1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. 4 And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. 7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. 9 And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
The past few weeks we have joined the tribes of Israel on their journey to the land God had promised them. We have walked not just through the Exodus but from the very beginning of the history of Israel. But in the most recent weeks we have joined them in their desert wonderings and camped with them at Sinai.
The trip from Egypt to Sinai took a few months. After Moses plead for the lives of Israel after the incident with the golden calf, God commanded them to walk in the desert again. And this second leg of the journey took them to the borders of the Promised land.
This trip only took a few months. They saw the land, they longed for the land, it was indeed a land that was filled with agricultural riches. A place where their families could thrive. They stood on the borders looking in, their hearts yearned for the richness of the land, yet they were afraid.
They peered into the land, they sent delegations into the land to gather intel, and these men came back to give a report. Twelve men were sent. A representative from each of the tribes, and each of these men returned with a report of the riches, but ten of the twelve were weary. These then men reported that there were giants in the land.
It has taken many years of reading and study for me to understand the consequences of this negative report. Ten out of the twelve were afraid because of the giants; two had faith. We do not often dwell on this. We simply accept that they were afraid and then God takes them back into the wilderness for forty years and that is that. But why?
This is one of those areas within scripture that becomes unclear. People get nervous when we admit this. We like to claim that scripture is infallible, and by saying this we accept certain things. Usually, we accept that every word is literal, that there is no human creativity, and that if we do not understand something we should not ask questions. The infallibility of scripture is a human construct, and something that scripture does not fully support. Scripture is authoritative, it is inspired, it is good for teaching, encouraging, directing, and rebuking. But there are areas within scripture that often leaves us asking for more. And one of those is why being afraid of giants would result in forty years of wandering through a desert.
We often look at scripture as being linear and literal. And when we do this, we often miss the original intent of them. Just like the ten commandments were originally understood as the ten words or lessons, not legislative law. Many of the stories within scripture, although true, were written not for mere informational purposes, but to facilitate the transmission of wisdom. For wisdom to be transmitted from one generation to another, and for the accumulation of greater wisdom, we cannot merely pass on information, instead we need to teach and encourage the emerging generations to ask questions and to seek answers.
This brings us back to the giants. The giants, or the men of renown, were the warrior kings of the ancient world. Pharaoh was one of those giants among men. In much of the ancient world the people would regard the leaders of a nation as being the offspring of the gods, and because of this they the ultimate representative of the unseen realm. When those ten spies reported to Moses that there were giants in the land, they were openly telling Moses and all of Israel that they identified with the worldview of the nations of the world. This is again revisiting the very same issue that Aaron encountered at Sinai when the people demanded the construction of the golden calf.
God pronounced judgement on the people at this point. No one within that generation would be allowed to enter the land promised to their forefathers, except for two, Caleb and Joshua. Caleb and Joshua were the two among the twelve that, upon entering the land, believed Yahweh could overcome the powers of the world.
Forty years. I am now forty-four years old. A great deal can happen in forty years. In the United States we would have gone through ten election cycles in that amount of time, which could result in the election of at least five new presidents. The world would have watched the Olympic games ten times. The world cup of soccer would have visited ten nations within the world. And probably the most important thing is that an entirely new generation would have moved into established adulthood. In forty years, the people that walked out of Egypt would have raised their children, and watched as their grandchildren were born and become adults themselves.
Much has changed between my grandfather’s coming of age and that of myself. And much more has changed since I became an adult and what will occur during the lifetime of my grandson. My grandfather was an adult when the first telephone company began service in rural Kansas. When I reached the age, my grandfather was at that time, we had the internet and were carrying phones with us wherever we went. By the time my son reached the age I was at that time, the technology that I once viewed as cutting edge was so common that it is seen as a necessity instead of a luxury.
The first generation walked out of Egypt. That generation did not know Yahweh, they did not understand what it meant to be the people of God, and they were not a nation. They traveled to Sinai where God spoke to them from the clouds above the mountain, and He called them to himself and gave them the wisdom by which he wanted them to develop their society. Shortly after hearing that voice and affirming their dedication to His ways, they turned and returned to the old ways, the ways of slavery in Egypt.
That brough judgement down to the camp. Those that chose to remain faithful to the old ways perished or were separated from the emerging nation. All that remained when Moses rose and walked away from Sinai were those that made a profession of faith in Yahweh. They were still the same people that walked out of Egypt, but they were beginning the transformation into the people of God. Each story within the book of the Exodus cycles through a similar theme. Each cycle moves from faith to despair, from despair to confrontation, and from confrontation to repentance. The same story cycles and cycles, at times it appears that they are repeating the story verbatim, and at other times we get a different twist, like a golden calf and giants. But with each cycle, the people slowly become something different. They become a people, a nation. They slowly move away from the old ways that once held them in the bonds of slavery and they emerge as Israel, a holy nation.
