It never ceases to amaze me: stories of incredible survival in the wake of the huge earthquake in Japan. And glorious those these situations are, I’m always baffled by their description as miracles. Because if these are God’s miraculous intervention, then of course, it begs the question about why he did not intervene to save everyone else from the earthquake. But … he didn’t.
On these Lent evening services, we’re following the wider narrative of Scripture as a whole, and having had two weeks in Genesis this evening we move on to Exodus. The Exodus, the people of Egypt fleeing Pharoah and his army are trapped in front of the Red Sea. But by great miracle, the sea parts, the Israelites escape, and the Egyptian army is drowned. But again … if this is the foundational act of God in the Old Testament, what is there to distinguish it from the deliverance stories we hear of in Japan.
Because, I can’t help noticing that – the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for Four Hundred Years. Just let me say that again … Four Hundred Years. Generation after generation of people were born in slavery, had miserable lives, and then died in slavery. It took, four hundred years for God to deliver the people! Why? What was God doing for all that time? Teaching them a lesson? Working on a new project? Had he forgotten them like we might forget a cake in the oven? How … How can you see the Exodus as the great act of delivery in the Old Testament, when … there were Four Hundred Years of God not delivering them? And even the generation that were lucky enough to have escaped through the Red Sea … what happened to them? They all died in the desert! What kind of an act of deliverance is that? It takes for ever, and when it happens, it leads to the deaths of all who were delivered.
During these Lent evening services, we are working our way through an overview of the bible. The story so far goes something like this: The Genesis text is almost a reverse prophecy: written for a people in the midst of suffering and despair, the creation story draws attention to a powerful God who makes himself vulnerable by his commitment loving the world he has created. That world is not an idealised, happy place, free of evil and wrongdoing – but a violent world, in which pain is everyone’s experience and suffering is the norm. And God reveals himself to his people, not by getting rid of the pain, but by accompanying them in the pain.
So he calls Abraham, promising to bless the childless old man with offspring so numerous they will outnumber the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert! The rest of Scripture, it seems, is taken up with how God will keep that promise, because it is through Abraham and his offspring that the world will be made whole.
But how can God keep that promise? Especially when, as the story unfolds, Abrahams descendants become slaves in Egypt. For four centuries, these people await liberation. For four centuries, God’s chosen people are living in slavery! How easily we skip over the significance of that in order to hurry to the Red Sea so we can watch it part.
So, if we bring our modern question to the text, questions about justice, and belief in a loving and powerful God, we hit a problem. Once again, even though God is Creator God, and even though he is a loving God, he does not intervene in this nasty world to take away all the nastiness. Rather, it seems to be that in the midst of nastiness and ugliness, that God make himself known most fully.
So, wouldn’t it be helpful to know something about the Hebrews’ experience of God while they were living in slavery? Perhaps then we could say that God was suffering with his people. But we’re not told anything about that – the only time, it seems, when God is revealed, is when he intervenes – and delivers the people from Egypt to change their circumstance! Why is the Bible telling us this?
Well, it seems to me that, - if we take scripture as a whole, and immerse ourselves in the narrative, then we have to see this as the story of what God is doing with a people. And of all the peoples of the earth, God chose one! And who are these people? These are a people whose identity is forged … in slavery! Of all the peoples of the earth through whom God will bring about his purposes, he chose a nation of slaves. Of all the peoples of the earth through whom God would bring about his purposes, he chose the descendents of a man who couldn’t have children.
At the very least, in terms of the narrative, in terms of understanding who the Israelites were, the so called people of God have little reason for pride. They have little reason to think that God chose them because they were special. Those four hundred years in the furnace of slavery … you would think, would sink a tone of humility into the DNA of these people. And if you know your bible well enough as a whole – then you know that the cardinal virtue of Scripture is humility, and the cardinal vice is pride.
As we work our way through the Exodus text, the question about how God is going to keep his promise to Abraham echoes time and time again. How can this be a people through whom God is going to bless the earth?
Especially when we read about what happens the moment these people come out of the wilderness and begin to take possession of the land flowing with milk and honey. This was a land in which the Canaanite peoples were living. And the Israelites came from the desert to take the land by force … and as they went their way they committed a systematic, divinely ordained genocide. That, at least, is how the text seems to tell the story of the conquest of Canaan. But the stories of mission and conquest will be the subject for next week.
So, once again – this is the people through whom God is going to bless the world! Their origins couldn’t be any more humble. Their behaviour couldn’t be any more atrocious. But, according to Genesis and Exodus, these are the people through whom God is going to bring the world to completion.
All we can, and must ask, at this stage … is this: what kind of a God is being revealed in this story? If we think in modernist terms, of a God whose job is to fix our problems, wipe away the injustice that I experience, and change the circumstances of life to favour me … then we do not find it here. If we think of an all-powerful, omnipotent God, who puts his power at the disposal of a downtrodden and marginalised people, we don’t find him here. If we think of a God who responds to our cry for justice, we do not find it here.
All we see hear, is a God who leads his people from the frying pan into the fire. From one set of difficult circumstances, to another. Generations lived in slavery … and whatever their experience of God, God did not deliver them.
If we take the text on its own terms though. If we listen to the promise to Abraham, and follow the story of a people – then we might begin to see things differently. It is the people, as a living, growing, and active nation, that find themselves delivered. No the individuals necessarily, but the part they play within a people … then we might begin to grasp something of what God is up to.
In the same way that Yahweh stoops to the earth and gets his hands dirty making Adam out of the soil, so he seems to be getting his hands dirty forging this people out of the earth. The act of creation continues through Exodus and Conquest, and that act of creation is still underway.
Does that mean that God is more interested in nations than in individuals? The answer is Yes! God did not create us to be individuals, living independently from one another. He created us to be persons-in-relationship with one another. There is a world of difference between an individual and a person.
The individual is a modern invention, that God is not remotely interested in. Always, God addresses us as people, enmeshed in relationships with other people, dependent upon others, with others dependent upon us.
But how much of our thinking with God, how much of our well-intentioned help towards other people is fundamentally, individualistic? Read the novel The Shack – and you see a purportedly Trinitarian God whose prime concern is the individual. But the God who reveals himself in Scripture is one who created us not to be individuals, but mutually dependent persons-in-relationship. There is nothing meaningful that you can say about yourself without at the same time rooting yourself in other people. I am a son, I am a brother, I am a minister, I am a teacher, I am a parent, a friend … all of the things that shape me and continue to shape me, require there being another person to affect who I become.
The narrative of Scripture unfolding in Genesis, begins with “It is not good for Adam to be alone”. Now we are seeing what happens when human beings live together, suffer together, and are forged into a nation that collectively has a mission to the world. Next week, we will see what happens to a people when they go to war together.