Exodus 2:23-3:10 – “God Heard their Cries”
September 20, 2020
When we read ancient biblical narratives, we cannot help but do so in light of current events.
Just this week, we have heard tragic news of horrific west coast fires,
and seen images of destroyed homes and even entire neighborhoods.
We have watched the Gulf Coast experience the devastation of hurricane Sally,
and then experienced close to a foot of rain from her aftermath throughout the southeast.
We have heard continued reports of high unemployment and that record numbers of households,
as many as one in five households in Georgia, will face potential eviction from their homes
by the end of the year.
We have seen desperate people crying out in the streets for justice and for hope.
We were shocked by news from the immigrant detention center in our home state of Georgia,
where multiple human rights have been violated, this time accusations of unwanted hysterectomies.
We have groaned over news reports of the coronavirus still spreading
and over the continued need to avoid large crowds and follow safety protocols.
Where is the good news? Where is the hope? From where will our help come?
The story of Exodus, our text for today, is the story of suffering people who cry out to God for help,
and of the God who heard their cries, cared about their suffering, and responded in unexpected ways.
Before we read the scripture, I invite you to engage with me in one of my favorite Bible study techniques.
One helpful way of hearing a familiar story in a new light
is to consciously hear the story from the perspective of one of the characters of the narrative.
So, while I read, I would like for you to identify with a character, with a certain perspective.
If your first name begins with a letter from A to F, I want you to hear the narrative
from the perspective of Moses. So Aaron and Betty and Frank, be Moses.
If your first name begins with a letter from G to M, I want you to hear the narrative
from the perspective of God. So Geri and Iris and Matt, hear from the perspective of God.
If your first name begins with a letter from N to S, I want you to hear the narrative
from the perspective of the suffering Israelite servants.
So Nathan and Susan, hear from the servant’s perspective.
And, if your first name begins with a letter from T to Z, I want you to hear the narrative
from the perspective of the taskmasters of Egypt. So Tom and Tricia and Walt,
try to listen as taskmasters.
Ok, so do you have your character? Moses, God, suffering servants, or taskmasters.
Hear the word of God from Exodus 2:23-3:10.
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.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian;
he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush;
he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said,
‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’
And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further,
‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,
to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.
So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When you heard the story of Moses and the burning bush, with whom did you identify?
For those who heard the story from the perspective of with Moses, the shepherd out keeping the flocks,
were you surprised by such an unexpected and challenging call from God to face Pharaoh,
the most powerful leader in the world?
Moses, though born a Hebrew slave, had been raised in the courts of Pharaoh.
He had one foot in both worlds, and could have been a helpful mediator, it seems,
at least until he witnessed physical abuse of a slave and rose up and killed
a member of the Egyptian armed forces.
Having fled as a fugitive on the run, he landed on his feet.
He met the priest of Midian and his daughters, married one of them,
and settled down with a few kids in the domestic life of sheep-herding.
Little did Moses expect that he would be called to return to Egypt,
potentially to face the death penalty, and to confront the most powerful leader in the world,
demanding that his economic engine of Hebrew slavery be overturned.
For those of you who listened for the perspective of God, did you hear the cries for help?
Did you remember the covenant? Did you wonder why God prevailed upon Moses of all people
to go do something about the suffering?
God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God promised them descendants as many as the stars in the sky,
as well as a good and broad land in which to live, the Promised Land,
but life was not going as intended for the covenant people.
For those of you who identified with the oppressed Israelites slaves,
could you relate to languishing in suffering and crying out for help?
The Hebrews had lived for hundreds of years in the land of Egypt,
but their oppression had increased, and their suffering was real.
They could not imagine how they might find relief, or how their world might change.
They felt powerless before the mighty Pharaohs and beaten down,
literally and figuratively, by their taskmasters.
When you heard that the runaway Moses had been called, was that of any comfort?
What could Moses do, after all, in the face of Pharaoh and the well-entrenched system of slavery?
For those who sought to listen from the perspective of the Egyptian taskmasters,
were you able to identify with those who participated in a system of oppression?
Could you identify with those who were keeping a whole race of people under their thumb
and maintaining the status quo in order to benefit the larger economy?
What did the taskmasters think of the call of Moses?
Did it seem ridiculous that this Hebrew runaway would return
and be able to make any difference whatsoever?
Did it seem preposterous that this Moses would be able to turn the heart of Pharaoh
and alter hundreds of years of history of a powerful nation?
As the narrative continues in the book of Exodus,
we discover that Moses did indeed return to Egypt.
Through prophecy and plagues and the Passover event, the hard heart of Pharaoh was turned.
The slaves fled quickly from Egypt, through the waters of the sea of reeds,
and when the Egyptian army followed them to re-enslave them, the army was drowned in the sea.
The Hebrews then wandered in the wilderness for forty years,
and as they did so, they told the story over and over and over again.
They remembered the “ex-odus”, the way out, the deliverance,
and that story remains as the foundational story of deliverance for the people of Israel to this day,
some four thousand years later.
I do not know if we will remember the year 2020 for four thousand years,
but we will certainly remember 2020 for a long, long time.
Since January, we endured a divisive impeachment trial
and the most divisive election cycle in my lifetime.
We have suffered through a worldwide pandemic, nearly a million persons have died worldwide,
and almost 200,000 in the United States alone.
We have experienced an economic collapse, with an unprecedented shutdown of church and school,
of business and of sports, with long term implications that no one yet can see.
We are experiencing a record year for named Atlantic storms on one coast
and on the other coast, a summer of unprecedented forest fires…
It makes me wonder….what else is going to happen in 2020? It’s only September!
When we consider the real sufferings of this present day, with whom do we identify?
Are many of us like Moses, the lone individual going about his business, settled into his domestic life,
not overly concerned about worldwide issues,
but unable not to notice the burning bush, the unusual sight that makes us turn aside and listen to God?
Are we, like Moses, perhaps hearing a call to get involved?
to do something, anything, about the conditions of our world, or the conditions of our neighbors,
something unexpected, sacrificial, or even dangerous?
Can anyone identify with the Yahweh character of the narrative?
the person who holds influence over others, who is hearing desperate cries for help,
who is noticing the widespread suffering, and who, in one way or another,
is deciding to exert some influence to do something about it?
Perhaps you can identify with the oppressed workers,
with those who are crying out in the streets for jobs or for justice?
Perhaps you can understand the feelings of those who are beaten down
by the circumstances of their lives, desperate for help and hope?
Or, could it be that some identify with the role of the Egyptian taskmasters,
those who risk losing power or influence if the status quo is broken?
If the oppressed are truly set free, if all persons are given equal access to resources
and equitable treatment in the courts,
then what will become of the way of life to which many have become accustomed?
Notice the verbs that are attributed to Yahweh in our text for today.
Walter Brueggemann, my Old Testament professor, always encouraged us to notice the verbs.
God heard…God remembered…God took notice…
God appeared…God called…and God said…
I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cries….
I know their sufferings….and I have come down to deliver them.
I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them…and I will send you to bring them out.
Desperate prayers of people for help and hope were answered.
The prayers themselves set into motion a chain of events that ultimately led to freedom.
This is no “watch-maker God” who has created the world as it is,
then set it into motion, and then sits back to enjoy Sabbath rest forever.
This is a God who notices and cares about oppressed immigrant workers.
This is a God who hears people's cries and is moved by their suffering.
This is a God who becomes personally engaged with the human struggle for freedom.
When Moses asks “Who are you?”,
God replies “I am”, “I am who I am”, “I am who I will be”.
As we face continuing uncertainty about this pandemic,
as our nation struggles through this critical time of racial reckoning,
as millions face economic loss and the potential of eviction from their homes,
as our earth and its creatures suffer from change in climate,
we affirm that God has compassion for us and for all who are suffering.
We affirm that God has – in the past – delivered those in need and lifted up the needy in their distress,
and that God will do so again.
And yes, we remember that God does not do so on our time frames, nor according to our expectations.
For the Hebrews in distress in Egypt, God raised up the unique and prophetic leader Moses
and made supernatural use of naturally occurring forces.
For the exiles in distress, many generations later, lamenting by the river of Babylon,
God utilized a secular army, the powerful third party of Cyrus of Persia, to return his people home.
For all of us throughout the world who have ever cried out in distress,
who have known any suffering or want,
God responded with a most unexpected Messiah, a suffering servant, a Prince of Peace.
This rabbi from Palestine would have no army, but his words would pierce the soul.
This healer of Galilee would not return violence for violence,
but would turn the other cheek, and teach a still, more excellent way.
This beloved son of God would spread his arms and die sacrificially on a cross,
forever establishing a way of forgiveness and reconciliation, a way of truth and peace.
In Exodus 15, written in retrospect, the former slaves reflected on what had happened:
Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…
The Lord is my strength and my might, God has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble…
‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?…
‘In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.”
By God’s grace, that song will be sung once again by those who are suffering in this season of history.
The story of Exodus, and the later story of the return from Exile, and Christian story of Easter,
are all stories of a suffering people who cried out for help,
and of a God who heard their cries and responded in unexpected ways.
Let us join our hearts and voices to the constant prayers being offered
that our “immortal, invisible, God only wise”, will do so once again. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church