Category: Exodus (page 1 of 6)

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 1

Most churches are beginning to reopen for in-person Sunday worship. Church leaders are taping off pews, sanitizing doorknobs, and trying to figure out what to do with the kids. There are many questions that come as a church transitions from scattered to gathered in the middle of a global pandemic, some of them seemingly unanswerable. All of us are doing this for the very first time, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But one question that must be answered is this: Why bother?

Central is reopening for public worship next Sunday May 31. And it will not be like it was in February. In fact, it won’t be like it’s ever been in the 112-year history of this congregation. We’re asking our people in the at-risk categories to stay home. We’re blocking off two out of every three pews so we can maintain nine to twelve feet of distance between us. We’re wearing masks. We’re using those individually packaged “Rip n Sip” communion kits (yuk!). No Bible classes for a while, no children’s programming.

What is that going to look like? How is that going to feel?

Eric Gentry is a CofC preacher in Memphis, Tennessee and he wrote an article a couple of weeks ago asking this question: “Is there something about God, church, worship, or community that we are not experiencing now online that we will experience once we return, even under the restrictive conditions? If so, what is it?”

That’s probably the question we need to answer. Whatever “it” is, if we’re eager to experience “it” together at church, we should probably be able to define “it.” I keep hearing how desperate we all are to be back together in the same room, how we can’t wait to meet again as a church. But do we know why? Because when we do come back together, we’ll do so at the risk of compromising the health of our members and guests. It’ll cost us more money in utilities and cleaning than we’ve been spending for the past two months. And with all of us spread out so far apart and wearing masks and the weird communion, it’s going to be a diminished worship experience. It won’t be the same.

So, let’s work through this.

I believe the desire in us to assemble together on Sunday mornings is so deep and so strong because it is the very essence of who we are as God’s people. The Church is God’s gathered people.

In the account of the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bible makes clear that the people in Jerusalem that day had come from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 lists all the foreigners who were there the countries from where they came. The author doesn’t want you to miss it. God had brought these people together from all over and that’s when he established the Church.

Peter preaches that God’s Holy Spirit had raised Jesus from the grave and that Jesus is alive and reigning at the right hand of God and that the crucified Jesus is indeed both Lord and Christ. And three thousand people were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and they each received the gift of God’s Spirit living inside them. And they responded. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, guided by the power of the Spirit, notice how they lived and worshiped and served together.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:42-47

Our God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has saved us and called us to be a gathered together people. Staying away from each other goes against our nature as Christians. It’s like a bird trying not to fly. It’s like Ted Nugent trying not to cuss. It’s not going to last very long. We must be together.

The literal definition of Church in the Bible is an assembly of people. The original Greek word is ekklesia. It means a gathering or assembly of people. You find it 111 times in the New Testament. Everywhere you see the English word “church,” it’s a translation of the Greek word for assembly.

David Watson writes, “The word ekklesia always speaks of the coming together of God’s people in answer to his call, in order to meet with God in the company of each other, and to meet each other in the presence of God.”

Meeting together — it’s the very definition of who we are. We are first and foremost a gathered people.

The Christian faith is an embodied faith. Coming together to share the same space, to breathe the same air, and to eat and drink the same meal embodies our incarnational God. In Christ Jesus, our God joins us in physical bodily form and calls us to also come together in community in one another’s physical, bodily, face to face presence. The things we do together like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing are communal acts meant to be shared and experienced in community. We don’t baptize ourselves. We break bread together. We believe the Church, the assembly of God’s people, is a spiritual reality that is manifest and given its power in physical acts done by physical people in physical proximity.

Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m right there with them!”

I think that’s the “it.”

That’s what is so special about Sunday mornings together. It’s the unique presence of our God with us when his people all physically come together. It’s the powerful presence of God with his people on the Day of Assembly. It’s God himself eating and drinking with his people when they come together at Mount Sinai. It’s the Lord’s glory appearing in the midst of his assembled people during the appointed times. Being together in the same physical space in the presence of God — that’s the deal! That’s what we’re craving.

And you can’t get it online.

Peace,

Allan

The Power of God to Save

The Israelites are cornered. Trapped. They’re in a cul-de-sac, a bottle neck of disaster — the Red Sea on one side, the desert mountains on the other side, and the mighty forces of the Egyptian army barrelling down on top of them. They’re dead.

