St. Augustine, who lived 1600 years ago and who yet may still be the greatest thinker our faith has ever had, said that the rule of understanding any passage of Scripture is love. If a passage does not show love, you are not understanding it correctly. You must change your understanding, because God is love, and therefore Scriptures that would cause a different understanding must be reinterpreted.
I begin that way today because this is the day we confront some of the most uncomfortable texts in the whole canon of Scripture. As we’ve been reading through the Old Testament and have arrived at Moses, we now come to perhaps the central event of his time as one of God’s servants, but unfortunately that central event is not a pleasant one.
First, let’s reorient ourselves in the narrative of Scripture. We’ve read from Creation to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and now Moses. Last week, we heard about how Moses had a very special infancy and childhood, and then threw away the spoils of this world when he found out his people were being oppressed and he murdered a slave driver. He ran away and became a humble farmer, and thought that was his reality until God called him out to go free his people from Pharaoh.
Now, as I’ve mentioned many times already during this series, I have to skip a lot of things in order to get a decent sense of the story of the Old Testament. But some of the readings I’ve skipped have been important, so we need to talk about them, anyway. Today is one of those times, because our Scripture readings for today only make sense in light of the things around them, so we’ll begin with some background.
First of all, Moses was not an easy customer to work with. As we talked about last week, he fought this call from God. He didn’t want to go, which might’ve had something to do with his being a wanted murderer. Anyway, he uses the excuse that he’s not a very good public speaker, and God answers back, “Yeah, but your brother Aaron is, so let him do the talking.”
So, finally out of excuses, Moses and Aaron head to Pharaoh to ask for their people – God’s people – to be set free, with those immortal words, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go.’” Pharaoh does not agree – after all, who gives up free labor willingly? So, again (as we saw last week), Pharaoh doubles-down, and makes the Hebrews do even harder labor, to teach them about their insolence. Unfortunately for Pharaoh, this is the start of a series of bad decisions he makes, each of which is more ruinous than the last. And this one seems to work out for him, at least at first, because the Hebrew people turn, at least for a while, against Moses.
But God sends Moses back to Pharaoh, again and again. And each time, Pharaoh refuses Moses’ request. And this is where we get to something I didn’t want to read because it’s too long, but that we must talk about, and that’s the ten plagues.
After each time Pharaoh refuses Moses, something bad happens to the Egyptian people. First, the Nile river was turned to blood for a week, killing plants, animals, crops, and harming people. Second, frogs covered the land – the fields, the rivers, even the insides of houses. Third, gnats came, covering and biting human and livestock alike. Then came the flies. Then the livestock of the Egyptians all grew ill. Then boils – red, pus-filled sores – showed up on the skin of all the Egyptians. Next, after Moses gave warning, thunder and hail rained down, killing human, animal, plant and tree of anyone who was unwilling to believe that it was coming. The eighth plague was locusts, who swarmed the fields and ate what little food remained. Ninth came the plague of darkness. For three days, people couldn’t see their own hands, it was so dark.
After each of these, Pharaoh was given a chance to relent and let the Israelites go free, but each time, he hardened his heart and did not allow them to go worship God. Sometimes, he would say he was going to let them go, but he would always change his mind. So then came the tenth and final plague. That is what we read part of from Exodus 12. God asked all the Israelites to kill a lamb, roast and eat it, and mark their doors with its blood. This would be a signal to the angel of the Lord to “pass over” these houses, and this is where the holiday that commemorates that event gets its name – Passover.
But why would the angel pass over those houses? Because houses not marked with the blood of the lamb saw their firstborn killed. The firstborn of every family, including livestock – who really didn’t do anything wrong, but bore just as much pain as the Egyptians themselves. Exodus tells us, “there was not a house without someone dead.” Finally, after this massacre, Pharaoh set the people free.
Only… he didn’t, not really. Because yet again, he had second thoughts on letting go of free labor. So our second passage, in Exodus 14, came to be. Pharaoh comes for Moses, leading an army after the Israelites. They complain to Moses, wishing even that he had never led them out of Egypt; after all, wouldn’t it have been better to live on their knees than die on their feet? But that’s when God provides the miracle needed: the sea is split in two, and the Israelites are able to walk through the middle, with water towering to either side of them.
Of course, the Egyptians follow them on the same dry ground. But once there, God clogs their chariot wheels and they can’t follow. As the Egyptians agree to flee from the Israelites, realizing that God is against them, Moses hears God’s message to stretch his hand out again and return the sea. The Egyptians try to flee, but it’s too late; the sea closes around them, and the soldiers, their horses, chariots, and equipment are suddenly buried under water.
So, I have to say that these are such uncomfortable passages to read, for me, anyway. Their about God’s special love of the Hebrew people, over and against the non-Jews around them… but of course, we’re not Jewish, so maybe it’s easier, in some way, to identify with the Egyptians. And what’s happened to them in this passage? Well, we’ve seen: their crops destroyed; their animals diseased and killed; they themselves sick, injured, or killed; and, of course, their army drowned. And while Pharaoh was certainly guilty of being ungenerous to the Hebrews, most of the people affected by these people had nothing to do with those choices.
So we’re stuck in this passage, in a similar way that we were when we heard the story of Jacob. In that story a couple of weeks ago, we heard about the sneak we were supposed to root for. This time, Moses is a much more sympathetic protagonist. Nonetheless, it really seems like, while the Egyptians were not great, they also weren’t outright evil. Even if some of them were, some who weren’t were caught up in the pain, too. And for me, that makes these stories uncomfortable texts to read; these stories become difficult to accept as God’s word. Nonetheless, we have to find a way to deal with them.
And there are ways to talk about these passages. In a draft of this sermon, I talked about a lot of them, but I really don’t know how useful that is. Ultimately, we have a difficult story. But if we’re going to take something from it, I think we take the same thing we so often take from stories like this. We are loved by God, and that loves is fierce. That means protecting us, even against impossible odds. We will be defended, even when we don’t know how. It shows us that we will be in bondage, and that we will yearn for freedom; when we receive that freedom, we may regret it. But no matter which way we come at it, God is looking to break us out of the bondage we face, whether literal chains or simply the chains of sin that bind every one of us. Our freedom is meant to be individual, as well as corporate.
I think, too, that this is just one of those stories we have to wrestle with a little. To return to the Jacob story from a couple of weeks ago, there we saw a man who wrestled with God’s messenger all night. When we read that story, I said that part of our lives on God’s journey was to continue to wrestle with God, and that means dealing with difficult things. This is, for me, at least, one of those texts. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do run back to St. Augustine’s “rule of love.”
That rule of love always causes me to ask where the love is here. And what I see when I ask that question is an answer that, at least part way, gives me a way to deal with this story. I see God as protector. And I am also forced to think of Jesus Christ, as we do in church.
You probably know that Jews, even today, commemorate the Passover with a meal. That is, in fact, the meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples the night of the Last Supper, and that we continue to commemorate in Holy Communion, which we will receive later in this very service. The Passover meal helps Jews to remember the blood of the lambs that helped save them from an awful fate. Our meal of which we partake helps us to remember the blood of the Lamb, who gave his life for all.
Today, we remember a sacrifice that did not happen just to save the firstborn, not just for one night. Yes, that was a miraculous moment of God’s that reminds us of how we are all saved, over and over again. But for us as Christians, what’s more important is the knowledge that Jesus gave his life for all of us, not just the firstborn; and he did it not just for one night, but for eternity. Jesus covers our sins, just as the doors of the Israelites were covered. So let us celebrate the Eucharistic meal today, remembering that, no matter how hard a text of Scripture is, we can have faith in the good work of Jesus Christ, in whose love we can be ever-sure. Amen.