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Moses and Jeremiah:
Divine Presence in the Human Struggle

For Sunday August 31, 2008

            Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
            Exodus 3:1–15 or Jeremiah 15:15–21
            Psalm 105:1–6, 23–26, 45c or Psalm 26:1–8
            Romans 12:9–21
            Matthew 16:21–18

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo.
Statue of Moses by Michelangelo.

           The thirty-nine books that Christians know as the Old Testament were written across a thousand years. Despite the differences that you would expect from such a mini-library composed by multiple authors, they all speak about the saving power of God in human history.

           At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that God's story with Israel revolved around two major acts. In the first act, after 430 years of bondage, there was Israel's triumphant Exodus from Egypt some time around 1400 BC. Then, 800 years later, there was tragic Exile to Babylon in 586 BC. These seminal events of Exodus and Exile echo throughout the Bible as two ways that God works in human history, and even in our own personal histories.

           Moses was the primary protagonist of Israel's Exodus from oppression in Egypt. After an unlikely sequence of events in which God saved him from infanticide, Moses grew up in Pharaoh's household at the center of political power. As an adult, Moses murdered an Egyptian for beating a fellow Hebrew, which caused that same Pharaoh to try to murder him. So he fled. In the "far side of the desert" (Exodus 3:1) God called Moses to return to Egypt, the land of Israel's enemy oppressors where the king had tried to kill him, in order to face down Pharaoh.

           The Exodus was a drama of liberation from oppression and exploitation, of miraculous deliverance, of God's mighty acts of power in regal display, of His dramatic intervention to shatter the enemy, work wonders, and break the powers of bondage. The Exodus is mentioned throughout the Bible as a reminder of God's power to save, and celebrated at Passover even today by Jews.

Moses and the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.
Moses and the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

           Jeremiah was a protagonist of Israel's Exile to Babylon. Whereas Moses confronted enemy Egypt, Jeremiah confronted his own nation about their destiny with disaster. To the prophets, priests and kings of Judah, Jeremiah preached an unpatriotic, seditious, and judgmental message: "Stop giving our people reckless lies and false hopes. Stop betraying them with your delusional messages of comfort and hope. National disaster is just around the corner."

           The Exile was a tragedy of deportation to pagan Babylon. For the elect nation it was unthinkable, beyond comprehension. What had happened? Where were God's mighty acts of power? Was not Israel God's inviolable and elect people? How could He relinquish them to a pagan enemy? Exile to Babylon began a period of subjugation, servitude, banishment and captivity. It signaled failure, isolation, loneliness, and even punishment. Certainly it meant despair. But Exile was just as much a place of redemption as Exodus: "'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11).

           Despite the obvious differences of their outward circumstances, both Moses and Jeremiah responded to God's call with loud protests about their personal inadequacies. Moses and Jeremiah wrestled with the prospects of failure, with virulent opposition from detractors, and with deep discouragements. Moses is famous for his litany of fears—lack of confidence, limited skill, insecurities about personal identity, and fear of rejection (Exodus 3–4). For his forty years of faithfulness to God's call, Jeremiah was beaten (20:2), received death threats (26:8), imprisoned (37:15), thrown down a well (38:6), and derided as an unpatriotic crank and traitor. Almost no one listened to him. He was an isolated man of "reproach" among his own people (15:15).

           Anyone who has heeded God's call to any ministry can identify with Jeremiah and Moses. Their many troubles, both real and imagined, remind us that there is no divine call without human conflict, no summons without struggle. In the words of the young and earnest priest in George Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest, "We pay a heavy, very heavy price for the super-human dignity of our calling."

Ethiopian icon of Moses.
Ethiopian icon of Moses.

           Bernanos's story is the one book that I wish someone had made me read in seminary, although I admit that it's so profound that I probably would have missed much of its message. The Diary of a Country Priest is the sort of book you might not fully appreciate until you're about fifty. By that time the human struggle with the divine call has carved lines in your face and deep channels in your heart.

           Bernanos's powerful tale describes a young and earnest priest in rural France who feels that he's a total failure. From a human perspective, he's not mistaken. As is fitting, we never even learn his name. The young priest keeps a diary to unburden himself to God, to cultivate a sense of brutal honesty with himself, and to record "the simple trivial secrets of a very ordinary kind of life."

           In the diary he confides his doubts and loneliness, his sense of futility, and especially his struggles with his sense of God's call. Reflecting upon his "wretched weakness," he struggles with a palpable sense of total failure, that "my best is nothing." And so he frets: "Am I where our Lord would have me? Twenty times a day I ask this question."

           The priest feels powerless in the face of suffering, he clashes with clergy colleagues, and broods about the history of his own family dysfunction. He grows disgusted with his own body due to chronic stomach pains and an impoverished diet. He knows he is physically clumsy and socially awkward. He ponders the absurdity of prayer. He agonizes over his loneliness and sense of isolation. When he shares the gospel he sometimes feels like he is merely play-acting and parroting cliches. He likens his restlessness to "a hornet in a bottle."

           As for his church, he describes his parishioners as bored, boring, and petty. They gossip about him as a "secret drinker" and a womanizer, accusations that are ludicrous. Nevertheless, the priest loves his flock; he visits every home every year, and he prays for them. He has a keen sense of history and his own obscure role to play. He's an astute observer of the weakness, frailty and fallenness of human nature. By the time he dies of stomach cancer at a young age, Bernanos has painted a portrait of what we realize is a genuine saint.

Moses with the Tablets by Marc Chagall.
Moses with the Tablets by Marc Chagall.

           The priest's elders gave him wise advice when he questioned his call. "Keep saying your lessons. Go on with your work. Keep at the little daily things that need doing, til the rest comes. Concentrate. Think of a lad at his homework, trying so hard and his tongue sticking out. That's how our Lord would have us be when he gives us up to our own strength. Little things—they don't look like much, yet they bring peace. Like wild flowers which seem to have no scent, till you get a field full of 'em." Elsewhere they advise, "Keep marching to the end, and try to end up quietly at the roadside without shedding your equipment."

           Moses, Jeremiah, and Bernanos's young priest all persevered in their calls. Every divine call needs such human perseverance. But God gives us something far more than an exhortation to perseverance. He promises His divine presence. When Moses doubted his deepest self ("Who am I?"), God assured him, "I will be with you" (Exodus 3:12). To Jeremiah He promised the exact same thing: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 1:8). And so on his deathbed the young priest confessed, and so should we, "Grace is everywhere."      

For further reflection:

* Contemplate Paul's own sense of inadequacies in 2 Corinthians 4:7–12.
* Imagine that the promises of God in Exodus 3:12 and Jeremiah 1:8 are spoken directly to you: "I am with you."
* What have been your own conflicts and struggles in God's call on your life?
* In what ways do you identify with Moses and Jeremiah?
* For further reflections on vocation and calling, see Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest; Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak; and Marilyn Robinson, Gilead.
* In the novel Gilead, the narrator-pastor John Ames ponders a lifetime of wrestling with God's call. He reflects upon his life experiences and how they have woven a rich tapestry whose beautiful texture could only result from many different strands—frailty and failure, memory and mystery, darkness and disappointment, regret and reconciliation, and, weaving it all together, sheer gratitude and joy at how remarkably beautiful the resulting garment of his life still is. Near the end of his life, Ames writes to his son: "I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on. I enjoy the hope that when we meet [in heaven] I will not be estranged from you by all the oddnesses life has carved into me."

Image credits: (1)–(4), the Online Language Source.

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