• Rev. Izzy Harbin

38 Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; 40 and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.

By chapter 19 of the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel arrive at Mt. Sinai. It is at Mt. Sinai that Moses receives the 10 commandments, the law, and other instructions regarding the building of the temple and the anointing of priests for God’s service to the people. Through each detailed instruction to Moses, God reminds Moses that these laws are to protect the people, to guide the people, and are there for their instruction so that they will not wander off and worship other gods.

After the make-shift temple is constructed and the altar is in place, God reiterates the covenant that God made with Abraham. First, there is the sacrifice of animals (not humans), along with a grain sacrifice (that of choice flour), a small amount of oil (olive oil), and a drink sacrifice (that of new wine). These offerings are to be made morning and night.

Later in the Hebrew Bible one of the prophets calls for an end to all sacrifices proclaiming that God doesn’t want our sacrifice, but rather our hearts.

If we place the progression for spiritual activity into context, God is working with the people to change how they worship and approach God over time. In the beginning, there is the elimination of child sacrifice, which becomes animal sacrifice. By requiring them to engage in this practice two times daily, it develops a habit among the people of praying to God, spending time with God at least two times per day (plus all of the other sacrifices made for all of the special days and holidays). In other words, God his helping the people develop specific worship habits. Eventually, though, God says no more sacrifice other than your whole being. A different kind of human sacrifice. It is almost as if God had to take them full circle in order to figure out that the kind of sacrifice God meant from the beginning was a spiritual one, not a literal one.

By the time we get to the end of this passage, we find the famous words that God used with Abraham, “I will be their God,” words that reflect the promise of the covenant made between God and Abraham.

These words represent a key concept in the ancient world, every people, regardless of origin, had a community God that they worshiped. The Israelites were no exception. Throughout the Biblical text, we see the people of Israel working out for themselves exactly what this “God” represents to them. They go through many iterations from the beginning of the Genesis story, but with each shift or change, it is accompanied by the notion “They will be my people, and I will be their God.”

Our passage today reflects God’s willingness to dwell among the people in a way that the gods of other nations fell short. Most other gods resided at a distance from their people, rarely interacting with those who worshiped them. The God of Abraham, on the other hand, wanted to remain close to the people. Even though we are seeing a distancing in the ways in which God interacts with the people, especially from the time of Adam where they spoke directly with God, to Noah who also spoke directly with God, to now where God must be hidden by a cloud; there is still a desire to be intimate with the people. The creation of the temple allows for that closeness. God is saying to the people, I want to dwell among you.

All of the preparations for the temple were detailed by God to the people so that God could dwell in the Holy of Holies among the people. God wanted to be fully present with them, but also knew that the power of God must be contained in some way so as not to disrupt the fabric of all living things. The Holy of Holies provides this kind of safety much like protecting ourselves for radiation poisoning. Even the vestments of the priests were engineered to certain specifications so that they would be protected. The kind of energy that they would have come in contact with must have been extraordinary.

God’s desire to dwell among them must have been so important that God was willing to risk all of the inherent problems with the Ark of the Covenant and the construction of the temple. When you read through the Book of Exodus, each detail is planned so meticulously that you cannot help but notice the care in which God takes over protecting the people. This is a special bond that God is creating here on earth between God and the people. It isn’t to be taken lightly. But it also cannot last forever.

Over the next several weeks we are going to be looking at this theme, “I will be their God.” We will be exploring the few passages in scripture where God makes this pronouncement and how the people respond to such a statement. With each assertion from God, there is a subtheme that runs through that particular passage.

Week 1 – Dwell Among Them

Week 2 – Return to Them

Week 3 – Restore Them

Week 4 – Promises to Them

Week 5 – The New Covenant

With each of these passages we will see how God is moving us through time from his original covenant with Abraham all the way to the new covenant in Jesus. This movement is critical for our understanding of how God interacts with the people and how God continually reminds the people, “I will be their God.”

