Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17
Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Have you ever just wanted to be forgotten? Have you ever wondered if your life would be better if you could just disappear? It might seem strange to start out today’s sermon with a question like that, but as we encounter Moses – perhaps the most widely known figure in the Old Testament – we’re encountering a man who, more than anything, was desperate to be forgotten by all but a few people.
What makes that desire to be forgotten so ironic is that the tragic story which begins in chapter one grows out of a failure of memory. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8-14) Joseph, you’ll remember, was the favorite son of Jacob, the man who was renamed Israel – he who struggles with God – after he wrestled God to a draw. Jacob may have loved Joseph, but Joseph’s brothers didn’t share that sentiment, especially because he had this annoying habit of telling them about his repeated dreams of becoming the most powerful and respected of Jacob’s sons. In fact, they hated him so much that they conspired to fake his death, then sold him into slavery so that they could be rid of him once and for all. The slave traders that bought him eventually made their way west into the Nile River delta, where they sold Joseph to a man named Potiphar, a high-ranking official who served the king of Egypt – the Pharaoh. Joseph’s integrity led him to be unjustly imprisoned until his knack for interpreting dreams elevated him from the dungeon to the court of the Pharaoh and, eventually, to a position as second-in-command over all of Egypt. In time, famine struck the region, and Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to barter for grain and feed their starving families. They had no idea that they were bartering with their long-lost brother until he finally cracked and revealed his identity. At the urging of the Pharaoh, Joseph invited his brothers to bring their father and their families to Egypt, where they would resettle and become prosperous neighbors to the Egyptians.
Today’s reading takes place centuries later, when memory had faded and the shared history of the Israelites and the Egyptians had somehow been lost. Where previous kings had recognized their indebtedness to Joseph and his kindred, this new king saw only a faceless, numberless horde who might someday turn on him if he didn’t bring them in line. The oppression and cruelty unleashed by that Pharoah, born of ignorance and fear, would last centuries, until God, whose name had also been all but forgotten, determined that something had to be done. That something was liberation, and the “someone” whom God chose to make it happen would be about as unlikely as anyone could have imagined.
Moses – the man we started our sermon talking about – was born to descendants of Israel, who by this time had become so numerous that the Pharaoh had decreed that every male Israelite child was to be thrown into the river and drowned as soon as they were born. In a desperate effort to save his life, Moses’ mother placed her newborn son in a tightly-woven basket and floated him down the Nile in hopes that he would be found and raised in safety. Moses’ little basket eventually washed up on shore and was recovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who saw the child inside and decided to adopt him as her own son. And so it was that Moses, born of Israelite parents under the threat of death, was instead raised among Egyptian royalty and destined for a life of greatness… until he lost it all. One day, Moses came across an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave. In a fit of rage, he murdered the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. When he realized that his adopted father, the Pharaoh, had found out about his crime, he bolted for the wilderness, leaving behind everything and everyone in a desperate search for anonymity.
To his credit, he’d eventually found it. At the beginning of chapter three, Moses was out there in the middle of nowhere. The Bible tells us, in fact, that he was beyond the wilderness, in a place so remote that it almost defied description. Then, it happened. In an instant, he heard the crackling sound of flames. He saw the flashing of fire. A mysterious voice called out to him and shattered his hopes of being forgotten. Moses! Moses! I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob! (Exodus 3:4, 6) Suddenly, Moses was standing on holy ground, in the presence of the Almighty, and his identity, his life, his people’s history – everything that he had tried so hard to forget – came flooding back. What followed can only be described as an experience of divinely-inflicted whiplash. It began as a bitter moment with God recounting how the cries of the Israelites had reached into the heavens, spurring God to action. Who wants to be reminded of violence and oppression? Who wants to be confronted with the on-going reality of suffering? It quickly turned to joy at the promise of deliverance. Finally, something was going to happen! Finally, the pain of the Israelites had been heard! But then, just as quickly, it turned sour again. Wait a minute… You want me? Who I am? Don’t you know what I’ve done? Don’t you understand what I’m capable of doing now? And just who are you, anyway?
As if this emotional roller coaster wasn’t enough, God’s answer to that last question – Who are you? – represents perhaps the most profound and mysterious statement found anywhere in Scripture. In essence, God responds twice, and those responses are incredibly different and equally important. The first answer has baffled interpreters for centuries, and continues to defy our attempts to understand it: EHYEH-ASHER-EHYEH – I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be. The second answer is a reminder of the covenant that still bound God to the people of Israel: [I am t]he Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:15-16, NRSV) To a man who had become disconnected from his people, and to a people who had lost touch with their own history, these words were life, grace, peace, and promise.
