A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23 & 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian Creation Epic that was written almost 2,000 years before the time of Jesus. The opening line says, “When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name…”—sound familiar? The epic goes on to tell of how the cosmos was created, day by day, piece by piece. An emerging set of gods creates order out of an existing structure that was dark and chaotic and formless. It is a strange tale, but it bears a striking resemblance to the book of Genesis that opens the book we call the Bible.
But Genesis and the Enuma Elish begin to take different paths when the Enuma Elish talks about the creation of humans beings. The epic says that humanity was created out of the blood of a rebel god. Essentially, humanity was created for no other reason than to provide service to the gods. In the Babylonian text humans are called ‘black-headed ones,’ black as in the color of blood when it dries, and we have no other purpose than to serve gods who could care less about us. Humanity gets nothing in return for this service, except for the privilege of existence. In the Enuma Elish there is no such thing as good and evil, light and dark, heaven and hell, just an endless number of powerful divine begins who treat earth and its inhabitants as a set of play things. The earth and all that is in it is enslaved and there is no hope of change or transformation.
This is standard fare in the literature of the ancient near east. The gods are near, but only in the images and icons that decorate their temples. They are a group of morally deficient and self-serving beings. They are just like us, only with infinite cosmic power. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they cavort, and they have petty feuds among themselves. This understanding of the gods and so much of the writing in the ancient near east reflected humanity’s struggle with living; why there were famines and disease; why some people were rich and some were poor; why one family might have 12 children while another might never be able to conceive. There was no rational explanation at the time for any of this. The only thing that made sense was to attribute the random and painful events of the world to a bunch of puppeteers in heaven. Not only did this comfort those undergoing trial, it released any obligation one felt to their neighbor. If in the end it is really a bunch of gods in heaven toying with humanity, and there are really no consequences to life, I don’t have to treat others better or worry about their welfare or expand my view of the world. This was an easy way of life even though the world was complex and hard to explain.
It is in this cultural and theological soup that the people of Israel lived. It is evident in the early books of the Bible that they borrowed very heavily from their Babylonian neighbors as they tried to explain and live out their experience with God. The Biblical and Babylonian creation stories are similar, but it goes even farther than that. Practices of worship, how one makes sacrifices for health or good crops, music and singing, dietary practices, and even laws of property ownership and inheritance are similar between the two cultures. But there is one significant difference between the two that sets the Israelites apart from all other cults and religions: their understanding of God.
In our reading today from Exodus God says to Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” to which Moses replies, “In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” This is fundamental in understanding how the Israelites understood God. As they wandered through the desert as newly free people, the Israelites were continually concerned about the future. The world was a dangerous place, and without a standing army, without loads of cash in the bank, how would the nation survive? How could they dare set up camp in lands belonging to other nations? How would they enter the Promised Land and claim it for their own? All of it would be possible, we read today, because God has reached down out of the heavens and is interested in a two-way relationship with this group of former slaves. God promised to be with the Israelites on the journey. This is no disinterested God; this is not a god who sits on high and toys with humanity; this is not a god interested in slaves or slave labor. This is a God who scooped up humanity out of the dust of earth, breathed the breath of life into them, then chose them from among all the nations on earth to be his people, God’s special possession. The reward, the result of being chosen, is that God has promised to be with them forever, through good and bad, up and down, life and death.
The intimacy, the care, the concern is tangible here. This beautiful intimacy set the children of Israel apart from all their neighbors and it set them apart from all the world. Their God is as big as the creation of the cosmos and as small and close as manna scattered over the ground. God was as vast as a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night, but so concerned that God demanded that the Israelites set one day aside a week to rest. The God that spoke to them from on top of Mt. Sinai was the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, but this was also the God who knows every hair on the head of every Israelite and calls each by name. This God is as grand as the stars in the sky, but as close and familiar as to allow Moses to watch as God passes by. This God chose the people of Israel and chose to be their God, leading them not only out of slavery but into the Promised Land where they finally had a place to call home. To be chosen is to experience the very close presence of God, the intimacy and love of the one who delivers from slavery to freedom.
