God Will Speak… and We Will Die

I preached this sermon yesterday at Rice Creek Covenant Church in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. I was there partly to teach an adult class on The Pietist Option, but the text came from the congregation’s participation in our denomination’s Immerse Bible reading program. They’d just finished Exodus 1-24…

I have to say, it’s risky to invite a non-preacher to deliver your message this morning. Not just a non-preacher, but a history professor. Not just a non-preacher history professor, but one with a book to sell! (More on Pietism later.)

But in the story of Exodus, you’ve given me a fool-proof text, full of twists and turns, flawed heroes and despicable villains. A chase scene! Even Cecil B. De Mille and Charlton Heston couldn’t mess up a story this good.

It’s such a good story in part because it has resonated so often with others’ stories. Not only has it echoed in the cycles of oppression, exile, and liberation that make up Jewish history, but Christians have often appealed to the narrative of Moses and the Israelites.

For example (and here comes the history professor, briefly), German peasants in 1525 clamored not only for religious change, but political, economic, and social reform: “Did [God] not hear the children of Israel when they called upon him and save them out of the hands of Pharaoh? Can he not save his own today?”

Their revolution failed, but 250 years later in another hemisphere, American revolutionaries also appealed to Exodus, making King George III play Pharaoh to George Washington’s Moses.

Unfortunately, Washington and the other founding fathers allowed slavery to take root in their experiment in liberty. But historian Albert Raboteau explains how enslaved African Americans recognized themselves in the story of enslaved Israelites: “In identifying with the Exodus story, they created meaning and purpose out of the chaotic and senseless experience of slavery… The sacred history of God’s liberation of his people would be or was being repeated in the American South” (Slave Religion, p. 311 — Raboteau quotes a Union chaplain during the Civil War who complained that the slaves reduced Jesus to a “second Moses”).

Closer to our own time, Exodus helped inspire a wave of liberation theologians, like the Bolivian Methodist Mortimer Arias: “The God whom we know in the Bible is a liberating God, a God who destroys myths and alienations, a God who intervenes in history in order to break down the structures of injustice and who raises up prophets in order to point out the way of justice and mercy. He is the God who liberates slaves, who causes empires to fall and raises up the oppressed.”

If nothing else, hear today’s text as an exhortation to seek justice for the many people enslaved today. But God’s liberation doesn’t stop with exodus from physical bondage — there’s also an exodus from the spiritual bondage of sin.

Westhoffen synagogue: Ten Commandments in Hebrew
The Ten Commandments above the synagogue in Westhoffen, France — Creative Commons (George Hammann)

We Christians have a difficult relationship with the laws of the Torah, such that we sometimes reduce even the Ten Commandments to little more than an icon of civil religion. But as Pope Francis explained in 2013, those laws in Exodus 20:1-17 offer a profound message of liberation:

We must not see the Ten Commandments as limitations of freedom – no, that is not what they are – but rather as signposts to freedom. They are not restrictions but indicators of freedom. They teach us to avoid the slavery to which we are condemned by so many idols that we ourselves build – we have experimented with them so often in history, and we are still experimenting with them today. They teach us to open ourselves to a broader dimension than that of the material, and to show people respect, overcoming the greed for power, for possessions, for money, in order to be honest and sincere in our relations, to protect the whole of creation and to nourish our planet with lofty, noble spiritual ideals.

The Ten Commandments free us from idolatry, from ceaseless labor, from selfishness, falsehood, envy, and anger. If followed, they would restructure our relationship with God and our neighbor. They would deliver freedom in its fullest sense: what our Covenant Affirmations document calls “not just freedom from but freedom to…  to worship and serve their God… not only to serve one another, but the stranger, the alien, the widow, and the orphan — all who suffer and are marginalized by the bitter circumstances of life.”

But do we really want liberation? Throughout this opening section of Exodus, it doesn’t seem like the Israelites did. Barely has the Red Sea closed on pharaoh’s army before the lack of bread (Ex 16) and then water (Ex 17) makes them want to head back into their chains. They’d prefer the certain misery of slavery to the uncertain freedom of liberation.

And that’s as true of their spiritual exodus as the physical one. Hear their response to the Ten Commandments:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex 20:18-21)

Do not let God speak to us, or we will die. But is it only the Israelites who feel this way? I wonder…

Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai, on the Sinai peninsula, with Saint Catherine’s Monastery at its base — Creative Commons (Mohammed Moussa)

I have some bad news for you: God will speak to us, and we will die.

But I have some Good News, too: that’s the way of liberation.

God will speak to us… will we listen?

Whatever else he is, our God is a talkative deity. Creation begins with “God said” (Gen 1). Creation comes into being by his Word (John 1). When he’s not speaking out of burning bushes and thick darkness, God is sending prophets and angels as his messengers.

He’s so talkative that his silence speaks volumes, as psalmists and prophets both learned. Or think about the 400 years before the coming of Christ, centuries when the prophetic witness ceased. There’s a reason that Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph were so startled suddenly to hear God speak through angels of the coming Messiah.

Whenever it does comes, God’s voice is terrifying. He utters it and “the earth melts” (Ps 46:6). God speaks, and people do die.

But surely, we Christians say, this is the God of the Old Testament, not the New…

The Letter to Hebrews starts: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:1-2) — a Son who came “to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18).

Have you ever imagined the voice of Jesus? What do those red letters sound like in your mind? To be sure, they sometimes end with exclamation marks, as when they overturn tables in the Temple or cast out demons. But in my mind, Jesus most often sounds tender, gentle, kind, compassionate, grief-stricken, hopeful… inflected with the whole range of human emotion and experience.

But just as terrifying.

Sermon on the Mount stained glass in Switzerland
Stained glass depiction of the Sermon on the Mount in the Reformed church at Herzogenbuchsee, Switzerland — Wikimedia

Consider the time that Jesus also spoke from a mountain. (“[N]ot to abolish the law,” he underlined, in case anyone missed the historical echo, but to “fulfill it”). I imagine people straining to hear that tender, gentle, kind voice as it said words they soon wished they’d never heard: Blessed are the poor, the mournful, the meek. You commit sin in your heart, even if not in practice… but be perfect! You can’t love both God and wealth.

Do not speak so, we say, or we shall surely die!

Blessed are you in persecution. Love your enemies and turn the other cheek. Do we really want to hear that, or would we rather hear what one of the president’s evangelical advisers claimed this week: that we need a strong man to defend us. A bully of our own to fight back on the playground. That was Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who insisted that “Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Because after all, what Jesus said on that mount isn’t realistic. Any more than we can really expect people — maybe especially the most powerful people — to live by the Ten Commandments. Right?

I think that’s just one of our strategies for trying not to let God speak: explaining away his words. He didn’t really mean what we heard him say. But it’s far from the only way we do this.

Most drastically, we avoid God’s voice by killing his prophets! The Israelites at Sinai claimed to be okay listening to God through Moses… but how often in the years of wandering would they come to the verge of doing Moses harm for saying God’s words? Likewise, how do the people of Nazareth respond when Jesus announces his ministry of liberation? By trying to throw him off a cliff! “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he laments, at the other end of his years of ministry, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Mt 23:37).

Are things so different in our own time? Just this month we observed the birthday of an American prophet shot down in 1968.

Again, that’s a drastic step. Most of us have far more prosaic strategies for silencing God’s voice.

Perhaps most of all, by distracting ourselves. I often talk with my students about John Calvin’s exhortation to “be faithful in your divine calling” — but then point out how hard it can be to hear that calling in a society as noisy as ours. Could it be that we are grateful for the noise, that we are relieved to be distracted from God saying (as Calvin puts it), You are not your own; you belong to me. Let all the parts of your live strive toward me.

We even avoid God’s voice by reading the Bible in such a way that the Word becomes mere words: the handful we most want to hear; the phrases we turn into shibboleths to keep out the unrighteous and test our fellow faithful. That happens whenever we treat creeds and confessions as more than summaries of biblical principles, but as authorities to be elevated alongside or above Scripture.

Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705)

That tendency helped spark the German Pietist movement in the 17th century, where a young Lutheran pastor named Philipp Spener found himself in a land full of confessional churches — and more “dead orthodoxy” than “living faith.” As he sought after renewal, he insisted that

the diligent use of the Word of God, which consists not only of listening to sermons but also of reading, meditating, and discussion (Ps. 1:2), must be the chief means for reforming something…. The Word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow. If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people.

As Covenant pastor Mark Pattie and I have retrieved Spener’s proposals for our own time, we too started with the Bible. Quoting our denomination’s statement on “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom,” Mark reminds us that “Pietists understood the Bible to be ‘an altar where one meets the living God.’ Far from simply being a receptacle for information—even God-inspired information—the Pietists held that the Scriptures are primarily a God-inspired gift for transformation” (The Pietist Option, p. 43).

And not just personal transformation, but social. There’s a reason medieval princes and American slaveholders didn’t want literate peasants and slaves with access to a Bible in a language they understood.

God will speak to us… if only we will listen. But if we listen, we’ll hear this hard truth:

We will die. The only question is how.

We call this book Exodus, from the Latin version of the Greek exodos: departure, going out. But in the three times that exodos appears in the Greek New Testament, it’s always bound up with death:

  • Jesus is joined by Moses (and Elijah) on another mountain. In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, he writes, “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodos, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31). The departure, of course, was Jesus’ Passion.
  • As he neared the end of his own life, one of the eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration (and the Crucifixion) promised to “make every effort so that after my exodos you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Pet 1:15).
  • In Hebrews’ litany of men and women who lived by faith, we’re told that “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial” (11:22). (An allusion to Genesis 50:24: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”)

For that matter, Exodus 20 itself is a gathering of the dying: almost no one there — including Moses — lived to see the Promised Land.

God will speak to us, and we will die. That’s certainly the fate of anyone who follows a Savior who says that we too will have to bear his cross.

A.H. Francke
August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) – Wikimedia

As the German Pietists understood, we must die to sin and be born again into new life. Spener’s greatest follower, August Herman Francke experienced a life-changing conversion… but only after going through a struggle with sin (Bußkampf) that felt much like dying.

Truly, there is no liberation, no transformation without death.

I think this is what the Israelites knew, deep down, at Mt. Sinai. God’s voice didn’t terrify them because it was robed in thunder and trumpet, but because it told them precisely what they couldn’t bear to hear: that they would have to live without their idols, without their anger, without their jealousy, without their deceit, without their selfishness. For fear of death, they would rather die under the corrosive power of their idols, their anger, their jealousy, their deceit, their selfishness.

And did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing: we would suffer such a death as well. But by Christ’s death and resurrection, God offers a different destination for our departure: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).

God speaks into existence a different ending to our exodus story. Here’s how Hebrews 12 retells Exodus 20:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24)

God will speak and we will surely die. But not in a desolate wilderness, wandering in rebellion and never finding our Promised Land. God speaks, and (if we listen) we will die to all the temptations of our present wilderness, knowing that we are promised new life in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16).

So, with all the other nations of Isaiah’s prophecy, may we Americans of the 21st century stream “to the mountain of the Lord’s house… the highest of the mountains… that he may teach us his ways” (Isa 2:2-3)

I invite you: come to the Lord’s holy mountain and say, “Speak to us, God, that we may die. Speak to us, God, that we may be set free. Speak to us, God, that we may live.”Amen.