Then and Now—God in Unknown Places and Experiences, II: The Exodus
This month of August Christine Hides and I are standing in the stories of God from the Old Testament. The stories from the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five chapters of the Bible. Maybe you call it the stories of Abraham, all the way through where the promised land, where the kingdom is established, and the people of God build a Temple. We’re taking off big chunks of stories and have a new way to share these stories with you.
We have here today a piece of the desert because some many stories of God take place in the desert.
People only go into the desert if they have to because the desert is a dangerous place. Food and water are sparse in the desert, and so people die without food and water. People don’t go into the desert unless they have to.
The wind blows and without plants to anchor sand the landscape can change and people can get lost. People only go into the desert when they have to.
In the generations of Abraham the people of God were living in the land. During that time the rain stopped falling, all the crops died, and there was no grain for making bread. The people were hungry and the children would cry at night. The mothers and fathers listened for what God was saying to them and it was time to go.
Even though they had to go into the desert it was time to go and find food. So they left bringing with them all their loved ones, they left in search of food.
The arrived in the land of Egypt where food, water, and warm welcome. There was a place for them. After many generations, the people of God lived in Egypt, well respected, and loved.
Then a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know their ancestors. The Pharaoh noticed the way that the people of God had grown in number. It was like they were as many as the stars in the sky and as many as the grains of sand in the desert.
The Pharaoh felt trapped by this and so the Pharaoh trapped the people of God. The people of God had to work when the Pharaoh said work and they could only rest when the Pharaoh said rest and they could only eat when the Pharaoh provided. The people of God were enslaved.
A leader among them arose named Moses. He came to Pharaoh and said “Let my people go.” Pharaoh said “no.” Moses came back many time to the Pharaoh saying “Let my people go,” but the Pharaoh said no.
Many strange things happened in Egypt and yet still when Moses asked “Let my people go,” Pharaoh said “no.”
Something terrible happened in the land, the firstborn of all the Egyptian families died, even the firstborn son of the Pharaoh. At that time Moses came to the Pharaoh to say “Let my people go” and Pharaoh said “yes.”
Moses went back to his people and told them to hurry, we must go. They packed up all their things, they didn’t have enough time to wait for the bread to rise, so the bread that they packed that day was flat. We still have bread like this today, we call it matzah. Every time we share this bread we can taste this story.
With their bread and all the possessions they could carry in a hurry, the people of God left toward the desert. Then they heard the sound they were scared that they might hear, Pharaoh’s army approaching.
The sound of the horse’s hooves sounded like thunder, they became pressed up against the waters, and no one knew what they would do next. Then God drew near to Moses and Moses drew near to God. Moses knew what God was calling him to do.
Moses found a way through the waters with all the people crossing over. Once all the people made it through the waters, the waters closed behind them, and Pharaoh’s army could not reach them.
There they were on the other side of the waters, in the dessert, they did not know what would come next, but now they were free. The praised God.
Miriam, Moses’ sister led them in the dancing. We thank God for this sacred story, for the people who crossed the desert, for the waters that made a way through, and for the desert itself that carries so many of our stories of God’s love.
Last week, we watched the story of Abraham unfold: a family from Ur, following God’s lead, and walking willingly into the desert as an act of faith.
There is no evidence that Abraham was coerced. He was not forced to leave Ur. He was not under undue social pressure to leave. He wasn’t fired from his job or fleeing from the law.
He simply drew near to God, and God drew near to him, and he knew in the depth of his being, in a sacred way, that he was being called in a new direction.
As he followed the urging of the divine, he was affirmed along the way, and began to discern that the God he was following was a God who went with him into that unknown future, and was present every step along the way.
Generations later, when Abraham’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren encounter the hardship of famine, they leave home, but this time, they enter the desert out of necessity, this time, in search of daily bread.
We won’t get into the complexities of the Joseph narrative, his technicolor dream coat and all that but suffice it to say, there is much rejoicing when the family is finally together in Egypt, food rations widely available.
Egypt, for Abraham’s great-grandchildren, is a place of safety, nourishment, and relief. They are received with open arms. They are welcomed. They are known and respected. It becomes home, a place to set down roots, a place to thrive.
What happens next, we don’t quite know. There is a great ellipsis, a dot…dot…dot that erases or passes by several hundred years. What we do know is that God’s promise has come true: Abraham’s descendants have become as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert.
But now the very proliferation of progeny that God so promised has become the reason that Pharoah takes notice of them. Pharoah becomes fearful that they might try to overthrow the kingdom, and so in an act of self-preservation, he enslaves them.
So, when the people of God escape into the desert, it is in search of freedom. People do not go into the desert unless they have to. But this time, the desert in all its barrenness offers more promise than Egypt in all its affluence. The desert becomes a place of safety, a place for human dignity and liberation. The desert becomes a place of rest and joy after untold years of forced labor.
While the story of Abraham reminds us that God goes with us into every unknown future, following us on the path from here to there, always present, the story of Moses reminds us that God is a God of liberation, a God who longs for the dignity and freedom of all people, a God who changes the hearts and minds of the powerful and the unjust, so that oppression, coercion, enslavement, and injustice might cease.
We, as human beings, as people who participate in the world-at-large, as global citizens, as faithful ones who seek to long for the same thing God longs for, we know and notice the ways in which oppression, coercion, enslavement, and injustice still exist.
In the labor market. In coffee and chocolate production. In places of war. In places of dictatorship. Even in places closer than we would like to admit.
The Exodus event did not eradicate the human propensity to abuse, exploit and subjugate one another. But the Exodus event does give us a vision for another way, so that we commit to pursuing the liberation, dignity, and freedom of all people in ways that are creative, rooted in love, and energized by an attentiveness to the presence of God at work in and through us.
We worship a God of liberation. We worship a God of freedom. We worship a God who hears our deepest longing for another way.
In his book Great Prayers of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann puts a finer point on the presence of God in this story.
Brueggemann says that all God needed to hear from the enslaved people was their groaning prayer, and with that, God responds. God did not need long, eloquent prayers. God did not need years of faithful worship attendance or Bible study.
God did not need theological statements about the necessity of liberation. All God needed to hear was the groaning cry of the enslaved people.
This is where I connect with the Exodus story most deeply these days. That God hears our groaning prayer, and in hearing that groan, God’s plan for liberation is ready to unfold. Immediately. I resonate with this message because each of us in our own way have prayed a groaning prayer, the kind of wordless prayer that comes from the depths of ourselves.
Whether the intensity physical pain or the kind of sorrow that shakes you to the core, your groaning prayer was wordless and half formed, barely directed to the ear of God, barely audible, barely even articulated because of the burden you were under.
Maybe it is a burden you are still under. Your groaning prayer is heard by God, and God is remembering the promises made to you, God is awakening to you and within you, God is placing people in your life, surrounding you with a community of care, who will be your path toward freedom, liberation, dignity, release, rest, and a way out.
That’s what Exodus means. The word ex-odos literally means “the road out” or “the exit.” The story of the Exodus is the off ramp, the escape route, the retreat, the withdrawal, the evacuation, the way out from under the groaning impossibilities set before us.
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez says that “God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.” That is the Exodus story. God hears the groaning prayer of an entire people, and is moved to compassion and divine action.
For us the message is both one of comfort—our God is a God of liberation—and a calling—a calling to draw near to this God of liberation, a calling to dream the divine dreams of freedom into reality along with the holy-one who is at work in the world.
We are Christ’s hands and feet, say the justice-seeking mystics.
May we join divine-love on the “road out” from oppression and suffering, both at a systemic level, alleviating the agony of entire people groups for whom oppression, slavery, and terror have become the norm, and at the individual level within community, relieving the impact of personal sorrows, ailments, and groaning ache.
May we find, in our own lives, the Exodus-God who writes a way out on our hearts and sends us toward freedom and persevering hope.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.