Sunday, March 6, 2011

Behind The Scenes

I’ve been doing a fair amount of ‘fun’ reading lately. Since pastoral work requires a lot of reading; from my Monday morning look at the weekly scriptures, to all the research texts and scholarly books on biblical topics, - I find that I get overloaded with “work” reading and need to slip away to a mystery or good novel.
… I have been escaping the 21st century lately with Ken Follet’s wonderful books on cathedral building in the middle ages, and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Girl’ mysteries. Since our son is a writer, and I do a bit of writing each week, I notice things now that I never paid attention to when I was younger. Conversations with Lowell give me new terminology for parts of the story. 

            For instance, I now know what a MacGuffin is. Do you?
            It is a device whose sole purpose is to move the plot along. A perfect example comes from my favorite TV & Movie world of Star Trek where the famous “tri-corder” turns out to be a macguffin. It is a device that is used to ‘advance the plot’.  

Here’s the Scene: Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy come upon a red-shirted crewmember laying in the dirt.  What will happen next? Well, the good doctor takes his TRICORDER and scans the crew member and says, “He’s dead, Jim.”  … those famous Star Trek words, and the plot takes off to discover the mystery of the death, which inevitably involves plot conflict and a side story where Capt. Kirk gets the girl, Mr. Spock comes to the rescue with his extraordinary intellect and logic, and another galactic war is prevented.
            In scene after scene the tricorder provides this critical function of ‘advancing the plot”. … 
along with my newfound vocabulary, I look at the stories I read from a narrative point-of-view these days. 

I NOW notice when there is extensive dialogue between characters or when the narrator is the one telling the story.
I notice when there is a break in the story line causing me to lose track of the plot- -not a good thing..
I also notice when the author makes a clever turn and catches me with a twist in the action or a surprise ending.

When I read these old, biblical stories, I find the same insights hold true. After all, EXODUS IS THE CENTRAL STORY OF JEWISH LIFE. It is THE central story of Jewish AND Christian faith. While we tend to focus on the sequel of Jesus’ life and how he brought us greater understanding of God’s saving nature, Jesus’ OWN core story, as an observant Jew, was the story of God’s salvation as played out thru the great narrative of the Exodus.

Today’s text is a unique part of that story. It’s a “behind-the-scenes” look at Moses’ journey up the mountain to receive the gift of the God’s Law.

Books and Movies have portrayed this scene in numerous ways. I’m sure you’ve seen some of them. There was Charlton Heston as Moses receiving the 10 commandments & Monty Python’s INFamous Moses, who returns from the mountain, struggling with an arm-load of stone tablets and says, “I bring you God’s 15, -crash, 10 commandments…”

I believe our minds do a better job of imagining than any movie producer can, including Cecil B. DeMille.
--When we read this passage, WE CAN SEE ourselves walking up the mountain with Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel.
--We can FEEL their “fear and trembling” as they rise higher toward the Cloud of Presence that led them across the dessert from Egypt and now covers the top of the mountain.
--We can be amazed that even our imaginations didn’t think of a sapphire pavement for God’s feet. Perhaps the story is reminding us that the elders ONLY saw God’s feet but never his face and YET somehow THEY BEHELD the Glory of God and lived to eat and drink afterwards.
Can you HEAR Moses as he gets called numerous times?
--He advances beyond his companions BUT then he must wait. . . And wait, 6 days but then on the 7th he HEARS God’s voice again.
-Perhaps this was the cycle for the whole 40-days:
God calls, Moses advances, then is commanded to wait another 6 days, and on the 7th, God calls again.

Don’t the symbolic numbers create questions FOR YOU, yet add suspense to the story?
--the 7 day cycle sounds like the 7 days of creation,
--the 40 days on the mountain equals the length of one generation and reminds us of the 40 years the Israelites WILL continue to wander.

And I even try to picture the appearance of the glory of the LORD, which they saw like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. 

