(Read Exodus 3:1-12, Luke 4:9-12
Among our greatest attribute as humans is our ability to imagine. When I look at a new painting or read a new novel or listen to a new piece of music – or even a piece I’m familiar with – I am not only in awe of the art; I’m in awe of the artist who created it. Even if I don’t particularly like the piece of art, the music, the novel, I can still admire the person who created it and appreciate the imagination that went into the composition.
And that same gift of imagination is at the core of religion. I see the Bible not as a perfect composition that presents a comprehensive understanding of the being that we call GOD; I see it as a text composed by imaginative people who are striving to present an audience with something that is beyond what they observe. In our life we observe good and bad; we see the compassion of a mother for her child and we see the greed that would cause a child to suffer from some deprivation. We see great acts of generosity and we see depraved acts of violence, but in religion we strive to comprehend what is the ultimate good, and we call that good GOD. And while I don’t believe that God is a figment of our imagination, I DO believe that a fuller understanding of God requires us to use our imaginations. We speak of God in the third person – “he” or “she” – because we sense a distance between us and God, between the IDEAL and the PERFECT and the REALITY of our world. God is perfect; the world ISN’T. Yet we strive to know God in a more personal way, to refer to God in the second person YOU instead of the third person He or She.
And what makes organized religion so essential to the world is the disciple’s zeal to pursue the divine, the perfect, the righteous, the holy. It’s not easy, and we consistently fall short, but we strive nonetheless, in our words, in our deeds, and in our beliefs and in our theology. Organized religion has always fallen short of emulating the divine – we’ve had and continue to have our “holy” wars, we continue to persecute and oppress people “in the name of God.” But we strive nonetheless, and every once in a while we get something very right.
Love, for example. People of various religions who assert belief in a God also assert that God is loving, compassionate, that acts of selfless love and compassion are divine and those of selfishness and cruelty are evil. And the scripture of various faith traditions all expound on what God’s love is like; the apostle Paul does a great job of this in one of his letters to the church in Corinth. He writes that “(love) is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
As Christians we describe God’s love as UNCONDITIONAL; in fact we define love itself as UNCONDITIONAL because you can’t really call it love if there are strings attached. God loves us regardless of our own ability or inability to love. And the eschatological vision that we have of the KINGDOM OF GOD imagines a place and time where love rules all things. That’s one reason I love the institution of marriage; it involves two human beings who attempt to love one another with the same zeal and commitment as we imagine God has for us. I don’t understand marriages that include prenuptial agreements; if you’re striving for a perfect love, a prenuptial agreement is out of place; it’s an admission that you’re not striving for love, that you are intent upon protecting your personal interests and that you are therefore unwilling to trust your partner to look after your interests as you are unwilling to look after his or hers. It’s more of a business deal, and idealized love is left out of that equation. No, a Christian marriage – and I imagine a Muslim marriage, a Jewish marriage, a Buddhist or a Hindu marriage – imagine and pursue an ideal love, and that a pursuit should not be thwarted or compromised.
And implicit in the pursuit of divine love is the pursuit of divine trust. That’s where I’m going with today’s sermon – what it means to trust God and TO BE TRUSTED BY GOD. In our Gospel lesson we find Jesus, the embodiment of divinity, exhibiting that ideal trust in God; the devil wants Jesus to make God PROVE his love for Jesus:
“..throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)” because if you are his son he won’t let any harm come to you. It says so right here in the Bible.”
Make God prove his love for you! Make God show you that you are indeed precious and beloved in his eyes. Couched in that temptation is the notion that GOD CAN’T BE TRUSTED.
But love involves trust, and a lack of trust compromises love. And Jesus is unwilling to compromise his love for God.
And so he replies to the devil, “Do not put God to the test.” Because to do so is to express your doubt that God – the ideal good – is less than God.
And so the first take home from today’s message is not to test God but to love God and to trust that God loves you. Whatever may happen in your life, trust that God loves you. Maintain that faith. You can get angry with God; you can wrestle with God as Jacob did; you can cry out in despair to God, as Jesus did from the cross. But never ever doubt the love and goodness of God.
The second take home has to do with the Old Testament lesson, and that is to know that because God loves he entrusts you to do great things. God entrusted Jesus to do great things, and Jesus took the ball and ran with it. Moses also took the ball, but he was a bit slow about running with it.
He had his reasons. For one, Moses was a fugitive; there was the murder charge waiting for him back in Egypt. Furthermore he was living a pretty good life in Midian. He’s got a wife and children, and a steady job shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep.
But my guess is that Moses was haunted by some memories. There was the memory of the Egyptian overseer abusing the Hebrew slaves and the righteous anger that evoked in him. There was the memory of him killing the overseer, and hiding the body. There was the memory of the Hebrew who confronted him the following day, letting Moses know that they were aware of the murder he had committed. And perhaps Moses was haunted by questions about his own identity. The Hebrew was aware of Moses’ guilt had identified the victim as “the Egyptian.” Wasn’t Moses an Egyptian as well? And yet he had killed a man for abusing the slaves, the Hebrews. Did Moses know that he himself was a Hebrew? These must have been memories and questions that came to Moses often as he was engaged in the lonely work of shepherding.
And then one day Moses led the flock to a place that the Bible describes as “beyond the wilderness.” Moses went further than he had ever gone before, into unknown territory – not only physical territory but spiritual territory as well – to the wilderness where we meet God. Beyond the familiar. Beyond the comfort zone, to a strange new place where he sees the most unusual sight he has ever seen; a bush that seems to be burning but is not consumed by the flames. On top of that, the bush talks. It knows Moses’ name. And it identifies itself as none other than God himself.
And why did this bush converse with Moses? It wasn’t to punish him for his transgressions. It wasn’t to rescue him from thirst or starvation. It wasn’t to assure him that he would be protected or blessed or have a lot of children. It was, rather, to commission him.
God’s compassion is manifest in his words: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” It’s clear that God is loving, but
God is not just a passive God who comes to comfort us when we’re down; God takes action in our lives. God injects himself into human history.
But there’s more! GOD ENTRUSTS US TO HELP HIM ACCOMPLISH HIS WILL. It’s not a matter of God passing the buck to Moses and saying “you handle it.” It’s a matter of God expressing his trust in US. WHICH, AS I SAID, IS INDICATIVE OF GOD’S LOVE FOR US! If you love someone, you trust them, and just as we should trust God, God should trust us. And he does, though we can be a very stiff-necked people when we want to be.
Moses was a little stiff-necked at the start of this adventure; if you read a little further into Exodus, past the point where our lesson ends, you’ll find Moses giving all sorts of reasons why he SHOULDN’T entrust Moses with such an important task as leading the Israelites out of Egypt. But God – being God – offers the solution to every one of Moses’ objections.
But it is good to know that God trusts us to do great things, even when we don’t feel up to the task. And it’s REALLY good to know that God helps us in doing what God wants us to do. When we make strides for peace and justice and care and compassion for our neighbors and even the strangers and the aliens, God is there, walking with us, laughing with us, rejoicing with us, and removing obstacles from the path of progress that he leads us on.
Trust in God, but know also that God trusts in you.