Genesis 17:1-9, Exodus 13:3-16
The Story, Part I: Covenant & Emancipation
Today we’re tackling two themes, two scriptures, as we continue our journey through the Bible: Covenant and Emancipation. It might seem a little like we’re smushing two separate stories together, and we are, but hopefully by the end of our worship you’ll see how these themes go hand-in-hand. It also might seem like we’re spending an awful lot of time in our journey through the major themes of the Bible right up front - three weeks in Genesis when our whole series is only so long. But the first books of the Bible are ones that are meant to set the tone for the rest of the scriptures, and so the first books lay out for us many of the themes that we return to again and again. Creation, The Fall, and now Covenant and Emancipation.
Let’s take a look at our texts for today. In Genesis, God appears to Abram, a spry ninety-nine year old. Abram has already been following God’s call. God spoke to Abram and told him to leave his home and start a journey toward a land which God would give him, and Abram went. Now, God tells Abram to walk with God and be blameless, and God will make a covenant with Abram. God promises that Abram will be the ancestor of many nations. He’ll be called Abraham now - that means “ancestor of a multitude” instead of just “exalted ancestor,” what his old name meant. And God will make him fruitful, and not just the ancestor of many, but also the ancestor of nations and leaders. And, what’s more, God promises that Abraham and his offspring will belong to God, and God will belong to them. And God will give them a new home, the land of Canaan. The land where Abraham is now just a visiting stranger will become Abraham’s homeland. As for Abraham, his part of the covenant is to make God God. That might sound like not a very big promise to make, but God’s deals are always more beneficial to us than to God - God is generous like that - and, Abraham lives in a culture where people believed there were many gods, and every tribe and clan followed the god of their choosing. God - Yahweh - the God we know in the scriptures - is asking Abraham to promise to choose God above all the other myriad options. “I’ll be your God, and you be my people.” That’s the covenant God and Abraham make.
If you look at the covenants throughout the Bible, this is pretty much always the deal God wants to make. A covenant is a promise between two parties - usually God and us - and it is a sacred promise, a holy promise. Technically, if one party breaks a covenant, the other side is no longer obligated to their promises. But God - God is always faithful, and always follows through, even when we don’t. So - in almost every covenant God makes, all God wants is that we choose God to be the one we follow. Worship God, follow God, love God - be my people, and I’m yours. That’s all God asks, almost every time. And in turn, God promises enormous blessings. It’s pretty humbling - the creator of universe so wanting to be in relationship with us that God covenants with us again and again, just asking us to commit to God in return.
Of course, the Bible is a testament to the fact that we humans are remarkably talented at failing to uphold our part of the covenant. All God wants is for us to choose God, but again and again, the people choose to put other things first. In the Bible, this is called idolatry, and we see it whenever people choose to worship other gods, or whenever they make false images and pretend that they have any real power as a god in their lives. Whenever the people do this, choose other gods, the consequences are devastating, because no one but our Creator can love and care for us, and truly claim the title of “God” but God alone.
What promises has God made to you? And what promises have you made to God in return? Sometimes we try to bargain with God in our moments of desperation: “If you do this thing for me God, I promise I will start going to church every week, or reading my Bible every day, or being a lot nicer to that person I just can’t stand.” But as inelegant as our desperate pleas are, I think they still boil down to the same thing: when things are hard, when we need God, we’re ready to say, “You’re our God, we’re your people.” That’s the basic covenant. You’re our God, we’re your people.
Most of us might not be tempted to follow other gods these days, but we’re still pretty proficient in breaking that covenant with God, because we put a lot of other things before God in our lives, in our daily living, in the rhythms that shape us. What things do you see others putting before God when you look at our culture? Money, certainly. I think money has taken the place of “other gods” as one of the biggest temptations for us. Power and status. Career and success. But what about you specifically? What are you most likely to put in the place of God? What do you wrestle with giving a higher place in your life than you give to God? What rules you? If we can’t be truthful with ourselves about answering that question, we can’t be “all in” on our covenant with God, and we’ll never really be holding up our part of the promise. I think sometimes we put family in the place of God, not realizing that the best way to love our family is by making sure God comes first for us and them. I think I wrestle with putting my own plans for my life in front of God’s plans for me sometimes. I want to get my whole life figured out and ask God to bless it, instead of waiting on God’s direction. I think we can put our quest for happiness, that elusive state of being, in the place of God, forgetting that deep contentment comes from God, not instead of God. What has first place in your life, really? How can you put God back in first place? I promise you, God is always ready to make that covenant with you: “I’ll be your God, and you be my people.” Will you make that promise with God? Today?
Our second reading brings us to the theme of Emancipation, as Moses prepares to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in what we call the Exodus. Generations have gone by since the days of Abraham. And indeed Abraham is the ancestor of many by now, but the people still can’t call the land of Canaan their own. What’s worse? Through a series of events at the end of Genesis, the people have become slaves in Egypt. They’re farther away from Canaan that they were before. And they feel like God has forgotten them. Have you ever felt forgotten? I’ve told you before about the time when I was little when I thought my older cousin had forgotten me in the food court at the mall. And there was the time when my mom forgot to pick me up from junior high because she’d been working on the new pictorial directory at church, and I was sitting out in front of school for about an hour waiting for a ride before Aunt Shari finally came and picked me up. But those were pretty minor in the scheme of things, and different from the depth of despair we face when we feel like God has forgotten us.
