“A Redemption Story” – September 30, 2012
The Story, Chapter 4
Exodus 1-17 (Our text, Exodus 1:8-22; 3:1-12; 6:1, 6-8; 12:21-32, 40-42)
The Exodus is THE pivotal story of the Old Testament. It is the one the Hebrew people will look back on – and celebrate – for generations to come. It is a story that tells them who God is: The God who delivers. The God who frees. And it is a story that tells them who they are: people heard by God, rescued by God, claimed by God. This is an important story!
It is also a violent story. And even worse, it is violence against innocent children.
So it is hard to know how to read this story. Should we celebrate? Should we mourn?
A close friend has four boys. Her oldest checked out a book of “war machines” from the library, and asked her to read it to him at bedtime one night. She said no – because the book was about war. “I don’t like to read about things that are used to hurt people,” she told him. But her son responded: “No, Mom, they are used to protect people!
Who was right? They both were. Both are true.
Same in this story. It is a story of violence. It is also a story of redemption.
Redemption. A speaker at the Women of Faith conference that many women from our congregation attended this weekend defined redemption this way: Redemption isn’t about starting over at square one, she said. It doesn’t just erase the pain of the hard things in our lives and give us a blank slate again. Redemption goes further than that. It makes us stronger, more powerful, better than we ever were before. Redemption makes the enemy sorry to ever have messed with us in the first place!
The story of the Exodus is that kind of redemption story. By the time it is over, the enemy – Pharaoh – will be sorry he ever messed with these Hebrew slaves in the first place. And they will come out the other side stronger, more powerful, more certain of God and more confident as God’s people, than they had ever been before.
The story begins with Jacob’s sons, who followed their brother Joseph to Egypt. They and their families thrived there. The promise that God made many generations ago to their ancestor Abraham had indeed been fulfilled – his children had followed well the command to be fruitful and multiply. Their numbers had grown so large, in fact, that Pharaoh began to fear their power.
The Hebrew people were living peacefully enough, there in Egypt, farming the land and raising their children. But Pharaoh was a shrewd man. He knew there were enough Hebrew people living in his land that – if they put their minds to it – they could take over his power. And Pharaoh wasn’t about to let go of power.
So he pressed the people into slave labor. He increased their workload and decreased their resources. And then, in a desperate attempt to cling to power, he made that terrible decree that we heard at the beginning of Exodus, Chapter 1: Kill every boy born to the Hebrews. Drown them in the Nile!
And so begins the battle. Pharaoh attacks first. He and his people become angels of death – the ultimate bad guys.
The Lord God will not let such a strike go unanswered. God will redeem his people.
The epic battle that follows is a story of power plays, symmetry, and poetic justice. Pharaoh is a self-proclaimed god who is willing to allow his own land and people to suffer so that he might hold on to power.
The God of the Hebrews reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am.” The Lord God is worthy of worship but willingly stoops down to hear the cries of the needy. God will defend his people at all costs.
And the battle unfolds. Moses is enlisted as a general in the army of the Lord. But it is a unique army. Moses’ only weapon will be his tongue – and it is not very sharp! It is almost as if God is deliberately handicapping himself here.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that God doesn’t need much help from human beings. The Creator God calls all creation into the battle. The plagues unfold. Water turned to blood. Frogs, gnats and flies.
By then, Pharaoh’s own people have figured out that they are going to loose this battle. “This is the finger of God!” they tell him.
He won’t listen. The battle rages on. Livestock contract a deadly disease. Boils break out on the Egyptians’ skin. Hail destroys crops. Darkness covers their land. His advisors beg him to give in. “Do you not understand that Egypt is ruined?” they cry out to him (10:7).
Yet Pharaoh ploughs on ahead. And so the final, terrible plague plays out: the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. A striking reversal of the killing of the Hebrew babies at the beginning of the story.
The return to the beginning of the story reminds us that Pharaoh set himself up as a god – and not just any god, but a god of destruction and death. He sought to destroy the Hebrew people. He claimed power over their lives and their deaths.
The plagues show Pharaoh – and all of Egypt – what life would be like if such destructive power were allowed to rule the world. They are “anti-creational” – just like the flood was in Genesis – a reversal of the way things ought to be, a reversal of the good creation described in Genesis 1. The plagues show what life could be, if evil ruled the world.
But here’s the thing. In the midst of the plagues, there is evidence that evil does not rule the world. The plagues rage on, but the Hebrew people are spared. They are protected – and not just protected, but raised up! They are redeemed. God does not just erase the injustices against them, and leave them happy again in Egypt, farming the land as they were before. God brings them out of the land with all the spoils of war handed over to them on silver platters. They leave that land of slavery as free people, redeemed by a God who heard their cries and reached down to rescue them.
And they do so without lifting one finger in violence against their oppressors. The remarkable thing about this redemption story is that it is God – and God alone – who gives them freedom. This is not a revolution story. The Israelites do not become a nation by fighting their oppressors – but by receiving a gift of grace from the God who heard them and rescued them and claimed them
The Exodus story is a story of redemption, and of identity. It tells us the identity of our God: the God who frees and delivers. And It tells us the identity of God’s people: people who are heard, redeemed and claimed by God.
That identity is strengthened and molded each time the Exodus is remembered in the Passover feast.
Passover is a festival of remembrance; of giving thanks for what God has done. Celebrating. But in the midst of celebrating, there is also a need to remember those who suffered. When Jewish people celebrate the Passover, there is much rejoicing – often in the form of wine! But in the midst of the celebrating, they take 10 drops of wine and drop them onto their plate. The drops are a reminder that their joy is depleted by those whose lives were lost. Remember what God has done. And also remember who suffered on your behalf. When we’re living in a plan B world – apart from God’s original intent, where sin takes its toll – then protecting one often means hurting another. Our celebration is not complete.
As a feast of remembrance, the Passover serves as an antidote for nostalgia. If we remember who we used to be (slaves), we won’t want to go back. It also serves as an antidote for cruelty – we were once treated cruelly. We will not treat others that way.
That is true of any redemption story in our lives too. Remembering what God has done for us reminds us how far God has brought us, so that we won’t want to go back. And reminds us to be gentle with other people, because we remember what it felt like to be abused and will not pass on the abuse to another person.
That’s the power of redemption – to free us from the past and give us grace to live with kindness and joy into the future. My prayer is that we live, by God’s grace, as redeemed people – stronger, more compassionate, more confident in our identity as God’s children – because we have been redeemed by our God of freedom and deliverance.