Now after forty years, they return to the border of the land that was promised to their ancestors. And God calls Moses to climb up to a high place to see a panorama stretched out before him. God called Moses to leave the plain of Moab and walked up Mt Nebo to the top of Pisgah.
There God shows Moses the width and breadth of this land promised to his great ancestor. He confirms to Moses that He is a God that fulfills His promises.
In that moment Moses knew that his work was complete. All that God had given to him to accomplish was fulfilled. He had spent forty years living in the house of one of earth’s giants. He had spent forty years learning to listen to God as he tended his father-in-law’s livestock. And now he had spent forty years teaching and leading the tribes of Israel. After one hundred and twenty years, they are a people, they are a nation, they are no longer devoted to the gods and the kingdoms of the world. The old ways have passed, and a new beginning is about to emerge.
Something new is about to emerge, but Moses cannot be part of it.
Moses looks over the land. He sees what will become of Dan, Ephraim, Manasseh. He sees Judah all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. He knows that this is what he has spent the past eighty years preparing for, and it is right there before his eyes. He can smell the blossoms that will eventually be transformed into the anticipated honey. He can hear the bellows of livestock that will produce the milk they have yearned for, and yet he cannot enter. He stands on the precipice of that mountain as if he is trapped inside a mime’s invisible box. He cannot enter.
We might find this to be extreme. We know God to be a God of mercy and grace. He had mercy on the children of Israel even when they blatantly rejected the lessons God had given when they worshiped the representation of El at the base of Sinai. Yet, he will not let Moses, the man that knew the Lord face to face, into the land.
Moses stands there at the age of one hundred and twenty. He stands with his vigor unabated and his eyesight as good as it was when his curiosity urged him to examine the bush that burned but was not consumed. Moses at one hundred and twenty would make me look like a bum. He was vigorous, healthy, and in some renderings of this passage the translation would say he had all his teeth. I say this because this is not literal, it is using common word play to express his vitality. Today we do the same, we use idioms and slang that in a thousand years, people will look back and question why active and healthy individuals are described as being sick when they accomplish a remarkable feat of athleticism.
Moses has not diminished in strength or status. He has consistently held the respect of the people. He has accomplished the task set before him. He has taken a chaotic group of slaves and transformed them into a nation. A nation with culture, structure, and identity. Moses is the man!
And that is the problem. That is the very reason why Moses cannot move outside of his invisible box. He can peer over the edge and see what will be, but he cannot enter.
The ancient world view was filled with gods and giants. The region is filled with empires that rise to power, led by men who people believe to be spawned from the loins of the gods. Pharaoh was the god king. Gilgamesh was the defeater of giants and the bull of heaven. Zeus defeated Kronos. These epic poems of ancient origin depict humans conquering or controlling nature and the forces behind nature. They declare that their leaders can manipulate and control the gods.
Moses could be seen in the same light by the people. Moses prayed and God’s wrath was quelched. Moses struck the rock and a river of water poured out. Bread came down from heaven after Moses told the people it would. Moses could be seen as one of those human giants, a demigod, a man of renown. And there were moments when Moses did not prevent the people from seeing him in this manner.
When Israel was wondering through the wilderness of Zin, they were without water, and they complained. Moses entered the tent of meeting carrying the complaints of the people to God in prayer. God heard the cries of the people and told Moses that he would bring water out of the rocks for the people and their livestock to drink. Moses left the tent, and in his frustration with the people, he said, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And he proceeded to strike the rock twice.
We might not see this as being sinful, because Moses seemingly did the very thing God asked him to do. But Moses took credit for the miracle; he allowed the people to believe that he, Moses, brought the water. He conformed to the ways of the world and took credit for something God provided. And he did this because it allowed him to have better control over the people. In their minds, Moses can bring water, and Moses can take it away. He has the power.
Even Moses, the law giver, was influenced by the ways of the world. Moses was part of that generation that could not move into the emerging nation because he, like the rest of the first generation of Israel, still possessed a world view that allowed for giants of men.
Moses brought them to the border. He was able to gaze upon hope fulfilled, but he was not able to lead them further. The next steps were designated for another, Joshua.
