19th Sunday after Pentecost
His name is Ahmed (not his real name). I met him in a young adult group that I used to belong to. He is originally from Afghanistan and a member of the Hazara ethnic minority group. His people are persecuted in Afghanistan because of their physical appearance that looks like East Asian people (Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans).
Ahmed fled the violence in Afghanistan with his older brother. They went to India and lived on the streets. His brother, unfortunately, was killed in a bomb blast in a mosque in India. A Christian couple from Australia met him when he was selling shirts on the streets in India. They adopted him and took him with them to Australia.
Here, in a new land in Western Australia, he became a Christian, but he maintains his connection with the Afghanistan community here. Most people in the community are refugees, just like him.
One day, Ahmed came to our young adult group with a blackened eye. When I asked him about what happened, he told me that he was attacked by a group of refugees from Afghanistan while he was waiting with his Hazara friends outside of a mosque. They got into an altercation and he was punched in the face. He told me that even here in Australia, the Hazara people are still targeted by other refugees from Afghanistan who dislike them.
His story was corroborated by his adopted Australian parents who are also widely involved with the Afghanistan community in Western Australia. They told me that many of the refugees from Afghanistan still carry the mental scar from the violence that they experienced back in their homeland. Many still carry the same kind of prejudice and sectarian attitude that they should have left behind back in Afghanistan.
Friends, we like to bring something from the past, even when that something is the reason why we leave our old life in the past behind us to build a new life (sometimes in a new land). We still carry that something, however destructive it is, because it is often the one thing that has helped us make sense of the world. That something is often the one thing that connects our present life with the past and makes us feel less disconnected and lost in our new life (in a new land).
But we know, deep down, that all of these are misleading. We know, deep down, that that something that we keep on carrying with us is often death-dealing and not life-giving.
This was the experience that the people of Israel also had in the desert after they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. This generation of the people of Israel that Moses led in the desert of Sinai were born and grew up in Egypt. As such, they were Jewish as much as they were Egyptian. They must be able to speak both Egyptian and Hebrew languages. I dare to say that many, if not most, would even be more fluent in Egyptian than in Hebrew. This was no different to the second-generation migrants in Australia today who are more fluent in Australian-English than in the language of their parents.
But, worst of all, all of them were born and raised as slaves. They saw their parents and grandparents lived as slaves and they had lived and been treated as slaves. When they had children, they too became slaves. Living as slaves was the only life that they knew.
On the contrary, the freedom in a new land that the stranger, Moses, and his strange God were offering to them was nothing but an abstract idea. They didn’t know this God whom Moses introduced, even though this was the God of their ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. But generations had passed since then and this new generation had only faint ideas about how God was with their ancestors.
They had never seen this God too. They had seen what this God had done to free them from the Egyptians. They had seen rivers filled with blood, the sea split into two, and water coming out of a rock. But they had not met this God face to face and had to rely on Moses to tell them what this God wanted to do with them.
And Moses himself was a stranger. He didn’t grow up with them. He grew up in the Egyptian palace with the very people who had oppressed them. Moses was fluent not only in the Egyptian language, but also in the Egyptian customs and ways of life. When he spoke Hebrew, they could detect an Egyptian accent in it. And growing up in a palace, he sometimes acted like the Egyptian nobles who looked down not only on slaves like them, but also on others who were not as well off as they were. In other words, Moses, the man who led them, was not ‘one of them’. He may share their blood, but he surely acted like a foreigner.
So they were in the middle of nowhere in a strange land, being led by a strange man who listened to a strange God. It was no surprise that these people often reminisced about their old life back in Egypt. Slavery in Egypt was the only world that they had known before. And this desire to return to their old life in Egypt would become a recurring theme on their journey into the promised land.
One tangible thing that still connected them to the life they left behind in Egypt were the golden jewelries that they took from the Egyptians (see Exodus 12:35-36) . And now, they wanted to collect all of these jewelries and make them into a god whom they could see and worship. The golden bull-calf was an idol that symbolized their life in the past. They knew they wouldn’t survive the journey if they attempted to return to Egypt now, but at least they still had with them some relics from their life in the past. And it seemed that they wanted to spend the rest of their life worshiping these relics instead of following the guidance of God and Moses to a new life in a new land.
