The story of Moses and the nation of Israel under his oversite is an essential part of our spiritual history, our spiritual ancestry. I can only hit the highlights in an effort to illuminate our New Testament readings, but I hope it will make you curious enough to read more on your own.
When we look back on the life of Moses, we can see how God used people and events in Moses’ early life to prepare him for a specific task that would occupy the last third of his life. Moses was born in Egypt to Hebrew slaves at a time that the Pharoah attempted to limit the male population of the Hebrews out of fear of an uprising. He did this by ordering the death of all male children born to the Hebrews. Moses’ parents did not comply to this order and when he became too old to hide any longer, Moses’ older sister set him in a basket at the edge of the river where the women of the court of Pharoah would go to bath and she kept an eye on him so that when he was discovered and rescued by one of the women she conveniently showed up and offered to find a slave woman who could nurse him and oversee his care. She runs home and gets her own mother, Moses’ mother. So Moses has a link to the Hebrew people through his biological mother and a foot in the door of the royal Egyptian household though his adopted mother.
After becoming an adult, Moses, who seems to be aware of his dual connections, kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Moses thinks he has gotten away with it but soon finds out he did not and he flees into the land of Midian in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula and takes up a new life as a shepherd. Roughly forty years goes by when Moses while out tending the sheep sees a bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the flame. This is our Old Testament reading for today. We know nothing about Moses’ religious upbringing but at this moment he has an encounter with God that will once again change the course of his life. God tells him that he wants him to return to Egypt, confront Pharoah, and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves because God has heard their laments.
Can you imagine what must have been going through Moses’s mind at that time? A voice in a burning bush tells him to take off his shoes and then tells him to go back to Egypt where he is wanted for murder and confront Pharoah and demand the release of his slaves. I suspect even if I didn’t stammer, I would be inclined to at this point. He gives God all sort of reasons why he can’t do it and God has a solution for each excuse. Do we ever do that? We tell God, “I’m too busy.” And suddenly our calendar gets cleared. “I don’t know how.” And training becomes available.
So Moses sets out for Egypt with the assurance of God’s presence and support, a magical staff, the personal name of God, and the promise that his older brother will join him to do most of the talking.
Most of you know this part of the story. Ten times Moses went to Pharoah and ten times Pharoah refused and ten times the people of Egypt were visited by a plague: frogs, insects, contaminated water, something like chicken pox, etc. The last time became a very special event that is remembered even to this day. It is called Passover. The Hebrews or Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb, to put the blood of the lamb on the lintel and door posts of their home and to prepare for a journey. They were to eat the lamb with unleavened bread, standing up with their shoes on. The final plague was to be the death of the firstborn in every family, human and animal and only by following the instructions God gave them through Moses could they be spared. But if they were obedient, they would see their salvation that night.
While the Egyptians mourned the deaths of their firstborn, Moses led the people out of Egypt and toward Mt. Sinai in Midian where he had just come from. The goal was to return to Canaan the land that had been promised to Abraham, but Moses led them the long way to avoid conflict with the sea people along the coast. Leading them along the way was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Shortly after they had gone, Pharoah had a change of heart and sent his chariots to pursue them and bring them back. Just as they got to the Red (Reed) Sea, the Egyptians came into sight and the people panicked and blamed Moses for leading them out of Egypt. God seems a bit annoyed that they are already ready to quit, but instructs Moses to part the waters. The Israelites get across and just as the Egyptians begin to cross the water returns and the Egyptians drown.
The Israelites make it three days past the Red Sea and now they start complaining about the water. God provides fresh water for them. Then they complain that they are hungry. God provides manna, a bread like substance that rained down on them from heaven every morning and God provided meat in the form of birds for them every night. They finally made it Mt. Sinai. The people heard God speaking to Moses in the form of thunder and they watched Moses go up the mountain to meet God. While Moses was on the mountain discussing the laws necessary for the Israelites to live as a holy community, the people got impatient and convince Aaron, Moses’ brother to take all their jewelry and make them a golden calf to worship. Moses got so mad he broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments and had to go ask God to make another set. Later in their journey, they refuse to enter the land that God promised them because they were afraid of the people living there already, so they wind up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years until a whole generation had died off. During their wanderings they always seemed to be getting in trouble. Paul mentions a couple of incidents from Numbers: 1) the people are once again complaining against God because they are unhappy with the food. They find themselves in an infestation of snakes and many are bitten and died. Moses makes a bronze snake on a pole and tells the people to look upon the bronze snake if they are bit and they will be healed. Jesus will compare this to his being lifted up on a cross for our salvation. 2) Another time, they start having relations with pagan women from Moab who encourage them to make sacrifices to their god Baal of Peor. A plague broke out among them at this time and twenty-four thousand people died.
As Paul talks to the Corinthians, he will use these stories to remind the believers in his congregation not to get haughty about being baptized and think that is your ticket to heaven therefore you can do as you please. He points out that their ancestors in the faith, the ancient Israelites were baptized in a way when they crossed the Red Sea. They carried God (Paul will actually say Christ, indicating that prior to all the discussions about the 2nd person of the Trinity, Paul understood that Christ was one with God and pre-existed the incarnation) with them in the cloud and the pillar of fire, the had manna from heaven and drank holy water provide by God – much as we have Eucharist, and Christ describes himself as bread and living water, but when they rebelled, there were consequences for their behavior.
The Jews of Jesus time understood this, but perhaps took it too far. There was a belief that if anything bad happened to you, it was because you had done something to deserve it, so when Pilate killed people who were protesting ill treatment by the Romans – for example taking money out of the Temple treasury to pay for water systems or when people were in the wrong place at the wrong time like the people crushed when the tower of Siloam fell, they immediately looked for something those people had done to deserve that punishment. Jesus tells them not so fast. You are no better than they were.
We then end with a parable about a fig tree that fails to bear fruit, but the gardener begs to be allowed to fertilize it and tend it one more year before it is destroyed.
We need to learn from the mistakes of people who came before us. That is how humanity evolves and we get closer to the kingdom of heaven. We must be careful though not to assume we have come farther than we have. Paul reminds us we are all sinners in need of the mercy of God. Jesus reminds us God’s mercy is available but not without a cost. The gardener didn’t abandon the fig tree, he tended it in the hopes that it would yet bear fruit. We are the gardeners of our own lives and to a certain extent the lives of those around us. Let us use the gifts God has given us to the best of our ability and be merciful to those who are struggling to bear fruit remembering it is only by God’s mercy that we have the blessings we have.