And our God shows his power over nature and history to split the sea right down the middle so two million of his people can pass through on dry ground. Israel saw the conquered Egyptians lying dead on the shore. They had proof. Their enemies were vanquished and powerless to ever do them any more harm. The escape is complete. Salvation is secure. And when they saw the great power displayed by the Lord, they put their trust in him, they swear their allegiance to him. And their lives are shaped by their utter dependence on the one who saves them.

That’s our story, too. That’s who we are. That’s the point of the Exodus story.

The point is not “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). We’ll miss the whole point of this grand theological message if we reduce it down to some moral lesson like “Be faithful in a tight fix” or “Don’t be afraid in tough times, just be still and let God take care of you.” No, that’s not what this story is about. It’s so much bigger than that.

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is not to tell us what to do. It’s to tell us how to think. This story is intended to shape our worldview. This story informs and motivates the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, the way we see and experience every person and place and thing and idea we encounter.

The Exodus is not a pep talk. The Exodus is our god moving his people from one kind of existence to another. It’s an understanding that God is your God because he’s acted in your life to deliver you. You get the idea when Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

When you go through the waters of salvation, you leave all your old stories behind. You see your enemies on the shore, your old enemies of sin and death and sickness and addiction and pain — all those things are eternally defeated in the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ.

“By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” ~1 Corinthians 6:14

That is the Gospel: The power of God to save! The power of God to save two million Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea and the power of God to save you and everybody else in the whole world. The power is his. And he uses it to save.

Peace,

Allan

God at Work: With Us

“We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.'” ~2 Corinthians 6:16

In Exodus 24, God has come down to his people on a mountain. He comes to be  near them, to be with them. He’s keeping his covenant promise to live with us, to dwell among us. And you see all three of the Church sacraments in this passage. The people have assembled together in God’s presence. It’s the Day of Assembly. And the people are worshiping. They hear the Word of the Lord and they respond, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do!” They’re making burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and sacrifices to God. The people are being washed by blood. Paul says in 1 Corinthians these people were all baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. But they are certainly being cleansed.

“Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you…’ Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel… They saw God and they ate and drank.” ~Exodus 24:8-11

God comes to his people, he cleanses us, he makes us righteous and whole, and he eats and drinks with us. We see God at the table.

But that’s not enough for our God. It’s not close enough to us. So he makes his dwelling place in the tabernacle in the desert and, later, inside the temple in Jerusalem. But that’s not close enough to us for our Father. So he comes here himself in the physical flesh and blood of Jesus. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He tabernacle with us as one of us.

When Jesus was baptized, Luke tells us “all the people were being baptized.” Matthew says the people came “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to be baptized. And Jesus joins us in the water. He meets us there in our cleansing. God’s presence is there. The dove, the Holy Spirit, the voice of God affirming and commissioning: “You are my child, I am proud of you.”

And Jesus meets us in worship. The Gospels say he went to the synagogue regularly, as was his custom. He went to the temple, faithfully, for the corporate assemblies and festivals. He never missed. And he ate and drank with everybody — rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, sinners and saints.  He ate with Mary and Martha and tax collectors in their own houses. He set up a picnic with 4,000 Gentiles out in the wilderness. He got in trouble because he refused to discriminate. He ate with all of us!

That last night with his closest disciples, around the table, he’s eating with us. “This is my blood of the covenant,” our Lord says.

“I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God… I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” ~Luke 22:15-18

And then on the day of his resurrection, Jesus can’t wait to eat with his disciples. He makes lunch plans with two of them on the road to Emmaus and when Jesus breaks the bread, they “see” him. That evening he shows up where the apostles are, right in the middle of dinner. They’re not sure it’s him — maybe this is a ghost. So Jesus asks for a piece of fish and eats it “in their presence.” Later, when people ask Peter how he knows Jesus is alive, he replies, “Because we ate and drank with him after he was raised from the dead!”

But that’s not enough for our God. He wants to be even closer. He doesn’t want his presence with us to be limited by physical space. So he pours out his Holy Spirit on everybody. By his Spirit, God Almighty takes up residence, he tabernacles, he makes his dwelling place, inside each of us and all of us.

We see all these sacraments on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call… Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day… They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:38-47

Look, baptism doesn’t work because we believe all the right things and we say all the right words. Baptism saves us because God is there. God meets us in the water. He forgives us, he cleanses us, he unites with us in baptism. He connects us to the salvation death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord so he can live with us.