This is the story of Moses, the stuttering son of Israel who escaped death twice only to be called back into the fray in service of a long-forgotten God. This is the story of the God who attended to the cries of the people, who remembered Moses even when what he wanted more than anything was to be forgotten, and whose very name represented a promise to heal the pain brought on by broken memory and lost hope. It is also our story, brothers and sisters, the story of an existence marred by the persistent problem of amnesia, both welcome and unwelcome. Like Moses, we sometimes want desperately to be forgotten, because we’ve convinced ourselves that if God ever found us and truly understood who we are, it would all be over. In our quest for anonymity, we are guilty of forgetting who we are, whose we are, what our purpose is in the world, and what God is calling us to be and do for the sake of our neighbors. God chose Moses with full awareness of all his faults and flaws, because God knew that together they were capable of leading Israel from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to intimacy, from a strange land to a homeland. In the same way, God has chosen us with full awareness of all our faults and flaws, because God knows that in Christ we are capable of being instruments of grace and peace in a broken and hurting world.
As we go out this week, let us do so with the awareness that we may find ourselves on holy ground when we least expect it. Let us pray that God will continue to bless us with the memory of who we are – God’s holy people – and whose we are – children of the one who is, who was, and who will be. Finally, let us pray for the courage to respond to God’s call as Moses did, confident that the one who calls us is faithful, and that when we turn aside to encounter God, we will never be led astray. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:17
Preaching Text: Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Over the first four weeks of our journey through the unfolding story of our faith, we have encountered four individuals who were called by God to carry on the work of extending God’s blessing to creation. Noah saved a remnant of the world’s creatures and enabled God to make a fresh start in a world wracked by sin and violence. Abraham left behind his ancestral home and his extended family in pursuit of the promise of land and descendants. Joseph plumbed the depths of the human experience and soared to unimagined heights to bring the Egyptians (and his own people) through seven years of famine. Moses heeded the call of God – reluctantly, at first – and became an instrument of God’s salvation for the people of Israel.
If we were watching a movie version of this story, perhaps this week the filmmakers would be calling for the camera to zoom out and take in a bigger picture. Instead of focusing on one figure (or a small group of people), today’s reading concerns the entire people of Israel, a community that is addressed as one and invited into a deeper relationship with the God who had moved in power to save and redeem them from slavery and oppression.
Before we get to the commandments themselves, I think it’s important for us to take a look at the verses we read from chapter 19 of Exodus. Listen to those verses again:
Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:3-6, NRSV)
We need to pay attention to what’s going on here, because I think we sometimes take the mistaken view that it is the commandments that establish the relationship between God and God’s people. The Scripture that we have been reading the last few weeks (including the passage we just read) tells a different story: God has been choosing people from the beginning and calling them into relationship. From Adam and Eve through Moses and the people in today’s reading (and on into the present), God’s desire that is we would respond to this gracious invitation to be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. It is only after that invitation has been extended that we encounter these commandments, laws that have never been designed to put up walls or barriers to God, but to create space for God’s people to flourish in relationship with their creator and with one another!
That’s why today I’d like to invite you to consider the role these commandments play in the on-going life of our community, not only here at St. Paul’s, but throughout the world. My suggestion to you is that the commandments have been given to us as a gift, a guide, and, in light of the good news of Jesus, a goal.
How can the commandments be a gift? For a start, the commandments are a reminder of who we are. We are called into relationship with the God of creation, and enjoined to place our trust in that God above all else. We are given the opportunity to call upon God’s name and called to use that name well, in ways that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of others. We are given the gift of Sabbath, an opportunity to break from the relentless pressures of work to enjoy God and the people we love. That’s just the first three commandments, and hopefully you can see how what seems constraining is in fact a gracious invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.
Now what could it mean for us to look at the commandments as a guide? This is perhaps a more familiar way of thinking about the commandments for many of us, but it bears repeating. In one respect, the commandments are a guide because they represent the widest possible boundaries for considering what our life together might look like. We still have to wrestle with what it means to keep these commandments. As just one example, how does the commandment against killing function in our society? Are there certain instances in which taking life can be justified, or is this a hard and fast rule that needs to be enforced at all times and in all places? That’s a broader discussion than we have time for today, but if the commandment reminds us that taking life in any circumstance is a matter of grave importance, that the decision to end the life of another human being is never to be taken lightly, then this commandment will guide our conversations surrounding issues of life and death in important and fruitful ways.
Last, I described the commandments as our goal, and I realize that this last bit requires some explanation. Our ultimate goal, of course, is abundant life in relationship with God and with one another. How do the commandments contribute to that goal, especially when we as Lutherans recognize that we are incapable of doing what the law requires of us on our own? This is where our complementary reading from Matthew comes into play. As Christians, we believe that Jesus has fulfilled the whole law for us. Sometimes we take that to mean that the law isn’t important for us, but that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Rather, Jesus is making the claim that it is in him that the law finds its true purpose. We who have been freed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are called to see the law as a tool for discerning how to live well with one another and with God. We are always in danger of using the law for our own justification, for showing others how holy we are. Jesus has no patience for that kind of thinking; instead, the law is given so that we might tend to our relationships with God and one another and learn how to steward them well. So, to return to our previous example, the commandment against killing can cause us to think more broadly about everything we do. Yes, we may not literally take the life of another person, but how have we contributed to their well-being? Have we done anything to injure another person in mind, body, or spirit? How does the way we live build up the community around us and glorify God? As they did for the people of Israel, these questions arise not out of a need to justify ourselves before God, but in response to the love that has already been poured out upon us all. In that way, the commandments represent the goal of our daily lives: by keeping them, we help to create the kind of world where blessing and freedom and joy and hope are extended to all. This is our calling, and in Christ we find the strength we need to carry it out each new day.
