Get Out Of Egypt
GET OUT OF EGYPT
I’ll admit it. I am not a fan of Egypt. I traveled there for a three week middle east travel seminar in 2007, before the Arab Spring. I would describe Egypt as an Ancient Disney World, that is crowded, and dirty, and everything is on sale. Tourism was a major industry in Egypt before the Arab Spring. There is a ticket for every experience. To get into the museum, to see the mummies, to walk up the sphinx, to see the pyramids. Everywhere you go around the monuments there are hundreds of children, in abject poverty, peddling whatever little trinket they can find. Before the Arab Spring Egyptians built a massive tourist industry around the pyramids, which amount to massive grave stones that the Pharaohs used to mark their tombs, which would quickly be robbed by grave robbers which is why the next generation of Pharaohs built the hidden tombs called the valley of the kings.
Egypt is also the center of entertainment in the Arab world, sort of our Hollywood and Nashville combined. Egypt has one of the youngest populations in the Arab world as well, and many of the youth are very active on social media as we saw during the Arab Spring. But even when I was there several years before the Arab Spring you could feel the tension in the air. There were armed guards on every corner in Cairo. Our seminary group had a personal body guard armed with an automatic weapon in case anyone tried to kidnap us, which was a big thing in Egypt in the 90’s. Cairo even then was a bustling, unplanned, chaotic, metropolis. But even then you could feel the oppression in the air. Going to Egypt helped me understand what Egypt represented in the Hebrew mind. It helps me understand what it meant for God, “To Call his Son out of Egypt.” The spiritual significance of Egypt in the minds of Matthew, and the writers of the Old Testament basically boils down to this.
“Egypt is an apparent refuge during times of famine. But stay too long and it quickly becomes a place of slavery.”
Egypt is a place of refuge. We see this in today’s passage and we see this with Joseph taking his family and fleeing to Egypt in today’s passage and we see it in Genesis when another Joseph rises to a position of power that would be like our Vice President in Egypt and saves his family from starvation. The reason that Egypt is a refuge has a lot to do with geography. Though most of the country is a desert the mighty Nile provides a lifeline that allowed Egypt to rise as a mighty ancient Empire. While the rest of the region would suffer from famine, Egypt would remain strong by the constant flow of the Nile.
But Joseph’s family, and the Hebrew people learned within a few generations that it was a bad idea to stay in Egypt. As the opening chapter of Exodus tells us when the Pharaoh who knew Joseph passed away the new pharaoh became threatened by the Hebrew people because they multiplied quickly and started to out number the Egyptians. It seems that Authoritarian regimes have always been a problem in Egypt. My theory is because so much of life in Egypt is constrained around the Nile. There is plenty, but only along the Nile’s banks. People are crammed together. And it is a lot easier to control a country’s resources when they are constrained around a river. So while Egypt can be a refuge from famine or in the case of our Matthew passage a mad king, it is a refuge that constrains those who go there politically, spiritually, and geographically. Go much beyond the banks of the Nile and good luck trying to survive. Get on the wrong side of the Pharaoh or the current military government things can get really difficult really quickly.
That is why Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, “ When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Egypt was a land of plenty but it was a plenty that constrained and it was a plenty that led to slavery. And God so loved his people that he led them out of Egypt to a place where they had to rely on Him. Sometimes Israel might not have felt very loved as they wandered in the wilderness. What did the people say in Exodus 15 when they were cornered between the Egyptian Army pursuing them and the Red Sea blocking their path? “ Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” And what did Moses say? “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD he will work for you today. For the Egyptians you will see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you and you have only to be silent.”
And yet even when the LORD parts the waters and defeats an entire army the people of Israel still complain. When there is no food they complain to Moses, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” And God gave His people bread from heaven. And when the people thought they would die of thirst they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” And God told Moses to strike a rock and water came out of the rock. Though the wilderness lacks in apparent natural resources it is not lacking in encounters with God.
Since being here I have heard tales of how this church used to be full of children. People talk as if the church was in the good old days, the promised land. But my question for you today is were you in the promised land or were you in Egypt? Were you depending upon God or were you depending upon your programs, popularity, and the institution of religion. Because we can be in a place of plenty but in reality be in a place of slavery. Our youth groups may be full but are our children falling in love with the LORD? Do our neighbors not only tolerate us but are drawn to us because we are a blessing to the community?
Since being here in Pierceton I have come to think of my time in Richmond more as a time in Egypt than as a time in the promised land. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you are done with church, that’s okay, so am I. If you have been hurt by the church, that’s okay, so have I. And while my time in Richmond was a wilderness time vocationally, socially, it was a fruitful time. I have never had an easy time making friends. I often say I can preach in front of a hundred people but it is hard for me to network with a hundred people individually. But in Richmond, VA I found a community I felt like I was a part of for the first time in my life. And I had more friends than I have had at any other point of my life. Every culture has a “young adult” scene, and the same goes for Christianity. And I was pretty involved in the young adult Christian scene in Richmond. I met a young man recently here in the area who was thinking about leaving the congregation he was raised in because he felt “called” to another church. And I certainly believe there are points in our lives where the LORD may lead us to different worshiping communities, I sure hope the LORD hurries up a bit and calls some folks here. But I have met some of the folks from the congregation he feels called to and it seems to me that most of the folks were around his same age, they were a lot like him. Now I am not saying that the LORD cannot call a young person to a young church but it does seem rather strange to me that overall it seems that the LORD is only “calling” young people to “young” churches and “old” people to “old churches” and “black people” to black churches and “white” people to “white churches”, and “Hispanic people” to “Hispanic churches” and “conservative” people to “conservative” churches and “liberal” people to “liberal” churches. I don’t know it just seems a little convenient, and it strikes me that often when the LORD calls us he will lead us through the wilderness, he will make us rather uncomfortable, in order to lead us to a promised land occupied by a people who love the LORD for the Lord and not what he can give them.
