Systemic Change: A sermon based on Exodus 5
Now it starts. For the people of God, this 3000 year old story of the Exodus is one of the most defining stories in Scripture. The story of the Exodus is the story of God liberating his people, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt, so that He might lead them into the Promised Land. We’ve had two sermons on the Exodus so far. The purpose of the first sermon was to hit home the fact that this story is our story. We are a part of God’s people, so the Exodus story is our family story. Because of that, we will continue to find ourselves in big and small Exodus-type stories. Until God finally restores Creation and fully dwells here one Earth, there will perpetually be situations in which we need liberation. Last, week we noted that the God who reveals Himself in this story is an Emancipator, He is a Liberator, He frees people from bondage. So, today we are going to put those two together. When there are situations where people need liberation from oppression what is our role? What is God’s role? What can we expect?
Before we look at what our role and God’s role is… let’s talk about what it means when we find ourselves in big and small Exodus-type stories. It might not be obvious what that would look like. As Canadians, we live in relative freedom, we aren’t in slavery. So how might we find ourselves in a big or small Exodus-type story? That’s where I’d like us to consider slavery as a type of system, as one type of toxic, dysfunctional system. Today we’ll be thinking about what it looks like and what is involved when God intends to transform a system. (Slide 2). Here is a very simple definition of a system. “A set of things/people working together as parts of an interconnected network.” We’ll be focusing in on the people side of this definition. Think of a system as a group of people who’s futures, existence and welfare is somehow bound up with each other. A family is a system, so is our work, a group of friends, the government (local and federal), our church, a small-group. Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, you have a system. Systems in themselves are neutral. You have healthy systems, and there are toxic systems. When a system is healthy, it helps people thrive, grow closer to God, the group can accomplish more together than they could ever do apart — healthy systems bring out the best in people. Toxic systems do just the opposite. They degrade the people who are apart of them. They can cause emotional, physical, spiritual damage. They can trap people. Degrade people. Ruin people. No doubt each of us have been apart of some systems that are in a sense healthy, and we have all likely been apart of other systems that are in some ways toxic. Slavery is one toxic system. The story of Exodus is the story of God leading His people out of a toxic system. Yet in that story, God doesn’t simply do all the heavy lifting and let his people sit back and watch. When God intends to bring people out of, or transform a toxic system, he calls us to be active participants. Chapter 5 shows us exactly what we can expect that to look like.
So Moses has come back to Egypt having been commissioned by God to lead the Israelites out of the Toxic System of slavery. (Slide 3) So, he and Aaron march right up to Pharaoh’s palace and they say,: “Thus said the Lord, God of Israel: ‘Send off Israel My people that they may celebrate to Me in the wilderness.” This is sort of a rookie mistake in changing a system. The mistake is trying to change the system too quickly. This is sort of a young person mistake. Us Young pastors are especially susceptible to this when we first start out at a church. The mistake is coming up agains the system with huge energy and trying to change it all in one go. That is Moses first mistake and it will cost him. Moses doesn’t come to Pharaoh with all that much humility. He doesn’t say, “Your excellency,” or address Pharaoh respectfully. He doesn’t even say “please.” At first, he doesn’t even tell Pharaoh what God told him to say about the Hebrew slaves leaving for only a short amount of time. In fact, the Hebrew word Moses uses, ‘Send off’ can actually mean grant manumission, set them free! If Pharaoh had done what Moses had first asked, he would have been silly to expect he’d ever expect to see those slaves again.”
Now, you may be thinking that Moses was right to demand Pharaoh let his people go immediately and indefinitely. After all slavery is a wretchedly immoral system, Pharaoh was a wretchedly immoral ruler, he did not deserve any courtesy and had no right to enslave these people. Right you are. Yet what must be noted is that all systems are governed by rules. (Slide 4). And one rule that governs systems is that the harder you push against a system, the harder a system will push back. Systems crave homeostasis, they want things to stay the way they are. When a system is threatened with change, the people in the system experience this as a threat. This means that if you try to introduce into a system too big a change, too quickly, those in the system will push back on you. That’s exactly what happens in this story.
First, look at Pharaoh’s response. Pharaoh doesn’t thank Moses for bringing to his attention Israel’s need to go and worship God. Instead Pharaoh asks why Moses is distracting the people from their work. (Slide 5) And so in response to Moses’ push, Pharaoh returns a hard shove: “And Pharaoh on that day charged the people’s taskmasters and its overseers, saying, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make the bricks as in time past. They themselves will go and scrabble for straw. And the quota of bricks that they were making in the past you shall impose upon them, you shall not deduct from it, for they are idlers. Therefore do they cry out, saying, “Let us go sacrifice to our god.’ Let the work be heavy on the men and let them do it and not look to lying words!” Pharaoh’s reasoning is simple. If work kept Israel docile, quiet, obedient, more work should restore the order. This is close to a death warrant. Egyptian bricks were made out of mud and straw. Straw made mud bricks three times stronger. Pharaoh is not only saying that the Israelites must harvest their own straw, but now they must provide their own straw. Egyptian records tell us that slaves had difficulty reaching their brick quota even when they were supplied with straw. Pharaoh’s demand for the same amount of bricks without straw was impossible, and he knew it. He was outright punishing the people of Israel for Moses’ attempt to change the system. Systems crave stability, and the harder you push to change a system, the harder it will push back.