And Jesus doesn’t meet us at the table to shame us. It’s not, “Look what I had to do for you — remember it!” It’s his gift to us, this sacred time with him and with one another where God accepts us and affirms us, where he nourishes us and sustains our lives. It’s not, “I had to die for you — be grateful!” It’s, “I love you; I want to eat with you.” It’s an invitation.

And worship doesn’t work because we’ve got it figured out and we’re good at it. Worship works because God is with us and he’s working. His presence is with us. God is speaking to us by his Word. Christ Jesus is eating with us and nurturing us at the table. And the Spirit is interceding for us with words we can’t begin to describe.

Our actions don’t move God to grace; God’s grace moves him to action. These sacraments, these ordinances, are gifts of God’s grace to us. He initiated these things we do together. In baptism and at the table, together with God’s people in holy assembly, God says to us, “We can meet each other here.” That’s his promise: I will meet you here.

He left heaven to give these gifts to us. He came to us and suffered and died for us in order to be close to you. He wants to be near you. He wants to change you and make you whole. He loves you. He wants to eat with you. It’s an invitation.

In baptism and at the table and during the assembly, God promises, “I’m here. You may not see me every time, you may not feel it every time, but I’m here. You may feel far from me, but I am present with you in these special times and places. I am near you. I am cleansing you and nourishing you and changing you.”

This is God’s work in transforming encounter, in the sacraments. Even if you don’t see it or feel it, you can trust it.

Peace,

Allan

Partnership

AngelsLongToLook

“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” ~Genesis 12:3

God calls his people and saves them and changes them in order to bless the whole world. He pulls them out of Egypt, he rescues them from slavery, and he gathers them to his presence on the mountain to commission them for his work on behalf of all the earth.

“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” ~Exodus 19:4-6

Israel belongs to God. And, yes, they are called out to be separate from the world. But they are not separate in that they live in isolation from the other nations. As holy and priestly, Israel’s purpose is to save and bless the entire world in a partnership with God. The covenant is international in scope. It’s global. Israel is saved, not just for Israel’s sake, but so God can work through them to save all of humanity.

When God’s people break the covenant, when they live their lives in ways that are not holy, yes, it has serious implications for their relationship with God. But, much bigger than that, it thwarts the salvation plans of heaven for everybody else. In the exile, when Israel felt the full weight of the consequences of her disobedience, the focus in Scripture is on how it’s impacting the salvation of the rest of the world.

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob  and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” ~Isaiah 49:6

Even in the darkest period of Israel’s history, when her own release from captivity was the most pressing concern, God reminds his people of the bigger picture. He reminds them that it’s not just about them. Why are they going to be released? Why are they going to be saved? For the sake of others, not themselves. To use God’s blessings to bring salvation to the rest of the world.

We are covenant partners with the God of Heaven and Earth.

Somehow, though, we have encouraged the question, “What can God do for me?” or “What can the Church do for me?” Somehow, we’ve nurtured a culture that’s concerned with, “What can I get out of believing in God? or “What can I get out of going to Church?” Somehow, we’ve fostered an attitude that being a Christian means not much more than going to church to ask God for what we need and to thank him for what he’s given us. And that’s all. No wonder strong, smart, healthy people are completely bored out of their minds with church! And Christianity!

We are not just creatures of God. We are creatures uniquely made in God’s image, equipped by God and empowered by God as God’s partners in and for the world. We are partners whom God has invited and commanded to join his business of preserving and caring for the world. Of doing justice and showing compassion in human society. Sharing the suffering of those who suffer and freeing those who are enslaved by their own sins and oppressed by the sins of others.

Being in covenant with God is not a passive thing. It’s not just hanging around the church building waiting for Jesus to come back. It’s not like just sitting in the dark, eating your popcorn and talking to your friend, while you wait for the movie to start. We’re in the movie! We’re in the play! By virtue of the covenant, we’ve all been given and have all accepted the holy responsibility to advance the salvation cause of our God.

Peace,

Allan

Presence

Tabernacle

“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” ~Genesis 17:7

We’re going to be together. We’re going to live together, just like in the garden in the very beginning. God says we’re going to occupy the same places together just like in Act One. The covenant is about God being visibly, physically present with his people.

When he delivers them from Egypt, God leads them from a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Scripture tells us neither pillar “left its place in front of the people.”

