Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
For the next few Sundays we will be reading from Exodus. These stories are important for two reasons. First, they are the foundation stories of Judaism, especially the Passover and its annual commemoration. Second, these stories shaped the mind of the Lord Jesus, and he found in them the pattern of his Passion, especially in the Passover. If you want to know Jesus, you need to know the Exodus.
The Exodus stories are wonderful and sometimes horrible. Today the wonderful liberation of the Children of Israel comes with the horrible slaughter of the children of Egypt. Such a story raises two problems: their history, and their morality.
First, their history. These stories tell you what happened, but can you take them as historical? Their details are improbable, unless God really did those terrible miracles. It begs the question to argue that because the miracles are impossible the stories could not have happened. There is no independent evidence from other ancient documents to either contradict or support what Exodus reports. I would say that you can believe that something really did happen back there, something otherwise impossible, but also that the report of it was written down centuries afterward, and that the Exodus stories were carefully crafted not for objective facts but for theological and dramatic purposes, something like Shakespeare with his Histories or the canvasses of Velazquez.
We want to steer between fundamentalism and liberalism. We don’t care to try to prove these stories as factual but neither do we presume to think that we know better than the stories do. The great Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto wrote that the Book of Exodus is so artfully and subtly constructed that it’s impossible to pull it apart and get behind it, so that if you want to get anything out of it you have to take it as it is with all of its improbable details. We shall let the story speak in all of its literary power so that through it God may speak to us to us today.
Second, their morality. We are rightfully horrified that God could have slaughtered all those Egyptian children, no matter how many Hebrew children the Egyptians had killed beforehand. Not even for God, do two wrongs make a right. Of course, no nation has ever let its slaves go free without bloodshed. Think of our own Civil War. And in ancient times, people just accepted that gods could act like this. But how shall this be good news for us today?
Well, we have to remember that the Exodus stories are not about morality. They’re not about justifying the good and condemning the bad. They’re about God’s election and God’s judgment — God’s election of a humble people, in this case Israel, and God’s judgment on a people of pride and prejudice, in this case Egypt.
Of course we are troubled by questions about God’s jealousy and wrath, but these will be answered for us only in the long-term, as we follow the story of God’s self-revelation through the unfolding history of Israel to its drastic climax in Jesus. Here in the Exodus stories, election and judgment are displayed in naked conflict with the world, which conflict is only resolved for us in Christ, when God enters the world and takes on our flesh and so tragically and wonderfully accepts the judgment on himself. (O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order, p. 158).
So the Passover story leaves you up in the air with morality unresolved, and you can only come down to land with the morality of Jesus. To read this wonderful and horrible story you have to be like an angel who passes over the violence, because on the doorposts of history you have haltingly spread the blood of Christ, the Passover lamb of the Christian people. Agnus dei, qui tolles peccata mundi, miserere nobis. “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
The positive and wonderful affect of the Passover for the Children of Israel was their transformation. That night, when they all did one thing together, in fearful obedience to God, that night the tribes became a communion, the rabble became a congregation, the slaves became a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It was a traumatic transformation, as we will see in the coming weeks. They had not planned for it nor asked for it. They had not asked to leave their homes in Egypt. This God of Moses — they don’t know this God from Adam. After centuries of absence he suddenly remembers them, and says he’s on their side, and by powerful signs and wonders he gives them what they had not asked for.
They had not asked for freedom, just for some relief. They had not asked to be transformed. They did not know where they were going. Moses did not hand out any road-maps. And if God did this to the Egyptians today, who knew what God might do to them next week?
Even to escape the slaughter of the firstborn must have been traumatic. If not for believing the strange instructions they all would have suffered the same as the Egyptians. You see how it works: To survive the judgment you must believe in the judgment. If you trust the Word of this God, the judgment of this God frees you instead of punishing you. For them it was freedom from slavery in Egypt. In your case it’s freedom from the guilt of your sin. Without even waiting for you to confess your sins, God unexpectedly and gratuitously just passed over them. You are free.
So that’s the gospel here. In the oven of oppression and in the face of destruction, these poor slaves and their children find themselves transformed by the grace of God in such an unexpected way. And so you too, you who are the beloved child of God, you find God’s transformation in your own life in unexpected ways, especially where you are most fearful and oppressed. For years your God may have been silent in your life, but now God calls you to receive the transformation God is giving you. To believe it is to receive it, it is God’s gift to you.
What this transformation consists of we will be exploring over the coming Sundays. I’m not sure where we’ll come out. We will not make it a self-improvement plan or a burden of works-righteousness. Today your transformation is simple and immediate: it is simply that you switch environments. You step from the environment of slavery into the environment of freedom, into the Kingdom of God, into the realm of freedom from the power of sin.
In the one environment, sin compels you and it compels your response to the sins of others. In the new environment, sin is there, sins exist, but they have no power any more, they are forgiven, they are like tigers in a zoo or like black-and-white snapshots. In this new environment of freedom, sins are no longer occasions for compulsion but opportunities for the exercise of grace.
Switching between these environment means switching also between the two cultures which have adapted to these environments. Switching environments is immediate, and switching cultures is gradual. You switch gradually from the culture of fear and greed and anger to the culture of grace and hope and love. So therefore this is what your transformation consists of: learning to see yourself as living within the Kingdom of God’s grace and thereby accepting and learning the culture of that Kingdom, which is the culture of God’s love and reconciliation.
You can see that culture in our gospel lesson, in the method which Our Lord requires for dealing with an offense against you by someone also in the church. In the old culture, you rightly take offense, and you complain to other people and you line up your allies against the offender. We do this all the time. It’s being bound to the offense. In the new culture, you loosen the grip of the offense on you. You go to the offender first, and you follow the steps to work it through.
In the end you might not achieve your hoped-for reconciliation, but already you’ve invested in the other person, and so you have implicitly begun the process of forgiveness already in yourself, and that means you are acting in your freedom. The method has its limitations for use outside the church. But even within the church it can be challenging, so you learn to just mostly not get offended. You keep raising the threshold of offense. You just pass over their offenses against you. And then you’re really free.
So the culture of a community of love is by no means that we never offend each other. It’s how we deal with our offenses, being bound to them or loosened from them, in the environment of bondage or the environment of freedom. This is what you want. This is why you are here today. You have entered this environment of the love of God to learn the culture of God’s love within the world. God loved you first, and God will love you all the way.