Tag Archives: Moses

Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Jesus Casting out demon

The full readings for this Sunday can be found  here:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”

In the name of the Living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Well, good morning, good morning.  And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.

Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.

But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?

In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”

And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting  as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.

God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.

You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.

Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.

And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.

And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.

In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.

And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”

You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.

I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.

You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.

And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a  false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart.  You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Standing on Holy Ground

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. Exodus 3:1-15.

I found this reading in the Daily Office for today.  The passage begins with Moses engaged in an everyday sort of task.  He’s tending to his father-in-law’s flock; he’s working.  Moses has not set out on a spiritual journey, he hasn’t gone into the desert to retreat and encounter the Infinite.  Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.

We should also note that Moses is pretty much homeless when this remarkable event happens.  Although an Israelite child, he was adopted by the Egyptians and lived among them until he killed an Egyptian overseer.  He runs away from the wrath of Pharoah into the land of Midian.  And as we know from the balance of the story, Moses will spend the bulk of his life wandering.  (It’s a bit ironic that he ends up finding a homeland for his people, but not for himself.)  In fact, Moses offers a revealing glimpse into himself when he says, “I have been an alien living in a foreign land.”  Gen. 2:22.  I think lots of folks feel that way, constantly looking for a home.

As Moses encounters this burning bush, YHWH tells him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  The removal of one’s sandals not only signifies that one has arrived at a sacred space, but also (within many cultures) suggests that one has entered a home.  Therefore Moses, the wanderer, finds his home with the Lord.

Two questions from this passage echo into each of our lives, and will shape the course of our faith.  The first is the question Moses asks of the Lord:  “Who am I?”  Moses wants to know his own authority to preach truth to power, and it’s a question most of us have faced at one time or another.  Who am I to be God’s voice in this troubled world?  Who am I to speak out against something that’s wrong?

We should find the second question equally troubling, and equally determinative for us.  Moses asks the Lord (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of our ancestors), “Who are you?”  Moses wants to know exactly what he’s going to tell people about who he met in the burning bush.  He wants to understand the Almighty; he wants to know God’s name.

The answer Moses heard, “I AM WHO I AM,” probably didn’t leave him completely satisfied.  The name “I AM” obviously conjures up so many of Jesus’ “I am” statements (the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, etc).  In this case, however, we might find particular encouragement in Jesus’ assurance:  “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

Many of us still hear the reverberations of these two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As we begin to answer them, I think we may find the story of Moses even more rich.  Once Moses begins to understand the answers (a rudimentary and incomplete understanding) God immediately sends him on a mission.  In Moses’ case, the mission involves confronting Pharoah and leading the people into Israel as God saves His people.  In our case, that mission may be completely different.  But only through that journey, which will last for the rest of his life, will Moses come to more fully understand who God is and who Moses is.

The journey leads him to a deeper understanding of YHWH, which leads him to a deeper understanding of himself, which leads him further along the journey.  I believe that’s part of the reason why the Exodus became the overarching narrative of the Jewish people, and why it remains so important today.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

How Can These Things Be?

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  Numbers 21: 4-9.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  John 3: 14-16.

The first passage, from the Book of Numbers, deeply challenges our understanding of Yahweh, and confronts our  imaginations.  It takes place against the backdrop of  the consistent theme within the Exodus narrative:  forty years of wandering in the wilderness, marked by the people’s resistance, God’s punishment, the people’s repentance, and God’s restoration.   As the people near the end of their journey, a campaign of rebellion  arose against both Moses and God.  The text reports that God addressed this issue through an infestation of seraphs (poisonous snakes).

One might reasonably conclude that there were already poisonous snakes among the Hebrew people, spreading this contagion of destructive grumbling.  While we may struggle with the notion that God sent the snakes down upon the Hebrews, I want to suggest that those vipers were merely visible tokens of the toxic rebellion that already enveloped them.  The serpents which would lead to their deaths were already there.  God merely revealed a physical sign of the spiritual reality they already confronted.  It’s as though the Lord were telling them, “This is what your way looks like.”

