Monday, July 20, 2009

We Wish To See A Sign

Human nature hasn’t changed since the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt. We are always in bondage to something or other. And the Lord always makes it possible for us to be freed, but it requires some effort and some risk on our part. But many of us would rather complain about our problems than rely on the Lord to give us the strength and courage to do something about it. We would rather that the Lord do all the work himself. We can see that in the first reading for today.

When Pharaoh found out that the Israelites had fled, he ordered his foot soldiers, his chariots and charioteers to pursue them. When the Israelites saw that the Egyptians were catching up with them they cried out to the Lord, and they complained to Moses: “Why did you have to bring us out into the desert to die? Weren’t there burial places enough for us in Egypt?” “Why didn’t you listen when we said, ‘Leave us be. We would rather be slaves in Egypt than to perish in the desert’? “

Moses answered them, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and you will see the victory that the Lord will win for you today. The Lord himself will fight for you, and you have only to place your trust in him.” But the Lord other ideas: “Why cry out to me? Command the children of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and with your hand stretched out over the sea, spilt the waters in two, so that the children of Israel can pass through on dry land.”

As I reflect this passage from Exodus, I gain insight into the typically human behavior of Moses. When the people express a lack of confidence in him, he absorbs their fear, and loses confidence in himself. It seems he would prefer that the Lord win the battle. Yet it is not the Lord’s plan to do it all himself, but rather to give Moses the grace he needs to fulfill the mission the Lord had given him: “You stand on the shore, with your hand outstretched over the water. You split the sea in two, so that the people can cross to the other shore without even getting their feet wet. When the Egyptians follow you, the wheels of their chariots will sink into the wet sand, and you will escape.”

This episode from Exodus is a sure sign of God’s power and love for his people. But it is at the same time a demonstration of how divine providence operates. If you read carefully, you will notice that on the side of the children of Israel, there are three principal sources of their success. There is Moses, who leads in spite of his fear. There is God, who encourages Moses but allows him to act on his own behalf. And in between, there is nature, specifically the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba which were at low tide when the Israelites crossed on foot, and the desert sand which had lain beneath the surface of the sea, and were still waterlogged enough to cause the chariots of the Egyptians to get mired, allowing the children of Israel to escape unharmed.

Conclusion: There are no coincidences in God’s plan; and for those who love God and are called in his plan, everything works out for the good.

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There are many commentaries on the topic of Jonah and the Whale, whether in reference to the Old Testament that bears the name of Jonah, or to today’s gospel passage. But there is one sign embedded in this passage that is rather subtle and easily missed. It has to do with the time Jonah spent in the belly of the big fish: He was rescued on the third day.

Many events in scripture occur on the third day. Abraham was saved from sacrificing his son Isaac when God intervened on the third day. Joseph freed his brothers from prison on the third day. And, of course, Jesus was raised from the tomb on the third day.

We are nearly compelled to ask: Didn’t anything significant ever happen on the second day, or the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the tenth? What is so special about the third day? When we read a passage from Scripture that refers to the third day, our natural inclination is to begin a chronological countdown: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But when scripture scholars (or reflection writers) see multiple uses of an expression in scripture they tend to ask what more is meant. What is the deeper meaning?

The scholars tell us that in scripture, the expression “the third day” does not refer simply to the passage of time; it is rather a theological statement. For instance: “He will revive us after two days, and on the third day he will raise us up to live in his presence.” (Hosea 6:1-2); “Be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come.” (Exodus 19:11) The third day is the day of deliverance; it is our assurance that God will not leave us orphans, that he will not abandon us.

Warning: we mustn’t take these words too literally, either in the contemporary or the biblical usage. For instance, if you lose your job on Friday, don’t anticipate getting hired for a better one on Monday; of if your spouse leaves home on Tuesday, don’t wait for her to return on Friday. What the expression means is that, no matter what is happening in our live, God will not leave us orphans, and he will rescue us. As Christ’s disciples, we are called to live in hopeful anticipation, waiting for the third day. Mind you, we have no notion how many hours, or days or weeks will pass between now and then, or what will happen while we are waiting for God to make his presence known.

“No sign will be given to this wicked generation,” Jesus said, “except the sign of Jonah!” Matthew interpreted this rather fancifully, comparing the three days and three nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the beast with the three days and three nights that Jesus spent in the tomb. Except that even in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spent: on the first day from mid-afternoon to dawn of the second day; on that day from dawn to dawn of the third day, which is when he rose from the dead. That’s a total of thirty-three hours, just nine hours more than one entire day, but a digit composed of two threes side by side, and a figure which represents the number of years Jesus spent on earth. The sign to the people of Nineveh was Jonah himself and his preaching. Jesus is saying, “You are seeking a sign? I, and my preaching, am God’s sign!”

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