Archive for December, 2013

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 29, 2013.  This message is based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23.

bassinet“Do you think Jesus ever ate applesauce?”

I looked over at Sheila as she peered down at her daughter lying in the crib between us.  She was twirling a little paint brush in her hand.  We were in a New Hampshire hospital Intensive Care Nursery where I was serving as chaplain.  Sheila and her daughter Star had been in the hospital nursery for the past seven months, since they day Star was born.  We were gathered around Star’s crib as the hospital staff prepared to remove her life support.

“Applesauce?,” I asked.

“You know, when Jesus was a baby.  Do you think he had baby food, like applesauce, or squash, or sweat potatoes?”  There was a long pause.  “Star always loved applesauce,” she said.

Star was born with a genetic disorder that caused her organs to grow at different speeds.  While the rest of her body had grown to a normal size for her age, her lungs had barely developed.  As a result, Star breathed through a trachea in her neck, and for the most part was fed through a tube in her belly so that eating wouldn’t interfere with her breathing.  Star could the swallow teeny-tiniest amounts drops of food or water.  Every day, Sheila would come to the hospital and paint Star’s lips with applesauce.  Star’s eyes lit with delight as she licked the applesauce off her baby lips, experiencing the briefest pleasure from the limited food she could taste.

The memory of watching Sheila twirl that applesauce paintbrush roundmoore-lamb and round in her hands as she asked me about the baby Jesus has filled my mind this past week as I have pondered this morning’s complex and stark gospel lesson.

We know very little about the infancy of Jesus.  Our gospels contain perhaps a handful of passages about Jesus’ entire youth and childhood.  While there are other writings that appeared in the second century that speak of Jesus as a five year old and teenager, these writings are widely regarded as unauthoritative, similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels.  Even our fiction, like Christopher Moore’s novel, Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, neglects to imagine Jesus’ life as an infant.

Historically, we know that Bethlehem was a small town, and that around the time Jesus was born there were probably no more than twenty children under the age of two.  Add the scriptural passages about the naming of Jesus and his presentation in the temple to today’s passage, and in a few brief words we have summed up about all we know about the incarnate infant.

A question beckons us, “With so much left unsaid about Jesus as an infant, why is the story of Herod and the murder of innocent children one of the few stories we do tell?”

In many ways, this story is a retelling of the Passover, one that unites the life of Jesus to the vulnerability and pain of the exodus from Egypt.

When we dig deep, we can see rich parallels between Moses’ ministry and the beginning years of Jesus’ life.  Both Jesus and Moses were forced to leave their homes when they were infants – Jesus with Joseph and Mary, and Moses in the MosesBasketriver.  Both were forced to flee from Egypt and to live in exile.  Both advocated for the under privileged, the captive and the abused.  Both brought new commandments to God’s people.

Matthew works really hard to help emphasize that Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites to new life.  This morning’s message is peppered with imagery pointing to this notion; Jesus fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet, “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  An angel told Joseph twice to “get up and go into the land of Israel.”  The image of Rachael weeping, the same Rachel who was married to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) is another vibrant association.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites into new life.  But Jesus is also so much more.  Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus is more than a sequel to the Moses story.

A challenge to this passage is that there is a part of us that wants to know why God the Parent saved Jesus but not the other children.  We want to know why Jesus didn’t save the other children.  We want to know why Jesus doesn’t save us from the violence of this world.

More than a sequel to the Moses story, as God incarnate Jesus didn’t need to be a vulnerable baby born among animals, forced to flee with his mother and Joseph and live as a refugee.  He could easily have descended from a cloud as described in Daniel, or appear heroic and stoic as prophesied in Revelation.

Instead, Jesus put on our vulnerability and our humanity, calling us brothers and sisters, living as susceptible as any infant child.  Jesus humbled himself to live in the fullness of our existence in every respect, sharing in our joys and sorrows so that we will never have to question if our Triune God understands the complexities of our realities.

In the vulnerability of the incarnate infant, we can trust with a certainty that our through Jesus, God will stop through nothing and has stopped at nothing to be in deep, meaningful relationship with us.

hole-earthMany of you may have seen the Ted Talk that has been floating around social media about empathy verses sympathy.  It says that in order for a person who is in despair to feel that they are not alone, they do not need to be sympathized with, they need to be empathized with.  That when we are in our lowest moments, when we are living in a pain so deep and dark that it haunts us and terrifies us, the only way we can get out of that deep, dark hole is to have someone else come down into the hole with us.