Friends, we too often have our own ‘golden bull-calf’: the thing/things from our life in the past that we are still holding on to the detriment of our life in the present. God invites us today to let go of those things and to embrace the new life and freedom that God has provided for us.
I find it rather interesting that even now, when I’m alone in the office or home, I still miss having a video call with my wife and son on Skype, just like when we were still separated before. Now, most of you know that my wife and son are now here with me in Rockingham. But we had been communicating via video call on Skype for many months before when my wife and son still lived in Indonesia and I lived here in Australia. ‘Skyping’ had become our lifestyle for many months since my son was born and years since my wife and I got together. ‘Skyping’ had become the thing that gave meaning to our lives as a family before.
I shouldn’t be surprised then that even now, there is a part of me that still misses that lifestyle, even though the real things are with me now. We are creatures of habit and old habits die hard.
To let go of those things from our past, therefore, may be easier said than done. Our past provides us with meanings that make sense of our world and tools to cope with the world. But those things from the past that give us meaning are also the things that have kept us in bondage; in slavery.
They are like addiction. We can’t just put them behind and move on. It’ll take time and gradual efforts and determination to let go. But we must let go, otherwise, like the people of Israel, we will be stuck in the desert, worshiping an idol that will only give us a false sense of security, and no real life.
We need to learn once again from Psalm 23. This is by far the most well-known psalm. From my experience as a Minister, this is one of the most favorite passages from the Bible to be read to someone on his deathbed or even during one’s funeral.
Using the image of a shepherd with his sheep, Psalm 23 talks about God’s presence in our life that guides and leads us to sources of life and healing. God is with us, always. This is a theme that is consistent in the Bible both in the Old and the New Testaments. Before he died, John Wesley - the originator of the Methodist movement and church, which was one of the founding church traditions of the Uniting Church – said, “The best of all is: God is with us.”
But God is with us not only in good times, but also in not-so-good times. God is with us like a shepherd guiding his sheep not only on the hills, but also as they walk through the darkest valleys. No, we are not sheltered from problems and troubles in life when God is with us. We will still face difficulties, just like everyone else. But God’s presence will not abandon us. We may not be aware of the presence of God in our midst, especially in our darkest hours, but that presence is still there, guiding and nurturing us.
The people of Israel had failed to acknowledge God’s presence in their midst as they travelled in the desert. They thought that God had abandoned them, so they created their own god whom they hoped would deliver to them their salvation.
We also may be tempted to do the same thing, especially in difficult times. We also may try creating or finding our own idol that can provide us with temporary salvation; idol such as wealth, possession, power, fame, popularity, obsession, fitness, celebrity, etc. But such idol cannot fully satisfy us by leading us to ‘fresh water’ and ‘green grass’. Such idol will only make us want more and more. Only God’s presence that can make us say, together with the author of Psalm 23, that the Lord is with us and we have everything that we need.
Indeed, friends, we ought to look to the future: to the fulfillment of God’s salvation in our world. The prophet Isaiah saw that fulfillment in his vision of a meal party that God hosted where all nations, not only Israel, were invited. In the vision, God was like a victorious king, in Isaiah’s time, who hosted a banquet to celebrate his victory against his enemies.
But God, in our passage in Isaiah, did not defeat His enemies out of God’s ambition or lust for power. God defeated the enemies to protect the poor and the weak in the land. The enemies that God defeated were those who had oppressed the vulnerable and marginalized.
Even more: God defeated death itself. The power of death that brought suffering and sorrow to all nations would be defeated and God would invite all people to his party to celebrate the victory.
By making all nations as guests to God’s banquet, Isaiah offered not an exclusive vision of the future, but an inclusive vision that invites all people, including all of us today. We are therefore to trust God and patiently wait for God as we continue our journey in life. We are not to be like the people of Israel who took matters into their own hands and created their own god and held their own party.
But the false party that Israel held in honor of their false god immediately descended into an orgy of drinking and sex. Such god and such banquet cannot give life. They falsely represent life and what it can offer. Instead of defeating the power of death, they strengthen the grip of the power death in our life.
So, friends, what are the other gods that we are still worshipping today at the expense of our worship of the one true God? What are the things that have kept us from truly enjoying the banquet of life that God offers not only later, but now? We need to learn to let go of these things, gradually if necessary, so we can follow God, our Good Shepherd, leading us to streams of fresh water and green grass.