Thursday, October 30, 2014

God of Liberation

Exodus 1:1-14; 3:1-15
Galatians 5:1, 13-15

The central story of the Hebrew scriptures is liberation from slavery in Egypt.  In the continuing saga of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, like his father before him, Jacob has a favorite son and makes that clear to all the other sons by bestowing a coat of many colors on Joseph.  Joseph doesn’t help matters by sharing with his brothers his dreams in which they all bow down to him.  So the brothers hatch a plan to kill Joseph, but at the suggestion of one of the older brothers, they make a little money and still got rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites that happened to pass by.   The Ismaelites sold Joseph to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a man named Potiphar.  Although Joseph’s work as a slave was exemplary, Potiphar’s wife had Joseph thrown into prison because he refused her advances.  Joseph languished in prison until one of his fellow prisoners, who was tapped to be Pharaoh’s cupbearer, mentioned Joseph’s dreams interpretation skills to Pharaoh.  Joseph’s accurate interpretation helped Egypt prepare for a future famine.  Joseph became Pharaoh’s trusted advisor and was given power over Egypt as its governor.  

The famine spread throughout the Middle East until Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt where it was said they could buy food.  Through a long chain of events, Joseph was reconciled to his brothers and the whole clan moved to Egypt where they were treated well as Joseph’s relatives.  Over several centuries, Joseph was forgotten and the Israelites had multiplied in such great numbers that they were perceived as a threat by the sitting Pharaoh.  First Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews forcing them to build supply cities.  Brian McLaren writes that Pharaoh called for, a gradual genocide by decreeing that all the male babies born to the Israelite slaves be thrown into the Nile River to drown.  You can see how this strategy would leave the next generation of Hebrew women either barren or vulnerable to sexual enslavement by Egyptian men.  After one generation, no more “pure” Hebrews would be born.  

McLaren goes on to say, “Often in the Bible, when there is a big problem, God prepares a person of people to act as God’s partners or agents in solving it.  In other words, God gets involved by challenging us to get involved.  In this case, God prepares a man named Moses.”  You know the story about Moses’ mother putting her infant son in a basket of reeds and floating him in the river.  Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and raised him as her own as an Egyptian, and his mother was chosen to be his wet nurse.  He was an Israelite by birth and an Egyptian by culture.  We’d call that an identity crisis!  

Moses claimed his roots when he saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite.  He killed the Egyptian to protect the Israelite, which made him a fugitive in Egypt.  The Israelites were afraid of him too, so he ran away from Egypt.  Along his way, he defended a group of girls from some bullying shepherds, and found a home with their grateful father.  He married one of the young women and thought he was settled.  But God had other plans.

One day when he was with his herds and he saw the bush that seemed to be on fire, but was not burning up.  It was God’s way of getting Moses’ attention.  God send Moses back to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelite slaves.  You know the story of Moses’ demands, Pharaoh’s refusal, and God’s responding plagues, one after another until Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go.  But even then Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after the fleeing Israelites.  Caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s advancing army, the Israelites thought they were doomed, but God parted the sea allowing the Israelites to walk across on dry land, but the Egyptian army was caught when the waters of the sea closed.  McLaren observes that, “The fate [the Egyptians] had planned for the Israelite babies now became their own fate.”

The story of the exodus: Makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners!  God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future can come.  That revolutionary message is still unknown or rejected in much of the world today.  If you believe it, you will live one way.  I you don’t, you’ll live another way.

This story was told every year by Israelite families at the festival of the Passover.  Not only did it commemorate the angel of death passing over the homes of the Israelites in the final plague, but it celebrated the Hebrews passing over from slavery to freedom through God’s liberating power.  Passover reminded the Israelites that their God heard the cries of the oppressed and downtrodden and was on their side.  It was a reminder that they must always remember what it was like to be a slave, and to have no home, so that they would treat strangers with kindness and justice.  

“Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was formed in this story of liberation. . . . Where others saw a worthless slave, an exploitable asset, a damnable sinner, a disgusting outsider, Jesus saw someone to set free.”  

Let me conclude with McLaren’s last paragraph in this chapter.

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so—not just annually, but frequently, and not just in memory of Moses in ancient Egypt, but also in memory of his life and message.  That’s why followers of Jesus continue to gather around a simple meal of bread and wine today.  By participating in that meal, we are making the same choice Moses made—and the same choice Jesus made: to join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free. 

That’s what it means to be alive in God’s story of creation and nonviolent liberation.  It’s a road into the wild, a road we make by walking.

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