Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Promise and a Principle for the Jounery Ahead

The story of Moses is one of the most inspirational of all time. An initial reluctance overcome by a sense of God’s presence and a helper to be alongside him in the person of Aaron, Moses in the great story of Exodus prevails upon Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’. After much heartache Moses leads the people towards freedom only to find that their journey will take them through the wilderness. It’s a story that has been the inspiration of the Jewish people ever since. It won’t be long before the Jewish people will once again mark the Passover and the moment of Exodus. It’s a story that was the inspiration for Jesus. We have taken that last Passover meal he shared with his disciples and made of it something new and no less powerful an inspiration for us. Exodus and the cry, Let my people go, has been the inspiration for generations of people as they have sought liberty and freedom. It was the inspiration of the Pilgrims on board the Mayflower as they settled and established the land of the free. It was the inspiration of the abolitionists as they sought the end of slavery, and even more powerfully the inspiration of the slaves as they sang in longing for their own freedom. Let my people go. It was the inspiration of Martin Luther King. One secular biographer of Martin Luther King, Stewart Burns[1] ‘argues that King saw himself as a reluctant, unworthy, and sinful messiah, mandated by God to free his people from the slavery of racial oppression and to rescue Amercia from the cancer of racism and discrimination that was destroying its soul. His models were Moses and Jesus.” In these troubled times as what has been described as the most radical change to the infrastructure of our society begins to take a hold next week, and as our military involvement in the Middle East extends from Afghanistan to Libya, it is tempting to look for another Moses figure to lead us through what feels like a wilderness time to a promised land beyond. I believe that is a temptation we should resist. More important is that we look afresh to Moses and to Jesus and find in their stories bearings to help us as we embark on the journey ahead of us. First, to Moses. I want to pick up a moment in the story of Exodus when it seems as if everything has gone wrong, when the people are up in arms against Moses, and when at first sight it seems as if God simply provides, but on closer inspection we find that God provides in a very particular kind of way. Reading: Exodus 16:1-5 and 13-21 16The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘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.’ 4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’* For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. The miracle of God’s provision experienced by the people in the wilderness is rooted in phenomena that can be observed. I tracked this down in a Jewish Heritage Website[2] Prof. Jacob Milgrom offers us a scientific explanation:The manna has been identified with a natural substance formed in the wilderness of northern Arabia. There is a type of tamarisk plant, which is often attacked by a particular type of plant lice (Trabutina manniara and Najococcus serpentinus). When the insect punctures the fruit of the tree, it excretes a yellowish-white flake or ball formed from the tree's sap. During the warmth of the day, this substance melts, but it congeals when it is cold. It has a sweet taste. The natives gather these pellets/cakes in early morning, and cook them to provide a sort of bread. The food decays quickly and attracts ants. The annual crop in the Sinai Peninsula is exceedingly small and some years fails quickly. The description in Exodus 16 corresponds remarkably: But the actual provision of God is not the focus of the story. Rather, God uses the provision he makes as a measure of the people’s willingness to live their lives within God’s framework for their lives. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs,” … 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 There is here at the heart of this story a Promise and a Principle that can be for us an inspiration at this time. The Promise is one to hold on to ‘God will provide’. The Principle is one to take to heart ‘God will provide each according to their need.’ The Promise and the Principle are both to be seen as much in Jesus as in Moses. John 6 begins with echoes of the Moses story. Jesus is up a mountain, and the Passover festival of the Jewish people is near. He is confronted with a large crowd and nothing to eat. Philip is shocked that even six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew it is who notices a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. And then he laments, ‘But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus gets the people to sit down. He takes the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them, so also the fish. That’s the Promise. God will provide. Then comes the Principle. He distributed the loaves and then the fish to those who were seated ‘as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. The Promise and the Principle are encapsulated in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread. The word translated in English versions as ‘daily’ Is a one-off word that doesn’t appear anywhere else in Greek. It is a puzzle to know how to translate it. And so clues are found in the very earliest commentators on the Greek text. They suggest two sets of meanings. Epiousios could refer to time and refer to the bread of today or the bread of tomorrow. Give us this day the bread we need for today, or possibly the bread we need for tomorrow. But the word epiousios could refer not to time but to amount. Give us this day just enough bread to keep us alive, and no more … Give us this day the bread we need. The Promise that God will provide is one to hold on to. The Principle that God will provide to each according to their need is one to reflect on and to struggle with and to seek to put into practice. It is a principle to govern life-style. We should seek what we need, enough and not plentiful riches. It is a principle to relate to provision in our society. We should seek a society in which the needs of each are met, and excess is held back. It is a principle to relate to provision across the world. We should recognise our responsibility across the world and seek to meet the needs of each. It is a principle to relate to climate. If each sought only what they need, our consumption of energy could be better shared. The challenge is for us to respond each of us individually. There is, however, in the story form Exodus a twist in the tale, that seems to me to be of great significance for us to reflect on too. The people do not measure up to God’s expectations. They try to gather in more each night than they need and everything turns bad. What’s even worse, in spite of having double on the day before the Sabbath, some still go out on the Sabbath wanting more and more for themselves. The response God makes is I believe absolutely fascinating. Within a couple of chapters Moses goes up on to the mountain top and receives the Ten Commandments. The bulk of the remainder of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are devoted to Law Codes. Those law codes provide a framework for individual living and a framework for the people to live together in society. All sorts of provisions are made. Jesus holds light to the ritual provisions. Puts people first. But still values the notion of ‘law’ providing structure for people to live together in society. That too it seems to me is vital for us to take seriously. The Promise is one we can lay claim to. But left to their own people will not live by the principle. People need a proper framework of law that seeks to enable that principle to hold so that each will receive according to their need. To carry out that Principle we need not only to take individual action, but we should also seek structures in our society that will provide the framework for the needs of each to be met. We should engage in those structures too. On Friday the Churches of Cheltenham are invited to Christchurch to meet with Martin Horwood and explore what the Big Society will mean for Cheltenham. If anyone wants to join me there I would be delighted. If what is meant by Big Society is dismantling structures so that individuals are to work on their own to ensure that the needs of each are met … I fear it won’t work. The Big Society needs also to put in place the structures that will ensure that needs of each are met. Do we look to another Moses figure to inspire us? No that’s a temptation to resist. Jim Wallis quotes a passionate street organiser called Lisa Sullivan who followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, but died of a cancer when in her early forties.[3] “We are the ones we have been waiting for!” Let’s hold on to the Promise, that God will provide. Let’s hold on to the Principle, that God will provide to each according to their need. And let that principles shape the lives we lead individually and the society we seek to shape together. [1] Stuart Burns, To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr’s Sacred Journey to Save America 1955-1968 Quoted in Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (Lion, 2005), 215 [2] [3] Jim Wallis, op.cit., 374

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