Every country develops national legends. Ancient Romans claimed descent from twin brothers nursed by a she-wolf. Japan’s emperors trace their line back to a child of a sun goddess. We Americans… well, we’ve heard the stories of the steadfast Mayflower colonists, of young George Washington who could not tell a lie after cutting a cherry tree, of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, of pioneering Davy Crockett who killed him a bear when he was only three. National legends like these? It doesn’t really matter whether they’re true or false. Of the four American stories I shared, two were true—Paul Revere’s ride and Plymouth’s settlers—and two likely are fictional—Washington’s cherry tree and baby Crockett’s bear fight. Because with national legends, the point is less about what did or did not happen… and more what the stories say about that nation’s people, their identity, the ideals they strive for. Taking America for instance, our national legends highlight honesty, bravery, and self-sufficiently, which are indeed the virtues we hold above other ideals. That’s the purpose of national legends, whether historic or fictional. They teach a nation’s ideals, whether pioneer stories teaching Americans to be self-reliant… or she-wolf-raised kings telling ancient Romans to be fierce warriors. National stories teach ethics.
And the national story of ancient Israel, the history you’ll see come up over and over again across the Bible ever after, the story every subsequent Biblical character would have used to understand themselves, their ideals, and their place in the world… is the story of Exodus. Here’s Exodus in brief. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God used Moses to miraculously free them. The Israelites fled into the desert, where God provided food, water, and protection. To turn this ragtag band of escaped slaves into a new nation, God gave laws and a promise to the Israelites. If they followed his commandments, they would be his specially chosen nation. The Israelites then immediately break this promise. So instead of settling into their new homeland right away, the Israelites wander the desert for forty years. God uses this time like a spiritual training montage, reshaping them from faithless slaves into a powerful nation that trusts and follows God. This… was THE story of ancient Israel. American kids grow up hearing about Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross. Bible characters grew up hearing about Moses and Miriam. Exodus was the lens through which all subsequent Biblical characters saw themselves and the world.
Today is our third week exploring the New Testament’s letter to the Hebrews. These opening chapters are like a pro wrestling special, where Jesus is the reigning champ taking all challengers for the title of greatest-Biblical-character-ever. In chapters 1 and 2, Hebrews showed Jesus to be vastly superior to angels, the greatest spiritual creatures in the Bible. Now in chapter 3, Hebrews has Jesus battle a new contender: Moses, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament and the founder of ancient Judaism. Hebrews 3 will take Moses’ Exodus story—again, the national story of ancient Israel—and redefine it around Jesus so that everyone, not just ancient Israelites are part of this saga of desert wanderings. So let’s dive in…
John F. Kennedy once told a delegation of Nobel prize winners at a White House dinner, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House… with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Moses plays a similar role in the Bible: he is an archetype of faith and wisdom, because Moses gave Israel its laws and guided it through its most dangerous days. But comparing Moses to Jesus, Hebrews notes that—while the Old Testament says Moses was “faithful in all God’s house,” most faithful among believers, the ideal to strive for—still Jesus deserves more glory because, as God incarnate, Jesus built the entire house of faith, Moses included! While the Old Testament says Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house… Hebrews notes that Jesus is a faithful Son over God’s house, a far loftier title. So to its early Christian readers who had converted from Judaism and were tempted to convert back to it... Hebrews admits that Moses is a great role model but then says we now have a greater example in Jesus, who not only built our house of faith but is Lord over it forever. Moses was an exemplar of Biblical wisdom and piety, the ideal to strive for, the mortal hero of ancient Israel’s most pivotal national story. But now Hebrews invites us to make Jesus the true hero of our national story as believers, the center of our self-understanding, the example of faith and wisdom to imitate.
So if Moses is the original hero of Exodus—and we’re supposed to see Jesus as the hero instead—who or what is the villain? If Moses was ancient Israel’s Thomas Jefferson, who’s the Benedict Arnold, both in Exodus initially and in Hebrews’ reimagining of it? Well, Exodus’ initial villain is pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt who refused to release the Israelites from slavery. But Hebrews doesn’t mention pharaoh here. Instead, Hebrews points to the danger of Exodus as “hardened hearts.” So is cardiac arrest the big villain? Not quite. When Moses asked pharaoh to let his people go, Exodus says pharaoh “hardened his heart” against the Israelites. It’s like pharaoh removes his human heart capable of love and compassion and replaced it with a dead, hardened rock… so that he would be able to keep enslaving God’s people. But Hebrews ignores pharaoh for now and instead quotes Psalm 95, which says the Israelites in the desert “hardened their hearts” against God! So it seems like, at least for the purpose of chapter 3’s analogy, Hebrews shows the big villain of Exodus isn’t the man pharaoh but the spiritual condition of hard-heartedness. And so Hebrews cautions you and me to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Pharaoh’s danger was hard-hearted cruelty. The wandering Israelite’s danger was hard-hearted distrust of God. Our danger today… is hard-heartedness too, in all its forms. Sure, a rocky heart protects you from heartbreak and lets you feel superior to the people you write off… but it gives you that feeling only by killing what made your heart alive with love. Hard-heartedness is the danger in the Biblical Exodus that keeps a generation of Israel from the Promised Land, and it is the danger in each of our lives that cuts us off from God… and each other.
Most of all, however, Exodus is a national story about a journey. It was a quick march out of slavery’s physical chains in Egypt… and then a forty-years’ march through the desert out of slavery’s spiritual and mental chains… until at last they reached the Promised Land. This story about roaming the desert, about not fitting in anywhere, about yearning for home… this is the pivotal story in how ancient Israelites understood themselves and their place in the world. It’s why ancient Israelite laws were so unusually kind to foreigners. For instance, looking back at Exodus’ journey, Deuteronomy gives this law: “You shall love the foreigner in your midst, for you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” This story of desert escape and wandering defined ancients Israel’s laws, its ethics, its dreams and fears and ideals. Cruel rulers were compared to pharaoh. Times of religious fasting and repentance were compared to God refining Israel in the desert for forty years, such that forty-days was ever after a sacred number for spiritual retreat in the Bible. Exodus is a truly bizarre national story in this way. Other ancient nations claimed descent from the gods, from mythical Troy, from mighty warriors. Modern America likes to point back to self-reliant pioneers. But ancient Israel’s defining national story… is about escaped slaves lost in the desert, unable to feed themselves, reliant totally on God. This wandering in search of God’s promised rest… was the story every Biblical character afterwards would be raised on like American kids learn about the founding fathers.
And so Hebrews chapter 3 most of all… opens up the Exodus idea of wandering in the wilderness in search of God’s promised rest for us, expands the national story of ancient Israel to be the grand story for each of our lives. Your life on this earth is a journey through the wilderness. Sure, you and I aren’t desert nomads following Moses. Truthfully, these days it’s a big deal just to leave the driveway. But Hebrews says you and I are pilgrims and pioneers, all the same, just like the Israelites wandering after Moses. But instead of marching towards Palestine, the Promised Land we are after is the paradise promised by God through Jesus. As Christians, we are pilgrims in this life, wanderers in this world, people not meant to stay here but with a destiny far beyond these mortal troubles. So, yes, the journey may be difficult at times, whether you’re following Moses from Egypt or just trying to get through life today. But Hebrews reminds us we do not wander aimlessly. We are marching to the Promised Land, so stay true to the path.
As a young child, my family camped in Yosemite national park nearly every summer. Often we would hike the mountain forest trails together as a family. I was seven, so I would zip around the forest path like a bottle rocket… for about five minutes, after which I would unsuccessfully whine about how tired I was. My father camped and backpacked frequently in his youth, so he carried the heaviest pack, gave me advice on how to pace my hiking, and generally formed a kind of know-how bedrock to our family hiking group. My mother was the caregiving center: she made sure we kids didn’t fight too much, that wore our sunscreen and bug spray, were properly hydrated, and so on. But my mother had bad knees back then, so often I had to help her navigate rocky terrain without falling. My sisters were around high school age, so they had energy to carry heavy packs, to scout around for signposts, and generally keep a pep in all our steps. All five of us had to walk the hike ourselves: nobody could walk it for us. It was my feet that took every step. Yet we all had to rely on each other: for directions, for a hand up over rough terrain, for spare granola bars and water, for friendship and conversation to pass the time. As individuals we each walked it, but as a family we walked together in mutual support.
And that is exactly what your Church family is for, sisters and brothers. I cannot walk your journey of faith for you, just as you cannot walk mine. But we can walk side by side, as a family. We can do as Hebrews teaches, “exhort one another every day… so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Like hikers helping each other scramble over rocks, we can give each other a hand when we are tested by the journey, thirsting for hope and relief spiritually just as the Israelites thirsted for water in the desert. When one of us stumbles and falls, we can pick them up and help them “hold firm our confidence in Christ to the end.” Hebrews invites us Christians to re-read the story of Exodus and to understand it as our cosmic story as Christians, for it to become the lens by which we see ourselves, our world, and our following Christ. The danger of hard-heartedness still endangers us along the way, just as it did those ancient Israelites, threatening to tear us apart and deaden the joy we have in God. But instead of Moses as leader and law-giver, you have Jesus the prince of peace and giver of grace. And we have each other to walk alongside, not doing the journey for the others but helping each other at every step and stumble… until our ragtag band of faith at last staggers into God’s heavenly rest, the promised rest Hebrews 3 holds out to us all.
So I invite you to see your life—especially this difficult time when people are dying, jobs are lost, and everyone kept indoors—see your life and this world as a journey through the desert. Despite the temptation to harden our hearts for self-protection, we rely not on our personal strength for this journey but on the grace of God and the love of neighbors. And we march knowing that we have Jesus who has gone ahead of us, as that pioneer and trailblazer of faith that Hebrews 2 celebrated. So see your life as a journey through this world, not a permanent residency, and keep your eyes fixed on the destination, your feet moving, and your hands helping others to join you on the way towards God. Praise God for this calling and understanding. Amen.