09.10.2017 Preaching Text: ‘[When] I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)
At first I wasn’t going to preach on the Exodus passage. I was concerned that having to explain Jahweh’s harsh and deadly judgment against the Egyptian people might detract from the overriding message of God’s salvation for the long-suffering Hebrew people.
That this story is one of the most important to the Jewish people is without dispute, for it is the story of the first Passover, an event still celebrated today. It is, in fact, one of the two most important days in the Jewish calendar.
This, and the other events that ultimately led to the freeing of the Hebrew people from Egyptian captivity, marks the very beginning of Israel as a people. Prior to this, “Israel” didn’t exist. Its people consisted of separate, wandering Semitic tribes moving about the Levant.
It was only after several of these tribes (though certainly not all) found themselves in Egypt did a sense of communal identity develop. Thus the Exodus became the defining moment when they not only became a unified people (and later a nation) but developed a clear sense of who Jahweh was and is. In the Exodus the nation we still call Israel is birthed.
But what to do with the less congenial eccentricities of this famous event? Why would the God we Christians worship devise a plan to kill all firstborn Egyptians boys? It’s utterly barbaric, or so it would seem.
We struggled with this in Bible Study this past week. And while we didn’t come up with any explanation that seemed entirely satisfactory, we did have a few thoughts.
For one, we agreed (or at least I think we did!) that the biblical narrative over time shows evidence of an increasing maturation of thought among Israel’s theologians in terms of how they understood God. This story, reflecting a more primitive Bronze Age sensibility, can be contrasted, for instance, with the later, and far more humane, perception of this same God by Jesus and the New Testament writers.
Yet does this mean we should dismiss all the old biblical stories as the product of an outmoded, primitive way of thinking? Does the Passover story, in other words, have any relevance for us today, or should it be discarded?
Many today think it should be discarded, assuming the Old Testament to be all about judgment while the New Testament, in studied contrast, is all about forgiveness and mercy. The Old Testament God equals harsh punishment, in other words, while the God of the New Testament is into being warm and fuzzy.
Then again, the author of the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews reminds us that God’s love is a double-edged sword. That is, it involves both mercy and judgment. One without the other simply makes no sense.
God rightly judges because God knows that sin and evil produce suffering and hardship. God’s love demands goodness, for the opposite is to countenance harm to those he created to live in harmony and peace. A God who cares nothing about justice is simply not a God I care to know, much less worship.
Something else came up in the Bible Study as well. It was noted how ritualistic Jahweh’s instructions were to the Hebrew people in the Exodus story.
It was pointed out how rituals in general connect us to those who have gone before, perhaps especially to our forebears. Not only that, we can worship in practically any country in the world and encounter the same liturgical framework. Thus ritual connects us to both the dead and the living.
As I say, liturgy binds us to the past. Yet if the past is to be rejected or replaced by an ever-changing present, it loses its relevance.
Increasingly, even in the church, some have concluded that the only thing that matters today is the NOW. Because the past is filled with injustice and wrong-thinking, it must be junketed for our more enlightenment present age.
The sermon title, however, offers three possible ways of interpreting the past as it relates to both the Bible and the traditions of the Church?
One way, preferred by the more fundamentalist among us, argues for a kind of stasis, demanding that the text means what it says it means, always and forevermore, no questions asked.
But this fails to do justice to the thinking of the original biblical writers as well as to the early church, whose theologians wrote it. Its literalness is in fact a modern invention. Only after the Enlightenment did people think words were “objective,” requiring no interpretation.
The other extreme, the one far more common today, argues just the opposite. Everything is interpretation. There are no unchanging truths, no underlying substance. Everything is conditioned by time and place. Thus the passing of time relativizes and renders old-fashioned any and all biblical, ecclesial truths. Such “truths” may have been fine back then, but their ideas certainly won’t wash today.
The third possibility is reform. Whereas stasis recommends a never-changing, wooden tradition, its opposite, an always-changing and ever-evolving interpretation, risks mere novelty which rejects timeless truth altogether.
Reform, however, recognizes that our faith is a living one, moving through time. It seeks not novelty but only those changes that correct or make good on the timeless truths contained in the past and within tradition.
Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish-born statesman and writer, famously applauded the American Revolution while rejecting the later French Revolution. The reason is that he believed the American Revolution was founded on timeless principles which necessitated and justified a break from the British crown. These principles, he believed, ennoble human life.
He viewed the French Revolution, on the other hand, as a nihilistic attempt by anarchists to destroy and tear down. Whereas the American Revolution sought to correct and amplify timeless godly truths, the French Revolution championed novelty and destruction, thus ignoring that which most ennobles the human spirit.
By means of thought-filled, prayerful discernment church reform seeks neither to reject the past nor to ignore the present. It considers truths gained from the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of those who came before us, yet also from those alive today. In so doing, it seeks to correct and modify, in order to accord more fully with God’s timeless truths.
A static tradition and a wooden, literalistic interpretation of the past ignores the lessons and experience of the present, while the novelty approach merely replaces the past with the often transient likes and dislikes of the present.
Genuine reform, however, unlike the two options mentioned above, struggles to make sense of the present, but in the context of the past.
Such is the challenge of every age, as we faithfully strive to spiritually discern the will of God. Amen.