This chapter makes the OLD, OLD story of EXODUS come alive for us because we can see behind-the-scenes  - while the rest of Israel waits down below.
They only see Moses enter the cloud and then - THEY – must –  wait. This is a different POV than we usually have in Bible stories that tell only one-side of the story. This one is an insider scoop, a behind the scenes look that allows US to glimpse the Glory of God too. 

It’s a powerful story, that even scholarly analysis can’t dim. Scholars note that two ancient traditions seem to be blended in this chapter; the Priestly strain and the Yawhist strain. Which may explain some of the discrepancies and irregular time-line.
But we needn’t plot the hour-by hour events to be amazed at a story where people SEE God and we can admire the way Moses’ journey up the mountain, ‘advances the plot.’

Of course, our point of view isn’t detached from the human emotion embedded in the story. Most of us remember that there is another ‘behind the scenes’ view  -
that is, ‘what is happening down below’ in Israel’s camp during the 40-days.
If you haven’t read it in awhile, pick up chapter 32 this afternoon and read into the next scene where the people convince Aaron to take their gold and make them an image to worship while Moses is so-long gone.

The whole narrative of EXODUS tells a story that is repeated again and again in Israel’s journey and in our own – that of faith and faithlessness, denial and redemption. These experiences and emotions are the real action that draws us in and helps us realize WE ARE PART of this story.

We know (from ch. 32) when Israel responds to Moses’ absence with confusion, anxiety and impatience[i], --even tho they KNOW Moses is with God, -- the adventure ‘turns out poorly’.
Israel’s reactions mirror our own when our personal story finds us waiting on God, and God feels too-long-gone.

When Israel turns away from God in the 40 days and reaches for more instantly gratifying objects to worship[ii], we realize how often we have done the same. . .
So this is a story for us to seek answers and when we look, find that..
Israel got  distracted from the plot. (lost the plot line of God’s story)
As soon as Moses was gone, they forgot the main story of God’s redemption and salvation. AND why does God stay with them, even when they repeatedly reject the Holy One? Because God is faithful to the covenant promise. God is faithful when people are not.

WE find ourselves in this story at numerous times in our lives.
We may be walking up the mountain one day with Moses’ feeling like we are right up there with God, then another day, -- when we feel like we haven’t seen God in an eternity- -We start melting down our gold to make a convenient idol. Soon we are devoting our time and energy to a new god, one can see because we made it ourselves.

Slowly WE LOSE THE PLOT LINE. We get distracted and impatient and we forget God’s covenant. We forget God’s promise & presence exists beyond the pages of Bible stories and is HERE, always available to us. And We forget that WE have a ROLE in advancing the plot. . . .

We naturally look to the NEW MOSES, Jesus, for assistance in navigating the storyline of our lives because God’s covenant was renewed in him. His life gave NEW LIFE to the story of God’s salvation. In him WE glimpse the Glory of God.

We find is that Jesus never lost sight of the plot. He knew God and he knew humanity. His actions were founded on the promises made by God in the Exodus covenant, and he advanced the plot by taking the old ways of blood oaths and cultic sacrifice to a new place – called Calvary.
And there he showed that faithfulness looks different in HIS story - than we ever imagined.

He knew his actions would tell God’s story louder than any words.
He trusted that if he was obedient to God’s greater intent,(beyond even the details of the law), that God would be faithful, no matter how HIS own story ended.
He reinterpreted living and giving according to the BOUNDLESS love of God.

IN  Jesus’ life we find the plot takes a clever and unexpected twist where death turns into eternal life and love conquers hate. The ‘surprise ending’ turns out not to be an ending at all, but a beginning of a NEW story, -- OURS.

When we follow the Jesus’ WAY, we take on a Divine plotline for OUR story. We are alive – active, vital actors in this world, because the vision of God’s Glory in Jesus is IN US.
In Jesus, we find the strength WE NEED to advance the plot of the on-going story of God’s Salvation.

[i] Erica Brown Wood Feasting on the Word Yr A, Bartlett & Taylor, eds.  Homiletical (Louisville: WJK, 2010) p. 439
[ii] feasting ibid

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