Delivered at Ames UCC on November 25, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Last week Steve read a long series of passages from the book of Isaiah, and quite well, too. But he had to skip over one of the best lines in that section due to time constraints (and because the Bible is hard to aurally track over such lengths):
On whom do you (Judah) now rely, that you have rebelled against me (Assyria)? 6See, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. (36.5b–6)
What a great image: Egypt, the broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Ouch! You can feel that, right? You can imagine how it feels to rest your hand on something that you think is stable only to find out that it is wobbly and sharp. You stumble as it injures and collapses.
Biblically, we have a long and complicated history with that broken reed, with Egypt. Practically, we continue to have complicated relationships with any number of Egypts.
JOSEPH AND MOSES AND ISAIAH
Egypt is the land where Joseph, son of Jacob, rises to great power and is subsequently able to rescue his family and his people from terrible famine. Generations later, though, the Hebrew descendants of Joseph are slaves. As such, they pose a threat to their Pharaoh master, who orders a mass assassination of Hebrew children.
The mother of one newborn, Moses, seeks to save him through adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses rebels against that false identity and unearned advantage. He kills an overseer, flees to Midian, only returning later to set his people free at the behest of God. Then Moses and the freed slaves spend forty years going in circles before finding a home.
Years later, we hear the critique in Isaiah. It is directed at the descendants of the slaves, the inheritors of that homeland, from the emissary of the king of Assyrian: What are you thinking, trying to ally with Egypt against us? Egypt will cut you in the end—come with me instead.
Apparently in the years between fleeing Egypt and founding of a nation of their own, the Hebrews established political relations with Egypt. The former captor is now an ally and for the prophet we are studying today, it will be a refuge as it once was for Joseph’s starving family.
Today’s prophet, Jeremiah, follows Isaiah of Jerusalem in historical time and in the Bible. Remember that the book of Isaiah spans nearly a century, with three different Isaiahs speaking. Jeremiah’s book is focused exclusively on him and his forty years as a prophet.
Over the course of those decades, Jeremiah witnesses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire and the forced exile of many people. It is a grievous experience, made more so by what Jeremiah is required to do by God: chastise his own people.
For example, in chapter 44, God says through Jeremiah, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing which I hate” (v. 4). Today we heard Jeremiah today offering God’s reminder not to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow. There is a direct correlation between their treatment of the vulnerable and their own vulnerability to conquest.
Which the powers that be don’t want to hear.
Jeremiah is many times arrested for subversion and disloyalty, so, in the end, he flees to Egypt, where neither his own leaders nor Babylon can touch him, but where he is always a stranger.
I’ll lift up one more story about Egypt, this time as it relates to Jesus, our primary prophet as Christians.
In the gospel of Matthew, and only in Matthew, we have a story about Herod and Jesus that is clearly a reference to Pharaoh and Moses: Like the Egyptian king before him, King Herod is afraid that an infant boy will depose him, so he orders a mass assassination, too. This is right at the time that Jesus has been born.
Where do Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus briefly flee? To Egypt.
Egypt, the friend to Joseph, the enemy of Joseph’s descendants, the enemy of Moses, becomes the final home of Jeremiah and the temporary shelter for Jesus and his family.
For all of our focus on the Hebrew people, the people whose witness instructs and inspires our own, the Egyptian people regularly have a significant role in our stories of faith.
And many of them are “just” stories, meaning not histories. There is no evidence of a mass exodus of slaves, just as there is no evidence of a distinct people arriving in the area that became Judah and Israel. So any nation could have been named, or simply left unnamed.
What function, then, does Egypt play in our theological imagination? Is it a broken reed or is it a refuge and how can it be both? Today’s theme points us toward one answer.
REIGN OF CHRIST
Today we are closing out the season of Ordinary Time, which began way back in June, after Pentecost, as well as the entirety of the Christian year. Next week we begin Advent, the start of the Christian year.
Today isn’t a simple New Year’s Eve, though. We aren’t impatiently watching a liturgical ball drop just so that we can raise sparkly ornaments on our tree next week. Instead, we have adopted what was originally a Roman Catholic feast day called Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.
Reign of Christ Sunday was created explicitly to refute the rise of 20th century fascism, to remind Christians that though a man may call himself duce or führer, and though millions of people might agree (or at least acquiesce), those men are just Egypt in different sheep’s clothing.
No, it isn’t weird that Egypt keeps showing up in our stories, because Egypt and Egypt-like powers keep showing up in our lives. Egypts are societies that allow herods and pharaohs too much power, that maneuver to benefit themselves and people like them over the alien, the orphan, and the widow, to protect themselves from groups of people who cannot even protect themselves.
As such, they are weak.
Such nations are weak because they leave masses of people starving and with no reason to offer allegiance. There is a direct correlation between treatment of the vulnerable and vulnerability to collapse.
Nations of inequality and partiality quiver like a reed. They pierce our hands, socially, financially, and at the worst, physically—remember what happened to the hands of Jesus. Whatever shelter they can offer is only temporary, and will always come with reminders that we are but barely tolerated guests.
But the God that, as Jeremiah teaches, knows us from the womb, will not.God will never enslave us or use us for political gain.
God will never bombard us with propaganda or demand that we bombard others with bombs.
God in Christ, the power of blessing and feast which cannot be killed no matter how many nails are applied to skin, shelters with generosity, compassion, fearlessness, thanksgiving, and joy.
On the eve of our new year, we offer our loyalty to the borderless God in Christ, a leader unlike any enthroned or in office today: an eternal lover who cherishes all, all, all, all.