Sympathy is when we stand above that hole, seeing someone deep inside, and offer them a rope.  Empathy is getting into the thick of it, walking step by step as the one in pain finds their way toward the light.

God throwing us a rope of sympathy is not enough to bring us to the light.  Jesus coming among us, into the deepest, darkest pit of our experience and sharing our lives step by step is empathy, and is the light that shines upon our path.

We may want the quick fix of the sympathy rope.  We certainly seek it when tragedy strikes.  We wanted to know in Newtown, Connecticut why our children were slaughtered.  We want to know why some people are plagued with illness and others with senseless persecution.  We want God to in the blink of an eye fix our infertility, to cure us with our battles of addictions.  We want God to reset the clock on our crumbling relationships.

God does more than sympathize with our pain.  In humbling himself to our humanity, Jesus comes down and joins us the deepest, darkest ache of our lives.  Jesus empathizes with our vulnerability and fragility he experienced the fullness of our humanity.  It is like our lesson from Hebrews shares, just as “the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things.”

Jesus’ early life echoed the history of the Israelites so that their history became his own.  Jesus continues to share in our human experience.

When our children were senselessly murdered last December in Newton, Christ experienced the grief of their parents and our nation.  When we are plagued with illness, Jesus feels the prick of every needled and the adhesive of every bandage.  When we yearn to grow our families, Christ experiences our parental instincts.  When we long to reset the clock on our relationships, Jesus shares in our feelings of despair and hopelessness.

In the infant Jesus, God moves from sympathy to empathy, forsaking the rope and crawling down into the darkness to walk with us step by step.  But Jesus does not stop at empathy.  Just as Jesus shares the experiences of our humanity, Jesus moves past empathy so that we share in his resurrection.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ transforms the empathy of our shared human existence into the fulfilled promise of new life, a life that is available to all.

Through the miracle of resurrection, we rise from our grief like a phoenix from the bassinet_2ashes, building new relationships and holding onto hope.  In resurrection, Jesus moves past empathy and helps us discover the new possibilities that come from understanding how we are more than the limitations of our bodies.  In resurrection, we build deeper connections with our loved ones from the intimacy that comes with forgiveness.

I continue to think about Sheila and her question if Jesus ever ate applesauce.  While I will never have an answer that that question, I place my trust in the fulfilled promise that Jesus was right beside little baby Star as she was filled with joy from the taste of applesauce.  I place my trust that Jesus in his vulnerability was with Star step by step as she struggled to grow, and was the light that guided her from this life to the next.  I live in the resurrection hope that through Jesus, Sheila’s life was shaped for the better for having been Star’s mom, even for a short while.

The infant Jesus lives in the light and darkness of our lives, journeying with us step by step.



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The following sermon was preached for the children of Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis, on December 24, 2013. 

Many years ago God createdchristmas the heavens and the earth, forming woman and man from God’s own image.  God loved the earth and all its creatures very much, and gave all living things a very special gift – his love, protection and faithfulness.  This gift was so special that its light shone upon the earth, and the world was at peace.

The man and woman really liked God’s gift, but wondered if there was anything better than the gift.  So they climbed up a tree in the garden and ate some fruit that God had said was off limits.  God was sad, and put some rules in place on how the world could receive God’s gift of love, protection, and faithfulness.

For many years, people did their best to follow God’s rules to get this most special gift.  Abraham and Sarah welcomed many guests, Isaac was bound on the mountain, Ruth cared for her mother-in-law Naomi.

At one point, there was a group of people who thought that they could live without the gifts that God gave to the earth, and they turned their back on God’s rules.  Darkness fell over the earth, where people did bad things to one another and no one looked out for each other.  This made God very sad, because God knew he needed to punish the people for their bad behavior  so that they would learn from their mistakes.  God sent a great flood, protecting Noah and his family because they were people who followed God’s ways.  After the flood, God was even sadder because our God does not like to punish people.  So God made a promise to the world that he would never again bring a flood to punish people for their bad choices.  God gave the world a rainbow as a sign to help remind people of that promise, and of the gift of love, protection and faithfulness that God has always been trying to give the world.

giftboxGod really wanted to help people receive the gift of love, protection, and faithfulness, so he came up with a list of 10 special rules that would help people get the gift.   Moses shared those rules, called commandments with the people.  While the commandments are helpful, sometimes it was hard for the people to follow them.

