Holding Each Other Up (A Sermon on Exodus 17:8-16)

This sermon was given at Colonial Church on April 28, 2019.

8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar and called it, The Lord is my banner. 16 He said, “A hand upon the banner of the Lord The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

– Exodus 17:8-16

God of resurrection, who makes beautiful things out of mud, bring life in the midst of the places of darkness in ours, bring healing in the spaces where we need your touch, and God grant us the courage in all things to incline our hearts and our whole lives to you. In your name we gather and pray. 


Well, good morning. It’s good to see you all on this Annual Meeting Sunday! 

So this week, when it was decided that I was going to preach today, the very first thing that popped into my mind was this passage. I thought it was an appropriate passage, given both where we’re at right now in the life of our congregation and also given that we are a people who are in the midst of the Easter season, having just celebrated it last week. And I’m excited to be able to delve into this passage together with you today and share with you why I think it popped into my mind.

Now, maybe not all of you were as equally excited as I was this week because the musical artist P!nk released a new album. Okay, so yeah- maybe not as excited. The album is called It Hurts 2B Human. The title track chorus goes something like this, “God, it hurts to be human, without you I’d be losing. God it hurts to be human, but I’ve got you. I’ve got you. And you got me, me, me too.” And how true is this in each of our lives? So many times it hurts to be human. It hurts to love. It hurts to lose.1

Of course, sometimes it’s beautiful, but we don’t get the beauty without the pain too, right? This is part of the very human story of our lives. And one of the things I love about the Bible is that it’s not just an esoteric collection of sayings, but it’s the story of people’s journey with God. The book of Exodus is nothing less than this. It’s the story of the Jewish people as they journeyed with God, as they wrestled with God, as they felt abandoned by God, as they sought to discover what it meant to be the people of God, one of the songs on their playlist could have been P!nk for indeed- it hurts to be human.

One of the beautiful things about stories and about songs is that they bring us back and remind us of the truths that we sometimes forget. The book of Exodus is no less than a remembrance for a community of Israel, who again and again, throughout their history experienced exile, persecution, violation, and destruction of their temple. Exodus is part of the song of remembrance that they were not forlorn or forsaken, but that no matter how much it hurt, no matter what happened, God was their banner, YHWH would indeed save them again.

It’s no wonder then that the story of Exodus has been remembered throughout human history as a story of hope and assurance that God will deliver no matter what is happening. Inside of the African American community in this country under slavery, the tale of Exodus, the cry to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” became the heart cry of black community and Negro spirituals like, “We Shall Overcome.” Exodus is the cry for deliverance and the remembrance of a God who in the face of insurmountable odds, rescues God’s people again and again. This is the cry that indeed animated so many civil rights activists during the 1960s as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge embodying the cry: “Let my people go.”

These songs and stories of liberation remind us that no matter how dark the night, no matter how staunch the oppressor seems to be in their resistance to our ability to live, YHWH God will save and redeem for we are not alone. 

So one of my favorite things to do, this is a nerd alert to those of you who need those warnings, is that I love going through the whole of a biblical text in order to really get a sense of the narrative. Because again, this is a story of God and God’s people that we find in these different books of the Bible, right? So here we go. We’re going to do a little bit of that. I promise I won’t make you do the entire book of Exodus. So let’s start off in chapter one of Exodus where the Jewish people are now enslaved. They’ve begun to cry out to God in the midst of their oppression.

Fast forward to chapter three (I told you, I’ll go quickly). And at this point, this is where God appears to Moses and says, “I AM has sent you.” That’s what he’s supposed to tell the Israelites. The sense of I AM is an affirmation that God is present, that God is with them and will be with them. In chapter five, Moses goes to Pharaoh and demands that Pharaoh let God’s people go. We’ll fast forward through all of the plagues in chapters five through twelve. Passover happens in chapter 12. 

A couple points I want to pin for us: one of the really cool things is that when you read the Bible and go back to Exodus and pay attention to how this story is also the story that Jesus hearkens to in his own life and ministry, right? To a people who are under Roman rule, Jesus, on Maundy Thursday which we celebrate, is the renewed promise of Passover freedom that begins in Exodus 12.

Jesus is hearkening for us to remember the continued promise of God: that God will bring the people out. This happens in chapter 12, where the people are reminded that God will save them. And by chapter 14, they make their escape. *Spoiler alert.* And in chapter 15, Moses sings his song, as does Miriam because I can’t leave her out. And then in chapter 15 begins the time where the Israelites are in the wilderness. This is the time that they spend between slavery and the the promised land. This theme of the wilderness, of being people in the exile, of the space between slavery and freedom, is a continued motif throughout all of Scripture. And we in so many ways likewise, in our own lives, know those spaces between the things that have kept us captive or harm us and the places of freedom and life. And the Israelites are precisely in this place by the time we get to chapter 15: the thin space of emergence from the dark womb into life.

So the Israelites in Ex. 15 are walking around in the wilderness and there’s no water. There’s no food. And they’re like, “Are you serious, Moses? Could you not have just left us back in Egypt land? Because like, at least we had bread to eat.” And they’re not happy. And they begin to complain. God then shows up as a cloud. They’re fed, they’re cared for. And then we get to chapter 17, which we read today. In chapter 17, they get to Rephidim where again there isn’t any water. This place, so named named, means rest (and place names matter in the Bible). And finally, we come to the passage that was read for today. Let me skip over that for a minute to say a few more things about what happens after our passage.

In chapter 18, which comes right after, the wilderness time is ending as they’re coming to Mount Sinai and Moses says to his father-in-law that all of God’s saving them has been evidence of God’s goodness and grace that has brought them this far. And in chapter 19, then they go to Mount Sinai and Moses brings down the 10 commandments. Anybody? I’m figuring more of you have heard about this episode in the history of our faith than had heard of P!nk’s new album, am I right?

I figured you had. And in the “Sinai Periscope,” as this section is called, the text begins to detail what it means to live as the people of God.” And by the end of the book of Exodus, the tabernacle has been built, the place where God’s presence rests. Okay, the end. You got through all of Exodus. Congratulations! 

Again, remember this isn’t just a one time historical account that’s given just to tell us a nice history lesson. This is the story that was repeated throughout the life of the Israelite people. It was a story to remind them that God would be with them, that God would save them, that God would uplift them. It’s a story to encourage them of YHWH’s faithfulness, that YHWH would deliver, that God would be faithful to God’s covenant, that God would indeed be present with them.

Here then in chapter 17:8-16, a lot of things are going on. The first of them is that we’re told that they’re fighting against the Amalekites. These are desert dwellers with whom there is a lot of infighting throughout Israel’s history. In this particular passage we read it’s like the Amalekites keep coming and coming and coming and coming. 

It’s just like those times in your life when you think, “Please just leave me alone.” Right? We were talking with our best friends last night and we just said, “Can’t we get a break?” Right? Like too many people are dying. Y’all got to stop. And this is what’s happening for the Israelites is that the Amalekites keep coming against their forces and they just want and need a break. We’re then told that in the middle of the onslaughts, every time Moses’ arms are raised the Israelites are winning.

I love the visual of that: Moses with arms raised. I love that because it’s one of the most fundamental postures of surrender, right? My hands are up. I surrender. And for people who’d been wandering around the desert, they kept on  forgetting—just like the rest of us do— that G would indeed save them. But here Moses puts up his hands and it’s like an embodied way of saying, “Okay, I surrender. I don’t have anything else here.” But in holding up his arms and in saying, “We surrender and we know and trust that God save us.” 

But Moses’ arms grow weary. Because if anyone’s ever tried to do this for a length of time like I’m doing right now, you know that your arms start to hurt a little bit, right? Gravity wins.

And so along come Aaron and Hur and they each take one of Moses’ arms and hold them up. 

So a couple of observations about the holding up of arms. One is a little bit about Aaron and Hur. In the rabbinical literature, Hur is actually thought to be Miriam’s son. And Our is also the father of the man who ends up being the dominant builder of the tabernacle. And then it’s argued that Aaron is the head of the Levites and the priestly line that comes to be. So if you think about it, Moses is being upheld by the tabernacle, the place where God’s presence resides, and he’s been upheld by the priestly line. So that’s interesting, the way that that Moses is sustained and held is by God’s presence and the worship of God. And in this way he’s literally held up. And sustained.

 And how many of us have known have also known what it feels like to be in those spaces where our arms just need to be held up? When we don’t have anything left. It feels like the waves just keep coming. And these are the spaces where we are both in desperate need and are so benefited by when we hold up each other’s arms. 

As you continue in this passage, this is the time where God is named as “the Lord is My Banner” (Jehovah-nissi). This is the only time here in scripture that God is so named. Another way to think about this would be “The Lord is My Refuge.”

Sigil of House Stark,
Game of Thrones

For any of you who watch anything like Game of Thrones or read any sort of historical medieval fiction, this idea of “The Lord is My Banner” might be evocative for you, right? This of the ways in which kingdoms or houses have their sigil and their flag that they wave and you know that if you are part of that house, you are under the protection of that house, that they will fight for you, that they will care for you, that it’s the place that you run in the time of trouble. And this same understanding would have resonated for the Israelites . To say, “The Lord is My Banner” names that YHWH is that this is the house under which we are safe and we are cared for and we are loved.

And I’ve often heard it said at church that God’s banner is over us. But one of the things I love about this passage is it’s not just that we live under the banner of God, but also the reminder that we need each other to keep up our arms, to hold that posture of surrender when we don’t know what’s going to happen and we’ve been wandering around the wilderness requires and asks that we hold up each other’s arms. 

Jesus in so many ways in his life and ministry harkens to this book of Exodus. And in so many ways Jesus is the new Moses, upheld at the right and the left, by the history of the Jewish texts and teachings, reminding people that indeed the new place of worship is actually not in a tabernacle, but it’s in spirit and in truth. And that he himself is ushering in a new day of freedom for everyone, that the march for liberation that Exodus inaugurated is one that keeps going and Jesus is at the center of it, inviting all of us to remember the stories that freedom is a coming and freedom is ours.

And so we together remember that even when it feels like the story is ending, as it felt for the Israelites at the beginning of the book of Exodus, that it’s not the end of the story. The story continues. 

And oh, hey, by the way, when it gets really hard and you don’t feel like you have any water or bread, we remember Exodus again. Not to judge them, but to remember that they’re human like us and that God shows up. 

And oh, hey, by the way, if you’re really at the end of your rope and you get to the point where the folks coming against you are going to keep coming, then we remember we hold up our hands in surrender, but then we hold up one another. 

We hold up each other’s arms through the longest night, remembering that the banner over all of us is the banner of God’s love.

Some of you may have read this week on our Facebook page, a beautiful poem that comes from our very own organic Bob who also cleans up Easter egg messes. And I wanted to share this poem with you in case you hadn’t had the opportunity to read it, because I think it reminds us so much of the invitation and the remembrance that the Israelites got to remember every time they heard this passage. It’s called “Into the Dark.”

Into the dark with you I will go and I will wake when you call in the cold dark hours. As you weep I will hold you, silent, timeless, as you may need. As bitter waves break upon your heart, I will stand in the water steady for you. The smiles that come between floods of pain, I will share. When rage foams and spouts, I feel that anger too. Questions hurled at a silent God will issue from my lips as well. When you need to grieve alone, I will wait by the lone tree upon the dark shore until you return. As you heal and walk again, I will let you go. You may find me at any time by the lone tree on that sunny shore in case you need me more.

Sometimes it hurts to be human. Yet as the story of Exodus reminds us, the story of God’s work of freedom for all of us as a people is a story that God keeps working out with us. And when we forget, we have these stories that can remind us God isn’t done with us yet. And the trajectory of every story and fundamentally all of God’s story is one of freedom. And when we really forget, we are reminded here in Exodus…that’s ok for we need each other to keep our hands raised in surrender.

And sometimes admitting that we need each other is one of the most terrifying things we can do, right? I’m aware of this…now I have to admit that I need you too? Come on people. God must not have meant that part, right? Probably not. Or maybe. So in those moments, when you find your hands upraised but falling, or when we know that each other are in those spaces of hurt or pain, let’s be a people who continue to grab each other’s hands and hold them up, for though the mourning lasts for the night, rejoicing comes in the morning. That is the promise. And that is the story that God has been writing since the beginning. And we remember, with Israel, that we are not a people forsaken or forlorn, no- we are a people whose God is the banner of love. 

May this kingdom come, may this will be done, in the midst of the beauty and frailty of our lives. Let’s hold up each others’ arm. Amen.

1. P!nk, “Hurts 2B Human,” It Hurts 2B Human (Hollywood: RCA Records, 2019).

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