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Encountering the holy

Commentary
In this week’s three scriptures we encounter the holy in different yet related ways, a reminder that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand even if it is not fully visible or realized in history.

Moses retired from leadership, having failed to inspire his people to rise up against their Egyptian masters -- but God speaks from an ordinary bush to someone engaged in the ordinary profession of shepherding. That place is holy!

Paul, in instructing that we love our enemies and get revenge through kindness, may be suggesting that we meet the holy in each other, even in those who seem to be our opponents.

And Jesus challenges us to find holiness in the most unlikely places of all -- in the cross, in suffering, and in obedience.

Exodus 3:1-15
God’s people end up slaves in Egypt. A Hebrew child is rescued from the waters by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in the royal household, yet when he strikes a blow in defense of a fellow Hebrew he is not acclaimed a leader but challenged by those he sought to protect. To escape Pharaoh’s wrath Moses flees into the wilderness, marries, shepherds his father-in-law’s flocks, and seeks to let his life play out in obscurity.

But in this story of divine presence, call, and commitment, God appears in a burning bush and speaks to Moses, calling him back to service. In a book filled with people who question God, God replies to Moses’ question about his name in the only way that makes sense. God is beyond knowing, beyond definition, so God is known and defined by relationship with others. “I am the God of your fathers,” Moses is told. If you call to mind my shared story with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you will know all you need to know about me, and the same is true for your enslaved people.

Encountering the holy, Moses certainly has more questions than when he started, but he will question God’s call -- Moses is convinced he can’t speak well enough for the task that is given him. No problem. His brother Aaron will fill in for the speechifying. Like it or not, Moses discovers that he is fully equipped to fulfill God’s call. The same is true for us. It’s also true that God has revealed enough of God in relationships with faithful (and faithless) servants over the years to tell us as much as we need to know about God.

Romans 12:9-21
People often forget that the famous scripture Jesus quotes from Leviticus -- “Love your neighbor as yourself” -- is prefaced by the admonition that vengeance belongs to God. That leaves us loving instead of getting even.

In this case we get what almost feels like Paul’s Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount. Genuine love will hate what is evil, but hold fast to what is good. We should almost compete in loving each other. Paul calls on us to rejoice, to take care of each other’s material needs, and outdoes himself in redundancy when he tells us to “extend hospitality to strangers.” Don’t forget, the Greek word for hospitality is literally “love of strangers”!

Paul then describes the best revenge of all by quoting Proverbs 25:21-22: “...if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

This is an outrageously radical part of the Hebrew Bible, reminiscent of Jesus’ words to turn the other cheek. Yet in some ways the Old Testament more closely mirrors the good news of Jesus than the New Testament.

There are some who may not have read the scriptures very closely who act like we serve two separate gods -- the good god of the New Testament who wants us to love each other, and the evil god of the Old Testament who is bloodthirsty and vengeful. But the New Testament is full of challenging words about judgment and doom, and the Old Testament has far more than the New when it comes to living the Kingdom of God. Of course, for Paul there was no New Testament. It hadn’t been written or circulated yet. The good news of Jesus Christ was to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, and it wasn’t just a matter of scattered verses that seem to prophesy who and what the Messiah would be. It’s the attitude of loving our enemies and doing good for those who hate us that is just as much a part of Hebrew scriptures as anything else.

We encounter the holy in each other. So keep your eyes open.

Matthew 16:21-28
What does it mean for us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? Some suggest what seems to be obvious -- we’ve all got physical, emotional, and spiritual limitations, and our cross is supposed to be our arthritis, diabetes, bad back, or bum knee.

Maybe it is, but there are elements to the cross that Jesus carries that might cause us to dig a little deeper. First of all, the cross is not simply an instrument of execution. It is an implement of shame. A person is tortured in public, naked and exposed, subject to the contempt of society, and after the body is thrown into a pit to be eaten by animals the person’s entire being is eliminated.

Add to this that the cross of Jesus was totally undeserved, and one can make the case that Jesus is suggesting bearing our cross and following him is not simply a matter of making the best of our bad luck or bad genetics. It is being willing to be publicly humiliated for something for which we are innocent. Being a Christian may not necessarily be the same as being patriotic. It may mean that when we, like Jesus, take the side of an outcast or a repentant sinner, or stand up for those whom society rejects or punishes, we may have to share in their shame and take upon ourselves the abuse heaped upon those who are different. We don’t have a choice with a congestive heart or a form of cancer. We bear these infirmities whether we deserve them or not. But we do have a choice to be truly Christ-like instead of conveniently Christian.
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