Preaching Note: This is a sermon I preached at Covenant CRC on Sunday, June 14. My apologies for the muffled sound for the first seven-and-a-half minutes; my microphone fell from my tie and was caught in the folds of my jacket! Due to the sound problems, I’ve provided the manuscript (which is not necessarily word for word but close) below.
If you visit the museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., you can see a Bible given to slaves in the British west indies. The Bible is notable because it is heavily redacted, missing several books, including Exodus, the book in which our passage is found. The fear was that if slaves learned that the central saving act in the Old Testament is the divine deliverance of slaves from the most powerful empire in the ancient world, it would incite them to rebel. They were quite happy to give the slaves the stories of Joseph the patient slave in Egypt, or the household codes from the pastoral epistles. But Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus”) was removed. So too was the book of Revelation, with its vision of every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together before the throne.
When I was growing up, I learned about the Jefferson Bible, the result of Thomas Jefferson taking scissors to the New Testament, eliminating anything that smacked of the supernatural. But I never heard of the Slave Bible. I never learned that people had taken lines from the book I loved and used them to justify the subjugation of entire groups of people based on the color of their skin. I knew that slavery existed, of course; I even knew something of the black struggle for civil rights in the decades before I was born. But the part of the story that had never clicked for me was the part where the Bible was used to legitimize white supremacy.
That realization awaited me in college. I had a series of painful encounters, in which my own legitimacy as a brown, half-Filipino man was called into question. An argument for racial separation – my separation – was made on the basis of Scripture. God made the races, I was told; there must be a reason. So stay in your place.
I do not for a moment believe that I have borne anything close to the burden carried by our black brothers and sisters. I share my experience, rather, to give a personal edge to the question that drives this morning’s sermon. What do you do when it dawns on you that the Bible you so cherish has been used – and is being used – to put you in your place? What do you do when your eyes are opened to the way that Scripture has been used as an instrument of injustice, giving divine sanction to white supremacy?
There are many young people who grew up in church who are faced with questions just like these. And many are deciding to leave. They’ve been taught that all they need is the Bible and a relationship with Jesus. And yet they look at the tragic legacy of injustice in our country, much of it perpetuated by people claiming to be “bible-believing Christians,” and they aren’t sure what to think. Historian Linda Gordon estimates that at the peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s, some forty thousand were ministers. Forty thousand. God forgive us.
Our young people are right to question the way that we and our ancestors have misused the Bible. The Christian life is one of continual repentance, especially for us who long to be “always reforming in accordance with the Word of God.” But perhaps we can find clues to reformation in the parts of the Bible that the slave traders removed. This will help us read the whole Bible, and to ask, what is it that God is really up to in this story of Israel, Jesus, and the church? Because as we take a look at our text from Exodus, we find a stunning picture. We find a God who sets himself against oppressive powers to liberate his people. We find a God who sets his people free, calling us to fidelity. And we find a God who binds himself to us, even in our infidelity. Let’s follow the organization of the passage, with a prologue, a call, and response.
1. The Prologue: “You yourselves have seen what I did…” (19:4)
The very first thing that God tells Moses to tell his people is to remember: “You yourselves have seen what I have done.” What’s past is prologue for the covenantal invitation that is forthcoming. The first 18 chapters of Exodus represent the prologue to the Sinai covenant, a demonstration of the identity of Yawheh through his saving action.
Fleming Rutledge points out that in the early chapters of Exodus, there is no reference to Egyptian religion. If anything, the narrative highlights what we might call the irreligious logic of Egypt, “with its discussions of demographics, construction projects, slave labor, class distinctions, economic calculations, and ethnic cleansing.” Hebrew slaves break their backs to fuel the Egyptian economy. Hebrew babies are being thrown into the Nile river. Hebrew voices rise to heaven in a primal cry for deliverance. And Yahweh hears, and comes down to deliver them. And yet when God comes to fight on behalf of his people, he makes it plain that his quarrel is not just with the Egyptians but also with their gods. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that in the plagues Yawheh is systematically humiliating Egypt’s gods, one by one.
Pharaoh sneers when Moses says, “let my people go.” Who is this Yahweh, Pharaoh asks, that I should obey him? And so we get a showdown (from Egypt’s perspective) between the slave God Yahweh, the god of the ghetto, and the gods of the empire, the gods that legitimize the social order. Idolatry and injustice always go hand in hand in the Bible. Where there is injustice, there is idolatry, and where there is idolatry there is injustice. Finding one should always lead us to look for the other. Thus, if we find in our communities – and in our own hearts – a pervasive racism, we must ask which false gods have led us to this place.
It is after the Red Sea swallows Pharaoh’s army that God is spoken of for the first time as a king, as the one whose kingdom will have no end (15:18). The story of the Old Testament in many ways is a tale of two kingdoms. Egypt resembles the kingdom of Babel in Genesis and the city of Babylon in Revelation. Both represent humanity’s attempt to build a place where people are self-sufficient, where people can live free from the demands of divinity. The result is violence and oppression at all levels, a city of blood. And it is this earthly kingdom – Babylon and Egypt – that God sets himself against, calling out a people for his own possession who will live in allegiance to another kingdom and another king.
Because Yahweh is not like the gods of the empire. He dwells, as Isaiah tells us, not only in the high and holy place, but also with those who are crushed, to raise them from the dust and to cause them to rest in a spacious place. He intervenes for the despised, for the ones who have been told that their lives don’t matter and carries them out on eagles’ wings. You yourselves have seen!
This is why, in the spite of the egregious abuse of the Bible by Christians, I find myself nevertheless captivated by its central story. And is because of texts like this that our black brothers and sisters somehow found their way to authentic faith in the true God of the Bible – the Bible of their slave drivers, the redacted Bible, the Bible they were forbidden to read – and from this Bible defiantly reclaimed their dignity and humanity. This miracle of imagination could only have been accomplished by the power of the Spirit, who still dwells with the crushed, who still broods over broken creation with (ah!) bright wings. That’s the prologue to our passage, and it brings us to the second movement: the call.
2. The Call: “Obey me fully and keep my covenant.” (19:5)
God says, you have seen already both my power and my love. In love, God uses his power to remove the threat to his people’s flourishing and to set them free. The Exodus story is supremely a story of freedom. But as we arrive with them at Mount Sinai, we see what freedom is for. Freedom is for fidelity: “obey me fully and keep my covenant.” This is why I’ve set you free.
What is sometimes lost in the “land of the free” is this fuller dimension of freedom. There is freedom from and freedom for. Both are important. The children of Israel cried out for freedom from their enslavement in Egypt. Our black brothers and sisters cry out for freedom from police brutality. Dr. King memorably said that it was past time to honor the promissory note that guarantees every American life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When these things are being denied, we need movements that reclaim freedom in this first sense, freedom from.
But this text shows us that biblically, freedom is never simply the absence of external constraint. Nor is it merely freedom from sin. True freedom is the restoration of created purpose. Israel is set free from slavery so that they may belong to God as a covenantal partner, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. They are not free to do whatever they wish; they are called into covenantal obedience, a relationship of fidelity, characterized by love and justice. This passage shows the vital connection between election and vocation. With Abraham, God’s people are blessed to be a blessing, to show the world what it looks like to live under the reign of God.
But what does this have to do with us? Fast forward to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, where the Jewish leaders of the church declare “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith… we believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.” (15:8-9). Mercifully, we Gentile outsiders to Israel’s hope have been grafted in, included in this covenant and this call to fidelity, too. Somehow, we have been carried out of slavery on eagle’s wings, too.
The irony is that as Gentiles poured into the early church, the tide began to flow in the opposite direction. Gentiles began to boast of having replaced the Jews as the objects of God’s favor. This theology or replacement has a long and tragic lineage throughout church history. It has been used to justify racism, colonial conquest, and anti-Semitism. But if you read the Bible closely, you see that this is quite opposite of the story it is telling. The church does not replace Israel as God’s people. The Gentiles are welcomed into Israel’s story. This is basic covenant theology: the borders of Israel are expanded to include every tribe, tongue and people, and this new body of Jews and Gentiles is called the church. We non-Jews are outsiders who have been invited in; we who were once far away, estranged from the covenants, have been mercifully welcomed. Israel’s story that begins in Exodus 19 is not lost but fulfilled, enlarged and enlivened. Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, and the Jewish Messiah is the Lord of all.
