May 26 | Let’s Review: Creation, Exodus, Exile

Let’s Review: Creation, Exodus, Exile
Texts: Psalm 19:1-6; Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Jeremiah 29:4-7
Speaker: Joel Miller

It’s been a while since I’ve been in school, but I do remember that the end of the year is a time of review.  To learn what you learned, as some teachers say.  Or, as a much-loved seminary professor would ask at the end of each semester: “What do you want to remember well?” 

As Chris mentioned in the opening, this transition from school year to summer corresponds with a transition in the church calendar – from Easter season to Ordinary Time.  And, in our case, from the Narrative Lectionary over which we traced the full arc of scripture, to a less structured summer. 

So, let’s review.  This week is focused on the Old Testament or First Testament.  Next week we’ll review the New Testament, or Second Testament. 

Rather than sprint back through the story, I want to make a few bridges into our present by highlighting some themes.  For today, how about three?  Three big storylines that weave through the Hebrew Scriptures which continue to weave through our story:  Creation, Exodus, and Exile. How might remembering these well relate with living well?     

Read/Sing: Psalm 19:1-6

Creation is, in many ways, about beginnings.  “In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth.  A wind from Elohim hovered over the face of the waters.” That’s the opening of Genesis, the beginning of the Bible.  It goes on to speak of seven days of creation, including a day of Sabbath rest without which creation is incomplete.  Elohim speaks the world into being, and then speaks blessing over Sabbath.  It is a poetic rather than scientific telling of our origins, but there is a delightful overlap with our current understanding of evolution and the way Genesis 1 portrays an increasingly complex and diverse world, each day building on the previous.

Genesis 2 tells a creation story less about divine speech and increasing complexity, and more about soil and breath.  Humans, and animals, are formed from the dust of the earth, and the Creator breathes into them the breath of life.

Here’s something to notice about these perhaps overly familiar stories: they don’t start from zero, what we might think of as the very beginning.  They don’t share our interest in how that thing that went bang got there in the first place.  In Genesis 1, the waters are just there, already present when creation starts.  In Genesis 2 the ground is there, ready to be shaped into life, ready to receive the divine breath.

In other words, the Hebrews spoke of a Creator that works with what is already present.    The Creator takes what is and ushers it toward a more textured harmony.    

In Psalm 19, which Chris sung, it is not just seven days of speech that create the world, but, as it says, “day to day pours fourth speech, night to night declares knowledge.”  Creation continues, and continues.

There is a movement within theology called Open and Relational theology that emphasizes this very dynamic.  Rather than just the beginning, we can think of each moment as an act of creation.  God always starts with what is, which now includes a lot more than water and soil.  It includes 13.7 billion years of unfolding, the increased complexity and diversity of life on our planet.   It includes what we call history and what we think of as our personal histories, our stories, our relationships and decisions, paths taken and untaken.  That’s currently what is.  And this is how God creates.  God begins again with what is in the each moment, and lovingly invites it into the next moment, toward a greater harmony, a greater capacity for life.  Which means right now, every breath we take, is like the Creator breathing into us the breath of life.  Sometimes we follow the invitation, something we aren’t even aware it’s happening. 

It’s too much to actually be aware of each moment.  But we can become more conscious of this.  And there are times, those pivotal, transition times, moments of birth, and death, and rebirth, when we are especially tuned in.  We can actually sense ourselves being created, and re-created.  Sometimes we even sense the Spirit God, hovering over the present moment, ushering us, inviting us into an open future, in the direction of rich, textured life, which perhaps now includes a loss that wasn’t there before.  Or a joy, a gift newly given. 

Remember this well: From the beginning, God takes all that is, and lovingly offers the next set of possibilities.  We, sometimes despite ourselves, sometimes with prayerful attention, take the next breath as we participate with God in creation. 

Read:  Deuteronomy 24:17-22

A second major theme of the Old Testament is Exodus.  Which is kind of its own creation story.  Exodus is a story about the creation of a people.  Living under the oppression of an empire, enslaved in Egypt, the Hebrew people, the Israelites, cry out.  God hears their groan, and as Exodus says, God remembers the covenant with their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  As odd as it sounds to 21st century American ears, it is this cry from underneath oppression, which activates the memory of God and initiates liberation. 

This is a story populated with familiar names – the siblings of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  It is complete with a villain, Pharaoh, whose refusal to let the Israelites go eventually leads to the environmental devastation of his own country – the 10 plagues — and the destruction of his military, drowned in the Red Sea after the Israelites pass safely through.  There, on the other side of the waters, in the wilderness, the Exodus people are free. 

