Sunday, August 21, 2011

Discerning God's will

Some weeks I dread the thought of preaching. I examine the readings and hear only silence. Other times, the Propers, like those for today, teem with intriguing preaching opportunities (Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20). The gospel provides the basis for the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that it is the one true Church with its Pope, alleged successor to Peter as Bishop of Rome, the rightful head of the Church on earth. Needless to say, we Anglicans have a somewhat different interpretation of that passage. The epistle reading speaks both to the need to care for our bodies by cultivating good health habits (diet, exercise, adequate rest, and so forth) and to the Church as an institution dependent upon mutual ministry. The clergy educate and enable the ministry of all baptized believers, each of whom has vital gifts for ministry.

But, as many of you know, I’m a former naval chaplain and enjoy a good sea story. This morning’s first lesson describes the only Biblical account of Moses afloat. Admittedly, a papyrus basket is not much of a ship, not even a boat really. And floating a few yards down river is hardly a journey that merits description as being underway. But sadly, that is all we know about Moses’ life afloat.

If, like me, you have watched Cecile B. DeMille’s movie classic, “The Ten Commandments,” I suspect it has shaped the visual images you associate with today’s first lesson. Moses’ actual birth was probably very prosaic: an ordinary birth of an ordinary child – if Moses even existed.

Historians generally divide into two camps regarding the entire exodus narrative. Some contend the whole story is apocryphal, a myth Jews devised to create a common history and identity for themselves. Other historians argue that the exodus narrative, like most myths, has a historical basis that over time acquired detail, broader scope, and expanded significance. Regardless of which theory is correct, we rightly regard the entire exodus narrative with considerable historical skepticism. For example, prices for male and female slaves have frequently been similar, males valued for outdoor labor and females for indoor work and breeding. No slave owner with any economic sense would order, as Pharaoh purportedly did, all newborn male slaves summarily killed.

So what do we make of this morning’s reading? Is it simply an entertaining story to tell our children? Or, is it a window through which God's light can shine into the darkened corners of our lives and world? The story of Moses’ birth, biblical scholars suggest, provides a type or pattern for other birth narratives and stories in the Bible, especially the births of Samuel and of Jesus. In particular, I see three overlapping themes, each of which is a sign of God at work in the world.

First, the story describes respect for life. The baby Moses, cast adrift on the Nile, is quickly rescued before he becomes a crocodile’s snack. One criterion that many scholars use in analyzing the historicity of both biblical and non-biblical stories about Jesus is whether the story expresses respect for life. For example, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the boy Jesus kills a child who irritated him and blinds people who accuse him of doing evil. Although Jesus subsequently restores all whom he injured to health, the stories obviously portray a narcissistic Jesus rather than a Jesus who respects life. Scholars are confident these stories have no historical foundation. (Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 204-205. For an English translation, cf. Infancy Gospel of Thomas, II-V at

Second, the story of Moses’ birth depicts radical love. Moses’ mother loves her child more than she loves herself. She sets him adrift to preserve his life; she may hope but cannot know that she will become the child’s wet nurse. Painful though it might be to hear her son call another woman “Mother,” at least she saw her son and knew that he was okay. In the biblical story of Hannah, she desires a child so strongly that she promises to give the child to God if God will fulfill her desire. Mary, in the biblical narrative, experiences condemnation and rejection as the price of her pregnancy, flees to Egypt to preserve her child’s life, and then, with broken heart, watches his execution. Moses’ mother, Hannah, and Mary all model radical love.

Third, the story of Moses’ birth depicts the restoration of liberty. The baby Moses once set adrift instantly becomes a free person rather than a slave. This sets the narrative stage for Moses to lead the Israelite slaves to freedom. Hannah’s child, Samuel, is similarly instrumental in preserving Israel’s freedom in the Promised Land. The story of Jesus is the quintessential story of freedom restored.

Most of us at least occasionally want to know God's will. We believe God speaks in various ways. These include doors opening or closing, a strong feeling, an idea that suddenly and unexpectedly captures the imagination, a comment from another person, and a fresh, compelling message in reading a familiar scripture passage. All of those methods, like the story of Moses’ birth, are more myth than fact. Nobody understands the mystery of how God speaks.

However, the story of Moses’ birth provides three reliable markers for recognizing God's voice. God invariably commands us to respect life, embody radical love, and restore liberty to those in bondage. When our perception of God's will aligns well with all three – respect for life, radical love, and the restoration of liberty – then we very likely may have accurately discerned God's will.


Ted said...

Such open mindedness will definitely get you in trouble with many religions. You will never be a TV evangelist.
Everyone can pick a verse and make it cover whatever they intend to say or do.
So far I have never heard anyone use Exodus chapters 21-22 for their sermons.
It is so unusual to read where a minister approaches the bible as a tool instead of a law.

George Clifford said...

I've never preached on a text from Exodus 21-22. However, Exodus 21:22 is a favorite verse among those opposed to abortion. The two chapters are good examples of why people should not approach the Bible literally. In fact, nobody of whom I am aware does approach the entire Bible literally.