Let My People Go, So That They May Worship Me

Luke 4: 14-21 Psalm 72

Bryan Hanger

Our Nigerian sisters have been kept away from their homes since April. It’s been over 120 days since they were taken. They were taken from their school against their will to be captives and slaves even. Boko Haram, the insurgent group responsible, has shown no hope of mercy and the government of their land has shown no sincere efforts to help the Nigerians who were kidnapped.

But throughout all of this we must remember. These kidnapped women have a name. These kidnapped women have families. These kidnapped women have rights and dignity. And most importantly these kidnapped women are daughters of God. They bear the image of Christ.

It is this last point that allows for us to seek a way of understanding and conceive of a hope of liberation in such dire contexts. These women have everything stacked against them. Nigeria leads the world in the amount of school-age children who are not in school, and girls are far less likely than boys to attend school. Especially, in the northern part of Nigeria, where the EYN Brethren are concentrated.

And even when these girls are lucky enough to attend school, they do so at their own risk. Security is always tenuous in Northeastern Nigeria, and while the April kidnapping was notable for its large scale, Nigerian Brethren, other Christians, and Nigerians of other faiths have been threatened and affected by Boko Haram in many other ways over the last several years. And just yesterday there were reports of another smaller kidnapping of Nigerians. The violence and oppression continues.

Quite simply, nothing is guaranteed and everything is at stake in Nigeria. Perhaps this is why I am reminded of the Exodus story when thinking of the plight of our Nigerian sisters and brothers. The Exodus you remember is when God sets the Israelites free from captivity in Egypt, but, perhaps more importantly, it is also when God reveals himself to be a God of liberation. A God of Freedom. As theologian James Cone puts it in his book ‘God of the Oppressed’, “The Exodus was the decisive event in Israel’s history, because through it Yahweh revealed himself as the Savior of an oppressed people.”[1]

All throughout the Exodus story and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see God as being a liberator and friend of the oppressed, and that only God can do this work in God’s way. It is tempting to try and do God’s work for him, or even without him, but when reflecting on the efforts of Moses, Joshua, and so many others, we are reminded that nothing ever gets done without God.

Before the Exodus happens, we see Yahweh repeatedly commanding Moses to tell Pharoah to “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” And that if Pharoah doesn’t, then Yahweh will liberate them at Pharoah’s expense. From the plagues, to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, to the parting of the Red Sea, we see acts of liberation that could not have been done without Yahweh involving himself with and acting on behalf of the oppressed Israelites.

By liberating the Israelites in a very particular way, Yahweh gives the Israelites a very particular story that will define who they are and how they live as servants to Yahweh.

In fact, many times in the Hebrew scriptures we see Yahweh saying things like “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.”—Exodus 26:13

These refrains from God come frequently whenever Israel strays from their original purpose. Yahweh reminds them that he is the God who brought them out of bondage in Egypt, and because Yahweh acted in history and formed a covenant with these people, Israel is now required to live a certain way and carry out God’s will in history.

After the Exodus, Yahweh tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”—Exodus 19:4-5

Yahweh is telling Moses, that he hasn’t brought them out of Egypt to just rescue them from slavery, but he has a bigger mission for them. Because they know what it means to be oppressed and what liberation can feel like, Israel can uniquely carry out Yahweh’s liberating work in history. Now that they are free from Pharoah, they may worship and serve Yahweh as Yahweh had long desired.

Or as theologian James Cone puts it, “To accept the covenant means that Israel must now live as Yahweh’s liberated people, becoming the embodiment of freedom made possible through his freeing presence”[2]

Cone refers to this covenantal foundation as the Exodus-Sinai tradition, and he goes on to talk about how once Israel becomes a more settled nation with Kings and a standing army, that they move away from this way of believing and living, and this is why prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and even some of David’s Psalms sound so similar to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. The prophets are trying to get the Israelites to remember their past, and thus be able to serve Yahweh faithfully in the present.

For example,

In Isaiah 1 we find Yahweh saying: “Put away the evil of your deeds, away out of my sight. Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widows’ cause”—Isaiah 1: 16-17

AND

David in our scripture from Psalm 72 says things like “May he have pity on the needy and the poor, deliver the poor from death; may he redeem them from oppression and violence and may their blood be precious in his eyes” Psalm 72: 13-14

Beautiful and prophetic passages for sure. But no matter how poetically the prophets plead for Israel to fulfill her calling, Israel can never quite reach it. And this is where I’ll take a big leap forward in time to talk about Jesus. Brethren being New Testament people don’t often like to delve deeply in the Hebrew scriptures, but I think you’ll see that Jesus likes the Hebrew scriptures just fine. In fact, he sees himself as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s liberating work in the world.

