Princeton University Chapel
March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Last week, our guest preacher, Ernesto Cortés Jr., spoke also at the lunch that followed, and those of us who were there heard him quote a writer who said, “It took one day to get the Hebrews out of Egypt; it took forty years to get Egypt out of the Hebrews.” How true. The text appointed for today from the First Testament shows us just one example of how the people, liberated from their slavery under Pharaoh, still had Pharaoh lodged inside them. They are free. They are being led by God, if they’ll believe God’s promises, to a new land flowing with goodness and bounty where they will govern themselves and can live out the precepts of their faith to the fullest. The desert journey to get there is truly hard, Moses doesn’t dispute that—no one does. But, repeatedly, they dig in their heels—things sure were better back in Egypt. Slavery was bad but the eating was good. They complain, they organize, and in the depths of their untrusting, they create a golden idol and worship it instead of God.
Our text for today is downright funny in its testimony to human foibles: the people say, “There’s nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and the food is bad, too!” I point out this irony frequently to my kids, who call me over to the fridge, which is stocked with food, point to the shelves, and say, “We have nothing to eat and I don’t like what we have.” Life was hard for the Hebrews, very challenging. They were free, yet Egypt was deep inside them.
In my personal reading this last week, I came across some commentary by a pastor who said that every church has its unofficial “Let’s Go Back to Egypt Committee.” I think that’s true for every kind of institution—universities, businesses, families. There are some who just don’t see why things need to change. The past certainly wasn’t perfect but at least you knew where you stood, you knew how to relate to other people, everything was harmonious because everyone knew their place, no fuss, no muss. Why do we have to talk all the time about accommodating new and different people and situations? Our church is fine as it is. Our university is fine as it is. Our company is fine as it is. Our family is fine as it is. This week some people are retracing, on its 50th anniversary, the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Those original marchers were leaving Egypt and not taking it with them. But some who supported civil rights were having a problem getting Pharaoh out of themselves. Dr. King had written to them from the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, and he implored them to stop their grumbling about things moving too fast. Wherever there are human beings, there is a “Let’s Go Back to Egypt Committee.”
I’ve served on that committee from time to time. I imagine that most of us have. Our hearts may be committed to change, but we also realize that liberation will involve some loss and a lot of risk. The Hebrews lost a very real security—the safety of homes and shelter, constant and nutritious food. They were slaves but they had food security and physical safety—not to be underestimated. They had community within their servitude. They knew how each day would go. That part was good. Now they are subject to the elements, wild beasts, hunger. The man who’s leading them is far from perfect; he can’t even speak right. On really hard days, it was easy to say, “Maybe where we were wasn’t so bad after all.”
Loss and risk—when we make the United States a place of racial, ethnic, and sexual equality, some of us will simply lose some of our social and political power. No one wants that. If we make the United States a place of income equality, some of us will lose some of our economic power. No one wants that either. Egypt quietly starts looking pretty good, even while we remain committed in theory to the liberation journey to a place of God’s blessing.
The Hebrews in the desert can teach us, if we will let them, how to name and identify the ways that Egypt is still inside of us. For starters, they couldn’t see God’s work for what it was. We do that too. They were sure that they knew what salvation looked like, what liberation looked like. They expected an immediate end to suffering, a great life with all comforts guaranteed. No more enemies, no more problems. God liberated them; God secured their passage through danger step by step, but the people couldn’t see it because it didn’t match the ideas they had about what their life should be like. Let’s learn from them not to do the same—we are on a journey, too. It is to a place of blessing: salvation. Yet the road we walk may be through a desert. That’s not because God isn’t giving us what we deserve, but because the world we live in now is so challenging. As with the Hebrews, God is with us every step of the way, providing what we really need—food, safety, community, hope, future, support, love. We have what we need to get where we’re going. God is making all things possible, in God’s good time.
A second thing—a related thing—that the Hebrews in the wilderness can teach us—is that we must never fail to trust in God. Their trust waned repeatedly, so does ours. They decided to take matters into their own hands—hands that could get the job done—rather than leave things in the hands of the creator of the universe. We do the same. When they were sure that they were lost, or that the God they had worshipped wasn’t adhering to promises, they transferred allegiances. They even created a new deity to worship. We do the same, and let’s not: the promise from our God has never been that the salvation journey would be easy, but that it would be worth it. The same was true for Christ, as we remember with special potency each year during these weeks of Lent. The salvation journey is not easy, but it is worth it. There are many other gods available for our worship (I don’t mean in other religious communities, I mean in our culture). Let us make our greatest challenges be the yeast for our deepest trust in God.
A third thing we can learn from our sisters and brothers in the ancient wilderness is that, in our present one, we must never capitulate to our fears rather than live out of our hope. Our fears are real, and they are justified. Dangers abound. It was true for the Hebrews. But in the face of them all are God’s promises to us about salvation, redemption, grace, healing. These things are our future and inheritance, no matter what marks our present. Our hopes simply must trump our fears, and they can, if we always live out of the faith that is in us.
All of this calls us to cultivate our patience, our impatience, our judgment, and our faith. How can we learn to be patient with all of the slow work of salvation that deserves our patience? How can we become always impatient with all that is unjust, and never, never make our peace with it? (That’s so easy to do—to acknowledge, for instance, that 1 in 5 American kids are hungry and say, “That’s just the way things are.”) And how do we tell the difference—how do we have the judgment to realize that our not getting what we want is not always an injustice? We are privileged people, indeed, to have that as a question in the first place.
Let us think, friends, in the days to come, about how we ourselves may remain colonized, may be captive to old situations that we really aren’t in anymore, and pray about how to see clearly at all times where we really are, who we really are, and how God is at work in our journey. Moses constructed a bronze serpent and raised it high on a pole so that those Hebrews who were wounded might look upon it and live. Many centuries later, the evangelist John remembered those verses from Numbers and instructed his community to think of Christ on the cross as one who was lifted upon a pole—and if we gaze upon him, we will live. We will have life. We will have the life that truly is life. We will have life eternal. As we journey through our own wilderness, this Lent and always, let us dare to be transformed into God’s new people. Let us remember that Christ spent forty days in the wilderness in order to discern and clarify his path as God’s Messiah. And let us emerge from our wilderness, this Lent as always, cleansed of the Egypt that is in us, done with Pharaoh, and ready to live into God’s salvific future.
D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: WJK
Press, 2008). Pp. 98-103.
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