I sat in reflection on this passage. I mourned with Israel. I mourned for Moses. This shows just how vital a community truly is. Moses was an amazing man, but even this man was not enough. All too often we want to be and do everything. We want to be perfect mothers. We want to bake cookies for our children, so they are fresh when the kids get home from school, and we want to hold down a full-time career. We want to climb the corporate ladder to the very top and still be the dad that coaches little league. We want to assist our aging parents, while babysitting our grandchildren. We want to do everything.
We do not have enough strength in ourselves to be and do it all. Our society lies to us when they set that expectation. Even Moses, that great man, could not do it all. He could not take the nation into the land. He was the leader in the desert. He was the one to teach them and guide them as they initially took hold of the wisdom of God. But Moses would be out of context once they entered the land.
We want to be everything, but when we accept that we cannot, we expect those around us to provide our desires. We struggle so we want to elect leaders that will give us what we do not or cannot have on our own. We want a king to fight our battles for us. We want the giants among men. We make our leaders into idols, and we make our nations into idols. The promises of our political class of people are empty, they cannot do what they say without compromises, and even then, it will not be exactly what we desired. Moses was a great man. People looked up to him. And because of his unique position they could easily begin to worship him.
Moses stood overlooking the land that would be. He could see hope fulfilled. The slaves had become a nation and they returned to the land of promise. I imagine he did this with tears in his eyes, of both joy and sorrow. Many were lost in the desert. People he had loved and encouraged. People he argued with and people he lifted into leadership. But he also had tears of joy because he could now see that all that struggle was not in vain. Hope was just over the ridge.
I imagine the scene. I feel the scene because I have lived this. I have looked upon the face of a child and realized that I did not know how to be a father. And I have examined the face of a grandchild and realized that God does provide, fulfill hope, and answer prayers.
Moses looked over the land, he sat down, closed his eyes, and he slipped into God’s embrace. He let go and allowed the next generation to take the reins. Joshua son of Nun, full of the spirit of wisdom stood before Israel, he stood where Moses once stood. He knew he was not the great law giver, and he never would be. He knew he did not have the knowledge of the strength to be everything. Yet God told him to rise and go into the land of hope. “Be strong and courageous,” God told him, and move forward.
We live in a culture and community, with giants of humanity. We live in a community among those that are impoverished. We live in a community of strength and weakness, of hope and despair, of fear and confidence. Where are we within this community? Are we using the wisdom that God has given us to bring hope to the hopeless, humility to the arrogant? Confidence to the timid, and challenge to the boastful? Are we encouraging those around us to remember God, and to honor that of God in all people? Moses was unable to go into that land, because even that great man missed the mark. Yet even in his sin, he knew the mercy and grace of his God. Will we be people that will do the same? Will we prepare those in our care, those within our community to look beyond into the bright future with hope? Will we become hope fulfilled?
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church December 03, 2023 Click Here to Join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Isaiah 64:1–9 (ESV) 1 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 26, 2023 Click to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Ezekiel 34:11–16 (ESV) 11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 12, 2023 Click Here to Join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Joshua 24:1–3a, 14-25 (ESV) 1 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And…
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
Last week we sat with Israel as they made one of their gravest errors. Last week we observed the children of Israel look not to the Lord, but to the gods of the nations for comfort in their distress. They were scared and alone. They had spent a month without a leader, shortly after they had heard the very voice of God give them wisdom from on high, and they turned away.
We often look at the children of Israel in wonder. We look at them and we begin to judge them. We ask, “How could they?” Maybe you do not have those thoughts, but I do. How could they seemingly turn their back on the Most High God of the universe, when they had witnessed what they had? They watched the greatest empire of the world submit to the deity of the slaves. They watch this God perform miracles that even to this day science cannot explain so they say it must be a legend. Yet, Israel walked out of Egypt. Something happened. Sure, it could have been multiple factors coming together to create the perfect opportunity for the entire slave class within that ancient culture to walk away from their oppressors without challenge. We can say that because we can look back in the pages of history, we can see it within the dusty trenches of the archaeologist, and on the pages of scripture that in the bronze age something happened within the ancient world that caused a global collapse. And after that global collapse, Israel emerged.
We can look at the history books, but even the greatest historians cannot explain how or why that collapse occurred. They have theories, they have ideas that they cannot prove, they have issues with their ideas because like so many people, they cannot admit that maybe there was something more going on. That maybe God.
We judge Israel. We judge them because they saw something amazing happen, and they turned away.
