(This is the first in the Exodus Sermon series. The audio for the entire series is here.)
Israel was indeed a nation born of promises. It was an entire nation that traced its lineage back to one man, Abraham, a man who had received an outlandish set of promises from God.
At the beginning of Exodus, though, it seems as though those promises were merely empty words. We find Israel, who had been promised Canaan as a homeland, living as slaves in Egypt. How they got there was simple enough to explain. A long time ago there was a famine in Canaan, and the only place to get food was in Egypt, so, to Egypt they went. They stayed there until the famine passed, and went it did they decided they liked it well enough, and stuck around. Why not, right? They were comfortable, they were provided for, and after a few decades, they were as at home in Egypt as they had ever been in Canaan anyways.
Eventually, though, they fell prey to the fears of the powerful in Egypt. To prevent them from becoming a threat, a Pharaoh enslaved them, using them to build his own wealth and power. And so, their not-homeland became a home of oppression for them, one in which they lived without dignity, humanity, or possibility. Even Moses, the man who is to be God’s instrument of deliverance, sees no other way. He is willing to fight the injustice himself, and he does but, he is quickly forced to recognize that he is no match for the injustice his kinsmen face, and he flees. While in exile, he starts a family and gives his child a most telling name, Gershom, saying that this name was because “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”
Do you see what’s off key there? Doesn’t it sound like Moses has bought into his current situation as an exile from his real home, which he seems to think is back in Egypt. See, that’s part of the problem. Israel was too at home in Egypt. It becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that while Israel didn’t really want to be slaves, they also didn’t want to leave Egypt. They really don’t even understand how extensive, how radical, God’s deliverance would be. His actions in the Exodus would completely redeem and redefine Israel.
The Exodus is a story of complete and utter redemption, God’s way. It is the story of how God responded to the cries of his people, how he called out an unlikely leader to help him utterly defeat the forces that were against his people. It’s a story of how The same God who collides with the powers of Egypt brings his people into covenant with himself, for the sake of living in community with him. It is a rich story, and over the next five weeks we’re going to see how this remarkable story of redemption can redefine us, just as it did Israel.
[Let us pray together.]
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel-and God knew.
This is the true beginning of the Exodus story. While it seems clear enough that God was behind the earlier story of Moses’ birth, the text makes it abundantly clear that it is the crying out of Israel that triggers the Exodus event. In the next chapter, Moses is twice told that God is acting because he has heard the cry of Israel. Later on, in chapter six, after being initially rebuffed by Pharaoh, Moses is told again, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.”
Israel had become too at home in Egypt, and had disregarded their identity as people to whom God had made incredible promises. They had become complacent, had fallen asleep. But when their suffering became unbearable, when they could no longer stomach the status quo, they cried out to God. And while it may be that they really didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, the simple act of their crying out to God provoked the Lord to action. It signals to the Lord a crack in their complacency, a readiness for redemption. Their cry means that they are stirring from their slumber. Crying out is waking up.
It means waking up to all the things around us that shouldn’t be tolerable, but have become so. It means waking up to our own sins, to our own limitations. It means realizing that we are not at home in Egypt, that things aren’t just fine, that things must change.
As we begin this journey together, I want to simply ask you to cry out to God with me. Let us cry out to God that, even though we don’t yet know what needs to change around and within us, we are indeed desperate for his intervention, and we rely on his redemption. Let us cry out, not just in this moment, but habitually, as we continually encourage each other to abandon the things that would enslave us, to prepare ourselves for God’s redemption and redefinition. Let us be a people that cries out to God. Let us be a community that is always waking up.
We can do this, because crying out doesn’t require much of us. It doesn’t require us to be courageous or wise, pure or particularly holy. We don’t have to be smart, or eloquent. Crying out only requires one thing of us, honesty. Our cry to God, just like Israel’s, flows from an honest assessment of who we are before God. It requires us to be hints about our flaws and weaknesses, about our limits and sins. When we cry out we confess ourselves, we confess who we are and what we cannot do on our own. And so, it requires us to be honest with ourselves as we speak to the one who already knows the truth about us anyway.
We may take that honest cry to God, knowing that we cry out to a listening God. Exodus affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of action, who responds to the cries of his children.
And lest we think that God only hears the cries of his people, that he only acts here because it is actually Israel, let me share with you another passage, Isaiah 19. Isaiah will not allow us to think about God’s listening ear in exclusive terms. Like Jonah, Isaiah blows open the limits of God’s attention and care. Speaking of Egypt, Isaiah writes, “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them.” The Lord will hear and respond to the cries of even the enemies of the Lord’s people, the original oppressors themselves, the Egyptians! Don’t be afraid that you are too far gone, to distant from God, that he can’t or won’t hear your cry to him. The Lord is a listening God, and is ready to respond, even to Egypt, even to you and me.
One more thing. Everything I’ve said before assumes that when we read the story, we identify most with the part played by Israel. But what if, in reality, we actually are best represented by the Egyptians? Maybe not Pharaoh, or even actual slave drivers, but just run of the mill Egyptians. Innocent of direct oppression, they are complicit with the system, and destined for the same destruction as Pharaoh. What if we, who are used to being on the top of the world’s power structures, are more like these Egyptians than we are God’s oppressed people?
It’s a horrible, offensive thought, isn’t it? But the more I think of it, there is really only one way to be sure. If we don’t want to be like the Egyptians, we have to learn to be like God. And this story gives us a clear picture of one important way to become more godly.
If we want to be like God, we have to learn to listen like God. We have to be willing to stop and hear the voices of hurting people, the voices of people who cry out against all the things which oppress them, to the things that enslave them. The God we serve is an attentive God. This texts affirms that God does in fact hear, he does in fact care, and he does respond! This simple fundamental fact is one of the first places we must meet God if we truly wish to be a people like him, who model our lives after him. We know we have to listen to God, but have we not learned to listen like God? We must hear people, give attention to people, be willing to respond to the needs of people. We must work to hear what he hears.
And so, let us all cry out to God. Let us cry out for our own redemption. Let us cry out on behalf of those around us who need redemption, and let us cry out that we may have open ears to the cries of those suffering around us. Amen.
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