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Archive for October, 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Judges 2:8-19 (The Story, Chapter 8)

“A Worthwhile Inheritance”

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Samson and Delilah.  Gideon laying out the fleece to test God.  Deborah leading the men into battle.  Familiar names.  Many of us learned about these characters as kids in Sunday School, but few of us know their stories in context.

When we look beyond the Sunday School stories, the book of Judges is rather puzzling – who were these people, really?  What did they do?

And then there’s the question of where they fit in Israel’s history.  There is little mention in Judges of the covenant or the temple or any of the other religious trappings that we’ve seen so far in the story of God relating to God’s people.  So where do these judges belong in the story?

Let me give you some background that will help to make sense of the book.

First of all, the name of the book – “Judges” – is a bit of a misnomer, at least in its English translation.  The word comes from a Greek translation of a Hebrew word meaning “governor or administrator.”  While the traditional translation is “judge,” it is not a judicial word at all, at least not in the sense that we think of judges today.  The title didn’t mean that they settled disputes or heard court cases (Deborah might have been in that profession – according to 4:4-5 – but that is incidental to her title as a ‘judge’).

Most accurately, perhaps, the judges would have been regional tribal leaders.  Israel was, at this time in its history, a loose confederation of tribes descendent from the 12 sons of Jacob.  They had some unified leadership under Moses and Joshua, but it would be another 400 or so years before they were consolidated into a single nation under a king.  In the meantime, the judges were probably local leaders who showed bravery in battle against another city-state or tribe, and thus gained some standing among their kinsmen.

Although they may have been relatively minor historic characters, the judges did take on a certain mythology within the Israelite culture.  They were, in a sense, the “super-heroes” of their time.  The book of Judges follows the typical patterns of ancient near-eastern hero literature.

This genre of writing celebrates the exploits of individuals who stand out because of some excess or extreme characteristic.  Heroes, in this style of writing, may be particularly ugly or beautiful, of low social standing or high, but always somehow out of the ordinary.  In Judges, we see heroes who are atypical for their gender (Deborah) – their lowest-of-the-low position in society (Gideon) – their illegitimate birth (Jephthah) – and their extraordinary strength (Samson).

Heroes, typically, are honored more for their exploits than for their character – as we see when Jephthah traps himself with a foolish vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter, and Samson destroys himself through his lust for women.  They were victorious warriors – and thus served their purpose as deliverers of Israel – but tragic failures in their personal lives.

Another interesting characteristic of hero literature from that time period is an element of social commentary.  Hero literature tended to emerge in the “in-between” times of history – when one social model had collapsed and another hadn’t yet solidified.  Authors usually wrote hero literature because they recognized that the world as they knew it was gone, and they felt vulnerable in the midst of so much change – so there was need for a hero who would defend and protect them.

The book of Judges describes just such an in-between time for Israel.  The conquest (under Joshua) was over, and the people had settled into some basically peaceful and prosperous years.  Slavery was a distant memory; their nomadic lifestyle had given way to a more settled homestead; and warfare had, mostly, ended.  There were local skirmishes with other city-states, here and there, but over all life was good, and the people were relatively comfortable.

But comfortable was exactly the problem.  Judges draws attention to the moral, religious and social crisis that was brewing under the surface of the calm.  God’s people may have gained material wellbeing, but they have failed to pass on the faith (“another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel,” Judges 2:10).  There was an absence of war, but it also brought a complacency about God.  All is NOT well.

The author of Judges seems to have recognized the slipping away of the former ways – the faithfulness to the covenant and dependence upon God that the people maintained under Joshua’s leadership.  The former ways were ending, and the people are left vulnerable.  A hero is needed to defend and protect them – but not a military hero.  A spiritual one.

In the book of Judges, the crisis is more religious than political.  The people experience defeat as a direct result of their moral failures – it occurs as a result of the people’s forgetfulness of God.  They cry out for a warrior, but their real need is for spiritual renewal.

