“God is love.” This is not just a foundational principle of the Christian faith. It’s the basic assumption of what you might call American civic spirituality. In other words, it’s what people who say they believe in God but profess no specific faith are likely to say about God.
Christians are committed to forming our thoughts about God from his own self-revelation in the Bible, but the truth is many of us don’t do our biblical homework.
So what we end up with is culture’s vague notion that God is love. It goes something like this
God feels deep affection for us.
He doesn’t make moral demands on us, except maybe the moral demand not to make moral demands on anybody else.
He never judges us.
If we’re lucky or we’re good or we’re talented, he might help us out in a jam or even give us some swell gifts, but he’s not all that involved.
He means well, but he’s largely ineffectual.
This God doesn’t give us hope and joy, because we can’t really rely on him for much of anything. Let’s remind ourselves about the real God, the only God who can really be our Savior.
Jesus is of course the perfect revelation of God. Many people, and Christians among them, seem to think that Jesus negates the Old Testament picture of God.
Some heave a sigh of relief for Jesus and say good riddance to the Old Testament God. They think he’s scary: the God who commands and judges, the God who can be angry and punishes evil, the God who even goes to war!
How barbaric! Right? Can’t we just forget all of that and concentrate on Jesus meek and mild?
Well, no actually. Listen to what Jesus himself says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matt. 5:17)
When Jesus said that he would not erase the Law and the Prophets, he meant that he fulfills and perfectly clarifies God’s character as it has already been revealed in the Old Testament.
If you really want to understand God and his love, yes you have to look at Jesus. But if you really want to understand Jesus you can’t toss out what God has shown you of himself in the Old Testament. You have to find Jesus prefigured in the Old Testament.
There is no better place to start than reading from Exodus for Proper 16 in the RCL (Exodus 1:8-2:10). The book of Exodus is the story of God rescuing his people from Egyptian bondage.
But look honestly at how he does it! God goes to war with Pharaoh.
God is love. God goes to war.
Those two claims are hard for us to reconcile. But it’s the truth.
We’re going to look at God’s showdown with Pharaoh to see how both of these things are true. But we need a little background first.
Right from the start God shows himself to be a God of blessing: He brings everything into being not just to sit back and enjoy it but so that we could know the joy of sharing in his life. (Genesis 1 & 2)
The highest expression of God’s blessing is the gift of life, a life that reflects his life. Human life is the very image of God because we can freely love like God.
We can join in intimate relationships. (Genesis 1:27; 2:23-25) He charges us with tending his garden (Eden), promoting life. And he tells us to go forth and multiply: increase life and love (Genesis 1:28)
This is where popular culture’s spirituality stops. No surprise saying that God is love and that God goes to war makes no sense for the vaguely spiritual but non-religious ear.
That’s because they forget to consider what God’s love confronts every morning when he rolls out of the heavenly sack. They just don’t take the story of the Fall into account.
God made the Creation to be a place of and for life and he made people to be his servants in nurturing and promoting life.
Adam and Eve, with a little help from Satan, wrecked the celestial bus. (Genesis 3:1-7)
The Creation is now infected with forces dead set against God’s blessing agenda. In fact, they are bent on death.
The Creation is in rebellion against God. Don’t you wonder why there are wars and crime? In another context, I’ll address how the Fall accounts for the misery we experience from natural disasters and disease. But for now, let’s just stick to the idea of rebellion.
Pharaoh is the perfect example of rebellion against God. And as we talk about him, keep in mind that he’s just an instance of the broader rebellion against God.
This particular Pharaoh does not remember Joseph. He just hates the Israelites. It’s bad enough to hate an ethnic group, but this ethnic group happens to figure centrally in God’s plan to bless his fallen world. (Exodus 1:8-10)
Remember what God said to Abraham: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2)
Israel is God’s instrument of blessing. Pharaoh is committed to Israel’s destruction.
He is at war with God’s intention to bless. He may think that he’s building a viable alternative to God’s world, but in point of fact all that he is able to do—all any rebellion against God can eventually do—is become an instrument of death.
Think about Pharaoh’s strategies to kill off the Israelites:
The NRSV says that Pharaoh ruthlessly imposes hard service on them. The Hebrew for “hard service” suggests pulverizing, annihilating work. His aim was to crush the life out of them with relentless toil. Building monuments to himself was just a nice perk. (Exodus 1:11-14)
When that didn’t work (the Israelites kept multiplying and thriving), he ordered midwives to murder every newborn Hebrew boy. (Exodus 1:15-21)
When this failed, he enlisted the whole population in drowning “Hebrew” babies (Pharaoh uses the word “Hebrew” to mean roughly riffraff, the nobodies). (Exodus 1:22)
Do you see how this rebellion expands its reach?
Pharaoh’s reign of death begins as loathing and grows into hatred in his own heart.
Under the guise of promoting order and security in Egypt, Pharaoh translates his personal animus into a state policy dedicated. He seems to be guarding against the threat of an ethnic group, but at a deeper level he is committed to wiping out God’s blessing.
Pharaoh’s rebellion grows to oppression and violence in “pulverizing work.” He makes ordinary life miserable in the hopes of promoting mass death by despair.
Next, Pharaoh tries private, state-sanctioned murder by midwife.
Finally, by Pharaoh’s edict the rebellion against God’s becomes the work of the entire citizenry. Pharaoh commits the Egyptians to public infanticide. All Egyptians are ordered to drown any Hebrew infant they lay eyes upon.
It’s insane. But it illustrates how Satan and those who serve him work. And this rebellion will not stop until it annihilates every last vestige of God’s blessing.
The Israelites were in terrible peril. And so are we. We, like the Israelites, face a force too powerful for us to resist on our own.
And so God goes to war with death on their behalf. On our behalf.
God employed a series of increasingly forceful tactics & strategies against Pharaoh
His weak servants, the midwives Puah and Shiphrah, thwart Pharaoh’s scheme by refusing to kill the Israelites baby boys.
God raises up Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.
He sends plagues—even the plague of the death of the first-born—against Pharaoh.
And finally, when Pharaoh pursues the departing Israelites, God drowns Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea
But this was just a great battle in a long and costly war. And the greatest cost of all—the cost that will eventually put death itself to death—is the only Son of God: Jesus Christ.
Jesus is not a casualty, not a victim in the usual sense of the word.
He is love’s supreme and paradoxical weapon.
Remember that odd thing that Jesus once said: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matt. 10:34)
He has brought the sword to death itself. On the Cross, Jesus died to defeat death. Your death and my death. The death that we deserve because of our sins.
He is not collateral damage. He is God’s perfect love in the flesh come to defeat death once and for all.
In Jesus Christ, the God who is love itself has waged war against death itself. And when we put our faith in him, we are more than conquerors. We are heirs of eternal life.
This post is a sermon preached Sunday, August 22, on Exodus 1:8-2:10. To listen to this and other sermons, just click this link or the link in the right column for the St. Mark’s website Media Center. From there, you can also subscribe to our iTunes podcast.
(The image above is Marc Chagall’s “Pharaoh’s Daughter and Moses” from this link.)