We really bump up against it today – the great plaguing mysteries of God. The Scripture readings for today are really bookend readings. In the first one YHWH tells Moses “just watch what I am about to do to Pharaoh.” The second one describes the midnight horror of Passover – which to the Jews meant liberation but to the Egyptians meant the death of the firstborn of all humans – no family was protected – even all livestock. “And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.”
In between these bookend readings are the six chapters that describe the plagues that decimated Egypt: Nile turned to blood, frogs, gnats, flies, death of livestock, boils on humans and animals, destructive hail, locusts, darkness that could be “felt,” and then…the death of the firstborn.
When I envision it, I think of Hiroshima or Dresden – utter desolation. What can you say?
I have been told on several occasions: “John, when you are not confident about what you are saying, keep it brief but say it with authority.” I shall try!
I am sure that in your Kerygma classes and in your personal readings and memories the plagues cause problems. They suggest the destructive horror, shadow-side of God, the over-the-top punishment. Whatever happened to the forgiving and compassionate God? And God hardening Pharaoh’s heart? If God can harden Pharaoh’s heart, why not soften it – win/win situation, no? This passage brings up issues of human free will vs. divine determinism.
And then of course there are the historical/factual issue about whether this really happened? Each of the individual plagues describe something like the natural disasters that we know – for example, in the 1840s there was a plague of locusts in Cold Spring Minnesota. But the piling up of the plagues in a period that sounded like it happened over a couple of weeks or so makes you wonder. There is no record of anything like these collective cataclysm outside of the Bible. You would think that in the annals of Egyptian history there would be some mention that over a seemingly brief period of time – all of this befell all of Egypt? There would be no Egypt left; its labor force gone, its economy ravaged, its people decimated.
The Hebrew scriptures are not blind to these concerns but unlike many Christians and those of us who believe we deserve answers to all our questions, (like, “Why cancer now? Why can’t I get a break?) those who collected these stories and edited them through the generations and returned to them again and again were more comfortable with ambiguity, finding meaning and identity and truth in the narrative-the TRUTH that lies behind the facts.
The truth that God is always bigger then anything you and I can say about God – “I am who I am.” Just when you think you have God figured out – think again.
The truth that God is always on the side of the oppressed. The cruelty and ruthlessness of the oppressive systems of imperial Egypt that brought the people of Israel to the brink of despair, to the edge of destruction – simply will not be tolerated by God who creates everyone in the divine likeness and image and has a plan towards the redemption of the entire created order.
Remember in Genesis – God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars. But Pharaoh (who is seen as a divine character), with all the laws of Egypt at his disposal, is setting himself up to be the agent of the broken promise, the shattered covenant, the one who refuses to acknowledge God’s rightful position. God seeks to create. Pharaoh seeks to destroy. God seeks to liberate. Pharaoh seeks to enslave.
God will be true to God’s covenant. The person or persons, the systems, structures, societies that build themselves up to presume to hand out life and death, to control peoples, and make life oppressive will not, cannot succeed over time – they will be their own destruction. “The moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice.” Dr. King once said. The very nature of the Divine creation will use “any means possible” to bend the arc and bring the balance back – even through horrifying means – sounds more Malcolm X. God will deliver. God will bring us through. Those in power better watch out.
We can look around and see oppression. Many of us feel very oppressed by this or that – oppression of our own or other’s making – but that is not life lived according to God’s covenant – and the promise is: freedom is coming; nothing will stop God.
There is no accident that these texts that befuddle you and me were great comfort to the Jews in exile, to the pilgrims who sailed to new shores, to those who wrote the Declaration of Independence, to the slaves on the plantations, to those suffering under the Jim Crow laws in the South, or making “bricks without straw” within the institutional racism that is found throughout our culture. I pause to honor the memory of the late and great Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth – who never gave up in his quest for non-violent justice.
You who are under the oppression of an abusive relationship, or an addiction, or of unfair employment – don’t harden your heart for God is trying to set you free. Don’t misunderstand what you might see before you: the injustice of today will be met with restoration and promised equilibrium – which may not feel so good to those on top who are abusing their power, and it may not be easy for you, either. The Exodus of the Jews and their formation in the wilderness was hardly a picnic! Birthing of a new age is not painless.
Another truth that runs deeply in this story is this: the plagues represent “Nature gone wild.” When there is such deep injustice, an abuse of the divine intention – the natural order, the cosmic order will act to restore itself. Mother Nature will return all to the darkness you can feel and there the dove will hover once again and God will breathe: let there be light!
There is a very deep connection between the natural order and how we live our lives; there is a cause and effect at play. And it is to our personal, collective, national, political, natural, economic, even cosmic peril that we dismiss the science of diet, or the facts about smoking, or the reality of climate change.
Why are so many hearts hardened to the facts, the scientific facts that we simply cannot continue to waste the natural resources, and abuse matter, and consume, and consume and consume and consume some more, and not face the consequences of perilous plagues – of flooding and storming, of insects, of ice melts, and red tides, of diseases and famines and pestilences as horrible as anything throughout history. Or worst of all the plague of STUFF.
“Will I not wake up until my house is swept aside, my children are taken, my nation falls farther behind?” And THEN I cry “Where is God?”
I never realized until this week that Exodus is a book with the soul of the prophets; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos – crying out for justice, screaming in print: “Can’t you see what is happening? Don’t you know how far God will go to move creation onward?”
God will act… is moving right now… to restore, even as my heart remain hardened. Oh, occasional panic will cause me to change my behavior for a time, but then I return to the status quo.
We can’t break apart the political, from the religious, from the national, from the personal, from the natural, from the cosmic. It is all of a piece. God, through creation, restoration, liberation, salvation – will have her way over destruction, oppression, slavery, damnation wherever it is. The prophets declare this too. And it is not coincidence that the messages of Exodus and the Prophets are so similar because they came into being at the same time of Israel’s history.
It is not as easy as pointing the finger – we are all implicated as oppressors and as oppressed, it is both external and internal. You and I are the Hebrews. You and I are the Egyptians. We want freedom, but are hearts are often set, our minds closed. But never, ever forget the good news: God will bring us all towards a promised land of hope, of prosperity, of equity where each person can find some safety and together we can build the beloved community where the lion lies down with the lamb. For in Jesus Christ the entire created order is groaning and crawling towards redemption, even old Pharaoh. Christ welcomes all into the kingdom, the abused and the abuser – through the refiner’s fire of hope to the final restoration of peace, through plagues of horror in order to liberate, through seasons of oppression in order to set free, through years in the wilderness to arrive in the promised land.
Well. My sermon has been shorter then usual. And I have preached with as much authority as I could muster.
Thanks be to God.