Freed

Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”
—Exodus 5:1

The situation had gotten desperate. It just was not working out and was time to part company. This passage from the book of Exodus records that moment when God issues Moses and Aaron a message on behalf of Israel to be delivered to the Pharaoh, representing Egypt. Israel and Egypt are breaking up. Essentially, Israel is saying to Egypt: “It’s not me; it’s you.”

How did we get to this point of dissolution?

As the story goes, Israel, through Joseph—he of the multicolored coat, had been invited to live amongst the Egyptians to survive a drought and subsequent famine. After a long while, Israel had settled in to living in Egypt, and Egypt found itself with a new Pharaoh who “did not remember Joseph,” a euphemism for the Egyptian’s forgetting how helpful Joseph had been and, therefore, ceased to appreciate the Israelites’ beneficial presence. So, long-story-short, Israel goes from being an invited guest to being a captive people, serving as slaves under the Pharaoh’s whims. Concerned that the Israelites are growing too numerous, the Pharaoh has all of the baby boys thrown into the Nile. Being clever and inverting the will of the most powerful in the simplest of ways, Moses’ mother places him in a basket and uses the Nile to be his river of life rather than his death. Continuing the irony, Moses floats to the Pharaoh’s house, is taken in by the Pharaoh’s daughter, raised by Moses’ own mother as his nursemaid, and becomes a great leader in Egypt, next only to the Pharaoh. Then, seeing the persecution of the Israelites under the harsh rule of the Egyptians, Moses strikes an Egyptian taskmaster, killing him. Moses flees into the wilderness, meets Jethro and his family, gets married, discovers God, talks to a bush, and finds himself returning with divine demands to confront the very people who had banished him years before.

That’s about it. Yet, as it always is with scripture, there is much more to the story.

Here, I am particularly interested in what Moses is about to say to the Pharaoh. What I find most remarkable in the divine demand that Moses carries to the Pharaoh is not the first part of the demand but the purposefulness couched with the whole phrase. It is that first portion of the demand that garners most of our attention. And, for good reason, it is a singularly momentous event with an appropriately powerful declaration. Moses does tell the Pharaoh to “let my people go.” That phrase is of great import. In fact, the very words used there become the same words used in the New Testament to send the early Christians out into the world. The original Hebrew phrase is translated into the Greek word from which we get our notion of “apostles” or “sent people.” And, this notion of sending is highly important. In other words, the idea imbedded in this phrase of “letting God’s people go” is as much about a releasing as it is about a sending, a sending with a purpose. The purposefulness comes from the second half of Moses’ statement.

Note that in the second half of Moses’ message to the Pharaoh that the Israelites are sent with a purpose, and that purpose is to serve or worship God. This means that at the heart of the liberation that is demanded through these words that a specific kind of liberation is assumed. Israel is not so much being “liberated from” something as it is being “liberated for” something. Rather than because of something done to them, the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery was more about liberation to be free to do something significant. That is to say, Israel’s liberation is forward-looking more than it is rear-looking; it is empowering to do rather than freeing from what was done.

Let us consider the dynamism of this notion that the liberation demanded by God for God’s people is about a freedom to press into the future with a divine momentum of purposeful opportunity to serve God in a new way, in a new place. This kind of liberation is a freeing us from our pasts and the weight with which our pasts might burden us, an unshackling from guilt, from shame, from frustration, from self-loathing, from self-destruction, from what we have done, and from what others have done to us or in our name. And, now untethered, we become free to act in new ways, purposefully sent, not aimlessly wandering.

Remember, Israel enters the wilderness following their liberation, but they do not wander without direction. Israel heads toward the Promised Land, learning to serve their God and assume the character of their God and that God’s newly forming kingdom in the process.

It is this notion of purposeful liberation that is most striking to me. I am particularly reminded of that demand to embrace a freedom imbued with a sense of purposeful service and divine possibility as I type these words on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. King’s strive toward liberation was always a labor of purpose. That purpose was the embodiment of the Beloved Community. For King, the Beloved Community is just another way of saying the Kingdom of God or, like the Israelites discovered, to pursue the Promised Land.

In 1957, King summarized his concept of that kingdom and the character of the kingdom by saying that:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all [people]. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of [people]. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

King’s vision of the Beloved Community derives directly from the notion of purposeful sending, meaningful liberation imbedded in the demand delivered by Moses to Pharaoh. The liberation wrought by God is not just liberation from our past nor an aimless future but a freedom to serve and to love and to sacrifice that we might create a global community more in keeping with God’s vision for it than the kinds of political and social systems we humans seem prone to produce. Regardless of our faith background, every time we choose forgiveness rather than revenge, every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose grace rather than the expected, every time we realize that success is a tabulation of generosity not accumulation of materials, every time we welcome more and exclude less, then God’s kingdom becomes more actual, the Promised Land that much closer.

Move with joy and with purpose, and take care where you step because each step towards that beloved kingdom is a journey on holy ground.

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