Thursday, August 30, 2012

Politics of Exile

It is that time again when the matters of politics are found in nearly every headline and news broadcast. In addition to the national political stage, many of you are also aware that we have had some passionate discussions in our local politics right here in our own town, one particular discussion which I have participated in myself.  All of this has caused me to give renewed thought to a topic to which I often find myself returning: the relationship between faith and politics. 

At the same time I've been doing quite a bit of studying in 1 Peter.  In the opening line of this epistle, Peter addresses the churches of Asia Minor as "elect exiles" or "chosen sojourners."  In other words, Peter is telling these churches that they are a people who have been chosen by God but also a people who live in exile.  That is, even though (and, in some ways, because) they are a people redeemed by God they are also strangers, resident aliens, sojourners, foreigners, immigrants in this world.  In the very first verse of his epistle, Peter defines these Christians as outsiders and throughout the letter he reminds them that life as a follower of Christ will mean living as an outsider. 

I find this to be a striking image as we consider the ways Christians often interact with the politics of our own nation today. It seems to me that our approach to politics is usually to yell louder or out-vote everyone else. We are told it is our obligation as followers of Christ to "take a stand" and "defend our rights." Christians typically still are some kind of majority in many parts of the country so it seems we often assume that as long as we can garner more voices on our side of the issue than the other side then we ought to have the law in our favor.  The truth is that as American Christians we have actually become accustomed to being insiders, a people of power and influence.  The language of being an exile or outsider often seems to be a foreign idea to us. 

I am not suggesting that 1 Peter is an instruction booklet on the proper political actions of 21st century American Christians. After all, Peter was writing to a people who had little or no power to participate in the politics of their day whereas we live in a democratic republic which provides us the civic right and responsibility of participating in our own government, a reality for which I am truly grateful.  But I believe Peter was telling us something about what it means to be the Church in relation to the culture around us. By calling us exiles and aliens, Peter was reminding us of exactly where we stand in this world; not in the centers of power and influence but with the marginalized and alien. 

I am all for Christians fully participating in the political process of our nation.  I think it is great that so many Christians go to great lengths to be informed about important issues in our government and that many even hold office. All I am suggesting here is that even when we are the majority, even when we are the ones holding a powerful office, that does not erase our God-given identity as exiles in this world.  It is especially in those times where we find ourselves "in power" that we need to take extra care to step back and evaluate whether we are exercising the power we have as would Christ, who emptied himself of all power and took on the nature of a servant (Phil 2:5-11). I am convinced that as the people of God the way we go about engaging in politics is actually much more important than winning the debate.  I believe that a truly Christ-like politic will often have less to do with taking a stand and more to do with taking a seat at a table with those we disagree with most.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ten Words to Set Us Free

I argued in my blog post last week that the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai should not be seen as something separate from God's work of liberation.  God has delivered these oppressed people from their slavery in Egypt and now God is continuing that work of deliverance by the gift of God's law.  This law is not a burden.  It is not something to be followed purely in exchange for God's deliverance.  It is itself a part of the deliverance as God teaches his people how to live not as slaves but as a free people serving a holy God. 

If this is true then it applies not only to last week's passage in Exodus 19 but even more so our passage for this week, Exodus 20.  The ten commandments make up the core of Israel's Law.  Although many other laws will be given, these are at the center of God's vision for Israel's life as a holy people.  As such, we would expect them to be crucial in re-writing Israel's identity, in accomplishing that liberating work of moving Israel from slave people to holy people.  And as we read them in comparison to the ways of Pharaoh, we can see how they might begin to do just. 

First, they begin with an explicit reminder that the God who speaks these words is the God who delivered them out of the house of slavery.  Whereas the house of slavery was run by a man who tried to act as if he were god and who disrespected the name of Yahweh, Israel is to be house where there are no other gods, not even idols, and where Yahweh's name was to be held in reverence.  Israel's existence in Egypt was one defined by work. As slaves, they were only as valuable as what they could produce. Now they are told that they are to rest every seventh day because even God rested. Pharaoh's empire was one built on murder, theft, lies, and covetousness.  Israel is told they must be none of those things if they are to be a free people living in the presence of a holy God.  God has given Israel the basics of  what a truly liberated life together as a community must look life. 