In this fitting Lenten passage, when the people acknowledge their complicity for their situation, God intervenes to save them.  God instructs Moses, who creates a bronze serpent placed upon a pole.  When those bitten by snakes look upon this image, this icon, God heals them.  Out of this destructive pattern of sin and death, God will raise up a way of healing.  This leads us to the Gospel reading for today.

In the Gospel passage, we encounter the terribly interesting figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who secretly followed Jesus.  Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’ imagination, teaching about the need for a man to be “born again”.  Jesus then reveals his messianic role, drawing on the iconic image of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness.  This statement carries with it the double-meaning of the Christ being raised up as the Messiah and of Jesus raised up on the cross.  As with the earlier passage from Numbers, Jesus describes a spiritual reality that the world cannot yet comprehend.

The cross will become the source of healing this broken world.  Just as with the bronze serpent, that which we perceived as an image of fear and death becomes the source of our new life.  Again, it’s as though God said to the world, “All right.  This horror on Golgotha is the result of the way you want to do business.  But I can still create life where you see nothing but death and shame.”

 Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing  in the Son “lifted up” provides the way to eternal life.  It’s important to note that the Greek phrase John uses isn’t actually “believes in him” but rather “believes into him”.  In other words, Jesus isn’t describing an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but rather a radical submission and new way of life.  Jesus offers eternal life, therefore, to those who join in His way of life.  Thus, St. Paul could accurately say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Gal. 2:20.

John’s Gospel offers us a deeply rooted theology of the cross.  In fact, for St. John, the cross operates as the fulcrum point upon which all of human history turns.  This passage seems to answer, perhaps a little obliquely, Nicodemus’ question, “How can these things be?”  John 3:9.

Jesus points to a spiritual reality we cannot yet see, that we cannot yet understand.  Our new life, our eternal life, in Christ originates in one mysterious, glorious, incomprehensible notion:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes into him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Salvation arises through God’s love, revealed on the cross.  In the depth of this Lenten season, that’s good news.

Shabbat shalom,

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Moses and the Bronze Serpent © Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

The Holy Innocents

Now after they [the Magi] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  Matt. 2:11-18.

Today the Church remembers the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Here, we encounter a ghastly and appalling story, but I think there are several lessons we can take from this narrative.  We should first examine the character of Herod (known to historians as Herod the Great).  Although Herod greatly expanded the Second Temple, he also murdered many rabbis and members of his own family.  He collaborated with the Roman occupation, and he reigned with a demented savagery.

While scholars may question the historical accuracy of this account in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s portrayal meshes well with what we know of Herod’s character.  At the root of these frightening events, we find a genuine insight into Herod’s depravity.  Herod fears losing power, and that phobia sparks his maniacal infanticide.  Into this world, the Christ child is born.

The world hasn’t changed much.  From Dachau to Serbia to Darfur, Herod is still afraid, and the slaughter of the innocents continues.  And this remains the world into which Christ enters.  And ultimately, Christ offers himself as a victim of our savage history.

Matthew offers another insight in this story.  The Holy Family protects the Christ child, traveling to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage.  Matthew refers to Hos. 11:1 and Exodus 4:22-23 with a purpose.  He’s telling his audience that Jesus is the new Moses:  just as Moses delivered the chosen people from slavery, Jesus will free them from sin and death.   Moses and the Prophets reveal God’s dedication to mankind’s salvation; in the Christ child, that dedication becomes incarnate.

I’m also fascinated with the impulse of Mary and Joseph:  I think there’s something more at work here than the simple protective impulse of Jesus’ parents.  You see, I think they’re still out there in the world today: Pharoah, Herod, Stalin, Pol Pot and the other slaves to fear and hatred. 

So, I think Matthew asks us, are we willing to shelter Jesus?  What are we willing to do to protect Christ in the world?  Because I think Matthew and the Church are telling us that our Christmas joy never takes place in a historical vacuum, and the world can be a place of deadly and senseless violence.  As my great-aunt once cautioned me, “May the peace of Christ disturb you greatly.”

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis