Sermon from November 17: The Egyptians Shall Know

The Egyptians Shall Know
Pentecost XXIII (O. T. 33); November 17, 2019
Exodus 7:1-13

Sometimes I wish that God would come out of hiding. One of my favorite writers, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a poem (Psalm 1) that begins (translation by Armand F. Baker, altered):

Lord, Lord, why do you let atheists deny you?
Why, Lord, don’t you show yourself to us without veils or uncertainties?
Why, Lord, do you leave us in doubt, with the fear of death?
Why do you hide?
Why did you create in us the longing to know you,
to know that you exist,
only to hide yourself from our eyes?
Where are you, Lord; do you even exist?
Are you a product of my longing, or am I a product of yours?[1]

The Book of Isaiah contains this poem:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence –
As when fire kindles brushwood
And the fire causes water to boil –
To make your name known to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Does anyone else ever feel that way? The yearning that God would peak out from behind the clouds and show the divine face? That all of our pronouncements about justice would be accompanied by God giving a show of force? Wouldn’t it be great if every time we said something about God’s agenda for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, that God would punctuate our words with some carefully targeted smiting?

I confess that my desire for such public action by the Almighty is only partly out of conviction that the world would be better if all of us obeyed the ways of God. There is also the selfish motivation of wanting everyone to know that I’m right about things. When my friend John was dying of cancer, I sent him a note. He was an atheist and we had a strange and wonderful friendship. Anyway, I wrote to him: If I’m right, I’ll see you again. If you’re right, we won’t know the difference. He liked that, I’m told.

In the midst of giving Moses his orders and cluing him in on events yet to come, the Lord God tells Moses the central motivation for all this: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” (7:5) God intends not only to save the holy people from slavery; God also intends for the Egyptians to know the error of their ways, and to know who really is God. Just so: we not only want to save the world from greed and violence, but we want the greedy and the violent to know the error of their ways, and to know who really is God.

Time to stop for a reality check. Is the real problem where Unamuno puts it, on atheists? Are those who deny that there is any God really the primary offenders against the ways of God? The percentage of the population, at least in the United States, that is explicitly atheist is very low. In my reading of works by and about atheists, I have no reason to believe that they are less likely to work for the well-being of human life and the creation in which we live than are explicitly Christian people. Indeed, I suggest that God has less trouble with those who don’t believe in God than with those of us who claim that we do believe in God, yet insist on wanting God on our own terms. We may say, “I can only worship a God who…” or “I can’t deal with a God who…”

This is not unlike our other relationships. Perhaps you have a friend, and you keep wishing your friend were more attentive, or thoughtful, or adventurous. You want your friend to be someone else, rather than accepting them as they are. Or perhaps you have made a project of trying to change your husband or wife into someone different, rather than doing the loving work of accepting him or her just as they are. We may want a God who fits our description, rather than relating to the God who is.

You know that Kathleen and I just returned from a symposium on C. S. Lewis, so I have to talk about it a little. One of the speakers (Dr. Jerry Root, Wheaton College) talked about Lewis’ intellectual and spiritual commitments, including devotion to reason and to theological reality. He said that what we ought to do is adjust our soul and mind to the plumb line of reality. That is, to stop saying, “I can only worship a God who…” or “This is what I want,” and to start saying, honestly, “This is who God is” and “This is what God has revealed.” We don’t, though; in our society and in our time we are inclined instead to use the power of reason to rationalize our own choices, the speaker said, rather than to adjust our soul and mind to the plumb line of reality.

God told Moses that by the signs God was about to do, the Egyptians would know that the Lord was indeed God. Spoiler alert: they did get it, but it was painful getting there. I am convinced that God is not hiding, but has been fully revealed, and whenever I start to yearn for God to come out of hiding the truth is that I am yearning for God to be revealed on my terms. At risk of wearing you out, a quick review of three ways that God has been fully disclosed to us.

We have the Bible. Some of it is history, some of it is poetry, some of it is allegory, some of it is parable, so it all takes a little work to get at what it’s saying to us. But I’ve been reading the Bible for myself since I was a little boy, and I’m convinced that it isn’t as hard as we usually make it out to be. And in particular, the parts that are most important for us are easiest to understand. And there is a wonderful line usually attributed to Mark Twain, although the evidence is that he probably didn’t stay it. Still, it sounds like him: Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.

Here’s a shorthand picture of how I see the Bible. In Genesis chapter three, Adam and Eve hide from God, because they’ve done something they were warned not to do and they were ashamed that they were naked before God and one another. God wanders through the Garden, crying out, “Where are you?” To me, the Bible is the story of God walking through the Garden, crying out, “Where are you?” while we continue to hide. We don’t need for God to stop hiding; God isn’t hiding. We are, waiting for God to come to us on our terms.

Second, we have the Creation itself. I think John Calvin was right when he said that if our vision were not obscured by our sin, then everything we need to know about God we could learn right from the Creation; but since we persist in arrogance and superstition, we need the Bible to make everything clear.[2] Still, if we pay attention to the facts of biology, physics, astronomy, climate science, geology, and so forth we can learn a great deal about the character and ways of the Creator. I’m not saying that Creation proves the existence of God; I am saying that those who believe in God should pay attention to the realities of Creation in order to learn more about Who God is. Again, as the speaker at the symposium said: adjust our souls and minds to the plumb line of reality.

And what more do we need to know of God than what has been shown us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the creativity of God working as a carpenter, a preacher, a teacher, a prophet, a victim, a conquering hero? What a wonderful image our New Testament reading (Luke 9:28-36) gave us! Jesus on the hilltop, his face and clothes glowing with the glory of heaven, talking with Moses and Elijah about his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Madeleine L’Engle writes that she heard a child say once that Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.[3] Again: God has shown us, but are we really paying attention? Do we study Jesus Christ and know him, or do we just praise him and talk about him?

As we will read later, when we return to Exodus after Advent and Christmas, the Egyptians did come to know that the Lord was God. I don’t know if atheists will ever believe in God or if practitioners of other religions will acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God. Frankly, I’m less concerned about that than about whether those of us who confess Jesus to be our Lord and Savior are trying to know Christ and to know the God whom he reveals. God predicted that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened against the truth, and it was for a very long time. My plea to you and to any others who encounter the words I speak today is that you and I not harden our hearts. Rather, open your hearts, let your heart be softened to be open to the ways and will of God. God is not hiding from us, but has been quite open to us in the Bible, in the Creation, and in Jesus Christ. Adjust your soul and mind to the plumb line of reality, the reality that the Lord is God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] http://www.armandfbaker.com/translations/unamuno/poems_2.pdf

[2] Institutes of the Christian Religion I, v, 11 and I, vi, 1

[3] Personal comment. I have said that the three writers who have most influenced my view of God and of the Christian Faith are Miguel de Unamuno, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle. I think this is the first time I mentioned all three in a sermon!

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