Exodus 3:1-15+Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c+Romans 12:9-21+Matthew 16:21-28
When last we saw Moses, he was a baby, pulled from the Nile River by pharaoh’s daughter and destined to be raised in pharaoh’s household. Between then and this week’s reading from the beginning of the third chapter of Exodus, Moses has grown up and, somehow understanding that he belonged to the Hebrews rather than the Egyptians, he killed an Egyptian overseer for beating one of the enslaved Hebrews. When it became clear that there were witnesses to this deed and an infuriated pharaoh learned of it, Moses fled for his life.
Moses went a long way, across the Sinai Peninsula to the region known as Midian which is in modern day Saudi Arabia and southern Jordan. When he arrives, he meets a group of women at a well – sound familiar? – and is invited back to their father’s house. Moses marries Zipporah, one of the daughters, and has a son.
Chapter two ends with the death of pharaoh and the cries of the people to be delivered from slavery. Their cries remind God of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, our texts tells us, “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:25). And this brings us to today, when God appears to Moses in a burning bush and tells him that he is to go to pharaoh and tell him to let the people go.
This is one of the most famous theophanies, or appearances of God to humans, in the bible. The bush that burns but is not burnt up, God promising the Hebrews a land flowing with milk and honey and saying to Moses that God’s name is “I Am.” This holy ground, Mount Sinai (or Horeb in Hebrew) will later be the site of the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments. It will thunder and shake at the presence of God, instilling fear in the newly freed Hebrews. But for now, it’s just God and Moses who is not at all sure that he is up to the task.
Simon Peter is not so sure he’s up to the task, either. He’s just been give the keys to the kingdom for his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, but it’s clear pretty quickly that what he thinks is happening here is not really what is happening. Even after all of this time wandering around Galilee with Jesus and his companions, the mass feedings and miraculous healings, the Sermon on the Mount with lofty words about loving enemies and praying for persecutors – even after all of that, Peter and his friends think Jesus is going to inaugurate God’s reign in some kind of bloodless revolution.
So when Jesus tells him that he is going to suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities, Peter doesn’t want to hear about it. He rebukes Jesus. Knock it off! Stop saying such things! And Jesus rebukes him right back. “Get behind me Satan.” He calls him Satan, the Tempter. Sure, in all his divinity, his identity as God, Jesus could have brought in God’s reign with power and might. But that isn’t God’s way. That isn’t Jesus’s way. And Jesus won’t abide Peter trying to persuade him otherwise.
Because the way of God is the way of the cross. The way to redemption is to be willing to turn your life over, to lose your life for the sake of the gospel. To give up your life for the sake of all. To do what you need to do for the benefit of others even if it doesn’t suit you or isn’t convenient for you or you think it unnecessary. What good is it if you gain the world but forfeit your life? Or in saving your own life, forfeit the life of your neighbor?
No, this isn’t what Peter signed up for, and we know that for sure when he denies even knowing Jesus, not once but three times, following his arrest.
Had God willed it, the Hebrew people could have been freed without any human involvement at all. Had God willed it, Jesus could have toppled the empire and broken the yoke of oppression for the people of Palestine. If God willed it, our world and all of its inhabitants could be restored in their created and divine image.
So why doesn’t God will it? Why do people suffer? Why do children get locked in cages and refugees drown crossing treacherous waters and families struggle with violence and addiction and racists and white supremacist continue to wreak havoc on Black and brown people? Why?
If God is so darn good, why is there so much pain in the world?
God could have freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, but God said to Moses, “You go tell old pharaoh to let my people go.”
God could have spared Jesus the crucifixion, but then the risen Christ could not have sent the apostles out to make disciples of the nations.
God makes promises and then delegates the execution to us.
Poverty? Our job.
Violence? Our job.
Creation care? Our job.
Racism? Our job.
War? Our job.
And though God gives us the job of making real God’s promises, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus tell us that we never do it alone. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us always, with “power working in us” that “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” as it says in Ephesians (3:20).
There’s one other significant part in our reading from Exodus. It was when the cry of the people went up that God acted. We know that God knows our needs and desires before we ask, but sometimes it’s in the asking, in the pleading and the praying, that God empowers us to move. So lift your voice to God. Pray for the world you wish to see around you. And then maybe you’ll find your voice like Moses, and maybe you’ll understand better like Peter just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
God has made promises to us. Now we get to help bring them to fulfillment.