And notice, it’s not only the people in power who push back. The Hebrew leaders also push Moses back. But let’s first get our characters straight, as there are characters in this story that are easy to confuse. There are the Egyptian overseers, or slave drivers, and the Israelite task masters. The Task Masters were Hebrew, part of Israel, and they were the managers of their fellow Hebrew slaves. They were responsible if the brick quota wasn’t met. The slave-drivers were Egyptian and their job was to bring about the right punishment on the Task Masters if the quota wasn’t met. Of course, the quota wasn’t met, so the Egytian slave-drivers beat the Israelite task masters. So the the Israelite task masters then beg Pharaoh to restore things to the way they were. Pharaoh says no. So the Israelite task masters turn on Moses, saying (Slide 6) “Let the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have made us repugnant in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the yes of his servants, putting a sword in their hand to kill us.” The system craves stability, and the harder you push to change a system, the harder it will push back. And I’ll invite you to notice something — its not just the people in power who push back. It's not only Pharaoh who pushes back against Moses. It's not just the ones who benefit from the system that fight for the status quo. The Israelites push back on Moses as well. “Why have you made us repugnant in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, putting a sword in their hand to kill us.” These are the people who are being beaten by the slave-drivers, and worked to death by Pharaoh. But in their speech they don’t blame pharaoh, they don’t blame the people beating them, they blame the person who attempted to disrupt the system. The harder you push a system to change, the hard everyone in the system will push back.
This reality helped me understand something really important that Jesus said. (Slide 7) After telling his disciples about his impending crucifixion, he tells his followers, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The mission of God is the mission of Jesus. That mission is to subvert all the world’s systems by the Gospel, God’s Kingdom. In other words, God’s system is the one to replace all corrupt, dysfunctional and toxic systems. In God’s system human dignity is preserved, human creativity is fostered, human relationships are restorative and honoured, and human work is meaningful. Any human system that falls short of the divine ideal will have to be replaced. But systems crave stability, and the harder you push to change a system, the harder that system will push back. Jesus hit the corrupt systems of his day hard, and he was crucified. We are called to do the same work. In this world we will of course encounter corrupt, dysfunctional and toxic systems. God calls us not to stand by idly, but he calls us into the work of transformation and change. Sometimes, he calls us to leave these systems entirely, sometimes he calls us to change them from within. Yet all systems crave homeostasis, they resist change. The harder you push to change a system, the harder it will push back. This is the reason Jesus tells us to be prepared to take up the cross, be prepared for persecution, be prepared for conflict. Jesus calls us to be agents of change in this world, and this world doesn’t like change.
So, what will you do when you attempt to bring change for the gospel and get pushed back. What will you do if you get pushback when you attempt to make a system a little less toxic, a little less dysfunctional, a little less corrupt. It might be your family, your work, this church, the government, a club — what happens if you try and make it a bit more healthy and you get pushed. What will you do when you get pushed by the people you thought were on your side, the people you were trying to help? Of course, there are smart and stupid ways to bring about change. And we need to discern well the change God is really calling to be made and advocate for it in the best way possible. This often involves dialogue, brainstorming and compromise. But still, when you try to bring about change that is in line with the heart of the Gospel, how will you respond if you get pushed?
This is what Moses did when he got pushed. (Slide 8) Moses went back to the Lord, and said, “My Lord, why have you done harm to this people, why have you sent me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done harm to this people and You surely have not rescued your people.” Weakened, hurt, embarrassed, and disillusioned, Moses comes to God in prayer. Notice that He doesn’t try and spiritualize away his feelings. He doesn’t deny the fact that carrying the cross is hard, painful and demoralizing. Moses doesn’t sugar coat his disappointment, he simply asks why haven’t you done what you said you would? The three rules that define a dysfunctional family system are don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t touch. Here we see Moses talking and feeling openly before God. God hasn’t invited Moses from one dysfunctional system into another. Moses is welcome to feel and talk to God. And listen to the touching way God responds.
He says “Now will you see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for through a strong hand will he send them off and through a strong hand will he drive them from his land… I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, tell the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will bring you out from your enslavement to the Egyptians, I will rescue you from the hard labor they impose, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to myself for a people, and I will be your God.”
When we come to the end of ourselves. When we are on the ground, our head swimming because we’ve been hit hard by a system we hoped to bless, remember the Lord God is with you. As he said to the Israelites, so he says to you: I am the Lord, I am with you. I see, I hear, and I know. Give me your hand and I will raise you up. And if you find yourself right now having been shoved and are lying on the stony ground gasping for breath, know that you are not alone. Think of when our Lord and Saviour Jesus brought about the greatest change this world has ever seen, and how hard he was hit, nailed to the cross. And as he lay in that tomb, bruised and bloody, the life knocked out of him, His good, loving and kind Father came and took Him by the hand saying, “Here friend, let’s pick you back up.” Up from the grave he rose, and the change Jesus purchased on the cross — complete forgiveness for our sins — was complete. By the power of the God who liberates us from slavery, all of God’s children have been bought and purchased from the toxic systems of sin and death. So do not lose heart, the Lord is your new master.