The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 25

Exodus 14-16, Psalm 22, Matthew 22
When God paves the way for our future

Exodus 14-16
Psalm 22
Matthew 22
Key Verse
Reading Tip

Exodus 14 – 16

Surely chapter 14 is one of the great chapters of the Bible. We focus on one of the most significant miracles that God ever performed. For the Jews, this was the miracle of miracles. It is tantamount to what the Resurrection of Jesus is for Christians. What then actually occurred? What can we believe?

God seems to be playing cat and mouse with Pharaoh. Every time Pharaoh relents, God hardens his heart. Now, Pharaoh has heard Moses plea, “Let my people go,” which plays throughout Exodus 3 – 13 like the refrain of a song. It’s no wonder that a famous American Negro spiritual comes forth from the book of Exodus, specifically Exodus 7:26, called Go down Moses, whose refrain is, “Let my people go.”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In the song “Israel” represents the African-American slaves while “Egypt” and “Pharaoh” represent the slave master. For slaves, the ancient sense of “down” as in “way down in Egypt land” converged with the American slave’s concept of “down the river” as in down the Mississippi, where slaves faced harsher conditions. From this, we get the expression “to sell someone down the river,” which has a very bad connotation.

The Hebrews are now free from slavery, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Addiction is extremely difficult to break. Most recovering addicts will note that it requires reaching out to a higher power, whether we call this higher power “God” or simply “higher power.”

Unfortunately, Pharaoh has no inclination to reach out to a higher power. He is also in denial as to his need and Egypt’s addiction for slave labor. Furthermore, the higher power seems opposed to Pharaoh doing the right thing in order to demonstrate the strong hand of God to deliver the Hebrew people.

While the Israelites are encamped by the sea near Pi-hahiroth, over 600 of Pharaoh’s chariots draw near. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness,” the Israelites lament to Moses. (Ex. 14:11) Moses is about to learn lesson one for any leader, namely, you must develop a thick skin. Learning to accept criticism well and how to sort through constructive and not-so-constructive criticism is a skill that every successful leaders needs to develop.

While the angel of God who led Israel by a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud now moves to create a barrier between the Israelites and the Egyptian army, Moses stretches his hand over the sea. God works through Moses and rolls back the sea so that the Israelites may cross to safety on dry land.

This is the stuff of Cecil B. DeMille movies. Hollywood loves this kind of scene. But did it really happen, and do Christians have to believe this? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There are at least two very good explanations for what happened that day. It is up to you to decide which of them to believe.

First, we can believe that the Exodus occurred exactly as the Bible says it did. The Bible says that as the waters formed “a wall for them on their right and on their left,” the Israelites fled to safety. (Ex. 14:22) We have already read “with God all things are possible.” I truly believe in miracles, and if God could create the universe and set our world in motion and create countless amazing forms of life, then parting the Red Sea was not difficult for God to do.

Scholars note that there are other possibilities, including that we have mistaken the body of water where this event occurred. Hebrew has no vowels. Readers must guess what the vowels are and add them as they read. Hence, the word that is usually translated as “Red” Sea could also be translated as the “Reed” Sea. There is a body of water north of the Red Sea called the Reed Sea, which some scholars believe is the location of this event. Each day the waters of the Reed Sea recede, creating a tidal flat where persons can cross on foot. When the tide returns, a person can drown in these same waters.

Could this be the location where the Israelites crossed to safety and the Egyptians were drowned? It is a possibility, and those inclined to research can study the likelihood of each scenario as well as why it has been traditionally believed that the event occurred at the Red Sea.

Most biblical scholars today doubt that there was any exodus of the magnitude described in the Bible. The Israelites reportedly numbered “about 600,000 men on foot, besides women and children. (Ex. 12:37-38) The book of Numbers gives an actual figure of 603,550 men aged 20 and older. (Numbers 1:46). Adding women and children, the elderly and animals in tow, there could have been as many as 2,000,000 people. The entire Egyptian population was estimated to be just over 3,000,000 at the time. Marching ten abreast, the line of Israelites would extend for 150 miles. No evidence has been found in Egypt of such an exodus or that rural Israel or Egypt could have supported such a large population.

What matters is not so much whether the Israelites crossed the Red Sea or the Reed Sea sometime between the 6th and 8th century B.C., but rather that you and I trust that God can and will act powerfully in our lives today, if we are willing to partner with God – the greatest force in the universe. That is the question that each of us must ponder. The author of Exodus notes, “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (Ex. 14:31) As noted, “feared” can be translated “respected,” which gives a far better connotation to what occurs between God and faithful humans.

