March 11, 2018

Lifted Up

Lena Paahlsson’s wedding ring was designed especially for her.  It was a white-gold band, set with seven small diamonds, and, as most wedding rings are, full of sentimental value.

Paahlsson lost her ring, however, in 1995, on a winter morning when she and her daughters were doing some Christmas baking in the kitchen.  It seems she took the ring off her hand and put it somewhere on the work surface, but it disappeared. No matter how hard she looked, she could not find the ring. She and her family did everything they could think of—even pulled up flooring—to try to find it.

You may know this story: It was not until 16 years later when Mrs. Paahlsson was pulling up carrots in her garden that she noticed a carrot growing with the gold band fastened tightly around it. It was her wedding ring.

She doesn’t know exactly what happened, but she thinks maybe the ring fell into a sink back in 1995 and was lost in vegetable peelings that were turned into compost or fed to their sheep.  When asked if she was surprised to find the ring, Paahlsson said: “I had given up hope.”

Stories like this make the news because we all know what it’s like to wait and hope and wait some more, then finally give up hope.

As it is true for us, so it was with the Israelites. While they’d believed God’s promise and followed God out of Egypt, forty years had passed and they had given up hope. Despite the evidence of God’s provision all around them, they were tired and they no longer believed that the promise would come.

Today we read one chapter in the long tale of the relationship between God and the Israelites. This story of the covenant between God and God’s people comes after times when they were desperately thirsty, lost in the desert and sure they would die, only to be saved by God’s provision of water.

Covenant, the making and keeping of promises, is based on, of course, relationship—a mutual sharing of life and trust with another, the belief, even in times of discouragement and pain, that a promise has been made and that promise would be kept, and the practice of believing in the promise even when all evidence points to the contrary. God was in covenant with the Israelite people. They had made promises to each other.  And in today’s passage they are, once again, living through a testing of those promises.

It’s tricky for us to read the Bible as we do—one passage here, one passage there, all carefully selected and organized according to theme. When we do that, it’s like sitting in a little café, out on the sidewalk, listening to someone talk on a telephone. By listening to the conversation we certainly can get some sense of what’s going on. However, we can never get the whole picture, the full details, if we only hear part of the conversation.

And so it is with reading the Bible—the Hebrew text telling of God’s relationship with the people, of all the dramatic incidents that made up their life together. One commentator calls it the story of Israel’s long, hazardous journey to understand God. Each week as we hear parts of the story, little pieces of the whole, we have some sense of what’s going on but not the whole picture. And that’s certainly true of today’s story. You recall what happened.

It seems the people are headed back toward the Red Sea in this part of the story. The text says they had grown impatient with Moses and angry at God. They complained by asking why God had taken them out of Egypt in the first place … just so they could die out in the desert. For there was no food and no water, they complained.

It seems that getting used to desert living was proving hard for them.

They’d had trouble at the beginning of their journey, but it seems the hard lessons of life as followers of God had yet to sink into their hard heads … either that, or they were tired, so tired, of waiting for the promise to come.

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I, on a few occasions, went back country skiing on Loveland Pass in Colorado. We would park in the lot at the top of the pass, put on our gear and our skis and then head off down the mountain.

We planned our ski route so that we would eventually end up on the road at the bottom of the pass. Kicking off our skis, we would then stand on the side of the road, with our arms outstretched and our thumbs up, waiting for a fellow skier to give us a ride back up to the top of the pass.

This whole experience was either sheer stupidity or an exercise in trust. We would leave our car at the top of the pass, hoping and trusting that we would find a way back to the top.

It didn’t always work out the way we had planned it would. Usually a truck would pull up, we would jump in the back, and we would head back up the pass.

Living in covenant with God is filled with waiting but it’s also filled with trusting.  We don’t always see the promise laid out in front of us, neatly packaged and on a mutually agreeable timeframe; what we expect doesn’t always show up when we want it.  No, instead, living in covenant with the eternal God means often being tempted to give up hope up. On the days that we don’t throw in the towel altogether, you can manage somehow to lean back in a trust that defies logic, to rest with the tenacious assurance that God will not leave, that the covenant promise will come to be.

Forty years had passed.  Forty years since they’d set out with a certain degree of terror and uncertainty, toward the incomprehensible situation they faced, straight through the middle of the fear that surrounded them, with nothing to hang onto, nothing to buoy them in the middle of the dessert, nothing to keep them going except the promise.

But it was taking too long. They’d leaned into the promise that God had made them when they were slaves in Egypt; they’d hung on for dear life through all sorts of situations.  But they got tired.  The promise wasn’t coming to be fast enough.  They were getting worried and sometimes they didn’t believe anymore.

But God did show up again to heal them.  They were in desperate circumstances yet again, unsure of the promise of God altogether, doubting their own logic and wondering when, if ever, they would see the promise come to be.  And God showed up.

It was shortly after today’s Hebrew text that the Israelites made their way into Canaan, into the Promised Land, home.  For so many years they had wandered the desert, and in those years of darkness, misdirection, and pain, they had begun to see only the difficult circumstances that surrounded them.  They did not remember the promise.  They forgot they were living in covenant.  They did not have the courage to believe.

And who can blame them?  We know a little of what they must have been feeling.

None of us has been delivered from slavery, but all of us have been delivered from something.

As far as I know, none of us has ever been lost in the desert for forty years, but all of us have waited for a promise to come to fruition.

And none of us has ever been named a special nation chosen by God, but all of us have been invited into covenant with God through Jesus Christ.

Our challenge today is to consider, in the face of all of this, whether we will believe that the promise will come to be.

Thousands of years after the Hebrews had these problems with snakes, Jesus Christ came to earth.  He talked about life lived in relationship with God.  He taught about God’s relentless concern for our salvation.  He told stories about God as a great shepherd who cared tenderly for his flock.  He said that God the shepherd would carefully count all of his sheep and, upon finding one was missing, he would go out and search and search and search until he found that one lost sheep.  And when he did, he would hoist it up on his shoulders and carry it home.

Today the story of the Hebrews and the Gospel of John remind us that it is in just these most desperate circumstances that God does, finally, show up.  The God of the covenant will not leave us, no matter how bleak our circumstances.  We are not left on our own, and we are not left to our own devices.  God will save us: the promise is on its way.

Amen.