Throughout the years, over and over again, God kept coming up with new ways for people to receive that most special gift of love, protection, and faithfulness.  People tried to get the gift for themselves, but a gift this special we cannot get for ourselves.  It has to be given to us.

God really wanted the world to have this special gift.  God gave the most special gift to the world through his son Jesus.  When Jesus was born on Christmas and placed in the manger, the gift of love, protection and faithfulness came to earth to be shared among all people.  There are no more rules or commandments required to receive this extraordinary gift.

When Jesus came to earth, he showed the world how special this gift really was.  Jesus spent his life helping people who down on their luck, healing people who were sick, and helping people make friends with others.  When Jesus went to the cross, he took the struggles and hard times of our life and wore them as his own.

Jesus is with us when we have good days, and when we celebrate special occasions like birthdays and holidays.  Jesus is with us when we have bad days, like when we get bullied in school, struggle with homework, or fall down and get a scratch.  Jesus is with us when we make bad choices, forgiving us so that next time we can make better choices.  Jesus is the strength within us to make good choices, and is the spirit that helps us do nice things for our family and neighbors.

God has always wanted us to have this special gift of love, protection and faithfulness, so God brought it to earth through Jesus so that that every person can share this amazing gift.

poinstettiaOn Christmas we give gifts to one another not because we need more things, but we give gifts because when we do nice things for others, we show God that we are thankful for the gift of Jesus.  In a few moments our church family of Bethel will give each of you a poinsettia.  When you look at it, remember that Bethel gave you this gift as a way to show God how thankful we are for the gift of Jesus.

This is the true meaning of Christmas: God loved us so much that God gave us the greatest gift of all time – Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas.

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Godspell1As we prepare for our final midweek Advent Vespers lesson of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1 – 18), I cannot stop a memory from my youth to float through my mind.  When I was in junior high, I was in a production of Godspell with my sister’s high school friends.  Several of them had attended the same church, and they were one singer short of a full ensemble.  Thanks to my sister vouching for me, I was admitted into the production, an event that exposed me to my first ecumenical effort and created the foundation for friendships I still hold dear today.  As a result of that musical, I will never be able to think about John the Baptist without the song “Prepare Ye” ringing through my mind.

There are many who question if this passage can indeed be labeled the Song of John the Baptist.  While it may sometimes miss our notice, John is considered a prophet.  In Hebrew literature, a prophet fulfills a minimum of one of the following distinct roles; 1) to speak towards the future of what God will be doing in the world, 2) to give a message from God to the people (like an intercessory or messenger), 3) to experience a mystical act from God, like a vision 4) use mystical abilities on God’s behalf, such as healing someone.  Very often, prophets would prepare the way in battle, similar to the role of a town crier.  A refrain from their vision would be sung repeatedly in a liturgical fashion.  Frequently, these cries were repeated seven times while circling a territory and carrying a sacred object, such as the arc of the covenant.  The prophetic cry or song would become a liturgical ritual, helping to prepare for the battle ahead and serving as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the people.

Luke strongly emphasized that John the Baptist was a prophet, speaking on God’s behalf about the future of the ethical renewal in Israel and how God was bringing salvation to all peoples.[1]  John’s prophetic voice is strengthened as he echoes the imagery found by another prophet in Isaiah 40: 3 – 5.  Isaiah’s image of “the way of the Lord,” references a Babylonian liturgical rite of a festival procession of idols.[2]  Isaiah explains that one will come who will “make straight” (correct) the roadway from celebrating false idols and instead reveal God’s glory.

While we may never know for sure if this passage was indeed sung, it is not a far leap to assume that John enacted the liturgical practice of the sung town crier as he prepared the way for Christ, especially in light of the Isaiah imagery.  We explore this possibility of song as tomorrow, December 18, at 7 pm.  A reception will follow the service.

