Monday, July 31, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - The Survival-Challenged Life

Preached on Sunday, July 30, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

The Apostle Paul mentions a couple of the stories that we’ve been reading, about Moses and the Exodus. He has a whole list of stories, and he calls them examples. Paul tells us that these stories were written as examples for us. Actually, he tells us that these are examples to warn us.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
June 2017
The word that gets translated as “example” here is interesting: because the word, in Greek, has become an English word. It’s “tupos” or “typos”. It’s our word “type”. It can refer to a certain type of person, or a certain type of situation: a type of this or a type of that.
Paul implies that, if we’re not careful, we can become the type of person he warns us against and get into the same type of situations they got into. The fact is that, if we don’t listen to Paul, and if we don’t listen to the stories about God’s people in the past, we may end up being typical of so many who continuously tested the faithfulness of God.
It’s a very common type. Nowadays, it’s the type of believer who gets in the headlines on CNN. (I’m only joking!)
The whole idea of type carries an interesting story in itself. In one way, type is a sort of impression or mark. It could mean the impression of a stamp of identity, like a mark you put on your possessions or your property. It could be like the government stamping images on its coins in order to identify them: one cent, ten cents, twenty-five cents. In olden times, the word could mean something as simple as the impression that a cooking pot left in the ashes, after the cook-fire went out.
It could be the impression of footprints on a trail. If you were a hunter, you might follow the tracks of a deer and notice any signs it left behind. The tracks would tell you a story, and you would be on the track of its story. You would be going where it was going.
That’s what Paul is saying we are doing in the Exodus. We’re on that ancient trail. We are on the tracks of that story. We’re going where it went before us.
Paul tells the people of the church in Corinth that they are following the trail of their forefathers in the Exodus. You know that the Corinthians were Greeks, mostly. In a sense, when they began to follow Jesus, they stopped being Greek and they became Israelites on the trail in Exodus. They also became Abraham and Sarah.
So, do we. When we turn to follow Jesus, we stay what we are, and yet we have a double life, and one of our doubles is walking on another trail. We are walking on the trail out of slavery in Egypt. God has saved us from our beloved slavery, and God is saving us now. God is leading us out of what we were into a journey of faith that will complete the story of our salvation, in the end.
Of course, that story doesn’t end with the Exodus. It doesn’t end with the entry into the land of Canaan, which was called the Promised Land.
The trail keeps going from disaster to disaster, and it leads to God coming, in the flesh, in Jesus. It leads to the way of the cross and the path to the empty tomb. It’s the path of our death to the slavery of sin and our rising to the Promised Land of a new life, and everlasting life.
It doesn’t end there, either, Paul says that his friends (and that we too) are still on that road, even though “the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
We’re still in the same story that began so long ago. We are traveling a certain type of trail. It’s the type of trail that typically leads through a certain type of dangers.
Our trail leads to more than danger. The truth is that our ancient path leads to dangers, and gifts, and blessings.
Certain typical types of experiences are found along this trail: typical wonders and typical hazards. Along the way, there are choices between these experiences, and these choices test us. They show what we’re made of. These choices show the stamp of our identity. Or they create the stamp of our identity.
These choices are what we sometimes call temptations. Temptations test us. God doesn’t tempt us. God only tests us to see where we’re at. Tests are a part of any good teacher’s lesson plan. It’s the students who tempt themselves: whether they’re going to do the work and study, or whether they plan to mark all the multiple-choice questions with choice “C”. “C” is claimed to have a good statistical reputation for being the correct answer.
The Israelites hadn’t studied. There’s so much they didn’t seem to remember. God’s wind had blown a dry path for them though the Red Sea, and Israel was saved from Egypt and from the Egyptians.
Along that ancient path, everything that could go wrong did go wrong and yet God turned it to good.
God turned bad water good.
God sprinkled the sand with crumbs of a miraculous food called “manna” which was so strange that the Israelites couldn’t even give it a proper name: “manna” is Hebrew for the question “What is it?).
When the bad news was that the next oasis was too far away, God told Moses to hit a big rock with his walking stick. An artesian well broke out.
When the bad news was that they were being attacked by one of the desert tribes, Moses knew what God wanted him to do. He sat on a hill top with his staff raised, for some reason that we aren’t told: perhaps, as a sign of faith, or as a reminder of the miracles that had been done with that staff, or as a form of prayer that lifted the fighters of Israel up to God and God’s power.
If the people of Israel had held still, the stamp of the image of the faithfulness of God would have marked them with a new identity. The trail of God’s faithfulness would have worn a path of faith in their hearts. If they had held still, and studied what God had demonstrated, over and over again, they would have shown peace, and a readiness to see new and surprising great things when they needed them most.
But that wasn’t the easy way. The easy way was to worry. I’m a worry wart, and so I know this. The easy way was to get mad. The easy way was to grumble. The easy way was to quarrel under pressure.
They did it all. They demonstrated a certain type of response to difficulty, and danger, and uncertainty. They didn’t test well.
They doubted their own survival in the hands of a faithful God. There’s a lot of that going around today: worry, anger, grumbling, quarreling.
The Book of Exodus tells us, here, that the Israelites traveled “from place to place as the Lord commanded.” Well, they followed the pillar of cloud and fire wherever it moved, and whenever it moved. The pillar was the visible presence of God with them, leading them everywhere.
And they did follow it. They actually followed everywhere it went.
They were very good, at this point. They never left the pillar. They never left the presence of God. They were never in the wrong place at the wrong time. They never took a detour or a wrong turn of their own choosing. When there was a detour, it was God’s choice for what was best for them.
Actually, the journey was a detour right from the start. God never intended to take them by a straight forward path. That’s a story of faith in itself.
The straight path out of Egypt would have followed the Mediterranean coast, and the Philistine cities. God wanted to protect his people from fighting too much, and too soon.
God wanted to toughen them in other ways. God wanted to teach them faith, and faith takes time and difficulty. Faith always wrestles with the question of survival.
The point is that God always led them, and God always was with them, and God always got them through their survival-challenged lives. The Israelites never studied this.
There is an important challenge in following this trail of faith, with this almost endless repetition of the challenge of survival. C. S Lewis wrote: “Relying on God has to begin over again every day, as if nothing has yet been done.” (in “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”) The people of Israel, in Exodus, show us that we can be the type of people who begin each day by not relying on God.
Another important point about the word “type”, in the ancient world, is that it could also be an image or a picture. The stories of Exodus are events that are God inspired, to such an extreme, that they became pictures of what our lives could be: images of what we should or should not be. And all of these pictures show us the abiding presence of God, and the ability of God to lead his people.
There is a lot of violence in the story of Moses, Israel, and the Exodus. There is clearly violence shown in the relationship between God and his own people. I can never read these stories without wondering about them.
There are some things we neglect to notice about this.
It’s true that complaining or grumbling was fatal a few times, but they complained so many times. They were always complaining. Most of the time, when the people complained about Moses and his God, God generally gave them what they asked for, and what they needed. God did this in spite of them. God does this again and again. It must be love.
There’s another very strange thing about the anger of God. When God gets mad, his people are always surprised by it, as if God let them get away with all kinds of nonsense.
I think they were right. God let them get away with a lot of what was worse than nonsense. God never stops helping them. God never gives up on them. God has a plan to save them and give them a new and better life, and he does it. God continually protects them, and fights for them.
The sea, and the cloud, and the rock are all images or pictures of this. They are pictures of salvation, which means God coming to our rescue in our great need.
They are pictures that still hold true for us, even though we don’t have a sea that parts for us, or a pillar of cloud and fire that guides us, or a rock that gives us a drink whenever we strike it. We are in the same story, following the same trail: the tracks of a faithful God and his people.
Something happens at the rock, and it gives us a scene that tells us another story. The Lord stands before Moses at the rock. We don’t know if there was any visible sign of the Lord doing this. It was simply something that God promised Moses.
To stand before someone is a way of describing a special relationship. It’s not an ordinary phrase. It’s an ancient way of describing something like receptivity. To stand before someone means to present yourself for instruction, or for service.
In all of his power and glory, in all of his independence, the Lord has, in his essence, the nature of a servant. The Lord was going to be of service to Moses and his people. Standing before Moses formed the posture of the Lord presenting himself as a servant of his people.
Paul tells us that the rock was Christ. In the Bible, there is the same word picture for God.
One of the images for God is the Rock. Psalm 18 says: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; God is my rock in whom I take refuge.” (18:2) Jesus quoted from the Psalms to call himself a rock: “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’” (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23) Peter calls Jesus the rock: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men yet chosen and precious in God’s sight….” (1 Peter 2:4)
Jesus stands before us as the rock and as a servant, just as the Lord stands before Moses as a servant. It’s really a picture of the same thing. Jesus and his Father are one of a type. They form one image.
The picture of Jesus is a stone that gave of himself, to his people, when he was struck. Jesus was struck by the soldiers, and by the priests. The cross itself was a blow to Jesus; and, through the cross, Jesus gives himself to his people: gives himself to us, as food and drink for our salvation.
The parted sea, the cloud that guided God’s people, and the rock that saved them from dying of thirst, are all picture of a Savior God. This God, whom we meet in Christ, is the faithful God who never leaves us, and who always leads us, and who always fights for us.
We may have to learn faith every day, but we can hold in our hearts something like a picture, or the impression of a stamp, that comes from walking the same ancient path every day. The way to get through whatever is hard, whether it serves as a test, or whether we are tempting ourselves, is to know that we are in the same old path as all of God’s people who ever were. It’s the story of the faithful Lord and God: of Jesus, and his love.

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