But with freedom comes obligation and responsibility.  In the wilderness, Moses and the people are given Torah.  It is a set of laws and practices designed to keep the people free.  To keep them from simply recreating Pharaoh’s regime in their midst, where the few rule over the many, where labor is extracted without regard to human worth, where every day is a work day and creation is void of Sabbath, and thus is no creation at all, but simply building and building and building. 

Moses and the people are given the Ten Commandments, and other commandments, like those in the passage from Deuteronomy we just heard about not depriving the immigrant and orphan of justice.  About leaving the grain at edges of the field and not completing stripping the trees and vines of olives and grapes during harvest.  Those are to be left for the poor and landless.  And what is the primary motivator for just behavior.  “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.  Therefore I am commanding you to do this.” 

Now that have you a field, now that you have olives trees and vineyard, you should not maximize your profits from them, be intentionally inefficient in harvesting the wealth of your land.  Why? Because memory.  Because deep in the recesses of your mind, there within your own lineage, there in your collective and connective story, you know what it’s like to be the orphan and the widow and the sojourner.  You know what it’s like to need the wheat at the edge of someone else’s field, to hunger for the remaining olives of someone else’s tree. 

Exodus, like creation, is not just a one-time event.  Exodus is liberation from injustice and it has its power in the present as enacted memory.  Can you remember when you, when your ancestors were treated unjustly?  Can you access that memory in a way so as to see yourself in the other, and thus “love your neighbor as yourself” not just because you’re kind, but because the neighbor is you and you were and are them.  This, taught the rabbis, including Jesus of Nazareth, is the summary of all the law and prophets.

The cry of the oppressed activates the memory of God, who remembers God’s responsibilities to justice.  Exodus instills a memory within the liberated to enshrine this responsibility to justice in one’s daily affairs and even, as far as we are able, in the laws of the land.

Remember this well: Remember some time in your own story, in the story of your family, your migrating ancestors, remember when you lived under great hardship.  Remember that to live as a free person, living the Exodus, is to live with open fields and open hands to the neighbor, who is also you.

Read: Jeremiah 29:4-7

A lot of time passes between Exodus, the Exodus, and Exile, a third theme of the Old Testament.  The Exodus eventually provided the landless with land, and Exile – at the hands of the Assyrians in northern Israel, and Babylonians for the southern Judeans, forcefully removes the people from the land. 

There is plenty of biblical material that takes place in this in between time, when the Israelites, delivered from slavery, take possession of the land.  Think Joshua, Judges, and Samuel; all the kings starting with Saul, David, and Solomon.  And a good portion of the prophets – like Elijah and Elisha, the first Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and Hosea. 

There is a strong thread in the Old Testament that blames the exile on the people and their leaders, for not following the teachings for Torah, for becoming too much like Pharaoh and thus getting the same medicine Pharaoh was dealt.  There’s also a thread, like the book of Job, which suggests that being righteous and looking out for the poor is no indication that life is going to work out well for you.  Sometimes the Babylonians just come and destroy your homeland whether you left the extra olives on the tree or not. 

It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact exile has on the biblical story.  Not just scrolls like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, not just stories like Ezra and Nehemiah, Daniel and Esther, prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but the fact we even have a Bible can be attributed to those exiled Judeans, writing down their stories, laws, hymns, and poetry, organizing it into a grand narrative, giving an identity to a people whose identity was all but destroyed.  Unlike land and temple, the scroll and the stories it contains are mobile, able to move with the people. 

While a love for the historic homeland remains, there’s also this idea that any place can become home.  Build your houses and settle in Babylon, Jeremiah writes to the exiles.  Seek the shalom of the city where you are.

In our age of refugees of war and climate, immigrants fleeing poverty and violence and seeking safety, internally displaced native populations, it can feel disingenuous for most of us to identify with the Judean exiles.  Better to recognize our status as citizens of Babylon.  True enough. 

But Anabaptists have always been weary of over-identifying with the political order in which we find ourselves.  Our ultimate loyalty is to the kin-dom of God which spans national borders.  The early Christians saw themselves as little outposts of the kin-dom of God within the Roman empire. 

In this sense, we are both citizen and exile.  Jeremiah’s words still work.  “Seek the shalom of the city where you are.”  And the words of Moses still work: Remember that you were delivered out of bondage, therefore love your neighbor as yourself.  And the spirit of Creation still hovers over each moment.  God takes all that is, and lovingly offers the next set of possibilities.  We take the next breath as we participate with God in creation.

Remember these well: Creation, Exodus, Exile.