That mythical passage we heard in today’s first selection from the Book of Exodus portrays Moses as praying in a very stressful, even painful, way. He had to do it, so the tale goes, because whenever he relaxed his arms the enemy seemed to get the upper hand in the ensuing battle; but, when his arms were stretched up & out once again, his people, the Israelites under the command of Joshua, regained the upper hand.
Whether we interpret this passage literally (I hope not) or we treat it as the sacred fiction that it is, we’ve got to agree that this is one great story! We can picture those ancient Jews, maybe sitting around a glowing fire in the late evening, listening to the rabbi unfolding the suspenseful yarn. We can imagine elbows nudging neighbors: “Oh, boy! Did you hear that? God was on Moses’ side, and all Moses had to do, with a little help from Aaron and Hur, was to keep his arms up, and that weasel Amalek didn’t stand a chance!”
This is a wonderful piece of story-telling that has entertained people for over 2000 years; but its primary purpose is not to amuse. It’s meant to be something that we can rely on when things are not going well for us and we feel that the circumstances of our life are more than we can handle. We pray, and yet help seems not to come when we desperately need it. For a while, we turn up the volume of our prayers and say more of them, hoping that maybe we’ll get through to a compassionate God, as if we were dealing with an impersonal corporation that keeps us at bay with recorded messages.
How badly we misunderstand God! How foolishly we project our human ways onto the Creator, thinking that the divine is simply a bigger and better version of the human. But that’s not so. Beyond the very clever literary devices that even Jesus used rather generously, there are in the Scriptures timeless teachings of absolute truths that we can rely on with 100% dependability. In a way, it can be said that in these three readings today we are being encouraged not to pray so much, but rather to live in lively, constant, unbroken trust in the minute-by-minute presence of an active, caring, loving God in our lives.
The following analogy is not likely to be new to you, but please consider it again. When you are sitting, perhaps driving, with someone you know very well, even an hour of silence makes you not the least bit uncomfortable. Words are not necessary. There’s a deep feeling of security, of intimacy, that you are sharing with this person whom you are sure you will not lose despite the absence of conversation — this person who, you realize, may know you in certain respects better than you know yourself.
On the contrary, two minutes of silence can be terribly uncomfortable with someone you hardly know. And so your mind scrambles to find words to fill the embarrassing vacuum.
The point is that the better and the more intimately we know our Creator — that is to say, the more we are gratefully aware of God’s presence to us – the less necessary are words. Those who live in such consciousness of the divine, those who live in trust that is never seriously threatened no matter how dark things are — persons who live that way — have a peace and a joy about them that are unmistakable.
Is that the faith that Jesus wondered would still be found at the end of time? Would he find it in us now