Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Exodus 5:1-9, 5:19-6:11
Afterward, Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: ‘Let my people go so that they can hold a festival for me in the desert.’”
But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord whom I’m supposed to obey by letting Israel go? I don’t know this Lord, and I certainly won’t let Israel go.”
Then they said, “The Hebrews’ God has appeared to us. Let us go on a three-day journey into the desert so we can offer sacrifices to the Lord our God. Otherwise, the Lord will give us a deadly disease or violence.”
The king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you making the people slack off from their work? Do the hard work yourselves!” Pharaoh continued, “The land’s people are now numerous. Yet you want them to stop their hard work?”
On the very same day Pharaoh commanded the people’s slave masters and supervisors, “Don’t supply the people with the straw they need to make bricks like you did before. Let them go out and gather the straw for themselves. But still make sure that they produce the same number of bricks as they made before. Don’t reduce the number! They are weak and lazy, and that’s why they cry, ‘Let’s go and offer sacrifices to our God.’ Make the men’s work so hard that it’s all they can do, and they can’t focus on these empty lies.” …
The Israelite supervisors saw how impossible their situation was when they were commanded, “Don’t reduce your daily quota of bricks.” When they left Pharaoh, they met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them. The supervisors said to them, “Let the Lord see and judge what you’ve done! You’ve made us stink in the opinion of Pharaoh and his servants. You’ve given them a reason to kill us.”
Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, “My Lord, why have you abused this people? Why did you send me for this? Ever since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has abused this people. And you’ve done absolutely nothing to rescue your people.”
The Lord replied to Moses, “Now you will see what I’ll do to Pharaoh. In fact, he’ll be so eager to let them go that he’ll drive them out of his land by force.”
God also said to Moses: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but I didn’t reveal myself to them by my name ‘The Lord.’ I also set up my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan where they lived as immigrants. I’ve also heard the cry of grief of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians have turned into slaves, and I’ve remembered my covenant. Therefore, say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I’ll bring you out from Egyptian forced labor. I’ll rescue you from your slavery to them. I’ll set you free with great power and with momentous events of justice. I’ll take you as my people, and I’ll be your God. You will know that I, the Lord, am your God, who has freed you from Egyptian forced labor. I’ll bring you into the land that I promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I’ll give it to you as your possession. I am the Lord.’” Moses told this to the Israelites. But they didn’t listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh, Egypt’s king, to let the Israelites out of his land.”
Sometimes things get worse before they get better.
That’s where we are today.
We’re in the middle of this Exodus story now, and to be honest, it’s not going all that well. Last week was more hopeful. Moses met God at the burning bush, and God told Moses that God was going to free the enslaved Hebrew people. Great news!
That’s God’s vision—freedom. But it’s up to Moses and his brother Aaron to implement it, and that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s all well and good to say “liberty and justice for all,” but to actually make it happen? Way harder.
After all, Moses and Aaron are nobody special. They have no particular wealth or status. They belong to a second-class race in the eyes of the Egyptians. How are they going to make Pharoah do anything?
I’m sure most of us know Moses’ famous line: Let my people go! Except that’s not how he starts out. Moses doesn’t ask for freedom. He asks for a long weekend.
“Let my people go for three days. Our God wants us to worship. If we don’t, God will make something bad happen.”
Now God said nothing like this. Moses is making it up, trying to find something Pharoah will believe. It probably sounded plausible to Pharoah—most ancient peoples did believe that gods were quick to punish those who didn’t worship them properly. In fact, worship and punishment were the main human-god transactions. Except Pharoah isn’t falling for Moses’ story—because he’s doesn’t know this God. He asks, “Who is this Lord?” Why on earth should I respect him? Why should I care if he’s happy with you?
Then Pharoah reminds Moses who’s really got the power in this situation. It’s not Moses. It’s not Moses’ God. It’s him. Pharoah. The big kahuna. The one who can snap his fingers and make a whole people miserable.
“Your people want a break?” He asks, and you can almost see him twisting up the ends of a villian’s mustache. “I’ll break them.” So far, the Hebrews have been given the supplies to make bricks, but now they’ll have to go get them themselves—but still produce the same result. Twice the work, and there’s just no way. No way they’ll be able to do it. And once they fail, Pharoah will have the right to call them lazy, and punish them. Maybe kill a few, to show he’s not kidding around.
It’s a power play, and it works. Suddenly everyone remembers how powerful Pharoah is, how untouchable. It’s useless to resist against Pharoah. It’ll backfire every time. So instead they turn against each other. The Hebrew supervisors, tasked with pleasing Pharoah while trying to protect their people, turn their anger on Moses. You’ve made everything worse! they say. You and your pie in the sky promises. Why offer false hope?
And Moses turns their anger right around on God. You’re the one who made me do this! he roars. You’re the one who claims to want these people free. If these people are abused, it’s your fault. Your—fault!
I think this is one of the rawest moments in all of scripture. If we’re honest, I think many of us have echoed Moses at some point in our lives. I tried, God. I really did. And it only made things worse. If you’re in charge of everything here, why aren’t you fixing things?
If you want your people free, why aren’t they free already?
What Moses is voicing here is the age old question, of why a loving God lets bad things happen. And I wish God answered him, with something clear and concise and compelling, because then I could just repeat it and we could all go home. But God doesn’t answer that question, so I can’t either. Not fully. Not in a way that’ll ever really satisfy me, and probably not you either. God loves the Hebrews, and wants them free, and they still have to spend time breaking their backs making bricks for their masters’ summer houses. That’s how it is. I don’t like it. I don’t understand it. But I know that’s how it goes.
But, while God doesn’t exactly answer Moses’ question, God isn’t silent either. “It’s coming,” God says. “Freedom’s coming. I’ll make Pharoah want to set you free. It’s not enough to free the oppressed. The oppressor needs to know that he’s done wrong.”
God continues: “I am the Lord. I have loved my people all along, given them homes, protected them. I am the Lord. I hear my people when they cry, and I cry with them. I am the Lord. I’ll rescue my people from slavery, with power and justice and strength, not tricks and deception. I am the Lord. You’ll be mine, and I’ll be yours. I am the Lord. I’ll give you a new home, a place to be free and strong. I am the Lord.”
Pharoah discounted God because he didn’t think a Hebrew God could measure up to his own cruel use of power. Moses turned against God because he didn’t see results fast enough.
But God reminds Moses that God is in this for the long haul. God is not some fairy godmother, grant a wish and fly away. God is here for God’s people through their struggles and their tears, their triumphs and their joy. Just because the people are suffering, it does not mean that God has abandoned them. God is not only a God of victory. God is there through the setbacks too.
Today, even as I preach, even as we prepare to enjoy this beautiful weather at the church picnic, Hurricane Irma is battering its way up the state of Florida, as the gulf coast still reels from Harvey. Each time something like this happens, I hear Moses’ cry echo again: Lord, why did you let this happen? Why didn’t you rescue your people?
And again, I wish I had an answer. I wish I had a magic wand that made everything ok. But I don’t. All I have is faith. Faith that God is with the people of Texas and Florida and Mexico and southeast Asia. Even as their hearts break. Even as their homes break. Even as things seem to be getting worse before they get better.
To be people of faith is to be in it for the long haul. To show up not only for the miracles but for the long hard slog of freedom and restoration. To believe that freedom is coming, for all God’s people, even if it’s not here yet.
Who is this Lord? Pharaoh asked, and this is my answer, one I know deep in my bones. God is the one who is with us, in good times and bad. God is the one who rescues us, if we can just hold on, and have faith.