[I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on the third Sunday of Lent in 2015]
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a word of pastoral wisdom that I guarantee you will never get from me. Maybe it will sound familiar:
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
Now if you say this to yourself, I’m not going to argue with you. If you experience your sufferings this way, I am grateful for your faith, and if it helps you find some deeper reservoir of personal strength to endure some hardship, I am especially grateful. But you’re not going to hear this from me. It’s not for me to say how much you can bear. For that matter it’s not for me to say whether God is “giving” you cancer or depression or financial hardship for some purpose.
But the more important reason I don’t say, “God never gives you more than you can handle” is that would be my way of placing the burden on you to handle something. Well, God gave you cancer. Let’s see you handle it. And if you break down and weep uncontrollably or lose hope or lash out at someone you love, I guess you just failed to handle it.
I will always, always, always pray for strength with you. But I also want you to know that I will keep praying with you after you’re all done handling stuff. And I will insist that God is with you even then and there, when you’re all handled out.
The fact is, I’ve seen people who’ve been given more than they can handle. And our faith is the story of a messed-up hellhound world being redeemed by a mighty and gracious God. Our faith isn’t an invitation to a handling-stuff contest. Our faith is, instead, the recognition that God is the one who bears our burdens.
We are moving in this season of Lent through the great acts of God that we remember every time we baptize a new believer. Most of these acts are remembered in the prayer over the water for baptism:
We give you thanks, O God, for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life in which you took delight. Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea you led your people Israel from slavery into freedom. At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.
Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life. To you be given honor and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Two weeks ago we heard about the act of God in creating everything that is. Last week we heard about God saving Noah and his family in the flood. And this week we’re going to spend a minute on God’s liberation of the children of Israel from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea.
You may remember the story: Jacob, the grandson of Abraham the father of faith, had twelve sons. One of them, Joseph, was nearly killed by the others and sent to Egypt, where he became great. Eventually, because of a famine, the rest of his brothers came to Egypt and Joseph was reunited with his family. Rather than avenge himself on the brothers who betrayed him, Joseph greets them with kindness and generosity. And in Egypt the children of Israel—that is, the descendants of Jacob—stay.
But eventually the Egyptians grow suspicious of the Israelites and begin to enslave them. And generations of Israelites were born in slavery and died in slavery. Their great history was taken from them. They were subject to abuses and indignities. At times there were outright attempts at genocide.
Eventually, after hundreds of years of slavery, the people cry out in despair. And God hears them. God remembers them. God remembers the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery.
There are confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh. There are horrible plagues. But eventually the enslaved Israelites leave with Pharaoh’s permission. But as is so often the case when an oppressor has a reasonable and humane impulse, Pharaoh changes his mind. No way will he let these Israelites get away so easy.
As Pharaoh and his terrible army approach the Israelites, who are fleeing on foot, the people lose heart. They are trapped between the Egyptian chariots and the sea. Why, Moses, did you bring us out here to die? There were perfectly good graves in Egypt.
But God enters the battle on behalf of his people. God pushes the sea aside so that the people can pass. And then, as the Egyptians follow them, furiously, jealously, vindictively, vengefully into the seabed, God releases the waters. The great army is drowned.
And ever after, this is the great act of God that the Bible returns to. God doesn’t tell the people “I am the LORD your God, and everything I say is true and must be obeyed.” God tells the people “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God reminds the people of this over and over. I brought you out of slavery, so you must not force your servants or animals to work without rest. Have no other gods beside me. Remember that I am faithful. I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright. When you set your slaves free—as you must after six years—you must open your hand wide to them and give them what they need, because you were slaves and I freed you.
Over and over, God says, “This is who I am—the God who brought you out of Egypt. Do not dishonor me by acting unjustly toward others. Do not dishonor me by taking other gods.”
This is the central event in the Old Testament. It is still commemorated each year by the Jewish people at Passover. It was being commemorated by Jesus and his friends on the night in which he was betrayed. And not only that; this act of God became the model for so many struggles for freedom that followed. The freed slaves in the United States saw themselves in the Exodus story. “Mary don’t you weep no more,” their song went, “Pharaoh’s army got drowned; Oh Mary don’t you weep.”
So why is this a story that we remember at every baptism?
First it’s a warning. It’s a warning that you’d better not oppress or deal unjustly with the stranger in your country, or the person who has no land or wealth of their own, or the people who have God alone as their friend and their advocate. God is not an even-handed God. God is not a fair-and-balanced God. God is on the side of the slaves. God is on the side of the refugees fleeing danger and death. God is on the side of the defenseless. And you do not want to fight against God. Pharaoh was the mightiest man in the land, with an army that had no peer. But his army got drownded.
But second, it tells us about how God saves us. Slavery was, to come back to where we started, more than the people could handle. It was devastating, it was criminal, it was inhuman. And when the people cried out to God, God did not answer by giving them a little more patience. God did not give them the inner strength to endure the endless days of work and the abuse of the overseers. God did not give them a glimpse of a better world that awaited them beyond death.
God did something else: God set them free. And you’ll notice that God did this despite the fact that the people were, at one point, very uncertain that they wanted to go. There were graves in Egypt, they shout at Moses. And why not? We are slaves. We know how to die. We know how to have our souls ground out of us one day at a time. Why did we have to try this foolish, desperate thing?
At some point that’s the cry of everyone who needs to be liberated. Whether it’s being liberated from economic and political oppression, or liberated from an abusive relationship, or liberated from an addiction—at some point, it will seem like freedom was a foolish gamble, an illusion. There were graves in Egypt. We could just as well have died there.
But God sees what we do not see. God acts where we falter. God guides us through paths that look impassable, through seas that look too deep, through dangers that offer no escape. When God accepts us in baptism, God is not promising to give us only those things we can carry. When God accepts us in baptism, God is promising to carry us. Amen.