Readings: Genesis 15:12-14, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:26-36, 2 Corinthians 12:6-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 21st, 2016
At the end of last weeks chapter things couldn't have been better. Joseph has saved his entire family from death by starvation and the whole clan have moved into one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the richest nation on earth. Fast Forward 400 years. A complete reversal of fortunes. The descendants of Joseph are now slaves.
Worse still there is a ruler in Egypt who is making them the scapegoats for just about everything that was wrong with the nation. Sadly, when it comes to the people who would become known as Jews, this became a repeated chapter in their history.
We have been talking about an 'Upper Story' and a 'Lower Story' that flow throughout the 66 books of the Bible. The 'Upper Story', God's perspective, the 'Lower Story', how it seems to us.
To understand what was going on with the 'Upper Story', we need to go back to a prophecy that was made way back in the days of Abraham. Genesis 15:13-14 "Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward... they will come out...” Everything that happens in these chapters is a fulfillment of that 'Upper Story' prophecy.
The coming out, the deliverance, takes place through a variety of means. A prime mover is a pondering prince known as Moses. We encounter a hard hearted Pharaoh and learn about a festival called Passover. We witness the people passing through the waters as they begin a perplexing journey that eventually leads to their promised land. Pondering, Passover and Passing through!
The Prince of Ponder
That baby Moses ever survived was a lucky escape. Pharaoh, out of fear of the rapidly expanding Hebrew tribes, had ordered all baby Hebrew boys to be killed. Escaping death, Moses is placed in a little basket, floats up the river and is adopted by an Egyptian princess. He lives in the royal palace, as a prince of Egypt, whilst being raised by his mother, through whom he is connected to Hebrew roots.
As he grows, the prince ponders his identity. Who am I? An Egyptian or a Hebrew? One day he sees an Egyptian task master abusing some Hebrew slaves and he kills the Egyptian. That act revealed to him where his heart lay. When he discovers that things were not as secretive as he thought, he flees Egypt for the rural backwaters and takes up being a sheep farmer, acquiring a wife and totally identifying himself, not with Egypt, but with the Hebrew people.
Everything is settled. End of story. No! Actually just the beginning. Whilst out tending the flocks he sees a bush on fire. Checking it out, weird factor one, it's not burning up. Weird factor two happens when the bush speaks to him. 'Moses, Moses'. Weird factor three. It's not just a voice. It's God. A God who tells Moses to take off his shoes as he is on holy ground. Weird factor four. God tells Moses that he is being sent to deliver the Hebrews from Egypt.
Moses is totally shocked. Top ten list of reasons why, from a 'Lower Story' perspective he should not return to Egypt. 1. He escaped from there. 2. There could be bad, bad, repercussions if he went back there. 3. He didn't want to go there. 4. He was happy where he was. 5. He hated speaking in public 6. He had a terrible stammer. 7. He didn't think this sounded like an excellent plan. 8. He had no reason to expect the Hebrews to follow him. 9. He didn't even know what he should call God. 10. He really, really, really thought God should send somebody else.
In each instance, God counteracts his excuses. Tell them 'I am who I am' has sent you. Take Aaron with you to do the talking. God gives him a staff, a big stick, that will witness to God's presence. The time to ponder had passed. It was time for action!
When God calls us, it is always weird. It is a totally mind blowing thought that the God who' boomed' creation into being requires something of us. We will respond to that call with every excuse we can think of. 'Here I am, Lord. Send somebody else.'
From the 'Lower Story' perspective we just came to church this morning. From the 'Upper Story' perspective, this is a moment of encounter with an awesome God, written in eternity, a divine meeting of eternal significance. It's never easy to take that perspective on board. For Moses, it was about to get real.
Fearsome Pharaoh and the events that lead to Passover
Moses and Aaron go to Egypt, gain the Hebrews trust and then comes a series of encounters where Moses does something, Pharoah's priests do something similar ... a nasty plague comes along, Pharaoh says, 'Go' and then he says 'Don't go'. He keeps changing his mind. The technical word is 'vacillation'.
The vacillation in the nation causes nothing but frustration as Pharaoh's administration twists and turns in provocation, success leads to humiliation, and then another miracle sensation, increases the vexation, but again Pharaoh frustrates the celebration!
Or you could sing 'Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you. No you can't, yes I can, No you can't, yes I can, No you can't, No you can't, yes I can.” From a 'Lower Story' perspeptive it is crazy. From an 'Upper Story' perspective God is showing the people that God can do whatever God wants to do and was preparing to do something that would be an unparalleled act of deliverance. It's called Passover. The final act that convinces Pharaoh to let the people go. They are set free through the blood of a lamb.
This becomes a vital theme for the Christian Church. We will see later in 'The Story' how when John the Baptist encounters Jesus he describes Jesus as 'The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29). It is a central feature of Christianity that upon a cruel cross, Jesus, the lamb of God, died for our sins, to set us free and bring to us the forgiving love of God... not simply so we can go to any promised heavenly land, but so we can go out into this world and share the message of God's love and forgiveness with others.
The story of Passover, with the death of the first born, of wood smeared by the blood of an innocent lamb, of the Hebrews being a people on the move towards becoming a nation whose purpose was to demonstrate to the world that God's love is a reality... these themes are so important for understanding the New Testament and what Jesus has done for each of us.
A famous New Testament verse, John 3:16 tells us 'That God so loved the world that God gave God's only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life'. Much of the theology and imagery of that renowned verse can be traced back to this story of the Hebrews being set free from Pharaoh
That story does not end with them being let go! The final element is this.
They Pass through the waters
If you have ever watched any of Hollywood's biblical epics then this is one of the most gripping, special effects laden moments, of the whole movie. The Hebrews are heading towards the waters. Pharaoh has vacillated once gain and his army, with chariots and horses, is in hot pursuit. Moses leads the people down to the sea. What's going to happen? They are trapped!
Then Charlton Heston raises his staff, the waters of the Red Sea part before them, they travel through, with huge walls of churning, foaming water each side of them. They make it through to the other side... but wait, the Egyptians are coming. Into the midst of the tumult they ride only to find the waves are no longer held back but come crashing down upon them and the entire army of Pharaoh is wiped out, whilst the Hebrews are safe on the other side.
Our communion rite is heavily based upon the Jewish celebration of Passover. The other sacrament that we observe in Presbyterian churches is baptism, which recalls the passing through the waters. Baptism is all about new beginnings. In our tradition, when a baby is born to a Christian family, we invite them to have their child marked with water as a sign of new life.
We recognize that Moses didn't say to the families with babies when they reached the Red Sea, 'Oh, no, they have to wait till they can decide if they want to pass through the waters.' We also administer the sacrament of baptism to adults who are embarking upon a Christian life for the first time, or who want to express their faith in Jesus Christ. Passing through the waters is one of the ways we find our story in God's story.
New Beginnings are always important. But they don't solve everything. We still have to work out who we are and where we are in our lives and in our spiritual walk. As they began their journey into the desert they had a lot to learn about how God could supply their every need … and it wasn't easy. Little did they know that God was about to offer them a top ten list that has formed the bedrock of law for many civilizations. But that is next time!
Today we have seen Moses Pondering who he was and how the 'Lower Story' of his life fitted into God's 'Upper Story' plan. That's something we also need to do. Ask ourselves what God is calling us to do as we place our lives into God's hands.
We reflected on Passover, on how through the blood of a lamb, God provided for the peoples salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ we can also find lives that are free and forgiven through the finished work of Christ upon the Cross.
We reflected upon how the Hebrews Passed Through the waters and how the sacrament of baptism marks new beginnings. We can allow God to lead us through the milestones of our lives. Nowhere does scripture promise that such will be easy. We will lose sight of that 'Upper Story' of God's plan.
But never give up. Keep moving. There are always better days ahead for people of faith. Where we are now is not our final destination. As we seek to be faithful, we can invite others to walk with us. As we live out our own story, through grace, through prayer, through seeking to be the people God calls us to be, we find our lives become part of something so much greater than we dare imagine!
Next time 'New Commands and a New Covenant'.
To God be the Glory. Amen.