Sunday, October 18, 2020 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Doug and I were out driving around last weekend, on that gorgeous Saturday with temperatures around 80°, bright sunny skies, and beautiful fall colors. We were enjoying exploring new areas for us and taking in the beauty of the Finger Lakes region, when I noted something unusual at one house we passed. The entire family was out in the yard…putting up their Christmas decorations! And I mean they were PUTTING UP CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS! When they plug all they were putting up, they will illuminate the entire region! It was Griswald’s Family Christmas! And then, just a few days later, I saw a picture a friend posted on social media. It was a picture of his house, fully decorated for Christmas, over the top in lights, another Griswald’s Family Christmas! A few days after that, a clergy friend posted on his social media page that he was currently working in his office blasting Christmas Carols!?! What?!? It is October, right? I didn’t get my calendar mixed up in these crazy days of losing time. I know that businesses are in the midst of getting out their Christmas stuff. They always do that before Halloween. But decorating your house? And clergy skipping seasons to listen to carols before Advent? What is going on?!? …
We know what is going on. With all that is ‘going on’ in our world today, is it any wonder that some of us are turning to a season whose theme words are ‘hope, peace, love and joy?’ Who isn’t in need of extraordinary comfort and joy right now? Don’t we all yearn for concrete signs, tangible ways, that we know that God is with us? Emmanuel?
It is just this kind of desperate yearning, of driven-ness, that leads to the conversation in Exodus 33 today between God and Moses. You see, the people of God—the people Israel—are in big, big trouble. Up to this point, things have been going relatively well. God delivered the people from slavery in Egypt with signs and wonders. God opened a path through the sea, leading them down the impossible road. God brought them into the wilderness to form them into a priestly people, a holy nation, as we discussed just a couple of weeks ago. Now, the people are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and Moses, their leader, has gone up that mountain where he first encountered God in the burning bush, into this thunderhead of God’s presence, to receive the Law (Torah) and directions—very detailed instructions—for building a tent for God, a traveling church to house the presence of God for the people.
In Exodus 29, God revealed to the people through Moses that God had freed them in order that God might dwell with them, and in this way help to form them into that priestly people, that holy nation, that blessing for all the world. Now, the time has come. Moses has ascended the mountain to get all the details…and he is gone for quite a while. In the waiting, the once-enslaved, wilderness campers begin to panic. They develop some separation anxiety. Life continues to be so very fragile, so very uncertain. The people don’t know where they are going. They have no clue what their future might hold. Moses, the one who led the way boldly, who stood up to Pharaoh, who spoke for God, intercedes for them to God, who represents God in their midst, is not with them. What if he doesn’t come back?!? What if that big cloud eats him?!? Who will show them the way then? Who will lead them? How will they know God is present with them without their Moses? They are not a united people, not yet. They are just a ragtag band of former slaves still figuring everything out one moment at a time. And so, yearning to feel in a concrete way that God is with them—Emmanuel—they build themselves a tangible god—a golden calf. They gather all the wealth that Egypt poured upon them as they left, melt it down, fashion this golden cow, make offerings to it, worship it, and have themselves a party.
That is how we come to this back-and-forth conversation between God and Moses today. God was gifting the people with a process for brining God’s holy presence to dwell within their midst, a liturgical crafting of a sacred dwell—the Tabernacle. But in fear and impatience, the people hastily and without thought to consequence, build a shiny statue. In their rush, they shut down the very thing they yearned for—Emmanuel—God with them…with us. The debate before us today is essentially this: Has Israel forfeited the honor of being God’s priestly people? Is it still possible for God to tabernacle with them given their unfaithfulness? Did they lose the ability to experience Emmanuel?
Even as Moses discusses these things with God, WE know the answer to these questions. God NEVER gives up on relationship with humanity. God NEVER stops seeking a way to be in covenant with us. God is ALWAYS coming to us, always coming among us, always wishing to dwell with us. God is ALWAYS Emmanuel!!
In the great narrative of God and creation, God and humanity, the Book of Exodus is very early in the story. Rev. Daniel Erlander calls this metanarrative, “God’s unfolding promise to mend the entire universe.” In this second book of our Bible, God is slowly revealing God’s holy name, which is God’s holy identity, God’s divine nature. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at a burning bush and God reveals the beginning of God’s name. “I Am…I am that I am.” Or also translated, “I will be who I will be.” Yahweh. In Exodus 20, at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, God expands that name, that identity. “I am the One who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the bonds of slavery. You shall have no other God before me.” ‘I am the One who freed you…who always frees you.’ Then, in Exodus 29, God widens and deepens that name/identity: “I am the One who brought you out of the land of Egypt in order that I might dwell with you.” And now here, in Exodus 33, God reveals even more: “I will be gracious…I will show mercy.” This is our God—The always present One who freed us, who dwells with us, who is full of grace and mercy! Of course God will dwell with the people, even after the golden cow incident. God will always seek to dwell with the people, in spite of all the times the people will turn away in the years, decades and millennia to come. God’s goodness will go before them nevertheless—Emmanuel!
Advent and Christmas is that time in the year when we immerse ourselves in the Emmanuel nature of God. Matthew 1 proclaims, through the angel in a dream to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… Look! A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him…Emmanuel!” Or from John, chapter 1, verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived,” literally in the Greek that is ‘tabernacled, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us…and tabernacled among us…and we have seen his glory…” Straight out of Exodus 33!
The truth is—Emmanuel is for ALL seasons, for ALL times! God IS always with us. And if twinkling lights and familiar carols help remind you of that truth right now, wonderful! Twinkle away! God IS with us right now! God’s goodness, which is God’s glory, is all around us! AND, WE are part of that goodness, part of that promise of Emmanuel in the world.
How will we proclaim God’s presence in these days? In what ways will we embody God’s goodness to and for the world, be the blessing for the world that God promised Abraham his descendants would be? One way to embody our tabernacling God is to intentionally live our membership vows to the church each and every day! We were asked, “Will you support your church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?” We answered, “We will!” So we need to be praying, for people and situations, for our church, our community, our state, our nation, and our world. As we read or watch the news, we should pray the headlines, lifting up each event and situation, and all those involved. We pray for insight in how we can be in ministry in the world. We need to be present: cards, postcards, letters, emails, phone calls, zoom calls, outside visits—however we can do it, we need to connect. We need to give generously; yes, in money and resources, but also in time and talent and our very selves. We need to serve—serve our church, help in ministries. We need to serve our community by supporting such programs as the homeless shelter, Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, Kitchen Cupboard, and the new Food cupboard that will soon be outside of our own church. All the while, focused on Emmanuel, living as a witness to God with us.
I know the thought of adding more to your overfull plates may cause a bit of a panic attack. We all feel so overwhelmed. However, taking just 5 minutes to step away for that full plate and write a few quick words of love and encouragement on a card, and slip it in the mail, changes your whole perspective and changes someone’ day. Stopping for a moment on the way home from the grocery store and putting some canned goods in the food cupboard outside the church alters how you view the world, and feeds someone in need. In these simple acts, we orient ourselves to the One who frees us, seeks to dwell with us, and yearns to shower us with grace and mercy. In these simple acts, we encounter the One who is always there.
Emmanuel! God is with us! Always! Now! Let us embrace our ever-present God by becoming ever-present to and with the world around us. Let us join Mary in her powerful words of Advent, of Christmas: “I am a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me as you have said.” Be born in us, God. Dwell in and with us, God. Emmanuel. “What gift can we bring? What present? What token? What words can convey it, the joy of this day,” of this truth? Let us sing! (Hymn #87 from the United Methodist Hymnal, What Gift Can We Bring)