The people’s cries are part of a clear pattern that is repeated throughout Judges:  they forget God’s past deeds, and as a result, the people do evil in the eyes of God; God hands them over to their enemies; they eventually have enough off oppression and cry out for help; God hears their cries, has mercy on them, and raises up a judge to deliver them from their enemies.  And then, as they grow comfortable again, complacency sets in and the cycle begins all over again.

What is interesting, when you read the book carefully, is that this cycle doesn’t just repeat itself – it also deteriorates as the story goes on.  The evil that the people do becomes more intensely evil – in chapter 3, they “forget their God” (3:7) – by chapter 10, they have “abandoned their God” and are worshipping a whole host of other gods (10:6).  Likewise, the periods of oppression last longer – from 8 years under foreign rule at the beginning of the book (3:8), to 40 years at the end (13:1).

It isn’t just that God is punishing them more severely.  Remember that it is the people’s cry for help that prompts God to raise up a deliverer – so although God continues to save them, it takes longer and longer for them to cry out.  They are becoming accustomed to their immoral lifestyle; it no longer distresses them as it once did.  And then when they do call to God, their cries shift from repentance at the start, to merely a cry of alarm with no evidence of a real change of heart – and then, finally, no cry at all during the final cycle when Samson is raised up.

The same downward spiral is evident in the judges themselves.  At the start, the judges are highly esteemed – little biographical information is given about Ehud and Deborah, but they are generally positive characters.  As we move through the narrative, we learn more about the judges – we read of Gideon’s call story, for example – but they also become less effective.  When we get to Samson, his whole life story is recorded – and it reveals a tragically flawed character.  It seems that the more we learn of these judges, the less we like them!  They were strong enough warriors, sure – but they were certainly not role models.

The storyline of judges, when read as a whole, shows one thing clearly:  Charisma, when devoid of character, corrupts.  What the people needed were not warriors or not super-heroes.  What the people needed were spiritual leaders, men and women of integrity and faithfulness who would draw them back to God.

Unfortunately, in that time, they did not have such leaders.  Or, maybe more accurately, the faithful leaders they did have were not the ones the people chose to follow.  More and more, the people chose to follow the slick talkers and good-looking ladies’ men.  And more and more, those leaders failed them!

The whole mess is summarized, finally, with these closing words:  “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  Arrogant self-will rules the day, and Israel is her own worst enemy.

So that’s the book of judges:  hero literature that shows the moral decline of a society.

Whatever side of the political aisle you may be on during this election season, I think we all have to agree that this is a story for our time.  The downward spiral is evident all around us, isn’t it?  So Judges issues a clear warning to us of what may be.

It does more than that, though.  It also offers a veiled hope that we might change the trajectory – a hint of how we might reverse the spiral.  We see it when we read Judges as a story of inheritance.  Its core question:  What will we pass on to our children?

At this point in the Old Testament, Israel’s attention has turned to the inheritance of the land.  They focus their attention on invading the land and then protecting the land.  I’m sure they do so with the greatest of intentions of providing a good land for their children.  Inheritance matters.

But the land isn’t the inheritance that God has asked them to pass on to their children.  God has promised the land – that is his gift; their part is to pass on faith.

In the making and renewing of the covenant, God had told Israel over and over again to pass on the stories of faith and the example of obedience to their children.  At the Exodus, God tells them to tell their children and their grandchildren of their deliverance.  The Passover feast is established specifically to teach children about God’s provision and protection.  In Deuteronomy, they are to recite God’s law to their children, talking about them at home and away, in the day and at night.  In Joshua, they build a memorial of stones at the edge of the Jordan, so that “when your children see them and ask what they mean” you shall tell them that God is the one who brought you here.

That is what Israel was supposed to pass on to their children.  But instead, “a generation…who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.”  They had failed to pass on the stories of faith.

Their failure serves as a warning for us.  Perhaps what we need is not more political debate, but more time studying – relearning – the stories of faith and the teaching of Scripture.  Perhaps we ought to worry less about who our next political leader will be, and more about who our children’s role models are.  Maybe we need to use less energy fighting for our “religious rights” and invest more energy in remembering and celebrating God’s faithfulness to us.

