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Between a Rock and a Hard Place!

posted Dec 3, 2018, 2:26 PM by Cameron Hubanks

2 December 2018  --  Exodus 14:5-29

“Get out of jail free” is a tempting offer.  As a pithy enticement it has its origins in the game of Monopoly.  Among the various Chance cards one might draw is the valuable “Get out of Jail Free” card.  

Wouldn’t it be nice if those facing a human predicament could just flash a “Get out of Jail Free” card and be on their merry way?

In a day when complicated truths are depreciated in favor of simplistic sentiments that can be tweeted in no more than 280 characters, the notion that some reality might be impossible to so simplify is viewed by some with dismissive disdain.  In the face of an explanation requiring patient thought, there are many today who roll their eyes, and turn away.  If it can’t be simplified, it must not be true.

In the face of this dumbing-down impulse there stands the one and only God whose love and patience and grace may be free, but is assuredly not simple.  

As we’ve been working our way through the “Big Stories of the Bible” we’ve encountered some pretty unpleasant stuff.  Adam and Eve defy God by eating from the one tree explicitly forbidden to them.  Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealous rage.  Noah watches from the vantage point of a floating barn as the rest of humankind goes to a watery grave.  Isaac’s sons conspire together to rid themselves of their bothersome little brother Joseph by selling him in to slavery.  (At least they didn’t acquiesce to the suggestion that he be killed!)  There is a high point when Joseph graciously saves those same brothers by interceding on their behalf with his boss the Pharaoh – but generations later all their descendants live in slavery under a different Pharaoh who has no memory of Joseph and the way his foresight and managerial skills saved all of Egypt.  

In the face of all this tragedy, one could be forgiven at wondering whether maintaining faith in a good and powerful God is a sensible proposition.  At least we are excused for wondering what in the world God might be up to.

Does it make any sense to commit oneself to a God who doesn’t snap her fingers and make everything good and easy and pleasant?  Why doesn’t God print up a large pile of “Get out of Jail Free” cards and dispense them freely to cancer patients and people in degraded marriages and to parents with ungrateful children and to children with abusive parents?  Why doesn’t God solve global climate change and why does God permit strong nations to advance their own welfare over those which are weak?  Why, why, why?  

I’ll tip my hand right off the start:  I don’t really know.  Lest you imagine that I raise these imponderables because I have a brilliant solution ready to announce at the conclusion of a fifteen-minute sermon – I need to acknowledge that I have no such magic card up my sleeve.  These questions are hard – they are unspeakably hard.  Countless humans of good will and of imaginative intellect have struggled with these questions for thousands of years.  Not yet has a twitter-worthy answer been found.  Not surprisingly, there are many women and men who have jettisoned their faith in anger and perplexity at this state-of-affairs.  

But in the face of these realities, there are stories of faith and salvation.  Some of them are Biblical stories.  Others are everyday stories of grace and kindness and love and patience.  Among these stories are those of the famous, but there are also those of the “un-famous.”  These stories confront us with people who refused to deny the problem of evil, and yet remain committed to the age-old suggestion that there exists a good and powerful God.  

It is precisely that God that we meet again in today’s story.  From the perspective of the underdog, today’s story is happier than some of those other stories, but it is not necessarily any more comforting for you and me.

A refresher:  After Moses encountered God in the bush that burnt but was not consumed, Moses gulped and did the assuredly absurd thing that “I AM WHO I AM” asked him to undertake.  He went back to the land of his upbringing – to Egypt.  He went back to his adopted family – the household of Pharaoh – to the place where he was nothing more than a wanted fugitive – a murderer.  And he went back to the people of his birth – the Hebrew people – people who viewed him with jaundiced eyes and suspected he had sold out to those who enslaved and misused them.  

Not only did he do the absurd thing of going back but he returned carrying an absurd message.  To Pharaoh the message was, “Let my people go.”  To the Hebrews it was, “Follow me.”  How likely was it that either would really listen to him?  Not very!

But he did it.  Without belaboring the story, Pharaoh eventually (with an expletive, I’ll bet!), told the people they could go.  And the people – many of them, I’d guess, against their better judgement – followed Moses toward a destination that seemed absurdly distant and impossibly unattainable.  But like people of all ages who live in misery and discontent – they allowed themselves a moment of hope and set out on a trek that was about as improbable as any trek could possibly be.

Almost immediately the entire project went (figuratively!) south.  No sooner had the people mobilized themselves and set out, when Pharaoh and his court came to their senses and changed their collective mind.  Letting the slaves go, they realized, was economic suicide.  They couldn’t do this.  Consequently, elements of the army were mobilized – the best charioteers where scrambled and a chase commenced.  Talk about a one-sided scenario!  This was a bit like the horrendous show-down in Tiananmen Square in Beijing almost 30 years ago.  Tanks against the unarmed.   We remember the image of the single man who stood resolutely against an ongoing tank.  What we don’t remember so clearly is the powerful evidence that many died on that horrendous day.  

And it looked like it would be precisely the same for the Hebrews.  Unarmed slaves against highly trained charioteers looks like the making of a massacre.  

And it was a massacre – but not of the Hebrews.  As the slaves looked ahead and saw a body of water they could not cross and looked behind and saw the military machine of their oppressors, they knew they were finished.  With anguished cry they called out to Moses – accusing him of enticing them into certain death.  And I’m pretty sure it was with a large dose of his own uncertainty and fear and anger that Moses called out to God – to I AM WHO I AM – the one who had invited him into this classic mess of being between a rock and hard place.  

We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to hold out his staff and the water divides and the people cross on dry land.  And not only that, but when Pharaoh and the murderous charioteers follow, the waters reclose, and they are destroyed.  

For a day, at least, the people celebrated.  There was dancing and singing and celebration – celebration that only those who face certain death and come through unscathed can really know. 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is hard for people.  We tend to think of it as a four-week warm-up for Christmas.  Clearly Advent and Christmas are related, but the relationship is complicated.  What Advent is saying is actually well illustrated in the story we’ve just rehearsed.  What Advent seeks to remind us is that God is coming and depending on whether you are an Egyptian or a Hebrew, having God show up can mean two very different things.  

For those in need, God showing up is the best of all possibilities.  God hears the cries of the downtrodden and sooner or later God acts to bring justice.  But the downtrodden are often beat down by somebody else and the arrival of God is probably not good for those currently on top.  One of challenges of preaching a story like this in the context of 21st Century America is figuring out who are the Hebrews and who are the Egyptians.  

Which takes me back to the matters I mentioned in starting this sermon.  It’s easy for almost all people to imagine that God ought to take my side and make things go well for me.  I suspect that’s what the Egyptians thought – that they were good people and surely God (or the gods) would bless them.  As it turns out, God saw things differently.

I’m not God.  I don’t know for certain how God sees me, or you, or this nation, or any other nation.  What I do know is that God is passionately in favor of kindness and justice and mercy and love.  What I know for certain is that Advent reminds us that God comes – often when God is least expected – and that God looks to find justice and grace – God looks to find those who are lost – God looks to find those in need – and then God acts.  

In a different part of Scripture we are reminded that God’s ways are not human ways – that God’s hands are not tied by human conceptions (or misconceptions) of what God ought to do, or ought not do.  

Advent, I think, should be a time for humbly admitting that we understand God far less than what we sometimes think.  Advent should be, I think, a time for opening our eyes and our hearts to however God may choose to come.  

If we do, I think we will meet God.  God might come exactly as we’d hope – but it’s equally possible God might blow our minds by doing something utterly unexpected.  Sometimes we sing, “Where He leads me, I will follow.”  Let’s gulp and mean it.

Welcome to Advent.  Come, Lord Jesus.  We’re not sure how you’ll come, but we’re doing our best to be open and ready.

Come, Lord Jesus.   Amen.