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So, no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

What a tale of woe. The story of Joseph is meant to inspire sympathy and maybe empathy for the teenaged brat whom we know as Joseph. Early in this story, we get to know the character of Joseph as one who is arrogant and petulant. We see his brothers tire of his antics, especially that of tattling to their father about their behavior when they are not in the father’s sight. This story has all the makings of a classic Hallmark movie, except you’ll never see brothers conspire to kill their brother or sell them into slavery on the Hallmark channel.

We know the story well. One of Joseph’s brothers figures out a way to spare Joseph’s life by selling him to a caravan headed to Egypt. From there he was sold into slavery. The Pharaoh of Egypt, Potiphar, ends up utilizing Joseph’s divination skills which save many Egyptian lives. Joseph interprets dreams for Potiphar, helps him to see the famine the is coming and helps the Pharaoh prepare for this devastating event. As a result of Joseph’s predictions, Egypt is fairing well during the famine.

When Joseph’s brother come to Egypt to receive food assistance, Joseph’s first response is normal. Like any one of us, he was angry. He even tried to manipulate the situation so that he could exact revenge, but then spared them in the end.

Our passage today finds us with one of our last encounters between Joseph and his brothers. This is the moment of the great reveal. Up until now, the brothers did not recognize Joseph. It wasn’t until the moment he told them who he was that they realized Joseph had been taking care of them all along. Not only did they acknowledge Joseph’s role in saving their lives, but they realized his childhood dreams had come true; he indeed ruled over them, in a manner of speaking.

What happens next, though, is nothing short of a miracle.

Joseph had every right to be angry. He could have easily had all his brothers put to death or thrown in jail. He had power and position in a country that was equipped to do just about anything to maintain order during a wide-spread famine. Joseph didn’t need permission, just will. Yet, Joseph decided, for some reason, not to take that route. Instead, he felt pity for them; pity that then turned into genuine empathy.

Anytime I am struggling with feelings of anger and resentment, especially for things that have happened to me in the past, the story of Joseph is my go-to story. First, I need to know that it is possible to forgive others for the stupid stuff they do. Second, I need to know that I can let all of that stuff go for the sake of my own soul. And third, I need to know that in some cases restoration or reconciliation is actually possible.

Before I go any further, I need to make something clear. There are times when we are hurt by others, absolutely no fault of our own (you can imagine the kinds of things that are going through my mind), where restoration and reconciliation is neither possible nor a healthy option. There are, however, still ways to find forgiveness—not so much for their sake, but for my own.

The devastating fact of holding-on to past hurts is that the holding-on process keeps us tethered to the past in unhealthy ways. We get caught in the crosshairs between wanting justice and needing to forgive. Growing up I was taught that when someone does something wrong, then they must pay the price for their indiscretion. Lying could land you in the bathroom getting your mouth washed out with soap. Not coming home on time might result in being grounded for a month. Sassing or talking back to a parent might be switch worthy—and if you try to run from the sting, you’re only setting yourself up for more “licks”. If we were paddled at school, we could expect a paddling when we got home. And, in our minds, although we didn’t like the consequences of our behavior, we could clearly make the connection between cause and effect. You break the rules, you pay the price.

The price we pay is what we would typically call justice. In order for justice to be fair, all parties involved must be punished equally. Well, if you were raised in a family with more than one child, you know that justice is rarely fair. Younger siblings rarely have to follow the same rules as older siblings and are never punished as severely as the older kids. We’re even told to our faces that its because of their age. And yet, they were old enough to do the deed.

But what about those who do things that intentionally hurt others, like Joseph’s brothers conspiring to sell Joseph into slavery and lying about it to their father? Where is the justice in this scenario?