I love musicals. I could watch Les Miserables over and over again. There is a great power to music. The words of a song or a poem can stay with us forever. They can affect an entire people, such the Irish, whose poets and songwriters have enshrined their history in song and poetry, which at times has allowed people to recall both painful events and triumphs as though they occurred yesterday.

In chapter 15 Moses and the Israelites break into song, singing “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:1) The Church preserves this entire song in Canticle 8, which is recited regularly by those who say Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer each day – something that I highly recommend, not in lieu of daily Bible reading, but in addition to it.

The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him… (15:2)

The great thing is that Moses and the Israelites give credit for their salvation to God, where credit belongs. It was not Moses’s strong arm that saved the Israelites, but God working through his faithful partner Moses to do things that no leader could do alone.

Moses was the perfect partner. He had been raised in Pharaoh’s house. He spoke Egyptian and Hebrew. He knew the way of the Egyptians and royal protocol. Moses had a Hebrew heart, a passion for justice and compassion for his people who are enslaved by the Egyptians. As a shepherd, he knew the wilderness and how to lead, corral, protect, and rescue stray sheep.

If you are entering a wilderness period in your own life – the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a job, becoming an empty nester, retiring and wondering what to do with yourself, facing an illness, coping with losing your mobility, or grieving the loss of someone you treasure – look for a guide. Search for someone who knows the wilderness that you are entering and has more knowledge of the wilderness than you. Have lunch or coffee together or take a walk and share your challenges in the wilderness. We all need a guide to help us get through one of life’s barren landscapes.

When God calls us to service, God takes the things of our past and weaves them into something special for our future. God can even take our worst errors and sins and use them to heal and offer hope to others. Moses killed an Egyptian. He sinned grievously. He was also bright, well-educated, understood both the Hebrew and Egyptian cultures and was respected by both groups. God took all of Moses – the good, the bad and the ugly – to fulfill God’s mission and serve God’s people.

That is want happens when we stop and take note of the burning bushes set before us and allow God to call us into service in ministries that we would never dream of on our own. God’s call is almost always a wonderful match between our gifts and talents and life’s experiences and the deep needs of the world.

So, Moses sings as does the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister. She takes a tambourine and dances, singing, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…” (Ex. 15:21) This is the very song that we heard Moses and the Israelites sang. Scholars believe that Miriam actually composed it, but being a woman she did not receive credit for it. In the past few decades, much work has been done to undercover great contributions by women in the Bible, which had formerly been attributed to men or stories and teachings completely neglected until female biblical scholars began to uncover them.

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Psalm 22

This is one of the great psalms. If you find it vaguely familiar, it is probably because words from this psalm were on Jesus’s dying lips. Our Lord recited a portion of this psalm as he hung in agony upon the cross. The cross was not a piece of cosmetic jewelry that people are apt to wear today. It was an instrument of torture – an electric chair, so to speak.

While suffering enormously, feeling betrayed and worrying about his mother’s care and his disciples’ safety and the mission that he had led and feeling abandoned by God, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) They are the Bible’s most heart-breaking words. How many of us have dropped to our knees, not in church, but in our home, work, school or a hospital room or a military outpost and wondered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is a universal cry of anguish when we wonder if there any power from beyond to sustain us in our darkest hour. Why did Jesus pray this prayer? It was probably because he was willing to go before each one of us and experience everything that any of us would experience in life. There is nothing that we can undergo that Jesus has not undergone before us. He was baptized into the muddy waters of human sin and betrayal, hurt, failure, frustration and loss. As the prophet Isaiah said, Jesus “is one acquainted with sorrow and touched by grief.” Jesus is the ultimate Good Shepherd who guides us through the wilderness and lead us into green pastures once again, where we can lay down beside still waters.

The lines of this psalm are so powerful. For many years, I, like many clergy, read them aloud on Maundy Thursday while members of our church and fellow clergy stripped the altar bare in a darkened church. Now, our choir poignantly sings this psalm. It is so powerful. The words are so familiar to me.

