Fourth in series: The Book of Exodus
HOW DO YOU TELL YOUR STORY?
I was in a conversation a while back with some friends and we were trying to figure out why people often talk past each other, instead of to each other
Liberals and conservatives
Religious people and non-religious people
Majorities and minorities
Jews and Muslims
Christians and Muslims
Christians who are Protestant and Christians who are Catholic
Pentecostals and Lutherans
Baptists and Episcopalians
Cubs fans and White Sox fans
Pro-Antonio-Brown-twerking-people and anti Anti-Antonio-Brown-twerking-people
Among many thoughts my friends and I had heard from other smart people and shamelessly passed off as our own in that conversation, one stood out to me
It was that in all of these divides BOTH sides tell the story of the divide as though
The side they are on is the underdog side
And the other side is bigger, badder, and more powerful... assailing us underdogs, who are under constant threat... and we’re pretty sure they’re building a Deathstar
And both sides get really whipped into a frenzy
Of course! Because everyone loves an underdog story!
But the problem is that, again, BOTH sides are doing this
If BOTH sides are spinning their own side’s story as sympathetic underdog, and spinning the other side’s story as building a Deathstar...
Then those two sides are going to talk past each other!
Because they’re telling the exact opposite stories about reality
The way we tell the story of our side of a divide, or the story of people like us, or the story of our lives, or even the story of our day at work…
That has impact
It impacts me, and it impacts the conversations I end up in
And therefore it impacts the people around me
Hold that thought… we’re going to come back to it in a bit...
We’ve been in a series of talks here at BLV tracking through the book of Exodus (the 2nd book in the Bible’s Old Testament)
A quick outline is in your program to bring us up to where we’ll pick the book back up today
We started with God calling Moses in the episode of the Burning Bush
We moved to the liberation of Moses’ people, the Hebrews or Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt
And last week we came to the Ten Commandments
After which, Exodus launches into what is basically 19 chapters of God giving Moses extremely meticulous instructions about how the relationship between God and the Israelites will work -
Meticulous to the point of specific materials to use to sew garments for their priests and exact dimensions of the altar they are to build.
As Kyle last week helped us to understand (check out the podcast on our website!)...
The Israelites have come from a polytheistic world where the Gods are involved in their own game -- human beings are just pawns on their chessboard.
These gods were often associated with natural forces, and, like natural forces, were believed to be unpredictable, even arbitrary.
So meticulous instruction to insure ongoing, reliable connection and help from God is revolutionary, unprecedented, and incredibly helpful.
Their experience (being for so long under the enslavement of the pharaohs of Egypt who claimed to be gods) would have been:
Wait!... gods don't do this...
Gods are scary, unpretdictable characters, not thoughtful characters with morals and reasons for doing things.
Wow! This is different.
There is one interlude though in the middle of those 19 chapters of meticulous instruction
Known as the Golden Calf Episode.
It’s what we’re going to look at today
And, as is the case with many Old Testament passages we might encounter, because we are thousands upon thousands of years removed and swim in such a different cultural reality, it can feel confusing and bracing to our modern sensibilities.
So keep that in mind
Here’s what happens:
While the Israelites are all camping at the foot of a mountain…
Moses is up the mountain where he has been having perhaps the most prolonged experience of the presence of God anyone has ever had
It’s quite a long while that he is up on that mountain because, as I mentioned, this experience for Moses was marked by receiving from God extremely meticulous instructions.
And what transpires in the Israelites’ camp while Moses is up there quite a long while is fear-mongering and panic.
Take, like the current state of national politics in our country, but then multiply that by the chaos of not actually having a political or governmental system...
And you get a lot of fear-mongering and panic…
Maybe that gives us an idea of what it must have been like
The result is: they build a religious idol, a Calf made out of gold, build an altar to it, worship it, and then, the english translation of Exodus reads: they “indulged in revelry”.
And while that may sound like something Professor McGonagle would punish Gryffindor House for…
Remember, once again, that we are looking in on the story of a people with hardly any societal structures or relational or interpersonal agreements in place at all.
Sadly, “indulge in revelry” probably meant things we would rightly understand today to be tragedies
The subtext here is that a Golden Calf is an allusion to Egyptian religion…
Essentially, the Israelites have turned to the religion and destructive ways of their former oppressors…
So God, while in the midst of giving instructions to Moses, stops himself and turns Moses’ attention back to the Israelite camp below, and what’s happening…
I’ll read here from Exodus chapter 32 (you can follow along in your program)...
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
At this point
The episode can make modern readers like us wonder: how is the God of the Bible any different from the unpredictable hot-head gods of Egypt?
