Fear of the Fear of the Lord

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 14:21-31, 1 Peter 1:1-12, John (14:1-7) 8-17


After God parted the Red Sea so Israel could flee Pharaoh’s advancing army, God closed it again over the soldiers and the chariots and drowned them all. Afterward “the people [of Israel] feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” Psalms and Proverbs tell us “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but modern Christians, particularly more progressive ones, aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a God we should fear. After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us repeatedly: “Be not afraid?”

After four centuries in slavery, the Israelites were not at all convinced the Lord was either powerful or on their side. As the story of Exodus unfolds, their lack of faith surfaces again and again, but the demonstration of power at the Red Sea must have been unimaginably (if temporarily) sobering. This God they didn’t think much of – and practically mocked – could wipe out armies at will. Serving such a God had to be at least a little intimidating.

The most commonly used Hebrew word for this type of fear is yirah, which can mean anything from an anticipation of pain or danger to a sense of reverence, awe, or wonder. We like to emphasize that second part more than the first, but straight-on fear is a healthy part of our emotional makeup.

Even loving parents know fear is sometimes a necessary element of teaching children; a one-year old can’t be reasoned out of touching a hot stove. Throughout childhood they force us to do things for our own good. As we mature, that fear evolves into more of a healthy respect. Don’t many of us, on some level, well into adulthood, retain a fear of disappointing our parents not because we think they will punish us or withdraw their love, but because that relationship means so much to us? In a similar manner, hopefully our childish notion of a God waiting to smite sinners eventually gives way to understanding the God described to us by Christ. Fear of God may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is never the end.

Comfort: Our understanding of God and relationship with God are always evolving. It is OK to feel many ways about God, from fearful to playful, as long as we maintain respect.

Challenge:  Meditate on how fear might be masking other feelings.

Prayer: Grant me the courage, O Lord, to follow you wherever you would lead me. It is in your service that I find freedom. Amen.

Discussion: What is something you fear? What other emotions are entangled in that fear? Respect? Shame? Confusion?

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God of History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 13:3-10, 1 Corinthians 15:41-50, Matthew 28:16-20


God visited ten plagues upon Egypt before Pharaoh freed the Hebrews. Scholars estimate these plagues unfolded over a period anywhere from a month to a year, but even a week of boils, locusts, and other disasters must have felt unending. The last and worst one – the death of the firstborn of Egypt – was so terrible that God assured Moses Pharaoh would finally relent. It would be so effective the people would need to be ready on a moment’s notice, without even enough time to let bread rise. The Lord commanded them to prepare unleavened (yeast-free) dough, and they took it with them when Pharaoh ordered them to depart. Baked in the wilderness, this unleavened bread was literally their first taste of freedom in four centuries.

In Exodus, the Lord gives explicit and emphatic commandments about observing Passover properly. During the Passover Seder meal, Jews recount the story of their flight from Egypt. Maintaining such an observance has helped them preserve their identity across thousands of years. For all of us, remembering where we come from – both the good and bad parts – makes us wiser about where we are headed.

A workplace phenomenon called “drift” – which occurs when someone becomes overly comfortable with a duty and cuts corners – causes many avoidable errors. Many people who reach weight-loss goals find the pounds creeping back on because success has made them lax in their diet or exercise regimens. Western Christians leading comfortable lives can easily forget the Gospel should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When we forget the past, we fail to understand the meaning of the present. Memories – personal, family, and cultural – need to be preserved lest we begin to think we are entirely self-made.

Edmund Burke said: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Living as if our present situation was inevitable will lead us to take it for granted. There’s no Passover without bondage in Egypt. We can’t be a resurrection people without a crucifixion. Let’s remember the bitter taste of our failures to stay on course, and our sweet successes to keep moving forward.

Comfort: Our pasts – overcoming the bad, benefiting from the good – inform who we are today. Your story is important.

Challenge: Read about the meaning of the Passover Seder.

Prayer: God of History, thank you for the lessons of our spiritual ancestors. May my words and deeds honor those who have gone before, especially Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What important parts of history do you think get neglected?

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The Rest of the Story

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 12:28-39, 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, Mark 16:9-20


The phrase “history is written by the victors” is usually attributed to Winston Churchill or Walter Benjamin. The implication is that each culture or civilization gaining prominence rewrites history as propaganda flattering itself. Some facts may be inconvenient or unavoidable, but over time the need to define ourselves as the good guys spins them; consider recent proposed textbook revisions redefining slaves as “immigrants” and the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade,” or Canadian First Nations peoples mutually agreeing to “make room” for European settlers.

Could this idea influence our reading of the Passover story in Exodus?

Moses had been trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave captivity to worship in the wilderness. Every time Pharaoh refused to free them – the text says God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – God sent another plague upon Egypt. These escalated in severity until finally, in the dead of night, God slew all the firstborn of Egypt. Through Moses God warned the Hebrews to mark their doorways with blood, so their houses were passed over for death. As grief devastated Egypt, Pharaoh finally relented.

Exodus was written by the Hebrew people for the Hebrew people. Of course they are its heroes … but God also created the Egyptians. They were estranged from Him and worshipped other Gods, but surely He took no joy in slaughtering His children. Our Christian story traces its roots through the history of the Hebrew people, so we celebrate this victory, but can we imagine the horror of this story from the perspective of an Egyptian peasant family losing their only son?

In numerous biblical passages, God forbade the Jews to return to Egypt. Yet when the infant Jesus was in danger of being killed by Herod, God instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt, where he and his family stayed for years. Moabites, Uzzites, and Samaritans were similarly vilified, but God raised heroes from them and Christ spoke freely with them. When we wrestle to reconcile texts like the Passover narrative to God’s loving nature (and we should), we should also be wrestling with our own attitudes about personal, cultural, and historical enemies. People on the losing side of history have stories too.

Comfort: It’s OK to think critically and ask questions of difficult Biblical material. God will always be able to handle your questions and doubts.

Challenge: Do some research into history as relayed by people who didn’t fare so well.

Prayer: God of the past, present, and future, guide me so my contributions to the story of humankind are just and merciful. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your national history are subject to “whitewashing?”

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My Own Worst Enemy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 2:1-22, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Mark 9:2-13


Identity is a funny thing. We think of it as an internally generated sense of self, but in large part it is externally imposed upon us. The world’s opinion of us does not change who we are, but it does change who we are allowed to be. Take Moses, for example. As a male Hebrew infant, he was considered a potential enemy and targeted for death by the king of Egypt. When the king’s daughter pulled him from the river where his mother had set him afloat in a basket, he became part of the royal household. Scripture doesn’t say how or when he learned he was Hebrew, but by adulthood he was sympathetic to the plight of his people. After he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew, his position in Pharaoh’s house no longer mattered, and the king wanted him dead again.

Moses fled to Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah. Upon their first meeting she assumed he was Egyptian. His accent and clothes told the world he was one thing. Inside he was another … but what exactly? Never a Hebrew slave under the Egyptian whip, never a fully privileged Egyptian, always conflicted. How long was it – if ever – before he felt like a Midianite? Moses had to do the hard work of being an authentic person with no real example to follow.

To some degree, outside expectations limit us all. Culture, economic status, and other forces categorize us without regard to our true selves and needs. It’s easy to internalize those expectations and never challenge them, but there’s more power in growing from the inside out. Able to see both Hebrew and Egyptian culture up close but with an outsider’s critical eye, Moses was uniquely qualified for the service God would soon call him to. Unable to conform to any labels, he was able to transcend all of them.

Your life experiences – especially those that don’t meet expectations – prepare you for a unique role. Moses was the key God turned to free the Hebrews. What blessings are locked behind a door only you can open?

Comfort: Your differences are a gift to the world.

Challenge: When you feel like an outsider, find a constructive way to use that perspective.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for the good and bad times that have shaped me. Help me to understand my gifts so I may use them in service to your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you suppressed any of your natural traits and tendencies to fit in better with a group?

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On The Dime

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 1:6-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Mark 8:27-9:1


Have you ever heard the expression “life turns on a dime?” It refers to the way our fortunes can change with little to no warning. When a new king who did not know Joseph or Joseph’s family rose over Egypt, he did not look kindly on the Hebrews. This new king viewed them as a potential threat, should they decide to align with his enemies. To preempt any uprising, he put harsh taskmasters over them and turned them into a nation of slaves. He went so far as to tell the Hebrew midwives to kill any male children at birth. The midwives were clever, and said Hebrew women were strong and gave birth on their own before a midwife could arrive. In a generation, the Israelites went from famine to favor to fetters.

In what must have felt like a mid-stream change of course to the disciples, Jesus began to teach them he would have to undergo great suffering, die, and rise again to fulfill his mission as Messiah. After all the miraculous healing, multiplication of loaves and fishes, and adoration of the crowds, Peter couldn’t believe his ears. He tried to tell Jesus it didn’t need to be so, and Jesus famously responded: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Psychologists tell us change –– good or bad – is an enormous source of stress, and sudden change even more so. In truth, life is nothing but change. Our bodies are machines of change, transforming food and air into blood and thoughts. As we sleep, our planet moves around the sun and our sun turns with galaxies and we wake unimaginable distances from where we laid our head. Change is unceasing; only our awareness of it flickers.

At the center of it all is God. He is the fixed point on which all else pivots. No matter our fortune, no matter where in the universe we stand, Jesus is the north star of our faith, guiding us toward the loving creator at its heart. Whether we are showered with riches or stripped of dignity, focusing on the center keeps us from spinning out of control.

Comfort: Focusing on God keeps everything in perspective.

Challenge:  Talk with a friend about their perceptions of your ability to handle change.

Prayer: God of creation, you are my center and my focus. Thank you for your constant love. Teach me to keep your ways in focus. Amen.

Discussion: What changes do you find especially difficult? What makes you dig in your heels and say: “Enough!”

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The Great Author

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Genesis 41:14-45, Romans 6:3-14, John 5:19-24


Joseph was a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. His brothers – angered by their father Jacob’s preferential treatment and by Joseph’s visions predicting his rise to power over them – sold Joseph into slavery and told Jacob he was dead. Though Joseph was respected by his master and made head of the household, the master’s wife framed him for assault and he was jailed. After years of imprisonment – where his talents  again put him in an unlikely position of leadership – Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams landed him a role as Pharaoh’s chief adviser. When a famine fell over Egypt and the surrounding lands, Joseph’s foresight kept the people from starving and he was able to save his long-estranged family by welcoming them into Egypt.

The story of Joseph is full of ironic turns.

The beautiful coat his father gives him to express love becomes falsified evidence of Joseph’s death.  When he refuses the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph’s integrity lands him in jail. Dreaming causes his family to cast him out, but eventually allows him to save them – and ultimately all of Israel. After his death, the Isralites fall out of favor with the Egyptians and become slaves, setting the stage for Moses and the Exodus.

Ferdinand Sabino said: “Everything will be fine in the end; if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” Joseph’s story has a slightly different message: there is no end. What works against us today may work for us tomorrow. Yesterday’s triumph may be next year’s tragedy … and the following year’s triumph again. We never know how things will work out, and the end of our individual story is not the end of the greater story. Tying it all together is the presence of God inviting dreamers and kings, slaves and kidnappers to open themselves up to possibility and move the story of God’s kingdom forward. Whatever your situation is today, it will eventually change. Like Joseph, we do best in good times and bad when we hold tight to our faith while we wait for whatever unfolds in the Great Author’s next chapter.

Comfort: Change is inevitable, but God’s love is constant.

Challenge: God’s love is constant, but change is inevitable.

Prayer: Loving God, I will trust you always to see me through hardships and joys. May I be open to playing my part well in the endless story of your love and your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What have been some of the unexpected twists in your part of the great story?

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Master Plan

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 1:6-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Mark 8:27-9:1


The story of Joseph, his many brothers, and his father Jacob is very near its end with today’s reading. The journey to Egypt for Jacob (also called Israel) and his sons has been a long and twisted one.While Joseph and Pharaoh’s favor allowed the fledgling nation of Israel to settle freely in the Egyptian land of Goshen with all the food they needed, the other residents of Egypt were not so lucky during this seven years of famine. After giving Pharaoh all their money one year and their livestock the next, they had nothing left but their land and bodies. In exchange for food, they offered themselves up as Pharaoh’s slaves and had to pay a tribute of a fifth of all they harvested. Continue reading