And then God brings his people to a mountain in the middle of the desert and he tells them the details of the covenant. God is right there, physically and visibly on the mountain. There’s smoke and fire, thunder and lightning. The people are trembling with fear.

“They offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” ~Exodus 24:5-11

God uses the blood of the covenant, the blood of the sacrifice, to cleanse his people so they can sit down together and share a meal. They saw God and they ate and drank. The blood made them righteous. Because of the blood, God considered them holy, so they could be right there in his face-to-face presence. Eating together! With God! It’s remarkable! But that kind of proximity, that kind of physical relationship and presence, is what God and the humans had in the garden in Act One. And that’s what God is working to restore with his covenant.

God longs to physically live with his people. So, next, he tells them to build him a tent.

“Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” ~Exodus 29:45-46

“I will put my dwelling place among you… I will walk among you and be your God and you will be my people.” ~Leviticus 26:11-12

This is the promise, this is the language through the rest of the Old Testament. I will live with you; you will be my people and I will be your God. At the tabernacle. At the temple. Five times in Ezekiel. Five times in Jeremiah. Three times in Zechariah. God gives us his covenant so we can live together with him in his presence.

Peace,

Allan

Revelation

EscapeValerie bought her first car yesterday: a 2008 Ford Escape with just 46,000 miles and one previous owner. Leather seats. Moon roof. Power everything. And clean. A far cry from the ’74 Monte Carlo I bought with roofing money when I was sixteen. This is a pretty sweet ride. Her mom and I matched the money she had saved and now Val’s cruising around campus and Canyon in her own set of wheels. Her “whip,” she calls it. I have no idea what that means.

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GloryGod gives us his covenant and he works through his covenant to reveal himself. He tells us who he is, he shows the world who he is, by his covenant actions with his people. In Exodus 34, God does not destroy his people after the golden calf incident, although he wants to. Moses talks him out of it. Instead, God reveals his glory to Moses. He tells Moses his full name, he discloses to his people exactly who he is:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” ~Exodus 34:6-7

It’s such an important revelation of God that it’s quoted nine times in the Old Testament. This is who God is. These are his eternal characteristics, his eternal nature. And you find these character traits on display as God keeps his covenant Word to his people. It’s a very helpful exercise in reading and interpreting the Bible, I think, to look for these characteristics in every passage. Is revealing his compassion here? Is God demonstrating his patience here? Is this where God shows me that he’s forgiving? It’s important to God that we know him; we should look for it in his Scriptures.

There’s a well known Assyrian prayer that’s titled “A Prayer to Every God.” And in this pagan prayer, the worshiper is trying to appease a god from his anger over some offense the worshiper has committed. There are only two problems: One, he doesn’t know which god is angry and, two, he doesn’t know what he did wrong. So he makes a bunch of confessions to sins he doesn’t know if he’s committed or not. And each confession is addressed to “the god I do know or the god I do not know.” Maybe he’s eaten a forbidden fruit he knows nothing about. Maybe he accidentally wandered into a sacred space nobody told him about. The prayer is so frustrating and hopeless. You can hear the desperation at the end:

“Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
when I weep, they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled; I am overwhelmed; I cannot see…
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
mankind, everyone that exists — what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not ever know.”

This is how we would be without revelation. That’s why the covenant is so important, that’s why God’s law was such a treasure to Israel: because God had spoken to them. In an act of divine grace, God communicates to his people what pleases him and what angers him. We don’t have to guess.

Today, we look back at some of the Old Testament laws and we criticize the strictness and we question the seeming arbitrariness of some of it. But you don’t get that reaction from the Hebrews themselves. They seemed rather relieved that their God had agreed to define a relationship with them.

The covenant is about revelation.

When God’s planning and raining down the ten plagues on Egypt, he states over and over again it’s so “you will know that I am the Lord” and so “all of Egypt will know that I am the Lord.” When the Israelites were getting close to Jericho, Rahab told the two spies they were all afraid because they had heard about what God did to Egypt. She claimed their hearts had all melted at the news “for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” When the Israelites cross the Jordan River, the people are told that God divided the waters “so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”

When you have a covenant with God, you no longer have a remote, unapproachable God. You have a God you can know. A God you can count on. It’s important to God that we know who he is. And he reveals himself in clear terms though his covenant actions in Act Three.

Peace,

Allan

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