Even as we might see the bigger narrative of the Exodus (freeing a suffering people from slavery) demonstrating God’s reliability, verses like this feel pretty inconsistent, from our perspective
After this, Moses seemingly talks God down from his anger and helps him see reason (!)
Modern readers like us follow that and think:
So… it’s the job of a human to calm down God?! This doesn’t sound like a loving God...
This is not clear cut and easy to interpret.
And theologians for centuries have spilled much ink over what exactly we ought to make of troubling passages like this.
So, there's no way we are going to settle-for-good a centuries old discussion in 25 minutes this morning
BUT I think there is quite a remarkable and attractive takeaway for us in this that we can uncover
And it comes down to what we began with this morning: how we tell the stories of ourselves...
The Israelites don't have to tell this story about themselves, but they do.
Zooming out for a moment, consider this with me:
Exodus is part of THE seminal work of the ancient Israelite people meant to capture and carry on their origins, history, and legacy:
The Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or what we call the Old Testament).
It is believed to have been written and compiled over the course of many centuries by the descendants of those who actually lived through its events.
And, interestingly, rather than justify all of the actions of their ancestors as "the will of God” so they can “demonstrate for all time their divine rights”…
God inspires and guides the writers and compilers of Exodus and the Pentateuch quite often to tell their story with themselves as the bad guys (!)
Exodus and the Pentateuch were NOT the writing of third-party investigative journalists seeking to deliver an expose documentary
"You thought you knew the Israelites, but here's the real story they've been hiding..."
No. Exodus is the Israelites writing about their own ancestors, their own people.
We’re expecting their own story of themselves to be “we’re the sympathetic underdog”…
BUT instead, we get a story that is self-aware and honest about regrets.
And, in that light, a passage like the one in your program that initially might feel troubling to us, reads very differently.
God’s inspiration of the Israelite authors of Exodus doesn’t lead to finger-pointing at others
It leads to them humbly owning: we are just as likely to be the bad guys as anyone
It leads to them humbly suggesting: you know what, a thoughtful God with morals (with reasons for his actions) would have been entirely justified in wiping us out or cutting off ties with us for good.
Can we just take a moment to marvel at the rarity of such a thing?
Who of us ever tells the story of our lives with us as the bad guy?
Who comes home from work after a day of petty and infuriating inconveniences involving other people and calls their friend or turns to their spouse and says: but, really, I was the one who made this day so hard for them?
None of us!
Companies and organizations all over the world pay billions of dollars to PR firms to protect their images as "good guys"
Campaigns for political offices in our country seem to have become entirely about painting someone else as the "bad guy", so our candidate can be perceived as the "good guy"
I think this is a situation where the Bible can feel like a breath of fresh air.
We are not very often exposed to the Bible’s humble way of telling a story about ourselves, or our people.
We live in the world of resumes and job interviews and first impressions
Of dating profiles and hoping for likes on Facebook and marketing our personal brands...
But what if we told our own stories more like the way God inspired the Israelites to tell theirs in Exodus?
What if we were more willing to acknowledge the parts of our story where we are NOT the good guy?
Don't get me wrong: I don’t mean to imply you and I are all rotten, awful people who have done grievous things, equal, if not worse, to the Ancient Israelites
And neither do I mean to imply all of us be so disparaging of ourselves or of life that we become Debbie Downer from SNL, or Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
I simply mean to imply that there is some great wisdom in this, which Jesus underscored again and again:
He taught paradoxical things like:
The last shall be first
To lose your life is to gain it
And, in the most emphatic way of all, we must die, in order to experience the power of resurrection
The point in all of this being:
The reward we will experience at our deepest level in acknowledging “I am not always the good guy of every story” is immensely better than the reward our egos feel when we tell our personal sympathetic underdog story
And that’s where this becomes extremely practical - extremely day-to-day
It makes me think back to the years I spent teaching standardized test prep to high schoolers
One regular part of the job, as anyone in a teaching capacity will know, was observations
(that most dreaded of experiences!)
I remember well my supervisor, who did my observations
Colin was his name
I remember Colin well because, I’m not proud to say, I judged Colin a lot
I started this job when I was just out of college, and it was a part-time gig for me
I took care of all my responsibilities, but I never took as much ownership over it as I could have
Because, in my mind, “it was just a part-time gig… a way-stop for me... I have grand plans for my future, and it is NOT teaching Standardized Test Prep”
Colin, on the other hand, was so sold-out to this job. He REALLY cared about Test Prep
And because I didn’t share that, I labeled him as odd, and his passion for this as odd
Looking back on myself, now, I have to say:
I was kind of a cocky jerk
Never to anyone’s face...