I spoke last week about the golden image they created. I probably confused and scared some of you by saying that the image they made was the image of El, and then I equated El with Yahweh. I mentioned this to show each of us how interconnected and similar the stories of Israel and that of the world can be. El in the world was a far-off god that did not associate with humanity directly but worked through lessor gods that ruled over the nations. That was the world view of Ur, of Cannan, of Egypt, of the Norse, and pretty much every polytheistic religion that has ever existed. This was the faith, the worldview that even Abraham had prior to his journey. God was far off, the Most High God did not interact with humanity. We look at these religious traditions as being pagan and wrong, but I do want us to look beyond. God was far off. God did remove himself from most of humanity, he removed himself because we walked away from him. We walked away and we replaced his ways with something else. And the forces of evil that initiated the turning of our first parents set themselves up over various nations and people. These nations were guided by these evil influences and gladly warred with one another as they sought wealth, power, and a name.
We judge Israel, for their turning. But we are no different.
They turned back to the world they knew. They returned to a place of comfort. They faced in their future something they could not explain, something they could not control, and they were afraid. In their fear many returned to the old stories, the easy stories. The stories that allowed them to seek wealth, power, and a name through their own strength. Aaron saw this as he stood before the people making their demands. And Aaron proceeded to build what they demanded.
We judge Israel, and we judge Aaron. But I know and have experienced that pull. I have stood alone when everything around me seems to go off the deep end, people that I have respected seem to turn their back on the faith they once taught me. I have watched as those that once inspired were bent to conform and appease the fear ridden crowd. Some of you might even see that in me because we are human.
One among many. One voice in a crowd. One leaf blowing in the winds of time.
God saw Israel that day, and he told Moses that he was going to give up once again. Moses began to pray for his people. Moses reminded God of God’s own words. Remember Abraham, Moses said. Remember Isaac. Remember Jacob. You told Abraham that you would make him into a great nation, that they would be like the stars in the sky. Remember what you said you would do if he followed you. Moses knew the stories; he even knew the pagan stories. El was a far off god that did not associate with his creation, until El spoke to Abraham, until God chose that one seemingly worthless person that did not have a name or an heir to be his people. We often look at this story and we build theology around it. Some will say that God changed his mind, and others will say that God never changes His mind. I say it does not really matter if He does or does not because we cannot fully know the mind of God. What does matter is that God caused Moses, no God compelled Moses to remember.
Moses walked down the mountain, and he saw what had happened to the nation. He gazed upon the people that were called to be God’s people a holy nation gathered to be the light of the nations. He looked at them and what he saw was a nation of people fading into the masses. Returning to the world.
Moses was enraged. He threw down the stone tablets God had etched the ten words or lessons on, and he burned the golden calf and ground it to a powder. Then he gathered the tribe of Levi, the tribe that was dedicated to the service of God and he sent them to the camp gates, and throughout the camp and they waged war with themselves.
This scene breaks my heart. God’s people divided, God’s people slaughtering each other in the name of God. God’s people in chaos.
We look at this and some may find it inspiring, but it is not. God told Moses that he was going to blot out the people for their sin, Moses begged God for mercy and God apparently changed his mind. But then Moses took up the sword in God’s name. God granted mercy, but humanity did not extend the mercy. I understand why Moses did what he did. I can even justify it in my own mind. God did not tell Moses to take up the sword, Moses in his own jealousy and rage did that himself. God had chosen mercy, Moses chose vengeance.
Was the battle necessary? We cannot fully say yes or no to that. We often look at the world around us and we use our own wisdom and cunning to make those judgements. What we do know is that Israel now had knowledge of sin, they knew what God required and they had become aware of the consequences of sin. Moses knew that they were all nearly annihilated, but the people at the base of the mountain did not know the extent of their transgression. The wage of sin is death, separation.
I am not condemning Moses. Moses is a man just like each of us. He was a man whose desire is to please the God he loves. He acted no differently than most of us would have acted, and in that time and place the sword was most likely the easiest tool to use to teach the lesson that needed to be learned. But that lesson weighed heavy on the people, even on Moses.
Moses returns to the mountain to ask for atonement, he confessed their sin, he begged for forgiveness, and he even offered himself in exchange for the people. God responds to Moses. God says that he will indeed blot out those that have sinned, and that Moses should go. But when he said to go, something changed. God seemed a bit more distant than before. God does not say I will go with you, he says my angel will go with you.
This might seem odd, but before in the Exodus accounts the writer uses the phrase Angel of the Lord, or Angel of God but there is a difference in how the words are used in this case. Moses noticed the difference. Before God was with them, now after this grave sin, it seems as if God is again distant. Moses accepts this judgement. He walks down to the camp; a plague hits the camp and many die. There is heaviness in the camp. They know something has changed, they know they had taken as step away from God, they know a mistake has been made. God commanded that they go, but Moses could not bring himself to move.
