Thursday, August 25, 2011

Heeding the Voice -- A Lectionary Meditation


Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-12
Matthew 16:21-28

Heeding the Voice

            When people claim to hear voices or have visions, especially voices and visions that are said to come from God, we tend not to take these persons very seriously.  There have been too many false messiahs and saviors, from David Koresh to Jim Jones, for us to pay much heed to their voices.  Like Muammar Gaddafi, they seem to have convinced themselves that they’re more important than they really are. 

When these alleged prophets, when speaking for God, call on us to take up dangerous tasks, we treat them as if they were sending us an email from a Nigerian prince needing to get millions of dollars out of the country – just send a little of yours as a way of making this happen.  Of course, divine voices don’t usually ask us to drink poisoned kool-aid, but they do, on occasion the do ask us to let go of everything we have and follow God’s lead – consider St. Francis of Assisi.   The question is, are we ready to heed the voice of God when God calls?
          
  The passage from Exodus 3 is one of the best known biblical stories.  If nothing else we have seen it dramatized in that 1950s epic movie featuring Charlton Heston as Moses.  You know the scene, the one where Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to check it out.  Then you have Jesus’ revelation that God was directing his path toward Jerusalem, where things would get really messy, and Peter, acting in a rather rational way, tries to convince Jesus that maybe he’s misheard things.  In the midst of these two stories of divine calls, Paul steps in and offers us a strong description of what the kingdom life should look like.  Together these three texts invite us to consider what it means to actually heed the voice of God.  The question is – are we willing to “bet the farm”? 

            It’s important to consider Moses’ situation when he sees this burning bush on the Mountain of God.  Remember that he had this shepherding job because he had to flee Pharaoh’s wrath after intervening on behalf of a Hebrew slave and killing the Egyptian task-master who was beating him.  You have to wonder though, if there’s more to the story.  Could DeMille be on to something when in his version someone let the cat out of the bag concerning his secret Hebrew identity?  Might Pharaoh see a traitor in his midst and thus Moses had to flee? 

So, here he is, in the Sinai, spotting a bush burning but not being consumed, in the distance.  Since this wasn’t a normal occurrence, Moses felt compelled to check it out.  As he drew close, a voice from the bush speaks his name and commands him to take off the sandals, because this is holy ground.  Then comes the big revelation – the one speaking from the bush is none other than the God of his father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   Curiosity quickly gives way to fright at this revelation.  But this isn’t the last frightening revelation.  Not only is this an epiphany of the God of his ancestors, but this God has a job for him.  Since God has heard the cries of the people and seen their plight, God has chosen to act, to deliver them, and Moses is God’s chosen vessel.  The one who fled from Pharaoh’s wrath, and yet was rejected by his own people, is now being called to go down to Egypt, free the Hebrews from their bondage, and lead them to the land of milk and honey, which by the way is already occupied by other peoples.  Moses is probably saying to himself:  “thanks for the honor, but I’d rather not.”  He might have said: “You see, there’s a bounty on my head back home in Egypt, and if I go there I’m sure to die.  Besides, the Hebrews either don’t know me or they don’t trust me, so why should they follow me?”  Following the voice of God can get us in trouble, which is probably why most of us take the safe route and ignore the voice.  But Moses is at least willing to continue the conversation.  He even has the temerity to ask the bush to identify itself.  What’s your name?  Now remember that there was a belief that the power of the divine was found in the name and if you knew the name you could control the deity.  Was this what Moses was asking for – the key to unlocking the mysterious power of God?  Whatever Moses is asking, the voice says – tell them “I AM Who I AM” sent me.  That should do it!  So, go into the lion’s den and tell Pharaoh to let my people go and tell the people that I’ve sent you to rescue them.   Wouldn’t you heed a voice like that?

