THE LORD IS MY BANNER
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A few weeks ago we heard this quote – “God will always be there for his people, in a distant Egypt too, even if that divine presence is questioned and imperceptible. He will always be whoever his people need him to be at any given moment, in any given place. If they need a deliverer, that’s YHWH. If they need grace and mercy and forgiveness, that’s YHWH. If they need purifying and empowerment, that’s YHWH. If they need rebuke and chastisement, that’s YHWH. For God is an ‘I-will-be-what-I-will-be’ God and an ‘I-will-be-what-I-need-to-be-for-you’ God.”
The people of Israel are on the move now. They’re in the wilderness. A place where we can no longer depend on our own resources. A place in which changes happen – a place in which God changes us. We have also heard the church compared to a caravan. “A group of people banded together to make a common cause in seeking a common destination, following the dream, pursuing the ‘pillar of cloud by day )and the pillar of fire by night.” This is the situation that the church finds itself in – a journey between the times as we live and move in this space in which the Kingdom of God is here and is at the same time not yet. A post-resurrection post-deliverance time in which we await Christ’s return. A time in which we follow the dream, and ask God to create in us an awareness of and thirst for the divine dream.
Which is life? Which is grace? Which is mercy? Which is justice? Which is love? Which is life?
In the midst of this journey, God has promised to be what God needs to be for us. In last week’s story, we heard about God bringing provision. Bitter waters were made sweet. After that we have God providing food – quail, and manna, which would sustain the people of Israel. God has shown himself to be a provider.
In this week’s story, we have God being a protector. The first of only two battle that the Israelites will face in the Pentateuch. They had come out of Egypt, we read in 13:18, prepared for battle. They find themselves in a battle with forces that are working against what God wills for us – life and blessing. They are in a battle with forces that deal in death. The situation is spelled out quite matter of factly in the first verse of our passage – “Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” Don’t think that God had anything inherently against the Amalekites, any more than he had anything against the Egyptians. In Isaiah 19:20 we read about God delivering the Egyptians much like he delivered the people of Israel. The descendants of Amalek are representative of forces that would thwart God’s re-creative purposes. One writer puts it like this – “Once again God’s new creation is threatened. Pharaoh may be dead, but Israel is not thereby forever free from such chaotic powers embodied in historical enemies.”
As followers of Christ, we are in a fight. We need protection. Pharoah may be dead but the forces of chaos are all around us. Satan’s head may be crushed and Christ’s heel bruised but the devil still goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. The question is “From what exactly are we in need of protection? Who is our enemy?” It’s vital to remember friends that our enemy is not people. Our enemies are the powers and the principalities – the forces of death and chaos whose work we see throughout our world. Our enemies are not people who disagree with us. There is far too much of this thinking in our world today. “You disagree with me, therefore, I don’t like you” or “You disagree with me, therefore, you’re stupid” or taken to the extreme case “You disagree with me so I should kill you.” As Christians, our enemies are never people. We are in a fight against the powers and principalities. We are in a fight against forces that would work against God and against God’s purposes. In the midst of this fight, we must remember that our fight is never against people. In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller reminds us that our fight is not against people but that as followers of Christ we battle “poverty and hate and injustice and the powers of darkness.” Powers that deal in death and chaos. Powers that are represented here by the Amalekites. Listen to how their actions are described in Deut 25:17-18 – “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God.”
There is danger in the wilderness. We are in need of protection. The world is messed up. No matter what your faith position, this is a generally accepted truth. The world is messed up. As a character in a novel, I read recently responded to this – “We have no other world to live in.” The question becomes “To whom do we look.” Who is with us in the messed-upedness? This is the question that comes before this story which is about water from the rock at Rephidim. It’s in verse 7. “He called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord with us or not?’” This is the question of the story. One of the questions of our lives. You may be saying “We’re followers of Christ, of course, we believe that the Lord is with us!” The question is do we act like it. How does this belief play out in our lives?
Moses knows what to do. There is a great interplay here between Moses and the people of Israel and God in terms of how everyone is involved. As one writer puts it, “Trustworthy human leadership and active community defense will be needed to join with the divine will in the elimination of such an evil threat. “ Trustworthy human leadership and active community defense joining with the will of God. “Choose some men to fight for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Moses had been told explicitly by God in the episode of the water preceding this story what to do with the staff. He asks God “What shall I do with these people, they are almost ready to stone me.” God tells him “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.”
There is no asking on Moses’ part here. He directs Joshua – mentioned for the first time here by the way – and goes up the mountain with Aaron, with Hur, and with the staff of God. What a great picture. Moses standing there with the staff upraised. The battle being a protracted one, it ebbs and flows. When Moses has the staff raised the Israelites are prevailing, when he lowers it, the Amalekites gain the upper hand. When Moses becomes too tired to stand with the staff upraised, Aaron and Hur bring him a stone to sit on. When his arms become too weary to hold the staff up, Aaron and Hur hold up his hands. They do this until the sun sets and the battle is won.