He enters the tent of meeting, and he prays. “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.”
“That I may know you…” This phrase became the focus of my contemplations this week. This simple phrase carries a lot of weight. It is the difference between those that are focused on the world and the righteous. The people focused on the world act as if they possess the knowledge, that they have the power and strength in themselves. While the righteous seek, search, and examine. The people of the world act seemingly without thought, whereas the righteous will often struggle to act.
That I may know you is a phrase that recognizes a position of submission. If we were to look to the nations of the ancient world, the leaders within were often regarded as the offspring of the gods. Pharaoh was a god king. The leaders of Babylon and Persia would often be called the king of kings and lord of lords, and the people would follow their name with the phrase, “Live forever.” We even see this within CS Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia, some might see this a bit racist, but I believe Lewis was making a greater statement about the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. To say live forever, one must regard that person as greater than a mere human. They are divine in origin. Moses is the spokesman of God in this nation, Moses could so easily slip into the very same position among the people as Pharaoh was to Egypt. He is the voice of God, but Moses does not take that position lightly, he instead takes a submissive approach. That I may know you.
This is the difference between the ways of the world and the character of the righteous. The world seeks things for themselves, but true righteousness loves God with all that they are and loves their neighbor. True righteousness does not seek glory for themselves, but instead seeks the wellbeing of and justice for the people around them.
It is extremely difficult to live this lifestyle. It is difficult because we are afraid. We fear the things we do not know. We are afraid that the people around us will not live as we do, and if they do not live by the same standard, will I be taken advantage of? Will I be lumped in with the unrighteous that live within our community? Will I…notice the focus. Our fears are often based on I and not us.
God understands this fear we have. The people were afraid of being alone in the wilderness and they demanded that Aaron make gods to lead them because they did not know what had happened to Moses. Aaron was afraid of the people so he built the statue even though he knew what the people would do with it. Moses was afraid, even though God had announced his mercy toward the rebellious people, so he commanded that the lives of those that turned away from God be removed from their camp. And today we see more uncertainty.
As humans we fear a great deal. It is not a sin to fear, just as it is not a sin to be angry, or to have desires. Sin enters when we begin to let the emotions lead us to a place we should not venture. Moses is just as human as us, he is afraid and has uncertainty. At times he let the fear get ahold of him and he reacted in violence. When Moses lashed out in anger, when he led the people of Levi to become the judge of the people, he bore the name of God in vain and did not honor the lives of fellow image bearers. We justify this action because he did this in a quest of honoring God. We can in our righteous fervor, fall into sin just as easily as those that seek only selfish desires. We do this when we fail to love our neighbors. We see this every day on the news. We see it in the wars that are waged between nations. We see it when labor strikes happen because management and the workers cannot come to an agreement. We see it when the addict harms the ones closest to them and when we fail to help those that are held in bondage to an addiction.
We can justify our action. We can even quote scripture to support our behaviors. But are we honoring God?
Moses was told to lead the people away from the mountain of God in Sinani. And Moses was afraid. He knew that God had been angry, that a wedge was once again place between God and Israel. God had said that his angel would accompany them, but would God be with them? This time the Moses took the emotions of uncertainty to God. He seeks God, he even expresses his emotions in a manner we might see as disrespectful toward God. “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’” Moses lets God know his uncertainty and his concern.
“Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” Moses knows that even he, the one to whom God called to be his spokesman to the nation, has failed to live up to the standard of God’s lessons that were given at Sinani. He knows that Israel failed as a nation mere days after they proclaimed their faith in God, and he knows that he is among those that failed. “Show me now your ways,” He pleas, “that I may know you.”
His greatest desire is to know God as God knows him. His greatest desire it to lead the people in a way that will honor them as image bearers of God, and so that when he is among them, he will encourage them to greater devotion to God. He then says something profound, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
What makes the people of God different from all nations on the earth? What gives them distinction? In the ancient world views of the region every nation had a servant of the Most High God that would lead the people. A mere angel guiding them would make them just another nation among many. The difference is if the Most High God goes with them. Moses does not only want to have knowledge of God, but he also wants to interact and build a relationship with God. He wants God to live with them, and he wants to know God.
God with us is the desire of Moses. Emmanuel. This is the desire of each of us here today. We want to know God and we want to be known by God. We want God with us. But these are words written thousands of years ago. They look forward to Jesus, and now we are thousands of years beyond the Ascension of Christ. Yet our desire to know God and to be known by God remains. We, like Moses, cry out to bear witness of God’s glory. But often we are gripped by fear. Often, we cannot see God through the various failures of our nation and the nations around us. We cry out that Christ will return and renew and restore Eden.
