'Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh’ Exodus 11:1
Brothers and sisters, I was a bit nervous when I realised I’d got this reading to preach on because it’s not really all that easy to preach on. It’s nice when you get a cheery, let’s love everyone, part of the bible to preach on but a little bit harder with readings like today’s exodus reading, especially in a child-friendly summer service. Today’s reading doesn’t really fit with the nice, polite, British middle-of-the-road mentality because, in this exodus reading, God is extreme.
We’ve gone through a bit of a checklist over the last few weeks of quite a few of the great men and women of recent history, we’ve looked at the best that humanity had to offer, Martin Luther-King Jr, Rosa Parks, William Wilberforce, the people who stood up to oppression and slavery in the name of God. Well today, I want us to think of the absolute worst that humanity has to offer, the people who stood up for (on behalf of) oppression, because that is, in many ways, what today’s reading is about. How does God react to the oppressors? But because it’s a hard topic I thought that maybe we could start by looking at the worst of the worst people in fiction, where these things are often more black and white. So I want to take you to the absolute height of fiction, a real ingenious study of character and the human condition, you might have heard of it, I want you to call to mind, Star Wars 'Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi'. 'Return of the Jedi' opens with things looking really bad for the good guys; Han Solo has been captured along with Princes Leia and the trusty droids, by an evil warlord, a gigantic slug known as Jabba the Hutt. Jabba the Hutt keeps hundreds of slaves and hurts people mercilessly to maintain a small empire of pain and misery. He’s powerful and evil beyond imagining and he’s got all of the protagonist (Luke Skywalker)’s friends captured and enslaved. But, thankfully, Luke Skywalker, is no ordinary guy, he is close to the all-powerful force, he is a prophet of sorts and an immensely powerful religious leader, bent on freedom from the oppressors a bit like Moses in our bible reading. Now, the normal hero thing to do in most movies would be for Luke to chop everyone down and free his friends straight away from the evil Jabba, but Luke chooses to act in quite an amazing way. Luke walks up to Jabba and asks him to let his people go. He walks in and says, you must let me and my friends go free, or else things will go badly for you. Jabba laughs this off and he takes Luke and imprisons him, and takes him to be executed where, again, just on the brink of execution, Luke pleads with the evil warlord, saying “Jabba, this is your last chance, free us or die.” Now, as Luke is about to be executed we don’t pause the movie at this point and start saying “well hang on, Luke is meant to be the good guy here, if he’s so good why’s he talking about killing people”, instead we rightly recognise that he is being good, he is being righteous, he is offering this evil-as-evil-can-be villain, once last way out. A chance that Jabba doesn’t deserve and a chance that Jabba almost definitely won’t take, but Luke offers it anyway, and Jabba, in response to this goodness, this kind offering, hardens his heart, eventually leading to his own death by the hands of those he had oppressed. In the face of Luke Skywalker being good, the evil reacts by becoming more hell-bent on being evil and, ultimately, destroys itself, and brings liberation to the oppressed in the process.
Well, in our bible reading today, the exact same thing happens. Moses has walked up to Pharaoh and given an amazingly generous offer, just let my people go, or else there will be consequences; I.E. all you need to do is soften your heart. And time and time again, Pharaoh responds to the righteous offer with a no, his heart is hardened in the presence of righteousness. Even until the choice came to risk his own son’s life. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by the righteousness of God’s offer, ultimately leading to his own demise and the liberation of the oppressed. Pharaoh’s reaction to God is to become hell-bent on evil, and it destroys him. Now, we don’t like to think of some people as being truly evil in the world today, we like to think everyone deep down is really good, and that’s why the fictional example of Jabba the Hutt make it easier for us to understand this message but, brothers and sisters, there are people alive today, whose hearts harden in the face of God’s righteousness. Within living memory, those people have been voted into power and started wars based on hatred and racial difference. Within decades, those people lynched innocent men, women and children. It’s easy to think of Jabba the Hutt but what about the people whose hearts harden in the face of righteousness in the real world, today? What about Putin? What about the millions dead because of that hard heart? A nice, polite, British live-and-let-live God, probably isn’t going to be much comfort to the people on the receiving end of oppression there, actually. But the God who stands opposed to the oppressor, the God who warns what will happen if you keep on going down that path, that is what we see in our Exodus reading today.
If you’ve ever watched the Disney film ‘Tarzan’ you’ll know a similar thing happens at the end of that film. The man who has tried to capture Tarzan’s friends and monkey-family, who had planned to take them away to captivity, is trapped in some vines and starts to cut himself free. Tarzan sees that the man has a vine wrapped around his neck and knows what’ll happen if he cuts away every vine except that one and tries to warn him but, the bad guy is so hard of heart that he doesn’t listen and is actually egged on by Tarzan’s warning… he keeps going to his own grisly end. Some people are like that. They just want to ignore God and go their own way and they don’t care who they hurt. To them, God offers a warning and the chance to turn around but, for some people, they’ll go their own way until they’re destroyed. Some people will react to that love of God by hardening their heart. Now, all of that is talking about the physical oppression of the people of Israel so let’s take all of that and hold onto it as we think about our Gospel reading today. You see, in our Gospel reading today, we have in many ways a similar scene to Moses coming before Pharaoh. You see, far more serious than any physical oppression, is the fact that the people of the world are oppressed under the weight of sin. People of the world are condemned to death without a right relationship with God, who loves and made them, in a fate worse than a lifetime of slavery to Pharaoh. In fact in Romans 7:11 St Paul talks about the power of sin killing him, and in Romans 5-6 he talks about sin reigning over all people, until Christ.
In our Gospel reading, Christ is standing before the gatekeepers of the faith, before those who were meant to go out and include the world in God’s plan but who had, instead, rejected God in Christ and hardened their hearts. Christ tells them who he is, he displays righteousness to them and the liberation of the ultimate oppressive power, that of sin, and they murder him for it. Their hearts are hardened by the righteousness before them, and through their evil acts in the face of God’s righteousness, the oppressive power of sin is destroyed. How does God react to oppressive powers? He lets be destroyed in the light of his righteousness. Our Old Testament reading doesn’t seem easy, but in reality, it is through the death of the Egypt’s sons that God rescues Israel’s sons. It is through the hardened heart in the face of God’s righteousness, that the evil is destroyed and the people liberated.
Now maybe today, there is some way in which you have hardened your heart to God, something that you know God is saying to you and yet, over which, you have turned and gone the other way. Maybe it is in the way you have been treating another person, maybe it is in the way you have felt about another people-group, maybe you just need to say sorry or to soften your heart. Or perhaps you are in the other situation, perhaps you feel a bit like Luke Skywalker or Moses and you’re in the position where you feel like you really have to stand up or else others will be hurt, in which case, may you stand upright with the righteousness of the God who did the same in your heart. In response to this sermon, may I encourage all of you to think about the oppressed around the world this week, and those ways in which you can challenge oppressive regimes with unwavering love and righteousness. Amen (from Fr Jordan).