The last couple of weeks have seen us walk through the book of Exodus. For those of you who may read this blog but don’t read the bible I’ll try to summarise it. Basically God listens to the cries of his people who are in slavery, send along his chosen man (Moses: Hebrew/adopted Egyptian/man of few words and winder up and calmer down of God) to lead them out of Egypt. We have the big party tricks (the ten plagues), the great escape (the Red Sea crossing) and then…well, and then things become…interesting.
A traditional reading of the text tells us that the Israelites settle down for a while in the wilderness where God starts to give them their ’religion’ and provides for their needs. Amongst that is the setting up of the tabernacle, the establishment of the system of priesthood, sacrifices and festivals which would define Israel’s relationship with its God.
This is all about, we’re told, God establishment his covenant community, about marking Israel as ‘his’, about making them the beacon of his light that he has always called them to be. This usually becomes a preach about being part of the new covenant in Christ, becoming his holy people.
I’m not suggesting anything new, or even discounting this message at all…but I wonder if there’s something else to be found here.
What if we were to read this as a story of the people of God seeking to restrain that God? What if Exodus and the remaining books written by ‘Moses’ (the Pentateuch) are actually much more about religion, about creating rules that in effect serve to keep us safe from God? It’s almost as if the authors (probably post Babylonian exile editors) are constructing a new paradigm for a new people – setting down the laws, practices and system that will guide them as they seek to understand the cataclysm they have experienced.
Fascinatingly, Israel has a habit of seeking to restrain God, of boxing him up in rules and regulations and ultimately a building (here the tabernacle, later the temple). This becomes the centre of the cult, with Priests and Levites becoming inbetweeners – standing between man and God and God and man. It becomes the place on earth where God resides, the touching place between the eternal and mortal. As the story progresses, we learn how devastated the people are when the temple is destroyed – symbolising God leaving his people, complete (and explained as deserved) abandonment.
We see this also with the desire for a King during Samuel’s time – the desire for a perfect leader (Messiah) which leads them to reject Jesus when he turns up. They want something, a barrier perhaps, between this divine presence and them – they’re terrified. They want what all the other nations have – a temple, a priesthood, a king, religion.
Israel’s journey, though, is different. It’s a story of man and God conversing directly. An open road. God calling, Abraham following. Jacob wrestling. God ahead, beckoning his people on. Not buildings, but people. Not priests, but normal folk. God everywhere. God in all of creation.
And when Jesus does turn up he’s exactly this. He seeks to dismantle barriers, to destroy religion and yet fulfil everything. He beckons the people back to the open road, to following wherever this siren God calls. Out of the restraints and out of the boxes. Temples destroyed, priesthood opened to all. Away from comfort to the wilderness. Only one sacrifice necessary.
Maybe this is the message to us today. Maybe we’ve settled for a domesticated, religious god – a god who can be limited and explained and is full of certainty. This is far easier for us to cope with. We can predict what that god is up to. We can even claim to control it.
Far less disruptive and disturbing.
But that isn’t God. That isn’t the Jesus who calls to us.
He’s full of disturbance and disruption, power and uncertainty. Full of unexplained and vastness and…well…words run out. There is no logic, no reason…and yet he makes glorious sense. He’s in the dust and the dirt, amongst the great and the good but perhaps more so amongst the worst and the least.
I ask myself this: am I temple orientated? Do I cling to religion? Do I grasp for those things which bring order?
Or am I part of a people who are seeking to hear the whisper of a Presence ‘out there’, wherever and however dark it may be?
Am I out on the open road?
Please God, yes.