Re-imagining God

A sermon based on Exodus 14:5–9, 19-28
October 23, 2016 at Mt Vernon, OH *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today’s reading is the well known story about God parting the Red Sea. It’s a story that comes after another well known story God demonstrating power over Pharaoh, and all creation and any other purported god, through what are often referred to as the “ten plagues” God exercised that power in an effort to deliver the Hebrews from enslavement. In that story, first water is turned to blood to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go. When that does not change Pharaoh’s heart there are eight more miracles, plagues of frogs, lice, flies, livestock disease, boils, violent hailstorms, locust and days of darkness.

None of those threatening plagues cause Pharaoh to let God’s people go. So there is a final tenth terrible act similar to Pharaoh’s killing of Hebrew infants, the first born of Egyptians die while death passes over Hebrew households. Finally Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go.

Our lesson today picks up with Pharaoh changing his mind and sending his mighty army after the freed slaves. The army catches up with the Hebrews at the edge of the Red Sea. Stuck between a pursuing army and a body of water, all seemed lost until God caused the sea to part through Moses who then led the people to safety on the other side. Pharaoh’s army follows in hot pursuit and God causes the sea to crash back down on top of them. That ended the pursuit.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spins an interesting yarn and poses compelling thoughts about the miracle of the Red Sea crossing. Here’s an excerpt of the story:

When the people of Israel crossed through the Red Sea they witnessed a great miracle. Some say it was the greatest miracle that ever happened. On that day they saw a sight more awesome than all the visions of the prophets combined. The sea split and the waters stood like great walls, while Israel escaped to freedom on the distant shore. Awesome. But not for everyone.

Two people, Reuven and Shimon, hurried along among the crowd crossing through the sea. They never once looked up. They noticed only that the ground underneath their feet was still a little muddy–like a beach at low tide. “Yuuch! “ said Reuven, “there’s mud all over this place!” “Bleech!” said Shimon, “I have muck all over my feet!”“This is terrible, “ answered Reuven, “When we were slaves in Egypt we had to make bricks out of mud just like this!” “Yeah,” said Shimon. “There’s no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here.” And so it went, Reuven and Shimon whining and complaining all the way to freedom. For them there was no miracle. Only mud. Their eyes were closed. They might as well have been asleep . . .

Rabbi Kushner then notes:

[We need] to wake up and keep our eyes open to the many beautiful, mysterious and holy things that happen around us everyday. Many of them are like little miracles: when we wake up and see the morning light, when we taste food and grow strong, when we learn from others and grow wise, when we hug the people we love and feel warm, when we help those around us and feel good. All these and more are there for us every day, but we must open our eyes to see them; otherwise we will be like Reuven and Shimon, able to see only mud. 1

In Kushner’s story Reuven and Shimon whine and complain all the way to freedom not seeing, not appreciating, the glorious acts of God. If you’ve read the whole Exodus story you know that God’s people do a lot of whining and complaining. Many preachers and scholars over the ages have focused on the whining and complaining and the back sliding and sin the people do.

But to focus on the mud and filth in the story is to miss the main point. At it’s heart Exodus is a confessional story about God’s rescue of the people of Israel from their oppression as slaves in Egypt, and God’s deliverance of Israel to a safe place and later to the Promised Land. This is a good news story, not a bad news story.

The “good news” of the Exodus tradition is a fundamental part of God’s dialogue with early Israel. It has spoken for ages of God’s care for the oppressed and promise to save even them and deliver even them to a better place. Ultimately Exodus is not a story about back sliding and sin, it is about salvation. Like I said this is a good news story.

Early Israel continually looked to the good news Exodus story and updated and reinterpreted it to find current theologically meaning, but, always remembering and reflecting upon the characteristic Exodus-wise manner in which God is experienced in the story. The Exodus tradition became the paradigm, the prototype, if you will, for all Israel’s confessional stories. Consequently Exodus – salvation– is a dominant theme throughout the Bible.

In the Old and New Testament God saves all manner of people always delivering them to a better place. The Exodus story is at its root a lesson in theology– how to understand God. The story was never meant primarily as a witness to past events but rather as a witness to how God was, is, and can be experienced.

Don’t get me wrong, Exodus probably has roots in an actual event, but any such event has long been lost in the reshaping of the story while it was passed along through generations in oral and written forms. And there are theories about the how and why the Exodus story arose and its importance to early Israel. Such theories are based on analysis of the Biblical text in conjunction with other sources of evidence, like archeology and non-biblical writings and stories. 2

Using such evidence scholars think that the earliest stories of Israel started taking shape between 1250 B.C. and the start of the first Biblical monarchy 3,000 years ago.

These earliest bits of tradition included stories about God’s involvement with Israel and its people. Groups coming to Israel are thought to have brought these bits of tradition with them and then shared them as they gathered with other groups at common cult sites, perhaps around their campfires. As wider circles of groups heard the traditions, bits of them – such as the Exodus story– resonated throughout the groups and were adopted by them. 3 The root event which gave rise to the Exodus tradition is thought to have occurred sometime around 1250 B.C. It appears from biblical, historical and archeological data that a small group settling in Palestine may have actually experienced being liberated out of slavery in Egypt and brought into Palestine.

