United Church of Jaffrey
Nov. 1st 2020
To hear this sermon as delivered from the back of a truck in the UCJ parking lot, press pay below…
He’d been gone a long long time.
Moses walked up onto the mountain, and he did not come back.
If it’s been a while since you laid eyes on the book of Exodus, let me tell you that the familiar story of the emancipation of the Israelites from Egypt takes place in the first thirteen chapters.
These first 13 chapters unfold at a remarkable pace. One dramatic thing happens hard on the heels of the last dramatic thing. The baby Moses is saved. He is exiled. He talks to a burning bush. He is sent back to Egypt. There are plagues. The Pharaoh is hard hearted. The Israelites are finally allowed to leave. They are pursued. The sea is parted. It all takes place as if someone is planning things. Someone with a lot of power…
A few chapters — from 13 through 19, describe the movement of the people from Egypt to Mount Sinai — but the majority of the book — from chapters 19 through 40, tell about the events that actually take place on the mountain.
Not long after the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, at the end of chapter 24, to be exact, Moses leaves the people at the bottom of the mountain and walks up into the clouds.
Now those of us who have read the Book of Exodus, know that when Moses went up the mountain, he wasn’t going for a nice hike. He was having a conference with God — and given all the rumblings and pyrotechnics the Children of Israel probably suspect this is what he is doing, but they don’t know for sure.
They are in a pretty uncertain situation.
When it comes down to it, they’ve been led to this bleak, dry place beneath this scary mountain, and been abandoned.
Can you imagine?
If I were one of the Israelites, in this situation, I would hope that Moses, my leader, would raise his rod and calm the storm.
He did this kind of thing at the red sea.
But Moses didn’t do that.
I would want Moses to wander back from the mountain and offer some comforting words.
I would want Moses would tell me what the plan is.
What’s the plan Moses?
But that’s not what Moses did.
Moses just walked away.
He walked up into the clouds… and he didn’t come back.
If Moses left for the weekend you might not mind that much.
If Moses left for a week you could be forgiven if you started to wonder what the deal was.
If Moses was gone for two weeks, and there was no sign of him — you’d probably start to wonder if he’d fallen off a cliff.
But Moses wasn’t gone for a weekend, or a week or even two weeks.
He was gone for forty days and forty nights.
Forty days and forty nights.
That’s a long time to be left alone in the wilderness.
Around Easter of 2008 my mother and father moved in with us.
They used up a good portion of their retirement money to fund the construction of a lovely extension onto the back of our house, and when it was complete, I drove out to Minneapolis in a UHaul truck, packed them up and moved them in.
The plan was that they would live quietly with us during their declining years. We would support them, and they would be able to enjoy watching the kids grow up.
That was the plan.
But it didn’t really work out that way.
The irritation in Dad’s throat turned out not to be acid reflux, but Esophageal cancer, and it was barely a year — just about long enough for him to get his books in order on the shelves that we had built for him — before he died from complications. My mother, who was now a widow, found herself separated, not only from her husband of fifty years, but also her whole community of friends. She had come to be with her beloved son and his family, and now, suddenly, she was bereft and alone in the wilderness.
One day I returned from taking my son to school, to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, mumbling incoherently.
She herself was a colon cancer survivor, and had been diagnosed with a slow form of lymphoma — but these things, we thought, had been more or less under control. This strange behavior was something new.
If my father’s demise was swift, my mother’s was gradual. I hardly had enough time to adjust to my father’s sudden complications, before he was in the ICU and then, inexplicably, gone. It was like an earthquake.
Mom’s decline was like an era of my life — a season of loss. And I was there for the whole thing because, as luck would have it, I had the incredible stroke of good fortune to be laid off from a teaching job I had at UMass Amherst, so I was able to claim unemployment and this, of course, meant that I was freed up, right at the crucial moment, to take care of her 24-7.
At first I was just her chauffeur and her errand boy.
Then I was her arm to lean on when she went to church.
I was there to stand at the door and say to her: “Don’t forget your cane.”
Eventually, as her seizure disorder got worse, and she spent more and more time in the wilderness where it was hard to reach her, I became her nurse. Her caregiver.
I was aware, at this time, that I was doing all the things for her, that she had once done for me.
The child, who would not have survived without his mother’s breast, was now the man, who was keeping his mother alive.
We had come full circle.
At the neurologist’s office, one day, with mother sitting on the examination bench, I conferred with the doctor about the medication he was prescribing.
I asked if this medication would cause any adverse reactions with the other medications she was taking.
I produced the list that I’d been carefully keeping, of all the drugs that all the different doctors had been prescribing her.
“Oh…” the neurologist said, looking at the list… “that would’ve been bad…” he said.
Turns out there was a problem.
The doctor changed the prescription. We’d narrowly avoided a bad drug interaction.
It was surprising…
The doctors are the specialists. They know a lot.
But for the doctors, my mom was a patient. They cared about her, but they did not love her, as I did.
Doctors represent the healthcare establishment.
They represent medical science.
They have a big and a powerful plan.
But they did not have love.
I was not a doctor.
I was just her son.
But I had love, which, as it turned out, made all the difference.
You and I know that Moses didn’t fall off a cliff.
You and I know that Moses was up there talking to God.
And you and I know what happened next, don’t we?
We know the story.
Moses was gone so long that the children of Israel got spooked! they asked Aaron, Moses’ brother, to help them, and Aaron came up with an idea. He got everyone to give him their gold and jewelry, and he melted it all down and had all that gold made into an idol — the image of a calf. A golden calf. And the children of Israel made burnt offerings before the golden calf and they said “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!
And this is where you and I are supposed to get all bent out of shape with the children of Israel and say “Those no good ingrates — how could they do such a thing?”
But you know what? I’m reluctant to do that. I get it. I understand why the children of Israel did this golden calf thing.
Where was Moses?
Where was God?
Who was in charge?
What was the plan?
When you are in the wilderness, you want there to be a plan. You want to know someone is in charge. They were desperate and scared. They wanted something to reassure them. So they created something to be in charge. They created something that looked like it was powerful. Something that looked like it had a plan.
But this did not sit well with God.
God had all the power.
And this was not part of God’s plan.
So God got angry.
The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.
God had the power.
Remember this is the same God that closed the sea on the Egyptians. God could consume the children of Israel with fire!
It was surprising!
Moses did not have the power.
Moses was just a man.
But Moses implored God on behalf of the people.
Moses asked God to imagine what the Egyptians would think of a God who liberated a people, only to destroy them in the wilderness. Moses reminded God of the covenants that God had made with Abraham.
Moses had no power.
He was only a man.
But he had love, which, as it turned out, made all the difference.
Power is one thing.
Love is something else.
In and around the Mediterranean during the 1st century AD, the most powerful person in the world was Caesar.
All the military and political power was concentrated in Rome.
Israel was a backwater.
It was the boondocks.
It was the edge of the world.
In this little place, a child was born in a stable to an unwed mother.
Refugees, they fled from persecution.
This child was no one.
And yet, it was surprising…
this child became a man who changed the world.
He had no power.
But he had love, which, as it turned out, made all the difference.
Where is the power today?
And where is the love?
This is the question that makes all the difference.