But, of course, we know all this already.  Good Christians that we are, the ten commandments are so familiar, so basic, as to almost be ignored.  To be sure, we pay homage to them, talk about how important they are, and maybe even memorize them. But are they doing for us what they did for Israel? Are they a part of God's liberating work among us? Are they helping to transform us from being a people enslaved to the  ways of the world around us to being a people free to live in the presence of a holy God?

I'll tell you how I think they work for most of us... as a checklist, and a self-inflating one at that.  "I worship God."  Check. "No idols in my house." Check.  "I don't curse." Check.  "I go to church on Sunday." Check.  "I love my parents."  Check.  "I don't murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, or covet." Check,check, check.  "Wow, I must be really holy.  That wasn't even that hard."  And after we've checked off our list we don't really see any reason to give the ten commandments much more thought since we would never do any of those things anyway.  Rather than accomplishing the liberating work of God among us it seems that the ten commandments often accomplish little more than promoting self-satisfaction and self-righteousness.

I think it is worth noting at this point that I don't think we do this on purpose.  No one sets out with the purpose of being smug and self-righteous.  I think this actually happens as a result of our best attempts to be faithful to the text as we see it.  We hear that these are ten commandments so we assume the appropriate response is to just obey.  No questions. No arguing.  If God gives a command then the only right thing for us to do is obey that command.  There is nothing else to it.  But lets just ask the obvious question here: If all we did as Christians was follow these commands in the simplest and most literal way, would that really honor God?  Would it really fulfill the mission we heard about last week to be a holy people who represent God to the rest of the world?  Would it really set us apart as a different kind of people?  The truth is that there are a lot of ways we would barely even be keeping up with the "minimum requirements" of most secular morality in our day if we only follow these commands in a literal way. 

If, however, we see these not merely as commands (though they certainly continue to be at least that) but as the words of God which are meant to be a means of God's liberating and life-giving grace among us, then we will do much more than fulfill them to the letter.  We will ask how the Spirit can write the full intent of these laws on our hearts and minds.  Rather than simply avoiding murder, we will ask what it means to be a community that values all life and what that, in turn, means for our response to realities like abortion, war, and capital punishment. Rather than simply saying it is enough that we don't steal, we will consider ourselves a people called to speak against inequality and work to alleviate poverty.  Rather than just being a people who don't curse, we will strive to give God a good reputation in everything that we do. 

I believe Jesus shows us as much in the sermon on the mount.  In Matthew 5, Jesus likens anger to murder and lust to adultery.  In doing so, I don't think Jesus is just ratcheting up the standards of the law to show us how hopeless it is for us to follow God's law so we'll be convinced we are sinners.  I believe he is reminding us that God's law was always meant to be more than a rule book, more than a checklist.  It was meant to be the life-giving, liberating word of God. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Law and Liberation

Yahweh has delivered Israel in mighty and impressive fashion.  Now we come to Mt Sinai where God will give the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law to Moses for the people of Israel.  This is an immensely important stop in Israel's ongoing journey.  They will spend eleven months at Sinai.  The biblical telling of this period begins here in chapter 19, continues through the rest of Exodus, the entirety of the book of Leviticus, and onto the tenth chapter of Numbers.  For all the importance of the exodus and its centrality to Israel's story, it doesn't receive nearly the amount of attention that the law does in Israel's telling of its own story with God. 

But really to separate the two that way is itself a mistake.  It could be tempting to see the time at Sinai as a dramatic break from the story of deliverance which has preceded it.  Perhaps upon reaching Exodus 19 we imagine that the story of liberation has come to a close and has now given way to the time of law.  Maybe Yahweh has delivered these slaves from Pharaoh's rule only to make them his own slaves?  God has delivered them and now he has them right where he wants them; weak and vulnerable in the middle of nowhere without even the Egyptians to run back to.  Is the God who seemed so benevolent now "cashing in" on all he has done for these people?  Is this law how Israel will pay God back?

In the stories of the exodus, the Red Sea, the provisions of fresh water, manna, and quail, we've seen that although God has removed this people from their slavery there are still many ways in which their slavery has not been removed from them.  Although they have been delivered, they still don't know any other way to live than as Pharaoh's slaves.  That is exactly why the giving of the law is a necessary and essential part of this story of liberation.  God's Law is not something separate from God's liberation; it is not an obligation to be repaid to the God who has saved Israel.  The Law itself is a part of God's liberating work. It is the natural next step in God's liberating work because this is how God will break the invisible chains of Pharaoh's oppressive regime which still reside in the hearts and minds of his people.  The Law is God's way of teaching Israel how to live without Pharaoh telling them who they are. It is not a new slavery but the very way God has provided for Israel to live into their freedom. 

