Recent weeks have brought lectionary texts from Exodus along with earthquakes, Hurricane Irene and other extreme weather. There is always somebody ready to interpret natural disasters as messages from God. One politician (in jest?) opined that nature’s recent extremes were a message from God telling congress to rein in spending. This seems an opportune time to preach about the plagues in Exodus. Interested in giving it a try?
A Contest of Kings
A Sermon on Exodus 5:1-6:1, 6:28-8:19; 12:29-40
Pharaoh tightened his grip on the Israelites. “Who is ‘the LORD’?” he demanded to know. “This ‘LORD’ of yours is irrelevant! I’m king here. I’m in charge here. I’m god here. No! I will not let Israel go!” And Pharaoh tightened his grip on a people whose spirits were already broken.
It was submit or die. Try to fulfill the Egyptians’ impossible demands or die. The Israelites were totally preoccupied with survival. They were exhausted. There was no time and no energy to hope, no resources to dream on. No vision. The way things were was the way they would always be.
And what happened when Moses and Aaron stirred things up? Things got worse, that’s what! Maybe Pharaoh was right. Maybe the Lord was irrelevant. Now they were struggling under even more cruelty, more brutality, more beatings and more blood, and the Lord didn’t seem to be lifting a finger to help.
We don’t have to work too hard to imagine what the iron fist of Pharaoh looks like and what that grip feels like, and what a broken spirit is. It’s the stranglehold of addiction. It’s the prison of being dependent on an abusive spouse. It’s the overwhelming weight of injustices, millions and millions of people unable to afford health insurance in the richest nation on earth, to name just one. Corporations paying CEOs millions and millions, while moving jobs offshore and paying little or no taxes, to name another. When Pharaoh is in charge we can’t imagine any other way to live except by high oil consumption and dependence on terrorist-producing regimes like that of Saudi Arabia. When Pharaoh’s in charge, helpless hungry people starve even though there’s plenty of food to go around in this world. Pharaoh’s in charge whenever people shake their heads and say, “Nothing’s going to change. All we can do is what we always did.”
Hope was far from the hearts of the Israelites, but it was right in the center of God’s heart. God was determined. The way things were was not the way they had to be, nor the way they were going to be when God got through with the situation. “Moses and Aaron, you go to Pharaoh and by word and action, you tell him this:
“You’re not the true king. I am. You’re not the ultimate power. I am. You’re not god. I am!”
What unfolded next was like one of those horror movies with a plot like this: where a nuclear accident causes ordinary creatures, ordinary ants, say, to mutate into ferocious monsters that swarm and take over the earth. But that’s not without its humor. Years ago when our young people illustrated the Exodus, he drew the plague of frogs, frogs everywhere, even sitting on top of people’s heads! The text does say that the frogs will be “on you.”
The prologue to the plagues went like this: Aaron threw down his staff in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. This was no ordinary garden variety snake, no. The Hebrew text doesn’t use the ordinary word for snake there. It uses the word tannin, which means monster. This thing was more like the monster snake in the second Harry Potter movie, that thing called a basilisk, only maybe not as large as the one in the movie.
Pharaoh must have drawn in his breath. Who wouldn’t? But he quickly let it out again and called for his wise men and sorcerers. They threw down their staffs, duplicating Aaron’s feat, but with a difference: Aaron’s staff gobbled up all the others. Pharaoh ought to have been impressed, for this was a harbinger of things to come, the first inkling that he and his regime were not in total control. He ought to have been impressed, but he wasn’t! His heart was like a stone. That, too, was an indication of what was to come.
Next came the plague of water turned to blood. It was fitting. After all, Pharaoh had already made the Nile run with blood from the deaths of all those Hebrew babies and the blood of the lash. The obvious message was this: “Pharaoh, you don’t control the Nile. I do!” But Pharaoh was unmoved. His magicians were able to duplicate the feat, and did so again when frogs overwhelmed the land. Moses and Aaron kept on telling Pharaoh, “Listen to the Lord and let the people go.” And he kept on refusing. What was the big deal? Pharaoh’s technical experts could match Moses and Aaron, tit for tat.
Until the plague of gnats, that is. The story says the magicians couldn’t produce gnats, and they told Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” They started acknowledging that somebody else was in control. Through the flies, the disease that came on the animals and the boils, Pharaoh was steadfast. He loosened his grip a little, though. He started saying Israel could leave, with conditions. Then he always cancelled.
By the time of the hail, some of Pharaoh’s officials were listening to Moses and Aaron. They heeded Moses’ advice to put their animals under shelter. These were spared, and so were the Israelites’ cattle. Pharaoh started to see that there was indeed another power operating among the Hebrews. “I’ve sinned this time,” he said. Pharaoh was starting to talk the talk, but he wasn’t walking the walk. Once again he hardened his heart.
Pharaoh kept on hardening his heart. Several times the text also says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Want to know what I think that means? I think it means something like this. God said, “You want to be stubborn? Okay! Be stubborn! Be as hard-hearted as you can. I’ll even help you. But I’m still going to prevail.” It was like a duel between two opponents, and one falls, or drops his sword, and the other one gives him time to get up and get back in the contest, maybe even handing his sword back to him. God was allowing Pharaoh to resist to the max.
After the devastation of the locusts, Pharaoh’s officials were getting adamant with him, “Look!” they said. “You need to cut your losses! Let those Israelites go. Can’t you see that Egypt is ruined?” So the king said, “You Israelites can go, but only the men.” “Either we all go, or nobody goes,” Moses said.
After the thick blanket of darkness, Pharaoh said, “You can go, but you have to leave your animals.” That wasn’t acceptable, either.
Finally, after the visit of the death angel, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron that very night and told them to take the all the Israelites and all their animals and get out. Pharaoh soon hardened his heart again, and tried to grip Israel again, sending soldiers in chariots to try to get them back, but it was too late. The Exodus had started, and over 600,000 former slaves were on their way to the Promised Land.
What are we to make of all these plagues, of Moses and Aaron waving the rod and nature going berserk? Some people are tempted by stories like this to conclude that God is violent and vindictive, and he targets particular people for disaster, sometimes even punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty. They picture God in heaven with a hot button that God pushes whenever he wants to launch a disaster against somebody. That’s the kind of thinking that’s at work when Christians arrogantly announce, “That bombing, or that earthquake, or that hurricane is a punishment from God for this particular sin.” And (if it even is a sin) it’s always sin that they themselves, of course, don’t have a problem with. It’s other people with the sin problem.
I totally disagree! It is the height of arrogance to claim to read God’s mind. Who can understand all the workings of God and the workings of nature? Great catastrophes do not give us permission to blast others for their sins. They call us to humility, to go down on our knees with our mouths shut and our ears and hearts open to hear what God would have us do.
No, the plagues are not teaching us that God has a disaster launch button. But they are signs. They are pointers. The text itself calls them signs and wonders. All nature and even the forces of chaos themselves got in on God’s work of liberation. Nature participated in the Exodus, crying out for freedom, crying out that Pharaoh’s regime was criminal, totally against the intentions of God.
Nature has a voice. Remember Psalm 19, “the heavens declare the glory of God, they have no speech, or voice, yet their voice is heard.” Remember in Luke 19 when people told Jesus to tell his disciples to hush, he said, “If they hush, the very stones will cry out!” Nature answers to a higher authority.
Nature itself witnessed against Pharaoh: if you persist in policies of oppression and death, that is what you will receive. Sow oppression, and reap devastation and death.
The plagues make the battle visible, the struggle between life and death visible. Getting people free is not a cakewalk. It requires labor and struggle. All creation groans, waiting for redemption, Paul wrote in Romans 8.
The plagues speak to our imaginations and our hearts, and they tell us that God will struggle as hard and as long as necessary to get people free. “Put up all the resistance you want, Pharaoh. I’m still going to prevail.”
How determined is God? How determined and willing is God to do what it takes to execute justice for suffering people? Look at the greatest act of liberation ever: God sent his Son.
It started with shrinking to womb size and becoming one of us. Nature spoke then, too, remember? A star proclaimed his birth. A star led the wise men to the true king.
Christ Jesus struggled with the powers of sin and sickness. He wrestled with the prince of darkness. He didn’t shrink back when the authorities were bound and determined to rub him out. He accepted the cross rather than leave humanity in the lurch. He died, and the very creation cried out. Matthew tells us that darkness covered the land, and the earth quaked at his death. Two days later the earth spoke again. It quaked again when the angel came to tell the women who loved Jesus that he had been raised, just as he said. Goddefeated the greatest oppressor of all, death.
God is determined to save from all things that harm and destroy, from all things deadly and hellish, from every Pharaoh that pretends to be god and king. God refuses to give up. Even now God is bringing light in the darkness, order where there is chaos, peace where there is violence, wholeness where there is sickness, freedom where there is slavery, hope where there is hopelessness, life where there is death.
Hear this Pharaoh, and all you servants of Pharaoh: you are not king. You are not in control. I am. You are not God. I am. Let my people go!
Hear this, Israelites and broken-spirited people everywhere: I am the God of the Exodus, and I am still on the move. I am determined to set you free. Harden not your hearts. Get ready to move out with me. And let me lead.
Freedom is coming, oh yes I know. Jesus is coming. Oh yes, I know! Thanks be to God!