To those, like me, who are raising children right now:  let me speak frankly for a minute.  We spend an awful lot of our time and money getting our kids into the right activities, onto the right teams, and in the right schools, so that we can give them the very best future we can.  That is all well and good, to a degree.  But when life gets hard – when they loose a job, when a storm destroys their house, when a relationship falls apart – they will need a relationship with God and a firm foundation of faith to get them through.  Are we giving that to them?  Or is that getting lost in the craziness of our lives?  Which inheritance are we providing?

And to those who have already raised their children, or taught them, or just generally think you are past that already:  you are the ones who need to teach faith to us and to our children.  In Judges 2:10, it was the generation who was gathered up to their ancestors who began the downward spiral.  The next generations – the generations who lived during the time of the judges – were left “not knowing the Lord” because those before them had not passed on the stories of God’s faithfulness.  Please, teach us those stories.  Teach us how God has been present in your life – so that we’ll have something to pass on when it is our turn.

The good news, of course, is that even when the chain of faithfulness is broken – and the generations fail to pass on their knowledge of God – even then, there is a veiled hope for the future.  Judges ends with a hope that a king might be the kind of leader who call the people back to God.  We end with the hope that God will not desert us – but will provide leaders to call us back, over and over again.  May we come to know God again through them.

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October 21, 2012

Text:  Joshua 1-3 (The Story, Ch. 7)

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Have you heard the story about the Sunday School teacher who begins a lesson about Joshua with a question:  “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?”  An energetic five-year-old threw his hand up and blurted out, “I don’t know who it was, but I swear it wasn’t me!”

So who knocked down the walls?  That’s an important question in Joshua.  Was it Joshua…the Israelites…was it God?  It is an important question because not only do the Israelites walk around the walls of Jericho until they fall – they also kill every man, woman and child who lived within those walls.  Every battle the Israelites wage in the book of Joshua ends with massacre.  In Joshua 10:40, it says that thy “utterly destroyed all that breathed.”

What are we to make of that?

Some people argue that the people in those Canaanite towns were so evil, so depraved, that they deserved to be crushed.  But – does every child, every grandparent, every person in any city really deserve to die by the sword?  And doesn’t the Bible show many examples of people who did deserve such punishment, but were offered grace and forgiveness?  (The people of Nineveh, for an Old Testament example!)  So why not here?

Others explain that the deaths were a necessary evil, in order to purge the land – to protect the Israelites from falling prey to the immorality of their neighbors.  But – could not God have protected them some other way?  And – don’t they fall into idolatry down the road anyway?  So why such brutality, if it proves ineffective in the end anyway?

There are other ways of understanding Joshua’s conquest, too.  But the best explanation that I have heard from scholars is this:  The book of Joshua reflects the time and place in which it was written.  This is how people waged war in those times:  they killed everyone and destroyed entire cities in the name of their gods.

Joshua’s conquest shows some mixture – in what amounts, I can’t begin to untangle – of following God and adhering to human “ways of doing things.”  There are moments in this part of the story that show great courage and faithfulness; there are other moments that show that they don’t quite get it yet.

Sometimes, in our lives, we act out of a true desire to follow God faithfully – and yet our actions are still misguided.  In this election season, for example, I think most reasonable Christians seek the right outcome:  a godly leader who will govern with integrity and justice.  But in seeking that outcome, how often do we use ungodly means?  Don’t we throw words around that are intended to cut our opponents out of the picture entirely, to completely destroy their position and their interests?  Perhaps Joshua’s battles are something like our political mudslinging, but set in a time when political disputes were settled by the sword.  It is a sobering thought.

Of course, it would be tempting, in the face of the violence, to throw out Joshua completely (and perhaps much of the rest of the Old Testament!).  People have tried to do that throughout the church’s history – to pick and choose what parts of the Bible they will accept.  And throughout church history, the wider community of faith has affirmed that these stories and passages cannot be thrown out.  That despite their difficulties, they are still part of our sacred text; they still convey truth; they still challenge and confront us in ways that strength our faith.

And so we wrestle with these passages, but we don’t throw them out.  And when we wrestle with them, we begin to find our place in them.

