Sunday, November 12, 2017

11/12/17 - “A Way Out of No Way: Delivering”

11/12/17 - “A Way Out of No Way: Delivering”

   As much as I love movies, am entertained by movies, even find biblical and theological themes and images in movies, movies also do us a disservice in at least one way: we can never “unsee” what we see in a film. 
If we’ve seen “Gone With the Wind,” then our understanding of southern plantations, southern gentlemen, slavery, and the Civil War will always be shaded in one way or another by those images. 
If we’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” we may never be able to pull the shower curtain closed and feel totally safe and secure again. And if we’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” then we’ll likely never be able to imagine the scene from our scripture today in any way other than how he presented it sixty-one years ago.
   And that’s okay. It’s not my intent to debunk or challenge that presentation. In part because that’s not the direction of this message, and in part because, as I said, you can never “unsee” it once you’ve seen it. So I’m not going to waste my time with that. Films are for entertainment first and foremost, and that one is entertaining even if it does take artistic license, as films do.
   The book of Exodus picks up the story of the people called Israel about 400 years after the ending of Genesis. And you’ll remember that last week we told the early part of the story of Joseph, and how God protected both God’s chosen people and God’s covenant by being present in and with Joseph, and ultimately with his family. The covenant, to make Israel a great nation and to give them a land promised to them by God, had begun with Abram and Sarai and extended through Isaac and then to Jacob and to his twelve sons, who would become the heads of the twelve tribes of this growing nation. The latter parts of Genesis shared how Joseph was able to save his family and thousands of others from a famine that could have destroyed them and God’s covenant with them. 

   When we pick up the story today, though, Egypt is not the same place it was then. In no more than a generation or two there was no one left who knew Joseph, or how Joseph and Pharaoh had worked together to save their peoples. Institutional memory was gone, and with it went loyalty and relationship. Replacing it was fear, and entitlement, and oppression. 

As the number of Israelites increased - God said they would number like the stars in the sky - Egyptians became fearful of becoming a minority in their own country. In response the Egyptian under Pharaoh forcibly enslaved the Jewish people. You can almost hear the Egyptians crying, “Build that Wall!,” in order to keep the slaves from escaping. As their population continued to grow, even while in captivity, fear on the part of the Egyptians threatened to annihilate an entire generation when Pharaoh ordered the extermination of all the male Jewish children. Faced with the extinction of God’s chosen people, God raised up a new leader, a new prophet, to speak for and act on behalf of God and God’s covenant people.

   So the book of Exodus tells the story of how this people rose up. We learn how Moses was spared from the genocide imposed upon the Jewish people and how he grew to become the chosen leader of the people despite his murderous history. And about this second book of the Hebrew Scriptures, theologian Bob Stallman writes,
“Although the book’s title in Christian Bibles, “Exodus,” means “the way out,” the forward-leaning orientation of Exodus could legitimately lead us to conclude that the book is really about the way in, for it recounts Israel’s entrance to the Mosaic covenant that will frame their existence, not only in the wilderness wanderings around the Sinai Peninsula but also in their settled life in the Promised Land. The book conveys how Israel ought to understand their God, and how this nation should work and worship in their new land. On all counts, Israel must be mindful of how their life under God would be distinct from and better than life for those who followed the gods of Canaan.”

   So as we think about Exodus, the framing story of the people of Israel then and now, we should think of it as a story of deliverance out of slavery as well as into the covenant of God. The Joseph saga from last week showed God working quietly, protecting God’s people in subversive ways through Joseph and others. 
Through the God-given gift of dream interpretation Joseph was able to rise into powerful positions, first in the home of Potiphar and eventually in the home of Pharaoh himself, using human systems and his ingenuity to, as Cameron Howard put it, “provide safety, prosperity, reunification, and reconciliation for Jacob’s family.” 
   So last week’s protection becomes, four centuries later, this week’s deliverance. Exodus 14, with or without the movie special effects, shows God delivering God’s people, although there is nothing quiet about how God works here. As Cameron describes it, 
   “Horses’ hooves pound the dirt, the Israelites cry out in fear, the Egyptians scream in panic, the wind howls, and the waters churn in their great vertical walls. Add to that the pyrotechnics of the pillar of fire and cloud, and Exodus 14 describes a big, chaotic mess.” 

   In fact, if we think back to the beginning of Genesis, the chaos of this scene might remind us of the chaos described before God began the creative process. 
God is creating here, as well, but this time begins with a people and a promise rather than empty-handed. 
The people aren’t seeing that though. What they see, or think they see, is that they’ve been abandoned by God and led into the wilderness by a mad man. 
“Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert?” they demanded. 
“Leave us to work for the Egyptians! Even that would be better than dying out here!” 

   And in the midst of this chaos, as the people are literally running for their lives as the Egyptian army chases them down, what Moses said to them must have struck them as the rantings of a delusional denier: 
“Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. The Lord will fight for you. 
You just keep still.”

   Don’t be afraid! Stand and watch! Keep still! Are you crazy? they must have thought. But then, what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Charlton Heston, saying “no, do not fear.” Sorry, I told you that you can’t unsee it.
   But what comes next, and what Moses tells them next, are both unbelievable. As Cameron describes it,
Given this chaos, Moses’ instructions to the terrified Israelites are all the more remarkable… As they were being chased down by the most technologically equipped fighting force anywhere around, the Israelites were surely inclined toward fight or flight: resist or run, sure, but keep still? What good will that do? 
Their mandate from God here is neither to fight nor flight, but to witness: to observe God’s power and might. God will do all the fighting for them.”
   Thought of another way: this isn’t their fight to fight, this is God’s. This is God acting to deliver God’s people, again, in much the same way that God had acted through Moses in the first thirteen chapters of Exodus to get to the edge of the Red Sea in chapter 14. The people had seen and believed, then forgotten and become fearful. Moses’ challenge to them to stand still and watch as God delivers them is supposed to put to rest any remaining concerns that they might have about the power of God compared to that of Pharaoh.
And what power they saw.
   In verse 10 we’re told that the people of Israel “looked back and saw the Egyptians marching toward them.” But in verses 30 and 31, that immediately follow today’s reading it says, in verse 30, “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore,” and in verse 31, “Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians.” 
In verse 10 the Israelites feared for their lives, but in verse 30 they “feared the Lord.” As Cameron points out, “When they stood, saw, and kept still, they believed.”
   And he goes on,  “If the Joseph story showed us everyday miracles, the exodus story shows us a once-in-a-lifetime (even once-in-a-millennium)  miracle. In many ways it is the miracle; Exodus 14 just might be the most important chapter in the entire Old Testament. The story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army at the Red (or Reed) Sea is the bedrock of the covenant relationship between God and Israel.”

   The story of the Exodus, though, isn’t just the stuff of a good story or even an epic movie. The Exodus is the over-arching or framing story, what is called the meta-narrative, of the entire Hebrew Bible. Later in Exodus, when God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, God says  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). 
   The people of Israel have been freed in order to worship and serve God by keeping God’s commandments. And the reminders are found in Leviticus, in the Prophets, the History, the Writings and in the Psalms. The deliverance of the people of God, is THE standard, the non-negotiable, the guide stone in all of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Christian Scriptures as well.

   For followers of God through the way of Christ, the story of the Exodus reminds us of the power God has to defeat oppressors and deliver the oppressed. Exodus images were a powerful reminder of God’s power and promise of deliverance during the Civil Rights battles of the 20th Century; “We Shall Overcome,” the theme song of anti-segregationists, suffragists, and others who called on the name of God in the midst of their battles for basic human and equal rights. It is the core of what is known as “Liberation Theology” that has developed among oppressed peoples around the world.
   Lest we think that God’s work through Christ is the first or the only way God has ever sought to deliver God’s people, we should remember that God has been delivering God’s people throughout history, both recorded and primordial. From the waters of the flood, from famine, from slavery in Egypt, from Exile in Babylon, God’s modus operandi has always been one of deliverance. 
And as we shared a couple of weeks ago, that deliverance was not limited to only the Israelite people. 
God delivers all people.

   The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, The Lord’s Prayer, includes our plea to God to “deliver us from evil.” The apostle Paul reminds us that in Jesus Christ we are delivered from sin and from death. More than UPS, FedEX, or the Post Office, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, Miriam, and Jesus is in the delivery business. That same prayer also pleads that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When we think that our life is so chaotic, that our world is so messed up, that our economy is so one-sided, that our politics is so divisive, that nothing can save us, we find ourselves, like the Israelites, running in fear from the Powers that Be. 
But God invites us to stand firm. 
   In the midst of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history, President Abraham Lincoln famously prayed, not that God would be on our side against an army of brothers and sisters who prayed to the same God, but that we might be on God’s side. That is, that we were attempting to align ourselves with God’s will, not that we were trying to co-opt God to our will.
WE are the people of God and there is nothing that 
we cannot do when we are on the side of God. 
We are called to bear witness to the power of God and 
to the desire of God to return the world to wholeness. And the role to which we are called is to be the hands and feet, the workers of God’s miracles in the world. 

    As Bob Stallman so pointedly reminds us, 
   “The book of Exodus opens and closes with Israel at work. At the onset, the Israelites are at work for the Egyptians. By the book’s end, they have finished the work of building the [Lord’s] tabernacle according to the Lord's instructions (Exod. 40:33). 
God did not deliver Israel from work. He set Israel free for work. God released them from oppressive work under the ungodly king of Egypt and led them to a new kind of work under his gracious and holy kingship.”

   As readers and hearers of this sacred story, we are called to join the Israelites in their witness to God’s delivering victory: to stand firm, to see, and to believe, and then to be about the work of bringing to fruition God’s will, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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