Monday, January 30, 2012

From Slavery to Freedom

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?  From Slavery to Freedom
Bishop’s Bible Study on the Exodus
Dedicated to Dr. Darold Beekmann and in memory of his wife Marlene who died on December 21, 2011.

“‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous….”  Deuteronomy 26:5

The journey that began with God’s call to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12—last month’s Bible study) continued in the adventures of their children, Isaac and Rebekah, and their descendants—Jacob (later named Israel) and his twelve sons.    These rich stories form the fabric of the Book of Genesis.

When we come to the Bible’s second book, Exodus, the worm has turned.   At the end of Genesis, famine had forced the Jacob’s family to leave the scarcity in Canaan for the abundance in Egypt—abundance which reflected, in part, the faithful stewardship of Jacob’s son Joseph, who rose from imprisoned slave to become second-in-command in the royal court of the Pharaoh.  (I once heard Joseph described as history’s first “Secretary of Agriculture,” who conceived of the idea of the ever-normal granary in which crops are stored in good years, to tide over the hungry in the lean years.)

The word “Exodus” means “the way out.”    Although we rightly associate the Book of Exodus with the compelling figure of Moses (its primary human actor) and the astounding escape from Egypt (the ten plagues and the wondrous crossing of the Red Sea), the book is primarily about God’s continuing journey with his people.   “Where are you leading us, Lord?” wasn’t just the question of Abraham and Sarah; it continued to animate the conversation God’s people had with their traveling Lord and Leader.

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.”  Deuteronomy 26:6-7

This part of the journey starts with God’s remembering of his people.   The journey we’re on with God includes times of trial and tribulation—harsh treatment and affliction.  God does not shield us from hard labor or oppression.   But also, God does not forget us when we are down.   Exodus 2:23-25 notes:  “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Israel groaned.   God heard.   And God remembered his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Notice the verbs and the intimate interaction between God and his people.

Darold Beekmann was my first bishop when I became a pastor over 30 years ago.  He was steeped in the scriptures.  After graduating from Wartburg Seminary he did graduate study in Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  I have never forgotten Bishop Beekmann’s observation on Exodus 2:23ff:  “When God remembers, things happen.”   When God remembers, it’s not for nostalgia’s sake.   When God remembers, God acts to save his people.

“The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….”   Deuteronomy 26:8a

To accomplish this rescue God calls forth the unlikely leadership of Moses, God oppresses the oppressor (Pharaoh) with ten uncanny demonstrations of power, God opens a path through the sea for Israel to escape—and for Pharaoh’s army to be annihilated.    These are the familiar stories of Exodus we’ve treasured from years of Sunday School or VBS lessons, not to mention epic movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s classic, The Ten Commandments (1956), or more recently, The Prince of Egypt (1998).

But what I want us not to lose sight of is the fact that all of this—the saga of Moses and the razzle-dazzle of the Escape—was part of a larger journey God was again taking with his beloved people.   Exodus means “the way out,” –and that way out involved a forty-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai to the banks of the Jordan River.

Here’s what may not add up for us, though.   It’s less than six hundred miles from the Nile delta (in Egypt) to the banks of the Jordan River (east of Jerusalem).   Even with a company of well over 600,000 travelers (Exodus 12:37), it didn’t have to take forty years to complete that trek!   This four-decades-long journey was about more, much more, than “getting there.”   

The Book of Exodus narrates Israel’s foundational salvation-history.  Read the whole book, if you will.  But for now, let me lift up four themes that emerge Exodus—themes that speak powerfully to our own life as God’s journeying people in the 21st century:

1.   No turning back.   Almost immediately after they escaped from Pharaoh and his army, the children of Israel started grumbling and pining for the good life they left behind in Egypt.  How quickly they forgot the oppression of their task-masters!   Just six weeks after escaping from Pharaoh, “the Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  Exodus 16:3

Again and again the children of Israel grumbled, and again and again they had to re-learn a hard lesson:  the supposedly “greener grass” back in Egypt wasn’t all that green, and there would be no turning back.   It’s as if the Israelites had contracted a perverse sort of amnesia! 

God had orchestrated their escape from slavery, and God would never allow them to sacrifice their freedom.  God had a preferred future for the children of Israel, and God was going to take them to it.   God’s goal for his people was nothing short of the Promised Land.

What about us?   When the going gets tough in our faith-communities, do we sometimes pine for a golden age in the past?  Do we allow nostalgia, for an era that will not return, to prevent us from doing God’s work today and moving forward into God’s tomorrow?

2.  Faith for now, bread for today.   When the Israelites bewailed their hunger, God gave them unexpected food—a wondrous bread from heaven they called “manna” (literally “what is it?” in the Hebrew language, Exodus 16:15).  Every morning there was enough manna to get God’s people through another day.  

If anyone tried to hoard this amazing bread for more than one day, though, it became infested with worms.   “Leftover” manna went bad.   God insisted on leading and feeding his people, but only in a day-by-day way.   And this went on for all forty years of their journey to the Promised Land (Exodus 16:35).   It was as if God said:  “Don’t worry about your future.  That is in my hands.  Trust in me today.”    

We echo the experience of the Israelites when we pray, as Jesus taught us:  “Give us today our daily bread.”   But is that enough for us?   Are we not, even as the church, constantly tempted to secure our future?   How can we live in the trust that God holds us and sustains us—God gives us whatever we need, but on a “one day at a time” basis?

3.  God is with us for the long haul.   Although we associate the Israelites’ time at Mt Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments, it was a promise that first grabbed them by the ears.   “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” Exodus 20:2.  This was God’s first word from the mountaintop.   God committed himself unreservedly, unalterably, to being in relationship with his chosen people.   God’s gracious decision for Israel called forth their answering response of faith, hope and love—which is still the basis for our whole life with God and with one another.

Here too is a call that constantly comes to the 21st century church.   In our well-meaning efforts to serve faithfully and effectively, we can start thinking that the church is our “project.”   But it’s not!   The church is always God’s gratuitous gift to us and to the world, grounded in God’s fierce determination to be our God--to keep announcing God’s promises that establish us, sustain us, and move us forward in God’s mission.   God is with us for the long haul, and that is enough!

4.  The journey transforms both the people and their God.  A lot can happen during forty years of traveling--as we read about in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The journey made a deep and enduring impression on God’s people; it solidified their identity as a nation. 

But as often happens in long family trips, the travelers got on each other’s nerves.   The Israelites complained repeatedly, lost faith, and stretched God’s patience to the breaking point.   In Exodus 32, following the golden calf incident at Mt. Sinai, God was ready to wipe out the Israelites and start fresh just with Moses and his offspring—to make of them a new “chosen people” (Exodus 32:10).   But Moses argued persuasively with God, on behalf of the people of Israel (read about it in Exodus 32:11-13).  “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” (Exodus 32:14).

The Book of Exodus, along with other portions of the Old Testament, challenges the notion that God is impassive or aloof—an Unmoved Mover (as the philosopher Aristotle liked to say).   Rather, God is intimately connected with, and related to, the people of his choosing.  God affects his people, and the people affect God.  In the depth of this relationship--slowly over time—the children of Israel learned the rudiments of trust.   They were transformed by God’s giving, guiding, chastening hand.

This month, on Ash Wednesday--February 22, we will begin another Lenten season.  For forty days (an echo of the forty years’ journey of the Exodus) we’ll reflect anew on God’s grace toward us, God’s chastening of us, and the journey God is taking us on, with our Lord Jesus Christ.   Use this Lenten season to ponder your own congregation’s journey with God, how that journey has been transforming you, and where God is leading you.   Consider using the synod resource,  Lent 2012:  A Season for Prayer and Renewal, Seeking a New Vision for our Congregation’s Purpose in God’s Mission available at

Journeying with you in Christ,

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection or group discussion:
1.      “Bringing good out of evil,” is a theme we encounter throughout the Bible.  How do you see God bringing good out of evil in the Exodus story?   In your story?   In your congregation’s story?
2.      Why is it so tempting to get lost in nostalgia for a “golden age” in the past?   How does such nostalgia sometimes keep you or your congregation from moving ahead, into God's future?
3.      How are you (or your congregation) learning to trust God, one day at a time?
4.      As a disciple of Jesus, what difference does it make to know that the church is God’s gracious gift—not our human “project?”
5.      What is one way you and/or your congregation, during Lent 2012, might ponder the question:  “Where are you leading us, Lord?”

This is the second in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jesus Takes On Sin

Baudette Lutheran Parish (Clementson, First and Wabanica)
January 8, 2012/ The Baptism of Our Lord
Mark 1:4-11

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
This first Sunday after the Epiphany always wakes me up—rather rudely!—in much the way a cup of overly-caffeinated coffee might jolt me out of my holiday slumbers. 

Christmas always concludes too quickly, with the season of Epiphany knocking on our doors….and Lent not that far behind.

1.      Why, most of us haven’t even gotten all our Christmas decorations “down” yet!  And yet today the Baby Jesus has suddenly grown into an adult.   We’d rather linger longer at the manger, with the Christ Child in swaddling clothes….but the church’s calendar forces us to see him as a full-grown man, who shaves and is making his way in the world.

It’s as if someone hit the “fast forward” button on the DVD player, making thirty years of Jesus’ life disappear just like that.

What a caffeine jolt to our systems!  

And yet, it’s probably a good thing.  For the fast pace, especially of Mark’s gospel, obliges us to remember that God in Christ assumed human flesh, not to make small talk with us, not to have a picnic or a joyride, but to get on the road and make his way toward the Cross, for us and for our salvation.

If the season of Epiphany is about the meaning of that word (Epiphany)—a revealing, a drawing back of the curtain about Jesus….this first jolt reveals something magnificent and world-turning:   that the Word became flesh not for beating-around-the-bush….but for the sake of doing vital business with us, rescuing humanity and renewing the whole creation.

2.      But there’s a second “jolt” in this morning’s gospel lesson—a second “shock to the system” that wakes us up.   Jesus doesn’t just come on the scene a grown-up adult.   He comes to the River Jordan to be baptized.

 The “jolt” in this is that baptism is for sinners.   Baptism is a washing-away of filth and dirt, a cleansing from sin.  Baptism is for the desperate, the lost, the god-forsaken!

Baptism is for sinners.   And Jesus is no sinner.

The second “jolt” this morning’s gospel lesson administers to us is that it shows us the one, the only person who has ever lived who doesn’t need baptism…and yet he comes to be baptized:  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

And there’s nothing “accidental” about this.   Jesus fully plans to be here, up to his neck in the muddy water, with all the sinners who flocked to John the baptizer.

Jesus insisted on getting in line with everybody else, to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

What jolts us here is that Jesus isn’t the least bit shy about getting “up close and personal” with all manner of sinners.  Jesus isn’t worried about being caught in the wrong crowd.  Jesus seems to have no interest in keeping himself above the fray, unstained by contact with the ungodly.

Here, once more, we receive an epiphany, a revelation about who Jesus is and what he does.   Jesus befriends sinners.   Jesus gets close to sinners.    Jesus, we can say, even “takes on” sin.

Here’s a little image that might help.   During the recent holiday season, I washed a lot of dishes.   We hosted a staff party and family. Dirty dishes piled up, and so I spent some time at the kitchen sink.

When you’re washing a lot of dishes, the water can get pretty grungy.  In fact, you reach a point where a dish going into the water might come out dirtier than it was to begin with.

I picture the Jordan River like that.   It was literally a muddy river….but it got even dirtier with all those sins being washed away.      

But Jesus came to this dirty water and intentionally insisted that he be washed in it….even though he probably came up out of the water, dirtier than when he went in.   Because the sins of others--the sins of the whole world--were now clinging to him.

St Paul takes this whole notion as far as he can in II Corinthians when he writes:  “for our sake [God] made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (II Cor. 5:21)

3.      And this leads me to the third jolt we get in this gospel lesson:  Jesus gets baptized with sinners, Jesus “takes on” the filth of sin in the muddy river, and God lets it be known how pleased he is with that!

In a way, this is the sharpest jolt of all.  It’s surprising to see Baby Jesus all grown up, even though we still have the manger scene set up in our house.  It’s shocking to see this adult Jesus getting baptized with all those sinners.

But what defies all our customary ways of understanding God is that God looks upon this baptism scene and smiles broadly.   God is utterly pleased with what is happening as his beloved Son “takes on” sin in the Jordan River. 

God wants it this way.

And we see that here in three ways.   First, God himself “tears open” the heavens.   It’s a jarring word in the original Greek—“schizo” (related to “schizophrenia”).  God rips the heavens apart.  God makes a deliberate tear, a permanent opening in the veil that separates heaven from earth.   There is no turning back from this!  This tearing-apart of the heavens signals a new state of affairs.  Indeed, it is an overture to the New Creation God is initiating in Jesus.

Second, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on Jesus.   The same Spirit who “moved over the waters” in Genesis 1, the dove that Noah released from the ark—the dove that flew “over the waters” of the receding Flood--the Spirit and the dove come together as one, a powerful image of blessing.

And third, the Voice of God is heard, for the first time in Mark’s gospel:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is just how God wants it to be:  Jesus, doing vital business with humanity and the whole creation, Jesus taking on sin and rising from the water to begin his journey toward the Cross and the Grave, for us and for our salvation.   Capture that image—hang on to it.   This is what God has had in mind since before the first star began to twinkle.

For here, the most amazing epiphany, the greatest revelation, “shows itself” before our wondering eyes:  God knows how to do what we’re never all that sure about.  God knows how to deal with sinners.

Our natural inclination is to keep our distance from sinners--notorious, headline-grabbing sinners especially.   Someone messes up big time—and we turn away, we shun them, we keep them at arm’s length.   We avoid being tainted by them, “spoiled” by their manifest sinfulness.

But Jesus always made a bee-line toward sinners.    Jesus got close to, befriended, embraced sinners.    Not to roll around with them in the mud like a bunch of pigs, though.   Jesus didn’t “take on” our sin so that he might revel in sin with us.

No.   Jesus “took on” sin in order to “take on” sin, in the sense of defeating it, once and for all.  
Jesus “took on” sin but only so that he might “take away” sin.   We might say that Jesus captured sin, kidnapped sin, in order to bear it away from us, so that sin might no longer control us, have its way with us and kill us.

Jesus is head-over-heels in love with sinners, and that’s great news for all of us here this morning—a bunch of sinners, gathered together on January 8, 2012.

But just because Jesus loves sinners unconditionally, he does not love sin.  Jesus positively cannot stand our incurable obsession with ourselves.  Sin and Jesus have no future together.   One of them must go away,  disappear.   And that’s exactly what happened whenever, wherever Jesus encountered sin. He took it on in order to make it go away.

So Jesus cast out demons, healed sickness, rebuked the recalcitrant, and finally went to the Cross to nail sin onto that accursed Tree.   Jesus buried sin in his own Grave, to send our sin away from us forever, as far as the east is from the west.

But there’s even more.   This same Jesus who died to take our away our sins, rose again to pour out his Spirit upon the church—even as Jesus is making all things new.

And we get to be in on that action—with our Living Lord, reclaiming God’s whole creation, one sorry sinner at a time.  One broken relationship, one god-forsaken wanderer at a time.   God enlists us—forgiven sinners—to be part of that great rescuing action.

And that just might be the best “Epiphany jolt” of them all.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.