We have these desire but what is God calling us to do? What is God encouraging us to do? He is not calling us to war. He is not calling us to force righteousness onto the world. He is calling us to abide with him. He is calling us to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbors. He is calling us to live with him, to know him and his ways, and to bear or take that into the world today. What gives us distinction? What sets us apart from the kingdoms of this world? It is how we live with others. It is living out the commands, the lessons that God set before us. It is Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. It is knowing God and knowing that of God in even those who oppose us.
As we consider Moses’s prayer, I want us to make it our own. I want us to seek God’s ways and desire to know him as he knows us. I want us to seek to see his glory here in this community and ask for eyes to see and hears to hear. I want us to pray that we become a people focused on loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 5, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Joshua 3:7–17 (ESV) 7 The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 29, 2023 Click to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Deuteronomy 34:1–12 (ESV) 1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 15, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 32:1–14 (ESV) 1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him,…
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. 7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
Last week we spoke about the lessons from God. I focused this discussion on the relationship of God to the people and what that means to us. We are the image of God that he places in the center of his garden temple. When we see the person sitting next to us, our minds should be directed to the one who fashioned that unique being out of the dust of the earth. I have reflected on this all week. I have reflected on the image of God that each of us bear. I have considered how often I have bore that image in vain, as I have become angry at the behavior another image bearer has done. I became angry and I realized that I have failed to bear the image I poses with proper reverence.
Over the years my faith has evolved. When I was a young adult, I once thought that I had a handle on what the Christian life truly was. I remember we had a bible quiz representative from the Yearly Meeting come visit our Meeting and everyone competed against each other. For those of you that may not know when students enter middle school, they can compete with the other Meetings within our region in Bible Quiz tournaments. I am not sure as to how they are conducted because I grew up in a small meeting where we did not have enough students to form a team, and I have only served in meetings that are also smaller.
But this Quiz representative came to allow us to compete as a local meeting. Adults versus the students, parents against children, siblings against siblings. We had buzzer that lit up when pressed, and I thought we were on Jeopardy. Yes, that was the big game show back home because we only had three channels if we were lucky, and Jeopardy was the only quiz show I knew.
They began reading off the questions and I got in a zone. Round after round we would be tested on our Biblical knowledge. And I excelled. The final round was me against the father of my closest friend from church. We had defeated the clerk of the meeting, we overpowered even the pastor, and now it was me and Jerry facing off. Two quiet and contemplative guys. And I won. I knew scripture. I have read scripture my entire life. As soon as I was able to read, I wanted to know what was in scripture and I completely read the bible before most kids would pick up chapter books.
I knew scripture, but I did not understand. I would go around thinking I knew something, but then I took a trip to Ukraine, and I met people that had a different understanding of scripture than I did. They used the same scriptures and came to completely different conclusions than I did. And suddenly I was faced with a dilemma, who is right? Which of us is wrong? Could it be possible that we are both correct and the only difference is the cultural context?
This is when my faith evolution began. Today we might call this process deconstruction. If I am honest it started before, I went to Ukraine, but that was pulling me away from God, my experience in Ukraine urged me return to God. How can we look at the same scripture and come to different conclusions? I was taught that scripture was the book of answers, and these devout Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were completely fine with not understanding. I thought our faith had to be rational, and they embraced the mystery of God.
I began to see things a bit different and as I explored this aspect of faith, I began to see that scripture often asks more questions than it gives answers. And sometime the answers it seems to give only begin the process of greater discovery.
This is what is going on in Sinai. Israel has spent four hundred years in slavery. They had stories of their fathers, but in their minds, in their spirits, and in their bodies, they were slaves. They longed for freedom, but this was only a dream. In their mind liberty was like heaven to us. It was something we only received in the afterlife. It was out there beyond the veil of life, not a present reality. Then suddenly they were free. A miracle occurred and they walked out of the land of bondage into the wilderness. The problem now is they did not know how to live.
They existed in a place between. They were no longer slaves, but they were also not able to live free. We know places like this. Adolescence is this. College is this. Courtship with our romantic interests is a place between. We are moving toward the goal, but we are not quite there. This is Israel in the wilderness. They thought they were a nation, just like teenage boys think they are men, but they do not know the full reality of what that means. There are lessons that need to be learned.
