LIFE OVERFLOWING: RENEWAL OF COMMITMENT TO GOD AND HIS MISSION IN THE WORLD
For our Bible reflections this morning, I have chosen two related texts from the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy 30:11-20 and Exodus 3:7-12. Both texts talk about the Exodus Event, which is considered the most central event in the Old Testament.
The Book of Deuteronomy is organized as a series of addresses given by Moses in the land of Moab, where the Israelites had stopped at the end of a long wilderness journey and were about to enter and occupy Canaan. According to Biblical records, the Israelites reached the plains of Moab just before crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. So, it plays around 1200 Before the Common Era (BCE). However, the laws found in the book came later. They emerged from the time of the Monarchy. The oldest part was written down in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) around 750 BCE.
Before the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE, the people realized that the Law of Moses did not match with reality anymore. First of all, the Law was made for nomadic people, but now Israel had already become an organized nation. Besides, new problems had appeared during the monarchial period, like forced labor, the danger posed by Canaanite religions, and the injustices of the rich and powerful. Thus, there was a need to re-read the Law; there was a need for a second edition. That's why the book is called Deuteronomy (meaning, Second Law).
The Levites, therefore, collected and interpreted the Law in the light of the preaching of the Prophets Elijah, Amos, and Hosea. Then, during the Fall of Samaria in 722 BCE, the Levites took refuge in Jerusalem. Hezekiah was the King of Judah at that time. The Levites brought the compiled and organized Law and hid them in the Temple. This Law hidden in the Temple which later on became the core of Deuteronomy was discovered in about 621 BCE in the reign of King Josiah during the repair of the Temple and this became the basis of King Josiah's religious and political reforms.
Now, one of the concerns of the people at that time was how can the Southern Kingdom of Judah be saved from being conquered and destroyed like that of the Northern Kingdom of Israel? The answer of Deuteronomy is found in our text this morning in Chapter 30: the people should return to Yahweh their God; they should obey God's Law. This is the only basis of a life of peace, of prosperity and freedom.
And so, Moses said to the people,
"Today I am giving you a choice. You can choose life and success or death and disaster. I am commanding you to be loyal to the Lord, to live the way he has told you, and to obey his laws and teachings... If you obey him, you will live and become successful and powerful... Choose life! Be completely faithful to the Lord your God, love him, and do whatever he tells you. The Lord is the only one who can give life, and he will let you live a long time in the land that he promised to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (vs. 15-18,19-20).
Divided by social inequality and injustice, disparity and confusion in their worship life, the people lost their unity and sense of purpose. Monarchy and bureaucracy developed great powers which were easily abused. Cultural and religious impositions of the Assyrians had deeply affected religious life. Hence, there was a need for renewal, a re-interpretation of God's will for the new situation.
Today, there is also a need for us to be renewed in our commitment God and to God's mission in the world. It is not only because we have a new leadership of the Uniting Church, but more so because this is the very essence of the Protestant Church. The Protestant reformers in the 16th Century rightly declared that "the church reformed but always to be reformed" (Ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda). A church that claims to be Protestant should always seek to be renewed, especially in terms of its commitment to God's mission. If a church has stopped seeking for genuine change or even prevents genuine transformation to happen, then it ceases to be a truly Protestant church. This is quite significant to note, because according to our Assembly President the Uniting Church is all about mission.
This would lead us to our text in the Book of Exodus. Renewal of commitment to God and to the mission of God would mean that the Israelites had to look back to what God has done in the past, particularly the Exodus Event. For it is in the Exodus Event that God's own nature as a missionary God, the God of life and freedom, was shown historically in the life of a people who were struggling to be truly free. It is in the Exodus Event that God's own way of doing mission in the world was concretely manifested.
Our specific text this morning is a very familiar story to most of us. This is found in Exodus 3:7-12. It says,
"Then the LORD said, 'I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I Know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt'. But Moses said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?' He said, 'But, I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain'".
Our text is about the call of Moses at Mt. Horeb, the so-called mountain of God. Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, when God appeared to him through a "burning bush". And there he heard the voice of God calling him to do God's mission among his fellow Israelites who were slaves in Egypt.
It is very significant to note that God revealed to Moses God's own missionary purpose in a very ordinary situation, while "keeping the flock", and in an ordinary happening, "a burning bush". But these ordinary things in life would truly become extraordinary in the eyes of faith, if and when they would serve as vehicles of God's self-revelation.
The LORD said to Moses,
"I have seen the affliction of my people... I have heard their cry... And I have come down to deliver them... to bring them to... a land flowing with milk and honey... Come, and I will send you... But I will be with you..." (Ex. 3:7-12).
These words of the LORD to Moses picture to us not only the nature of God as a missionary God, but also the process by which this missionary God fulfill his mission in the world. We are reminded once again that the church is God's mission in the world. And like Moses, the church is called upon to do God's mission in the midst of a suffering people. Hence, the church should manifest in her life and witness the very nature of this missionary God.
As I was listening intently to the reports of the members of Congress last night, their concerns and issues resonate very clearly with the issues and concerns of our own indigenous peoples in our country.
Let us therefore look into this nature of God as a missionary God in the light of our text this morning, even as we seek to discover what it means to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world.
SEEING PEOPLE'S AFFLICTION
First of all, our text this morning is saying to us that to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to open our eyes and see the affliction of people.
The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen the affliction of my people." Seeing is the starting point of God's mission in the world. The God we believe in is not a blind God, but rather a God who can see people in their affliction. We could not hide from the all-knowing eyes of the Living God. The Psalmist declares, "Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there "(Ps. 139:7-8). We could not escape, indeed, from the all-searching eyes of the Living God.
God, however, looks at realities very differently. While we often look at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart (I Sam. 16:7). Oftentimes, we can only see things around us, but God can see people. God sees not the outward beauty of things, but the inward beauty of a heart of compassion for a suffering people. God sees people in their affliction.
To see the affliction of people is the beginning of God's mission in the world. For it is in seeing that we are involved with the reality of people around us. Seeing the affliction of people generates compassion. When Jesus Christ our Lord saw the City of Jerusalem, he wept over it; for the people were like sheep without a shepherd. And so, he spent his life in proclaiming God's Reign that would bring about a New Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth (Lk. 19:41; cf. Rev. 21). When the Good Samaritan saw the victim of robbers on the road to Jericho, he was filled with compassion, and he did something to save the victim's life (Lk. 10:30-37).
We have eyes to see, but oftentimes we cannot see or refuse to see people in their affliction. Prophet Isaiah said to the people of Israel, "See and see, but you do not perceive". (Is. 6:9). Perhaps, we cannot see the affliction of people, because oftentimes we only see them as mere statistics or abstract categories. We only see them as potential members of the church, as "sinners" to be evangelized and to be converted to our own church. Or perhaps, we only see them as potential tax payers, as potential voters to be fooled and manipulated upon during election time.
Perhaps, we cannot see the affliction of people, because we think that "they are actually rich pretending to be poor". And sometimes the affliction of people is so common, so widespread that we seem to think it is just a natural reality of life. As one writer rightly puts it, if we would stay too long in "hell", we might think that "hell" is already "heaven".
The sin of the Richman in the story of the Richman and Lazarus is not that he was rich, but rather that he did not see the affliction of the poor man Lazarus right there in front of his door (Lk. 19). He probably thought that Lazarus was just a mere fixture of his social environment.
Perhaps, we don't want to see the affliction of people, because oftentimes it is painful and disturbing. Sometimes, it would even make our lives more difficult and dangerous. It would make us get involved. Hence, it is a lot easier, safer, and more comfortable to have eyes, but cannot see. We rather hide behind our masks, than to open our eyes and see the affliction of people. But then in doing so, we are also departing from our God-given task of doing God's mission in the world.
Indeed, to be renewed in our commitment to God and to God's mission to mission in the world is to open our eyes and see the affliction of people. To see people in their affliction is a gift of God. It is a gift that characterizes the very nature of God as a missionary God. Hence, to see people in their affliction is to manifest in our lives the kind of God we believe in and in whom we put our ultimate trust and obedience. To see the affliction of people is to live a godly life.
HEARING PEOPLE'S CRY
Moreover, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to open our ears and hear people's cry. The LORD said to Moses, "I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings." Hearing as well as seeing is the beginning of God's mission in the world. The God we believe in is not only a God who sees the affliction of people, but also a God who hears and listens to people's cry, a God who knows our sufferings. The Psalmist says, "The LORD hears my weeping. The LORD listens to my cry for help, and will answer my prayer "(Ps. 6:8-9).
The cry of the Israelites in Egypt is basically a cry for freedom - freedom from slavery. To be a slave is to be treated not as a human being, but as a commodity at the disposal of the owner. When the Pharaoh ordered the harsh treatment of the Israelites and the killing of their male babies, he was not thinking of human beings who would suffer (cf. Ex. l). He was thinking only of the security of his empire as well as his power and authority threatened by the growing number of Israelites.
Indeed, when rulers think only of themselves, their own power and authority, and do everything they could to cling to them, they would consequently become deaf to peoples' cry and become blind to peoples' sufferings. Their hearts would be hardened and would be incapable of genuine compassion. In the words of Prophet Isaiah, they "hear and hear, but do not understand" (Is. 6:9).
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in her Annual Report in preparation for the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Emancipation of Slaves in the US, said that the end of legal slavery in the United States and in other countries around the world has not, unfortunately, meant the end of slavery. She said that today it is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery, what we sometimes call trafficking in persons. Those victims of modern slavery or human trafficking are women and men, girls and boys, and their stories reminds us of the kind of inhumane treatment we are capable of as human beings. Whatever their background, they are the living, breathing reminders that the work to eradicate slavery in our world today remains unfinished.
We have to remind ourselves always that the moment we stop listening to people's cry, time would soon come when we would also stop listening to our God. Listening to people's cry is also God's gift for us. Listening is the very nature of God. God's presence is known when God listens to people's cry. When the Israelites suffered in the hands of the Babylonians, for instance, Prophet Jeremiah cried to the Lord saying, "Why have you abandoned us so long? Will you ever remember us again? (cf. Lam. 5:20). Truly, it is in listening to people's cry that the people themselves would know that our God is indeed alive. The LORD said to Moses, "I have heard their cry ".
Listening to people's cry and knowing their sufferings is the starting point of God's mission in the world. To know people's sufferings is to know the reasons for their sufferings. This would mean getting into the root causes of their afflictions. Listening to people's cry is not simply listening to what people are saying, but more importantly listening to what people are not saying or are not allowed to say either because of fear or repression. This is listening to what is deep in the souls of people, their fears and hopes, their genuine aspirations in life.
That is why listening is not an easy task. It is easier and far more comfortable "to turn the stones into bread" (cf. Mt. 4) and feed the people than to really listen to their cry. For listening does not only require enough patience; it does necessarily require enough courage.
Hence, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to open our ears and hear people's continuing cry for genuine freedom.
COMING DOWN AND BE WITH PEOPLE
Furthermore, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to come down and to be with our people in their sufferings and struggles. The LORD said to Moses, "I have come down ". The God we believe in is not only a God who sees the affliction of people and listens to their cry, but also a God who comes down and be with the people in their sufferings and struggles. It is one thing to see the affliction of people and to hear their cry, but it is also another thing to really come down and to be with them in their struggles.
The God of Exodus is not a neutral God, but rather a God who identifies with people in the sufferings. It is not because these people are obedient and righteous. As a matter of fact, they are a rebellious people, always murmuring against God and against the servant of God (cf. Ex.16). Perhaps, the only reason for such divine sympathy is that God is gracious, indeed, to those who suffer, and that God truly understands their suffering.
The God of Exodus is a God of incarnation. This is the kind of God who incarnated himself in Christ Jesus our Lord, who
"always had the nature of God, but did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a man and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - his death on the cross "(Phi 1. 2: 6-8).
In the Parable of the Final Judgment, the Son of Man would say to those before His throne, "What you have done to the least of my brothers (and sisters), you have done it unto me" (Mt. 25:40).
It is significant to note that God in Christ identifies with the "least" of God's people, and that such identification would be the measure by which we would be ultimately measured. In the story of Apostle Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute me?" Then, Saul asked, "Who are you, Lord?" And then, the voice answered, "I am Jesus, whom you persecute" (cf. Acts 9). It is important to realize that God in Christ Jesus our Lord identifies with those who are "persecuted".
And so, a church that affirms the God of Exodus, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ must also come down and be with the people in their sufferings and struggles. Like our God himself, we cannot do effectively do God's mission in the world by staying on a pedestal, by being detached from people's realities. As a matter of fact, we cannot truly hear people's cry and know their sufferings if we do not come down.
To come down is to do away with our messianic and triumphalistic attitude towards people, our self-righteous and even condescending attitude towards people in their sufferings. Even our God must have to come down in Christ Jesus our Lord in order to become effective savior of the world. As instruments of God's mission in the world, we cannot do less than what God in Christ has done.
To come down would also mean to stop looking at the realities of this world from our own perspective, and like our God start looking at the realities of this world from the perspective of our suffering and struggling people. There was a time in the history of the church when she thought of herself as the only "mother and teacher" (mater et magistra) of the world. According to this view, the church has the monopoly of truth, and therefore the church should "teach" the world. However, the church painfully realized that she has also her own limitations, that the church in herself is not really perfect though she is trying very hard to be perfect, following Christ's injunctions (cf.Mt.5:48). Hence, we have to come down and humbly acknowledge that we have such limitations, and that we need to learn from people.
Moreover, our God is far greater and bigger than the church. Our God is the God of the whole universe, the Maker of heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 1-2). The reality of our God permeates the whole of God's creation (cf. Isa.40). The Spirit of God moves upon the face of the earth (cf. Gen. 1:2). To come down, therefore, is to humbly acknowledge that we are not the only instruments of God's mission in the world.
In the writings of Prophet Isaiah, the LORD said to Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia,
"I appoint you to help my servant Israel, the people that I have chosen. I have given you great honor even though you do not know me. I am the Lord, there is no other god. I will give you the strength you need, although you do not know me. I do this so that everyone from one end of the world to the other may know that I am the LORD and that there is no other god" (Isa. 45:4-6).
God works in wondrous ways, sometimes in ways we could not fully understand. God's ways are not like our ways; God's thoughts are not like our thoughts (cf. Isa.55:8). God, indeed, is absolutely free to do his mission in the world. God could choose even a pagan ruler who doesn't know God at all like Cyrus the Great of Persia to be instrument of liberation so that people who suffered for a long time would experience genuine freedom. Perhaps, this is something that many of us would find it quite difficult to accept and to understand.
To come down, therefore, is to do God's mission in the world with a sense of humility and servant-hood. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people "(Mk. 10:35).
Hence, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to come down and be with people in their sufferings and struggles.
FROM CAPTIVE LANDTO PROMISE LAND
Furthermore, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to participate actively in God's work to bring people out of a land of captivity into a land of promise. The LORD said to Moses, "I have come down to bring my people out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey...I am sending you to the King of Egypt so that you can lead my people out of his country. "
The God we believe in is a God who calls people to participate actively in his mission in the world. It is not because God could not do his mission alone by himself, but rather because his nature is community. God lives in communion with his creation. God lives in communion with the people whom he created in his image. We are part of God's community. And it is because of this dynamic relationship with our Creator that he graciously enjoins us to participate in his work of redemption in the world.
It is interesting to note that land is central in the mission of the God of Exodus. It is quite different from our traditional understanding of God taught by our colonizers and their missionaries. For them, land is not supposed to be the concern of God, because land is material and God is spiritual. God and land could not simply be combined.
The Biblical God, however, the God of Exodus, is a God who is concerned with land, because land means life to the people. As a matter of fact, a land of promise has become the seal of the covenant between God and the people. Hence, there is a need for us to renew not only our commitment to God and his mission in the world but even our understanding of God and of land.
Like the people of Exodus, the indigenous peoples among us, also affirm that land and people are one. We have a kinship of life that binds people and land together. The land has the power to produce food for life, so that without land there is no life. The people, however, should cultivate the land in order for the land to give life. This dynamic relationship between the land and the people is also affirmed in the Book of Genesis when the writer declares that God created the human person from the dust of the ground (cf. Gen. 2:7). It is important to note that the Hebrew words for human being (adam) and for land or ground (adamah) come from the same root word. This shows that there is some kind of kinship between the human person and the land.
The people and the land have a common life and destiny. The land on which we stand is not simply land. It stands for the lives not only of people who are alive today, but even of people yet unborn. It stands for generations yet to come. Hence, to take away the land from the people is to take away life from them. To destroy the land is to destroy their life as well as the life of future generations.
The Biblical understanding of land as well as the indigenous peoples' concept of land show us how far modern civilization has alienated the people from the land, as well as the land from the people. Today, the land is there no longer to give life, but to satisfy human greed and selfishness. The land of promise has become a land of captivity. The land is a land of promise if and when it promises life and sustenance for the people.
But then the land becomes a land of captivity, if and when the people could no longer cultivate the land in order to give life for the people. And worst of all, the land is a land of captivity if and when the people are displaced from the land, because the land is given to foreign mining companies or the land is converted into subdivisions and golf courses. In this so-called age of "development aggression", the land and the people are no longer one. They have been alienated from each other. The land of promise has become, indeed, a land of captivity, a captive of the powers-that-be.
Hence, the call of our time is a call to redeem the land from its alienation and captivity, so that once again the people and the land will become one: the people cultivate the land, and in return the land gives life to the people. And so, once again they can forge a common life and destiny, not only for the people of today, but for all the generations to come. So that once again, the land of captivity will become a land of promise.
To be renewed in our commitment to God and God's mission in the world is to participate actively in God's work to bring people out of a land of captivity into a land of promise.
Of course, this is not an easy task. We were in Sydney last week when the news reached us that a friend, Willem Geertman, a Dutch lay missionary working among the peasants to redeem the land was shot dead. Sometimes bringing people out of a land of captivity into a land of promise requires the offering of one's life.
GOD'S ABIDING PRESENCE
Finally, to be renewed in our commitment to God and his mission in the world is to realize God's abiding presence. When Moses said to God, "I am nobody, how can I go to the King of Egypt and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" God answered him saying, "I will be with you ". When Jesus Christ our Lord gave the Great Commission to his disciples, he also concluded saying, "I will be with you always to the end of the age" (Mt.28: 16-20).
The God we believe in is not only a God who calls, but also a God who provides. When God calls us to fulfill a particular task, God in wondrous ways will also provide the necessary resources to fulfill that task. I am saying this not only as a cold doctrinal belief, but as a testimony of my own personal experience as a servant of God.
When we started our Seminary in 1996 in Baguio City, we have nothing at all, except a vision for the church. We started with 35 students to feed and to equip for the ministry. We never have a salary. But we never starved! God's grace has been sufficient for us. To date, we have 456 students entrusted to our care to equip.
The fulfillment of God's mission in the world does not depend upon us. It does not depend upon our own strength and resources, not even the help of our partners in mission. Rather it depends ultimately upon God's abiding presence. God said, "I will be with you ".
In his letter to the Romans, the great missionary of the Early Church, Apostle Paul, said,
"If God is with us, who can be against us? Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death? No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us. There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:31-39).
God's abiding presence transforms our fears and anxieties into courage and hope. Moses knew that doing God's mission in the world is not an easy task. He knew that he had to face the powers-that-be in Egypt. He knew that he had to convince the people that their genuine aspirations as a people are also God's own aspirations for them. He had to convince the people that there is more to life than slavery and oppression. As a matter of fact, Moses knew that it is far more difficult to convince the people who are slaves about their need to be free than to break the hardened heart of the Pharaoh and let the people go.
Moses knew that in doing God's mission in the world he would be treated harshly by his own people, that he would be criticized by those whom he loved, that he would be charged with all sorts of things, that he would be betrayed by those for whom he would risked his own life. Moses realized that he could not do God's mission in the world with his own strength. But with God's abiding presence he knew that he can do something in order that his own people who had been slaves for a long time will be set free.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus Christ our Lord knew that in fulfilling God's mission in the world he would ultimately face the cruel cross. But nevertheless, he said to the Tempter in the wilderness, "Worship the Lord your God, and him alone you shall serve "(Mt 4:10). And to those who would like to be his followers, he also said, "If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget himself, carry his cross, and follow me" (Mk.8:34).
But God's promise is so great to those who remain faithful in their commitment to God's mission in the world, "I will be with you". Prophet Isaiah reminds us that "they who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint"(Isa. 40:31).
Let me now end by saying that commitment to God and his mission in the world is not just a commitment of a few hours and a few dollars; but rather it is a commitment of life. A church that is truly committed to God's mission in the world is a church whose whole life and works are geared towards the fulfillment of God's mission in the world.
Many of our people today are like the doubting Thomas; they are looking for proof that the church indeed is Christ's resurrected body commissioned to do God's mission in the world. According to Thomas, the proof that a body is indeed Christ resurrected body are the scars on the hands and on the side (cf. John 23:24-29). These are the signs that such body really suffered for others in doing God's mission in the world.
If Jesus Christ our Lord did not teach the poor people of Galilee about the reality of God's Kingdom; if he did not cure the sick people in Capernaum and gave them wholeness of life; if he did not denounce the abuses and hypocrisies of the Scribes and Pharisees and forgive the sinners; if he did not overturned the tables of the Sadducees in the Temple and announce the good news of God's reign; then, perhaps he would not have gotten all those scars of nails on his hands.
Surely, the Uniting Church, in her life and witness, has also gotten scars of nails on her hands. My church, too, has her own share of scars of nails on her hands. Quite a number of our leaders and members in recent years had shed not only their tears, but their own blood for taking seriously God's mission in the world.
Last March, during our Commencement Exercises, our Bishop from Mindanao informed us, especially our graduates, that our church members in Bukidnon could not worship in their church because of fear of repression. The Chairman of the Church Council, who was also a community leader, was shot dead in front of their church for refusing to sign a resolution allowing the operation of a big mining company that would destroy their community.
And as we renew our commitment to God and his mission in the world, certainly we would continue to receive more scars of nails on our hands.
The scars of nails on the hands of Jesus and of the church are the scars of mission. They symbolize not only the sinfulness of humanity, but also the love of God that takes away the sins of the world. They represent the overflowing of life for God's work. And so, as we renew our commitment to God and his mission in the world, let us be reminded by the words of Jesus Christ our Lord when he said, "In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33).