God doesn’t forget though. God hears the cries of the Israelites who are enslaved in Egypt, and God sends Moses to lead them to freedom. Our text from Exodus today describes two ways that God establishes as rituals of remembrance of their emancipation. From then on, the people will regularly remember that God brought them to freedom. It’s hard to imagine that they could ever forget their long season of captivity, or ever forget what God has done for them. But the God of Covenant, who has seen people forget again and again to give God first place in their lives, knows better. God wants to help them remember God’s promises, God’s fulfillment of promises made.
Writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and his words were famously paraphrased by Winston Churchill, and most of us are familiar with the sentiment. Remembering isn’t just something we do because we enjoy reminiscing. Sometimes remembering can be a life-saving practice that keeps us from making the same devastating mistakes we did before. I think of the times that we have tried to step back from the brink as a society by remembering World War II, and how the persecution of Jews unfolded because so many were unwilling to speak up against injustice in hopes of protecting themselves. We’ve learned, although we often need reminding, that we can’t let hatred against some go unchecked just because we aren’t the targets of the hate.
And I think about the just recently-passed anniversary of 9/11. Eighteen years have gone by since that September day that changed the world, and certainly changed our national identity. As with the aftermath of many wars and tragedies, we say, “Never forget.” And what is it we want folks to remember exactly? Of course, we want to remember those who died, whose lives ended so abruptly. We want to remember that extraordinary bravery and sacrificial action exhibited by so many first responders that day, and the service and bravery of so many “regular people” that day and in the season that followed. I also want people to remember the sense of unity we experienced as a nation grieving together. I want folks to remember how for a brief moment, churches were filled because people could do nothing in the midst of overwhelming fear but turn to God. I want people to remember how we struggled with stereotyping groups of people too, how we had to learn about Islam and how our fear could make us respond with anger and violence if we weren’t careful. And yet, though to some of us 9/11 doesn’t seem that long ago, already all of our children from zero to eighteen were born after 9/11 happened, every one of them. We live in a post 9/11 world, but a generation already doesn’t know what a pre 9/11 world was like.
Remembering is important, isn’t it - remembering not just the stories we’ve lived through, but also the stories that have been shared with us about what unfolded before we were even born - the stories of our families, our people, our ancestors, our nation, the stories of our faith. Remembering is essential. And so, at the moment that the Israelites are on their way out of slavery, out of Egypt, out of their persecuted existance where Pharaoh has continued for so many years to harm and oppress and kill - just when they ware thinking the could never forget what they’ve been through, God helps the Israelites to remember by setting up some rituals to make sure they will remember. First, there’s a meal. The Israelites will share in this meal of unleavened bread: bread made in haste, bread made for people about to be on the run. They’ll keep eating this unleavened bread in a festival every year even when the have time to bake tastier bread. And they’ll tell their children, the ones who don’t even remember a pre-Exodus time, why they heat this bread. “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came of Egypt.” And beyond that, God says, “I want every firstborn thing to be mine.” That’s a big ask, isn’t it? But one of the plagues against the Egyptians was the death of everything and everyone firstborn, and God doesn’t want people to forget the loss of life that took place in order for the Israelites to escape Egypt, even Egyptian life, still sacred. And so from then on, God asks that every first born be dedicated to God: animals through sacrifice, and humans through dedicating the lives of that child to God. God wants their first things to be given to God. It’s a reminder of God’s place in their lives: God first. God, who saved them, comes first, before anything else. Don’t forget.
In the moment God gives these directions, the Israelites probably think God is crazy, because they cannot imagine that they will ever forget. But we know, reading through the book of Exodus, that they forget almost immediately! Almost immediately they start thinking that slavery can’t be as bad as they remembered, not compared ot how hard it is to follow God via Moses through the desolate wilderness. Almost immediately, freedom, which they longed for for generations, seems less important than the certainty of knowing what they will eat and drink next.
Let me ask you: Do you remember everything that God has done for you? Or have you forgotten, sometimes, about the promises fulfilled, the covenants kept, the blessings poured out, the ways God has shown up in your life again and again? I know the answer, because we’re human. Sometimes, we forget. We forget even the most important things. God helps us remember, with sacred meals, with asking us to make signs with our most important stuff, our first and best, that God is our priority above all else. All God wants? To be our God. And all we need to do? Be God’s people. Choose God, and only God. And when we forget, God will help us remember. And when we remember, when we live as God’s people, when we put God first, we experience the true freedom that God so deeply desires for us.
God wants to make a covenant with you today. Maybe you’re ready to say yes for the first time. Maybe you’re ready to renew, to make new what was broken. Either way, God, the creator of the universe, wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you. Are you ready? Will you let God be God, your first best thing? Will you be part of God’s people, and give God your heart? Say yes, and then get ready. God is leading you to freedom, to blessings, to life. Amen.