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Game of Thrones - Exodus: Plagues, Power and Pharaoh's Fate

Exodus 11:1-10, 12:29-32

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold.’ The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials, and in the sight of the people. Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites — not at people, not at animals — so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, “Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.” After that I will leave.’ And in hot anger he left Pharaoh. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Exodus: Plagues, Power and Pharaoh’s Fate

I opted to share something about Pharaoh’s fate as part of our “Game of Thrones” series, knowing I was probably biting off more than we could chew on in just one Sunday morning sermon. But I couldn’t resist re-visiting the plagues – particularly the last, most heinous of the plagues, the death of the first born in all of Egypt – and musing about the fate of Pharaoh and his hardened heart, which is one of the great questions and conundrums in all of Scripture.

When I say the creators of the Game of Thrones series have nothing on the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s hard not to think about the plagues. The short version of that longer story is that God was tired of the abuse suffered by the Hebrew people who were enslaved under the tyranny of Egypt’s Pharaoh. Having recruited Moses to set God’s people free, God and Moses have this back and forth battle of wills and displays of power all so that Pharaoh might see and understand his place under the banner of Israel’s God as the creator of the universe. God and Moses give Pharaoh chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity to let the Hebrew slaves go, but Pharaoh refuses.

And Pharaoh refuses, not only because letting those slaves go – releasing them to the freedom they deserved – would mean a tremendous loss of financial power, loss of a free labor force, and an upsetting of the social order in Egypt, but it would mean proof that Pharaoh wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. See, in that time and place, Pharaohs were believed to have divine powers – to be gods, themselves, in part; or at least intermediaries for the gods of the Egyptians. So, he would have to relinquish his own divine status in the eyes of his people. Pharaoh would have to admit that the God of Moses, the God of the Hebrew slaves, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was more mighty and powerful than himself and his magicians.

So, even after all of those plagues – the river of blood; the frogs, the gnats, the flies; the sick livestock, the boils, the thunder and hail, the locusts and the darkness – Pharaoh still refused. He came close a couple of times – promising release and freedom for Moses and his people – but when each punishing plague was stopped he would change his mind, hardening his heart, losing his courage to humble himself, to relinquish his power and to do what Moses was asking.

And, sometimes we’re told, toward the end of this onslaught of plagues, it was God who hardened the heart of Pharaoh; that it was God who forced Pharaoh to make the choices he made to keep the Hebrews enslaved. And this notion has, for generations, invited believers and scholars and theologians and pastors to consider the nature and source of evil in the world. This story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart has made many wonder about the nature of a God who would punish Pharaoh for something over which Pharaoh had no control.

If he couldn’t repent, why should he be punished? Where is grace and mercy and justice to be found in a God who acts as a puppet master, pulling the strings and hardening the hearts of people like Pharaoh, only to end up destroying them for that same hardness of heart, in the end? And what does it say to us about free will – our own ability to choose repentance, to choose justice, to choose faithfulness, or to choose the opposite, for that matter? IS God some kind of puppet master pulling our strings and making us move and choose and do according to God’s every whim?

Well, remember what all of those plagues were about. They were about Moses asking Pharaoh to let God’s people go; to let them leave their slavery in Egypt; to let them be free from Pharaoh’s bondage so they could worship and live and bless and be blessed by their God, out there in the world. But the plagues were also about showing, too – who God was; that the God of Moses and the Israelites was the God of all things, even the God of and the God over Pharaoh and Egypt – who believed otherwise.

So when the frogs and the fire and the darkness and the boils wouldn’t convince Pharaoh of God’s power, God got serious. And not just by way of the death of the first born – which was the deal breaker for Pharaoh, the straw that broke the camel’s back. God got serious with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, in the end, because it was another dramatic, powerful way to prove who God was and who Pharaoh was not. It led, ultimately, to freedom for the Israelites and destruction for Pharaoh and his army.

And I learned a new way of understanding all of this, thanks to some writing by a Jewish Rabbi named Bernard Zlotowitz.

If Pharaoh was who Pharaoh claimed to be; if he was stronger and more powerful than the God of Moses; if he was all-powerful and almighty; if he was a god himself, or even an intermediator for a god of the Egyptians … he could have un-hardened his own heart; he could have reversed what God had done; he could have repented and meant it. He could have relented, he could have released the Israelites, once and for all, and not followed his own compulsion to chase after them, ultimately drowning in the sea – consumed not just by water, but consumed by his own pride and thirst for power and greed and sin and all the rest.

In other words, Pharaoh had had a taste of what could save him – mercy, justice and freedom for those oppressed Hebrew slaves – on all those occasions he had decided to let them go and when God ceased God’s punishment, when God turned off the plague like a faucet. But when Pharaoh changed his mind that last time – or his mind was changed – whatever the case may be – Pharaoh was powerless to save himself any longer, even though he knew how, because he was not the god he pretended to be.

Pharaoh – this earthly ruler – was no match for the God of Moses and the Israelites – the ruler of the universe, because Pharaoh’s sinful, greedy, power-hungry, hard and broken heart was hardened in a way he could not un-do or mend on his own. Pharaoh needed God – the one true God – just as Moses and the Israelites did – just as you and I need God – to be free, to be liberated, to be forgiven, to be unbound by our sinfulness. And we just can’t do it on our own.

It was a lesson for everyone involved: for the Egyptians who believed Pharaoh was all-powerful – and for the Hebrew slaves who may have wondered – they could see that he was not. And for those who doubted Moses and his God, that power was confirmed.

And the good news about that God – the hope in all of this – is that that God will go to great lengths – any length – to love and care for those who need it most. Was that God the God of Moses and the Israelites? Yes. Was that same God – the creator of the universe, the God of all things – the God of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, too? Yes. And when the God of the universe sees some of God’s children hurting, suffering, and struggling at the hands of some of God’s other children – God seeks to change things.

Like any loving parent who sees an older, bigger, stronger sibling pushing his little brother around and steps in to protect the younger, smaller, weaker of the two…God acts.

Like a teacher who sees one of her students bullying another and moves to stop that injustice…God acts.

Our God is always on the side of the underdog. Our God is always looking out for the outsider. Our God always stands in for the outcast and the cast-out, in the name of justice and mercy.

And I love that about our God. It is hope for the hopeless. It is challenge and accountability for those in power. And it’s a reality check for those of us who live somewhere in the middle – those of us with more power and privilege than most of the world, whether we’re always able to admit it or see it or not; and those of us called to wield that power and privilege – as children of God – with grace and mercy, generosity and love for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s kingdom in our midst. And those of us who – like Pharaoh and Moses – can’t save ourselves or do any of this on our own.

And all of that is Mary’s hope and the promise of Jesus she sings about before his arrival. She reminds us, in this morning’s Gospel, about what the power of that one true God looks like and means to accomplish in the world. 

Our God looks with favor upon faithful servants.

Our God has mercy on those who fear him, from generation to generation.

Our God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

Our God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God made known to us in Jesus – is a God of mercy, love, grace, hope, redemption, freedom and justice.

Our God – and the ways of Christ’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” – are our hope for this world and the next.

Amen

(You can read the piece by Bernard Zlotowitz I refer to here. It’s short, sweet and worth your time, if you have it.)

Game of Thrones - Sodom, Gomorrah and the Laws of God and Men

Genesis 19:1-16, 24-26

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.

But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

Matthew 10:5-15

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.

I want to start with a little introduction to this “Game of Thrones” series for those of you still wondering what this is supposed to be all about. A few of you have asked, concerned, that you may need to have seen the show in order to play along or to know what I’m getting at. The answer is “no.” I haven’t even seen the whole series, myself, yet. I’m just into Season 4 (of 8), which means there won’t even be spoilers of any substance to worry about.