Neither is this law-giving a one and done kind of deal.  These are not instructions meant to take the place of God whose work is now done.  No, this law is a covenant, a sort of contract, a binding agreement.  That is, the God who has delivered Israel so mightily, defeated Pharaoh so completely, and who now covers this mountain in cloud and smoke, this tremendously holy God has bound himself to these slaves and allowed them to be bound to him so long as they respect God's holiness.  Their fate will be his fate, their reputation his reputation.  Yahweh says in v.5 "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel."  These former slaves will now represent Yahweh to the rest of the world so they must be holy as he is holy. 

In 1 Peter 2, the Church is described in this very same language.  Peter says to the churches of Asia Minor "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."  Israel's story is our story.  We too have been brought into covenant with this redeeming God by the blood of Jesus Christ.  Peter began his letter by addressing these churches as
the "elect exiles of the dispersion.... according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood".  Just as the people were sprinkled with the blood of an animal at Sinai in order to seal this covenant with Yahweh, likewise the blood of Jesus Christ has sealed us into this new covenant.  In this new covenant, our law is given not on stone tablets but in the person of Jesus Christ.  He is our model of what it means to be holy as God is holy and it is his Spirit which enables us to live into the freedom which God has provided for us. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Narrative of Enough

Yahweh still has not won the trust of these broken people.  Ten plagues, the exodus from Egypt, the crushing of Pharaoh and his armies at the Red Sea, the provision of fresh water to drink shortly after, and still the people are grumbling to Moses and Aaron.
"Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."  (16:3)
Talk about the power of nostalgia.  The Israelites recall the "good ol' days" of their slavery as if it were a continual feast.  All of these miracles have not been enough to yet erase the lasting scars of their broken chains which provided a familiarity they prefer to the unknown of following Yahweh down this uncharted path.  Sure, Yahweh has provided miraculous deliverance but can he sustain this delivered people?  Can the mighty warrior god also be the god who provides basic needs like bread in times of peace?

Yahweh's patience with this long-oppressed people continues.  There is no rebuke.  Moses does not even have to intercede for the people.  Instead, God hears their grumbling and immediately responds by telling Moses "Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you."  In fact, we will hear in a few verses that it is not only bread but also meat - the very things which the Israelites mentioned in their grumbling.  Now Yahweh is just showing off.  The Lord of all creation is willing to play the role of personal chef and waiter to these former slaves if that is what it takes to replace their fear with trust.

In that effort of gradually bringing such a tortured people along to a place of trust, God now asks for a small sign of trust in handling the gracious gifts of bread and quail which have been provided.  The people are only to gather enough provisions for each day.  They are not to hoard their goods as the Egyptians did but rather they are to trust that God will continue to provide.  The only exception to this rule is on the day before the Sabbath when they are commanded to gather two days worth of provisions so that they will not have to gather on the Sabbath - a day of rest which is itself a reminder that we are not to be a people of continual work but a people who trust God to provide even when we take time to rest.  When the people follow this command and trust God to provide they find that "whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat."  When they failed to follow this command and gathered extra, they found that what they had gathered "bred worms and stank".  The Israelites have only known the hoarding ways of Pharaoh which leave the weak without enough. Yahweh is teaching the Israelites that in God's economy there is always enough when no one takes more than they need.

Like the people of Israel, Christians are a people recovering from Pharaoh's narrative of scarcity.  We too have been told that there is only so much wealth to go around and if we don't work hard enough or we aren't smart enough then we might end up without our fair share.  We may even end up without enough.  So much of our lives is spent accumulating more and more wealth so as to ensure that no matter what happens we will always be able to provide for ourselves.  But this story pushes us to see that the basic premise of God's economy is not scarcity but perfectly proportioned provision.  In fact, it is only when we buy into the notion of scarcity and begin to take more than our share that scarcity becomes a reality for others.

There are some miraculous and extraordinary stories of God's provision for Israel in the book of Exodus.  But part of what we learn from this story is that God's gracious provision is not always the vanquish of a mighty empire or walking across the Red Sea on dry ground.  God's gracious provision most often takes the form of daily bread and meat.  That every-day, ordinary quality doesn't make it any less a gift of God.  Likewise, placing our trust in God doesn't always mean doing something extraordinary.  Most days it will mean refusing to buy into the empire's narrative of scarcity, refusing to hoard what we've gained, and believing that if we will provide for the needs of others God will provide for us.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Letter to Our City Council Concerning Video Gambling

In 2009, the state of Illinois passed a law which made any coin operated gambling machines which were not monitored by the state illegal.  This law was aimed at video gambling machines known as "gray machines".  Gray machines are ones that claim to be for entertainment purposes only, much like any other video game or coin operated pool table.  The machines themselves do not pay out any winnings.  However, these machines do keep track of "credits" which the person playing can then turn in to the person at the register for cash winnings.  Thus the revenue created by these machines is driven by the possibility of winnings just like a slot machine or any other form of video gambling.  As of August 20th, the state law passed in 2009 will begin to be enforced and as a result these gray machines will be removed from our town.  However, the state has licensed new video gambling machines which are monitored (and thereby taxed)by the state that can legally take the place of the old gray machines.  The City of Clinton currently bans all forms of gambling so if everything stays as it is now then after August 20th the old gray machines will be banned by state law and the new state-approved machines will be banned by city law and all forms of video gambling would effectively eliminated in our town.  However, our city council is considering a partial lifting of the city's ban on gambling in order to allow the new state approved machines to take the place of the gray machines that will be removed.  This consideration is being made for the sake of the businesses and fraternal organizations in Clinton which currently operate gray machines and depend on the revenue they produce.  As I understand it, the city council discussed this issue at its most recent council meeting and is currently undecided as to what action it will ultimately take but will probably decide by the next city council meeting on August 20th.  

Below is a copy of the letter I recently sent to our city council to express my own opinion regarding video gambling in our town.  I share this here not as any kind of crusade or campaign but simply to help inform any one else who lives in our town and might take the time to read it.  I pray that the Christian community within Clinton will engage our council members on this issue with the utmost humility and grace.  

Members of the Clinton City Council,

Thank you for your tireless work and dedication as council members.  I am grateful for all of the time and energy that each of you have given and continue to give on behalf of the city of Clinton.  I know that being a leader often means making difficult decisions on complex issues and I am thankful for a council that takes the necessary time to weigh the many sides of these issues in order to make an informed decision. 

As I understand it, you have one such difficult and complex issue before you now in the form of the new state-approved video gambling machines and whether or not to lift the existing city ban on gambling.  I have been informed that a number of businesses and fraternal organizations in Clinton currently depend on the substantial revenue they receive from the "gray machines" that are soon to be removed.  I also understand that it is out of concern for the continued success of these businesses and organizations that the city council would consider lifting the current city ban in order to allow these new video gambling machines in Clinton.  As a resident of Clinton and as someone who is actively involved in promoting the well-being of our community, I share this concern for the continued viability of our businesses and other community organizations. Like you, I also want to see our businesses prosper and our neighborhoods thrive.  However, I do not believe that the presence of video gambling in our town serves that common effort.  In fact, there are a number of reasons why I think lifting our current ban in order to allow these new video gambling machines actually works against our common goals. 

First, gambling in any form almost always end up working as a regressive tax, drawing revenue from those individuals and families who can least afford it.  Using state lotteries as one example, we find that "players with household incomes under $10,000 bet nearly three times as much on lotteries as those with incomes over $50,000."[1]  The possibility of that "big win" will always be more of a draw to those who spend each day struggling to pay their bills than it will be to those who already live in relative comfort.  Likewise, I have found in my own work with low-income families that the needs of today often seem so pressing that it is difficult to give any thought to the needs of next month or next year.  All forms of gambling prey on this short-term focus in that they unreasonably appeal to the possibility of immediate pay out while minimizing the long-term costs, thereby encouraging the very mode of thinking which often sustains the cycle of poverty.  Of course, one can argue that every individual, regardless of economic standing, has the same freedom to abstain from gambling but to make such an argument is to fail to understand how economic circumstances leave some individuals and families more vulnerable to the costs of gambling than others.  Gambling in general is a practice which is more likely to increase the problems of poverty than it is to drive us toward prosperity.

Second, video gambling machines in particular have been shown to be one of the most potentially destructive forms of gambling available while also offering the least amount of benefit to the communities which employ them.  "Most working in the field [of gambling research] agree that a strong relationship exists between problem gambling and EGM's [Electronic Gambling Machines]."[2]  Distinctive characteristics of these machines such as the speed of play, easy accessibility, and the appearances of near misses all encourage one to forget about the money already lost and focus on that small chance of "winning it all," thereby increasing the probability that a casual gambler will become a problem gambler.  Furthermore, studies have found that the presence of these machines usually do not provide significant benefit to the community at large.  Although they may provide some revenue to the businesses that operate them, they are less likely to provide the kind of secondary benefits that other forms of gambling claim to provide (i.e. the large number of jobs provided by casinos or funding for educational or social programs provided by state lotteries). 

In addition to the mere economics of the matter, there are also the social and personal costs to our community to consider.  How does one measure the cost of a family broken by the gambling losses of one of its members?  To be sure, we could calculate the financial costs of lost productivity and work-hours resulting from a gambling addiction, the money spent on counseling for a recovering gambling addict, and the funding for the social programs needed to keep such a family out of a dire situation and those calculations alone would probably be enough to convince us that the presence of video gambling in our community is not to our economic benefit.  But how will we measure the cost of a mother who knows she has failed her family? How can we quantify the cost of a child who watched his father throw away his chance for an opportunity in this life just so he could keep playing a video game?

Of course, this is not really a choice between the social needs of our community and the economics ones.  It is not a matter of weighing the needs of our businesses and fraternal organizations against the needs of individuals and families.  Obviously, as a community all of those needs, all of us as individuals and families are bound up together, connected to one another.  What is good for the families and individuals of Clinton will be good for the businesses and organizations of Clinton as well.  The long term economic benefits of the absence of gambling in our town will far outweigh the immediate revenue produced by any form of video gambling.  The absence of video gambling in our city will be one less opportunity for individuals to engage in unwise financial practices. This is turn means an opportunity for more sound financial standing for our families and an increase in economic prosperity for our town which is, of course, to the benefit of everyone in Clinton, especially its businesses. 

I thank you so much for taking the time to read this letter and continuing to weigh the arguments concerning this important issue.  Regardless of the outcome concerning this issue, I thank you for your faithful service as members of our city council. 

Rev. David Young
Clinton Church of the Nazarene

[1] Final Report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, 14.
[2] "Electronic Gambling Machines and Problem Gambling".  (Responsible Gambling Council, 2006), 6.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reality Check

God has accomplished his mighty works in Egypt.  Yahweh has proven to be Lord over all of creation.  With plagues of hail and darkness and death, Yahweh has shown that Pharaoh's illusion of power has failed beside Yahweh's true power.  The chains of the Israelite's bondage have been broken and the hosts of Israel are marching out of Egypt, carrying the gold and silver of the Egyptians with them.  This cosmic contest has been completely and decisively won by Yahweh.

But let's be honest; change never comes quite that easily.  Especially not this empire-upending, world-altering kind of change.  Not even when it is God who is bringing about the change.  There are still humans involved in this mighty act of God and we humans don't change quite so easily.

The Egyptians have grown accustomed to being oppressors.  They have come to see it as their right, an unquestioned part of their existence.  Now they are left to ponder what they have lost by letting these slaves go and they don't like the way this picture is shaping up.  In Exodus 14:5, Pharaoh and his servants say "What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?"  Perhaps we are tempted to laugh at the Egyptians here because of how short their memory seems to be.  Have they already forgotten what the presence of Israel meant for them just a chapter earlier?  Have they even buried their firstborn children yet?  But they are a demonstration to us of just how corrupting power can be to our vision of reality.  They know no other role than oppressor.  Although they thought they were in control of their own destiny, the truth is that they don't know how to live without the Israelites.  So in spite of the fact that Pharaoh has just been on the losing end of the most lopsided battle in the history of the world, he does the only things he knows how to do: he musters his chariots and soldiers and sets off with his war machine to find Israel.  Those who live by the sword....

But it is not only the Egyptians who have been shaped by this 430 year long relationship.  The Israelites also have grown accustomed to being oppressed.  Here we have an entire people who have known no other existence than brick making and infant slaughtering.  Although Yahweh has removed them from their captivity and oppression, the scars from their years of captivity and oppression have not yet been removed from them.  Their identity is still that of "slave".  So we really shouldn't be surprised that when these broken people see the Egyptian hoard headed toward them they say to Moses:
"Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?  Is this not what we said to you in Egypt: Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?  For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."
It would be easy to chide the Israelites here for their lack of faith.  After all, they have just seen Yahweh deliver them.  Why not simply trust that Yahweh will deliver them again?  But to do so would fail to take seriously the brutal impact that generations upon generations of oppression have on the human psyche.  These thoroughly down-trodden people are used to being let down and taken advantage of.  Why shouldn't Yahweh disappoint them too?  400+ years of oppression are not simply erased overnight, not even when that night is filled with the work of God.

The truth is this scenario plays out to some degree in most of our lives, even if we have not caused or suffered oppression as brutal as this.  We become accustomed to the relationships in which we participate, whether with spouses, parents, siblings, friends, even our church, and they define our "normal".  Those relationships shape our identity and existence, even the unhealthy and abusive ones.  And this makes change difficult, even when we recognize its necessity, even when that change has been started by none other than God.  Like the Israelites, we often prefer the chains of our slavery because at least those chains are familiar.  Freedom is a fearful thing if it something we have never known.

Perhaps that is why one of the most often uttered commands of this slave-freeing God throughout all of scripture is "Fear not!"  It seems that the God of the Exodus is aware that setting the captives free means more than breaking their chains.  It will also mean replacing their fear with trust and hope.  So rather than abandoning his recently delivered people just because they have not yet been made whole, God commands them to "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord" as God delivers them again and in spectacular fashion, drowning all of Pharaoh's army in the sea after the Israelites have just walked across on dry land.  In fact, it seems like Yahweh rather relishes this opportunity to once again display his power before this people who so desperately need to see the new reality that is possible with this God who has delivered them.

I know that in my own life there have been so many ways in which change has come slowly; even when I knew change was necessary, even when it was the mighty power of God that was changing me.  As a people who have been delivered but are also still being delivered, maybe we can have grace and mercy for others when they don't trust the work of God in their life as quickly as we might expect them to.  Maybe we can have grace and mercy for ourselves when we don't trust the work of God in our life as quickly as we expect to.  Although the transformative work of God can certainly take place in an instant, the spiritual growth that is necessary to fully appropriate that work of God in our lives will probably not be measured in weeks or months but in decades.  For the Israelites it took generations and that didn't make it any less real.  God kept calling upon his people to "fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord" as their God delivered them again and again and again.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Cosmic Contest of Salvation

Exodus 5-12 is nothing short of a cosmic contest to see who is really Lord over all of creation.  The contenders for this title are Pharaoh and Yahweh.  But, of course, this can be no real contest, right?  On the one hand you have Pharaoh with his magicians, armies, wealth, and vast empire.  Pharaoh has all the power one could ever hope to have.  Yahweh, on the other hand, is the invisible so-called god of an invisible and marginalized slave people.   Pharaoh will surely win.  After all, if this Yahweh is really even the least bit powerful, how is it that he allowed his people to end up enslaved in the first place?  Pharaoh sums it up quite well in Exodus 5:2.  When Moses and Aaron repeat God's command to let the people go, Pharaoh responds by saying " Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go."  If Yahweh is a god at all, he is such an insignificant god that Pharaoh has never heard of him.  Why would the mighty Pharaoh bother with the god of his own slaves?  In fact, Pharaoh will demonstrate his absolute control by forcing these slaves to now find their own straw to make their quota of bricks rather than providing the straw for their slave labor.  The revolution is over before it has even begun.

This seemingly insignificant god, Yahweh, sends Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh again to make the same demand.  This time Yahweh commands them to accompany their message with a sign.  Aaron casts down his staff and it turns into a snake.  Unimpressed, Pharaoh call's the imperial magicians and they do the same.  As a sign of what is to come, Aaron's snake-staff swallows those of the magicians but it will take much more than this to stir Pharaoh.

So Yahweh sends Moses to the Nile.  More than just a river, this is the very life source of Egypt, not only because of the water it supplies but also because of the nourishing silt it brings to surrounding farm land with its annual flooding.  It is also this river which was meant to be the death of Moses.  As such, it is also a symbol of Pharaoh's control.  Without the Nile, Egypt and therefore, Pharaoh, would be nothing.  With just the touch of Aaron's staff, this mighty river is turned to blood, perhaps a way of showing its "true colors" as a life giving river which has been turned into a bloody tool of oppression.  Pharaoh's magicians again replicate this sign although they are unable to reverse it and so Pharaoh's heart also will not be reversed even as the poor and powerful alike are forced to dig along the Nile to find water.

