Both Judaism and Christianity celebrate redemptive stories in the spring — Passover for Jews, and Easter for Christians. Both explore questions of suffering, struggle, and ultimately hope, and both are rooted in the book of Exodus. Even as each tradition approaches the story from their own point of view and cultural perspective, there are similar through lines as renewal begins to spring up.
Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumnus Reverend John Van Sloten recently offered a reading of Exodus at his congregation, Marda Loop Church in Calgary, Canada. Here, he finds resonance and inspiration in the story for anyone in our present situation who wants to help others and end the myriad forms of present-day suffering.
We’re going to continue with Old Testament Bible stories with a look at the story of the Exodus. Now, at its core, the story of the Exodus is a story about a God who basically sees enslaved people and the predicament that they’re in and saves them – saves them via an Exodus. It’s about a God who has compassion on those he loves, on those who are suffering, a God who will do whatever it takes to help those who are suffering, who sets slaves free – whatever they’re enslaved to.
So God sees the plight of all of those people in Mariupol this week – like, we’ve seen it, right, and your heart breaks and you just [say] – “Why?” and there’s incredulity, and maybe anger. That is a subset. We’re imaging God’s heart towards the travesty of those people who are enslaved by war. God sees people in third-world countries who are slaves to poverty or bad government or dictatorships. And God even sees us, in our rich consumeristic materialistic western societies, enslaved to materialism and stuff and anxiety and angst and all the things that imprison us. And more precisely, God sees you feeling abused by that situation or that war or that treatment. God sees the mistreated, or any person who’s robbed of human dignity. God sees and God acts. God acts through things that are like an Exodus.
So the Exodus is our story today, and I’m basically going to kind of tell the whole really long story in a much shorter fashion, and then add some theological connections as we go through.
But before we get into that, we’re going to start with a prayer, and then Dan’s going to lead us in a couple of songs. So please join me in a prayer again.
Again, God, we pray for those imprisoned and enslaved by war, by forced migration, by the anxiety and pain of family separation, by depression, by fear or doubt. Those imprisoned by bars they can’t see, in terms of a cultural milieu that supports a kingdom, an empire, that isn’t always in line with your kingdom, your empire. Those who have, like me, like all of us, all-too human hearts, who say one thing about what we want and who we want to be before You, and then are so quick to forget and head off in another direction, or doubt, or fear. So, too, and for all of us, be a God who leads us through a freeing movement, through an Exodus, we pray. And in a little way this morning may that happen in all of our hearts. We pray – in Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
In the book of the Exodus, we learn that 3,500 years ago, the Hebrew people were slaves in the country of Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh saw them as a threat, because they were growing and growing in number and, ergo, power in pharaoh’s mind. And the Egyptian people as a whole oppressed the Hebrew people greatly. They were slaves. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar, and with all kinds of work in the fields. In all their harsh labor, the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. And the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out their cry for help because of their slavery. And because they cried out and cried out, which, because of their slavery, went up to God. God heard their groaning, as real as you’re hearing the groaning of people enslaved this week. God hears our groaning. And he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them, which should have been the first shot over Pharaoh’s bow, because when God’s concerned about something, when God’s people are in trouble, He looks on them and is concerned for them. And then God acts, and God acts in this story the way God often acts in the Bible stories, by entering into the life of one of his people and calling them into the freeing Exodus process.
In this case, Moses – a bit of a longer reading now – now, Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock – Moses had run away. Moses was hiding, Moses was ducking his former life. Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. He led his flock to the far side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And there, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. And Moses saw that though the bush was on fire, it did not burn up. And so Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight. Why does this bush not burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, “Moses,” God called to him from within the bush. “Moses. Moses.” And Moses said “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” And then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And at this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
And the Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I’ve come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:1-10)
When God acts, God acts through you. Probably more correctly, you who say “Here I am, God.” Through people, we take on the voice of God in addressing injustice and bringing freedom. When it comes to speaking truth to power, he is the calling of God’s people to speak in that voice, to be God’s hands and feet. But Moses tries to get out of his call. Thank God I’m never that way in my life. Certainly haven’t been that way for the last six months. And going through the pandemic, just, “Let’s bail and find an easier place,” even though the call [is] so definitive, so clear – this thing.
Moses says, “Who am I to lead this Exodus?” to God. “I’ve never been eloquent,” to God. “What if they don’t believe You sent me?” to God. “Please send someone else,” he says to God. He was afraid. And so he stubbornly tried to duck a hard calling and obstinately, arguably, pushed back on God, whose face just earlier he couldn’t bear to lift his eyes to. God’s lead guy in one of the greatest spiritual stories of redemptive history, the Exodus, didn’t want the job. After a burning-bush experience with God – and maybe you’ve had one, a moment – and yet, “I’ll pass.” How quickly we forget. But thank God, God would not take no for an answer. And God would not let Moses stand in the way of his saving plan.
“I will be with you,” he says to Moses. “I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, Pharaoh will let you go.” “Who gave human beings their mouths, Moses?” God asks. “Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Now go I will help you speak and teach you what to say.”
So Moses finally conceded, and with the help of his brother, part of his concession negotiation, he stepped into his calling. “And what a calling,” God says to Moses, “that I have made you like God to Pharaoh. And your brother Aaron will be your prophet.”
So when God calls you into righting an injustice, God calls you to be God’s representative. You will be like God to these people. Imagine that. Imagine stepping into the power of that. Imagine your voice so in sync with the spirit and will of God that it has an efficacy that would cause wonders to happen in terms of bringing freedom to the oppressed. So can you see what’s happening here in this Moses story, this Exodus story? God saves others through us, and then God saves us through the process of saving others. We’re saved through the saving! Every time you post a lost girl in our Province, or you post something online about somebody who has a need, I think you’re echoing that. And God is saving you even as you’re helping in some small way trying to save someone else.
So God sent Moses back to the story, to Pharaoh, at first to ask him politely if he would let his people go. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and would not listen to God. Instead he made things even worse for the people of Israel, which then led them into an even worse place to not listen to God, like Pharaoh. God told Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord ,and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people and I will be your God. And then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore you with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord,” God is saying, through Moses, to the people.
So Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and hard labor. And I know we all know this place, the place where you can be so discouraged and so broken, or so angry, or so needing to be in that corner by yourself, that you reject the help of those who are able to help you. And even as that’s happened in your life at times, it happens in your life, I think much more often in relation to the help that the Exodus, bringing God, wants to bring to you.” So discouraged, you just can’t muster the courage to believe or hope anymore. So angry that you become obstinate in your response and don’t listen to others, to God.
And how does God react to our obstinance? Well, he does the same thing he did with Moses when Moses wanted to duck his call. He ignores their stubbornness and saves them anyway. Thank God. Frees them with a saving miracle, wonders, God says, ten miracles in the form of ten plagues. Horrible miracles judging miracles designed to undermine the power of a controlling empire. Which makes me think, boy, could we use that have that fall upon an atheistic controlling empire right now.
The Nile River, the source of economic sustenance for Egypt, was made unpotable, then there were frogs, and gnats, and flies, and livestock wasting disease. All of that was like economic warfare, knocking them out of the swift system, not including them in global trading anymore, making them pay a price for the enslavement that they were bringing to a people. And then a plague of boils, causing a huge health-care shock. And then plagues of hail, locusts and darkness, severe environmental upheaval coming to that part of the world. And then finally, a terrible plague on the firstborn of every family – an animal dying. Almost all the firstborn.
“But you, you my people,” God says, “Need to put some blood on your doorposts, a sacrificial sign, a mark of faith. On that same night, when those firstborn would die, I will pass through Egypt, and strike every firstborn of both people and animals. And I will bring judgment on all the Gods of Egypt. I am the Lord and the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” And that’s it – that’s the moment where the Jewish Passover first began.
And then finally, after that terrible plague, the people of Israel were set free. And Moses was God to Pharaoh. Now, you’d think after that, Moses could never forget, right. He could never say no again. He could never try to duck God’s call. He could never blow it in the ways he had previously. And yet.
As the story goes Pharaoh changed his mind went after those slaves with the whole of his army and cornered them at the Red Sea, and then as God does, God saves his people again – saying these words, to them there, to us here, to you there,
“Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring to you today. The Egyptians you see today, the oppressive forces you see today, you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still.” And they were still. And the enemy horde was destroyed, and God made a saving way, an unimaginable saving way, through the sea, through the impediment, through the thing you think was immovable. And that there was no way forward – God makes a way right through the middle of that on dry ground. And then through a desert – a desert! – by providing water that just came out of a rock one day. And then food from the heavens and ten laws from the mountaintop, from the heart and mind of God. And again and again and again in this long Exodus journey, God saved them. And over and over, God freed them. And still those people that Moses and Aaron were leading fell over and over again into faithlessness. This is the story of the Exodus. They cried out in desperation when they were cornered at the Red Sea. They were near to stoning Moses in the desert when they got to a certain point of thirst. Then this miraculously-supplied food from heaven – after a while, they started complaining about that because it was the same all the time. And then ultimate idolatry of idolatries, they make a golden calf when God is slow to respond with Moses coming down off the mountain, and worshipped a statue instead.
And Moses and Aaron blew it. Moses who was God to them, Aaron, who was a prophet to Moses, who was God to them, they messed up again and again. Aaron led the people to make the golden calf to provide an alternative God because he was so concerned about saving his own bacon and them not revolting against him that he’d rather take the easy way of leading them to a false God. Moses struck a rock the second time the community needed water, when all God said was “Just talk to the rock,” and was saying something to God in the striking action.
Such is the state of our all-too-human hearts. And again, it’s been killing me these last seven or eight days, contemplating these people who could dare to act that way. What have you done for me lately? God scares the daylights out of me as a Church leader, because if you think you’re not susceptible to that, then you’re not in tune with your heart. And I say that because I know it’s true of me. So much doubt, at times moments of faithlessness, so quick to forget the amazing things and affirmations and wonders already God has done throughout our lives, keeping us. And we forget last night at 3 AM – again, I’m forgetting, although not completely, but fighting an amnesic propensity to forget – and that’s the power, in my mind, of the story of the Exodus, because that is the kind of people that God will do anything to save. You are the kind of people who are that kind of people that God will continue to reach out to, try to save again and again and again and again and again, until you get it, until he gets you home. People that broken, that forgetful, that prone to scramble and try to control things all the time, when all God is calling us to do is be still and wait for the wonders of God to be revealed.
And so in the Exodus story, the sad part of the ending is, you know, the people do make it to the Promised Land and enter into it, but not Moses. Not all of those people who complained in the desert. Their children are the ones who ended up stepping into what God has promised because of their disobedience and abstinence so God is that willing to give us free will, that God lets us either choose to follow God into that beautiful new land or choose not to. God respects your will so much, God will let you choose less.
And that in a very brief nutshell is a story about a God who strives to save us in spite of ourselves, and how hopeful is that? If you’re in tune with your heart and have struggled with some of these things, God continues to call you, and will continue to call you. I mean, God didn’t abandon Moses as he looked over the land and died in that place. God drew him, surely. God drew him to himself, his people, my guy, but you know I see us sometimes, you know, we’re like kids at the sea playing and making muck piles, and we forget to live our lift our eyes and see that there’s an ocean there. We’re at the seaside and God offers us a choice. Connecting to Easter coming up in a couple of weeks, God is a God who saves those who would crucify him. Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do. God demonstrates his own love for us in this while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. As I said a few weeks ago, at our worst, God is at God’s best – so powerful, and persistent, and forgiving, and merciful, and compassionate is the love of God – because he is our Lord, “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, and maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
That’s the grace of God in that one verse there. God will judge, and God will leave us to our choices, and God is always a God who is compassionate and gracious and slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. And in all of those people in that ancient millennia-old story and in all of us people here.
So there’s hope in that. It’s a pretty pathetic story, those people, as are we, right? But there’s hope in that. Let’s pray. Lord, thank you for a freedom-bringing story with so much complexity and grayness and middle space with a lack of clarity that somehow, through all of those things, leaves room for us complex, broken, made for glory, made-in-the-image-of-God people. And we pray, as we as individuals, and as families, and as a community, gathering around this little church, Marda Loop Church, continue on the Exodus faith journey that you have us on, that knowing who we are, and knowing who you are, we can just continue to be real, not as a license to not strive to do better, but as an admission of who we are before You, God. People you love. People you want to save. People you’re taking to a good and beautiful promised land. So take us there, we pray, all of us, there we pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen.