Sunday, January 29, 2023
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“Plagues Aplenty”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Reading: Exodus 7:14-24

My brother and I were driving through south Texas once. We stopped for gas and couldn’t step without a crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crickets everywhere. We stopped for dinner and saw them in the overhead lights of the restaurants and distressingly near the food. We checked into a hotel, turned the sheets back, and even there, crickets. This apparently happens in south Texas sometimes: a big rain after a big drought and they all hatch at once.

Sometimes it feels like you’re walking around in a Bible story.

We’re preaching through the book of Exodus here at TEMC through Easter. And six chapters of its 40 are about the plagues. But I’ve never preached on the plagues. I own dozens of books of sermons on my shelves and none of them has a sermon on the plagues. It seems we preachers avoid the plagues . . . like the plague. . . Hollywood loves the plagues though. Great visual images. The Charlton Heston movie, the Disney one, the recent one with Christian Bale. Even movies not about Exodus will have one or the other plague in them—Magnolia has a shower of frogs in its climactic scene. I heard British Columbia’s premier joke that in his first year in office he’d faced fires and floods and now he was worried about locusts and hail. He didn’t know COVID-19 was coming.

This church has faced waves of difficulty lately. All churches, all people have faced the pandemic and its dislocation. When we came back some folks didn’t come back: they were more disabled or had even died or moved on in their lives. Some of those deaths of loved ones didn’t have funerals with more than 10 people at them. Your beloved senior pastor of a quarter century left. Pastors in place a fraction of that time can leave us mourning longer than we expect. I remember serving another church and folks complaining about all the changes I was making. I was puzzled because I’d intentionally changed nothing. Then I realized, oh, wait, I am change. It’s been a lot these last few years, hasn’t it?

Anybody else ready for precedented times?!

The plagues have a purpose in the Exodus story. Pharaoh has enslaved God’s people. Moses and Aaron demand he let the people go. He will not. Each plague is a sign of God’s power and a warning against stubbornness. They start out more annoying: flies and gnats, like crickets in south Texas. They become worse: pestilence against livestock and deadly hail threaten the food supply. They conclude in a more deadly fashion: the death of every firstborn in Egypt. We call them “plagues” in English but in Hebrew they’re “signs and wonders.” Demonstrations that God is in control of creation. And, in fact, what they are is de-creation. In Genesis, God pushes back against chaos to make space for light and dark, day and night, creatures in the sea and sky and on the ground. In the plagues that space is collapsed. God first said, “let there be light.” In the 9th plague God says, “let there be dark.” Creation undone. This is a sign to Pharaoh and to every oppressor: harm God’s people and creation itself will fight against you, swallow you up.

I know the plagues are harsh, scary even. But that might be because we’ve not been oppressed by slavery ourselves. If you’re enslaved the plagues are a Godsend. Nature itself is fighting for the oppressed, who have no weapons of their own. I was in South Sudan once, a place terrorized for years by an oppressive government in Khartoum, and its referendum for independence had a simple campaign slogan: “let my people go.” Made sense there, not far from Egypt. In Exodus, justice is about limiting harm. “An eye for an eye” is infamous, but in fact it’s a limit to violence. If you take my eye I can’t go and kill your whole family. All I can do is take your eye. There, equilibrium was re-established. Pharaoh has tried to eliminate Israel, so the elimination of Egypt would be justified, an eye for an eye. Instead, God warns Pharaoh. Again and again, and again and again. And instead of genocide, Egypt loses only its firstborn. Ghastly. But not elimination. And a warning: try to eliminate a people, and what you lose is not the enemy, but your own child.

In Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich, Israeli hitmen take revenge on terrorists who killed Olympians in 1972. And after one killing, they’re drinking to celebrate. But they’re also troubled: are we really celebrating this? One brings up a story from the rabbis about the angels hearing God cry after the Exodus with Egypt’s army dead on the seashore. God why are you crying? And God says, “I’m weeping for my Egyptian children.” Another hitman crushes out a cigarette and says, “that’s not what the Exodus is about.” Okay Mr. Scholar what’s the Exodus about? The Exodus says, “don’t mess with the Jews.” The morality of these stories has been debated since they were first told, in Jewish and Christian circles till today, not just by hitmen. Is it really fair to punish Pharaoh when God hardens his heart? There is no good answer to that. Is it fair to punish every Egyptian, most of whom had nothing to do with the oppression? White southerners like me might say we gained nothing by slavery and Jim Crow. Black descendants of the oppressed tend to disagree, and they have a point. Lots of my home country, the US, was built by slaves who never got to enjoy the fruit of their stolen labour. God notices and acts for justice. Whether that’s good news depends on where you sit, I suppose.

In the black church in the US there’s a Bible verse that’s beloved that I haven’t heard so much in white churches in North America. It’s simple: “as you sow, so shall you reap.” It’s an agricultural metaphor—if you sow wheat you won’t bring up eggplants. I’ve heard preachers start in on the first part and the whole church finishes the second: “as you sow, so shall you reap.” One of the ironies of oppression there is that black and white churches shared a bible. They just read it differently. Black Christians were saying to others from their shared text, if you sow slavery, you’ll reap it. If you sow oppression, you’ll reap it. That’s just the natural order of things. Defy it at your peril. Say it with me: “as you sow, so shall you reap.”

Gone a long time without addressing this particular plague. Blood. Everywhere. Not just in the Nile but in vessels and cups filled before the plague. This one is particularly instructive. Slavery is bloody business. Abraham Lincoln wondered whether all the carnage of the US Civil War wasn’t recompense for all the blood shed by the lash. A great band from my native North Carolina, the Avett Brothers, sings about the south we love: “blood on the table with the coffee and the sugar. Blood in the soil with the cotton and the tobacco.” The blood here also points forward to the Passover, with blood on the doorposts of Israelite homes meaning their children live, no blood on Egyptian doorposts and their firstborn die. There’s also a sort of realism in the plague. Bodies of water can have blood tides that look like real blood. Blood in the water means frogs would leave it. Dead frogs mean flies come and so on. This breaks down later. But this is nature run amok. Spilling over its limits. Not supernatural but hypernatural, one commentator says. You and I are still dependent on nature minding its limits—every natural disaster reminds us. The Nile is Egypt’s lifeblood (an instructive phrase). Its annual flood made Egypt fertile to grow food. Now with this plague the Nile is a sign of death, undrinkable, unlivable.

Here’s a fun twist. Pharaoh has magicians too. And they can imitate this disaster. They can make water turn to blood also. One of you pointed out in my Tuesday Bible study, hey, where was the water to turn to blood? I thought it was all already blood. Either there was some water that was still water and they made it blood, completing the plague. Or the water turned back, and the magicians turn it to blood again. Pharaoh’s magicians are supposed to be funny: all they can manage to do is make things worse. With the plague of frogs all the magicians can do is double the number of frogs. Moses and Aaron are the only ones who can lift plagues. When Pharaoh’s had enough, he asks their prayers. And the plague goes away. After plague two Pharaoh’s magicians tap out, they can’t compete.

This story starts out like the story of Moses’ miraculous delivery. In that story from two weeks ago, Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to the Nile to bathe. Here Pharaoh goes down to the river. Will he show that spark of humanity that his blessed daughter did? Remember Moses grows up in Pharoah’s own house, an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, so his grandson. And you thought you had household dysfunction. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he won’t let the people go, even when his grandson asks.

Ron Heifetz is a writer on leadership who used to be a heart surgeon. Statistics show that after open heart surgery and being read the riot act, six out of seven heart patients . . . change nothing. Eat the same, exercise or don’t the same. Depressing, eh? Heifetz says this figure just proves that one out of seven people . . . are lying. Nobody changes nothin’, he says. Is Pharaoh so unique? ‘We want you to let your free labour force go to worship a god you’ve never heard of.’ ‘Uh, no, okay, we done here?’ Scripture often speaks of our hearts as hard too. God promises to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. Maybe Pharaoh is more like us than we think.

The plagues go on: pestilence, hail, locusts. There are some comic elements: the hail kills all the livestock after the pestilence kills all the livestock. Wait, I thought the livestock were already dead, how can they die again? The hail destroys all the greenery after the locusts eat all the greenery. It reminds me of the question of how someone will wail and gnash their teeth in hell if they have no more teeth. The response: teeth will be provided. The point is that we all depend on creation to live, we are creation. And creation is undone in response to our injustice. Oppress your neighbour and creation will oppress you. We don’t make the rules here. We just tell the stories. And of course, they take on a sort of legendary character—the stories themselves are telling us, hey, these are bigger than realistic stories, super-realist, if you’re into Latin American literature. The point is about God’s grandeur, God’s heart for the oppressed. And if necessary, extra livestock, greenery, water, and teeth will be provided.

The plagues also have a kind of monotony to them. Try and read all six chapters about them without falling asleep, I dare you. At Christmas we sang part of the 12 days of Christmas. I asked Elaine why not sing all 12? Elaine looked at me with more patience than I deserved. Because it’s boring, she said. You try singing all 12 verses? The repetition is the point here. Time after time (x10) God gives Pharaoh chances, way more than any tyrant deserves. And time after time Pharaoh hardens his heart.

Why? What’s the point of all this? Exodus tells us several times: so everyone may know that the God of Israel is the Lord of all. So that Israel may know. Egypt may know. Pharaoh may know. You may know. I may know. The least religious person may know. The most religious person may know. There’s a kind of dark evangelism here. The reign of the Lord, the God of Israel, is over everything. God has a special chosen people sure, this family of slaves. God loves the underdog. But God reigns everywhere. Over every grasshopper and gnat, over every plague and every cry for deliverance from them.

Now, scripture goes out of its way elsewhere to praise Egypt: she will be like Israel, God’s own beloved, the prophet Isaiah says. In other places where scripture criticizes Israel it says she will be in the place of Egypt: oppress the poor or the foreigner and I’ll send my plagues on you, God threatens in Deuteronomy. In Genesis old Jacob, patriarch of Israel, comes to Egypt and blesses Pharaoh himself. Israel has stories about loving the enemy long before Jesus makes them his thing. God’s threats are like a mom warning her child not to put her hand on the hot stove, don’t do that honey, dangerous. She knocks her little hand away if necessary. Don’t enslave people, I mean it. God threatens only because God loves, and longs for shalom for everyone.

How does it all end? Well, who’s another firstborn who dies? Another time when blood means life? This is one of the dark stories that will result in the darkest story of all: the death of God’s own firstborn. Egypt grieves after the plagues. Grieving for what her own sin and stubbornness have done. Is there any grief like ours? Egypt asks. And God says, yes, mine. And my grief will make life for everyone. Egypt included.

There is more wisdom for us in this story. What is it but a story of ecological disaster? One of the most common words in the plague stories is “the land.” The land. The land is choked with blood, with gnats, flies, frogs, hail, locusts. All things that destroy crops, livestock, livelihood, people—the land. You and I live in such a way that we think food comes from the grocery store. Nope. It still comes from the land, just out of our sight, usually by giant agrobusinesses now. But none of us could eat without farms, disrupt them, and see what happens. With climate change we’re all worried about ecological catastrophe. This story makes clear: human action has an effect on the climate. It just does. The Bible already knows this. God’s action does too, of course. But effectively God just gives people over to our own sinful actions here. It’s not that we misbehave then God punishes. It’s that our misbehavior is its own punishment. Oppress people and the land will turn against you. Free people and the land will be bountiful, produce for you, hey even seas will split for you. After about the fourth plague these calamities don’t affect the Israelites at all. They’re happy over in Goshen, not a locust among them, not a hailstone, nope, none of our livestock are sick actually, no thick darkness there, not a boil to be found. In our ecologically-sensitive age, we also know that our actions have ramifications. We depend on the land too, hard as that is to tell in city life. Let’s love it back. Indigenous peoples, including indigenous Christians, speak of the land as our mother. She gives us life, cares for us, provides for us. Earth is not just a renewable resource. She’s mom.

There’s a joke about creation you’ll hear me tell entirely too many times. A researcher goes to God to tell God we don’t need God anymore. We can make our own people. God says, that’s very interesting, show me. So she picks up a handful of dirt to blow life into it, like God did at first in Genesis, and God says, “nuh uh uh—you get your own dirt.” Every speck of dirt belongs to God, we can’t make our own world. All we can do is move stuff around in God’s world. In the third plague, scripture says every speck of dust in Egypt became a gnat. No dust left, just bugs. Creation run amok. One of you pointed out Tuesday one gnat is enough to make you crazy, let alone a land full of them. But the dust is significant. You and I are made of dust. Adam’s name is from Adamah, dirt. We’ll return to dust. The time in between being dust and being dust is very short indeed. As a pastor, I have to tell you how strange this is: when folks come up here and we make the sign of the cross on their forehead and tell them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” they smile at us. I just told you you’re dirt! It’s good news to hear you’re mortal.

This sermon started out being about plagues, but it ended up being about creation. The plagues are de-creation, God undoing its underpinnings and creation falling apart as a result. Best choose sides with God—with the oppressed, and as you sow, so also shall you reap. But maybe it’s best to end with a gentle creation story. In BC I was very involved with an organization called A Rocha, which means “the Rock” in Portuguese, a Christian environmental group. They got on the world map when a college intern pulled up a bucket of river water one day and discovered a fish thought extinct in that watershed: that put them in the conservationist big leagues. That intern had heard God say in prayer she’d see something amazing that day. They also got noticed when the great Margaret Atwood, the grand damme of Canadian letters, pointed them out and said ‘I write novels on end of the world apocalyptic groups. Here’s an end of the world apocalyptic group in real life.’ Atwood wishes all churches would be like A Rocha, caring for forgotten fish and growing crops to sell at CSA’s and loving groups of schoolkids that otherwise never get outdoors. One scientific thing A Rocha does is monitor the salmon spawn in the Little Campbell River nearby. When I visited they had NASA-type cameras pointed at this little tributary. I asked how many fish they’d seen so far. Four, they said. Four? That’s barely a meal. Oh, they said thousands more are coming. So many you can’t count (or you can’t without the cameras). A plague of salmon—so many you can’t see the water anymore. Swimming the wrong way at the end of life to make more life. So many local Indigenous peoples count on them. Grocery stores depend on them. We just tidy up the river so they can live their best. And count each fish as precious. A plague of salmon almost. Only here nature is working right, not run amok, not stinking or ruining the land, but a sign of God’s faithfulness and abundance.

Y’all the plagues are about a good God who loves creation. But especially loves people, at the heart of creation. And God won’t tolerate people being oppressed. God also loves a good story. A good joke. A good plate of fish. And bringing every sort of tyranny to an end. Amen.