Although historically it is unlikely all early Hebrews experienced an actual Exodus from Egypt, they could all still relate to and desire to claim “God saves” types of experiences. Metaphorically it worked. So, it’s thought that more and more adopted Exodus as Israel’s common story to express their collective remembered experiences of salvation by God.
Scholars actually suggest that “salvation” may be the earliest core theme celebrated. Deuteronomy 26 (4-10) suggests this as it refers to a harvest ritual that surprisingly does not celebrate the blessing of the creation as expected, but celebrates the blessing of Exodus and salvation by Yahweh. “Exodus is the seed” (4) not only for harvest tradition but how other traditions grow and God is experienced. “Exodus seed” sprouts can be found throughout the Bible. 5

Simply put early Israel saw God through the “lens”of Exodus, experienced God Exodus-wise, and expected God to always act Exodus-wise. God brought Hebrews, lowly cultural nobodies, out of trouble, delivered and redeemed them. God loved these people. As a consequence Israel committed itself to God and sought to love God in return and each of God’s people. 6

The earliest version of the Exodus story we briefly looked at a couple of weeks ago with Miriam singing to Yahweh. That version is so old it may go back to near the time of the actual Exodus. It’s a story where an Ancient Near East god, Yahweh, uniquely and quite remarkably fends for slaves, the powerless people. I’ve mentioned before that this was a radical departure from experiences of other gods who loved and protected only the powerful. 7

As my Old Testament professor John Bracke put it, this re-imagined the world. 8 It re-imagined God. God is no longer a warrior who sides only with the powerful, but, a warrior who helps the powerless fight the oppressions of the powerful. Yahweh defeats powerful Pharaoh and Yahweh does so by disrupting the order of the world for male and female slaves. God takes them out of their bondage and brings them through death and chaos to life in a safe place and later to the land of milk and honey.

Exodus, this earliest of Biblical themes, of rescue and salvation, is of utmost importance to early Israel’s understanding of God. It resonates, it “sings” to them and becomes a core Biblical theology. This re-imagining of God in the Exodus story is a monumental moment in the evolution of human understanding of God in Jewish and Christian traditions. Prior to this human leaders imagined gods only sided with the powerful. The Hebrews come along and imagine Yahweh, a warrior god, who champions for the little guy, for and against, the other gods. Eventually Yahweh is re-imagined as the one God and monotheism occurs and is passed down to us even today.

Also passed down, of course, is the notion of being able to re-imagine God as the Hebrews did in the Exodus story of salvation though miracles and God’s compassion, and faithful human actions. The Jesus Movement – came out of this tradition. Re-imagining God’s incarnate actions in the world as happening through a fully human being. First through Jesus the Christ, and then through us– salvation by God through Christ within . . . acting outward. And it is not just personal salvation for the purpose of bringing ourselves to heaven. Rather it is salvation for all of creation for the purpose of bringing heaven to all in the here and now.

We can hear this save all re-imagining in words from Isaiah also used to describe John the Baptist’s proclamation of the One who is coming– remember that story in Luke?

[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke__: 2-6).

We can hear it too in the Gospel of John when John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And perhaps it is best heard in Matthew 25 where we are told that those who tend to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned–in other words those who aid the oppressed (like God in the Exodus); those actions gain God’s realm. They serve as salvation for the actor as well as the one in need.

Like Miriam, Moses and early Judaism, Jesus and the early church, re-imagined God – and it has made all the difference. Exodus is the seminal recorded experience of God in the Old Testament. In it we learn that God sides with justice regardless of power and visions of gods by the powerful. The exodus-wise God yearns to save the world. The Exodus story from the enslavement of the Hebrews to the ten plagues to today’s lesson is one of the oldest in our tradition. In it we are called to imagine God as savior to all. Jesus and the Gospel writers and Paul carried on this tradition.

May we continue to carry it on and imagine God as everyone’s Exodus-wise God; THE ONE who though us works to save . . . to save us, to save others and to save all the world.

AMEN

Endnotes
* Based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2008
1. Kushner, Lawrence, The Book of Miracles, Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing (1997), 15.
2. In addition to the biblical Exodus tradition there is some circumstantial evidence, such as 12th century occupation of Edom & Moab, a 12th century non-biblical reference to Israel, epigraphical and archeological evidence Palestine was in a state of flux, and a body of information on ancient Near East culture in general
3. Other such stories were related to themes of land, ancestors, wilderness and Sinai, see e.g., 5. Deut. 26:4-10, 6:20-23; Josh 24: 1-13; Hoesa 11:1ff, Psalm 114; Exodus 20:1-3. I also relied on my noted from Dr John Bracke’s 2003 Old Testament class.
4. Quoting Dr. John Bracke from a September 17, 2003 Old Testament lecture at Eden Theological Seminary.
5. Deut. 26:4-10, 6:20-23; Josh 24: 1-13; Hoesa 11:1ff, Psalm 114; Exodus 20:1-3.
6. Josh:24.
7. That Miriam, a female, directly speaks to God is also unique in the ancient Near East.
8. Quoting Dr. John Bracke from a September 19, 2003, Old Testament lecture.

Scott Elliott Copyright © 2016