Sunday, September 11, 2011
Today is a significant anniversary, and a solemn one. Ten years ago, the most massive terrorist attack in our country’s history hit when hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some Americans don’t think often about 9/11, but many others are profoundly affected and think about it frequently. The story of 9/11 is a far-reaching story that evokes deep thought and feeling a decade later.
The Old Testament lectionary reading for today is Exodus 14. Moses raises his staff, the Red Sea parts, and the nation of Israel walks through on dry land. Talk about far reaching; the events of 9/11/2001 will at some point fade into history. The exodus continues to be a story that is so important, we define ourselves according to this story.
Why does this ancient text matter? How does it accomplish so much?
Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary says the Exodus forms Israel as a people (NIV Application Commentary, p.279). The Israel we meet throughout scripture, Old and New Testaments, becomes who they were right here. They got their name in Genesis. Ancestral roots reach back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the beginning of Israel as a people and not just any people, but the people of God, happens when they leave Egypt and follow Moses into the desert. For Enns, the Red Sea crossing is a paradigm of deliverance.
Renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann locates Exodus at the center of Israel’s faith history (New Interpreter’s Bible, p.677), more so than the creation in Genesis, more than the reign of King David, and more than the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah. Everything else points forward to or looks back on the Exodus.
Judy Fentress-Williams illustrates this by calling the Exodus a lens. Israel was enslaved in Egypt and God broke the chains and walked Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Every other movement, every other period, every other event, and every other era of her history is interpreted in terms of the Exodus. This is especially true of the period of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century. One cannot know who Biblical Israel is without knowing the Exodus story.
I was talking to my wife about this. When I described to her the Exodus as the foundation, she caught me off guard. She said, “Why? Why is it so important?” I wanted to say because it is!
Instead, I asked, “As Christians, what is our foundation? What’s our starting point?” She immediately responded that we begin with Jesus on the cross dying for our sins, and then the empty tomb – Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected. She was exactly right. For Christians, everything is based on our knowledge of God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ. We have inherited the Exodus story from our spiritual ancestors. By the grace of God we receive through Jesus, we are adopted by God, “grafted in to Israel” Paul says in Romans 11. But, we experience the stories of ancient Israel from the vantage point of cross and empty tomb. We read the Old Testament through a lens colored by the Gospel. In fact everything in faith and everything in life for us is defined with reference to Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected.
How can we understand the story that birthed us as a people – a worshiping community? Our starting point, the cross and empty tomb, is different than ancient Israel’s starting point – the Exodus. So, how do we get into the Exodus story? How do hear it?
At this point, a quick summary is helpful. Jacob whom we meet in Genesis was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. Abraham was led to the land flowing with milk and honey, modern day Israel and Palestine, ancient Canaan. It was the land God promised to Abraham, and from there, God would, through Abraham’s descendents, bless the entire world.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob had 12 sons. The descendents of these 12 became the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Jacob’s favorite son was the 11th of the 12, Joseph. Joseph bragged of the way his father smiled on him over his brothers. He was gifted with future vision in his dreams and also with the supernatural ability to interpret dreams. He told his brothers of a dream in which they would bow before him. They hated his arrogance and favored status, so they took him by force and sold him to Midianite slave traders who carried Joseph off to Egypt.
The brothers told their father that an animal had killed Joseph. Meanwhile Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams became known and he went from the misery of slavery to holding an important position in Pharaoh’s court. He had become Egyptian royalty. Then, the famine he had foreseen hit. Starving, his brothers and father come to Egypt in search of food and were reunited with Joseph.
Genesis ends there, with Jacob and his 12 sons prospering not in the Promised Land, but in Egypt. Turn the page to Exodus, where several generations later the Hebrews’ numbers have swelled into the hundreds of thousands. As the years go by, history puts great distance between the Pharaoh who was loyal to Joseph and the era of the book of Exodus. It says a new Pharaoh took over, one who did not remember Joseph at all. He enslaved Israel and built the pyramids with Hebrews as his labor. They went from being a prosperous, immigrant people to chains. The Egyptians overseers drove the Hebrews with cruelty and brutality. Their backs were reddened from the Egyptian whip.
As the Egyptian burden mounted and the Hebrew knees buckled, the people hit a breaking point. Spiritual breakthroughs, much of the time, come in seasons of spiritual brokenness. The people cried out to God. Exodus 2:25 says, “God saw the Israelites, and He took notice.”
In God’s noticing, we see our own place in the ancient story, the narrative on which the Israelites forever stand. We see how in fact this story is our story. Or rather, we enter the story and submit our lives to it. All because of that last verse of the second chapter, “God saw the Israelites, and He took notice.”
God is a god who notices. Some may be offended that a gentile Christian community would try to own an ancient Hebrew text. We aren’t doing that. We know this is not ours, but that the Exodus has formed us by way of the cross. So, we would never say because of the cross the Exodus no longer has relevance. Nor would we say, we will forfeit all authority for reading the story to Jewish readers and only read in it what they say is permitted. The authority belongs to God and God has been revealed in Jesus who himself is God incarnate. We look to Him to see what God is like.
One of the things Jesus does is to show what God is like. He is God in the flesh. Similarly, the Exodus reveals who God is. And for the record, even in the Old Testament, God’s self-revelation goes beyond what God does in Israel.
There is no question that Israel is the chosen nation and God’s plan is to bless the world through Israel. That’s not debatable in the Old Testament or the New. There’s no wiggle room. God chose Israel. But it doesn’t mean God just left the rest of us out in the trash heap.
Consider Abraham. His first son Ishmael was born of his concubine Hagar, not his wife Sarah. The promise of God went through Sarah, so this other woman and this other child were outside of God’s plan, and Sarah expelled the servant women sending her to die in the desert. God showed up. As Hagar fled into certain death, her own and her son’s, she lost hope, but God “noticed her,” just as God noticed when Israel cried out in Exodus. God provided salvation for Hagar and Ishmael. Why? Because when people are broken, at the very lowest point, God notices. God intervenes. God saves.
God sees us. God notices and gets involved in our lives. As we submit our lives to the word of God, and the story of God and God’s people as we see it in Exodus, we realize God has intentions for us. And the best life a person can have is the life God plans. Israel ran into trouble in her history when she strayed from the course God set. Likewise, we suffer when go off the track and go our own way instead of God’s way.
Flipping over to Exodus 14, Pharaoh has released the Israelites but then decided to change his mind. He’s lost all his free labor and there are more cities and pyramids to build. He will chase his former slaves with chariots. He will round them up and bring them back to their miserable lot in Egypt.
However, it won’t be as easy as he thinks. As Pharaoh predicted, his charioteers easily overtake the Israelites, but he did not count on God’s continued activity. It says, the angel of the Lord came between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. At first sight, it would seem Israel was completely hemmed in – with the enemy army on one side, and the Red sea on the other. But the angel of the Lord stood between Egypt and Israel and made a confusing, disorienting darkness rest over the Egyptians forces. They were completely unable to do anything all night long.
That same Godly presence gave light to the Israelite camp. God physically located himself and how he was experienced all depended on your vantage point. If you were Egyptian, opposing God, you were blinded by night. If you were Hebrew, following God, you were given light.
God throws confusion into the enemy.
When Moses stretched out his hand, God blew a wind, and the Red Sea opened up. The God who notices, protects, and confuses, also is Master over nature. Yes, there are natural laws. Gravity says things that go up, must come down. The sun rises in the East and sets in the west. These laws are unavoidable. Yet God is free to work out with nature outside the laws that cannot be broken. The Red Sea cannot just be opened and closed again. God opened up the Red Sea so his people could walk through and begin their journey to receive the law and enter Canaan, the Promised Land. Then, God closed the Red Sea, swallowing the evil that pursued his people.
In our baptism, the waters pour over us burying in death the evil in us, our sinful selves. But like Israel, we emerge from the water alive, as new people, new creations. On the other side of the sea, Israel was new, the people of God freshly born again. Who is the God of the Other Side, the God who took them their, and greeted them upon their arrival?
It might be argued that central narrative is the creation, when God made the world in seven days. I suppose one could make a case that the most important story is Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law. Many other stories in the history of the Chosen People might vie for that spot at the center. But that spot belongs to the Exodus, the journey through the sea where God’s people were born and entered into a relationship with God who carried them.
On 9/11, we are on the other side. We’re on the other side of terrorist attacks that occurred on a grand scale. We’re on the other side of the Cold War – the Soviet Union and the Apartheid government in South Africa – those are institutions of the past. We live in the age of technology. The world has shrunk. Two weeks ago, I had a long on-line chat with a guy in Ethiopia. Even though we’ve only actually spent a week together, we see each other as dear friends who share much including faith in Jesus. The world has shrunk and has become immensely crowded. There will be 7 billion in the planet in my lifetime. Caucasians will no longer be a numeric majority in the United States. We live in a world that is strange, new, unpredictable, and changing before we can get ourselves settled.
What God do we see here? What God is waiting for us as we emerge from the waters of slow-moving history and try to speed up so we can drive in the current time which is as crowded as rush-hour and moves at breakneck pace?
The God welcoming us and walking with us is the God who reveals Himself in the New Testament – Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. Because of the incarnation, we can place ourselves in the story of Great Exodus. We need this God who notices; who protects; who confuses evil and the enemy who would harm us. We need this God who is Master of nature, who splits open so we can walk through. We desperately need Him and the good news is, He is Master over history. As every new thing, new technology, new notion of family, new war, new diabolical technique of crazed terrorists threatens to swallow us in confusion and fear, God is a step ahead. The Master of nature is Master of history and goes before just as He went before our spiritual forefathers.
The God of the Other side is waiting for us on the other side no matter what valley we must walk through or sea we must sail across or mountain we must climb. This God greets on the other side and goes with us every step of the way.
We will close this morning with a time of silent prayer. I invite you to empty your mind and heart of all thoughts and all distractions. Often in the invitation, I encourage you to bring it all to God. That is most appropriate, but this morning, I invite you to let it all go out of your heart and mind, and sit quietly before the God who notices. Let all distractions be quiet, and in the quiet open yourself to the God who protects. Let your spirit receive the God who is Master of Nature and Master of History. As we spend a few moments in silent meditation we are simply receiving God’s Spirit into our Spirit. There’s more specific prayer than that. We ask God’ Spirit to notice us and enter and take up residence in us.
[After a few moments sing “Step by Step.”]