The Weight is a Gift
This is the first sermon in the series: Out of Egypt. All formatting is for presentation and not for the prevention of errors.
“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain has been credited with this quote numerous times, over nearly one hundred years, even though he never said it. He was on a speaking tour in London and a rumor of his illness and death that followed haunted him for a little bit and he responded by telegram. But what he actually said was a paragraph long and not nearly as snappy sounding. This quote, these words, are snappy and memorable. It is a quote that you wish he had said; it’s just so perfect. It speaks with his wit. It speaks with the charm that made him a bestseller before there was a list to put him on. “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
That must have been what God was feeling like saying to the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. They must have thought that God was dead. What other explanation could there be other than thinking that God is dead? They had heard the stories. They were God’s chosen people. God had said to Abraham and Sarah, “Go… I will make you a great nation, your children will be more numerous than the stars, they will live in a land that I have promised, and all people will be drawn to me through you.” But, these same Israelites, the promised people, were living outside of that promised land, living in slavery in Egypt. They were conquered and broken. They had been forsaken. What other explanation could there be except that their God was dead and that maybe it was Pharaoh, or Pharaoh’s god, Ra, who killed him? Yet, now they are free and they are forced to reconsider. The scene at the foot of Mount Sinai, seven weeks after this freedom, screams, and shouts: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Dave Mahar, a minimally successful comedian, knows what it’s like to have his death exaggerated. Even though he is a type one diabetic, in his early twenties, he was not really taking good care of himself. He was selling his test strips, eating whatever he wanted, and drinking entirely too much in the bars in which he would perform. Being so young, he just didn’t think that his blood sugar could be spiking… until… One day he fell into a coma. His last thought was, “I wonder if I have food poisoning.” Then he slipped away.
After a few weeks of treatment, the doctors recommended pulling him off of life support. His parents called all his friends to tell them to come to the hospital to see him one last time. Then, on Facebook, there was a post that set off a chain reaction: “RIP Dave Mahar.” Dave’s friends were devastated and threw a wake and moved on to the hard work of mourning him. Dave’s Facebook page exploded, day after day, with condolence messages. It seemed like every day there were new celebrations of his life on his Facebook wall. But, then, a few months later, there was a post from… Dave.
It said, “Hi, it’s Dave. I’m not actually dead.”
Come to find out, his parents had not listened to the doctor and had actually moved him to a different hospital instead. And Dave woke up, but it was months of rehab before he could use his phone because his hands were shaking too much. When he was finally able to check Facebook, what he saw shook him up. As he read all the comments and eulogies, tears filled his eyes, and he made the post that set the story straight. To all his friends, he had died, but now he was alive and they were filled with joy. His death was only an exaggeration, a misunderstanding that grew out of the sorrow his friends felt. But now Dave was alive.
Sinai is proof that God’s death was likewise an exaggeration and of the joy that is to come. Here they are, these Israelites, camped on the desert floor, facing this, the tallest mountain in the region. I’ve done this. I’m sure that you have too. You’ve stood at the base of a great mountain and looked up and realized its grandeur, its impossible scale. But this wasn’t just a mountain. Exodus 19:16 says that God put on a show of power, that thunder quaked and lightning flashed, and a thick cloud made of fire enveloped the mountaintop. Verse 18 says that God came to the mountain as fire and smoke poured with volcanic enthusiasm. And the voice of God thundered a call to Moses to get the people ready for what will happen next. God’s voice roared, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”
God shakes them out of their perceptions, letting them know that reality is much bigger than they ever imagined. When they were in chains, slaves to these Egyptians, figuring that God was dead, they were limiting God, and limiting themselves, as a result. Seven weeks later, everything is changed and God has shown them the truth – that he is alive and well and ready to fix what has been broken. The limits they have placed on reality have been removed.
The sixth-century B.C.E. philosopher, Plato, has a lot to say about our perception of reality as human beings. He has an allegory that is considered to be a masterpiece of writing and philosophy that most just call “Plato’s Cave.” It’s a story found within Plato’s most important work: The Republic. In the story that Plato tells, the narrator, Socrates, has us imagine a cave in which the people who live there are chained to the wall and have no choice in their movement other than to face that wall. They can’t turn around. They can’t look or see anything other than the wall. They are enslaved and have been for as long as they can remember.They see shadows dancing on the rock before them, as people and things move in front of a fire that is lit behind them. Because they have never seen anything that is actually real, they think that the reflections are themselves reality.
One day, the prisoners manage to break themselves free and they see the fire and the things that truly live and breathe and move. They even leave the cave, but, because their eyes are so adjusted to the darkness of the cave, it takes a long time for them to see first, shadows, then people and water, the stars and moon, and finally the sun. But, here’s the disturbing part, the most important part for us who have seen the light of God. Plato says that those who escape the cave would take pity on the ones who are still prisoners. They might even sneak back to the cave, hoping to help free them. But, when that one who has seen the sun tries to lead the prisoner away from his slavery, he would rather kill her than be free. He just cannot understand what she is talking about, cannot understand what she has seen. How you describe the sun to one who has not seen it? So the one who could be free instead stays in slavery and in chains, will not leave the cave of ignorance.
This is what happens with the Israelites. They have left Egypt, the only life they have ever known. None of them ever lived in Israel. None of them ever heard from God directly as their father, Abraham, had or how Moses had with the burning bush. They have no concept of freedom and their God scares them to death!
So they look up to the mountaintop, see the fire, hear the thunder, fear the lightning flashes, but, above all else, they don’t understand how any of this works, how all of this means that they are now free. Again, what is freedom to them? How does this mean that they are free from Egypt, free from oppression, freed for life with a God they thought was dead? They have no idea what God means by, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” They thought he was dead and now here they stand in an endless desert, afraid for their lives and their futures.
Instead of looking up at that mountaintop and seeing the proof of a God who is alive and well, a God who is bigger than Pharaoh, couldn’t be killed by Pharaoh, bigger than their enemies, bigger than life itself… instead of seeing hope the look on with fear, and they look for a God that they do understand. Also, Moses stays up the mountain for a long time. We’re in chapter 19 today… and a little bit in chapter 20. Moses doesn’t come down for like 12 chapters. He is their leader, the one who communicates with that God who brought them to freedom. The people start to get antsy.
They take gold jewelry, they melt it down, and they make a god that makes sense. They make a calf out of the Gold and they worship that god that was made with their own hands. They know how this god works. Fiery mountaintops are scary and make no sense. Gold makes sense. It symbolizes wealth. Calves as a sign of life and fertility also make sense. YHWH does not make sense.
You ever think of this: these were slaves. Where did they get this gold? Surprisingly enough, the Egyptians gave it to them. Back in chapter 12, as the Egyptians were trying to get them to leave, trying to get them to hurry, they gave them silver and gold so that they would be on their ways.
This calf… the god they wanted… was Egyptian. It was a sign of the wealth they thought they had while they were there. They may have had lots to eat. They may have had ‘stuff,’ but they did not have freedom. This calf was Egyptian and it is our first sign that these Israelites want to return to slavery in Egypt.
They will say it a hundred times as they wander in the desert. They’ll ask Moses over and over again, “Did you bring us out of Egypt just to watch us die of hunger… of thirst.” They prefer slavery to a relationship with the God of the universe. They are like those prisoners still in the cave, preferring to stare at that shadow wall than to look at reality. The reality that includes a God who is big and scary, a God who lives and moves and breathes and frees us from slavery to sin and death, saves us from our oppressors, saves us from the Pharaohs of our lives.
And, oh man, are we good at making gods? We sometimes even take pieces of this God we call, YHWH, call Christ, call Holy Spirit – not three gods, but one God who makes no sense. Some of us take relationship, spiritual good feelings and forget action and practice. Spirituality is incredible. It’s the pins and needles feeling that the Holy Spirit can give us. We can feel so filled and so fed. Then we forget all about living for God. We say things like, “I’m not so into religion, but I do like spirituality.” When we do that, we’ve built a golden calf, a god who serves us, not the other way around.
And, on the other side of things, we focus on the rules of religion while forgetting that God expects worship and prayer and caring for neighbor. This is called being a Pharisee, making the rules the point of faith, the point of God. And, again, we’ve just built a golden calf, a god who shows us who is in and who is out, a god who serves us.
But God breaks in, in a cloud of fire and smoke, shakes us at our cores, offers us the law of love, offers us relationship. “I am the God who brought you out of slavery to sin and death. You shall have no other gods before me.” In other words, “the rumors about my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
After his London tour, Mark Twain lived almost fifteen more years. I’m sure that he wanted to tell everyone, “The best is yet to come. Don’t put me in the grave yet!” And, that’s God’s call to us this morning. The best is yet to come. Don’t put me back in the grave. Don’t put yourselves back in the cave. Let me be God and you will be my people. May it be so, through Christ, our strength, our one true God.