Tag Archives: Exodus

God the Liberator

Exodus 12:1-14

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

In the Jewish ritual of the Passover, this question is asked by the youngest child present. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is a scripted question, designed to help teach about the meaning of Passover, not all that different from the question and answer format of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

We reënter the story, again, after some time has elapsed. Last week we saw God call out to Moses from a bush that was burning but was not consumed. After some back and forth, Moses acquiesces to God’s call and makes his way to Egypt. And Moses meets Aaron, who will be his voice before Pharaoh.

But Pharaoh, thought to be a god in flesh, and the ruler of the greatest superpower of the region didn’t buy it. “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” And he hardened his heart and he made a horrible situation worse. Moses and Aaron return, and to try to prove his point, Aaron threw down his staff, and it became a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing. We are told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. 

We then read of a series of plagues that God used to warn Pharaoh and the Egyptians, for God to show that Pharaoh is no god, that Pharaoh is no match for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each time, Moses goes to Pharaoh and calls for Pharaoh to liberate the ancient people of God, and each time Pharaoh refuses. And so the plagues come. Water turned into blood, yet Pharaoh’s magicians could replicate this, and his heart was hardened. Second came the frogs, which covered the land, and Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same, and his heart was hardened. And the dust of the earth became gnats, and the magicians could not do this, and said, “this is the finger of God,” but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Then the flies, the livestock would become diseased and died. The people were inflicted by boils, and then hail, and finally locusts descended and devoured every living thing. Each time Pharaoh’s heart grew harder and harder. Until finally the final plague was announced, and this brings us to our reading today. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

***

This was the start, this was new beginning, this was new creation. This moment would be one of the most formational moments in the history of the people of God. 

And yet, this moment was not really one of celebration, it was not a moment of joy. It was also a time of great suffering. It was a time of chaos, it was messy, it was disorderly. And this is the paradox of the passover, which, in many ways, mimics the paradox of the faith. The tension of the journey of faith. The mixed blessing. 

To return to the Jewish passover ritual, some of the wine is taken out of the glass while they are recounting the story. A bit for each of the plagues, to always remember that while this was something that gained freedom for the ancient people, this also caused great suffering for others, and we ought not rejoice in the suffering of others, even while we remember the freedom for the ancient people, indeed for us, which is just on the horizon. 

And so in twilight, in the space between day and night, in the space between days, between today and tomorrow, lambs are sacrificed and shared while God finishes the showdown of sorts between God and Pharaoh. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This moment, this moment is the liberation of the captives, the freeing of the slaves. Rather than a great and powerful nation, God called out to a nomadic herder in his old age, and made a covenant, God continued to stay with this ragtag group of people who were absolutely nothing in the eyes of anyone. Even in the midst of slavery, God continued to be the God of this people, this people who were beat down, who were captives, who were weak, powerless, poor. This people remained the people of God and it is at this moment that God will effect their liberation. 

And this is what God continues to call the people’s minds back to. God rarely called their minds back to creation, “I am the God who created all of this,” nor does God often remind them of Noah and the flood, nor does God even remind them that God approached Abram and claimed him before he even knew what was going on. No, God continually calls back their minds to the fact that God freed them from slavery in Egypt. And so God is the creator, God is the covenantor, but most of all, God is the liberator.

Time and time again God reminds God’s people that they — we — were slaves and that God brought them — us — out. We are to remember that we are not God’s people because we did anything to deserve it, not because we were strong, powerful, rich, mighty. But perhaps just the opposite. Because we were poor and enslaved and oppressed. 

Just as God brought the ancient people out of their misery so long ago, so does God visit us in the depths of our misery, in the depths of our Egypt and brings us out. 

This story of the ancient people of God can resonate in our lives in so many ways. Both personally and collectively. This is another liminal experience, quite literally, at twilight when the whole system is set into motion. Twilight, of course, is the space between days. And they find themselves a different people between the sunset and sunrise. But this space of in-between brings echoes of another time in which Israel, or at least the one who would become Israel, wrestled with a man/an angel/God through the night until daybreak. The liminal space is often one of struggle, tension, conflict. 

Freedom for Jacob from the captivity of his own self and ambition didn’t come without this battle, freedom for the ancient people of God from slavery didn’t come without this messy and disorderly experience to peel back the strong grip of Pharoah. 

