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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/14/2020

The story of the exodus and the delivery of the people of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land is perhaps the central memory for Jewish people from ancient times all the way down to the present. You could say that they never got over it; they never got over the wonder of it. The events around the exodus are recalled throughout the Bible in foundational statements of belief in Deuteronomy and Joshua, in prophetic sayings from Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and others, many of the Psalms reference the Lord’s action in delivering the people. When Jews celebrate Passover, these are the events that they recall.

It’s not just a story for Jewish people though as for Christians it very much sets the stage for the Good News of the New Testament that centers on Jesus and another kind of delivery from slavery into freedom. The exodus is a great story, one that anyone who has attended Sunday School is at least loosely familiar with as parts of it show up in pretty much every curriculum. It actually goes back to the story of Joseph and his brothers when Joseph of the coat of many colors was sold by his brothers to the Egyptians but then wound up being second in command to Pharaoh because of his ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh and thus enable Egypt to plan for and survive a famine.

But…a key verse at the beginning of the book of Exodus says that, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.” Afraid that the Israelite people were becoming more numerous than the Egyptians, this new king, this new Pharaoh, made slaves of them and plotted to reduce the population by having any boy born to a Hebrew woman killed. From that we get the story of baby Moses who was hidden by his mother in a basket among the reeds along the river, but was then found and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and then raised as part of the household of Pharaoh with Moses’ mother as his nursemaid, although the Egyptians didn’t know it was his mother.

All was well until Moses grew up and became aware of the labor forced on the Hebrew people, his people. Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of Moses kinfolk, Moses killed the Egyptian. When Pharaoh found out, he wanted to kill Moses, so Moses fled from Egypt and hid in the land of Midian, until…the people in slavery called out to God. In another key verse, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” God heard, God remembered, God took notice.

That sets the stage for the call of Moses and his return as God’s agent in delivering the people from slavery. You get the back and forth negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh, the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the wilderness wandering. It’s a long story, longer than it needs to be perhaps, but its length is a reminder to the people that this was no easy thing, not something to take for granted. That brings us to today’s part of the story, with the people having reached Mt. Sinai on their way to the Promised Land.

With the people camped at the foot of the mountain, Moses went up to God and God called to him from the mountain, starting with a reminder, a reminder of what God had already done in getting the people out of Egypt. He used the image of eagles’ wings, “How I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” God as a parental eagle protecting its young isn’t one of the most common images of God but it does show up in a few places. It is an evocative image, especially for those of us blessed to live in a place where we can see eagles in the wild and get a sense of their power and majesty. Here though it’s not just power and majesty, it’s power and majesty for the sake of protection, specifically protecting the eagle’s young from danger and isn’t that how we like to picture God, protecting us from danger? So it’s both a majestic and a comforting image.

From the Lord there is also a reminder of relationship: “You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples; you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” With that announcement though, there is also the big IF: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant.” In other words, the announcement of the relationship comes with conditions; obedience is a pre-requisite. What’s interesting and a little bit humorous in this text is that when Moses tells the people what the Lord said, they agree to it without questioning or bargaining, saying “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do.” They agree to the conditions without even knowing what they are, those conditions being the Ten Commandments which Moses will receive in the next chapter.

As Lutherans though, we hang our hat on the gospel good news of God’s unconditional, undeserved grace, grace that has no IF attached. So, what do we do with this IF spoken by the Lord on Mt. Sinai? For one thing, we take it very seriously, understanding it in the context of Luther’s doctrine of law and gospel, doctrine that says that the gospel doesn’t make the law irrelevant. We are bound by God’s demands, bound by God’s IF, even though we know that we can’t do it. We’re not going to join the people of Israel in saying, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do,” because we know what comes in the next chapter. We know this, but we also know the paradoxical truth of the gospel that has no IF. So, we don’t despair over our inability to fulfill the law; instead, in faith, we let it lead us to the unconditional grace of the gospel.

The tension between conditional and unconditional covenants is built into the Bible itself. In the Old Testament there are three major covenants; there’s this bilateral one with Moses which includes conditions, expectations, the IF of “if you obey.” Then there’s the other two, one with Abraham about land and offspring and one with David about a dynasty that will continue, both of which are unconditional; they’re unilateral, covenants based only on God’s commitment, what in Lutheran terms we call “grace alone.” So you ask, “Which is it? Conditional and bilateral or unconditional and unilateral?”

If you’re looking for a simplistic, easy to understand God, I’m afraid that’s not what the Bible gives you. The same God who can make impossible to obey demands can also be graciously accepting. The same God who is fully for us, can also be self-absorbed expecting and wanting glory and praise. The same God who we don’t dare approach or get too close to, is closer to us than our own breath.

If you’re looking for absolute certainty about God, that’s not what the Bible gives you. Instead you get a God who invites you into a relationship that is complicated, both gracious and demanding. It’s a God who invites you into a life of faith, not certitude, faith that is always probing and questioning, navigating between the freedom of grace and the demands of obedience. As Martin Luther famously put it, “A Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The two statements appear to be contradictory, but that’s the tension in which we live. For Lutherans, living in that tension perhaps, at least in part, defines what it means to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

Today’s second reading comes from the book of Romans as we begin a semi-continuous series of readings from Romans that will take us through the summer into September. While Romans is perhaps the most important of Paul’s letters and while I’m quite that sure I’ll have some things to say about it in the coming weeks, today the second reading really should come from First Peter, chapter 2, verse 9, a verse that revisits what was said in Exodus: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Living in the tension of grace and obedience, the tension of perfectly free, subject to none and dutiful servant, subject to all is part of being a member of a royal priesthood, a member of God’s own people; but there’s also a mission, that being to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. It’s not really an IF. In First Peter the relationship doesn’t depend on being obedient as was the case in Exodus; but it is a call to action, one that each of us is called to respond to in our own way as perfectly free but dutiful servants.

I’ve mentioned that in these past months I’ve had time to revisit some of Luther’s writings. It’s interesting that while he can come across as arrogant and obnoxious and absolutely sure of himself, his theology is largely based on living with the uncertainty of paradox, whether it’s law and gospel, or simultaneously being saints and sinners, or being both lord and servant or dealing with a God who is both revealed and hidden, perfectly just but also perfectly merciful. There’s more and there’s not a whole lot of certainty in any of it but the result is a journey of faith that might be frustrating at times, but which is also endlessly fascinating and endlessly rewarding as we deal with a God who…despite all the paradox…we, in faith believe, is endlessly for us.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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