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Themes in Exodus - Signs for the Journey

Signs for the Journey – Desert Sacraments

Note: This sermon was preached as a dialogue with Dean Barham.

Reading: Exodus 12:1-30; 14:5-31

Cost of Wrong Way Travel: Tulsa Story
Dean: We’ve been exploring the epic story in scripture that has been retold and reenacted for over 3000 years – the story of the Exodus. We’ve noticed that this epic is God’s invitation for us to join him on his adventure and mission in the world – an adventure that isn’t just a brief moment in time, but a journey throughout a lifetime. In October, John, you and I are going on a mini-journey ourselves, to go hear one of our favorite preachers. Just to let you know, I will trust you to navigate us there – I don’t have a good track record for direction on long trips. A couple of years ago, I was driving back to Lubbock from the seminar in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now, I-40 through Oklahoma is one of the most boring stretches of road I’ve ever seen. So, I called my sister, and we got into a great conversation – for about an hour and a half. I didn’t think much of things around me, the road being so boring and all, until I noticed a sign that was giving mileage…to Little Rock! You see, I got going on I-40 East instead of West and drove what would end up being 3 hours round trip in the wrong direction. In addition to the deserved ridicule from my friends, this wrong turn cost me 60 bucks or so staying in a hotel that I shouldn’t have needed to visit. Now, I share this not just to warn my friend John to be in charge of the map, but a far more important warning: we are all on a spiritual journey in this life and going the wrong way on this excursion will cost far more than an unnecessary stay in a hotel.

God Gives Us Direction – Signs
That’s why, in his infinite kindness, God gives us in our journey what I should have paid attention to on mine – signs. In fact, from the moment he called Moses, “the basket case,” to lead his people out of oppression and into his adventure, God offered the people signs for where they would be headed. He gave Moses a sign with his staff to show to his people and then in Exodus 7:3-5, he promises to bring many “signs and wonders in Egypt” so that they might know (we’ve talked about the importance of this word before) that He is God. The last of these signs he gives to Egypt we find described in 12:12-14. John, this is just the last of 10 “signs” God displays for Egypt. We usually call these the 10 “plagues,” but the Bible usually uses the word sign and wonder. Now, when I first came across these ultimately devastating blows God inflicts on this nation, it seemed like God was just being cruel. But after we learned that Pharaoh and Joseph are more than just historical characters here, that they represent cosmic, Jackie Robinson/Hitler like characters, I wonder if there’s something more going on. What do you think, John? Is there more to the story?

Wrong Way! The “10 Plagues”

Plagues as Uncreation of Egypt
John: Dean, you are right to make the comparison with other characters in history, but my guess is that Egypt and Pharoah received the early signs God sent them much like you received the road signs you surely must have passed before you got to the border of Arkansas. God’s efforts to get the attention of the Egyptians and the people he is coming to save begins back in chapter 7, and with our ability to look from the outside these signs form what we might call the uncreation of Egypt. The first plague destroys the life source of Egypt – the Nile River. God commands Aaron to stretch out his staff and the rivers, canals, ponds – even the water barrels and stone jars – all water sources are turned to blood. In retrospect, the smell of death in the river and the change of water to blood prophesies the ultimate outcome of the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea when all of this finally comes to an end. But in the meantime, Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites and Yahweh follows with a series of signs that, on the one hand, seem little more than really annoying. Egyptians will live in denial as long as they can. They will dig wells to find water to drink and miss the meaning of the sign.

The land is covered up with frogs – a feat Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate, which can’t have helped much – more dead animal smells to deal with, and that’s after you couldn’t walk, stand-up or lie down without squishing frogs between your toes! When Pharaoh is offered the chance to end the plagues, rather than getting rid of them immediately, he says “tomorrow” will be soon enough. Next come the gnats and then the flies – swarms that naturally follow rancid water and land. The flies bother Pharaoh enough to make him relent momentarily. But he quickly changes his mind, and that really is his last chance before the deconstruction – the uncreation of Egypt takes over. The plagues that follow pick up once more the creation stories. Just as the fish have been destroyed, now the land animals – the livestock are destroyed by disease; then everything and everyone still alive is covered with boils. And for the first time we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

The seventh and eighth plagues bring massive devastation to the land. First comes the hailstorm, which kills everything and everyone that is not sheltered, except for the newest crops. But whatever was still alive in the fields is destroyed by the eighth plague, locusts. Nothing green is left – no tree, no plant in the field – in all the land of Egypt. Again Pharaoh says he has sinned and he pleads for Moses and Aaron to pray for him. Once the locusts are gone, however, the LORD again hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The ninth plague, like the 3rd and the 6th, comes without a warning to Pharaoh. In many ways it functions to seal the uncreation of Egypt. In reverse order of creation, animals and plants have been destroyed. The water and the land are ruined. Now darkness returns. All but the sixth day of creation have now been reversed. That, of course, comes with the final sign that you read as we started – the death of human beings.

