, or a glass half-empty person. When we need the girls to go down for a nap, sometimes Becca and I load the girls into the car and we go for a drive. I like to drive on the interstate, the high speeds and my talk radio work like a sedative. Becca likes to drive around the neighborhood or go along country roads—the scenery is better I guess. But when going down those scenic roads, we see plenty of fences. Are these fences protecting the cows inside from us, or are these simply there to keep the cows from walking onto the road?

Boundaries are ever-present. Who here had boundaries of where they could play as a kid? (Mine was stay on our street.) Who here had a curfew when they got old enough to venture beyond the street you lived on? Did you like it? Did you understand it?

Now, as a parent, I realize that rules and boundaries are not necessarily given to be harsh; rules are given to protect. Here are the rules of the house, obey them, and you may do anything you want. But of course the presence of rules means that there are limits to what we can do as well. “Stay on the street” meant that I could visit anyone’s house I wanted on the street. But when I met people at school who lived not on my street, I was not free to go visit them. I had to ask permission to go to their house (and normally I needed a ride too). But if I didn’t get permission, I didn’t get to go and had to figure out what I was going to do on my street—within my boundaries, where I had freedom to do anything.

Now in our story of the Israelites, they have reached the foot of Mount Sinai. They are now a free people. They are no longer being chased by Pharaoh, and can come and go as they please. The problem is that these people have left everything and followed God, and here at the foot of the mountain, they have no official place to call their own. So God is going to fix that. But first he is going to test them.

But in order to do this there are multiple steps that need to happen first.
1) Establish Authority
2) Establish Rules
3) Establish Consequences

God is establishing the street on which they are to stay and letting them know what happens if they leave the street– fairly straight forward. They do not have a relationship of trust with God, so they need to first understand the power of God, the rules, and that he means what he says.
1) Establish Authority (Fear and Awe)—Exodus 19:16
Preparation beforehand—19:10-13
Mystery and anticipation—19:17-20
2) Establish Rules
Set posts in ground for immovable border (10 Commandments)—20:2-17
Set planks across for visual boundary—Chapters 21-23
First set of laws is about worship
Next is about slaves – the impermanence of slavery (when to release)
How to deal with propertyfestivals
About being one peopleeach person has a dignity inherent in their being a chosen person of Israel, and each has a placement in God’s plan.
These planks show them that.
3) Establish Consequences
Define consequence—23:21
Remind of Power—23:25-28
Establish Veracity (that He means business)—23:32-24:8

Make Permanent
They bind themselves to God—24:3
It is sealed in blood (on the altar and on the people)—24:6-8

Now the Israelites have voluntarily joined God, he is their God and they are his people. Now they have access to God—he has made them a kingdom of priests—they are undoing the sin of Adam and are again able to dine in the presence of God on his Holy Mountain. This is exactly what God has wanted from the moment of creation—to be with his people and to dine with them eternally in the heavenly banquet.

This intimate encounter is so important to God that when they break the covenant (we all know the story), God does not squash them, rather he gathers them back, chastises them, and then gives them more commandments, building a better fence—sealing up the holes. But the Israelites break through the boundaries often—so often that by the time of the Prophet Ezekiel, God admits that he “gave them statutes that were not good and by which they could not have life.” God was so desperate to keep them within his covenant where he could encounter them that he has now set up razor wire and electrified the whole thing.

This goes back to when I was a child, when I broke the street rule, after my punishment, my area was tightened—the “fence” was reinforced by limiting my ability to go near it. This is most evident when I began to drive. First I could only use to car for school and work. Then, if I persisted, the car was taken away. Finally, if that didn’t work, I was grounded to my room. The more I rebelled, the more the boundaries closed in on me. But that is not what my parents wanted for me—for my boundaries to suffocate who I am by limiting my movement—but that is what I needed to stay in their good graces.

When the people committed to the covenant by having the blood sprinkled on them, they limited their freedom to choose whatever god them wanted—they married Yahweh that day (more on this after Easter). They said, “Your fences are our fences. Your boundaries are our boundaries.” They saw what was required of them and they liked the benefits, so they signed up and committed themselves.

Beloved, we have also linked ourselves through covenant to God, through our Baptism into the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. In fact, we are about to experience his sacrifice yet again as we go through Holy Week to Easter. So how do you view your fences? We have said to God, “All that you have said we will do,” and in doing so, we have set ourselves within his boundaries that we may encounter him as well. And luckily for us all the razor wire and electricity have been removed because we are not imprisoned by a tyrant, but we are lovingly welcomed into the home of the Father.

So I ask you again, do fences keep good things in, or bad things out?

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

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2015 Lenten Speaker Series – 5 Methods of Prayer – Week 5: Benedictine Method

Fr. Stuart Smith comes and speaks to us for our final installment of the 2015 Lenten Speaker Series. This series is based on the book Prayer and Temperment by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey

Lent 5 – Miracles: Does Your Faith Need Them?

In the name of the F, S, and Hs.

When God provides a miracle, decisions must be made.

The first thing that happens after Pharaoh releases the Israelites is God comes down in the pillar of cloud and fire. During the day, the Israelites, even the ones in the back, knew exactly where they were supposed to go. And when they stopped for the night, they could see the fire burning and knew that was where they were supposed to be.

We see this played out more fully in the book of Numbers. When they camped out, the Tabernacle was always set up in the middle of camp. In the midst of the Tabernacle was that pillar of cloud and fire. So from a distance, you always knew exactly where the Tabernacle was. Around the Tabernacle the various tribes camped—each tribe always in the same place in relation to the Tabernacle. Some were north, some south, some east, some west. Within in each tribe camp, each family had their own spot—again, always the same. So from a distance, you could always find your way because all you had to do was locate the pillar of cloud and fire and then you knew how to navigate your way home.

Now before we advance the story, we must discover one more aspect of this pillar of cloud and fire. In Judges 2 we witness the angel of the Lord say this to the people of Israel: “I brought you up from the Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers…” “I brought you up” but who did they follow? The pillar of cloud and fire. So this pillar of cloud and fire is none other than the angel of the Lord.

Just another bit to blow your mind: The angel of the Lord is mentioned many times in the Bible, always as THE Angel of the Lord, and always in the OT, and doesn’t appear again after Jesus comes on the scene. The angel of the Lord appears in the burning bush to Moses. The Angel of the Lord also comes to Gideon, after which Gideon cries: “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” God then says to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” So The Angel of the Lord is God.

And one last one to affirm his identity: when Samson’s parents see The Angel of the Lord, Manoah, Samson’s father asks him, “What is your name so we may honor you?” The Angel of the Lord asks, “Why do you ask my name, seeing as it is wonderful?” The reference in my bible then points to Isaiah 9:6, a very familiar Christmas passage: “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given…and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The pillar of cloud and fire is the Angel of the Lord who is none other than the Pre-Incarnate Christ.

So now that we have that established, we can move on with the show. The Israelites have been released after 430 years of slavery, and they don’t know the land. But luckily God is present with them to lead them where he wants them to go. The first thing they do is try to wonder into danger. They tried to take the pretty route by the Mediterranean Sea. But, problem: The Philistines also enjoy the view, and they are way too powerful for this random rabble to overpower. So God leads them a different way—towards the Red Sea.
Three days passed, and when the Israelites did not return from the wilderness, like the original plan (which became void when Pharaoh’s heart became hard), Pharaoh becomes enraged. He flies after the Israelites with his fastest chariots and his army. Two days later, Pharaoh and his army catch up to the Israelites.
When the crowd sees the Egyptians in the distance, they become afraid. (Let alone the fact that God has just bested these Egyptians and their gods not even a week ago, but out of sight out of mind.) They begin to grumble to Moses: “Is this because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?”

But Moses has been down this path before. He has been up against insurmountable odds before and prevailed. He says to the people: “Fear Not. The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent.” Then Moses turns to God for the answer as to how they are going to get out of this.

God says to Moses, “Lift up your staff, and stretch your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through on dry ground. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”

And then to protect the Israelites, the Angel of God (the Pre-Incarnate Christ) moved from the front to the back, and as he went so did the pillar of cloud and fire. So now the pillar of cloud and fire has gone from guide to defender, from lighting the way to darkening the path. And from the midst of that barrier, Moses stretched out his hand as God directed him, and the Lord drove back the sea by a strong east wind all night.
While not as dramatic as Cecil B. Demille’s version, with Charleston Heston standing on the cliff and crying, “Behold his mighty hand!” and the dramatic music with all the brass as the wind kicks up and immediately blows the sea apart; the biblical version speaks of a deeper meaning. It is night as the east wind blows, separating the waters from the waters, and by day, the land has come forth out of the waters. We are meant here to recall God creating the world. God is making a new creation of these people as he delivers them.
We also see a foreshadowing of Baptism. As they proceed into the water (or where the water was supposed to be), they walk through the waters of death lead by the pillar of cloud and fire—by Christ—and emerge on the other side God’s new creation.