What Joseph recognizes is that whatever consequences he could impose on his brothers would not make him feel any better about his circumstances. In fact, Joseph completely flips the script by not seeking justice. Rather boldly, Joseph chooses the path of forgiveness. Joseph has this epiphany moment that we all need to be cognizant of; justice can look a lot like revenge, and revenge only creates greater dissonance. When Joseph makes the decision to forgive his brothers, he is choosing the wholeness of his own heart over the fracturing of their previous relationship.

In many ways, what Joseph offers us is a radical idea steeped in love and hospitality. There are times when I don’t want to offer either of these, especially to those who have hurt me in the past. But here’s the thing, if I don’t offer these things, the only person that is affected by all of this is me. In most cases, the ones who hurt me are long gone. I’m the only one carrying the hurt. I’m the one who needs to figure out how to let go of the hurt. I must, yes MUST, replace resentment and anger with love and forgiveness. Then and only then will I truly be free.

What keeps me churning in my soul is my unwillingness to set all that stuff free. Most of the stuff that I hold on to I cannot change. I cannot fix yesterday. It is done and gone. I am never going to get an apology, or even a jail sentence, but what I can get is my own freedom. I can be completely set free from my past by learning to forgive. No matter how big or how small the infraction, no matter how devastating or benign the trauma, I can still learn to forgive. And just like Joseph, it doesn’t happen overnight, but over time. Joseph went through a process after seeing his brothers again for the first time. Still, he refused to let hatred get in the way of his relationship with his family.

In this case, Joseph was no longer afraid of being hurt by his brothers. He wasn’t in any physical danger any more. In fact, Joseph clearly had the upper hand. Safety is important and was the catalyst for his forgiveness. While every situation is unique, God is not calling us to put ourselves in harms way, but rather to forgive when and as often as we can. Those whom you are forgiving may never even know that you have forgiven them. As stated before, forgiveness is what sets our own souls free. What we do notice, though, when we start practicing forgiveness of others, we can see more clearly the need to also seek forgiveness for the crummy things we’ve done to other people.

Phillip Gulley, in his book If Grace is True, says, “I do not know what heaven will be like, but I can imagine at the great banquet that I’ll be seated between Grace Received and Grace Required—the person that hurt me the most and the person I hurt the most—and I’ll know what real grace is in that moment.”

My prayer is that we can all be a little more like Joseph; setting our souls free from all that binds us to yesterday, so that we may walk into tomorrow fully alive to ourselves and others.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

8 Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10 Lot looked about him and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. 11 So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus, they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom.

14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

In our passage for this Sunday, we have another occasion where separation is occurring, this time between Abram and Lot. After spending time in Egypt during one of the many famines that seem to occur during the early history of the Israelite people, Lot and Abram must decide where to settle. Lot, in surveying the land, saw the bounty before him in the plain of Jordan near Sodom and Gomorrah and chose to settle there. Abram settled in the land of Canaan.

While not obvious, this separation sets Abram up for his next encounter with God. When God tells Abram to leave Ur, his homeland, God intends to lead him to a particular destination. Abram, Lot, and others leave Ur of the Chaldeans, their homeland, and intend to go all the way to Canaan but stopped in Haran. We don’t know how long Abram, Lot, and the others were in Haran, but God comes to Abram and says, “Time to go.” Abram and Lot pack up their things and head on to Canaan, their original destination. When they arrived, God told Abram that all that he could see would become a possession for Abram’s people. When famine strikes the land, they traveled down to Egypt. Upon return, Abram and Lot must now divide their households because the land will not support both of them. Without any prodding from Abram, Lot chooses to take the land in the plain of Jordan. God’s plan for Abram is thus fulfilled in that he settles once again in the land of Canaan.

