Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + March 7, 2018
Reading: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
The story we just heard is one of the most important in Israel’s history. It has been told and retold, almost like Christians tell and retell the story of Jesus, as a way to understand God and people, as a way to know what’s right and wrong, and as a source of comfort and hope.
In fact we heard it referenced this Sunday. Our first reading told us the story of how God gave Israel the 10 Commandments. It began: “Then God spoke all these words: ‘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 20:1-3) Many other laws from the First Testament include this reminder that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery.
The book of Leviticus contains commandments like: “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes…I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:35-36).
The book of Deuteronomy says: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:17-18).
Commandments like these use the story of the exodus from Egypt as a reason to be faithful to God, and sometimes they use the history of God freeing the Israelites from slavery as a reason why the Israelites should not treat people unjustly, as the slavemasters did their ancestors, but they should treat people fairly and graciously, as God treated them.
The First Testament recalls the Exodus story in other ways, too: to praise God and to give hope to the Israelites when they need God to save them again.
The Psalms rejoice in God’s power and help:
Come and see what God has done:
He is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
He turned the sea into dry land;
They passed through the streams on foot. (Psalm 66:5-6)
The prophets offer God’s hope to the people of Israel with the memory of God saving their ancestors from slavery. After the Babylonian Exile, when Jerusalem had been conquered by foreign armies and many of its people had been dragged away to Babylon, a prophet reminded the Israelites of who their God is:
Who makes a way in the sea,
A path in the mighty waters,
Who brings out chariot and horse,
Army and warrior,
They lie down, they cannot rise,
They are extinguished, quenched like a wick. (Isaiah 43:15-17)
That God was still there God, and God would do for them what God did for their ancestors:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2a, 3a)
In addition to all these reminders, the Bible commands the Jewish people to remember and celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt every year with the Passover meal (cf. Exodus 12).
Telling (over and over) the story of God freeing Israel from slavery is a way for the Jewish people to remember who God is and what God is like. God has chosen Israel to be God’s people; God is the one who saves them and sets them free; God is the one with power to do miraculous things like hold back the waters of the sea. And even beyond the people of Israel: God cares for all those who are being mistreated and oppressed and acts to save them.
The Exodus story also reminds the Jewish people of who they are. They are a people who have known both slavery and liberation, who have known what it’s like to suffer at the hands of other people and known what it’s like to be saved by God through other people and through miracles. And they are a people in relationship with the God who called them and saved them, and they are beholden to God for what God has done for them. In the same way that Luther told Christians that we — with the help of the Holy Spirit — ought to strive to live according to God’s will because we are thankful for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — in the same way God told the Israelites: remember what I have done for you, and now live as I am telling you to live. Obey these commandments. Care for those who are suffering. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The Exodus story has continued to be hugely important for Christians. Through Jesus we have become part of God’s chosen people, inheriting God’s promises and stories, including this one. The gospels often paint Jesus as a new Moses, teaching God’s will and leading people to freedom; maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus’s last meal was the Passover celebration, the official day to remember the Exodus story, and that Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Passover weekend. And Christians since ancient times have lifted up the story of the Israelites’ path to salvation through the Red Sea as a symbol for baptism, the Christian path through the waters to salvation.
Christians in the United States have held on to the Exodus story in their own particular ways. In 1630 the Puritan preacher John Winthrop told a ship full of Puritan pilgrims that they were the New Israel, crossing the sea on the way to the Promised Land. European-Americans continued to hold on to that version of the story as they settled new regions, formed a nation, and spread westward across the continent — believing that they were doing this by God’s promise and God’s command, spreading God’s light and building God’s world.
Meanwhile, enslaved Africans converted to Christianity, and they heard the story of the Exodus from the point of view of the slaves waiting for God to free them. They found hope in this story of God hearing the cry of the slaves and leading them to freedom. The exodus story has continued to be a central story in the Black Church, through the time of Emancipation and Reconstruction and on again through various movements for civil rights.
The history of telling the story of the Exodus — both inside and outside the Bible — shows us how this story can preach to us both gospel and law, both liberty and justice, both comfort and judgment. Sometimes the prophets used this story to offer hope to the Israelites when they felt trapped and hopeless; other times the prophets put the leaders of the Israelites in the place of Pharaoh, the ones who were treating others unjustly and needed to change their ways. Likewise, in American history the same story that inspired many of our nation’s founders and leaders could be used to point out that in some ways they were pharaohs, keeping slaves captive and legislating other forms of injustice. Powerful stories have this effect: they can call us to be better people and give us hope when it feels like we are the ones who can’t make it on our own. In Lutheran terms, they speak to us as both full sinners and full saints.
As we read this story during Lent, during our time of preparation for Easter and the celebration of our own salvation and freedom, we may best approach it from both sides. How are we like the Israelites in Egypt, needing God to free us from whatever it is that binds us — from slavery to sin, or hopelessness, or the forces of injustice? How can this story give us hope? But also: how are we like Pharaoh, the one who needs to hear God speaking through the people around us, saying “let my people go,” or “hear my commandments” or “do justice, and love kindness”?
Let us pray.
Liberating God, give us ears to hear you in all the ways that you speak to us. When we do not walk in your ways of humility and justice, when we do not speak your good news, soften our hearts so that we may hear you call us to help you free others. When we get too comfortable in our own chains — in our own sin, or in the ways of world — open our imaginations so that we can hear you call us to freedom and new life. And when we feel trapped or hopeless or helpless, break through our thoughts so that we can hear your promises of forgiveness, freedom, and resurrection. Through Christ our Lord and Savior, Amen.