And while the parting of the waters was not cinematic gold, the restoration of the waters would do any movie-goer proud. After the people of Israel reach the other side, what was once dry, solid ground, all of the sudden begins to become sodden muddy ground. The ground becomes saturated to the point of becoming quicksand and bogging down the Egyptians’ chariots. And the Lord commands Moses to stretch his hand over the water again and the waters came rushing back to their normal course, covering the chariots and horsemen and all that had followed the Israelites into the Sea. (Notice here: not all of them drowned. When God applied the pressure, as he did with Pharaoh in the plagues, some of them had goodness and did not pursue into the waters, and they were spared. God is not a merciless killing machine.)

Now one would expect that upon witnessing their miraculous deliverance from the plagues, and now their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians, that the Israelites would fall lock-step into following God. How many of us, in the quietness of our own bedrooms, have not asked for God to show Himself in a similar manner? But Jesus in the Gospels shows us that miracles do not produce the depth of faith that one would expect. Miracles without the prerequisite of faith only bring about the desire to see more miracles. The miracles become the thing which is worshipped and not God who causes the miracles to occur. And this is no different here in Exodus.

Though the Israelites emerge from the Red Sea singing praises to Moses and God who delivered them, as soon as the tune dies from their lips, grumbling returns again. On the other side of the Red Sea is the wilderness of Shur. Now I was a Boy Scout and went on many a camping trip into the wilderness. When I think wilderness, I think forests. But that is not the wilderness that the Israelites experienced—they wilderness they experienced was the blazing desert. So of course the first thing they begin to grumble about is their thirst. Then finally they do come to water—which could not be drunk.

So they again ask for a miracle, and again they receive their miracle. God tells Moses to take a log and throw it into the water, and it was made drinkable. Then God lets them know, miracle without belief only lead to death. “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord your healer.” Then they came to Elim—an oasis with plenty enough for all 2 million people to drink and they camped there.

But with all the miracles they witness, these Israelites find it hard to trust God—they only desire more miracles. In the desert there are three main things that are going to get you: thirst, hunger, and nature. As each of these are dealt with by God, all the Israelites do is complain. They are hungry—God gives them quail for meat and Manna for their daily bread. This substance was so unique that the Israelites did not have a word for it. Manna means “What is it?” They were again thirsty so God brings forth water from the rock at Horeb. And they needed protection from Amalek and his raiding party. So God miraculously delivers them from the Amalekites. But they don’t connect the miracles to the God behind them.

Jesus deals with a similar people many years later. He performs many miracles in their sight, but each time the masses only require that he produce more miracles. In John, chapter 6, right after Jesus feeds the 5,000, then next day, Jesus encounters the people again. Jesus says to these people, “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs (that he was the Messiah), but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

They said to him, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Then the people said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus then said to them, “Truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”

Miracles are designed to point to the originator of the miracle. God sent the Israelites everything they needed except the one thing they had to supply for themselves—faith. He did not ask that they understood, but that they trust. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark, it is trust in the previous experience in the relationship and the knowledge that that will continue into the unknown future. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark but a reasoned desire to follow the cloud of pillar and fire even though it may lead into a wilderness that you have never before been.

But God does not leave them in their ignorance and lack of faith, but he leads them to Mount Sinai where he will make himself known to them and give them direction and purpose in life. So as they see the foot of the mountain, we leave them, wondering if they will finally see beyond themselves to the God who wants to establish a relationship with them. And as we leave the Israelites we place ourselves there as well and ask ourselves the question: “Are we here seeking what God can give us—the miracles he can provide—or are we seeking past the miracles to a deeper relationship with the God who provides that bread from heaven?”
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

2015 Lenten Speaker Series – 5 Methods of Prayer – Week 4: Thomistic Method

Fr. Chris Guptill comes and speaks to us for our fourth installment of the 2015 Lenten Speaker Series. This series is based on the book Prayer and Temperament by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey

Lent 4 Sermon – Passover- Moses Started It, Jesus Finished It

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen
On the night that Jesus was to be betrayed, he needed a safe place to have the feast of the Passover. Why did it need to be so secretive? Because Judas had already been to the chief priests and betrayed Jesus, and he was now looking for an opportunity to tell the guards where to find him. But it is imperative that Jesus celebrates this feast with his disciples, so he sets up a sign: “Seek a man carrying a water jar, and he will show you where we are to have our feast.” A man carrying a jar of water would stand out like a sore thumb, because men did not carry water—that was a woman’s job. So no one but Jesus knows where the feast is to take place. And when he sends his disciples to find the man, this man more than likely brings them to the house of John Mark (the author of the Gospel of Mark), who was just a boy at the time.

When they arrive, they are lead into the house and up to the upper room where the feast is already laid out. They enter in darkness. Then Mary, Mark’s mother, lights the candles to symbolize the beginning of the festival, and everyone is seated. A cup of wine is poured, and Jesus raises his cup and blesses it. This first cup symbolizes the sanctification (the setting apart) of the Israelite people, for God heard the pleas of his people and saw fit to deliver them from this bondage—a first step in God setting them apart as his first-born.

After drinking this first cup, Jesus stands and removes his outer garments, and takes a towel and ties it around his waist. Then he poured water in a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet. When it was Peter’s turn, he stopped Jesus: “You wash my feet?” This question was normally asked by the children, but the custom was for each person to wash their hands at this point in the meal, not their feet. The washing of the hands is a ceremonial act done “unexpectedly” at this point in the meal (which was different from the norm) to cause children to ask questions that the nature of the meal may be revealed.

Next a bit of parsley or some sort is passed around. (Parsley is especially significant since it looks similar to the hyssop used to paint the blood on the lintel and door posts prior to the actual Passing over of the angel of death for the 10th Plague. These herbs must be dipped in salt water prior to eating, this is to remind them of the fact that they are free, and being free may eat appetizers before their meal begins. But they dip their appetizer in salt water first, and as they shake the salt water from the leaves, little tears can be seen falling from the morsel, reminding them that this state of leisure was not always the case, for they were once in slavery.

Then Jesus picks up three pieces of matza bread—this is the bread of affliction, signifying the bread their forefathers ate as slaves in the land of Egypt. The three pieces of bread came to signify the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And then in the sight of all, Jesus takes the middle piece and breaks it in half. It is highly significant that it is the Isaac piece that is broken—always the Isaac piece, because Jesus as the Second Isaac will be the sacrifice offered for the covenant between God and his people that will result in the salvation of all.

This broken piece becomes what is called the “Afikomen.” This tradition has been in place since the Second Temple times (beginning when the Jews came back from Exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem beginning in 530 BC). The word “afikomen” in Greek means “he is coming” and has definite messianic overtones. Jesus takes that half of that Isaac piece and hides it.

Now John Mark, being the youngest, asks the question: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” Jesus then tells young Mark the story of the Exodus.

(For our sake, we will pick up the story with the tenth plague) The Lord said to Moses, “Start a new calendar, for this is now the first month of the year for you. You and your people are about to be reborn. You have a new beginning, and from here on out, you will mark the calendar. You are in 0 AE (after Exodus). Each year after this you will hold a feast to commemorate the event that will happen this evening.

Tonight, (the 10th of the month) I want you to select a lamb without blemish, and bring it into your house until the 14th of this month when you shall slaughter this lamb at twilight. They shall take some of the blood from that lamb and with hyssop (a sturdy herb that was bitter to the taste, and could withstand the act of being used as a paintbrush), paint the blood on the two door posts and the lintel of their homes. This shall be a sign to the Lord, who will see the blood of the lamb and pass over your house, not allowing the angel of death into your house to destroy you.

For tonight, at midnight, the angel of death will strike down all of the firstborn of the land of Egypt, both man and beast. You will eat this feast of lamb hastily, with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, because after the angel of death visits Egypt, they will release my people.