They gathered at the base of the mountain, and the clouds rolled in. They could hear the rumbles of thunder; they could see flashes of light. There was an eerie yet inviting presence. They were comfortable and panicked at the same moment. And then out of the cloud they hear a voice. This voice gives them ten words, or ten lessons. They are astonished. They accept the invitation to become the people that would follow this voice, but they are also afraid. They send Moses their leader to be their representative because they believe they needed an intermediary lest they die before this powerful being.
Moses tells them that he is going up the mountain, he advises them to not even touch the stones as he makes this journey. He goes away, leaving them alone in the wilderness for forty days. God has just spoke to them from the clouds and the one person they trusted has left them on their own.
I often marvel at the lack of faith Israel exhibits at this point. They observed ten plagues, they walked across a sea on dry ground, they watched as the greatest army in the world was annihilated in an instant. They saw bread come from heaven, and they heard the voice of God. This all occurs in the span of a couple of months, but then their leader walks away for a few days, well a month, and suddenly they are filled with fear and uncertainty.
“Up, make us gods who shall go before us,” they say to Aaron the priest. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
How quickly they turn. They have seen and experienced the most magnificent events a human being could imagine, and now they are ready to turn away. “Make us gods.” They cry out to the man who has dedicated his life and connected his life to the unseen realm.
Through the years, I have listened to several messages using this passage. In nearly all those sermons, they focused on Aaron and his supposed failures. This has always struck me as odd. If Aaron had committed some infraction at this point, there should have been consequences. If we are to read deeper into the history of Israel, Aaron’s sons were killed by God because they introduced strange fire into the tabernacle. If strange fire could bring death, one would think the construction of a golden calf or bull would have been worse. I sat with this for a while, years to be honest. We like to blame Aaron, we like to point to Aaron as being weak, we like to think if Moses would have left them with a stronger leader none of this would have happened.
Moses is up on the mountain while Aaron is down among the multitude. A multitude of thousands of angry and scared people. Have you ever been in a place like that? Have you ever been one among many? It is difficult to stand alone when everyone around you seems to oppose everything you think is important. We can say Aaron is weak all we want, but we need to remember Aaron was human.
Aaron looks at this multitude of people. They are in a panic, afraid that they have been left in this wilderness alone. Aaron tells them to take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and daughters, and bring them to him. Just a quick side note, the Israelite sons are on the list of having earrings, just in case one of your children wants one and you find it to be taboo. They gather the gold and bring it to Aaron. Aaron takes this gold and fashions it with a graving tool and makes a gold calf.
We might wonder why Aaron decided to make a calf or a bull, and rightfully so. Images are important. The tribes of Israel were not a people that formed in isolation. They lived among other cultures, and other religions. All these various ideas have been part of their life to this point. The cultures in the ancient lands were connected through trade and when people engage in trade, they often share stories. We also know that Abraham came from one of the first great civilizations, Ur.
Much of what we read in the Old Testament is not unique to Israel. Many of the ideas and concepts are present in most of the ancient texts within the region. One of those stories from the land of Ur, is about a God named El. El was the father of the gods. El created the world but after he created the world he divided the nations among his seventy children, and then El went off and was basically never heard from again. And among the people of Ur and most of the land of Canaan they devoted their worship to the son of El name Baal. Each son of El was given a nation and as these nations warred against each other their national deity gained prominence.
I mention this because El simply means God. Words like Elohim are connected to this word. Beth-el where Jacob saw the stairway to heaven means house of God. El in Ur was the most high god that did not interact with humanity, but in the Hebrew scripture we are given a slightly different story. We are told in the Hebrew scripture that God created the heavens and the earth. That God placed humanity in a garden temple, and that humanity desired knowledge so they ate of the tree God told them to avoid. Because of this they were banished from the Garden. After the failure in the Garden, we are told that the daughters of men found favor with the sons of god and they had children with one another, and because of this God became angry. This prompted God to find the only righteous man on the face of the earth and he encouraged this man to build a boat, because God was about to flood the entire earth. After the flood the children of humanity again grew and expanded, and they desired to make a name for themselves so they built a tower that would reach the heavens. This tower we know as Babel. And after Babel God divided the nations and confused their languages. And Moses tells us in Deuteronomy that God divided the nations among the sons of god, interestingly there were seventy nations.
It is odd that the religion of Ur and that of the Hebrews seems to resemble each other to this point. The difference is that people of the nations like those of Canaan only had access to Baal a son of El, where Israel worshiped the God of creation, the God that divided the nations and kept them as an inheritance.
El the distant unknown God among the nations, is the God of Israel, and his name is I Am, or Yahweh. Aaron knows this story. It was something that had been passed on to him from the teachings of his father. But Aaron also knows that his countrymen are also aware of the countless other stories that they have encountered over the generations. El is and is not their God, because El is also part of other religious traditions. And in the most common tradition they came across in Canaan, El was represented by a bull. The bull is common in ancient religions. A bull represents strength and fertility, it thunders with anger and can also be gentle enough to pet.
But there is more to this image. When Jacob was near his end, he called his sons to him to give them his blessing. In these various blessings you will find descriptive words used. Reuben was turbulent as water. Judah was a lion, Issachar was a rawboned donkey, Dan was a viper, Naphtali was a deer, and Benjamin was a wolf. We often describe ourselves and our loved ones in terms like this, I do not know if I would want to have my father call me a rawboned donkey, but we use these descriptions as terms of endearment. When it came to the blessing of Joseph many things were said. He was wheat and grapes on a vine. But Joseph received the double inheritance of the first born, so when it came to blessings Jacob blessed both of Joseph’s sons along with Joseph. We later learn that one of these sons was referend to as a bull and the other a unicorn.
We look at the activity going on here, and we often see this as Aaron succumbing to peer pressure. And in a way he is, but the fact that God does not curse Aaron should cause us to pause. God watched as these things were happening and he says to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”
Aaron listened to the crowd, and he made an image. And the people took that image and said, “These are your gods, O Israel.” But what does Aaron do? He built an altar before it and made a proclamation, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
There is a great deal going on in this one passage. So much that we must slow down and take a deeper look. Aaron made a calf, and he made an altar. It appears that Aaron is leading the people toward unrighteousness, but Aaron is also doing something else. While “They” proclaim that the image is their gods, Aaron does not. This week I watched a video about this scene that contained commentary by a rabbi. This Rabbi spent time focused on the word they. And he connected this word with the words that God spoke to Moses, the people you brought out of Egypt. Notice God said the people Moses brought not the people God brought out of Egypt. There is a division here. This Rabi explained the scene as if there are two groups within the camp, those that follow God and those that do not, he said that along with Israel there were magicians from Egypt that tagged along. This division is highlighted by the words that Aaron speaks right after they proclaimed the bull to be their gods. Aaron does not say that the bull is their god, but he says, “Tomorrow we will have a feast to the Lord.” The word for Lord here is Yahweh, not El.
El is and is not the God of Israel. Those that follow the religions of the world, see El as this far off God that has nothing to do with them, but Israel see their God as being with them. Ur regards this creature as simply god, El, but Israel knows El’s name Yahweh, I Am.
The people come to Aaron, in fear and concern. They are left alone in the wilderness, and they need something to give them hope. Aaron knows what is going on. He tells them to give him the jewelry, and he patiently carves and fashions a bull. While he is doing this work, I imagine he recounts the stories they all knew. He makes clay and tells them of how God created, he explains how God fashioned us in His image as he molds the clay. He speaks about the trials they faced as they lived in Egypt as he hammers out the sheets of gold. And when it is finished, he hangs his head as they take his words out of context.
Aaron made the image. But he was not condemned. He was not condemned because he did not make the image for them to worship. They did that themselves. “I have seen this people,” God says to Moses. A people that says one thing but lives another. A people that listens but hears only what they want to hear. And this struggle follows Israel the rest of their lives, it follows through the generations. And even to us today.
I know what Aaron felt, because I too am in a position where I am one person surrounded by a multitude, as we all are. So often we look at the world and we are afraid. Aaron made a bull, but he did not make an idol. He fashioned a choice. Will you follow the gods of the world, or will you feast with the Lord? So many of our religious traditions are empty images. Things that could be used to bring us closer to God, yet so often we do not want to go there. We so often do not want a loving God; we instead want a God that will judge those we see as enemies. We do not want a God of grace but a god of vengeance. We want, we see, we find people that will speak the words we desire, and we will twist our faith to include them and their teaching as holy. But God has seen this people. We are not listening. We are unwilling to change. We demand that they perform for us and then we judge them for being human. I stood in the place Aaron stood. And I like Aaron often feel inadequate, because I know that I cannot command any of you to believe the words I say. But there is one thing I can do; “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” I can live my life devoted to God. I can live and so can you.
As we go into this period of contemplation, I want us to consider how we have judged Aaron in this passage. And I also want us to consider the people Aaron faced. I also want us to consider our own lives. Have we listened? Have we followed? Or have we taken the name of God in vain? Do our words and our actions resemble one another, or are they disconnected?
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 22, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 33:12–23 (ESV) 12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 8, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 20:1–20 (ESV) 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church September 24, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 16:2–15 (ESV) 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said…