Monday, January 30, 2012

From Slavery to Freedom

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?  From Slavery to Freedom
Bishop’s Bible Study on the Exodus
Dedicated to Dr. Darold Beekmann and in memory of his wife Marlene who died on December 21, 2011.

“‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous….”  Deuteronomy 26:5

The journey that began with God’s call to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12—last month’s Bible study) continued in the adventures of their children, Isaac and Rebekah, and their descendants—Jacob (later named Israel) and his twelve sons.    These rich stories form the fabric of the Book of Genesis.

When we come to the Bible’s second book, Exodus, the worm has turned.   At the end of Genesis, famine had forced the Jacob’s family to leave the scarcity in Canaan for the abundance in Egypt—abundance which reflected, in part, the faithful stewardship of Jacob’s son Joseph, who rose from imprisoned slave to become second-in-command in the royal court of the Pharaoh.  (I once heard Joseph described as history’s first “Secretary of Agriculture,” who conceived of the idea of the ever-normal granary in which crops are stored in good years, to tide over the hungry in the lean years.)

The word “Exodus” means “the way out.”    Although we rightly associate the Book of Exodus with the compelling figure of Moses (its primary human actor) and the astounding escape from Egypt (the ten plagues and the wondrous crossing of the Red Sea), the book is primarily about God’s continuing journey with his people.   “Where are you leading us, Lord?” wasn’t just the question of Abraham and Sarah; it continued to animate the conversation God’s people had with their traveling Lord and Leader.

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.”  Deuteronomy 26:6-7

This part of the journey starts with God’s remembering of his people.   The journey we’re on with God includes times of trial and tribulation—harsh treatment and affliction.  God does not shield us from hard labor or oppression.   But also, God does not forget us when we are down.   Exodus 2:23-25 notes:  “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Israel groaned.   God heard.   And God remembered his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Notice the verbs and the intimate interaction between God and his people.

Darold Beekmann was my first bishop when I became a pastor over 30 years ago.  He was steeped in the scriptures.  After graduating from Wartburg Seminary he did graduate study in Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  I have never forgotten Bishop Beekmann’s observation on Exodus 2:23ff:  “When God remembers, things happen.”   When God remembers, it’s not for nostalgia’s sake.   When God remembers, God acts to save his people.

“The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….”   Deuteronomy 26:8a

To accomplish this rescue God calls forth the unlikely leadership of Moses, God oppresses the oppressor (Pharaoh) with ten uncanny demonstrations of power, God opens a path through the sea for Israel to escape—and for Pharaoh’s army to be annihilated.    These are the familiar stories of Exodus we’ve treasured from years of Sunday School or VBS lessons, not to mention epic movies like Cecil B. DeMille’s classic, The Ten Commandments (1956), or more recently, The Prince of Egypt (1998).

But what I want us not to lose sight of is the fact that all of this—the saga of Moses and the razzle-dazzle of the Escape—was part of a larger journey God was again taking with his beloved people.   Exodus means “the way out,” –and that way out involved a forty-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai to the banks of the Jordan River.

Here’s what may not add up for us, though.   It’s less than six hundred miles from the Nile delta (in Egypt) to the banks of the Jordan River (east of Jerusalem).   Even with a company of well over 600,000 travelers (Exodus 12:37), it didn’t have to take forty years to complete that trek!   This four-decades-long journey was about more, much more, than “getting there.”   

The Book of Exodus narrates Israel’s foundational salvation-history.  Read the whole book, if you will.  But for now, let me lift up four themes that emerge Exodus—themes that speak powerfully to our own life as God’s journeying people in the 21st century:

1.   No turning back.   Almost immediately after they escaped from Pharaoh and his army, the children of Israel started grumbling and pining for the good life they left behind in Egypt.  How quickly they forgot the oppression of their task-masters!   Just six weeks after escaping from Pharaoh, “the Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  Exodus 16:3

Again and again the children of Israel grumbled, and again and again they had to re-learn a hard lesson:  the supposedly “greener grass” back in Egypt wasn’t all that green, and there would be no turning back.   It’s as if the Israelites had contracted a perverse sort of amnesia! 

God had orchestrated their escape from slavery, and God would never allow them to sacrifice their freedom.  God had a preferred future for the children of Israel, and God was going to take them to it.   God’s goal for his people was nothing short of the Promised Land.

What about us?   When the going gets tough in our faith-communities, do we sometimes pine for a golden age in the past?  Do we allow nostalgia, for an era that will not return, to prevent us from doing God’s work today and moving forward into God’s tomorrow?

2.  Faith for now, bread for today.   When the Israelites bewailed their hunger, God gave them unexpected food—a wondrous bread from heaven they called “manna” (literally “what is it?” in the Hebrew language, Exodus 16:15).  Every morning there was enough manna to get God’s people through another day.  

If anyone tried to hoard this amazing bread for more than one day, though, it became infested with worms.   “Leftover” manna went bad.   God insisted on leading and feeding his people, but only in a day-by-day way.   And this went on for all forty years of their journey to the Promised Land (Exodus 16:35).   It was as if God said:  “Don’t worry about your future.  That is in my hands.  Trust in me today.”    

We echo the experience of the Israelites when we pray, as Jesus taught us:  “Give us today our daily bread.”   But is that enough for us?   Are we not, even as the church, constantly tempted to secure our future?   How can we live in the trust that God holds us and sustains us—God gives us whatever we need, but on a “one day at a time” basis?

3.  God is with us for the long haul.   Although we associate the Israelites’ time at Mt Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments, it was a promise that first grabbed them by the ears.   “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” Exodus 20:2.  This was God’s first word from the mountaintop.   God committed himself unreservedly, unalterably, to being in relationship with his chosen people.   God’s gracious decision for Israel called forth their answering response of faith, hope and love—which is still the basis for our whole life with God and with one another.

Here too is a call that constantly comes to the 21st century church.   In our well-meaning efforts to serve faithfully and effectively, we can start thinking that the church is our “project.”   But it’s not!   The church is always God’s gratuitous gift to us and to the world, grounded in God’s fierce determination to be our God--to keep announcing God’s promises that establish us, sustain us, and move us forward in God’s mission.   God is with us for the long haul, and that is enough!

4.  The journey transforms both the people and their God.  A lot can happen during forty years of traveling--as we read about in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The journey made a deep and enduring impression on God’s people; it solidified their identity as a nation. 

But as often happens in long family trips, the travelers got on each other’s nerves.   The Israelites complained repeatedly, lost faith, and stretched God’s patience to the breaking point.   In Exodus 32, following the golden calf incident at Mt. Sinai, God was ready to wipe out the Israelites and start fresh just with Moses and his offspring—to make of them a new “chosen people” (Exodus 32:10).   But Moses argued persuasively with God, on behalf of the people of Israel (read about it in Exodus 32:11-13).  “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” (Exodus 32:14).

The Book of Exodus, along with other portions of the Old Testament, challenges the notion that God is impassive or aloof—an Unmoved Mover (as the philosopher Aristotle liked to say).   Rather, God is intimately connected with, and related to, the people of his choosing.  God affects his people, and the people affect God.  In the depth of this relationship--slowly over time—the children of Israel learned the rudiments of trust.   They were transformed by God’s giving, guiding, chastening hand.

This month, on Ash Wednesday--February 22, we will begin another Lenten season.  For forty days (an echo of the forty years’ journey of the Exodus) we’ll reflect anew on God’s grace toward us, God’s chastening of us, and the journey God is taking us on, with our Lord Jesus Christ.   Use this Lenten season to ponder your own congregation’s journey with God, how that journey has been transforming you, and where God is leading you.   Consider using the synod resource,  Lent 2012:  A Season for Prayer and Renewal, Seeking a New Vision for our Congregation’s Purpose in God’s Mission available at

Journeying with you in Christ,

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection or group discussion:
1.      “Bringing good out of evil,” is a theme we encounter throughout the Bible.  How do you see God bringing good out of evil in the Exodus story?   In your story?   In your congregation’s story?
2.      Why is it so tempting to get lost in nostalgia for a “golden age” in the past?   How does such nostalgia sometimes keep you or your congregation from moving ahead, into God's future?
3.      How are you (or your congregation) learning to trust God, one day at a time?
4.      As a disciple of Jesus, what difference does it make to know that the church is God’s gracious gift—not our human “project?”
5.      What is one way you and/or your congregation, during Lent 2012, might ponder the question:  “Where are you leading us, Lord?”

This is the second in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

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