            Something similar might be happening in the Gospel text from Matthew 16.  Jesus reveals his future plans to the disciples for the first time – I’m going to Jerusalem, and I’m going to suffer and die.  Wow, now that’s a revelation that’s sure to be welcomed with open arms.  At least God didn’t tell Moses to go back to Egypt with the express purpose to suffer and die.  It might be a dangerous mission, but it seemed as if in the end Moses would be successful.  But this is different, and Peter recognized this fact.  Just a few verses earlier he had declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God, and Jesus had commended him for this – Jesus even changed  his name to reflect this recognition.  Peter understood that as successful messiah shouldn’t suffer and die.  In fact, Peter was willing to give up a lot for this cause, because he saw something of great value in Jesus and his message.  This was no ordinary man.  He was the one whom God had sent, but suffering and dying, surely that wasn’t part of the package.  And so Peter did what many of us would do.  He tried to talk sense into Jesus.  No lord, this isn’t the way things are supposed to work.  Are you sure you’ve heard the right voice?  But Jesus was not to be deterred.  In fact he calls Peter Satan.  The one who is the Rock, who held the keys to the realm of God, was now the tempter, the stumbling block, who would try to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his calling.   Jesus says to Peter – you’re thinking human thoughts not divine ones. 

            And then, in order to impress on Peter what it means to heed the voice of God, he says that if you want to be a disciple you have to take up the cross and lose your life, because if you try to save your life, you will end up losing it.  So, what does that mean for us?  How do we, who live in this modern world, especially we who live in the West, with our homes and cars and electronic devices heed this call?  Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest that this means that “the only way to have one’s life in any ultimate sense is to accept that it is a loving gift of God’s grace and spend it in the love of God and neighbor” (Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews, p. 69.).    Thus, if we are to heed the voice of God, we will cease focusing on ourselves and love God and neighbor, and to do otherwise is to be dead. 

            I turn finally to Paul’s words to the Romans.   They don’t speak directly to the matter of heeding a divine voice, at least not one that directs one to lose one’s life, but they do speak to the way we live in community – both inside and outside that community.  This passage begins with a lengthy list that encourages us to live in community out of a love that is genuine and not false.    Paul does suggest that we should be patient in our suffering and persevere in prayer, which fits well with Jesus’ own words, and even Moses’ own situation.  Paul calls on the Romans to care for those saints who are in need and show hospitality to strangers.  Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  This is a word about true community, a community of people committed to each other’s welfare, something we rarely see in our culture, even in the church.  These aren’t easy words to abide.  It’s not that they’re not true, it’s just we’re not used living this way.  And then comes the kicker – don’t repay evil for evil, but keep focused on what is noble in the sight of all.  This sounds a lot like turning the other cheek.  Again, these are words that don’t sit well with us in our age.

           One of the most important words to hear in the New Testament is its rejection of the law of retaliation.  Jesus speaks to this issue in his word about turning the other cheek, and Paul makes it absolutely clear in this passage – whatever avenging needs to take place, leave that to God.  Now, even that word might not sit well with everyone, and indeed, I struggle with this word about God’s wrath, but it does remove responsibility for taking matters into our own hand.  Matters of ultimate justice are best left in the hands of one who is best equipped to make the right decision.  Human nature is always tempted to seek revenge.  That is the message of the movie The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Mary Surratt, convicted by a military tribunal of participating in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, even though there was little evidence to support this conviction.  That wasn’t the point, though.  In the mind of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and many Union supporters, someone had to pay for this crime, and that was enough.  It is the concern that many have right now as we watch Libya emerge from civil war.  It’s interesting that many who have no stake in this game are warning against taking vengeance, when there is sufficient evidence that we ourselves want to do this very thing in our own situations.  How many, for instance, felt vindication at hearing that Osama Bin Laden’s death?  Admit it, you weren’t sorry were you?  But Paul says to us – do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Is this possible?  Perhaps it is if we’re able to set aside the obstacles to hearing the voice of God, which calls on us to lay down our lives in order to find them.   

            As I conclude this reflection, which calls us to heed the difficult calling of God, I want to share a prayer for peace written by John Philip Newell:

May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That we may share earth’s goodness.
May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That our children may meet and marry.
May our enemy become our friend, O God,
That we may remember our shared birth in you.
May we grow in grace
May we grow in gratitude
May we grow in wisdom
That our enemy may become our friend.
(Newell, Praying with the Earth, p. 36).

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