Brothers and sisters, today we read of how Israel was joined to God and given the law as a gift, a guide, and a goal, and we remember that we too are heirs of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. As we enter a new week, let us consider how these commandments and that covenant help to shape our life together. Let us think deeply about how the gospel frees us to love and bless others in God’s name. Above all, let us pray that God will continue to bear us up on eagles’ wings and draw us to Godself, that we might be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation for the sake of the world. Amen.
Complementary Text: Matthew 2:13-15
Preaching Text: Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
As the people of Israel huddled by the Red Sea and watched the advance of the Egyptian army, it was probably terrifying to recall just how far the people had come since the days of their ancestor Joseph. It had been centuries, yes, but there had been a time that this people had been welcomed to Egypt with open arms and settled in choice land, all of it a token of appreciation for everything that Joseph had done in bringing that region through seven long years of famine and destruction. Recently, however, a new pharaoh had risen to power, one who didn’t know or much care about the debt that Egypt owed to Joseph and his descendants. On the contrary, he was terrified that this successful and numerous people would turn against him at the earliest opportunity, so he did what many a ruler has tried to do throughout the years: he tried everything possible to break that people, to crush their spirit, to make them so afraid that they wouldn’t dare rise up against their oppressors.
Pharaoh’s strategy may well have worked if Israel had lived alone under the burden of slavery and oppression. That, of course, wasn’t the case. The desperate cry of the Israelites rose up, and the Lord who had brought Joseph to Egypt to bless that nation now heard the pleas of a people in danger of being erased from the pages of history. To save Israel from destruction, God chose Moses – a stranger in a strange land, a mystery to his own people, a traitor to the Egyptians among whom he had been raised – to lead that people out of slavery into freedom. In an epic battle with the Pharaoh (and the gods of Egypt), God unleashed the forces of creation upon the Egyptians, bringing plague after plague upon them until they finally agreed to let the children of Israel go in peace – until they changed their minds again.
The shouts of joy that had echoed from the lips of Israel now became wails of despair. Trapped between the sea and the might of Egypt, the Israelites were once again on the verge of being broken, this time by their fear of the unknown. Moses tried to rally them once more – “Don’t be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still!” – but it was hard to see past their desperate situation. Then, to their amazement, they watched as Moses stretched his hand over the sea and the waters parted to form a pathway that brought Israel to freedom and spelled the end of the Pharaoh’s reign of terror and oppression!
The story of the Exodus is arguably the most important story in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of a people united in their struggle against oppression and formed by their experience of God’s gracious deliverance. It is the story of God working through ordinary people to make that deliverance possible. Some of those people are not well-remembered. How often, after all, do we simply pass over the bravery of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied the Pharaoh’s order to eliminate Hebrew boys at birth, a decision that saved Moses’ life long before God called him to leadership? Even Moses, who occupies an almost unparalleled place in the Scriptures, started out as a stuttering wanderer who refused to follow God’s call unless his brother spoke for him! Yet they were all important parts of God’s saving work in bringing Israel from slavery to freedom.
Throughout the centuries, the Exodus has resounded in the lives of countless people who draw strength and encouragement from the truths it communicates to us. The story of the Exodus reveals that God cares deeply for God’s people: that in times of deepest pain, when the powers of this world and the forces of sin and death threaten to overtake us, God hears our cries and acts to redeem and save us. People throughout history have continued to see God’s hand at work in their own struggles for freedom, from 18th century American revolutionaries to 20th century civil rights activists. Wherever people are oppressed, the story of the Exodus stands as a testament to God’s desire for freedom and justice for all God’s people.
We who gather today at St. Paul’s stand with those brothers and sisters in claiming the story of God’s deliverance as our own story. Like the early church, we read the Exodus story in light of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, the one who was obedient even to the point of death so that we who are joined with him in the waters of baptism might be drawn with him through death into new and abundant life. Liberated from the power of sin and the fear of death, we are free to raise our voices in defiance of violence, hatred, conflict, and oppression, to speak truth to power for the cause of justice and peace, to join our hearts and hands in contributing to the healing of our families, our community, our nation, and our world. To be sure, that’s not an easy task. Like Moses, too often we question whether or not we are the right people for the job. We wonder how we could possibly stand up against the powerful and influential. Perhaps we even adopt the mindset of the Israelites, preferring the world we know – as awful as it might sometimes be – to an unknown world, even if that world might be more just, more peaceful, more aligned with God’s purposes.
The good news is that the God who once delivered Israel from slavery with a mighty arm, and who has freed us from the power of sin, death, and the devil, is still working to redeem and save this broken world. Even though things seem dire, God continues to speak to us through the words of Scripture – “Don’t be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today!” – so that in faith we can walk through the waters into the future that God is preparing for us and this world. This week, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks to God for the salvation that has been so graciously given to us, and let us pray that God would inspire us to make that salvation known to others as we work to extend God’s reign of justice and peace in ways both large and small. Amen.