To be included in this way, welcomed into this freedom should lead to nothing but amazement. Amazement, you see, is the opposite of self-congratulation. Self-congratulation happens when you believe that you have, through your effort, ethnicity, or enlightenment, accomplished something that sets you apart from others. Education, politics, and yes, religion lend themselves so easily to self-congratulation.
In the current climate, injustice, corruption, and hypocrisy abound, and it is right to speak against such things. But if we are not careful, we slip into the posture of the Pharisee who went into the temple and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector (Luke 18:11). The gospel confronts our self-congratulation and reminds us of the prayer of the tax collector: “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” The gift of the Spirit to others who are not like us humbles us and lets us know that the Spirit’s presence is not a reward because we have things figured out. The Spirit is free, and the Spirit brings freedom for fidelity, for faithful relationships wherein we commit ourselves to do what is right because of what God has done for us.
Our freedom as Americans is something about which the Bible does not speak. But our freedom as Christians is always the freedom to serve, the freedom to sacrifice, the freedom to put others before ourselves, the freedom to speak up for our neighbors and lay down our lives for our enemies. As Paul tells the Galatians: “You… were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” (5:13) Freedom exists for fidelity, to be the sort of humans God created us to be.
That is the call that is extended to Israel in Exodus 19, and through Israel’s Messiah, to us: obey me fully and keep my covenant. Belong to me, and let that allegiance situate all others. Let that allegiance show the world what I am like. This brings us to the final movement.
3. The Response: “we will do everything the Lord has said.” (19:8)
The picture we have is of Moses descending from the mountain with the word of the Lord, the word of covenant invitation. The process of gathering the assent of the people is compressed into a single line to show the unanimity of the response: “we will do everything the Lord has said.” In other words, we have seen what you have done. We will belong to you alone. We will obey you alone. All you have said we will do.
Moses goes back up the mountain. And as he delays, after some thirty days and thirteen chapters, the people speak again, with one voice, to Aaron in chapter 32. They say: “come, make us gods who will go before us.” How quickly our song changes when we feel that we have been forgotten. We grow impatient with the slowness of change and anxious over the apparent absence of God. And so, we slam the door shut and try to move on with more manageable gods. But remember the connection between idolatry and injustice. Whenever we fashion golden calves, choosing to make ethnic, nationalistic, and partisan allegiances primary, we fall short of the fidelity for which we have been set free.
As a nation we find ourselves in a critical moment of upheaval that could lead us towards repentance and fidelity. But it could also lead us to identify the source of righteousness with ourselves. And so, we are given the rest of the story to remind ourselves of how quickly and how often our resolve fails. We must remember Israel’s history; we must remember our own history. We are meant to find ourselves in their infidelity, to lament how quickly we look for other gods, and to look instead for another prophet like Moses who will speak the words that we need to hear.
Because when God shows up in justice, he also shows up in love. He proclaims his character to Moses in chapter 34: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” This kind of fidelity is neither our discovery nor our achievement. It is always God’s gift, offered in sheer grace because of the mercy of God, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is an even greater Moses. He is the one who is faithful to us. Because what we need to live in and live out this freedom and fidelity is not just greater resolve. We need someone who can give us grace upon grace when we fail. It is not a grace that excuses. It is a grace that transforms. It sets us free from our idolatry, restoring our created purpose to live in love and justice, in fidelity.
What do you do when it dawns on you that your sacred Scriptures have been used to dominate and oppress? The answer is not to abandon the Bible, but to dive in more deeply. To read the parts that we’ve neglected. To listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church. To hear the Exodus as a story into which we’ve been adopted, a story we’ve been called to continue. To let the vision of Revelation of the blood washed multitude from every tribe, tongue, and people baptize our imaginations. And to find at the very center of the Bible not a story of our own superiority, but of the faithful God whose face has been seen most clearly in Jesus Christ.
My brothers and sisters, to be a Christian is to know and follow this Jesus, to trust in his fidelity. It means to walk with him as he moves among the crushed, seeking ever to be delivered from our preoccupation with ourselves.