Series: Becoming the People of God
Sermon #1: From Slavery to Freedom
By: Donnell Wyche
Surveying the Landscape
We are launching a new fall sermon series today, Becoming the People of God – From Slavery to Freedom. I’m always cautious when trying to predict the future, but we hope to use the next several weeks to consider what happens when a person’s identity is changed as they encounter God in their own place and time. To get started, we will consider the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt as they make their way to the Promised Land; this study is a chance for us to consider the already and not yet of the kingdom and consider what it means for a community to learn how to live in God’s freedom.
Why do we care about this story? Because on the surface it feels like a typical biblical story of the goodness of God defeating the powers of evil. And sure that’s a part of this story, but this story is centered on God and God’s activity to liberate people. In this story, the Pharaoh (who isn’t named) represents the powers of empire: fear, greed, violence, material wealth, and scarcity. And the people, all of the people, are given a choice, empire or God. This is a daily choice we have consider and inspect whether we will harden our hearts and follow the Pharaohs in our lives, or will we surrender and trust and follow the Creator God, the God of peace, freedom, and generosity.
A Story in Progress…
Our journey begins in Exodus with a simple word, “And.” This is a prompt to us that this story in Exodus is a continuation of a story already in progress, a story that started in Genesis with “In the beginning…” “Be fruitful and multiply…” This is the story of God and humanity. As we make our way together, let us be reminded that our story is part of a story already in progress. “And…” tells the story of a God who is always present and is always at work.
By time we arrive here in Exodus, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, called out from among the people in Genesis 12, are now numerous and plentiful living in Egypt as refugees. I use this term because it is the most accurate way to describe why the descendants of Abraham and Sarah are living in a foreign land. They are in Egypt because of opportunity and security, which are the very reasons why most people flee their homelands. They arrived because of famine, they stayed because they found opportunity and security.
But their growing presence appears to Pharaoh as a threat, not the intended blessing that God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be. So, Pharaoh acts in fear. Pharaoh implements a demonization campaign. He tells the Egyptians that the Hebrews don’t contribute much to Egyptian society. He’s already forgotten the history of how Joseph, a Hebrew, helped to save Egypt. Instead, Pharaoh uses dehumanizing language as the first step to get the people to support his plan of subjugation and control. He tells his people that the Hebrews don’t belong, they aren’t Egyptians, and when put to the test, they won’t be loyal instead “they will betray us, abandon us, and fight with our enemies.”
10Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
So, Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews to build grain store houses and fortify cities, a strategy that Pharaoh hopes will shrink their numbers:
12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13and worked them ruthlessly. 14They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
This slavery was no accident or plot tool. The enslavement of the Hebrews was an intentional rejection of the Creator God. It was a rejection of God’s abundance and provision, and it was and is always sinful. God never intended for humanity to be slaves, and our willingness to allow slavery to exist in any form reveals our participation in an active rejection of God and God’s vision for humanity, which is centered in abundance and generosity.
God never had to be convinced that slavey was wrong, so God rejects Pharaoh’s vision of the world, a world of scarcity, a world of fear, a world of anxiety. God responds to Pharaoh by partnering with those under foot, with those who are marginalized, with those who are enslaved. This is a continuation of a story started in Genesis, finished in Jesus.
Remember how Paul, the New Testament church planter, frames it,
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
When his enslavement strategy backfires, Pharaoh doubles down. Again, he had a choice, he could reversed course, but instead, his anxiety continues to rule him. This time Pharaoh commands Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, to put to death all of the male Hebrew children. But they refuse.
16“When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” 19The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive. 20So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” (Exodus 1:16-21)
Here, I’m struck that right at the start of the story by the role of women, these cleaver midwives, who use their faith, trust, power, and presence to intervene and disrupt Pharaoh, helping to birth God’s presence and unfolding plan. Their act of civil disobedience does more than just resist an evil command; it is also a declaration about life and the living. The midwives feel like a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of oppression– that the Holy Spirit is always present to birth something new. When we are invited to participate and endorse oppression, the midwives demonstrate that we can trust the Creator God and resist the empire.
When the midwives refuse to do Pharaoh’s bidding and lie about it, Pharaoh returns to his demonization strategy and commands all of Egypt to carry out his gospel of death by allowing any Egyptian to drown Hebrew males in the Nile river.
22Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” (Exodus 1:22)
Look at the fear
This calculated, methodical, and multi-faceted plan of Pharaoh reveals just how deep his fears are. Consider this, when Pharaoh was at the pinnacle of power, with endless resources and wealth, Pharaoh was endlessly anxious. He didn’t even trust his own god to provide for him, let alone trusting the God of the Hebrews. Why is Pharaoh so fearful?
He had almost all of the land. He had all of the grain in the world, yet he’s afraid. His fear is tied up in the future. That’s what anxiety is — it’s fear of the future. Pharaoh wasn’t afraid of losing his possessions, he was afraid the Hebrews would rebel and join his future enemies. Instead of treating them with kindness today, with partnership and generosity and peace, he chooses to enslave them. This is what fear manifested as anxiety does to us, it asks us to use a demonic imagination, creating a narrative that says I must participate and partner with evil today in order to prevent tomorrow’s evil. Look at the story. Pharaoh had a choice. Long before its said that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, fear gripped Pharaoh, and directed his demonic action. Instead, God invites us to partner with the Holy Spirit to use our prophetic imagination, imagining a reality where we embodied the in-breaking kingdom of God, a kingdom that ushers in liberation, peace, healing, and jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.