09/03/17 – Promise, Commission, Assurance

Promise, Commission, Assurance

September 3, 2017
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:2-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Following our lectionary cycle for this year, we’ve skipped over a few chapters of Moses’ life.  Moses was first introduced at the beginning of Exodus as a baby found in a basket floating among the reeds in the Nile River. The Hebrew slave child was rescued from death by the Pharaoh’s decree that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed. Even though the Hebrews had come as immigrants to Egypt many generations before, they became convenient scapegoats for the Pharaoh. This is the role immigrants have played in society throughout history. His own failures as leader of that powerful nation and the high cost of monuments to his own ego had led to the economic, social and political circumstances that necessitated action. Pharaoh’s easy choice was to make a minority group with a different religion and ethnic background slaves.

Having been rescued from the river, ironically, by the Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses had gone on to lead a life of privilege. One fateful day, however, he ventured outside of his bubble of privileged palace life and saw the oppression of his people. In a moment of righteous fervor, Moses had killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew slave. Frightened of the potential consequences of his rash behavior, Moses fled to the hills and lived the simple life of a shepherd. Today we are introduced to the middle-aged Moses living on his father-in-law’s sheep farm.

It was an ordinary day. Moses saw a bush burning, but that was not an unusual sight in the dry heat of the desert. What was unexpected was that the bush was not consumed by the fire. What was frightening was that a voice from within the bush called out his name. What was a transforming miracle was that the voice identified itself as the Divine Being, the One who was and ever shall be. This voice clarified for Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham. This was the voice of the one that had made THE PROMISE. This was God continuing to fulfill the covenant made with Abraham and extended all his descendants.

God didn’t just come to Moses to impress him with a clever party trick. God explained to Moses that the suffering of the Hebrew people had touched his heart. God listened, had compassion and was ready to intervene. God would save the people with whom he had made an irrevocable promise – a covenant. And, God revealed that God’s nature is such that God is particularly close to and moved by those who are suffering. But, God’s plan was to be more than a miraculous rescue, God’s plan would not just change the peoples’ circumstance, God’s plan would transform the Hebrew people, starting with Moses.

This is where Moses, startled from his mesmerizing wonder responded:  “Wait a minute! You want ME to do something? You’re the one with all the power, why can’t you take care of this yourself?” Surely the covenant didn’t go this far. The Almighty would not sacrifice Moses to do something that was in God’s power to take care of alone. Self-doubt and fear took over and Moses began making excuses. You know the litany:

“What can one person or one church do?”
“I don’t have the time.”
“I’m too old.”
“I’ve already done that before. It’s someone else’s turn.”

Sensing his excuses had not moved God from this position, Moses tried the tact of arguing it couldn’t be done because the Hebrew people would not cooperate. “They are going to ask me who gives me the authority to lead them out of bondage. I don’t even have a name for you.”

God was not to be sucked into Moses’ defensive maneuver. God answered: “I AM WHO I AM.”  “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God was not going to be placed in a box created by the meager imagination of mortals. In essence, God told Moses (and us) I created you, you cannot create me. I lead, you follow. End of discussion. Can’t you just remember your parents saying: “Do it because I say so…it’s for your own good.”

God, however, let Moses know he was not just dealing with another Pharaoh model of power. God does not enslave for the mere gratification of ego. Worldly rulers will succumb to worldly temptations, divine rule frees us to live in the fullness of life. God’s promise will always be accompanied with assurance. “I will be with you. God went on to reassure Moses: “and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you.” God’s presence would empower Moses to do what he could not do alone. God stands by the promise and grants assurance, but the covenant demands obedience. God further elucidated the plan: “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” The Hebrew slaves were to follow obediently and give thanks to God for their rescue.

God gives promise, presence, assurance, and sends on a mission. The people sent to comply with obedience and gratitude. That’s God’s modus operandi for Moses and for all future generations. God gave a visible sign to assure, to encourage, and to empower Moses to fulfill his mission in service to God and his community.

In the same way, Jesus sent out his disciples into the world. For the disciples, for us, God revealed Godself, not in a burning bush, but in the Son, Jesus Christ. The same promise, the same covenant was, and still is, in play. Like Moses’ burning bush, Jesus was the visible sign of God’s power, promise, and assurance. Jesus was the model of perfect obedience for his disciples. Jesus revealed “The Plan” to Peter and the other disciples — God would sacrifice Godself in the body of the Son for the salvation of the world. Jesus was to be the ultimate sacrifice for the ultimate human freedom. Obedience to Jesus would free his disciples to live in the kingdom of God while being in the world. “On earth, as it is in heaven,” Jesus had taught his disciples to pray. Setting their sights on the divine rather than the worldly would free them from the shackles of all worldly pretensions of power. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:12)

Like Moses, Peter was not in favor of “The Plan,” and was sure he could come up with a better one – one that did not necessitate sacrifice, one that would not require transformation from a focus on worldly things to divine things. Like Moses, Peter wanted to control Jesus’ power to his own limited imagination. Peter was operating in “the here,” while Jesus was operating in “the here and the beyond.” With “The Plan” which began with Abraham and continued with Moses, God in Christ was continued and widened the scope of God’s original covenant with the Jewish people. Jesus sent his disciples on a mission that would engage the people in God’s salvation and transform them from slaves to the sin of the world to a people freed to live in the fullness of life.

Jesus did give one significant caveat: as Moses had to sacrifice his own desires for comfort and safety, Jesus’ disciples must follow his own example of sacrifice. Our journey to the cross is the journey to lose the stumbling blocks of our own egos, to die to self in such a way that we can live for God and our neighbors. As God gave Moses assurance of presence and empowerment for the mission God called him to fulfill, so Jesus gave this Good News to his disciples. Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus declaring: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations… and “I will be with you to the end of the age.” (Matt: 28:19, 20)

In our epistle reading for the day, Paul detours from his usual theological treatises to give practical advice for the aspiring Christian disciple. As Jesus summed up all the Jewish laws in the simple commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, Paul – with a few more words and details – outlines how to live as a faithful Christian and how to fulfill Christ’s commission to be his body in the world. The book of Romans includes a summation of all of Paul’s theology of the cross. Beautifully and succinctly, Paul expounds on the Greatest Commandment with the practical advice reminiscent of the guide to faithful living found in the book of Proverbs. Go back and reread this passage this week. These 12 verses are Paul’s Twelve Commandments for living as faithful disciples, fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission. It is far shorter than any self-help book you will ever read and you probably already have it on your bookshelf at home.

As the burning bush was the visible sign for Moses… as Jesus was the visible sign for the world… so the bread and wine at this table are the visible signs of God’s promise, commission, and assurance to us, the Church. In the body of Christ we have received the promise of salvation, have been commissioned to spread the Good News of the gospel, and assured of Christ’s presence with us and for us in the fulfillment of our mission.  At this table, things of the world become divine things beyond this world. God, the great I AM, feeds us to become the great WE ARE – the body of Christ in the world.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois