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Bob Jacobs, reflections on life in light of the gospel

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Bridegroom of Blood

In Westminster’s summer sermon series we are looking at the life of Moses. Of course, when anyone hears that theme, certain scene come to mind. Most of them are what you would guess, even if you’re not a religious person at all. Think Cecil B. DeMille, Charleton Heston. These are scenes made for the big screen: the burning bush, standing before Pharaoh, crossing the Red Sea, engulfed by a cloud of Mt. Sinai (wait, then I guess you couldn’t see him; oh well, you get the idea…).

There’s a little snippet of a story that hides between the burning bush and appearing before Pharaoh. It’s usually ignored or studiously avoided because it’s so strange to modern ears. But the strategy of avoiding scriptures that are strange or offensive is neither right nor safe. If we really believe – or want to believe – the whole authority of scripture thing, we have to strap on the scuba gear (note strange metaphor shift) and dive into the murky waters…

I’m referring to Exodus 4:24-26:

At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

Go ahead, take as much time as you need. Deep breath. Now exhale.

It sounds so matter-of-fact. Oh, by the way, the God who called me and is sending me to Egypt? Yeah, he’s trying to kill me.

There’s obviously (or not obviously) a lot of background there that is assumed that we the readers know. There’s also no escape from the fact that this God is not tame. So much for God being a projection of our desires. What is up here?

Think of it. Moses, an Israelite 400 hundred years removed from the days of the covenant in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, runs away into the desert of Midian where he meets a girl at a well. Zipporah is not an Israelite, so there is no prior commitment to the terms of the covenant as we’d read about in, say, Genesis 17, where God says that circumcision isn’t just the sign of the covenant; it is the covenant (17:10). No exceptions.

Moses is definitely God’s man, chosen and called for a specific, epic purpose. But even that pales in comparison to the global, cosmic thing God is doing in creating a people who are specifically his possession in order that the world would come to know this God and know his salvation. And that identity is inextricable from circumcision. Apparently, Moses has skipped this part with his son Gershom. Who knows why: pushback from Zipporah, never got around to it, it could be anything – Moses is familiar with making excuses.

Moses is ill, and going downhill fast. Presumably, Zipporah gets the message. Honey, we need to be fully on board not just with this current assignment, but with the big picture God is unfolding in history. God is deadly serious about this. So, in terms and symbols that are a world away from anything recognizable from us, she and her son join Moses in their epic place in God’s story.

A more technical reflection on this enigmatic passage can be found here:

That’s not to say that all the mystery is resolved; far from it. Is there a sense in which God perhaps is trying to kill us? At least the part of us that is separate from his covenantal plan for us and for the world. Can we imagine how terribly seriously God takes this?

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Me and My Mouth

Studies regularly show that for a great many people, public speaking is their greatest fear. For some, death would be preferable to the horror of a public speaking engagement. (What is not mentioned in most studies is the accompanying nightmare of realizing you are also standing in front of a crowd in your underwear.)

Moses’ fourth objection to God’s command is that he doesn’t have the skills for the task – and in particular that he is not a good speaker (Exodus 4:10). (It’s ironic that, at least in the biblical account, he says this quite eloquently.)

If in the third excuse Moses starts in on the “what ifs,” now he begins playing the comparison game. Surely there are people who are far better with their words, and who think faster on their feet, than him. Probably a better vocabulary, too. Moses probably has a short list he could provide. To quote Steve Martin, “Some people have a way with words; some people no have way.”

We all no have way. Not only are we aware of our shortcomings, we’re even more aware of those who are better. There’s always someone smarter, prettier, hotter, cooler, more successful, more athletic, more popular, richer, luckier…the list is endless. It can be paralyzing.

God’s answer, once again, doesn’t feed our self-obsession. While Moses says I have a problem with my mouth, God says, “I made your mouth!” (4:11) God is well aware of our strengths and weakness, but God doesn’t see these realities as assets or liabilities. He doesn’t choose or call people because of what they bring to the table, but because of their availability.

2 Chronicles 16:9 reads, “God is always on the alert, constantly on the lookout for people who are totally committed to him” (The Message). God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Moses is promised that the pressure is off; God will teach him what to say. Probably better that way…

Remember, God is not surprised or disappointed in your short suits. He knows you. He made you. He can work through you. He knows what he’s doing.

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What is that in your hand?

With each excuse, we get a little closer to the heart of the matter.

After Moses exclaims “Who am I?!” (Ex. 3:11) and “Who are you?!” (3:13), he frets, “What if they don’t believe me or listen to me?!” (4:1) – all this just four short verses after God says, plain as day, “The elders of Israel will listen to you” (3:18). Yeah, but what if they don’t listen to me?

Trust. Issues.

Nothing wounds like rejection. Most of us will do almost anything to avoid it. Whether it’s being denied access to a social circle in middle school, or not making the team, or feeling the searing sting of betrayal, rejection is a thorn-wound that can fester forever.

Nancy Reagan’s father, Loyal Davis, grew up in a God-fearing, church-attending home. When he was young he entered a Bible memory contest at church. He worked very hard and knew his verses cold. He aced the competition and was the clear winner, but in the end the trophy was awarded to the son of the pastor. Loyal never forgot, nor healed from, that wound; and he never set foot in another church.

For Moses, it likely had to do with the Israelites who taunted him after he killed the Egyptian guard (Exodus 2:14), or maybe it had deeper roots in his adoption into Pharaoh’s household.

Stuart Briscoe once said that the qualifications of a pastor are the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the skin of a rhinoceros. I get it, but I don’t know many qualified pastors – or other people for that matter.

Moses was no dummy. He knew that in such an outlandish plan rejection was likely. And he was right. But God didn’t promise him – or us – immunity from rejection. What he says to Moses is different: “What is that in your hand?” (4:2)

In other words, start with what you’ve got. If you start playing “What if” games (which is what Moses starts doing here), there is no end to that slippery slope of worry and doubt. God directs Moses’ attention to the present only. If he throws down his plain old shepherd’s staff, God’s power will transform it.

It’s what God is able to do, not what Moses might not be able to pull off, that’s important. It reminds one of Jesus in the countryside with thousands of hungry people. How are we possibly going to feed all these people?  the disciples cry.

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says calmly.

But that’s impossible!

Trust. Issues.

“How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 6)

What is that in your hand?

When we place what little we have – or what little we are, or what little we’ve been reduced to – in the hands of the God of the Universe, anything is possible.

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Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh

In Exodus 3, God tells Moses that he is God’s chosen instrument by which he (God) will free the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. Moses’ five excuses or objections are arranged very stylistically – no doubt for instruction and for the delight of the hearers.

Moses’ first objection is “Who am I?” His second objection is “Then who are you?” God answers, “I am who I am.” This response is infamously hard to translate into English language and modern western thought. It covers the range from “I am who I am,” to “I exist because I exist,” to “I will be who I will be.”

At first blush, this sounds like a sarcastic, evasive response. It’s none of your business, pal. I am who I am, now build a bridge and get over it. But there is much more to God’s answer than this. As evasive and mysterious as it sounds (and is – after all, how can all the reality of God be captured in a simple answer?), God is also generously giving his personal name, and all the vulnerability that comes with it: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh asher ehyeh. The Hebrew word ehyeh refers to being & existence itself, and is the source of the holy name considered by many too sacred to utter: Yahweh (transliterated in most Bibles, deferentially, as The LORD).

In mystery and revelation, God gives Moses his name. Isn’t that just like God? God is utterly transcendent – the One whose ways and thoughts are far above our own (Isa. 55) and is obscured in a cloud of unknowing, and the One who is dazzlingly revealed in the person of Jesus.

This is not the God who is who we think he is, prefer that he would be. This God is the unmoved Mover, the foundation of being itself, and thus he can be counted on to be true to himself.

Remember that this name is given in response to Moses’ deep misgivings about himself and his ability to do what God is calling him to do. Moses is unsure of himself, so God tells Moses about himself. We often search far and wide to find out who we are, especially in journeys of self-discovery in which we look deep within ourselves. But God’s response here in Exodus 3:14 takes a different approach: We discover who we are by learning who God is (and that this is the God who knows us, loves us, and calls us). Or, as John Calvin put it, we can only truly know ourselves when we come to know God.

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Who Am I?

On Sunday, I preached on the five excuses or protestations Moses makes in Exodus 3-4, and God’s responses to them. Each is a brief, masterful study not only in Moses’, but also in fallen human nature in the face of God’s command.

The first is found in Exodus 3:11-12:

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses, in the burning presence of God, says, I can’t go; Who am I?

It’s amazing how quickly Moses jumps to the presumption that God is calling him to take care of things himself. That is, please note, what led to him fleeing to Midian in the first place, 40 years earlier (when we killed the Egyptian guard himself, trying to address the Hebrews’ slavery himself – 2:12). And it will be Moses downfall when he strikes the rock himself in the wilderness instead of speaking to it – Numbers 20).

It’s one of our most persistent, basic sinful tendencies, and it runs deep.

At its heart, it’s a matter of Flesh vs. Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.  Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)

Moses reveals how easily we fall into life in the flesh. That doesn’t mean anti-body; it’s in regard to whether we approach our life as something we manage ourselves or something we allow God to direct. The prior seems natural to us…until we realize that it can be different. This is a long lesson to learn – for Moses and for us.

In some ways, the Exodus us about the saving of Moses.

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A Reflection on Juneteenth

Today is “Juneteenth,” a commemoration of the day in 1865 when Union army general Gordon Granger announced federal orders in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming that all people held as slaves in Texas were free. Granger announced freedom that day, but he also came to perform and enact it. The day, with varying degrees of recognition, has come to mean so much more.

One of the great ironies of Juneteenth is that slaves were given their emancipation by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln effective as of January 1, 1863 (though announced on September 22, 1862). It took nearly two-and-a-half years for the slaves in the furthest reaches of the westernmost Confederate state (Texas) to learn of and exercise their freedom. The reasons for this are debated, but they are all shameful.

It’s a fairly easy juke for me (a privileged white Christian male) to see a spiritual lesson this tragic history, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Gospel – which is an announcement, not advice for worthy behavior – tells us that what Jesus Christ has done for humanity has, somehow, bought us forgiveness, and glorious freedom from sin and death and the devil – if only we would receive it! Mind-boggling but true!

Christians can speak eloquently about this freedom, but there is a credulity gap when we see how un-free so many of us actually are. (Can you join me as I raise my hand here?) This freedom in Christ (so much more to say about this, so please don’t pigeonhole me!) is only actual when it is heard, believed, and lived. Juneteenth is a reminder of how sad it is when we don’t know the good news of our freedom.

But if freedom is a spiritual reality then it must also be a social reality. (Most A-list heresies make the mistake of divorcing soul and body.) I will be surprised if there isn’t some destructive hooliganism on display today, giving a good day a bad name. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important day to remember and celebrate; as well as an important call to humbly reflect and repent of wrongs still present in our lives, families, churches, laws, and society – no matter who that involves.

Where is “Galveston” today?

To believe the Gospel means to live in freedom, rightly and broadly understood. It means to announce it, perform it, and enact it for the sake of others.

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Moses’ life was shaped by his detour to Midian.

How time flies. Moses’ sojourn in Midian, 40 years summarized by “during that long period” (2:23), was the mold that shaped Moses for the next chapter of his life. D.L. Moody once wrote that in Moses’ first 40 years he thought he was really somebody; in the second 40 years he learned he was a nobody; in the last 40 years Moses learned what God can do with a nobody.

So what happened in Midian? We are left to imagine and deduce. No doubt, Moses replayed his whole life in his head countless times. He rehearsed what he might have done differently. It’s easy to imagine a lot of second-guessing the killing of the Egyptian guard. There was anguish over the suffering of his people, and homesickness for both his mothers. There was wondering about the God of the Hebrews and, of course, lots of care for the sheep of his father-in-law.

For. Forty. Years.

After 4 months of semi-quarantine, 40 years looks a little different.

I’m sure that to Moses, his years in Midian were a continual reminder of his failures, a major and permanent detour from the life he thought was going to be his.

It’s remarkable that in God’s way of doing things, so often it is times of detour that are exactly what is needed. In the account of Moses and the burning bush, Moses sees the bush and says to himself, “I will turn aside to see this strange sight.” (Exodus 3:3) The Hebrew verb here, sur, means to steer off the main way, to take a detour – another detour amidst the major detour his life had become. When Moses takes it, everything changes.

What detour has your life taken? Can you begin to see God’s hand in it? Ask him to show you.

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Andrew preached an excellent message yesterday on Moses’ flight to Midian. If those words – “flight to Midian” – bring to mind Moses waiting impatiently at Gate B22 to catch the first plane from Cairo to Qurayyah, you’re on to something. Exodus 2:15 covers a lot of ground (literally): “When Pharaoh heard [that Moses killed an Egyptian], he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian…”

The sparse text (and the image you might have from The Prince of Egypt) might make it seem like Moses ran until he was out of breath. But Midian is all the way across the Arabian Peninsula, on the other side of the Red Sea, at least 750 kilometers away!

To say that Moses was out of his element is an understatement.

Sometimes that’s what it takes for God to shape us. Even writing that short sentence can make it seem all too quick and easy. I’m referring to shaping, as in geological time, like the way a canyon is formed, like the way mountains rise. I’m guessing that’s more like what Moses experienced in Midian.

Shaping is a prominent idea in life…and in the Bible: God forms the world out of chaos. Moses is shaped in Midian. Israel is shaped in the wilderness, and in exile in Babylon. We are to be formed into the image of Christ, and he is formed in us (Galatians 4:19). We are all being shaped – profoundly, slowly – by the forces and experiences that act upon us.

It’s all very humbling. To be shaped puts us into the passive the way a valley is passive in relation to the glacier. It seems as if we have no say in the matter. Moses almost certainly felt this way as he looked around himself at the unyielding, unending landscape of Midian.

But we do have a crucial part to play in the shaping: we can choose, over and over and day after day, what we will allow to shape us.

Photo by Pixabay on

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On the Shoulders

You can tell a lot from the opening lines of a story. For example:

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  • “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
  • “Every who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot.”
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.”

Can you guess?

The Exodus story begins this way: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family…” (read Exodus 1:1-7) In fact, the Hebrew name for the book we call Exodus is “Names.”

This beginning tells us that what we are about to read is tied to the life story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), to the story of Abraham (Genesis 12-25), and to the whole story of creation. God had told humanity to be fruitful and multiply, and that’s exactly what they had done…in Egypt! This is no longer the story of a family, but the story of a people – the story of Israel.

Out of fear of the numerous Israelites, a new Pharaoh brought down harsh persecution on the shoulders of the Israelites. These were dark, dark days, as had been foretold to Abraham (Genesis 15:13).

The Exodus story, the Moses story, begins with five heroines. First, read Exodus 1:8-22. Here we meet two brave midwives, Shiphrah & Puah. (It’s interesting that Pharaoh is unnamed.) These midwives practice civil disobedience out of loyalty to God. They refuse to participate in genocide. Obeying God is more important to them that their own lives.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen was written by the German Confessing Church during World War 2, when some churches refused to bow before National Socialism. Barmen states: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” This is still true today, and Shiphrah and Puah show us the way.

Now let’s read Exodus 2:1-4. Here we meet Jochebed, Moses’ mother. Jochebed also refused to participate in Pharaoh’s increasingly desperate attempts to wipe out the Israelites. She hid her son for three months. (That’s a miracle in itself!) She was defiant, but her defiance also broke her heart as she placed her baby boy in the Nile River, entrusting him to God. But God often works most profoundly in disappointment and heartache.

In Exodus 2:5-10 we meet our fourth and fifth heroine of this story: Miriam (Moses’ sister) and Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam planted herself close to the baby, and she was able to suggest a plan for keeping him alive. Pharaoh’s daughter, despite the well-known murderous decree of her father, took compassion on the child and provided for him.

These women are the stars of the beginning of Exodus. God wanted the story of Moses told. Moses entered the world utterly dependent on others and utterly dependent on God. This is a theme we will come back to many times in our summer series on Moses. Moses was, to use Isaac Newton’s phrase, “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Through civil disobedience, in heartbreak, and through planning and compassion, God used heroines to give Moses a start. The same may be true of us. Others may follow God in their lives because they are standing our own shoulders. Who are we paving the way for? Let me encourage you to have a heart that is willing to invest in others – especially the young – knowing that God can use our life stories in ways we never could have guessed.

This weekend is the 76th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Normandy. We point to June 6 as D-Day. But that epic event was only possible because of tireless planning and preparation that took years. Those brave soldiers were standing on the shoulders of all those who made it possible.

Life in the world Moses entered was unsettled, to say the least. We value, and are willing to give lots of money and time to the feeling of being settled in life, but life has a way of keeping us unsettled still today. We should never ultimately never trust people or organizations to settle the world for us. Only God can do that. Only God could establish Moses, and he used five extraordinary women to do it in the opening chapters of the story. This is the overall idea of our series on Moses: WHEN LIFE IS UNSETTLED, LET GOD ESTABLISH YOU. (hint: it’s always unsettled)

Moses/Exodus is the central story of God’s people. It was repeated constantly as the source of Israel’s identity. And it gives us the language and the categories with which to understand what God was doing in Jesus Christ. This is our story. It tells us who we are, and who God is. Let’s press into that this summer. Let’s let God establish us in this unsettled world.

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On this 76th anniversary of the epic landing on D-Day, it’s worth asking what kind of life is worth living, worth fighting for. Let’s look back…

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the 15th of 19 children. After a profound re-conversion experience at a church on Aldersgate Street in London (you can read an excellent overview of his life here) he led a reform movement that was so specific and purposeful in its application that it was ridiculed by some as being “method-ist.”

John and his brother Charles gave themselves over completely to God’s purpose for their lives, and the rest is history. In keeping with his temperament, John summarized the following list of priorities, his “manifesto.” It is timeless in its humble focus on biblical mandates. (This is a modern paraphrase; the original language is at the bottom of this post…)

1. Reduce the gap between rich people and poor people.

2. Help everyone to have a job.

3. Help the poorest, including introducing a living wage.

4. Offer the best possible education.

5. Help everyone to feel they can make a difference.

6. Promote tolerance.

7. Promote equal treatment for women.

8. Create a society based on values and not on profits and consumerism.

9. End all forms of slavery.

10. Avoid getting into wars.

11. Share the love of God with everyone.

12. Care for the earth.

Many proclaim to live by a certain code or manifesto. It brings to mind another powerful manifesto in Scripture: Isaiah 58. (Go read it; it’s a bit long to post here.)

What is your manifesto?

John Wesley – in his own words

  1. Be ye ready to distribute to everyone, according to their necessity.
  2. Wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor only because they are idle…. Find them work…. They will then earn and eat their own bread.’
  3. How many are there in this Christian country that toil, and labor, and sweat… but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard days labour, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength?
  4. Beware of that common, but accursed, way of making children parrots …. Regard not how much, but how well, to what good purpose, they read…. The end of education….[is to] help
    us discover every false judgement of our minds, and to subdue every wrong passion in our hearts… [and] to understand as much as we are able .’
  5. I continue to dream… [of the time when the potential of] each person can be unleashed.
  6. Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?
  7. May not women as well as men bear an honourable part….…..yield not to the vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God.’
  8. In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups. And let them be painted and gilded ever so finely, they are empty still’
  9. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion!…. Do with everyone else as you would he should do to you..
  10. War: What farther proof of do we need of the utter degeneracy of all nations from the plainest principles of reason and virtue? Of the absolute want, both of common sense and common humanity, which runs through the whole race of mankind?
  11. The world is my parish.
  12. Lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.