There are two basic questions that we can take to the Scriptures any time we read them, no matter what the passage, no matter what the circumstances. Two questions that any Book of the Bible, any Psalm, any author, somehow addresses. Two questions that we will probably return to several times as we go through the next several months, as we follow the story arc of the Bible from the Creation in Genesis through the Day of Pentecost in Acts. There are lots of other questions that the Bible can help answer, some big and some small. But these are the two basic questions that I think we can rely on Scripture to offer insight on: Who is God? and Who are we? A single passage of the Bible can’t offer us a complete answer to these questions. Heck, the whole Bible can’t offer us a complete answer to these questions. Who God is can’t be nailed down like that, because a part of who God is, is mystery. For that matter, who we are can’t be nailed down like that, because a part of who we are, perhaps the part of us made in God’s image, is mystery, too. And on both counts, that’s a good thing. Because mystery leads us to seek. It reminds us that there is more than our own knowledge, more than our own views, more than our own perspective. It, like everything else, is a gift.
But there is something to be learned, or perhaps to be remembered, in looking at today’s texts and asking these questions. Who is God? And Who are we? Let’s start by asking Exodus Who is God?
One way that Exodus answers this question is through the person of Pharaoh. Last week, when we left the family of Israel/Jacob, they were enjoying the protection of the Pharaoh, due to the good will of their brother Joseph. He was second-in-command to Pharaoh, because he saved the land of Egypt from a terrible famine. At the end of Genesis, we are told that Joseph and his brothers and all their families settled in Egypt, and planned to wait there until God brought them back to the promised land. As far as we can tell, throughout Joseph’s life, they were taken care of, and when Joseph died, Genesis tells us, he was embalmed and placed in a coffin, according to the Egyptian custom. Things seem pretty good for the Israelites at that point. But Exodus opens to a different story. After Joseph and his whole generation died, the Israelites remained in Egypt and flourished. Exodus says that “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
The problem came when a new Pharaoh arose, one who did not know Joseph. And, as we will learn, this Pharaoh was ruled more by fear and power than by concern for the land of Egypt or his people. Out of fear, he enslaved the Israelites. Eventually, his fear was so great that he resorted to violence. And he made all of his people complicit in his violence. He commanded all of Egypt to kill every boy born to the Hebrews by throwing them into the Nile.
Well, you know the story. You’ve seen the Yule Brenner/Charlton Heston movie. In spite of
the command to kill the Hebrew babies, Heston, I mean Moses, grows up in Pharaoh’s household, and is eventually called by God to lead the people out of captivity. And it is this same fearful, power-blinded Pharaoh who decides that he will go head-to-head with God. Now, as you may know, in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh was set up as a God, revered as a deity alongside all the other gods of Egypt. And that is what the next part of the story is really about. 9 plagues, 9 chances for Pharaoh to prove himself. Blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, all giving the god Pharaoh the chance to show that he could and would save his people. And time and again, he shows himself to be less interested in saving his land and his people, and more interested in maintaining control, in holding on to power at any cost. Even his officials are sick of him! After the plague of locusts, they beg him to give up: “How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” And Pharaoh still doesn’t get it.
And that is the answer that this story gives to the question of Who is God? God is not Pharaoh. God is not power-hungry or greedy. God does not work out of fear. Pharaoh is everything that God is not. Pharaoh enslaves. Pharaoh destroys. Pharaoh fears.
And the 10th plague comes, and the people are freed. And we see the truth: if Pharaoh enslaves and destroys and fears, God brings freedom, and justice, and new life, new beginnings.
Now, I know that it is hard for us to hear, this 10th plague. It is hard to hear this story of God sending the angel of death into all the land of Egypt, striking down all the firstborn. It’s hard to hear this as a story of freedom and even harder to hear it as a story of creation. But think what it means to hear this if you are in captivity; if you are a people in slavery. Think what it means to hear this if you are a people whose sons have been thrown in the Nile. Think what it means for the Israelites.
Which brings us to the second question: Who are we?
And the answer that Exodus gives us, the answer that we get over and over again throughout scriptures is the same answer that we ourselves said just a few minutes ago when we said together the public confession: we are a people who are in bondage, and cannot free ourselves.
The people of Israel are enslaved by a false god. They are captive to his fear and his violence and his greed. They are in bondage. And they cannot free themselves. Even if they could somehow rise up and free themselves, even if they could somehow resist, it would have to be violence against violence. It would have to be by becoming like their oppressor. It would mean setting themselves in the place of God, just as Pharaoh has tried to do.
And so God does what they cannot. God takes the burden from them. The violence that comes, comes from God, and it returns the sins of the Egyptians back to them. It’s not pretty, and it’s not comfortable, and I would rather not have to preach on this part of the story. But I want you to hear the good news in it as well. It is a gift to the Israelites. It is freedom, a release from bondage, that does not require them to commit murder or seek revenge or re-engage themselves in the cycles of vengeance and warfare and retribution. It gives them a new start that is well and truly new.
And that is why they mark it every year. That is why the text in Exodus gives them instructions for the Passover meal. Participating in this meal helps them to remember who God is and what God has done for them. But perhaps even more importantly, it helps them remember the answer to the second question: who they are. It is about identity. Because they are the people whom God has freed. They are the people on whose behalf God has acted. And each time they mark the Passover and participate in this meal, they become that all over again. They participate, not just in some symbolic remembrance, but in the thing itself. Each person at the Seder table, whether in the first generation or the thousandth, has been brought up by God out of Egypt out of the house of slavery. The tangible participation in the meal is more than a symbol of God’s identity. It is a reminder to the people of their own identity.
It’s the same for us. Who are we? We are captive, and we cannot free ourselves. Our captivity is perhaps less literal. As far as I know, none of us here have experienced literal slavery. But we are captive. Captive to the false gods of fear, power, greed. Captive to cycles of violence and recrimination and blame. Captive to our own inner demons and to the outer powers and principalities of the world. You alone know exactly how you are captive. But it is our confession. We say we are captive to sin, and what we mean is all these things and more, all the ways that we do not feel free to choose a new path, a new beginning, a new way of being. And that is what we offer up to God each week, even each day.
So Who is God? God is the one who takes all of that. And who frees. God is the God of creation, and of justice, and of redemption. The God of reconciliation, and of deliverance, and of resurrection. God is the One who comes into the world to know us and to be us and to hold us, and God is the One who takes all of those things that hold us captive, and carries them all up onto the cross, and then down into the grave. So that we can be born anew each and every day, made whole, not by our own doing, but by the God who does what we cannot do. Sets us free.
And Who are we? We are those whom God calls to participate again each and every week, when we gather at this table, and partake in this meal. It is reminiscent of the Jewish Passover, though it has its differences. But like the Passover, it is more than a symbol. It is a participation in what God has done for us. And the tangible participation in God’s identity becomes a reminder to us of our own. Because we are the people that God has freed. We are the people for whom God has died. We are. You are. And you are invited to participate again, in what God has given and shed. For you.