Next, frogs swarm the land of Egypt.  Again, Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate this work but the reality is they are only able to add to the problem.  In an empire over run with frogs they are only able to produce more frogs.

Pharaoh's continued intransigence now leads to a plague of gnats.  We are told that "All the dust of the earth became gnats in the land of Egypt" and "there were gnats on man and beast."  The very dust from which humanity was created now becomes a plague on humanity. This is the first sign the magicians can not replicate.  In fact, they call it "the finger of God".  Pharaoh's own officials now are beginning to wonder exactly what they are up against but Pharaoh himself remains unmoved.

The flies follow the gnats.  In order to make this portent more potent, God now makes a distinction.  The flies appear only on the Egyptians while the land of Goshen, where the Israelites live, is spared so that Pharaoh "may know that I am the Lord."  Pharaoh now does what must be humiliating for him; he asks Moses to plead for him to Yahweh.  However, as soon as Pharaoh finds relief, he again refuses to let the people go.

The plagues now come in rapid succession.  After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had been give the chance to repent but now the plague against livestock and the plagues of boils and hail are simply announced without any opportunity for Pharaoh to do anything about it.  He has now lost what little bit of control he hoped to yield through his conversations with Moses.  He is even losing control over his own people for when they hear about the plague of hail many of them fear the word of Moses more than possible repercussions from Pharaoh and choose to take shelter accordingly.  Yahweh proclaims that he could have simply destroyed Pharaoh but that he has been raised up for the purpose of displaying Yahweh's complete lordship over all of creation.

Now Yahweh asks Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron "How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?"  But Pharaoh still will not confess the Lordship of Yahweh.  This brings the locusts which will eat what little of the crop was not already destroyed by the hail storm.  At this point Pharaoh's own servants began to plead with him "How long shall this man be a snare to us?  Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God.  Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?"  It seems everyone is ready to confess that Yahweh is Lord and Pharaoh is not except Pharaoh himself.

Now comes the darkness.  This is not simply the darkness that comes with the sun being on the other side of the Earth.  Exodus 10:21 says this is a darkness that could be felt.  It is as if God has undone creation to the point that it is beginning to revert to that earth that was without form and void where darkness was over the face of the deep - except in Goshen, where the Israelites live. There, God's well ordered creation remains.  But within the realm of Pharaoh's so-called power, creation itself is falling apart.

Finally, the most terrible plague of all will come.  Every firstborn in Egypt will die.  This all started with Israel crying out as their babies were tossed in the river.  Now it ends with a "great cry" in Egypt because of the loss of their own children.  Only now that the kind of tragedy which Pharaoh himself imposed has struck Pharaoh's own house will he let these people go.

This plague is different though, not only in its awfulness but also because it is combined with a meal.  Whereas in some of the previous plagues God had set his people apart now Yahweh instructs them to set themselves apart by spreading the blood of a lamb over their doorposts and by participating in this Passover meal.  This meal is often spoken of as one of remembrance and it is that but it is also more than that for it by this meal that Israel is marked off as the people to be delivered.  It is not only an ordinance that Israel will continue to celebrate as remembrance of past deliverance.  It is by this meal that Israel marks itself off as the people who are presently participating in God's work of liberation.

It is to this meal that Jesus turned to communicate to his disciples the significance of his death.  This meal that encapsulates the salvation of Israel and is the apex of God's cosmic battle with Pharaoh is the one in which Jesus says "This is my body" and "This is my blood of the covenant...".  In doing so, Jesus said to them and to us "That creation-wide, cosmos-altering kind of salvation with which you are familiar in the exodus is now taking place in my body, through my death and resurrection, and you mark yourselves off as the people participating in that liberating work of God by participating in this meal with me."

Too often salvation is pared down to the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus which will bring us some measure of comfort in this life and the ultimate comfort after this life.  Its not that such a description of salvation is untrue.  Its just that it is a description of salvation that is so woefully inadequate that it is doing a disservice to the mighty work of God in Jesus Christ to constantly describe it that way.  The salvation we proclaim is so much bigger than us, so much bigger than our church, and the paltry little concerns that tend to occupy our conversations and committee meetings.  This salvation is the victory that has been and is being won in the cosmic battle against all the Pharaoh-like forces of evil and oppression in our world.  It is the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near and that God has called us to participate in the liberating work of that kingdom.