Exodus 23:10-13 – The Primacy of Rest

“Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

“Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest, and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

“Listen carefully to everything I tell you. Don’t pay attention to other gods—don’t so much as mention their names. (MSG)

One reason poverty exists and seems to continue unabated, is that it is inextricably tied to rest. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive. However, it is not. Where work is exalted to such a degree that rest creates feelings of guilt, there you will find an entire class of poor folk who labor tirelessly without making ends meet. Those with power and wealth who eschew and denigrate rest are typically the ones who take advantage of the less fortunate and stereotype them as lazy.

Scriptural rest is not a luxury. An honest biblical sabbath rest is a vital necessity. It is important enough that God lovingly encouraged it and divinely commanded a day of rest to happen for everyone each week and a year of rest every seven, including both creature and creation. There were to be no exceptions.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what God was thinking when he ordained his people for intentional times of rest comes from my time in a prayer chapel.  One morning I set aside a four-hour block to “rest,” get away, and pray.  I will be honest that I marched into it with a personal agenda of what I wanted God to do.  I had my list of prayer items and my thoughts of how I believed God should work. I was ready for anything but rest. I came to wrestle. Silly me.

It did not take long into my forceful striving at God to see I was on a misguided adventure in missing the point. In my desire to see prayer requests answered, I lost sight of why I was there: To simply be in presence of God and enjoy Jesus – without all the laborious work, as if simple rest and enjoyment were not enough. 

In our daily work-a-day world we poke and prod, push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things. To separate ourselves from our typical routine takes something of a withdrawal, and it is downright hard. Maybe that’s why many individuals are so tired, cranky, and negative all the time – we find all kinds of reasons not to rest, and even when we do, we’re still trying to impose our will on God. Silly us.

We simply need Jesus – to know Christ, be with him, and experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with him. And that will be difficult, unless we obey the command given by God to rest.  To rest means to relinquish our plans and agendas, just for a time, and come into God’s presence and enjoy each other’s company.

Our compulsions for performance and perfection are culprits to rest. We want to do everything right. We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right – instead of simply coming to Jesus like a little child. Perhaps we are so profoundly dissatisfied with so many things because we are discontent with Christ. Just maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all may be content together no matter the circumstances. Only then might we find that our burdens are light and our life easy.

Jesus modeled the life of rest for us. If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest it was Jesus, and yet he continually did so. If Jesus needed a sacred space and place to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a solid sabbath rest and a place to do it? Jesus rested and prayed to connect with his heavenly Father. There was no multi-tasking, keeping abreast of social media, or juggling other responsibilities.  There was merely the pursuit of intimate rest.

If we fail to rest and avoid sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need rather than God. Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with the divine and becoming aware of our true thoughts and feelings. 

Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a consistent place and time to enjoy God.  Proper spiritual hygiene, just like proper sleep and health hygiene, includes setting aside a place to daily rest, pray, and be with God.

Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we are imperfect – that we are helpless and need Jesus. Apart from the rise Christ, the blind cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin. I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.

Maybe this old world is not experiencing grace and peace because God’s people have not yet learned the necessity of rest. If we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, the good things of life will be elusive. 

Enjoy Jesus today, my friends, tap into the Holy Spirit, and allow your rest to spur you to love and good deeds for the poor and underprivileged of this world.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill. Amen.

Exodus 15:22-27 – On Grumbling

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water. (NIV)

I like children’s books. I suppose its because I’m still a kid at heart. It’s fun to read to my grandchildren. One of the books I read to them is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The book begins with Alexander recounting when he awoke one morning:

“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day…. I think I’ll move to Australia.”

For the remainder of the story, Alexander’s day was a mishap of messes. Nothing seemed to go his way, and no one appeared to notice or even to care.

One of the reasons the book has been read so many times by so many children (and obviously adults, like me) is because we can all relate to the feelings of having a day where nothing seems to go right. In the middle of it we just feel like being somewhere else, like Australia.

In such times, when life is topsy-turvy and upside-down, it is so amazingly easy to grumble and complain. The ancient Israelites were having an Alexander-like day. Unlike having gum in your hair, not having water to drink is a big deal, a vital problem. So, we might understand why there was so much grumbling going on among the people. I am sure they were anxious, nervous, and scared.

Yet, complaining, unlike our emotions, is a volitional response. We choose to grumble. The problem with gripes and complaints is that it sets a person down a dark path. Oh, the criticisms and grievances begin easily and are seemingly harmless, at first. They are, however, anything but innocuous.