Let us look at what they are doing up there first of all. Many interpreters, teachers, and preachers have looked on what Moses is doing as intercessory prayer. The thing is the story doesn’t explicitly state that Moses, Aaron, and Hur are praying. One commentator puts the questions like this – “So if Moses is not praying, what is he doing? Symbolically and silently declaring victory over the Amalekites? Directing the forces above against the Amalekites, as Joshua is directing the forces below? Providing inspiration and stimulation to his fighting troops? Plugging into heaven’s power and resources (which is what one does when praying)?” I think there may be elements of all these things in the actions of Moses and his helpers. I believe that what the upraised staff of God represents is dependence on God. One Jewish writing put it like this – “Every time the Israelites were directing their thoughts upward and keeping their hearts subject to the Father, who is in heaven, they were prevailing, but if they did not, they were failing.” This is the part that we have to play. An invitation to say along with a later Israelite king who faced an existential threat “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” While prayer is not explicitly mentioned in this passage, there is no doubt that prayer is one of the ways in which we keep our eyes on God.
Often people see prayer as a last resort rather than the most important thing we could be doing. Have you ever said or heard someone say “Well I can only pray?” as if “only” praying were not the most vital thing, the needful thing? To live in a posture of prayer is to join our hands with God’s hand. To live in a posture of prayer is to join hands with one another – something we often do quite literally when we’re praying.
The other thing to note about what is going on top of this mountain is the role that Aaron and Hur are playing. We do this Christ-following life, this caravan journey through the wilderness together. We should in no way be thinking of Lone Ranger Christianity, not even for leaders (maybe especially not for leaders). Aaron and Hur found a seat for Moses when he could no longer stand. I can imagine Moses telling them “I can’t do this any longer. I’m tired.” Aaron and Hur would support his hands. They would hold up Moses’ hands. “I can’t hold up the staff anymore.” “Let us help you.” What a beautiful image of living the Christian life together. The word for “support” in the Greek version of the OT is the same word used in places like Luke 22:32, Acts 18:23, 1 Thess 3:2. We are to strengthen and encourage one another with our presence, with our prayers. We’re to share when we feel we can no longer stand, no longer hold the staff of God up. Remember how we talked about God “remembering” us as meaning being present and active for us. We are to be present and active for one another. We get tired sometimes. We get discouraged. Pray for your church leaders, let them know you are praying for them. This was visible support they were providing, visible encouragement at the top of the mountain in the daylight where they could be seen. It was a reminder for those below that Moses, Aaron and Hur were confident in the God to whom they were looking. It was a reminder that this confidence was not misplaced – that our confidence in God is not misplaced.
We need to be present and active for one another in this. We need to be reminding one another about this. Do you ever feel that you can’t pray? Have you ever felt that? We can say “Holy Spirit take over for me” not in a flippant “Jesus take the wheel” way but in an “I don’t know what’s going on right now and I need you to pray for me with sighs/moans too deep for words.” We can do that. We also pray for each other. When you can’t pray, let me pray for you. When I can’t pray, pray for me. A dear friend told us a story in a Bible study recently. A friend of hers who is part of a choral group told the group about a medical emergency she had recently undergone. An emergency that was not yet resolved – things were uncertain, up in the air. The friend talked about how her faith had been shaken. How she was unable to even pray. These admissions could have been met with horror and disbelief – “What do you mean your faith has been shaken! What kind of Christian are you that you feel you can’t even pray!” That’s the way things could have gone. Instead, the woman was told this “We’ll pray for you.” When you’re unable to pray, tired, discouraged, we’ll hold you up. We’ll find a place for you to sit and hold your hands up.
The battle is won. An altar is built called “The Lord is my banner.” Banners were the things ancient armies rallied around. They showed you where to go, whom to follow, whom to rally around. Visible symbols. Same thing today. We hang banners in our arenas and stadiums to remind us of past victories. Joshua will build an altar later called “The Lord is Peace.” A reminder that is the LORD who protects. When you need a protector, that’s YHWH. “Write this down,” says God. The first time in the Bible that anyone mentions writing anything. “I’ll blot out the memory of the Amalekites.” Evil, in other words, will not stand forever. Evil will not win the day. The battle will ebb and flow most definitely. It’s not over. Christ has won the victory. Christ will win the victory. In the meantime, we are called to look to him. To remember as we go through this wilderness and face the dangers that we face that He is our protector. May God make these truths ever clearer to our hearts.