As I continue to hum “Prepare Ye,” I find myself surprised that a musical with disciples dressed as clowns holds so much liturgical history.  In Godspell, the refrain of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is repeated over and over again in town crier fashion, providing us with an avenue to imagine how John may have sung his prophetic refrain throughout the city streets.

[1] Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (volume 9), a ed. (Grand Rapids: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 81

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, Fully ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2006), page 961

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It is interesting that we will explore Hannah’s Song at our Advent Vespers just one day after the globalized day of prayer against hunger on December 10.  Before we reach Hannah uplifting her prayer of thanksgiving about her son, we learn in the book 1 Samuel that Hannah had been rebuked for reaching for more food at dinner one night by her husband’s second wife, Peniniah.

hannahs-prayerEven in a prosperous household, food can be used as a weapon.  It is presumed that Elkanah’s household was affluent, which was why he could accommodate having both Hannah and Peniniah as wives.  Hannah was barren where Peniniah had many children.  Peniniah scolded Hannah for reaching for more food, stating that the extra food should go to her own children.  At that table, food was used to shame Hannah for the barrenness that was beyond her control.

It was this encounter that prompted Hannah to go to the temple and plead with God for a son.  She made a bargain, vowing that if she is blessed with a child she would give him over to God to be a Nazarite.  Soon after, she gave birth to Samuel, whose name translates “name of God.”  When Samuel was about 3 years old, the family journeys to Shiloh where Hannah gives Samuel over to the priest Eli, fulfilling her promise made in the temple.  It is here in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 we encounter her prayer of thanksgiving.

It was common for prayers of thanksgiving to be sung aloud.  Add that ritual with the literary structure and strong symbolism, Hannah’s prayer often referred to as a psalm or song.  Since Hannah was heading to the temple as she proclaimed this prayer, many traditions sing this song in advance to worship as a pietistic preparation.

Hannah’s song strongly parallel’s the style and structure of Psalm 113, a song of thanksgiving that is accredited to David.  The structure and style of songs of thanksgiving are somewhat formulaic in structure – they tend to begin with an word of praise, refer back to how God has acted on behalf of the people in creation in the past, and look to the future at how God will bring glory in the future.  Such a structure was useful when used corporately in an assembly, as it leads to natural breaks for call and response between the congregation and the cantor.

This structure for songs of thanksgiving is so strong that we see it repeated in numerous psalms, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ psalm of thanksgiving at the annunciation.  The similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song are so strong that some scholars believe that Mary’s song was an adaptation of the familiar song from Hannah.

We explore Hannah’s song at 7 pm on Wednesday, December 11.  Dinner will be held at 6 pm for those interested.  Join us next week as we encounter the song of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-18.

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 8, 2013.  The message was based on Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13, and Matthew 3:1 – 12.

104004A.TIFI recently discovered a local television station that plays reruns of Lost.  It’s been about three years since the series ended on ABC, and I have been enjoying re-watching the story.

The main premise of the show is that a plane crashes onto a mysterious island somewhere in an untraceable part of the south Pacific.  We journey with the characters as they try to survive and attempt to leave the supernatural island.  As they travel around the wilderness of the island, the audience learns about the characters through flashes of their lives.  In flashbacks, we learn that their lives before the crash were also a wilderness filled with broken families, addictions, struggling marriages, and professional woes.  For many, the wilderness of the jungle proves to be more peace filled then the wilderness of coping in mainstream society.

This morning we encounter the wild image of John the Baptist in his camel hair clothes, chomping away on locusts and honey.  He is prophesying the arrival of Jesus while baptizing those who seek an escape from the wilderness of their lives.

As every good realtor would tell you, location is everything.  John remains on the margin alongside the river Jordan.  His location prompts people living inside and outside the city to meet him on the margin created by the river, to take a step towards the wilderness.

John’s wild attire and focus on an extreme lifestyle is no accident.  The wilderness is sacred in the history of the Israelites.  It was a place seen for renewal, it was where the Torah was revealed, and was a place where judgment fell to those who lacked faith.  John serves as a prophetic voice, bringing to life the sacredness of the wild in every way – through baptizing those who repent in untamed waters, in bringing to life the words of Isaiah of the voice crying out in the wilderness, to the very nature of how he dressed and lived.

ArrowTreeJohn’s life, attire and ministry pointed to one central message – return to the wilderness, it is here God will give us a new way.

This message begs the question, what and where is our wilderness?

John the Baptist shows us that our wilderness can be found in stepping out of the comfort of our tradition and grasping onto the change that faith brings.

Our passage sets the scene of Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism.  The word in Greek that is translated as “coming for,” the word epi, can also be translated as “coming against.”  This verse could read “He saw any Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” or “coming against baptism.”

If we consider that the church leaders were “coming against baptism,” the following sentences of vipers clinging to their ancestor Abraham deepen in meaning.  John is furious because the church leaders are coming to put a stop to baptisms, to take the focus off what God will be doing and return it to what God has already done in their ancestry.

John explains that to live in this history and not accept that God is doing something new is like a spiritual death, one as dead as a tree cut by an ax.  To cling to the old ways is to live in the shelter of a spiritually dead city.  To cling to the old ways is to give up hope that God will continue to transform the world.

John the Baptist urges us to return to the wilderness and to cling to the hope that God is about to do a new thing.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.

For many of us, this call to leave the comfort of the city or even the familiarity of the margins, to trust in the wildness of faith, can make us feel vulnerable.   It requires us to let go of the notion that we are in control and trust that God will fulfill God’s promise to mend what is broken in the world.

Signs_UnclearJohn’s call to put our trust in God and embrace what is unknown can be difficult because we spend our lives sifting through unanswered questions. When is the right time to move my parents out of their home and into ours?  Do my children know that I love them?  When will I ever find job, and at what expense?  Will my body ever stop feeling like my enemy?  How can I sustain my marriage when it seems like the love is gone?  Why should I pray when I do not hear God answer me?

We are already living in the wilderness, in the rough and harsh environment of things unknown.  For many of us, we are like the characters of Lost, where the wild of the jungle would seem more peaceful then the wilderness of our daily lives.  It is oh so tempting to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, feeling too vulnerable to hope that God is doing a new thing in our midst.

John urges us to go deep into the wilderness of our hearts, but the truth is we are already there.  And so is God.

God is not like John the Baptist, waiting at the perfect remote location by some distant river bank.  God comes to us in the wilderness of our lives, taking the chaff and making manna, creating a branch of life to sprout from the dead root of the stump.  God is among the question of our lives, making something new.

The temptation may be there to evaluate where God is at work in the wilderness and treat hope like a wish.   We may wish that God will answer our questions in the terms we have scripted in our minds.  I would imagine we all have our wish list of tasks we want God to complete.  But hope is not wishful thinking.  It is not us putting conditions on God will unfold the future.

Hope is the ultimate trust that God is already making flower_snowthe world new and repairing what is broken.  Hope is the knowledge that God takes the chaff of our hearts and turns it into bread from heaven.  Hope is the recognition that burning away the unhealthy in our lives is the fertilizer that nourishes new seeds.  Hope is eagerly awaiting the new branch to sprout from the stump, bringing life in the midst of grief.

We put our trust in that hope because through the glory of the manger God came to us incarnate as Jesus Christ.   Talk about the wildness of the unexpected.  Who could have imagined that a child born in poverty would be our Emmanuel, God with us?  God did something new by coming among us as Jesus, and throughout his life Jesus continued to do new things.

Jesus never hesitated to live among all people, helping the world recognize that God is at work transforming all of us – those inside and outside the city margins.  Jesus faced the demons of illness and oppression.  He brought restoration in cities, on mountains, with water and wine, fishes and loaves.

Jesus’ ministry was often a wild process, bringing reconciliation in ways that baffled the comfortable history of the ancient ways.  That wilderness continued to the cross.  The certainty that seemed to accompany death no longer was true, as Jesus did something new through his resurrection.

The newness of resurrection was extended onto us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We have been resurrected in Christ.  Through the waters of our baptism we are claimed as God’s own, in a ritual filled with wild waters that we would expect to bring death but instead bring life.

We may wish that God would mend our lives in specific ways, taking us out of the uncertainty of the wilderness into the safety of familiarity.   We may wish God will work in ways we have determined as best.  Living deeply into our faith, however, is not a wish list we hope God will complete.  It is living in the certain hope that through Christ, God has already answered the question before we even ask it.