This is how the Israelites understood their God, and this how our Jewish siblings understand God to this day. Intimate; concerned; big and mighty but close and within reach; guiding the course of the planets but also guiding each step the Israelites took; loving; merciful; gracious and slow to anger; forgiving; just.
A logical question for us to ask today in light of this is, well, what about Christians? How do followers of Jesus understand God? How should followers of Jesus understand God?
While I wish I had some great theological point to make, and some wise proverb to give you that you’ll think about all week, but I don’t. And I don’t because the same intimate, concerned, loving, forgiving, and just God that is the heart of the Israelites’ devotion and worship, is the same God of Jesus Christ, the God we worship and serve. The God who chose the Israelites from among all the nations of the earth, has, in Jesus Christ, chosen you and me. This God sent Jesus into the world because things had gotten way out of control. Through Jesus, God taught a new way of life, one of peace and justice, care for the poor and concern for the needy and outcast. He taught us how to love people who are unlovable; not just the dirty and smelly, but also our enemies who look and dress like we do. He showed us how to share what we have and he called us to radical generosity and hospitality. Jesus ultimately showed us what it means to love when he died on a cross between two criminals. In that event, Jesus took on death on death’s home turf and won; Jesus exhausted death’s power so that even though we die, we live. He faced sin head on and stopped it in its tracks so that sin couldn’t have the last word on our lives. And as if that wasn’t enough, Jesus rose from the dead so that God could claim total authority over us. In Jesus Christ, we have been chosen by God to experience new life, a whole new birth of freedom, a new way to be that does not bow and bend to the evil and destructive forces of this world.
My friends in Christ, part of what it means to be a Christian is to accept that we have been chosen by God for a whole new way of life—its not about the world, and for now its not about our neighbors; its about you and me coming to terms with God’s great love for us. That sounds easy, but it is not. Accepting God’s abundant love is difficult because we might not feel worthy, we might not feel good enough. We might imagine that our sins are too big for God, or too much shade for God’s light to ever shine through. But that misses the point. When we accept that we have been chosen by God for a life beyond our wildest imaginations we are also accepting that we didn’t do anything to deserve it and there is nothing we can do to revoke it. At times I feel like a broken record when I say that; in one way or another I think I say that to your every week. But that is the heart of the gospel message. If God’s love for us was dependent on our worthiness, or cleanliness, or sinlessness, God would be awful bored. The heart of the Gospel is that God has chosen us and God has chosen us for love and life because of who God is, not because of who we are. Our work is to accept that and to let it change who and what we are.
When you accept that you have been chosen for love and life, everything changes. There will be no place for fear because God has the prime place in your life. There will be no place in your life for conceit or jealousy or animosity because God’s love isn’t just yours and it isn’t just your neighbors—it is something everyone can claim.
There will be no place in your life for violence or oppression because God’s love isn’t a competition, it is not something you have battle for. There will be no room in your life for hoarding or mass consumption or destructive pursuits of wealth because you already have the most valuable thing of all: you have God. And God has you. And when God has you, is there anything that can stand against you? You need not worry about the past; God’s forgiveness covers that. You need not worry about today; if God cares for the birds of the air, how much more will God care for you? You need not worry about the future; our times are in God’s hands. We didn’t earn it; we can’t take it off or scrub it off; we have to accept it and the live it.
So normally in my sermons I call you to take the good news of the Gospel into the world. I usually finish by challenging you to do something for your neighbors and for the world. But the best thing you can do today for your neighbors and for the world is to accept the good news of the Gospel—accept that you have been chosen by God for a whole new way of life. My challenge and call to you today is to meditate on the great love that God has for you. Take the knowledge of that love and let it settle deep within your heart—allow it to blossom and bloom into every crevice of your life. Work to accept that you have been chosen by God in Jesus Christ. Contemplate the intimacy and closeness of God that drew you up out of the dust of the earth, breathed into you the breath of life, and set your feet on a path that goes from slavery to the Promised Land. Accept it, and you will be changed. Accept it, and the world around you will be changed. Accept it, and you will live. That is God’s desire for you, for me, and for all of creation. Thanks be to God! Amen.