The short of the long is I came late to the “Game of Thrones” party because I was finally curious enough to see what all the hub-bub was about. And when I started watching, I was just as fascinated by this medieval mele of kings and queens and lords and ladies, their warring madness, and all of its sex and sin and death and debauchery that seems to have captivated so many others, too. (At least one fellow Cross of Gracer admitted to being a little embarrassed about enjoying the show – it’s that kind of death and debauchery, people!)

And I got to thinking, “there is a whole lot of the same kind of stuff in our very own Bible,” particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, only we don’t preach and teach so much about all of that or know those stories as well as some of the others. Many of them get left out, precisely because of all of their sex and sin and death and debauchery. Others are taught and talked about on occasion, but not so much for so many of us beyond the Sunday school classroom or a Bible study here and there – and even then, the fullness of their message and understanding gets over-simplified, if not lost entirely, too much of the time.

And today’s story is a perfect example, which is why I thought we’d “start at the very beginning… it’s a very good place to start,” in the book of Genesis, anyway, and the infamous story of “Sodom, Gomorrah and the Laws of God and Men.” Sodom and Gomorrah – and what happens there in Genesis 19 – could have inspired some of the drama in “Game and Thrones,” if you ask me. I could see the names of these ancient cities on the map at the beginning of each episode, right alongside places like King’s Landing or Winterfell.

Anyway, the Sodom and Gomorrah story is a very good place to start because most popular theology has co-opted and dumbed-down this little ditty and oversimplified it in such a way that most people misunderstand the point of it in the first place, thinking - or pretending - it has something to do (like it has anything at all to do!) with homosexuality. So let’s dispel that rumor right out of the gate.

With a more careful, but not more difficult reading, it’s pretty easy to see that, despite what the street-preachers and fear mongers have been saying for so long, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah have nothing to do with homosexuality – or sex, for that matter – at all. In a nutshell – and in order to keep all of this as family friendly as possible – it’s obvious to anyone and important for everyone to recognize that the sin against those poor guests in Sodom and Gomorrah was the violence of it all, not the means by which they intended to perpetrate that violence.

Specifically, the story is about rape which means the sexuality and gender of those involved isn’t relevant here. Their sin was the ugly, hateful, violent way they intended to keep these outsiders from their town – by violating them, by hurting them, by dominating them, by humiliating them, and so on.

And, because we’re so easily titillated by the violence and drama of it all, it’s easy to miss the real lesson, the real teaching and the faithful inspiration behind the story of the destruction of these two ancient cities.

What we miss when we take this story out of context is the set-up and the similarity that happens with Abraham, Lot’s nephew, in Genesis, Chapter 18. These same angels show up to Abraham and, just like Lot, Abraham runs to greet them, wash their feet, welcome them into his tent, give them water and food and rest and some shade to cool them from the heat. This was how Abraham, the father of our faith – the one “blessed to be a blessing,” as the covenant goes – treated guests and outsiders. And it made God smile.

And it’s what Lot knew, too, we see next. As the one minding the city gate in Chapter 19 – working security that night in Sodom – Lot welcomed those same guests, those same outsiders, in the same way Abraham had. He invited them into his home, he offered them food and rest and, even more, protection from the people in his town he must have known would not extend the same kind of hospitality he offered. And Lot was right – and courageous and brave and faithful – to do what he had done. Because we all know what happened next.

The townspeople showed up to let these outsiders know who was boss and that they weren’t welcome there. I don’t pretend to know why it had to be so ugly; why it had to get so violent and nasty and over-the-top with all the sex and rape and the offering up of the daughters for a trade. I have a hunch much of that has to do with the way ancient cultures were or at least how they made their point in telling stories they wanted people to pay attention to. (In some ways we’re no different, when you consider the fame of and fascination with “Game of Thrones” and all of its blood and guts and sex and violence. You won’t get through the first episode without being shocked by the shame of the Lannister siblings!)

Anyway, the sad, shameful irony of all of this is that the Church has done the exact opposite with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah than was originally intended. Instead of learning from the lessons of Abraham and Lot about God’s desire for God’s people to welcome the stranger and to care for the outsider, too many have focused on the sins of those in the city and then used it create laws and roadblocks and barriers that keep people out and to push people away. In other words, too many have wrongly made this story about homosexuality, rather than about hospitality.

Too many have incorrectly made the story of Sodom and Gomorrah about sex, rather than about the un-gracious, violent, exclusive ways of the towns’ people. What made the people of Sodom and Gomorrah so ungodly, so sinful, so worthy of punishment wasn’t what they’ve been blamed for all these years. What made them ungodly, sinful and worthy of God’s wrath, according to Hebrew tradition, was their violence; their mis-use of power; their hatred for the ‘other,’ the outsider, the stranger in their midst.

And there are several places in Scripture that confirm this same understanding and lesson from the Sodom and Gomorrah story. (I’ve listed them on the Sermon Scribbles insert if you’d like to spend more time with them.) The prophet Isaiah condemns the leaders of Sodom for all sorts of things like neglecting justice, neglecting the defense of the oppressed, and neglecting to care for widows and orphans, but doesn’t say “boo” about their sexual preferences. Ezekiel (16:49-50) says most plainly that “the guilt of … Sodom” [was that] she and her daughters had pride, had an excess of food, had prosperous ease, but that they did not aid the poor and needy. Again, nothing is mentioned about the sexuality stuff that made Sodom and Gomorrah so infamous for so many generations.

And then, of course, there’s Jesus, in the Gospel we heard this morning. When he sends his disciples with clear instructions about what they should pack, where they should stay, and what they should do when it came to curing the sick and cleansing the lepers and casting out demons, he commands them to look for the hospitable ones, to seek out those who would welcome them, care for them, tend to them. And then he warns that all the rest – for those who refused to welcome, care for, or tend to them as outsiders and strangers – “it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day” than it will be for anyone who refuses to welcome the disciples.

Again, more evidence and inspiration that the Sodom and Gomorrah story – like so much else in Scripture – is really about welcome and hospitality. It’s all about loving the “other;” welcoming the stranger; honoring the outcast; caring for the orphan, the widow, the outsider and, generally, making the circle of God’s love ever larger. And all of this is foundational for who and how we are called to be as children of God and as inheritors of Christ’s kingdom.

Now I don’t know and won’t say just exactly what this would, could or should look like in your life. It makes me want to pray differently and more deliberately about what’s going on at our Southern border these days – and in cities around our country today and around the world, too – with hope that we can find a way for all people to know safety and security and abundant life that is pleasing to God. It also makes me want to stick around to join the meeting with Kelly Siegert and our guest from the Exodus Refugee Immigration ministry after worship today.

And I know that’s not for everyone. So maybe there’s a more personal encouragement and inspiration in all of this – like an invitation and reminder to welcome the new kid in school this fall or the new family in the neighborhood; to reach out to that new family member you’re not so sure about, yet; to help the new guy at the office, or introduce yourself to the next new face who shows up for worship on Sunday morning.

Whatever the case, the lesson to be learned from … the example that was set by … the challenge laid out … and the hope to be gleaned from the otherwise scary and salacious story of Sodom and Gomorrah is that God’s people are to be different from what was destroyed in those cities.

We are called and sent out as people of wide welcome for the guest in our midst.

We are called and sent out to be practitioners of generous hospitality for those in need.

We are called and sent out to be bearers of bold faith, good news, amazing grace, abundant life, and hope for the hopeless.

And we are called and sent out because we have been blessed abundantly by the grace we share in Jesus, so that we will bless abundantly in return, with humble, grateful hearts, in his name.

Amen

(For even more on a more faithful understanding of the Sodom and Gomorrah story - along with other Scripture that is used to misunderstand homosexuality in the Bible - check out Colby Martin’s book, UnClobber.")

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