I think about us, as a people, as a nation, and wonder if we find ourselves in a similar liminal space, with something on the horizon. At the same time as there are cries for order and civility, those who are struggling under the weight of centuries of oppression remind us that freedom never comes without a struggle against the powers of evil that brought about the oppression in the first place. 

I think about us as individuals, as we so often find ourselves in liminal spaces of varying sorts. New life does not come easily into the world, but never without struggle, pain, tears, sweat, and blood. The liminal spaces are never easy places to be, but we are never left alone in them. The point is not to fight against them, but to cling to the God who has promised to lead us through them into the next chapter of the grand story. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

God continually reminds the people that God led them out of slavery so that they would remember, that they would have compassion, and that they would also join God in the work of justice and liberation. “Do not oppress a stranger,” we read, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are to remember that God is the God of all, but in a special way, the God of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, the wronged. And because God has brought and is bringing us out of Egypt, we are called to visit other people in their Egypt, those people who are enslaved spiritually and emotionally, or those people who are literally enslaved, still today. 

That just as God stands with the poor and the oppressed and the captive and the wronged, so must we. 

And this is who we are, we are a people who were enslaved, but have been freed. We were a people who were captives, but have been liberated. We are a people who have been given a new start, a new beginning, a new identity, something else to form our identity around. Whereas the ancient people may have counted their calendar from their slavery, they are now to begin the calendar, to begin their year with liberation, albeït a mixed blessing. And so, we, too, are invited to find our identity not in those things which torment us, those things which hold us captive, but we are invited to find our identity in Christ, who came to us and led us out. And to live as liberated and freed people, we are called to join God in God’s work of liberation. Liberation for the lost and lonely, liberation for the poor, liberation for people in our own nation who are both oppressed, held down, and people here and around the world who are in modern day slavery. 

And at its core, this is what the church is. The ministry of the church is one of liberation, of freeing people from what which constricts, that which binds, that which hinders, both figurative and literal. And just as we are being loosed of our chains, we also help to remove the chains of others. 

And this, sisters and brothers, is the good news of the gospel. Good news into which we are invited. The question is phrased, “why is this night different from all other nights?” not “why is that night different…” It is something into which we are invited not only to remember, but to experience anew, that when we gather and we hear the scriptures, and we see the font to remind us of our baptism, and when we see the table around which we gather when we commemorate another night when Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal, and both of these remind us of that freedom, that liberation which God has and is accomplishing for us, for others, truly, for the life of the world.

The Ten Words

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

 

In the beginning, when God created, there was nothing, and God brought into existence, something.

But creation isn’t something that was, but something that is. Creation didn’t end with the explosion of light and life and existence, that was simply the beginning. In our story this morning, we are seeing another act of creation, the creation of God’s people as a liberated people an identifiable people.

Last week I mentioned that the story of the exodus is a pivotal point in the story of the people of God. This is the moment that God’s people are reminded of time and time again. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t do big and amazing and significant things like this again, but the exodus is something which only happened once. We don’t all have to witness it, because we tell the story on down the generations. Memory is so significant to our faith, not our own individual memories, but our collective memory. Many times throughout scripture the people are told to remember. Many of those times it was to remember what God did in liberating the people.

But here the people are told to remember, or rather that they do remember, what God did to the Egyptians, and how God had brought God’s people to Godself. God liberated God’s people and here they are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the mountain where God has chosen to assemble God’s people.

The first thing that God does is remind them that they saw what happened back there, and that God had brought the people to Godself. It is after this that God commands obedience. And then they are reminded that the world belongs to God, yet they are special. They are to be a people to reflect God to the world, in this covenant community, the world will see the ways and desires of God.

At this point God creates something new, God creates the nation that God promised to Abram. This was not the fullness of it, but this is the fulfillment of it. God reminds the people of what God had done and then laid the foundation for their life together.

***

The ancient people of Israel have not experienced freedom, they have been enslaved for generations. How are they to begin their new life together? How would they function together?

So often we see the Ten Commandments as simply a set of rules, a collection of don’ts. But in reality, what we have here is so much more than just a list of rules, it is the foundation of a new creation, the people of ancient Israel, the people who strive with God. The commandments that are given here, the ten words as they are sometimes called, enable freedom rather than hindering freedom.

So God speaks these words to Moses to bring to the people. These words are more than just a law as we understand it, they are more than a code of ethics, they are a guide in how God desires for God’s people to live. The are not for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons alone, but for reasons of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness. The commandments are not a series of rituals to be performed in order to gain favor, but they are one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to God and one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to one another.

This was a people who did not only have responsibilities toward the divine, but also to one another. In fact, God is greatly concerned with how humans treat one another. Thus, these ten words serve as the guide for the building of their new community, a guide to living in freedom.

This is, in some ways, a contrast to our cultural narrative of freedom. We see freedom as freedom from — freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from this or that. At times, we take it to the extreme and understand it to be freedom from norms and guidelines — don’t tread on me and all that.

But this is not the biblical way to understand freedom, this is not the freedom that God envisions for God’s people.

God envisions a freedom for.  A freedom for peace and justice, a freedom for living according to God’s desires, a freedom for witness amongst the world. Freedom from and freedom for, it’s only a preposition, but prepositions often carry so much weight.

***

This is to be a community centered in God, pledging allegiance not to a nation, not to a local deity, but this one particular God. It is a community that is to be dependent upon God as is evident from not putting faith in idols, not using God’s name for their own personal gain, as we so often do in the political realm in our nation, and trusting God enough to rest at least once throughout the week.

 

It is to be a community where families respect and honor one another, not because they agree or even like one another, but because this is how things are to be set up. It is a community that values fidelity in relationships and commitment, a community in which people are not to kill one another, people are to be truthful to one another in speech and action, and people don’t steal from one another or cheat one another, either by commission or omission, and people don’t have a deep set envy for what others have.

It is to be a community based upon faith in God, mutual respect and trust. If it works, it will be a utopia, a perfect society.

But as we know, it never turned out to be a utopia, and the people could not live their lives according to these ten words. Because of this, more words were added, the law grew, and grew. The law became a burden rather than a blessing, it began to restrict rather than liberate.

The law became a way to determine one’s sinfulness, one’s missing the mark. The law does not condemn, but serves as a mirror through which we can see our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, our complete reliance upon God.

***

But is this the only value of these ten words? to order a society which never succeeded and to show us our own sin.

No, we cannot forget the grace that permeates these ten words. God gave the ancient people these ten words not simply so that they could be shown their sin, but truly that they would strive to fulfill them. This is how God desires for us to live. Indeed Jesus summed up these ten words, indeed all of scripture in two commands. Love God and love others. This is the center of all of it. The first five words help us to love God, the second five help us to love one another.

God was very aware that humans could not keep these ten words perfectly, God knew that this was not a realistic attainment on their own. In fact, if they could do it on their own they wouldn’t need these ten words in the first place. But people are not able to fulfill these perfectly, and people are broken. However, God never left it to people to fulfill these on their own anyway. This is why God instituted rituals of sacrifice and atonement and chose priests and prophets to help call the people to faithfulness and God continued to work, even from the beginning, to turn people toward God.

We always approach the Old Testament as people living in a post-resurrection world. We don’t have to go through the rituals of sacrifice and atonement, because we have one who atoned for us. But this does not make the Old Testament inapplicable. Remember, Jesus said that not one smallest stroke of the smallest letter of the law will pass away?

These ten words are at the heart of the entire law, and loving God and loving others is at the heart of these ten words.

These are not just to restrain evil, although it is that. These are not just to show us our sin, although it is that too. It is also a guide to help us in our living, we ought to strive to actually live these out, because this is what God desires. We are to live them out in the spirit rather than the letter. We get a glimpse into this when Jesus taught, “You heard it said…” that even if we hate someone we are just as guilty of murdering them. Even if we lust with another in our heart, we are guilty of adultery. If we pledge allegiance to anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are guilty of having other gods.

Although we have not had the experience of being an oppressed and enslaved people for generations, we, too, must still listen to how God desired for God’s people to live. Because God still desires for God’s people to live this way.

Sisters and brothers, hear what our gracious God is saying to us. These are not rules to restrict our freedom, they are ten gracious words to help us to have freedom for service to God, for life with God, for life as God’s covenant people. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world, a city atop a hill which  cannot be hidden. This is because we are to reflect God’s goodness, God’s grace and mercy, God’s shalom and harmony and wholeness through the whole of creation. God has redeemed our people, God has freed our people from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and God has brought us to Godself. If we will hear God, and obey, we will be God’s treasured possession, the pearl of great price.

God calls to you and to me, that we are redeemed, we are now to live into that redemption and to help others do the same.