Texts: Exodus 19:2-8a; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 – 10:15
For the first three months of privation, it was mostly good. People took the changes, the loss of familiar work routines, lack of access to favorite foods, and separation from familiar haunts pretty well. Of course there were complaints about food shortages, a little chafing under the restrictions of the leading people in whom they’d had to put their trust.
But at just about three months out from Egypt the Israelites arrived at a place wilder and more challenging than anything they’d expected. God called Moses up the mountain and said, For this, you need a whole new mindset. What you had before won’t get you through what lies ahead.
So Moses called the people for a little talk. Saying, God says, IF. When God says IF, it’s a serious matter. The first time it happened in the memory of God’s people, it was between Cain and God who said to him, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Tragically, Cain didn’t take God’s IF to heart. Cain killed his own brother and things didn’t go well for Cain after that.
Now again, God was saying, pay attention, “…I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, IF you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples…you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” So said God to all the people gathered that day standing on the verge of an unknown future.
To which God’s people all said, we’re in! “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” They said this, by the way, before they even knew what the terms of God’s covenant would be.
This pretty much sums up the situation with God and the Israelites some twelve weeks after they’d left Egypt as they paused before entering the wilderness of Sinai. They were a long way from home in every direction. Not able to return to Egypt; still imagining that the Promised Land was just a short hike over the next ridge. How hard could it be to keep God’s covenant?
But the journey was just beginning for God’s people. And where they were going, it would take all their heart, their whole spiritual commitment, and real honest-to-God gut-it-out discipline to fight off the sin that lurked at their door. The same sin that caused Cain to kill his own brother. It’s terrible, that sin which rises out of anger and the desire to possess what someone else has; the sin that comes of doubting that God has enough love for us all; the sin of thinking that God does not claim and love the whole earth and every creature deeply and equally.
Sin is our worst enemy. Sin keeps human communities trapped in the wilderness for endless years. Generations still live and die without now seeing and here knowing God’s full provision and promised life. Sin just never goes away. And the tragedy of it all is how much God’s Holy Spirit is grieved by our failure to listen to God’s word of love and live within God’s covenant.
If you see a parallel in this story of the Israelites and our own story, it’s not just your imagination. We are spiritual sisters and brothers to Cain and Abel; spiritual brothers and sisters to the Israelites in the desert. We also are God’s children for whom, as Paul said, “…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The implication of this is that the weak and ungodly are not some other people. They are us, people trying to be of good faith. The exact same people about whom Paul also said, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Can it be that like the Israelites in the desert, we’ve been a little too quick with our affirmation of “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do”? After all, it wasn’t uninformed Gentiles that Jesus saw harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. It was God’s own people.
So it was exactly there that Jesus first sent the disciples. To God’s tired, overwhelmed children struggling to be faithful to the covenant. Offering a whole new mindset for life.
The Twelve were hardly off the boats, in from the Galilean countryside, or out of the tax business themselves. Yet they were being commissioned and sent on a serious mission with a newly evoked skillset, stripped to such a minimal state that they’d have to enter every town dependent upon the hospitality of strangers. It must have felt, what…awkward? Exposed?
There’s grace here though. Being sent by Jesus, by God, who knows you by name, is different from being sent by some overbearing autocrat. It’s not, hey, you in the blue jacket, go help those messed up people over there. It’s God calling out (fill in your own name here), take a look at what’s happening. Can you do something for me? And if Jesus is truly your brother, whom you love with all your heart, can you really say no?
Long ago through Moses, God reminded the Israelites that they had been borne away from captivity on eagles’ wings. The apostrophe in that word eagles’ isn’t where you think it is. It’s not on the wings of an eagle that God’s people are carried. It’s on eagles’ wings, in the plural.
The call of the disciples was likewise plural. Can it be that the Gospel is saying that the disciples are those eagles’ wings? That the community of faithful people believing in Jesus’s call to serve in total love are God’s glorious wings? Wings upon which suffering, demoralized, tired people are carried away from demons that infect sore hearts and create such deathly illness that we would even kill a sister or brother. It just might be. It just might be.
Yet another element of the story is the worthy people in whose houses God’s servants enter, remain, and take their rest. Who are these? Jesus was confident that the disciples would know. The worthy houses are those who, when you say to them, we come in God’s peace, they reply we receive you in God’s peace. A simple, generous, peaceful welcome that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah were famously unable to offer to God’s messengers and servants.
Jesus sent out those Twelve. Promised them that they wouldn’t even get across all the towns of Galilee before the Son of Man would come. Which indeed happened. The Son of Man came on the third day. Straight out of death. The Risen Lord commissioned many more after that through the Twelve. And to this day the call goes out. Name by name. Listen! Listen God is calling. Through the Word inviting. Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy. Amen!
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.