So if any of you knew me then, you wouldn’t know, but I was probably secretly judging you… because I was a jerk
One observation from Colin stands out to me
We sit down in a conference room to talk through his notes about what he saw in my classroom, and he notes some pretty clear room-for-improvement in my performance
Today, I can reflect to you all: Colin was right
But… well… let’s just say: that was not the first thing I felt then
The first thing I felt was (of course) that I’m the good guy, and he’s the bad guy
I remember going in my head immediately to that picture I’d painted of Colin as “odd”...
I was gearing up to complain to all my closest friends: can you believe this?!
Who is this guy?!
He’s just on my back because he wants to feel important as a supervisor
So, after meeting with Colin, I’m in the break room making my lunch and I start praying about these frustrations, complaining to God
And then it feels like God interrupts me
I can only understand what happened as divine interruption, because I just suddenly, right in the middle of complaining, began to see everything that had happened differently
I saw that the story I was in the process of writing about all that had happened was a sham
This is not “I’m the good guy, and Colin’s the bad guy”
That’s just me trying to console my bruised ego
And then, maybe even more miraculous than my sudden shift in perspective
I felt a wave of peace and contentment
Of relaxation! Physically! In my shoulders.
I felt like everything in my brain slowed down
Like the feedback I’d just been given wasn’t a threat to my self-esteem
And, feeling that way, I no longer had any drive in me to judge Colin.
I found myself feeling tenderness toward Colin… respect for him… and for the ownership he had in his job and in doing it well
Because I was no longer casting myself in the role of underdog, and him in the role of bad guy holding me down.
My experience in that break room was incredible!
And I think that’s because I learned what it means to, in a practical, daily-life way...
Experience Jesus making me first, if I’m willing to choose to be last
And experience Jesus give me life, if I’m willing to give up my only clawing and grabbing after it
Well, I wonder if the prospect of that sort of relaxing, perspective-shifting experience sounds like welcome opportunity to any of you.
If so, let me make a couple practical suggestions
First: Each day this week, at the end of your day (work or school or parenting or vacation or traveling or whatever), try to notice how you tell your story to others.
Are you always the good guy, justified in all you do?
Are the inconveniences of your day often someone else's fault?
Do you feel like an underdog being held down?
Trying to notice things like this this isn't to make us feel bad about ourselves!
So don’t shame yourself if you find: yes, I am doing some of this.
This is just trying to increase our self-awareness
So we can take steps in the direction of learning to tell our stories the way the Israelites learned to
Second: Try the Jesus Prayer
The Jesus prayer is a two-line prayer, adapted from a story Jesus told, that has been prayed for centuries:
The prayer is:
Jesus Christ, son of the Living God // Have mercy on me, a sinner
The method is:
You pray it over and over and over and over
Often as part of a breathing exercise - the first line is inhale, the second line is exhale
Jesus Christ, son of the Living God (inhale), have mercy on me, a sinner (exhale)
You pray it on loop in the background of your doing life
And, as you do so, people throughout history (myself included) report that it gradually takes on a life of its own
You forget that you’re praying it, but it is having an undeniable effect on you
The idea behind this is simple, and beautiful:
If the background loop in me is:
I am small and limited, I’m just a person in need of mercy, a sinner, like everyone else in the world
AND YET I matter in a profound way! Jesus, the son of the Living God, is listening to me.
If that’s the background loop going on inside me…
How likely am I to fall into the trap of telling my story in a way that makes me out to be always the good guy?
I am much more likely to tell my story in a balanced and fair way
I am much more likely to experience Jesus making me first, because I’ve chosen to be last... giving me life, because I’m not grabbing at it myself…
Well, in a moment, I would love to lead us in prayer along these lines (even give us a chance to try the Jesus prayer)
And after I finish, we’re going to enter into a time of song… something spiritual communities have done for centuries to slow down from the pace of life and encounter God at an emotional level.
You can engage in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along (we’ll have the lyrics up on the screen here). Or maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you.
And, as we are doing that, this morning’s prayer team will be in the back. Any of them would love to pray with you if you’re feeling any kind of sense that God might be speaking to you -- whether you’re feeling that right now or at any point while we’re singing together.
I really want to invite anyone who’s feeling something going on internally to take advantage of this!
Having someone pray with you gives you another set of antennae for sensing what God might be offering to you, and hey, you never know, maybe that’s something life-changing today
The people on our prayer team are trained and safe folks; no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
Stand with me, if you would, and I’ll pray.