“How God Works”
I love this story. It is one that has echoed deep within my soul since I was young. It is one that has shaped how I understand my own calling. It has affected my spiritual practices. It was chosen by the preacher at my ordination as the primary scripture reading. It is a story I return to again and again, and for many different purposes.
I think one of the reasons it is such a powerful story is that it reveals to us so much about God—and it does so in a way that is consistent with the rest of scripture. Since we are human and God is God, we can never fully comprehend God and God’s ways—Job and many others in scripture learned that lesson well. But like the Psalmist and others, that hasn’t stopped us from working to understand all we can about who God is and how God works.
In our scripture text, God speaks for God’s-self. And in vv.7-8, God describes God’s actions and reasoning through a series of verbs—action words. These don’t give us a strict sequence of events, but they reveal what God is going to do and how God came to that decision. And that, in a nutshell, is going to be the story of redemption over and over again—throughout the Bible, and throughout our lives.
So what are these verbs? What are these actions? Well these verses tell us that:
God knows… (the NIV translates this “is concerned”)
God comes down…
And God does all of this in order to bring up.
First: God sees.
Frequently in scripture—especially in the Psalms—being “seen” by God is an important part of deliverance. In fact, there are quite a few places where it is assumed that if God sees you in your pain, God will help. Psalm 119:153 provides one such example, with the Psalmist crying out: “Look on my affliction and deliver me” (ESV).
When I was a kid, I remember being taught that God saw everything we did, everywhere we went, and even everything we thought. This was offered as a threat. I better do the right things, act the right way, and think the right things or else God was going to get me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that’s not God, that’s Santa Claus:
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows if you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
Now it is true that persons in the Bible occasionally ask God to “look away” because they can’t bear the scrutiny that God’s all-knowing gaze brings. But even in these situations, God’s gaze (on or away from us) is understood to be a means of grace.
Here in Exodus, being seen by God is tied up in the grace that leads to deliverance. But this only makes sense to us today if we have experienced being invisible.
The Hebrew people were driven by economic hardship to journey into Egypt. Categories of legal and illegal immigration did not exist in the ancient world; there were only people who were born locally and people who came from other places. The immigrant Hebrews became part of Egypt because of a terrible famine—a lack of food. Within Egypt they lived peacefully for some time, contributing to the overall well-being of the their new country. But then there was a shift in the government that demonized immigrants and outsiders, blaming them for all the troubles that Egypt was experiencing. The tide of popular opinion was turned, and immigrants like the Hebrews were treated as a lower class of humans. In fact, they came to be seen as slaves with no more rights than the animals used for food and agriculture. This slippery-slope of prejudice and domination and power became such that Hebrew children were being killed for threats they did not pose to the authorities, and even access to safe reproductive health was dismantled when Pharaoh authorizes only two midwives to oversee the births of every Hebrew woman within all of Egypt.
At what point (do you think) did the Hebrews begin to believe the xenophobia and racism that was slandered against them?
At what point did they begin to feel themselves less than human…… or transparent…… in the eyes of others?
At what point did they begin to think even God couldn’t or wouldn’t look on them anymore?
There are times in my life I have felt invisible. It is crushing. Disabling. And I know I have experienced but a fraction of what countless others in our nation and world experience every single day.
When you feel invisible, the one thing you want more than anything else is being seen. By anybody. For any reason.
That God sees us matters. Especially when we are forced to the margins. Especially when the world is set against us. Especially when those we considered our neighbors seem to turn and gloat over the corpses of our dying lives.
In those times we cry with the Psalmist: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” (Psalms 44:23 ESV)
In those times we pray that what is hidden will come to light (cf. Mk 4:22; Lk 8:17).
We need to be seen. But seeing alone is not enough; we need deliverance, as Psalm 35:17 expresses: “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions!” (ESV).
The second thing God does in this passage: God hears.
Hearing is a lot like seeing. When we are not heard, we feel invisible. We feel we have nothing that others value. We feel that no one cares.
One of my personal pet peeves is not being acknowledged. If I am talking to you, please make eye contact or at least respond verbally that you heard and understood what I said. Not just for me, either, but for all conversations in which you engage. If someone speaks to us and we do not acknowledge, they have no idea whether we heard, or cared, or agreed, or disagreed, or anything. Not responding communicates—in terms of manners and consideration—that they are insignificant to us.
And just like with seeing, a person whose voice is never acknowledged will do anything to get heard.
We need to be heard. We need to be acknowledged and valued.
God has not only looked upon and seen the plight of the Hebrews in Egypt; God does not only know what it looks like—God has also heard their experience given voice. God has heard their stories, their lamentations, their grief, and their pain. God has listened to them because God values them, and because God needs to hear their experience if God is to be a force of love and deliverance in their lives.
There’s a lesson there for us……
God Is Moved
God has seen… God has heard… and the third thing we come to is “God knows“—or what the NIV translates as “God is concerned.”
