The Chaotic Roundabout Road to Liberation
This week’s sacred story comes from Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29 - Read the full story here. The people of God have been “freed” from slavery in Egypt, but are then pursued with violence and find themselves trapped at the Red Sea.
Last week we left this story with Joseph stuck in prison. As the story unfolds, God gives him visions and dreams that bring him out of this imprisonment, to become the right hand of Pharaoh and the one who would save the nation and its people, even the ones who betrayed him - from famine, starvation, and death. But now, inevitably, time has passed and Joseph has been forgotten in the halls of power. The people of God are reduced to slaves – not of the most High, but of the Empire of Egypt. This life wasn’t just hard, it was cruel. It meant that Hebrew babies were taken from their mothers, their families, their communities. It meant that they were no longer considered people, but machines whose only value was to make bricks, to produce. The was no time for rest, no “off” button, no escape from the constant compulsion to do more and more and more and more and more. Perhaps the people began to believe or just resign themselves to the lies that this was all they were good for, that it was ridiculous to even imagine things being different, this was simply the way the world was now. And yet a distant hope still flickered in their hearts. They cried out to God. They gave voice to their pain and their heartbreak. And God heard them. God had not forgotten them. God would not abandon them. God had made a promise, a covenant to their ancestors, a promise to always be with them and to lead them, throughout the generations to a place where life and love can grow.
From among them, God lifts up Moses – a stuttering, unsure, and unprepared murderer, to lead the people into liberation, true freedom – not just in body but in soul. Moses goes to the most powerful person in the land, Pharaoh, with whom he was raised like a brother. From Pharaoh’s perspective, I’m sure this stings of betrayal. How could this person who was his playmate in childhood, who had enjoyed the benefits of power and wealth with him, now see him as the bad guy, as an enemy? The voice of God through Moses says, “enough.” Enough. It seems a powerful word for both Pharaoh and the Israelites to hear. Enough.
It’s a jarring change. No one is quite sure what’s going on in the unfolding of this new reality. The rules of the game seem to change with each passing moment. Everything is happening so quickly now. As it turns out, the road to liberation isn’t a smooth or straightforward one. The people of God are taken the long way round. Chapter 13, verses 17-18 tell us, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle.” The most direct path to the promised land isn’t where God leads them, but it is where they are promised to arrive.
First, God is leading them, going ahead of them and lighting the way in a pillar of fire and cloud. Now, it has moved behind them. First, they were walking toward life, now it seems they are running into death. First, Moses tells them to keep still and watch. Now, God is saying, “get moving and see.” It’s a mess. It’s chaos. It’s unnerving. The people of God are back to feeling trapped. They have hit a wall….of water.
When we come to a place of confusion and disappointment or fear, we question. In this moment, the flicker of hope seems to be drowned out. We had hoped that this would be the one to save us.
Maybe we harbored a secret hope that this time things could or would be different. But maybe we didn’t really allow ourselves to believe it would really happen. People who have been oppressed, abused, let down, and heartbroken (whether by political powers, by family, friends, by institutions, or by the church) often find it hard to believe that hope is really possible or that God actually cares. When we hit the wall, we remember all the times we’ve seen it go wrong. It hurts so bad and yet, there’s a strange sense of comfort or safety in the predictability of it. Even if we know in our brains that the ways of the past are deadly, it seems better than where we’re at - stuck, trapped between the hurt of our past behind us and the wall of water in front of us. Because of the ways we’ve been hurt, we are often more willing to trust the lies about ourselves and/or our stories than trust the promises of truth about how much we are really loved and cared for. We get used to and even somehow can appreciate systems that aren’t good for us, even when we know they’re not good for us or for the world. One commentator names it well, noting that: “it is difficult to sustain a revolution, because one loses all the benefits and safety of the old system well before there are any tangible benefits from what is promised.”
This middle space, isn’t just hard…it’s excruciating and confusing. It makes us want to turn back. And yet, God doesn’t abandon them and they don’t cease to be God’s beloved people when they express doubt. The covenant doesn’t dissolve when they lament and cry out. There’s chaos in the change as God seems to keep moving around. God moves from front to back, but in doing so always stands between us and that which would mean death for us.
God creates a way out of no way. God separates the waters from the waters and creates dry land. God is still doing the Genesis work of creation. Through the water, God creates more than a new world, God creates a new people. The images from the beginning, reappear. I love it when the bible does that. It shows us that this sacred text is not a series of disconnected stories, but a single narrative that points to the One.
God has always created new life from the chaos of the cosmos. This points us to a God, the Creator, who is still creating. It points us to a new and greater Moses who liberates us not only from oppression, from a system of consumption, from a lesser identity, but from all things, from death itself. This liberation is not only for the Israelites, but intended for the nation of Egypt as well – scripture says “the Egyptians shall know that I am LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.” (14:18)
Many things about this journey, this way of life are hard, and scary, confusing, chaotic, and frustrating, exhausting. Next week we will hear about how God helps the people navigate those challenges and find a new rhythm with rest. But for now, we can look at our similar experiences and moments and know that we are in good company. That the people of God have wrestled with this for generations. And that God leads them through these moments to create something new and greater.
As we look at this community. As we look around us at these, our Kindred, with all our differences, sometimes I wonder – can the hope and the promised of the wide tent of God really be true? Can it really work? Like the Israelites, I’m haunted by all the broken promises of before – experiencing churches only want me if I behave the right way, go to the right meetings, they don’t actually care about me. I’ve seen people and communities try to be kind before but it never works out.
People who didn’t grow up in church, people who still aren’t sure about this God-thing, people who know the songs by heart, people who experience God in the quiet, people who know God best in movement, people who struggle to get by, people who struggle with how to be faithful with all they have - how can we be one people? Can this be a place, a people where welcome truly means welcome and we can come as we are, all of us? …
It seems a pipe dream, and it kinda is but that’s the promised land, the beloved community. It’s a new kind of kingdom, a new creation, a revolution. Life together is messy and chaotic and hard and The Israelites will still need to figure out how they’re going to do it, how they’re going to live together. Next week we’ll hear more about how that plays out.
The road from slavery to liberation is wrought with challenges – and not just in a trite “power of positive thinking” kind of way. The transformation of a people from a diminished existence to life-giving beloved community is honestly, still ongoing. You can take the people out of Egypt, but it’s a lot harder to take the Egypt out of the people. It’s hard to shift away from a society, from our habits and even our own sense of self, in which people were seen as objects and commodities in a culture of consumption, valued only for what they produce. We can look around and know that we want something to be different. And now that we have the promise of hope, as tempting as it may seem…we know in our heads that we can never go back and live as if we had not hoped, as if we haven’t envisioned new possibilities.
God was with Joseph. God was with there in Egypt. God is active in the story, protecting, guiding, and making a way out of no way. God leads, God defends, God liberates, God creates, God gives tired feet the spirit to dance. The ancient story is our story. The eternal hope is our hope. Amen.