What I find when I wrestle with the story of Joshua is a fiercely courageous story of transformation.

God affirms to Joshua and the Israelite people, again and again, “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, for I am with you.”

They have reason to be frightened, of course – they are going into battle.  But I think their fear is more than a fear of war.  I think their fear is, at its roots, a fear of failure.

After all, they have failed before.  They have been in this exact place before:  standing at the edge of the Jordan, preparing to send spies into the land that God has promised will be theirs.  Standing, in other words, right where they stood 40 years before, when Moses sent spies into the promised land in Numbers 13.  And 40 years before, they failed miserably, and then suffered the consequences.

I have to imagine that as they stood on the banks of the river again 40 years later, their failure weighed heavily on their minds.

It was hard to forget, after all.  Moses – the only national leader the Israelites had ever known in their lifetime – has died.  And not just Moses, but a whole generation is gone – all the pillars of the community.  The ones they knew and relied on to make the decisions, to pay the bills, to set the course.  The people-in-charge were gone.  Can you feel the Israelites trembling as they look to the future, wondering how it is that they came to be the grown ups, the ones in charge?

And if you remember the story, this whole situation was a direct result of the people’s failure to obey God.  The death of Moses and his generation – the wandering in the wilderness – it was their fault, brought about by past failures.

No wonder they are afraid.

But what we find in Joshua is a beautiful new beginning.  The community that grumbled and complained to Moses years before now tells Joshua:  “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go” (Joshua 1:16).  And the report of the spies this time around?  Well, instead of exaggerated claims of giants in the land (see Number 13 again), they say with great conviction:  “Truly the LORD has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us” (Joshua 2:24).

They are a transformed people.  The misdirected, disorganized gang of former slaves who huddled at the bottom of Mt. Sinai and begged for an idol to worship now stands up tall and proud behind their leader, ready to lay claim to their promised homeland.

Can we see ourselves in this story?  Standing at the edge of the river banks, reminded of our own past failures?

All of us, I think, have places where we get stuck – times of lamenting past mistakes and fearing an unknown future.  We find ourselves wandering like the Israelites in the wilderness.

Joshua’s story gives us hope, first of all, that God doesn’t leave us in the wilderness forever.  The Israelites came back to that Jordan River 40 years later as changed people, ready to continue the journey.  I believe God also brings us back to missed opportunities – or messed-up relationships – or places of failure – as changed people, ready to continue the journey.

For Joshua, the first step was to face reality.  God doesn’t beat around the bush; he tells Joshua right off the bat, in Joshua 1:2, “My servant Moses is dead.”  There it is:  the stark consequences of past decisions.

But then:  “Proceed to cross the Jordan…to the land I am giving you.”  God gives Joshua permission to move forward, to write a new future that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.

And finally:  “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.”  God invites Joshua to reclaim the promises of the past; they were not destroyed or forgotten in the wilderness.  There were consequences, yes; but the promises of God’s provision and care outlast the consequences of sin.  That is the truth of grace – that God’s promises always extend beyond our sin!

Everything has changed, yet nothing has changed.  We change – transformation is possible.  We can be restored, made new.  God does not change.  God’s promises remain.  God’s grace continues.  God’s love never fails.

Invite you to think of those stuck places – the places you’ve been before, and lost your way; the things you’ve tried before, and failed; the journeys you’ve started but thought you’d never be able to finish.  And then ask God if it is time to end the wandering and come back to that place.  To acknowledge the consequences of past decisions; to move forward as a changed person into a future not defined by the mistakes of the past; and to reclaim God’s promises for you.

               Prayer

Now hear God’s invitation to a new journey:

Now get ready to cross into the future I am about to give you.  Be careful to obey my law; do not turn from it to the right or to the left; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

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Decisions, Decisions

October 14, 2012

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (The Story, Ch. 6)

I didn’t preach this week, but here’s a brief commentary on the time the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness.  Next week:  Joshua leads the people across the Jordan.  But in the meantime…

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God led the Israelites out of Egypt through the water of the Red Sea, and then met them up on the mountain.  At the other end of 40 years of wandering, they will again meet God on the mountain, and then cross the waters – this time, of the Jordan – into the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  In the meantime – during those 40 years of wandering through the desert land – they have a decision to make.  God has been their deliverer, their provider, their savior.  Will they be God’s people?

Their decision – and ours – is not whether they will havea god; we are all ultimately loyal to someone or something.  There is always something directing us, someone who motivates our decisions.  The question we face is not whether we will have a Lord, but who that Lord will be.  To whom will we belong?

The Israelites struggled with that decision in a hundred little ways.  Would they trust God to provide water in the desert?  Would they be thankful for the food they had, or grumble about its blandness?  Would they follow the leaders God set before them, or grumble at their demands?  Their biggest problems, it seemed, were the little things – everyday matters, like food and water and their daily routine.

So it is for us.  Our life with God is generally shaped much more by the little everyday decisions than by any great spiritual mountaintop moment.  We must decide, daily, to make time for Scripture and prayer.  We must decide, sometimes moment by moment, to love our neighbor (especially the neighbors closest to us, who put the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator or leave toothpaste in the bathroom sink or come home late again).  We must decide, every day, to give thanks for what we have rather than grumble about what we lack.  Little decisions – but the little decisions generally control the great ones.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, the Israelites face one critical decision:  will they love God and obey God’s commands?  Or will they be disloyal, reaching toward the gods of the world around them?  Who will they serve?

They may say what they wish, but given their track record, we can’t help but doubt their sincerity when they proclaim their loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  And if we are honest, we know our tendency to waver too.

But the Gospel – the good news – is this:  God has already made his decision.  God has decided, for all eternity, to forgive, to provide and to guide.  God will remain faithful when we do not.  And when they – and we – turn back, God will be waiting.

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October 7, World Communion Sunday

“Hero-Worship and Idol-Making”

Text:  Exodus 19-20, 32 (The Story, Ch. 5)

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They say that history repeats itself.  Certainly it does in the Bible.  The story began on a high point and crashed immediately after.  There’s a new beginning with Noah, but that doesn’t last long either.  Things look up again with Abraham – for awhile.

Last week, we had another new beginning – probably the biggest “new beginning” of the Old Testament:  the Exodus.  A gaggle of slaves cried out in desperation, and God – the God who saved Noah from the flood waters – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God of new beginnings – God heard their cries.  And God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, delivered them in miraculous fashion – and they gathered across the sea, protected by the waters that separate them from their enemies.  And they become, by that act of deliverance, God’s people.  They have been claimed!

“You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” God tells them.

Talk about a new beginning!  These are slaves – people who had no identity, people who were nobodies, overlooked, ignored.  And now they are called God’s treasured ones, set apart from all other peoples in the world to be God’s special, chosen people.

At this point, I imagine the Israelites feel like they have just won the lottery!  They can hardly believe their good fortune!  But like many who win the lottery, they are ill prepared for their new circumstances.

God knows, it seems, that left to their own devices these people have no hope of success.  They are, after all, accustomed to taskmasters and daily quotas and all the written and unwritten rules of servanthood.  They don’t understand how to be free, haven’t the slightest idea how to control their own affairs.

So God gathers the people around, and calls Moses into the cloud of God’s presence.  And they have what might be called on some college campuses “a DTR.”  You know – a “Define the Relationship” talk.  This love affair between God and God’s people has rather quickly advanced into unknown territory, and it is time to talk it out, get on the same page, and define some ground rules.

God’s relationship-defining rules come in the form of the 10 Commandments (plus some 600 other laws!), that provide structure for the relationship between God and morals (the first four commandments) and between human beings (the remaining 6 commandments).  God also provides structure to their days with a regular rhythm of Sabbath rest for both people and land.  And perhaps most importantly, God gives them a guide – God’s own presence, housed in the tabernacle, ready to direct their path.

God has provided well for them.  But they aren’t quite ready to reciprocate, apparently.  So they say to Moses:  “You speak, and we will listen.  But don’t let God speak to us, or we will die!”