Way to Think About This – God’s Wrong Way Signs
Dean: This is a helpful way to think about this, John. It’s not just that God is judging here – although he certainly is. He’s also being gracious. It’s like he’s giving “Wrong Way” signs to the very people who are trying to undo his mission in creation. He could have just wiped Egypt out if he wanted to; but instead he took his time to show them where they were already headed if they would continue going against God’s creative direction for their lives. I wonder if God still does that for us too? This doesn’t mean that anytime something bad happens, God is inflicting some plague upon us, but here and at other places in Scripture like the flood, God lets us see just how empty and dark the road away from him really is.

Go This Way Signs: The Meal--Passover/Communion

Flip Side – God Gives “Go this Way” Signs as Well
But John, God is kind enough not to just give us signs where not to go; he gives us signs to keep us headed in the right direction as well. I like the way James McClendon’s describes what he calls the “sign language” God uses to speak to us. He says, God uses three kinds of signs, two of which we’ll look at today. One is just personal signs, like answered prayers, or a sense of calling like we talked about last week. But then there are two other kinds of signs he gives to all of his people. The first is what he calls Great Historical Signs, those moments in biblical history where God defines who he is and who he wants us to be. It’s kind of like reading a book – when I come across something I really want to remember, I mark it with a highlighter. These great signs are like God’s highlighter in history – he’s always doing things, but every now and then, like the Exodus here, or the cross and tomb in the New Testament, God says I really want you to pay attention to this. This moment defines you. Then, because he knows how easily we forget, he gives us what McClendon calls remembering signs – which are practices his people engage in that connect us today with those great historical signs of the past. John, in the Exodus, God gives us at least two major remembering signs – one is a meal and the second is a bath. Let’s start with the Passover Meal; can you walk us through the significance of this moment for Israel and us?

Passover as Identity Meal
John: For the people who walked out Egypt on that night and every generation of Jewish people that has lived until now, the Passover is the Identity Feast of Israel – the ritual practice that announces their freedom from slavery and birth as a nation. In some ways, I suppose, if we Americans combined our Fourth of July celebration with Thanksgiving and then added in any other day like Martin Luther King day that speaks to the celebration of freedom from bondage and oppression, that would start getting us close to the significance of the Passover feast for Israel. It became the festival above all others that announces freedom and identity as a people. But there is still a sharp contrast in our American holidays, and Jewish Passover. That difference is in how we remember and how they remember. For us, remembering is an act of recalling past events and being thankful for them. For Israel, remembering is not just recalling but actively being drawn into the story and becoming one with it. There is a great example of this in Deuteronomy 26. These words are often spoken in Passover celebrations today: "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:5-9).

Do you hear the change in pronouns from what happened to “them” to what happened to “us”? To eat the Passover meal even in 2007 AD is to become one with their ancestors. It is to be recreated/reconstituted as God’s chosen people celebrating afresh their living identity as the people of God. To remember is to be claimed by the story, to find oneself an active participant in the story, to know who we are in the story.

We Have this Sign-Language Every Week
Dean: We have this kind of sign-language meal every week, this symbolic feast we call communion. And this isn’t just some empty ritual we do to make sure we have all the right stuff in our church service; it is God’s sign language that defines who we are. That’s why I like family communion so much when we do it; we see in the smiles and hear in the words of welcome and love our identity as fellow adventurers on God’s journey. I think we always need to explore other ways to more fully recapture the significance of this moment. One suggestion we’ve made to group leaders, for example, is to sometimes share communion in your groups as well as here. Just a thought. I remember one meeting of a leadership small group I had where we shared communion together before a new year of service began. I will never forget sharing stories with my friends during that communion time, stories of meals that had changed our lives. I can still see each member of the group, getting on our knees and serving communion to the one sitting next to them, saying the words, “this is the body/blood of Christ, just for you.” That meal directed our year—we left that table freed to serve. John, can you help us prepare for our meal today by connecting it to this epic story we’re discussing today?

Passover Shaped into New Covenant Meal
John: It is the Passover meal that is shaped by Jesus into a new covenant meal. Paul reminds the Corinthian church that Jesus is our Passover lamb (I Cor. 5:7), and the Lord’s Supper is our ritual meal of Freedom. Just as Passover is still celebrated today not just as a distant memory but as a participation in that event, so our eating and drinking is a participation in the Cross event. “The cup of blessing which we bless,” Paul writes, “is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread we who are many are one body” (I Cor. 10:16-17). We eat and drink to remember who we are! We are claimed by these events – it didn’t just happened to him in the ancient past – it happened to us! We remember that death was defeated on Resurrection Sunday. We remember that the first-born son redeemed us all from our sin. When we eat and drink we participate in the body and blood of that redeemer. We become one with him and one with one another.

This morning, as you pass the trays for the bread and cup to the person near you, share words of remembrance with one another. Tell them “this is the body of Christ for you;” “this is the blood of Christ for you.”


Go This Way Signs: The Bath—Red Sea/Baptism

Sign of the Bath—The Red Sea: Focus on “Battle Plan”
Dean: John, before we wrap up, let’s briefly look at the other remembering sign God gave them and us through the Exodus epic. He gives food and water, a meal and a bath, so to speak, at the Red Sea. There’s far too much to look at here in the time we have, so let’s focus for a moment on what we can call “the battle plan.” After the 10 signs, one more time Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues God’s people with his army. He nearly catches up with them at the edge of what we have called the Red Sea (although the location is far from certain). Once again, God’s people are terrified: will the adventure end just when it has begun? Here are God’s words describing the final battle with the forces allied against his creative intent: Exodus 14:10-14. I love the simple battle plan here: “be still.” Yes, there will be battles they will have to fight soon and we too will find ourselves having to arm for spiritual struggles as well. But there are some core battles in our lives that we simply don’t have the ability to fight: things like defining our identity and effecting our own salvation and spiritual rescue. God says, “I’ve got this one.” So here, John, the sea becomes a sign, not just for them; but for us as well; can you help us see this connection John?

Identity Moment of Re-creation
John: Paul reminds his Corinthian church audience of this identity moment in the life of Israel: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (I Corinthians 10:1-2). I was always puzzled by Paul’s reference to this event as “being baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” What did he mean by that? Then, it hit me. You see, the cloud obviously was a reference to God presence and leadership in forming this new people for himself. But the baptism in Moses – the people’s faith in his leadership and the event of crossing the sea – that was about God re-enacting creation. Separating the waters and the land – that was the third day of creation. Light and darkness was the second day. The pillar of fire that lit up the sky for the Israelites was a cloud of utter darkness for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exodus 14:19-20). Just as the plagues had been signs of uncreation upon Egypt, so the experience at the sea symbolized new creation of the community of God. Baptized into Moses in the sea and cloud. That is where the identity of the people was formed as much or more so than in the Passover event. Passover led to the escape from Egypt, but crossing the sea gave them a song to sing for the first time!

What is obvious in Israel’s baptism in cloud and sea is that God is the Actor. Yes, Moses lifted his arms and the waters parted, but Israel remembered it as God breathed. Listen to the words of the song they sang:

“At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” (Exodus 15:8-12).

Even the stretched out arm is the Lord’s in the end. Creation overcomes Chaos. The event is individual and communal at the same time. And in Israel’s memory, this is the moment we look back on when God defeated the enemy once for all.

That is the role of Christian baptism isn’t it? The moment when the enemy is defeated once for all! The time when chaos gives way to new creation. When the individual event is also a declaration of freedom and community identity. And God is the obvious actor! Life was not lived happily ever after by Israel – that’s often how it is for us as well. But they still remember, to this day, the day that the enemy was defeated. Crossing the sea is to Passover what Resurrection is to the Cross, for people who have been baptized into Christ.


These Desert Sacraments are Signs for Us Too
Dean: These desert sacraments are signs for us as well: the food and water of communion and baptism is not just something that we do “to be right,” these practices re-call us to our identity as we go on the journey. And remembering their significance can keep us from some very costly wrong turns on the way. I remember one time one of these signs did just that for someone I cared for deeply. Our small group had recently been reaching out to a young lady we’ll call Sarah. She didn’t know God at all when one of our friends at her work began sharing Jesus with her. You could see her come to love God each week as we gathered as a group. But then we learned that she had gotten a new job, several states away, where she knew no one. To add to this, the industry in which she worked is one that is often particularly harsh on those who pursue a genuine relationship with Christ. About a week before she left, I had the honor one night a church to baptize another person who had been exploring his commitment to Jesus. As we were about to finish the service, I saw Sarah motion me over and she told me that she too wanted to commit her life to Jesus that night as well. We all said that this night, our church “had twins.” I remember the comfort everyone in our small group had when we watched that symbolic washing – we knew that in that moment, even though she was leaving to an unknown place with unknown struggles, God God placed this glorious directional sign in her life. He claimed her by his adventurous story. And he stands ready to do just that for each one of us as well. John, can you lead us in praise of this God of adventure as we finish?

JOHN: Creator God, in the name of your Son Jesus we celebrate your steadfast love in creation and uncreation and new creation this morning. We long to be living witnesses of new creation – your presence and work in our world and our lives this very day. Father, open our eyes to the signs of our own times, the places and ways that you are working to free us once more from all that makes us less than the human beings you empower us to be through your Holy Spirit. Make us your sign posts to our world and our time as the living body of Christ. Amen.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills September 23, 2007.

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