Now when I think of passing over something, I think of the angel of death seeing the blood and simply skipping over the house and moving on to the next. But that is not the image here. The image here is God releasing the angel of death and God going before the angel to the houses with the blood on the door and himself entering in and covering the household, shielding them from the angel of death. The blood is not a distracting image but an inviting image of the Lord’s protection over his people.

(The same will be true of the blood of the sacrifice of the New Covenant accomplished on the Cross as well. The blood of that covenant is painted on the soul of each person baptized into the death of Jesus, encompassing them so that death may not touch them.)

As midnight hits, instantly, the plague is enacted, and the firstborn of all Egypt not covered in the blood of the Passover sacrifice are killed. And we are given a glimpse into the house of the man whose hardness of heart caused this plague to happen in the land—Pharaoh. Pharaoh fells the slightest bit of wind cross his face in his sleep, but it is enough to wake him. He knows that this is the night of which Moses warned him. So he goes to check on his son. And as he does so, he notices that the breath of life is no longer within his son. And in that moment, he knows who God is, and he is scared. A great wail leaves his lips and is joined by the lament of all of Egypt as they too witness the same scene played out in their own homes.

Stricken with grief, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron, and tells them, finally, “Up, go out from my among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. You’re your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone. And bless me also.”

Word spread quickly of their release, and as they left, the inhabitants of Egypt looked around and saw all the death around them and saw that the land inhabited by the Israelites was left free from damage, and the Egyptians did all in their power to speed the Israelites on their way, giving them anything they needed to hasten their departure, even including their gold and silver. Thus, as it had been prophesied long ago, the people of Israel plundered the Egyptians as they left.
That night as all Israel gathered in Succoth to depart, all 2 million people (600,000 men on foot, but also including women and children, along with the elderly—those not on foot). Before setting off for the land promised to Abraham so long ago, they consecrated their firstborn, both man and beast, setting them apart for God’s use. And there, they formally declared the institution of the feast of the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. “And when in time to come, your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, “By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
When Jesus concluded the story, He and his disciples again wash their hands, and then the bottom piece of matzoth is blessed and broken and eaten by all. Then bitter herbs (like horseradish) are eaten by all, and as the tears welled up in their eyes, they experience the affliction of slavery. Now was time to eat the actual lamb sacrificed for the Passover.

After the meal, a child (Mark), was sent to find the Afikomen. When it was found and Mark was rewarded for his actions, this bread is normally blessed, broken, and distributed to all, but this time this bread representing the Messiah had a different meaning. This time, as Jesus passed out the bread, he said to his disciples: “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

This is bread we eat each week. This Messiah bread, the bread of Isaac, now finds its ultimate fulfillment as Jesus turns it into his Body. The bread is broken as his body is about to be broken on the hard wood of the cross for the salvation of all—just as Abraham was expecting the sacrifice of Isaac would accomplish.
Then Jesus takes the next cup, the Cup of Blessing—the cup that looked forward to the days of the Messiah. Jesus takes this cup, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples to drink, and as he did so, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
After drinking this cup, Jesus and his disciples sing the hallel psalms (psalms that are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for divine redemption), specifically Psalm 118, and head out the door. Now some of you have been to a Seder dinner. You are supposed to drink one more cup of wine, have the empty seat for Elijah, to see if the Messiah is coming, and then (when he doesn’t) you say, “Next year in Jerusalem” (in hopes of fellowship with the Messiah in His kingdom as soon as next year) and end the meal.

But that is not what happens here. Jesus extends the meal but not drinking the final fourth cup. He heads out to Gethsemane to pray that “this cup” pass me. “This cup” the fourth cup of the Passover meal known as the “Cup of Restoration”. This is the cup that will result in all humanity being restored to the Father by the forgiveness of their sins. And it is this cup that will require Jesus’ death.

But when does he drink this cup? On the Cross. In Matthew, Jesus drinks the wine, and then everyone waits to see if Elijah is going to come. And then Jesus cries with a loud voice (we learn from John’s Gospel that he says, “It is finished”) and then he gives up his spirit. Now the Passover meal is complete. This is why the feast of the Passover had to happen, because Jesus was going to celebrate it and in the midst of it fulfill the purpose of the original Passover, and extend it to all of humanity.

