What’s It Going to Take?

Up until now, over the past few weeks, in our sharing of Bible stories that speak to God’s presence when human plans fall apart, God has been the One doing the unraveling.

For always-good divine purposes, God has been the One tugging at loose threads in the fabric our lives and reweaving those stands into wholly new cloth that wraps us in the nature and intent of God.

It has been God who turns the tables, God who switches things up, God who turns on a dime our understanding of God’s grace-filled intentions and the myriad ways that Lord reveals himself to the world through the words of our mouths and the work of our hands.

This morning’s lesson from the Old Testament book of Exodus reverses the roles in the biblical drama of salvation.

No longer is it God doing the unraveling.

It is now humanity doing its darndest to unravel God’s plans.

And, as always, God pushes back hard against voracious evil forces that seek to starve God’s appetite for freedom and justice.

This morning, we are with Moses and his brother Aaron, in Egypt, where Pharaoh has enslaved a people near and dear to God’s heart, and God chooses to free them from circumstances contrary to what the Lord intended in their creation.

Motivating that divine desire is the very essence of freedom that is God, and it is through the slaves of Egypt that the Lord reveals his timeless, widespread concern for all people – a revelation that’s quite consistent with who God is and what God is all about!

The Lord God intends all of Creation to live in the goodness of freedom in a world of God’s own design. For it is only in freedom that people are able to reflect the very image of a God who is free from all human forms of bondage.

Moses and Aaron follow God’s plans to the letter and showcase God’s desires to all with spiritual eyes to see. The brothers stand up for justice and demand what is right!

But Pharaoh remains hard-hearted and stiff-necked to any notion of releasing his stranglehold on power and control. Pharaoh remains steadfast to slavery and doubles down on a broken, sin-sick system that’s trying hard to unravel God’s desires for justice.

So, what’s it going to take to get Pharaoh’s attention?

What’s it going to take to get Pharaoh to understand in no uncertain terms that he’s at odds with the Lord and his passion for doing the right thing?

Let the presence of the Holy Spirit enable you to hear the Lord God speaking to your life and our world through the words of this ancient story. As always, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be acceptable in God’s sight.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2)

[Sometime later], the LORD then said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes, but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.

Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. He refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water, stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake.

Say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But until now you have not listened.’ Thus says the LORD, ‘By this you shall know that I am the LORD.’

See, with the staff that is in my hand, I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’”

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt – over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water – so that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt.

But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. (Exodus 7:8-23)

So, what’s it going to take?

What’s is going to take for Pharaoh to realize that his oppressive lust for power, control and wealth is standing in way of God’s liberating desires for justice, freedom and peace?

What’s it going to take?

Staffs and walking sticks transformed into snakes and serpents?

Wise men, sorcerers and magicians upstaged by a couple guys performing divine interpretations of secret arts?

What’s it going to take?

Pots, pans and pails across the empire overflowing with vile brew?

River water turning into toxic blood?

Dead fish floating on the surface?

Strong winds blowing foul stench in every direction?

Canals, pools and ponds flowing thick with undrinkable water?

What’s it going to take?

Apparently, a whole heck of a lot more!

Or at least something more impressively grand and thus sufficiently impossible of replication by the feeble smoke and warped mirrors of wizards and illusionists!

What’s it going to take to get Pharaoh to do something that cleans up the filthy, sinful scheme he’s conjured up to benefit no one other than himself at the enslaving expense of the people whom the Lord cherishes as his own?

What’s it going to take?

In the end, Exodus itself tells us what it takes.

It takes people like Moses and Aaron who swing hard when God calls them to step up to the plate.

It takes people like Moses and Aaron who are able to keep their heads down in the face of the fierce opposition’s strong gusts; people like Moses and Aaron who are willing to keep pushing heavy boulders of reform up slippery-steep hills; people like Moses and Aaron who are empowered to keep sparring in the battle ring of change, even when their more-muscular opponent is 6 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.