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
And by night, but I find no rest. (verse 2)

All who see me mock at me;
they make their mouths at me,
they shake their heads;
Commit your cause to the Lord;
let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights (verses 7-8)

Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near and there is no one to help (verse 11)

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast… (verse 14)

But the psalm does not end in despair. Perhaps this, too, is why Jesus chose to quote it as he hung from the cross to atone for our sins. Jesus knew that something brighter was about to happen. Resurrection was coming. He knew that the worst things are never the last things. The future is spelled H.O.P.E., as my friend and mentor John Claypool used to say. Hence the psalmist reminds us,

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you… (verse 22)

The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek [God] shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever! (verse 26)

Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it. (verses 30 – 31)

Reading Scripture aloud is a great way to let the Word of God transform us. I urge you to take time to read this psalm aloud on your own and speak the words with great feeling. It will grip you with it power as you recall that these were among Jesus’s final words, uttered to give us hope as we wander through the wildernesses of life seeking salvation and grace.

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Matthew 22

Everyone who has ever prepared a meal knows what it’s like when people arrive late to the table. Every host or hostess knows how frustrating it is to work hard to prepare for a party and have someone or some people inform them at the last moment that they cannot come.

From time to time I cook dinner for our whole family. I often grill out, but I prepare vegetables, a starch and a dessert as well. I set the table and prepare everything as a gift for my wife and daughters. All they have to do is come, eat and enjoy. My wife, Mims, is great about helping or sitting down when the food is ready. Our daughters, however, sometimes arrive late, which frustrates me.

In Matthew 22, Jesus offers a parable that captures this frustration. He describes the kingdom of heaven as a wedding banquet, which was an ancient Jewish image of the afterlife used long before Jesus was born. Jesus’s listeners could therefore easily comprehend his point.

The king sent out his slaves to tell all of the invitees that dinner is served, the oxen and fatted calves have been slaughtered and everything is ready. One by one, the invitees send their regrets. Some even harm his slaves or kill his messengers.

This king becomes enraged and sends his soldiers to kill the abusers and burn down their city. He then orders other slaves to invite everyone they meet to come and enjoy the banquet. There is no selection process. No list of who’s who. It is random at its best. Yet, this is the kingdom of God – a place where beggars sit beside royalty and prostitutes and tax collectors usurp the places of the rich and famous.

There is a dress code, however, and one person fails to read the random invitation and come wearing a “wedding robe.” The king dresses him down, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” he asks. (Matt. 22:12) There are many different explanations for this. I confess not to know a good one.

I have so much more to learn, but what matters most is not knowing what everything in the Bible means, but putting into action what your know and allowing the Holy Spirit to empower you to love. To understand the meaning of the story of the guest without a “wedding robe,” read William Barclay’s two-volume commentary on The Gospel of Matthew or F.F. Bruce’s The Hard Sayings of Jesus.

Before we conclude, please note that Jesus must once again contend with Pharisees and Sadducees, who are trying to test and trap him. After he has silenced them through his astute responses, a lawyer tests Jesus by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? “ (Matt. 22:36)

A generation before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, who was born in 32 B.C. and lived in Jerusalem during the reign of King Herod, tackled a similar question. Hillel, a renowned Jewish sage and one of the most important figures in Jewish history, was asked if he could summarize the 621 Jewish laws. Hillel accepted the challenge and offered to do it while standing on one leg. He replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

This is essentially what Jesus offers in the second part of his answer to the lawyer, which is known to us as the Summary of the Law or the Two Great Love Commandments. True religion consists of two things – loving God and loving those around us. The two go hand in hand. The first is the vertical dimension of faith and the second is the horizontal dimension. They meet and form a cross, which is where each Christian is called to be.

If we care for others, but neglect our relationship with God, we will burn out and become angry and frustrated. If we contemplate God all day but fail to meet the needs of those around us, our faith will lack credibility and fail to serve others. Each Christian is called to balance developing a relationship with God and reaching out in service to others.

Jesus thus combines the words of the Jewish creed known as the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:5, with the call to love and serve our neighbors as found in Leviticus 19:18. Jesus’s genius was to unite these two vital parts of Judaism which summarized the Jewish law and led to the essence of Christianity, which Jesus summarized when he quoted from the Hebrew Bible saying, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40) This is Christianity in a nutshell.

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Key Verses

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1)

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? “[Jesus] said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:36-40)

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Reading Tip

Reading the Bible aloud is a great way to use your whole body while you read and let God’s message sink in deeper.

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Where have you experienced being in the wilderness? Did you encounter God in that desolate place or did you feel abandoned? How would you summarize true religion? What do you think about Christian doctrine? Are rules important for religion?

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Almighty God, thank you for leading the way and going before each step that we take, preparing a path for us to walk in and from which to serve you. Guide us as we navigate our way through the wilderness and walk toward the land of milk and honey. When we are tempted to cry out in despair, remind us that the future is always spelled H.O.P.E. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania