Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Plagues of Deliverance"
Scripture: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
One of the Bible studies put out by the United Methodist Church that I love most is the Disciple Bible Study. You may be familiar with it. It is an intense, 36-week journey through the entire Bible, from beginning to end, travelled by 12 students and a leader, meeting for 2 and a half hours each week over nine months. Disciple Bible Study is a big commitment and I’ve taught it 3 times in my ministry. I hope that at some point we can do Disciple Bible Study here at Epworth.
Each time I lead Disciple Bible Study, I learn something new. But perhaps the most arresting thing I have learned from Disciple Bible Study was in my first year of teaching, early in the study when we came to the texts of the plagues of Egypt and the Exodus. In the text, the Israelites, though once free in Egypt, have become enslaved. Moses and his brother Aaron, both Israelites, at the request of God, have faced off against the Egyptian Pharaoh demanding that Pharaoh let their people go!
The plagues of Egypt and the story of the Exodus are taught to children regularly in Sunday School. Of course this is the same history that is retold every year as our Jewish siblings gather for the Passover observance, drawn directly from the scripture that Gus read from Exodus today.
Exodus-related questions are almost always featured in Bible quizzes and often even at trivia nights—How did God tell Moses it was time to go to Egypt and free the Israelites? Answer there: Through a burning bush in the desert. Why did Aaron accompany his brother Moses to talk to Pharaoh? Answer: Because Moses claimed he couldn’t speak very clearly. How many years did the Israelites wander in the desert? Answer: 40 years. What were the plagues of Egypt? The answer there might even be the daily double. The ten plagues that Egypt endured while Moses and his brother Aaron called on Pharaoh to release the Israelites were these: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and finally the murder of the firstborn.
These are some of the most dramatic texts in the Bible and these scenes are prominent in our Biblical imaginations.
But what I learned that night in Disciple Bible Study is that except for the account in Exodus, there is no corroborating archaeological evidence in Egypt or Sinai of the plagues or the Exodus. And the plagues and the Exodus are not mentioned at all in Egyptian textual sources of the same period. How could this be?! How could an event so dramatic and so prominent in our own story as a people of faith and in the story of the Jewish tradition not be foregrounded in every history of the time, let alone not be present at all?
Well, let’s think about this. We know that history is written by the winners and those in power. Though Egypt was in power, in this instance, they didn’t win. So it’s possible that Egyptian historians chose not to record this part of the story, or maybe they were even instructed not to. The Israelites were the winners so of course they recorded it. But this doesn’t explain the lack of archaeological evidence.
So how do we deal with that? Archaeological evidence, because of its materiality, can seem objective and conclusive. But it has its limits. If we find a particular kind of vessel we know to be used by a particular people near a place where there is evidence of a well, we might conclude that groups of this people lived in the area. This may or may not be true, and moreover, it cannot tell us of the interpersonal or political conflict that might have been happening at the same time.
We could then go on in trying to understand this historical omission and attempt to determine if the events of the story were even possible. Scholars have spent much effort arguing plausible explanations for the plagues. One theory is that the plagues are the result of a volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini. The ash in the eruption became airborne and winds carried toxic ash to Egypt. “The ash would have contained the mineral cinnabar, which could have been capable of turning the river Jordan red. The accumulated acidity in the water would have caused frogs to leap out and search for clean water. Insects would have burrowed eggs in the bodies of dead animals and human survivors, which generated larvae and then adult insects. Then, the volcanic ash in the atmosphere would have affected the weather, with acid rain landing on people’s skin, which in turn caused boils. The grass would have been contaminated, poisoning the animals that ate it. The humidity from the rain and the subsequent hail would have created optimal conditions for locusts to thrive. Volcanic eruptions could also explain the several days of darkness — which means nine of ten plagues are accounted for.” [source] Another theory pins the origin of the plagues on red algae. Another theory suggests that the parting of the red sea as the Israelites escaped could have happened as a result of a 67 mile per hour wind blowing for a sustained four hours exposing a reef for passage from bank to bank of the sea.
But just because the plagues, or the parting of the red sea, could have happened does not mean that they did happen, and we are left with the fact that there is no other historical evidence of these occurrences. After living through the past few months and particularly the past weeks, we didn’t need a scientific theory to tell us that plagues could happen!
What we need to remember is that our scriptures are less an attempt at a factual history than they are the story of a people and their relationship to their God, our God. Though they are based in history, the purpose of our scriptures is theological. They tell us how our ancestors in faith faced betrayal and loss, how they got through times of crisis or crisis upon crisis, and what they believed gives life joy and purpose. The scriptures tell us how to live as a human community in relationship to the divine and mysteries of the universe. All of this is about the relationship between us and God.
The plagues and ensuing Exodus are traditionally viewed as the single event that gave birth to Israel as a nation of people with a particular identity and purpose in relationship to God. Though the people certainly already knew God, the plagues and Exodus marked a new and significant moment in the understanding of what this relationship is about.
Here we are in the midst of our own plagues. We are enduring the plague of Covid, and the ongoing plague of white supremacy, and the plague of fires, hurricanes, and now air that is foul and a sky that is hazed or red or just plain dark. So what do the plagues of Egypt have to tell us about these plagues we’re enduring and where God is in all of this?
First, the plagues of Egypt testify to the truth that there is suffering in the world. Now of course it is true that the Israelites were spared the effect of the ten plagues brought about by God, but they were already suffering the effects of the plague of slavery. All of these plagues were brought about by the injustice perpetrated by an oppressive ruler and state. Each time Moses and Aaron demand that Pharaoh let the people go and make clear there will be consequences, he refuses, then relents, then refuses again to give the people their freedom. The root of the suffering brought about by the plagues is in Pharaoh’s hard hearted and oppressive rule, and in the participation by all who are part of his regime in that oppression.
We know that some of the plagues we are currently enduring have their roots in climate change, and we must take this time to double down on our efforts to respond to our climate emergency. The bondage of creation has been perpetrated mostly by the collusion of corporations and governments against the will and health of the people. But when skies and waters cleared as pollution from transportation all but ceased earlier this year, we saw that a mass change in habit by the people can have a dramatic effect on the degradation of the environment. Coupled with our faithful action for policy change, we respond to God’s call to us to care for creation.
Yet the origin of the virus is less clear. And when one is in the midst of suffering plagues, the truth is that finding origins is only helpful in the forward looking work of correcting problems, not in the backward looking temptation toward anger and blame. The first message of the plagues is also the first noble truth of Buddhism, suffering happens.
Suffering happens, and the scripture we have for today about the killing of the firstborn represents the height of suffering. It is the origin of the tradition of the Passover, stemming from the Hebrew verb describing the action of the angel of death when coming to the Israelite homes, which literally means “passed over.” But the original verb has connotations that are lost and can also be translated as “protection” and “compassion.” And so the second message is that in the midst of suffering, God is present with God’s people in protection and compassion.
Finally, and most importantly, it is God who saves and delivers. Israel’s deliverance from the plague of slavery is not the result of its own doing but of God’s action in relationship to the people of faith. The relationship that the people have with God is just as important as God’s powerful action. Hear these words that begin Exodus, chapter 6: God said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them… I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.… I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”
In the midst of plagues of any kind, what we are to remember is that it is God who delivers us. I find it interesting that God says, “I did not make myself fully known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but in the midst of this suffering, God becomes more fully known. In our quest to be closer to God and to understand more and more of what God wants from us, times of suffering provide us with an open portal to know more of who God is and who we are in relationship to God. The more we let go of our desire for a time before the plagues, or a view of reality that does not see reality for what it is, the more our suffering persists. But if we let go and turn fully toward God, God will lead us out. If we turn more deeply to our practices of prayer, of reaching out, of giving, of listening for God in all things, deliverance awaits.
We are in a dark and difficult time. But what we see in this seminal and pivotal story of our faith is that there is never a better time to be at one with THE ONE who knows us, loves us, and leads us into a place of peace and joy beyond our own imagining. Amen.
Order of Worship - Sunday, September 13, 2020 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Community Gathers
Prelude: Jesus, Lead Thou Me On comp. Manz - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "God of the Bible” Worship & Song #3020 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Carole Klokkevold
Invocation - Dana Miller
To Hear the Word
Scripture Reading: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14 - Gus Schafer
Children’s Time - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Storm Comin’" - Judy Kriege, Erin Adachi-Kriege, Dianne Rush Woods
Message: “Plagues of Deliverance” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment
Hymn of Response: "Healer of our every Ill" The Faith We Sing #2213 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Carole Klokkevold
Prayers of the People - Misty Harvey
Special Music: "And He Blessed My Soul" - Charles Lynch
The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) - Mary Norwood
Offering Our Tithes and Gifts - Charlotte Rubens
Offertory Music: “Give Me Jesus” - Charles Lynch
To Disperse in Love and Compassion
Prayer of Dedication - Charlotte Rubens
Closing Hymn: "Breathe" Worship & Song #3112 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Lift High the Cross" - Rev. Jerry Asheim