It is critical to know that the land where Abram settles is already occupied. The Canaanites were generous with Abram and allowed him to settle in their land. This was how God intended for it to be. From chapter 11 up to chapter 15 we read about the various movements of Abram and Lot and their families, the famine and retreat to Egypt, the return of Abram and Lot, the settling of Abram and Lot in two different locations, the kidnapping of Lot and his possessions, and how Abram orchestrated a rescue and in the process received a blessing from the King Melchizedek of Salem who met Abram and Lot upon their return saying, “Blessed by Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

It was after this blessing and after everything returned to “normal” that God returned to Abram (in chapter 15) and blessed Abram, made a covenant with Abram, and changed Abram’s name to Abraham.

Why did Abram and Lot need to separate? What is it about this separation that furthers God’s agenda here on earth?

The text is vague, but a careful reading helps us see that each of these men needed to become independent of one another. They each had their own role to play in establishing the people of Israel. Lot’s role would be diminished while Abram’s role would be heightened. It was always about Abram, and Abram’s ability to continue loving God regardless of the circumstances.

At it simplest, the writers of the text portray God as a promise keeper. God told Abram that he would lead him and guide him to a land that would become a perpetual holding for him and his people. He did not promise this to Lot. The covenant God made was with Abram, not Lot. The fulfilment of the covenant comes through Abram’s faithfulness, not Lot’s. Abram consistently chose the path of righteousness, of being in right relationship with God, while Lot was more concerned about physical comfort and gain.

In the one verse that I left out of the passage for this week, it interjects rather abruptly that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked. It might be that this tidbit of information is provided to us as a way of understanding the heart of Lot and his motivations for choosing the plain of the Jordan. Yes, the land was choice land, but why would anyone want to position themselves near a wicked people unless they saw it as an opportunity to grow and prosper among them.

God also uses this separation between Abram and Lot to clearly define their stories as they move in different directions. Abram becomes the father of all nations. Lot’s story takes a dramatic turn when he loses his wife during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and destroys his family unit when his daughters violate their father. We can look at these events and see how Lot’s life takes a dramatic turn from the parallel path of Abram. It is as if we are seeing two halves of the same coin.

The story of Abram is critical to our understanding of our own calling. It isn’t always clear where God is telling us to go, but he has invited us to journey together. We don’t always see a clear path to our future, sometimes we must make pitstops along the way, or journey to another land because of famine. But eventually, God brings us to the place he has called us to reside. God is showing us, even now, that if we are faithful, space will be provided for us. With every step we take, we are following God’s plan for our lives, personally and corporately as a church. These are exciting times. We have been given a unique opportunity to experience God up close and personal through this journey. As we pay attention, listen to God’s call, and follow without hesitation, I believe, just like Abram, we’ll make our way to the promised land.

At the time when Abram is blessed by King Melchizedek, the King of Sodom is also present. Abram, out of generosity to the blessing of King Melchizedek, gives him 10% of all he owns. The King of Sodom wants the people, but not the goods. Recognizing the trap created by the King of Sodom, Abram proclaims, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say ‘ I have made Abram rich.’” Abram was clear he didn’t want to have anything to do with the King of Sodom or anything that was wicked.

The offering he gave to Kick Melchizedek, however, was an offering of good will. King Melchizedek didn’t ask for anything but received a return blessing for his own generosity.

This trait, central to the figure of Abram, is a trait that should be instilled in all of us, that of generosity of spirit. In the ancient world, the idea of sharing of one’s possessions was key to the success of any community. When all shared of their possessions, the whole community thrived. The promise to Abram from God for the possession of land in Canaan wasn’t just about blessing Abram with something that he would keep for himself, but it was about blessing the whole of the community yet to come. The promise, the covenant, made with Abram was about the whole community’s survival and ability to thrive in a foreign land.

There are so many lessons we can take from God’s interactions with Abram. We may not be transporting hundreds of people across the desert with countless livestock and provisions, but we are traveling together toward something new; something important for the life of our whole community. Just as Abram called on the whole community to help rescue Lot from his captors, we call on the whole community to participate in the unfolding of God’s kingdom in our midst. We pray that the whole community of First Congregational Church will be joined together for the promises that God has in store for us.

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