MandelaThis was hope that empowered Nelson Mandela to care for his people in the wilderness of the South African apartheid.  I would imagine that Mandela never wished that God would send him to prison or make him an enemy to the authorities.  Yet, God did something new and made bread from the chaff of those experiences.

Mandela’s ministry was not based on wishes of what God could do, but was instead living into the hope of what God was already doing among his people.  Holding onto the certain hope that the resurrection of Christ was at work in the midst of the wild and violent time in his country, Mandela was able to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that God was sprouting a new branch on a seemingly dead tree.

The hope we have in Christ is living in the certainty that God has already begun working on the answer before we even ask the question.  We have been resurrected in Christ, and the uncertainty of the wilderness is no longer.  In Christ, we have the certain hope that God is doing something new within our lives, fertilizing the seeds of our future with the remnants of the fire.

Live in hope.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.  God is already there, doing something new.


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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 4, 2013.  The message was based on Exodus 15:1 – 21.

Over Thanksgiving I got to do something that I haven’t done in a really long time – I held a baby.  While I joke that my cat Cozmo is my baby, the truth is that there is nothing quite like holding a newborn.  Everything about them is fresh – their little hands, their soft animal sounding cries, and that intoxicating scent that emanates from the top of their teeny tiny heads.  For me, holding a baby can be like a breath of fresh air, a moment to pause and recognize how through the gift of creation God is realigning the world back to God’s self.

Miriams Song2This breath of fresh air is the heart of the songs sung by Moses and Miriam.  At first glance, this song may appear to be an emotionally confusing melody that retells the gruesome moment where the Pharaoh’s army sunk into the Red Sea like a stone.  In the midst of victory language and furious metaphors, it can be easy to miss that this is a song about God using creation to restore the world.

In the book of Exodus, this song falls after the detailed narrative of the plagues and the pillar of fire,[1] even though it is believed that the song was created first.  Described as one of the oldest pieces of poetry in our Hebrew Scriptures,[2]  the song was later expanded upon to create the vibrant narrative that Charleston Heston movies are made of.  Historians explain that this song was placed after the expanded story because of its mountain imagery, building the anticipation of the journey to Mount Sinai.

This placement, however, can cause us to forget that song lyrics are often more than they appear to be.  In this song, Egypt was a symbol for the chaos found all over humanity and man-made systems.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “Egypt symbolized evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination.”[3]  The lyrics of Egypt and Pharaoh are more than they appear to be, representing the brokenness throughout humanity that keeps people in bondage.

Moses and Miriam’s songs use the exit from Egypt as a symbol for how God takes direct action to breathe fresh air into a broken world.   The brief but powerful words of their song show a different side of God than in the other more familiar versions of this memorable story.

The versions we are more readily accustomed to show God working indirectly through the servant Moses.  God speaks to Pharaoh through Moses and his staff.  There are times when even Moses speaks indirectly, using Aaron to serve as his voice.  God speaking through Moses who speaks through Aaron is probably not the most direct approach to liberation.Miriams Song3

In Moses and Miriam’s songs, however, God directly intercedes on behalf of the Israelites.   While the image of God’s outstretched hands may remind us of the story of Moses stretching his staff, this song proclaims how God stretches God’s own hands on behalf of the people.  The image of Israelites passing by Pharaoh’s soldiers may remind us how the sheltering of the lamb indirectly protected the first born children.  The song proclaims, however, God directly shelters the people by the might of his own arm.

A casual reading of this song may seem like an afterthought to a beautifully descriptive narrative of the Passover, but its purpose is to show us the direct action God takes to liberate people from the captivity and bondage found in our humanity.  God doesn’t try to repair the earth by human means, with guns and bombs.  God directly works through the means of creation, using elements that humanity can only take small steps to control.  Try as we might, humanity will not be able to force a flood with the flare of our nostrils.  We are not able to swallow evil into the earth with the stretch of our hand.  This majestic and holy power can only be used hands on by our Creator.

It is said this is the oldest scriptural account where God directly liberates the people from the bondage of their lives.  But it is far from the last.

