Intercession, Wangaari Mathai and Moses (Ex. 33)

This is the message I shared with Camas Friends on October 23, 2011

Introduction

Finish this statement: “Intercession is…”

Growing up in the church I was most used to hearing about intercession in the form of prayer, intercessory prayer was kind of like an intervention for a family member but done by means of prayer. And this is clearly one way that we intercede for people.

Here are some other questions we might use to examine intercession in relation to our text:

  • What is intercession in light of this text? And how do Moses & YHWH address it?
  • Do you think there are ways in which intercession is helpful/hurtful?
  • How might we identify ourselves with Moses in this kind of role?
  • Who are the intercessors today?
  • How can the church learn to intercede?

Last week we reflected on the narrative of the golden calf and the “inevitability of absence.” We look at our response in those moments when God seems to have disappeared. Like Israel, many of us, and reach for the nearest idol, the nearest substitute or stand-in for YHWH when we experience his absence. The Children of Israel crafted a calf that might help them cope with the reality of being lost and naked in the wilderness and this is a feeling we can all relate too.

In the story of the crafting of the calf we learn about the dismantling of the covenant that the Hebrew people had with YHWH, but we also learn about Moses as an intercessor. He intercedes for the people and saves them from being consumed by God’s wrath. The breaking of the covenant means that Israel has betrayed YHWH, and an infidelity of this kind is the breaking of trust that makes these kinds of relationships possible. It’s like the breaking of the deepest most intimate of promises. One question arises at this point: what can be done to collect what is left of this people after the devastation of Exodus 32? Can the Hebrew people who were liberated by God’s mercy be held together before all is lost? Have they now become no people at all?

In a moment of grace, God decides to let the people go ahead, he will let them survive, let them move forward, and move on to the promised land. All our forward movements are by the grace and mercy of God and this is no exception. But there is a second problem, God has decided to not go with them. Instead, God is going to send an angel as a representation, he’s still too mad with this “stiff-necked” people. (Read 33:1-3)

Now, I do not understand what it means that God would not go with them. Isn’t God everywhere? [I don’t know exactly what it meant to Israel that YHWH says, “Stop the car, I’m getting out. I refuse to drive with you any longer.”] But I do know what it’s like to be so angry that the only way to calm down is to remove myself from the situation. Maybe God needed a breather? I don’t know…?

But from Moses’ perspective, YHWH’s withdrawal makes more sense. YHWH is going to leave it up to Moses, he’s the one who just interceded for them on the mountain, he can have them. But without God Moses leadership becomes almost untenable, flimsy, and without much hope. Moses knows that the wilderness is a dangerous place, and without the accompaniment of God, Moses he and the people are in serious trouble. I am moved by Moses words in 33:12:

“Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’”

He longs for accompaniment of God. Don’t we all feel this deep need and longing?

Moses knows that the situation if it is not turned around means the end of his people and he sees no one else willing or capable of interceding for the people. And so in the face of a bleak situation getting worse, Moses takes on a role he’s become familiar with in the Exodus narrative.

He stands up, walks over to YHWH’s office, kindly knocks on the door and waits to be beckoned.

So what’s happening in the story? Moses has identified a problem, the very existence of his people, so it seems, hangs in the balance. He is in touch with the issues and pressing needs. And he is not afraid to be a little confrontational about it and “get all up in YHWH’s grill” so to speak. (How does this kind of response make us feel?)

Wangari Maathai as Intercessor (taken from Wikipedia and Onbeing.org)

Before we move on, I want to tell a story of another intercessor who I just learned about the other day who just passed away a couple of weeks ago, her name is Wangari Maathai. She was born in 1940 in Kenya and she’s a good image of an intercessor in our times.

Not only was she the first woman in central Africa to earn a PhD, she was the first African woman to ever win a nobel peace prize which was awarded to her in 2005. She won the peace prize for her environmental work with rural women in Africa. Where they planted tens of millions of trees to help stop soil erosion and deforestation that is happening at an alarming rate in her country.

When she looked back on her childhood — she remembered collecting firewood for her mother. But there was one tree she couldn’t collect from and that tree was a fig tree. Her mother called it a “tree of God.” Her mother used to say, “They live as long as they can, and they fall on their own when they are too old.” Later when Wangaari returned home after being out of the country for school, she realized that the trees had been cut down and this deeply saddened her. And then she began to hear the stories of African rural woman and her life was changed.

She describes the turning point this way:

And when I listened to what they were saying, it so happened that many of these women also came from the highlands, in the same highlands where I grew up. And it struck me that in that period of less than 10 years, so much change had taken place in the environment, that water was no longer clean, yet when I was a child, I would go to the river, and I fetch water for my mother. I would come home. We would drink it. We didn’t even boil it. And there was no firewood, and as a child, I was collecting firewood for my mother in the wood lots, but all these wood lots had been cleared to make way for tea and coffee. And because of the new commercial agriculture and because of clearing the bushes, now there was massive soil erosion and leaching of agrichemicals into the water. So the water was no longer clean.

And so she said to the women “let’s plant trees” and they started with 7 trees in downtown Nairobi. Everything grew from there. She formed a non-governmental organization called “Green Belt” that is focused on “the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights.” And since the 1970 she and her friends have planted Tens of Millions of trees.

She knew that planting trees would not only protect them from soil erosion but that they would also provide much-needed firewood, and if they were fruit trees, they’d offer food, and the trees grow fast and can sell easily, so they’d help with income. The intervention of the trees was clearly a gift from God and answer to prayers.

But of course not everyone saw it this way. She has been beaten and arrested for her work. Because to plant trees she also had to work against illegal logging practices, and protest government corruption that would exploit their own people in this way. But she continued on. Even though the problems seemed quite enormous, maybe even impossible, she stuck to what was close to her, what she knew, what she was connected with and she responded.

Wangari Maathai is an example of creative and persistent intercession in a moment of need. She literally intervened on behalf of others, and she did it with them. She was able to aware enough to identify where intercession is needed. And then courageous enough to do it.

Moses as Intercessor

Now, let’s turn back to Moses. Isn’t it the case that Moses entire life could be categorized by intercession? Consider these examples:

  • Ex. 2 – Moses’ own life is saved by the intercession of Pharaoh’s daughter. Making the point that God can use anyone to intercede on anyone’s behalf, even those who are labelled the enemy.
  • Ex. 3 – Moses intercedes in the conflict between an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Moses killed and buried the body of the Egyptian.
  • Ex. 3 – YHWH intercedes in Moses’ life via the burning bush. Not only is it YHWH who initiates the exchange, but “Moses participates in the encounter as a lively, legitimate partner.” Walter Brueggeman remarks that “the upshot of the encounter is a vocation assigned to Moses for Israel’s sake. That is, the personal encounter is not for its own sake – it is for the sake of the community, as was the case with Abraham” (WB 571 OT Theology).
  • Ex. 4 – Moses tries to come up with reasons why he should not be an intercessor for the Hebrew people (I’ve never been eloquent of speech.
  • Ex. 6 – The message that YHWH gives to Moses to say to the Israelites that YHWH is a God of intercession: “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:6–7 NRSV).
  • Ex. 7-12 Moses intercedes on behalf of the people to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Plagues ensue.
  • Ex. 14 – At the Red Sea Moses stands before the people and says “Do not be afraid.”
  • Ex. 16 – Moses intercedes for the people and they receive Manna.
  • Ex. 17 – Moses Intercedes for the people and they receive water.
  • Ex. 20 – After hearing God deliver the ten words, the people ask Moses to intercede for them and get the rest of the laws.
  • Ex. 32 – After hearing about the Golden Calf and YHWH’s reaction Moses implored the Lord.
  • Ex. 33 – Moses requests that YHWH go with his people and not give up on them.

There are some things we can learn about intercession from Moses. Here are three things I’ve picked up on…what about you?

1. Embodiment: Intercession is about putting yourself in the middle

Ex. 2 (The daughter puts herself in danger) Ex. 3 (Moses puts himself in danger) (The plagues)

“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn!” -Bayard Rustin

Intercession in light of this is the ability to put your body in-between the one being hurt and the one hurting. In this sense intercession is about absorption of evil, it is about choosing to take it upon yourself so that it doesn’t effect someone else. Moses shows us intercession is not just prayer, it is not just a spiritual thing I do at home, it is actually about embodiment, physicality. It is about literally being about to stand up for justice.

In fact, I believe that this practice of embodiment is at the very core of Christian nonviolence. Christian nonviolence is rooted in the very person of Jesus Christ, who himself not only lived a nonviolent life, but absorbed the evil and wickedness of those who attacked him while turning the other cheek. The cross is a symbol of what nonviolent intercession looks like. It is the embodiment of the victory of peace over violence and life over death.

2. Intervention: Intercession is about intervening on behalf of the weak (with them)

Another point that we’ve covered hopefully enough that it has thoroughly seeped in is that Exodus is a story about God siding with the poor and the weak. It gives us a clear picture of justice and of right and wrong. In the examples of both Moses and Wangari Maathai intercession from a biblical perspective is done on behalf of the weak and it is done alongside them! (Moses is Egyptian). But the catch for them was that they were not only able to identify the needs but respond to them in a way that connected to who they were.

[Consider our Quaker history. The people whom we have sided with. John Woolman’s story is an example of this kind of intercession.]

And consider also, the task Moses’ example challenges us with. The Hebrew people were of course slaves in Egypt but they’re also idolaters, whiners, ungrateful, glass-half empty type people, people who didn’t seem very invested in chasing after the promise that God laid before them and yet it is these people who Moses intercedes for.

This may be one of the most difficult truths about this text this morning. Intercession isn’t reserved for the people who deserve it, it isn’t reserved for the people who promise to not take advantage of you, it is not reserved for the righteous, or the upstanding citizens, because if it were it wouldn’t be intercession and we wouldn’t have an Exodus story.

The Gospel truth here is that we all need intercession, and so when it comes to be our turn to play the role of Moses or Wangari we should be indiscriminate in our intercession for those we are prompted to help, just as we should be indiscriminate in our love for our neighbor and our enemies. Gospel love requires that we love beyond measure and work towards justice for all people.

3. Intercession is to move from observation to participation

Finally, following Moses and our example of Wangari Maathai we see that to become an intercessor is to take the invitation to move from observation to participation. Some moment happens where both realize that to leave things the way they are would be to leave them in a less-than-desirable, maybe even life-threatening situation.

The people of Israel, throughout most of the Exodus story could be considered observers of God, and this is okay. It is okay to be in a place where we are just kind of checking things out, not really sure what this whole God thing is about, not really sure where this whole community, what our role is to be, or whether I want to be a part of it. But at some point we need to be able to move from being the people of Israel to being more like Moses, from being an observer to a partner or participant with YHWH.

But then look at the dialogues between YHWH’s and Mose. They indicate a kind of partnership, a give and take, and a deep investment in how things turn out. He took the outcome of his own liberation and the well-being of his community into his hands, their entire fate together into his own hands and goes before God to see what they can negotiate. He doesn’t leave it to someone else.

Conclusion: Intercession and Hope

In closing, YHWH responds to Moses’ requests with a profound statement:

“He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”” (Exodus 33:14 NRSV)

The rest of the passage is about Moses wanting to see the face of God (and that wasn’t even the only thing on his Christmas list that year!). Moses knew that Presence equalled survival for the people of Israel. Without it they would not survive. YHWH reveals a small glimpse of his presence, he shows him his backside, and that’s enough assurance for Moses. That makes his intercession worthwhile. He knows now that the people will survive. Just like Moses’ intercession brought a new hope to the people, so too Wangari’s trees. Each tree reminding the people of God’s presence and care for them. Each tree offering a new day of hope. Each tree a physical reminder to us of the power of intercession.

May we each be like those trees.

Open Worship.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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