What Happened at the Exodus?
September 22, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
We’ve been exploring foundational stories of the Hebrew Scriptures in this month of September, narratives that underlie and anchor our Christian faith and give rise to what we believe today. Today we look at the story of the Exodus, but we cannot consider the Exodus without first recalling the life of Moses. The Bible weaves the stories together.
Moses is born into a Hebrew family in Egypt in a time when Pharaoh feels threatened by the enslaved Hebrew people. Pharaoh issues orders to slay all male Hebrew infants, but Moses escapes death when his mother sets him in a basket among the reeds in the river. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him in the royal household.
Moses grows up and eventually reconnects with his Hebrew identity. One day he sees an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew and Moses intervenes, and the Egyptian is killed. Now a wanted man, Moses flees to the land of Midian, where he marries Zipporah and goes to work for Jethro, her father.
Moses is out with Jethro’s sheep one day when he comes upon a most mysterious and wondrous sight – bush on fire but not being consumed. His curiosity is aroused. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight,” he says, “And see why the bush is not burned up.” (Moses 3:1-3)
Moses doesn’t understand the burning bush, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to figure it out. Like those at Pentecost generations later who will be “amazed and bewildered” by fire that doesn’t consume, Moses wants to learn more.
That encounter models for us how we, too might engage with the unseen and unknowable mystery we call God. It begins with curiosity.
The statements of faith of our confirmation students are posted in Westminster Hall. They show lots of good curiosity.
“I know there isn’t proof God is real,” one student says,
“And I don’t need any. I choose to believe in God…I don’t need to know everything…Faith is believing despite the uncertainties. I had many questions and still do, but I believe.”
For Moses the encounter with an inexplicable bush takes a startling turn when a voice speaks to him out of the fire. He’s terrified. People often fear what they don’t understand and can’t explain or control.
The point of the burning bush isn’t whether such a thing could or did actually happen, but, rather, how we wrestle with that which is beyond our capacity to fully grasp. Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.
I remember as a boy staring up into the night sky with its billions of stars and never-ending darkness, finding myself alternating between fascination and fright. How do I even begin to get my mind around the scary vastness of infinity or eternity? I wondered, terrified and riveted at the same time.
Moses may have felt something like that, as if he were peering through a window onto the sacred, onto something holy.
“Remove the sandals from your feet,” the voice says out of the bush, “For the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Somewhere along the way we lost that practice, the removal of shoes as we enter a place of worship. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists all remove their shoes before entering a place of worship. Feel free to do so this morning. Especially on Confirmation Sunday, this is holy ground.
The voice then gets down to business:
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt…I have seen their oppression under Pharaoh, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:7, 9, 8)
That’s all well and good, Moses, must think, “But what’s it got to do with me?”
The answer comes soon enough. “I will send you to Pharaoh,” the voice says, “To bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
That prompts Moses to ask the first question of human spirituality: “Who am I?”
Moses is suddenly struck with self-doubt and insecurity. Who am I? Who am I that I should be singled out for this task? Why should I go to Pharaoh to do this? The reply from the bush doesn’t bring Moses much comfort: “I will be with you,” the voice says – which prompts the second question of human spirituality: Who are You?
Like an ancient confirmation student wrestling with questions of meaning and purpose and divine identity, Moses challenges the holy enigma to identify itself. What is this mystery calling to me? Who is this pursuing me, baffling me, challenging me?
Like Moses, we should listen closely to the answer from out of the flames: “ehyeh asher ehyeh. I AM who I AM. The Hebrew words only deepen the mystery: I AM who I AM. Or I will be who I will be, or I will become who I become.
Jesus will use the same linguistic construction as he identifies himself by the Greek words, ego eimi, meaning I am, as in I am the Good Shepherd. I am the light of the world. I am the way. When the soldiers arresting Jesus ask if he is Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus replies, like God out of the burning bush, I am, he says.
As if to help a muddled Moses, the voice then says, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)
That doesn’t settle matters for Moses. Like the rest of us, this 80-year old confirmation student is still confused and has more questions.
What will I say?
I will give you the words.
What if my speech isn’t eloquent?
I will be with your mouth.
Can’t you find someone else?
I will send your brother with you.
Moses finally gives up, and reluctantly sets off to see Pharaoh and try to free his people, and the Exodus in underway.
What happened at the Exodus? At least three things, and each of them informs our faith today.
First, at the Exodus we see the clear positioning of God with those who are on the receiving end of the brutalities of history. It’s the oppression of the Israelites that awakens God, that gets God’s attention. The Almighty comes in order to bring freedom to those held captive. What God says to Moses out of the bush plainly puts the divine self on the side of justice.
“My confirmation class,” one student writes,
“Taught me that God loves all people and that we are all created in God’s image, God being neither male nor female but both. God created us to tend to our planet and to love one another.”
The bondage of the people Israel in Egypt is the first real test of the covenant between God and God’s people – and God remembers the promise: I will be your God and you will be my people. I will not abandon you.
When circumstances overwhelm us and threaten to undue us and we feel defeated by life, the God of the Exodus will not leave our side.
“Church,” one student says, “Is about creating a loving community.”
Another student agrees:
“I think the most important part of our church is the community we create, the people we help. We can all work a little harder to create a community where everyone is truly home.”
From the loving God of the Exodus we can draw a direct line through the prophets who saw God coming to bring good news to the poor, and then on to the Jesus we follow, who sees himself in the one who is hungry or thirsty or in prison or sick.
“Jesus was everything God asked of humans and more,” one confirmation student says.
In the Exodus we learn of God’s solidarity with people who have been pushed around and shut out and left behind in any era, including our own. Our faith is rooted in that story.
“The Holy Spirit…creates peoples’ ‘moral compass,’” one student says.
“The Holy Spirit creates…desire to help a stranger or someone who has wronged you even though their deeds might not deserve compassion…I believe in Westminster’s mission to help others and support the community.”
The first thing we learn from the Exodus is that god is a God of justice and compassion.
Second, the Exodus teaches us something about the identity of God. I AM who I AM. With those words God retains utter freedom to be God.
Our God, yours and mine, is too small, too confined by our puny imaginations. At the burning bush we meet a divine being unbound by human restrictions or parameters, a God who insists on being free of religious systems and doctrine.
“I don’t think God has a gender or name,” one confirmation student says, “But that depending on the person, God is going to take the form of whatever can help that person be their best self.”
This is the same God whom Elijah looks for in earthquake, wind, and fire, but finds God instead in a “still, small voice.” (I Kings 9:11-12) This is the same God whom Job encounters in the whirlwind. (Job 38:1) The same God who restores the soul of the psalmist and yet is seated “high and lofty” on a throne in the prophet’s vision. (Psalm 23:3; Isaiah 6:1) This is the same God who will put on flesh and be chased out of his hometown, and then rise from the dead and be mistaken for a gardener.
I will be who I will be.
With those words out of a fiery bush God announces that the divine will not be limited or constrained by our efforts. We will never fully understand God. We will never precisely explain God. We will never adequately speak of God. This God will not be domesticated by the Church, or anyone else.
“I have come to learn,” one student says,
“That no one has everything figured out. I found great peace in that because I have things that I am still working on understanding myself.”
That’s probably true for everyone in this room.
First: God is a God of justice.
Second: God is completely free and we can never fully understand God.
Another student agrees: “I have come to the realization that no one has all the answers and that having doubts about your faith is okay.”
Finally, the Exodus confirms what had been hinted at all along through the early pages of Scripture: that faith is not fixed, but is, rather, an experience of liberation, a journey to freedom. The Israelites leave Egypt quickly, with scant warning, taking little with them for the journey ahead – but God will be their companion on the way.
“God is walking alongside me,” a student says, “Guiding me.”
Another student writes: “God to me is something that will always be there to protect me even when I can’t feel God’s presence. Bidden or not bidden, God is present,” the ancient Celtic people used to say.
The Israelites were carried along by little more than their trust in a freedom-loving God, like the enslaved people in our own land who escaped and made their way to freedom by following the starlit drinking gourd and the call of the God of the Exodus.
“I have now accepted that my journey with God has just begun,” one student says, “And I am eager to see where I go from here.”
In a way, we all leave Egypt with the Hebrew people. Faith is a lifelong journey and we are all pilgrims, moving with God through the twists and turns, the ups and downs of our experience, “like a roller coaster,” one student says.
What happens at the Exodus?
In the story of Moses and the escape from Egypt, we learn that in this God who loves us and liberates us and accompanies us we have what we need to find our way, to find our way to fullness of life.
The Bluegrass Evening Prayer we have been singing each Wednesday this month concludes with a Prayer of Good Courage:
“O God, you have called us to ventures where we cannot see the end. By paths never yet taken, through perils unknown. Give us the courage, not knowing where we go, to know that your hand is leading us, wherever we might go.
Thanks be to God.