JonahIt was God going directly to Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones that brought restoration.  It was God speaking directly to Jonah under the tree that helped Jonah begin his new life, liberated from fear to live as a prophet.  God came directly to Job and showed him the mysteries of creation, allowing Job to be freed from his oppression.  While there are many times God worked through agents such as angels and prophets to speak to his people, God repeatedly brought direct action to realign the brokenness found in the world.

The most beautiful example of God’s direct action is when God came in human form as Jesus Christ.  This is the heart of our Advent celebrations.  Like a breath of fresh air, from the moment of his birth people who encountered Jesus were transformed forever.  Jesus spent his entire life realigning the world back to God’s self by releasing people from the captivity of their social and physical oppressions.   Jesus restored dignity to prostitutes, widows, and social outcasts.  He repaired the brokenness of bodies riddled by hemorrhages and leprosy.  He released the demons from the prisons of their human hosts.  All of these things Jesus did directly, in person, face to the face.  Where humanity remained limited by broken systems, Jesus directly liberated countless forms of bondage with the laying on of hands, on the breath of softly spoken words, through a brief brush in the midst of a crowd.

Jesus continues to release us from the chains that hold us in captivity.  Through his death on the cross and the glorious action of the resurrection, Jesus directly liberates humanity and all of creation.  Where we may find social oppression in our communities, through Jesus’ direct action of the cross, we will never be outcast from being in a loving relationship with God.

Where our bodies may fight the demons of illness, addictions, bad choices, and self-affliction, Jesus directly repairs us through the grace of forgiveness and community.

Where we may find ourselves traveling down roads that we would rather not travel, Jesus is traveling directly beside us, lighting our path and serving as our compass through the power of prayer.

We experience the physical presence of Christ in with and under the elements of Holy Communion, and we have been directly transformed by the Spirit through the waters of our baptism.

Miriams Song4Our God is not passive.  While God through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to send agents like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to serve as resources for living into the gift of faith, they are not our intercessors.  Our Triune God works directly with us and for us.  The direct action that started at the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea has continued through time, and remains forever with us through Christ.

This action is what caused Moses and Miriam to break into song.  God works directly for us, breathing life into our broken world, realigning creation, and granting us a liberated life.


[1] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 65

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[3] Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love, Gift ed. (New York: Fortress Press, 2010), page 73

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This week begins our Advent midweek worship series, “Preparing the Way in Song.”  Each passage represented in our series highlights a different function of how songs were used to convey messages about God to the people.  Frequently these songs accompany a major shift in culture, serving as a frame for understanding where God is at work in the midst of tragedy or pointing to hope at the change God is yet to do.  These songs are liturgical narratives, often being repeated by faith communities for generations to come.

Our first week we encMiriam's Songounter two songs of praise by Moses and Miriam.  They are considered to be some of the oldest historical passages in Hebrew Scripture.  While presumed to be written down prior to the documenting of the creation stories, the use of water imagery suggests that the oral tradition of the creation stories was prevalent in the culture and influenced the mythological tone of these hymns.

Moses and Miriam’s songs serve as a liturgical ritual to reflect upon the dramatic experience of the crossing of the sea, all the while paralleling the events of the Passover.  In the history of tradition, it is likely that Miriam’s song came first when used in the liturgy, serving as an antiphon (or refrain) to reinforce the thanksgiving voiced by the people. [1]  The assembly would join Miriam’s words as an echoing refrain, breaking up the Moses’ song into sections.  We sometimes follow that structure in our own liturgy when we use a refrain in our Psalmody.  Also, Miriam is referred to as a prophet as the text introduces her song, suggesting that a “hymnic celebration by the people is a prophetic witness to God.” [2]

While researching these songs, I was surprised to learn from the Jewish side of my family that Moses and Miriam’s songs are still used as liturgical narratives in synagogues today.  It has caused me to ponder on many of the liturgical narratives that we use in Christian worship that have carried through the ages, such as singing Mary the mother of Jesus’ hymn of praise at evening vespers.

Our liturgy provides us with a frame work for encountering God in evocative ways in the midst of being in a community of believers.  We unite with our ancestors throughout the ages as we return to the liturgical narratives found in our scriptures, bringing them to life in the present with the sound of our voices.

As we eagerly await the babe in the manger, we stay united in the fulfilled promises of God throughout time through the gift of song.

Join us next week as we encounter Hannah’s Song.

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[2] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 64

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