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.

1 comment:

Christine Marietta said...

I love this whole thing, especially: "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."