If I am honest with myself much of my hesitancy to embrace my calling was because I was afraid. Because they didn’t tell me in seminary how lonely the ministry could be. For much of my life my community had been my church but when you become the leader of a church that changes the dynamic. I’ve been hurt by churches and I have seen and heard about so many other pastors hurt by churches that it makes it really hard for me to trust people
So I was afraid. Afraid that to pursue my calling, and to make that my profession, I would essentially have to give up my community. But I remember one night I was hanging out with some friends at a bar, and yes Christians can hang out at a bar if they have learned self control. It was that “young adult” Christian crowd that I had come to be a part of hanging out on Friday night. There is nothing wrong with that. But this time hanging out was just like every other time hanging out, I felt accepted but I felt something was missing. I had what I needed socially but I wasn’t thriving, I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. And I thought, “there has to be more to life than this…” That lead me down the path to try again, to believe again, because I was in a land of plenty, but in a way I was in a personal slavery.. When Andrew called me to offer the position to me on the half of the PNC I took about a week to pray about it. And when I called him back I asked him one question, “Can I trust you?” . And he said “yes you can trust us”, meaning he and Katrina. And I said okay I am coming. And right before I preached my first sermon at the congregational vote where I told you all, “to bring what you got,” Lew Collier took me aside and said to me, “don’t worry you are with family now.” And though I was seven hundred miles away from my biological family in my Spirit, in that moment, I knew what he said to me was the most true thing I had heard in four years. We are family. And families need to trust each other. But Jesus said look at the log in your own eye before you remove the speck from your neighbors. And what I think he was saying was that we all have problems, but often we try to fix everyone else’s problems before we fix our own. To put it in my generation’ s language, as I said once before, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself. And your pastor is no exception to this rule. I confess to you as your shepherd I have failed to set that example of trust thus far. Because I thought to myself that if I could trust just one person that would be enough to survive. But I don’t just want to survive. I want to thrive here. In job interviews there is one question I hate above all the others, “what is your greatest weakness?” It is a dishonest question because what the interviewer is actually asking you is, “I am looking for a reason not to hire you, show me that you are smart enough to answer this question and not make a fool of yourself. “I’ve answered this question honestly before, and guess what, I didn’t get the job. But several years ago the Lord put on my heart 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My Grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” I haven’t really believed in the Presbyterian tradition of Mutual Forbearance, which is not that we just tolerate each other because we don’t think that anyone is right, but we stay together because we love each other and together we seek the truth the Lord has for us. Trust has to be built, it has to grow, there are things about my life that I do want to share with you at the right time as we get to know each other. It is not enough for me to trust just one or two people in this congregation. As John Wimber, one of my favorite theologians once put it, faith is spelled, R.I.S.K. To trust you, to give my heart and soul to this church, I admit is way outside my comfort zone.
I am reminded of a quote I heard in “God’s Not Dead,” a Christian movie I saw recently. I find most Christian movies are rather corny and not really meant to bring people to faith, but designed to make us feel better about ourselves and express our resentment against our secular culture. For the most part God’s Not Dead fits that mold. But there is one place that the movie shatters that mold. The movie revolves around several characters who are dealing with serious questions about God, Faith and life. One of the characters is Mark, a corporate executive who has everything he could ever want, including a beautiful girlfriend, until he dumps her because she gets cancer. Thing is Mark’s mother is in a nursing home suffering from dementia. Mark hasn’t visited her for years, because he is frankly afraid of the pain it causes him. But his sister convinces him to visit his mother. His mother is sitting in a dark room, in a rocking chair, staring rather blankly into space. Mark sits in silence for a while just watching her with a face that just says, “this is not fair.” And then he speaks up and says, “You prayed and believed your whole life. Never done anything wrong. And here you are. You’re the nicest person I know. I am the meanest. You have dementia. My life is perfect. Explain that to me!” And out of the sheer silence his mother speaks;
“Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.”
My friends, my family. It’s time for me and it’s time for you. It’s time to let go of what came before, good and bad. It’s time to come up out of Egypt and embrace the wilderness. No church growth plan can save us, no youth group will put things right, no endowment will sustain us, if we do not look towards the pillar of fire in front of us instead of the comfort behind us. My friends I have to admit that I don’t know what I am doing. I have trained for this, I have read all the books, I have taken all the classes, I have passed all the exams, but I confess to you today before I moved out here I never really trusted God to do something that I cannot do. My friends, my family, I am coming up out of Egypt. And now I know I can’t do this alone.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.