Now I could spend the next ten minutes talking about what these words actually mean and why the translations differ so much on what they express, but I don’t have time for that this morning, and neither do you.
However translated, the point is that God is moved by what God has seen and heard. The text says that on account of God’s experience of seeing the violence and hearing the experiences of the Hebrews, something changes in God that prompts God toward compassionate response. God identifies so fully with them that their experience becomes God’s own experience—the violence done to them is a wound that God feels acutely.
God Comes Down
God’s response to this is to “come down.” That’s the fourth verb.
Psychologists and behaviorists talk about “fight or flight.” It is a biological instinct within us that affects how we feel when we are threatened: we either double down to “fight” or we turn to run in “flight.”
As we have all watched and read the reports of the destruction Hurricane Harvey has wrought in Texas, we have heard stories of genuine heroes whose responses were not defined by “fight or flight.” Knowing they were taking on great risk to themselves, they turned toward the most dangerous situations with hearts of love and compassion for people they did not know. In at least one case—that of Sgt. Steve Perez of the Houston Police Department—that sense of responsibility for our fellow human beings led to his own death in the floodwaters.
These beautifully human beings are responsible for countless lives being saved, and they remind me of God in this passage. When everything is going wrong with the Hebrews, God’s response is not “fight or flight” but rather presence. God is going to come down—to be present—with people who are hurting, who feel invisible, who don’t feel heard, and who need deliverance. Whether it seems like a lot or a little, whether it appears to make a difference in the grand scheme of things or not, God is going to be with them.
God Lifts Them Out
The purpose of all these actions on God’s part is of course revealed in the middle of verse 8: “to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
At risk of being cliché, God’s purpose is not to give them a “handout” that gets them through the moment, but to give them a “hand up” so they might even thrive in wholeness and wellbeing.
In the midst of their desperate situation—when they feel so forgotten, ignored, and unheard—God lifts them up and sets them in a place where they can have a new start—where they can learn to live (and live well) all over again.
The story of these Hebrews and the deliverance their God brings about becomes for them their most significant story, as time moves on. These events are the ones that shape their identity and understanding of God from this point forward.
From the valley of deep darkness to the fertile plain, as Psalm 23 relates.
From the death of Passover to abundant life in the Promised Land.
In Christ: God Sees, Hears, Knows, Comes Down, Lifts Us Up
God sees… God hears… God is moved to compassion… God comes down…
And God does all of this in order to bring them up.
This is how God works.
Most every story of redemption and deliverance that is recorded in the Bible follows this basic pattern, including the story that is closest to our hearts: the story of Jesus Christ and the good news of God’s love.
God has been involved with us since our very creation. Yet the ways God had used to provide deliverance were not working. We kept failing to keep our covenant promises, even though God proved infinitely faithful to us. Over and over, God reached out in forgiveness and love, hoping to draw us into a welcome embrace forever. But it was not enough. Not yet.
God saw that we were taking the good gifts of God and twisting them. Things like the Law, which was given as a means of grace, became in our hands a means of self-righteousness and a weapon to do harm to others.
God heard the cries of all creation, groaning in desire for redemption from the darkness that plagued us.
And God was moved to compassion, taking on our grief and struggle.
So God did what God has always done—yet in a new way: a way that would open the doors of forgiveness and grace so wide that no evil force could ever cut them off again. God would come down……personally……incarnate-ly. The part of the Trinity we know as Jesus would choose—in the words of Philippians 2:6-8:
to “empty himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (ESV).
Out of compassion and love for us, God came down, becoming as fully human as you or I, experiencing the gamut of life—yet in it God would show us how to truly live: how to be kind, selfless, compassionate; and how to escape the cycles of violence that destroy us. God in Jesus comes down in order to lift us out of sin and despair.
In no way is this demonstrated so fully as his willingness to go to the cross—to his death—with the hope of achieving what God has always wanted to achieve: to lift us up into new and full life.
We who follow Jesus know that he did not remain in the grave. The very God who loves us saw to that. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has overcome the greatest weapons the enemy held against us: death and fear. Through the resurrection, the final victory over the forces of evil has been ensured. And even now, the promise of Jesus assures us that God’s Spirit now remains with us for comfort, power, and advocacy. Jesus will come again—in the fullness of time—and everything will be made new again.
To be clear: I do not hold the keys to the gates of heaven. I’m not in charge of any eternal attendance roster. But I know that the grace of God is more expansive than we can ever imagine. I know that God’s love and forgiveness reaches to heights and depths that are beyond our comprehension.
I know this because God has loved me. Because God has forgiven me. Because God has offered me grace in abundance……and I have seen and known God’s mercy.
As we gather today as the Body of Christ, we rest in the knowledge of God’s expansive mercy. Of God’s boundless forgiveness. Of God’s endless love……a love (that scripture assures us) conquers all.
That, sisters and brothers, is how God works.