Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Hands

All Hands

Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Exodus 17:8-16

Aaron and Hur held up [Moses’] hands, one on

one side and one on the other side; so his

hands were steady until the sun set.

As the scripture passage was being read this morning, did you find yourself wincing just a little bit? Did you think to yourself, “Gee, I wish the kids were out of the room...”?

Holy War has been a topic much in the news for about a decade now, but not usually from a Jewish or Christian point of view. If we hear about holy war these days, we are more apt to hear about Islamic “jihad” than about ancient Israel’s “Holy wars” against the enemies of God’s people. There is little wonder why a passage such as this is so seldom a subject for preaching in the churches. I have a catalogue of over 800 of my own sermons that I have preached over my career in ministry, as well as more than 4,000 sermons by other preachers. I can search the catalogue of these sermons by title, or date, or scripture passage – which I did not long ago, and I discovered that not only had I never preached on this particular passage, but among those 4,000+ sermons in books, binders and on my computer, there was not a single sermon by other pastors on the passage either. Actually I am not surprised. Are you? Additionally, this Holy War text, along with most others like it in books such as Judges, are not included in lectionaries of readings for worship. But inasmuch as this is the sort of Bible passage that many people hold up as an objection to faith in the God of the Bible, I think it demands more from us than simple avoidance.

Preaching on a passage like this reminds me of an old story that circulates among preachers. I remember an older pastor sharing it with me when I was a young pastor, just beginning to find my preacing voice. It seems a young, brilliant new assistant pastor had arrived fresh from seminary to his first call in ministry in a church where an older, veteran pastor was the head of staff. The personable young upstart was an instant hit with the congregation, which might not have annoyed the senior pastor so much, had it not been for the younger man’s arrogance. After receiving thanks for a nice sermon, the younger man would invariably declare, “I can preach on anything!”

Finally, the older pastor had had enough. Instead of letting him pick his own subject the next time he was to preach, he went to his young colleague, intent on assigning him a subject that would be well nigh impossible, even for an expert. He told the young man, “I going to assign you the subject for your sermon this week.” The young man replied, with characteristic overconfidence, “Fine, I can preach on anything!”

“Good, then,” said the older man, “your subject for this Sunday is ‘constipation.’” The younger man staggered a bit, wondering where he would even find scripture for a subject like that. But he was determined not to show his uncertainty. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll get to work on it.”

When Sunday came, the older man left the chancel when it came time for the sermon, eager to see from the pews how this self-important young fellow was going to get out of this predicament. The young man went to the pulpit, opened the Bible, and said to the congregation, “Today, the pastor has asked me to preach about constipation...” There was an audible gasp from the congregation. He continued, “...and my text for this sermon is from Exodus 24: “When Moses went up the mountain, he took two tablets...”

That story is an oldie but a goodie among preachers. The problem for me today, though, is I can’t blame anyone else for choosing this passage from Exodus, I assigned it to myself! But I did so because I think difficult passages deserve our attention if we are determined to be a people of the Book. Among the reasons we need to understand them better is that:

· Such texts provide a chief point of objection that many make to following a biblical faith, especially among those who cannot abide what they sometimes call the “vengeful God” of the Old Testament;

· Such texts cause us to wonder how we can claim to have a foundation of faith that differs from other “religions of violence,” when such passages are in the Bible between the same covers that contain lovely words about the “Prince of Peace.”

The central explanation about this passage, and others like it, requires a degree of sophistication about God’s purposes over the expanse of scripture more than in a single story or a few verses at a time, especially as expressed in the first five books of the Old Testament. The Bible begins with stories of creation, and almost immediately, the forces that would thwart God’s purposes in creating the world make their entrance: Disobedience in the Garden, Cain killing his brother Able, Noah sailing off leaving the whole rotten world behind, and eventually, the people of promise, the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, finding themselves enslaved in Egypt, which had at first been their refuge. In Egypt we discover the Pharaoh countermands the commands of God in creation. While God said “Be fruitful and multiply,” Pharaoh instructs all male children of Israel to be killed, thereby seeking to thwart the very will of God.

God’s instructions concerning the Amalekites in our present passage emerge from a similar concern. God has willed a land for his people. Unlike those who would be Israel’s peaceful neighbors, the Amalekites, living to the south of Biblical Israel, were nomads with caravan routes to protect, and they attacked Israel when it was divided and weak, picking off those who lagged behind on their way to the promised land.[1] Apparently their behavior was merciless, and enmity developed between the two peoples. It’s important to remember this, God’s instruction concerning them, came after Israel had been attacked at a point of extreme vulnerability, when their very future as a people of promise hung in the balance, it was at this time that Amalek sought to exterminate them. It would not be too out of character to associate this with the extermination of Jews sought by Hitler. It was not all that many decades ago that we believed Naziism had to be eliminated, and it’s not too great a stretch to understand this Bible passage in the same way for the survival of the vulnerable Israelites. The Amalekites had followed in the footsteps of Pharaoh, seeking the extermination of Israel.

So then, what happened? You’ll have to read through more of the Old Testament to find out what eventually happened to the Amalekites. I’ll give you a hint, though: it wasn’t a peaceful resolution.[2]

In this account, it is important to see that Moses’ “hand” and the “staff” are all mixed up, which in its own way mirrors the necessity for the action of God to be in company with human action for the accomplishment of God’s will.

Which, as we have been wrapping up our fall stewardship efforts, reminds me of an old stewardship story that circuates among preachers.

There once was a pastor, who had been praying faithfully, night and day, for a solution to his church’s financial difficulties. One day, he looked up from his prayers in astonishment. “I have heard your prayers,” said the vision of the Lord now standing before him, “and I will grant your request: all the financial problems of your church will be solved. I have but one question for you: would you prefer a natural or supernatural solution to your problem?”

The pastor, a truly humble servant, replied, “Thank you, Lord, but I could never ask for a miracle, for that might draw attention to me. Please solve our church’s problem in a natural way.”

With that, the pastor looked up, and saw that the entire room was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills, bars of gold, piles of diamonds, more wealth than he could possibly imagine. He was overwhelmed, and baffled at the same time; and so he prayed once again to God, “I’m very pleased about this, Lord, and please don’t misunderstand me, but I thought I asked for the natural solution.”

“That is the natural solution,” God replied. “The supernatural solution would have been for everyone in your church to have made a dramatic increase in their giving.”

But we know the reverse is really true, don’t we? The “supernatural” solution to Israel’s difficulties in the Exodus would have been for God to send lightning bolts against the enemies of Israel. The natural way was for God to empower the people, and for the people to respond in partnership with God’s own action, that together they might address and triumph over their difficulties. That is the natural way.

In our lives we are often struck by the difficulty of change, both institutional and personal, and how to cope with it. One guide through such changes as we know them is the experience of the people of Israel, journeying through the wilderness.

In one of the most intense crises of change we can possibly imagine – a military battle – Israel was attacked at a point of weakness by the Amalekites. Though at the time they may not have fully appreciated it, the Israelites had a secret weapon: the staff of Moses. The staff is a powerful reminder of God’s presence with them, but they can only receive the assurance of the promise as long as Moses can keep it in view, raised in the air for them to see.

Moses did become tired, he was only human, after all, and when his aides, Aaron and Hur, realized this, they rushed over to their leader and propped up his tired arms with their own. They stood on either side of him until the sun set, helping him hold his position, and by doing so, they assured their army of victory. Moses learned of the strength to be gained from other people in community, holding up the sign of the promise of God before the people.

For us, the ultimate staff held before us, strengthening us in our daily anxiety and struggle, is the cross of Christ, a special staff of God. Power has different, even contrasting, faces – today is a day called “Christ the King Sunday” on church calendars, a day to think on the rule of Christ over the world. God’s people claim that victory comes with God, not only through our beckoning, but through God’s act with our participation.

When we strive together to be the community of Christ that God has in mind for us in this place, we are deciding whether to hold up the Savior’s arms or let them fall. I say we hold them up, all hands, every one.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Deuteronomy 20:10-18; 25:19.

[2] Here are a couple of hints: See I Chronicles 4:43 and compare I Samuel 15:1 ff.