It takes people like Moses and Aaron – sinners like the rest of us but saints in their own right who find the strength, courage and stamina to keep fighting the good fight simply because they know they’re doing God’s work, fulfilling God’s desires, and making known the Kingdom of God.

That’s what it took then, but what’s it going to take in the here and now?

What’s it going to take to soften hard hearts and loosen stiff necks in our own conflicted days?

What’s it going to take to pry open hearts and minds, souls and spirits, to the oppressive realities of shared challenges in our communities, in our nation, and in our world?

What’s it going to take for us to fess up to and finally own the collective problems we’ve created by our own failures and faults, ignorance and indifference, fear and greed, and at long last to put some real meat on the brittle bones of treasured sentiments like liberty and justice for all in a land of the free?

What’s it going to take for a woman of color to stroll through a city park in small-town Iowa without being stared at and stalked?

Or for white pedestrians to stop crossing the street when they meet black men walking their way?

Or for black parents to no longer have need of talking with their teenage sons about the vital importance of practicing non-threatening behaviors and thus keep themselves from being killed by those who entrust to protect and serve.

What’s it going to take?

Certainly not vandalism.

Certainly not violence.

Certainly not verbal venom.

Certainly not whatever else only fans the flames of already-red-hot passions.

What it takes is more people like Moses and Aaron.

What it takes is more people like John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who recently died after devoting a lifetime to fighting the good fight – or as he put it, getting into “good trouble.”

John Lewis

Growing up in Alabama, Mr. Lewis suffered firsthand experience with segregation and racism. As a teenager, he met Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, from whom Mr. Lewis learned their game-changing methods of steely resolve through peaceful resistance.

Mr. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, a group that labored long and hard to end racial discrimination. That holy fight routinely put them in the crosshairs of bloody violence and gruesome death.

Mr. Lewis was a fixture at the Selma-to-Montgomery protest march that drew national attention to the challenges of being black in America, and he was among the dozens beaten by troopers, officers and deputies while crossing Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader hell-bent on preserving slavery and segregation.

In the footsteps of Moses and Aaron, Mr. Lewis fought the good fight – got into good trouble, and he kept fighting the good fight and stirring up good trouble, even when the pharaohs of the time answered his honest pleas for justice and freedom with repeatedly hard-hearted no’s and emphatically stiff-necked no way’s.

So, what’s it going to take?

Despite all the progress that’s been made, what’s it going to take for us to realize that oppressive lust for power, control and wealth still stands in way of God’s liberating desires for justice, freedom and peace?

What’s it going to take?

It’ll take people like you and me:

Men, women and children picking up the torches of hope passed on to us by the likes of Moses and Aaron; Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks; and any number of others who refuse to let sin and brokenness unravel God’s plans for a creation governed NOT by relentless chaos but by holy order, a creation governed NOT by back-breaking slavery but by liberating freedom, a creation governed NOT by merciless hate but by peace and grace.

It’ll take people blessed with thick-skinned tenacity to keep fighting against seemingly impossible odds and unphased by cards stacked high against them.

It’ll take people willing to change how they vote, how they spend their money, how they understand what it means to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” and how they practice the Lord’s greatest commandment to love, welcome and serve friend, neighbor and stranger.

It’ll take people willing and able to keep running a marathon race of endurance toward justice and freedom, inspired and fueled by the full assurance that the finish line in Jesus lies somewhere on up ahead.

The path to justice is never easy, is it?

The path to change is never a straight line, is it?

But, for the sake of Christ, the Spirit still inspires the call: “Let my people go!”

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message from the story of Pharaoh and his hardened heart during worship on Sunday, August 23, 2020. It is the fifth sermon of his series “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary and reflection by Walter Brueggemann, Kelly Brown Douglas, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, and Bill Withers Jr. inform the message. (Artwork: Lauren Wright Pittman, Anti-Creation Narrative, SanctifiedArt.org)

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