The Cry of the Oppressed
January 11, 2009
Let’s begin this morning’s message by reading together from the Word of God, the book of the Exodus, chapter 3. We are picking up the story of God’s work among the Israelites about 400 some years after the death of Joseph. Moses has been born and he has been living out in the desert, tending sheep, for about 40 years or so. This is where we pick up the story of God shaking Moses’ world, shaking the Israelites’ world, shaking the world of Pharaoh, and shaking the world. Nothing was the same after that encounter; everything changed.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending 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?”
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
A month or so ago, I was in my bed on a Saturday morning, sleeping wonderfully, dreaming, when the phone rang. I rolled over and answered the phone and whose voice did I hear at 8:30 or so but Dana She began by telling me that she was traveling with her husband and reading the paper while she was driving and talking to me on the phone. I asked her to turn down the radio for a minute…
She continued by telling me that she had just read in the paper that the Madison Food Center was losing its free rented space and only had 6 months or so before they had to be out of the Lantern. I was surprised because I, along with Linda, Ellen and my son Jerry, work at the food center and I had heard nothing at all from the directors with whom I am also friends, and who had been at our church a month or so previously to share with us the ministry of the food center.
That was about the extent of the conversation. I called Chris later that morning and eventually, after some phone tag, we talked and she confessed the entire story to me: Dana had told the truth. Thus I became aware of a vast right wing conspiracy to undo our congregation: Here was just the opportunity we had been waiting for. Finally, God was beginning to entrust us with some talents. Finally, we might be able to discover our niche in this community, we might be able to grow, we might be able to minister to hungry people in this community.
“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)
A week or so ago I finished reading a book that I never in a million years thought that I would like just because I have heard ‘things’ about one of the book’s authors and I was sure that he was a heretic and didn’t deserve my time or attention or my $19.99 plus tax and tip. Nevertheless, my wife Renee bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas and I was undone by page one. The book is a scant 181 pages and that is a generous figure given the style of the book. (Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Don Golden)
“Jesus,” the authors write, “Wants to save our church from thinking that the priests are somebody else.” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 178 ) And their point is quite realistic: When the church becomes consumed by an attitude of entitlement, that is, when we start thinking the church is all about us, when we forget that it is all a gift of God’s grace, then we forget that God has not just called us to salvation, but to vocation: “Entitlement leads to immunity to the suffering of others, because ‘I got what I deserve’ and so, apparently, did they.” (125)
In the book, the authors cite some statistics that are rather horrifying and all the worse because they are true. I’ll reference a few:
One Billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred litres of water per day. I have a 40 gallon hot water tank that is emptied at least 4 times a day so that my family can be clean.
Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under the age of five dies of hunger. Americans throw away 14 percent of the food we purchase. I watch the kids at the middle school—some of them get a lunch and dump it in the trash before they sit down.
Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American Dollar a day.
Another 2.5 billion live on less than 2. There an estimated 6 billion people in the world which means that more than half live on less than 2 American dollars per day.
Nearly 1 billion people in the world cannot read or sign their own name.
I don’t tell you these things to make you feel guilty. “Guilt is not going to solve a single one of these problems.” I’m not telling you these things because I think all of you are safe from them. I’m not telling you these things to justify any personal ambition I might have.
I’m telling you these things because these are the very people God means to redeem. These are the people, the undone of this world, that Jesus means to save. Luke 7 gives us a brilliant picture of who Jesus saves:
At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 23Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
I think what he means is this: Blessed are they who don’t fall away on account of me because I am not what they expected. Blessed are they who don’t fall away on account of me because I reach out and save the one’s the world rejects. This Jesus! Here’s what I wrote in a devotional yesterday at my blog:
I think they recognized it too. Consider what they said, “A great prophet has appeared among us. God has come to help his people” (Luke 7:16). Oh, I have heard this before haven’t I? “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of Egyptians and to bring them up…” (Exodus 3:7-8).
This Jesus—I have asked before—what sort of person is he who welcomes in such riff-raff? Won’t they mess up our church? Won’t they break things and get stains on the carpet? What of these blind who see, what if they try to get us seeing the way Jesus has them seeing? What if the deaf try to get us hearing the way Jesus has them hearing? What if the lame try to get us walking the way Jesus has them walking? What if the poor try to make us as rich as Jesus made them? What if the dead try to get us living the way Jesus has them living? “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)
I think we have to seriously ask ourselves: Why am I a Jesus follower? Or, when I followed Jesus, did I count the cost? Or, when Jesus called me, did I leave all behind, take up a cross and follow Him? Or, since he has saved me, what does he expect me to do, to be, and how? Here’s what Peter wrote:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The cry of the oppressed goes up before our God. In the church we have made salvation too personal, too much a transaction between me and God for my sins with the expectation that once my sins are dealt with, that’s quite enough. But he calls us to more! The cry of the oppressed goes up before God and God, blessed Be His Name!, rescues them. He rescued Israel from Egypt and made them into a kingdom and priests so that they in turn might be his servants in the world, his witnesses, his people; and we too. We are those he has called out of darkness, transferred from the dominion of darkness, and into his kingdom of light, to declare his praises.
I believe in my heart that this Madison Food Center is God’s way of showing us our niche in this community. If the current economic crisis this country is facing continues to worsen, people are going to increasingly need food and other real-life supplies. They are going to go somewhere to get them. This opportunity with the Food Center is, in my heart’s belief, God’s way of saying: Here is the community of Madison; minister to it in the name of Jesus; feed it; become a community of priests to the hungry and thirsty and beggars of Madison.
The Food Center directors and board want to be here. This is God’s way of saying, “Be my hands, my feet. Learn from my heart and love this community.” In spite of our smallness, in spite of our struggles, in spite of our history—God is giving us an opportunity to be trusted. The cry of the oppressed has gone up before God; he has heard it; and he has come down in the form of the Body of Christ to help this community. The Scripture declares rather unashamedly that we, the Church are the Body of Christ. God our Father has conscripted us in friendship to be His hands and feet.
The church was never meant to be created or to live in a vacuum. We were meant to live in the world—which is why Jesus prayed specifically that God would not take us out of the world (John 17). Just as God sent Moses to call and witness to Israel, so he calls us to go and witness to this world. But He didn’t call Israel just for salvation. He called them for vocation. That is, He gave them a job to do.
“I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Many of you live each day in that world—I mean the world outside. Renee works at the bank where she has the unenviable task of sometimes telling her customers that they have overdrawn their accounts or that the money they thought they had they don’t.
I work at the school where if I see some kids throw away lunches, I see other kids whose parents cannot buy them a lunch or don’t have enough sense or have too much pride to fill out the free or reduced lunch schedule.
And what of the people who call this very office for food, rent, utilities, etc. It is easy to harden the heart; it’s much more difficult to have your heart broken and sell all you have and give to the poor. It’s easy to make a thousand excuses; it’s much harder to understand why God is moved with compassion to come down and rescue the oppress, to hear their cry, to touch the bier of the dead man and give him back to his mother, to heal the centurion’s servant, to heal the sick, the lame, the blind, and the deaf; to raise the dead. But these are the very things that Jesus did. These are the very things he tells us to do: Go!
Yesterday, I woke up early enough to drive to prayer meeting here at the church building. I worshiped some others in a nice warm room. I went home and ate good food, the kind I like. I had a nice snack later on and spent some money on take-out pizza. I enjoyed cool beverages all day; hot tea for breakfast. I took a hot shower and wrote all day and listened to music. I blogged. I enjoyed my sons, my wife—even my dogs. I slept in a warm bed.
I didn’t go hungry yesterday. I thank God I had enough to have all that I needed and more.
But I’d like to think that if I did have a need there would be a people who were willing to minister to me and my family in the name of Christ.
“Jesus wants to save our church from thinking that the priests are somebody else.”
In other words, he wants us to open our ears to the cry of the oppressed in this community. He hears their cries and chooses someone to send to rescue them. Are we willing to?