A mere grumble under the breath did not stop with finally getting water to drink. If we look ahead in the story of God’s people in the exodus event, the moaning and complaining quickly returned the minute something did not go their way. Then, the people became so disillusioned with their circumstances that they began longing for the “good old days” back in Egypt when they had plenty to eat and drink, forgetting about their cruel bondage in slavery. (Exodus 16:1-3)

The psychological progression continued with beginning to blame their situation on God, as if he were some mean malevolent deity. From that point, it was inevitable that the people would disobey God and eventually succumb to the idolatry of the golden calf. (Exodus 32:1-8)

Despite the grand celebration of leaving Egypt and experiencing a miraculous deliverance through the Red Sea, the people quickly forgot because of their present circumstance of lacking water. It is only logical and makes sense that the mighty God who saved them with incredible acts of power would care for the people in a desert. Yet, for many, there was no faith to be found in a new situation they had not faced before.

Failure of faith begins neither with ignorance nor an egregious sin. It begins with grumbling and complaining. And if allowed to run amok, complaints will bear the fruit of discouragement, disobedience, and eventually a disavowal of God.

The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews reflected on the grumbling of their forebears and had this to say in response:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15, NIV)

Encouragement is the insecticide which eliminates the worm of complaints. If left alone, we stew in our own bitterness over missed expectations. Grumbling bores its way into our soul and eats away at our faith. We need the continual encouragement of one another to remember our collective deliverance and express gratitude for our salvation.

May it be so to the glory of God.

We give you thanks, Lord God, because you give food and drink to all, heal all, create wonders in this world, forge wisdom within us, and give refuge beneath the shadow of your wings. From your wisdom grant us wisdom, from your love grant us love, from your understanding grant us understanding. Feed us when we are hungry, give us strength when we are weak, raise us up when we are bent over, set us free when we are enslaved. Just as our spiritual ancestors were blessed – may you grant us the blessing of peace, strength, and gratitude. Amen.

Exodus 10:21-29 – From Darkness to Light

Darkness

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So, Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.”

But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there, we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.”

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”

“Just as you say,” Moses replied. “I will never appear before you again.” (NIV)

The ancient Israelites were in bondage to the mighty Egyptian empire. After four-hundred years of bondage, God called Moses to lead them out from Egypt to the Promised Land. The only kink was the Egyptian Pharaoh’s outright reluctance. As the most powerful human on the planet at the time, Pharaoh was used to getting his way on everything. God knew it would be a process of deliverance, and not just a sudden event.

So, a series of ten wonders or miracles occurred that struck at the heart of Egyptian power and religion. A discernible pattern quickly developed in which Pharaoh refused cooperation; God sent an incredible devastation on the land; Pharaoh relented with a half-repentance; God lifted the devastation; and, with things “back to normal” Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let God’s people go. Rinse and repeat a lot more times.

Today’s Old Testament lesson recounts the ninth wonder done by God, using Moses. Although the miracle of complete and total darkness lasted a full three twenty-four-hour long days without harming any human or animal, the sheer fear and terror it brought to the Egyptians left them in a three-day state of suspense. Living on the edge in anxious apprehension is psychologically overwhelming. At least with the other plagues, you could see what you were up against.

Fear in the dark

In the land known as the “eternally rising sun,” the uncertainty of the perpetual darkness was meant to humble Egypt and put it in its place. Yet, with nine strong and full wonders from God, Pharaoh remained intransigent and stubborn. He was not going to let all that slave labor walk away while he was in charge.

I “wonder” what it takes for most of us to make a major change in our lifestyle – what we need to go through before we cry “uncle” and let go. The more power and control we have, the harder it is to do so. Humans are creatures of habit, and wherever there are long standing routines there you will find great difficulty in changing those practices.

No one simply wakes up in the morning and decides to be a jerk. Instead, it is likely that one day a person will arise, look in the mirror, and not recognize who is looking back at them. A series of choices and habits over a long stretch of time eventually formed the undistinguished blockhead. The Apostle James once described the pathology behind the person in the mirror:

You are tempted by the evil things you want. Your own desire leads you away and traps you. Your desire grows inside you until it results in sin. Then the sin grows bigger and bigger and finally ends in death. (James 1:14-15, ERV)

By reading today’s story Christologically we have a clue as to the remedy and reformation needed to form newer and better habits. Just as all Egypt was in three days of darkness due to sin, so Jesus was three days in the dark grave because of the world’s sin. And just as the ancient Israelites were delivered from their cruel bondage from Egypt and entered the Promised Land, so in Jesus Christ humanity is liberated from their power-hungry, money-grubbing, control-obsessing ways of being insensitive dolts to forming new habits of humility, justice, and love. The Apostle Peter said:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV)

It is the aim of the Christian to look out at the world and bring love where love is not; to discover it is more blessed to give than to receive; and, to have a deep sense of justice which works for egalitarian ways and the equity of all people, not just people of privilege.

So, may we gain a proper perspective of ourselves, others, and the world. And, may we resist the Pharaoh’s among us, while championing the needs of the downtrodden of this old fallen world. May we be like Christ and see Jesus in each person we encounter.

God, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will that they be gathered as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife, and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord, through the might of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Exodus 3:16-25 – A Great Reversal

Moses and the Children of Israel by Richard McBee
“Moses and the Children of Israel” by Richard McBee

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 

“The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So, I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. 

“And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so, you will plunder the Egyptians.” (NIV) 

Moses spent forty years in the back side of the desert tending sheep. The first forty years were lived in the most powerful place on earth at the time, Egypt. Although Moses had a privileged position, he forsook his place to be in solidarity with the enslaved Israelites. With a skewed sense of timing and method, he slew a cruel Egyptian, and was forced to flee into the desert. 

The time eventually became ripe, and God was on the move. At eighty years old, God called Moses out of the desert and back to Egypt. The deliverance was going to be accomplished according to God’s designs and purposes, and not from the impetuous actions of a younger Moses. God knew exactly what he was doing and put Moses on a course which would strike at the heart of imperial Egypt and bring freedom to millions of slaves. 

Today’s story is laced thick with divine promises. After all, it is the promises of God which give people hope and a future. Referring to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord connects the generations-long covenant promise to the Israelites and reminded them they are not forgotten. God’s covenant has neither disappeared nor changed; it still exists. While the Jews were languishing in slavery, God was not aloof but watching – carefully inspecting, caring, and paying close attention. 

The inheritance of the Promised Land was coming, and it would be realized. God affirmed the covenant, knowing the plans he has for them – plans to give them abundance and joy. And God knew full well that dislodging the Israelites from Egypt would take some work, since Pharaoh relied so heavily on slave labor to support his massive imperial state. 

You, like me, have likely noticed that God tends to move rather slow by our standards. We might question and wonder about so much injustice going unabated for so long. Yet, that is our perspective of things, not God’s. Whereas we often have our own self-interest at mind, the Lord has the concern of an entire world. God is patient and long-suffering, providing full opportunity for both individual and national repentance. The Lord is on the lookout for people to amend their errant ways and return to their true purpose for living. He only judges at the proper time. 

And when that time comes, look out! Nothing can stand in the way of God’s good plans for the earth. The ancient Egyptians had built an empire on the backs of slavery, and everything went into supporting the power and wealth of the state. God was not okay with this situation. As he had done many times before, the Lord would thoroughly dismantle and destroy the powerful system of oppression. God is the expert at flip-flopping the status of people – the slaves become free, and the free are bound; the hated become favored, and those who enjoyed all the perks of power and privilege become the despised. 

Embracing God’s upside-down kingdom means advocating for justice, righteousness, and holiness for all people, not just a select few whom I like. Jesus, over 1,500 years after Moses and the exodus from Egypt, had this to say: 

“Those who are last now will someday be first, and those who are first now will someday be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NCV) 

“Blessed are you who are poor, 
    for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
    for you will be filled. 
“Blessed are you who weep now, 
    for you will laugh. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

“But woe to you who are rich, 
    for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, 
    for you will be hungry. 
“Woe to you who are laughing now, 
    for you will mourn and weep. 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26, NRSV) 

And the Apostle Paul said to the Church: 

“For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NLT) 

The New Testament references are not meant to sanitize or put a positive spin on the very real suffering that so many people have endured both past and present. It is, however, meant to lift-up the reality that we have a sure and certain hope. Our trust in the promises and presence of God will eventually be realized and gives shape to how we live today in persistent prayers with patience and perseverance. 

So, may the Lord of all creation bless and protect you. May the Lord show you mercy and kindness in your affliction. And, may the Lord be good to you and give you peace. Amen.