Beloved, Think of all this as we head continue through Lent and into Holy Week and finally Easter. Jesus took an act that we remembered by the Israelite people as one of the greatest in their long history, and made it even better. He showed his disciples and us, that the Passover was a foreshadowing of a new Exodus that was to happen after his own sacrifice of himself. Now that blood invites the Lord to cover us as well, allowing us to be saved from death as well.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

2015 Lenten Speaker Series – 5 Methods of Prayer – Week 3: Ignatian Method

Fr. David Klein comes and speaks to us for our third installment of the 2015 Lenten Speaker Series. This series is based on the book Prayer and Temperment by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey.

Lent 3 Sermon – The Divine Battle Royal

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

These are words that Moses speaks to the people in Deuteronomy before they inherit the Promised Land. These are the words of wisdom that are the result of 40 years of following God faithfully, for Moses knows that God always gives us a choice and it is up to us to make the decision to choose life and blessing.

But that was not always clear to Moses—it was not always so black and white for him. Back in Exodus where we last encountered Moses, the decision he so easily lays before his people in Deuteronomy, took much more deliberation on his part. We last encountered Moses at the burning bush where God revealed himself to Moses with his divine name—I AM.

God then says to Moses, “Go gather my people and tell them I will bring them out of the affliction of Egypt and place them in a land flowing with milk and honey.” “Tell Pharaoh, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ But he will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.”

Moses is hesitant. He says to God, “What if these people do not believe me?”

God says to Moses, “See that staff in your hand—that shepherd’s crook? Throw it on the ground.” And Moses throws it on the ground, and suddenly it becomes wavy, and as he follows its length with his eyes, it becomes a giant cobra!! And Moses runs from it. But God says, “Catch it by the tail”—so Moses catches it by the tail, and it returns to being the staff in his hand.

As Moses stands there in shock, God says to him, “Now put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses puts his hand inside his cloak, and when he pulls it out, his hand is white as snow—full of leprosy! “Ahhhhhhhh!” Then when Moses calms down, God says, “Now put your hand back in your cloak.” And this time when he pulls out his hand it is restored back to his own flesh. “Whew!”

And Moses has to sit down on a nearby rock. And as he is steadying himself, God says to him, “And if they still will not believe these two sign or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on dry ground, and that water will become blood on the dry ground.”

At this point, Moses is terrified. He is still not clear as to whether or not he is up to the task, so he says to God, “I am not eloquent. I am slow of speech and of tongue.” But God would have none of it, Moses is his guy. “I will be your mouth,” says God, “I will teach you what to say.”

Moses: “Please send someone else.” This upset God, but he would not let Moses go so easily, so he includes Moses brother Aaron: “I know he can speak well.” Now we have a divine game of telephone: God speaks to Moses, and Moses speaks to Aaron, and Aaron speaks to Pharaoh, but Moses says yes—finally.

So Moses goes leaves the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, and goes to Egypt and gathers his brother Aaron and the two of them go to Pharaoh and to tell him what God said. “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”

Pharaoh says, “No. In fact, if your people have all this free time to talk with God, maybe they are not working hard enough. I’ll fix that.” And Pharaoh turns to his chief and says, “Tell the task masters not to give the people any straw to make their bricks, but do not reduce the number required.” (Straw was a binding and strengthening agent that also allowed the brick made of river clay to dry faster. Bricks made without straw would break and crumble more easily.)

Then after their very unsuccessful meeting with Pharaoh, where not only are the people not released to come worship God in the wilderness, but now their lives have just become monumentally harder, Moses turns to the God. “Why have you done this evil to the people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” (Moses thought this was going to be an easy task.)

But God says to Moses, “Go back and speak to Pharaoh. He had his chance to do things the easy way, but now, I will harden his heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people and my children, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”

Hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not God preventing Pharaoh from letting the people go against Pharaoh’s wishes. The word to harden in Hebrew is chazaq, which is like if a towel falls in the pool, and to dry the towel, you and I grab a side and we twist and as the towel becomes tighter and tighter, more and more of the water inside the towel comes outside. This is what is going on here. God is not preventing Pharaoh from doing something he wants to do so that God may make a point; God is applying pressure to Pharaoh, so that what is on the inside may come out.

So Moses and Aaron go back to Pharaoh. Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “You have got a lot of nerve. Prove yourselves by working a miracle.” So Aaron lays down his staff and it becomes a cobra, just like Moses’ staff had by the burning bush. (Why do I know that it was a cobra? Because the emblem of kingship in Egypt. It had to be a cobra.) Pharaoh is impressed, but he calls in his magicians and through their secret arts, they too were able to turn their staffs into serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs—a brief glimpse of what is to come.

Now Pharaoh will have a decision to make: will he pay attention to this simple sign, or will he harden his heart toward the God of the Hebrews and go against his wishes? It would have been a much shorter story had Pharaoh listened to reason, but he does indeed harden his heart and now the stage is set for a battle royal between the God of the Hebrews and the entire Egyptian pantheon.

Battle one: God versus the God of the Nile – Hopi. Every year the Nile flooded and when it flooded it brought precious silt which filled the land, causing it to be very fertile, such that Egypt almost always blessed with abundant crops—brought to them by the God Hopi. And to assert his dominance over this god, God attacks the Nile—resulting in Hopi being “slain” and the River Nile turning to blood.

Again Pharaoh turns to his magicians for an explanation, and they too can turn water into blood. They cannot undo it, which presents a problem, because not only did the water of the Nile turn to blood, but the fish all died and the water stank of death so that it was not drinkable. And to top it off, even the water in “vessels of wood and vessels of stone” were contaminated. The people were forced to dig beside the River so that the soil could filter out the death that they may drink. But this is enough for Pharaoh to continue in his farce that he is more powerful than God.

Battle two: God versus the fertility God—Heqet. Every year, after the flood waters had receded, pools of water were left behind and in these shallow pools, frogs would lay their eggs, resulting in the next generation of frogs. So when the farmers would come out at night and hear the sound of frogs calling in the night, the farmers would know that now it was safe to plant their crops. This is why Heqet is associated with fertility and with the frog specifically. So God attacks this God by sending his own plague of frogs. Now, the god is proven to be powerless because his area of influence has gotten way out of control—it is way overly fertile. The frogs are not only in the Nile, but also in their houses, in their bedrooms, in their ovens, and even in their kneading bowls. It seems that one cannot take a step without stepping on a frog.

And Pharaoh turns again to his magicians. And again, they make frogs appear just as Moses and Aaron had done. But Pharaoh looks at his magicians and says, “What do I need with more frogs?!” So Pharaoh pleads with Moses and Aaron to take away the frogs. “Take away the frogs, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” But when Pharaoh was no longer stepping on frogs with every step, he hardened his heart, and would not let the people go.

Battle three: God versus the God of the earth—Geb. In the land of Egypt, I am told a very fine dust covers everything, and it has for a very long time. In fact, it is a documented fact that ancient Egyptians had numerous dental problems, including the fact that their teeth are typically worn such that they no longer meet. This is due, in part, to this ubiquitous grit that even makes its way into their bread and slowly filing down their teeth with every bite they took. And God tells Moses and Aaron, “Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.” And with that, this omnipresent dust becomes gnats.

A fourth time Pharaoh turns to his magicians, but this time they cannot copy the plague of God. Instead, they turned to Pharaoh and said, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh hardened his heart—what was inside came outside, and Pharaoh showed himself to be a very prideful man, too proud to admit defeat even with his gods being shown impudent, and his own magicians decrying God’s power. Round one goes to God and Moses.
Two more rounds go by with a similar defeat though with each passing plague the results are compounded. And each time one of his gods is bested, Pharaoh consents to allow more and more of the population to go sacrifice to God, but as soon as the plague lets up, Pharaoh hardens his heart all the more.

Finally, the contest must end and Moses threatens one more plague which will result in the death of the firstborn of all in Egypt. But “not a dog will growl against any of the people of Israel.” Moses warns Pharaoh of this very early, with plenty of time to see the light and to let the people go, but by this time, he is so dug in against God that it will take this final plague to make him see clearly.

But as Moses lays out to his people forty years later, each person has the choice to choose life or to choose death. God cannot force someone to choose life, and this is a hard truth that we encounter ever day. Everyone has the choice before them and sometimes choosing life isn’t the easiest task, because there will be consequences, but the choice remains: life or death—blessing or curse. But the result of choosing life is always dwelling with God in the land which he calls us to inhabit, and choosing death result in remaining alone. Sometimes it just takes the wisdom of a lifetime with God to see it so black and white.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.