In other words – “Thanks, God, we really appreciate it and all, but…this is all just a little to much too soon.  Back off a bit, would you?  We’re not quite ready for all this intimacy.”

I understand the people’s desire to keep God at a distance here.  To be “God’s people” but not really allow God to get up in their business.  To be a Christian but keep God out of my checkbook.  When God draws near, our lives have to change in response – and sometimes we don’t want to change.  I get it.

So Moses does as they wish – he scales Mt. Sinai on their behalf, and disappears into the cloud of God’s presence.

But then, before long, the people decide that God has backed off too much.  Or at least, Moses has.  Exodus 32:1 tells us, “when the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain…” they mob Aaron and beg him to make them a god they can see.  “For this Moses,” they say, “the man who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.”

Did you notice?  Their first problem, here, is not making the calf – though we’ll get there soon enough.  Their first problem is attributing to Moses what God has done.  “This Moses…who brought us out of Egypt.”  They have forgotten – or ignored – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you ought of Egypt.”

Don’t we do that?  Don’t we set up leaders as our savior?  We human beings, it seems, are prone to hero-worship.  We make heroes of celebrities, sports figures, political candidates, our favorite teacher or even our grandmother.  Maybe, like Moses, our heroes really have been with us “through the waters.”  But they have not saved us; God has done that.  We get that mixed up, and the result is too much pressure on the hero and not enough honor given to God.

There’s another result of hero-worship in Exodus:  idol making.  Because when we’re looking at our hero, we’re necessarily looking down – at our level.   And we forget to look up, at the top of the mountain, where God is present.  So we loose sight of God, and seek something to fill the God-sized hole inside of us.  An idol.  A golden calf.

Ah, doesn’t history repeats itself?  No sooner have they heard God’s voice at Mt. Sinai than they form a golden calf to worship.  They’ve gone from soaring on eagle’s wings to face-planted in the dirt before a metal statue.  It is the Fall all over again.

We have to wonder, when we read the story of the 10 commandments and then fast-forward to the golden calf in Chapter 32, what in the world the people were thinking.  It makes no sense, to me anyway, that anyone would actually want to worship something they created.  It just seems too obvious, too ridiculous.

But if I’m honest, I get their desire to define how they want God to be.  Maybe it is not so much that they wanted to create their own god, but that they wanted to be in control of their relationship to the true God.  They wanted to write the script for how and when they would approach God.  And so rather than wait it out – when it felt like God was being far too silent for far too long – they tried to summon God’s presence through frenzied worship.  Rather than follow whenever and wherever the pillar of fire led, they created an image of God that they could carry where they wished.

Bowing down to a metal god seems a bit ridiculous, but longing for a more tangible presence when God seems distant doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.  And trying to control God’s steps or force God’s hand in the direction that I think is right – if I’m honest, that is pretty familiar too.

History does repeat itself.  And it continues to repeat itself in our lives, just as it did with the Israelites.

God knew the human heart then, and God knows ours now.  And we see two things about God from this story of the golden calf:  First, God cares enough about us to get angry when we turn our attention to other things.  God’s anger burned against the Israelites, it says in Exdodus 32:10-11. God cared enough to be angry and hurt by their betrayal.

But then, God remembered.  God remembered his promises to the people.  And God kept those promises, and gave the people a second chance – and a third, and a fourth, and as many as it would take.  God did not give up on them.

Today, as we come to the Communion table with God’s people all around our world, we begin with a time of confession – confessing the ways we try to keep God at arms-length and to create God in our own image.  Confessing our need for God’s forgiveness and a new beginning.

And then we receive this cup – the blood of the new covenant, the blood of the Passover lamb – as a reminder that God keeps promises and gives second chances.  We remember the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and who lifts us out of slavery to our own sinful tendencies.

And by God’s forgiveness, and because of God’s faithfulness, we are invited into God’s presence again.  We are welcomed at the table.

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Here is a Bible Study on Moses by Dr. John C. Holbert.  The video is about 40 minutes long, and was originally recorded at the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference on June 8, 2012.  It is well worth the time!

Moses Is Not Charlton Heston

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