Where Israel strayed, Jesus cannot. Where Israel forgot its mission, Jesus came to remind us of our identity as sons and daughters of God and remind us what God has always been like and what God has wanted for us. Jesus picks up the mantle of Yahweh’s work with Israel, and becomes Israel personified.

Or as theologian N.T. Wright puts it, Jesus was, in himself, the “true Israel,”[3]

This brings us to the second scripture I chose and in this second scripture we see Jesus vocally saying that he is what the prophets were talking about. After reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

What an astonishing thing for a Rabbi to say! He just finished reading one of the holiest Hebrew Scriptures, and has the gall to say that, he, the man standing in front of them was who Isaiah had prophesied about.

But as you look at the rest of Jesus’ ministry it is impossible to not hear echoes of God’s liberating work among the Israelites, but we also see Jesus take it to a new level. Jesus performs miracles, casts out demons, and feeds multitudes. The crowds build and gather near Jesus, and most of these folks are marginalized and poor people. They have come because they have heard that there is one who welcomes them, heals them, and perhaps even blesses them. And by doing this, Jesus is not just bringing relief to the oppressed, he is disrupting the normal social order of things and is claiming he is doing these things with the authority of God.

And while Jesus Christ as liberator of the oppressed certainly picks up where Israel left off; through his death and resurrection, he takes things to a different level that makes all of the difference for the oppressed everywhere, including our Nigerian brothers and sisters.

Whereas Israel was called to be a nation that was kind and welcoming to the outcast, Jesus came to us AS an outcast and showed us in his life, death, and resurrection, that no human definition of freedom or oppression is a match for the freedom found in Christ Jesus. As Paul reminds us, Jesus did not take his equality with God as something to be exploited. This much became clear after Jesus resisted the Devil’s temptations of worldly power while fasting in the desert. What we see instead in Philippians is that Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father—Philippians 2:7-11

This is Good News! The servant life of Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And the subsequent resurrection of Christ shakes the foundations of our societies and breaks the shackles of the oppressed. Whereas Yahweh during the Exodus sides with the oppressed by telling Pharaoh “Let my people go so that they may worship me”, Jesus Christ is on the cross saying “It is finished.” We are free, the shackles of sin have been broken!” 

But as with the covenant Yahweh makes with his people in Exodus, we are not saved and liberated from sin for no reason, but for the purpose of proclaiming and embodying this freedom in the face of worldly oppression. Because Christ has saved us and given us freedom, we can see clearly now how the societal structures of oppression and violence are forces of evil that must be acknowledged, resisted and finally overcome.

In the context of our Nigerian sisters and brothers, they have been set free by the wondruous, beautiful grace of God. Even in a land rife with violence and injustice, they have tasted the grace that is sweeter than any honeycomb. And because they have tasted it, they can understand their context for what it is. Systemically unjust, but not permanent. Oppressive, but not enough to overwhelm what has been revealed to them in Christ. Because of their experience of Christ, they can now live into their identity as God’s servants who stand up to injustice, resist violence, and build peace.

Even our sisters living in captivity have hope. The world has mostly forgotten their plight since they have been in captivity for over 120 days, but God’s memory is not so shoddy. God heard the groans of the Israelites when they called out to him way back when, and he hears the groans of the Nigerians now. They are not forgotten, but we must lift them up to the world.

Jen reminded us last week that we are all one body, together. And that if one part suffers, every part suffers with it and that In Christ, we are united with sisters and brothers from all backgrounds, genders, orientations, languages, and nationalities. In Christ, our spheres of “family” move beyond our biological family and extend across the world.

 But how can we truly connect our lives with the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters in Nigeria? Given that most of us are not living lives where oppression is an everyday reality, a message like the one I have given to us today, must give us pause. If God is for the oppressed, and we are not oppressed, then how do we faithfully fit into the picture? How do we faithfully honor our belief to be one united body when other parts of our body are being oppressed?

For this, I think we must go back to the Exodus. Moses is our guide. Moses is a man stuck in the middle. He is Hebrew by birth, but grew up in the Egyptian royal court. He stands at intersection of oppressed and oppressor. And I think we can feel quite sympathetic to Moses’ dilemma being Christian while living in relative wealth, power and privilege in America, But can we muster up the faithfulness for God’s kingdom that Moses was able to?

Moses’ move towards solidarity with the Israelites did not come easily or all at once, but rather over time, the brutality and oppression that was being inflicted upon the Israelites began to hit home for him. Through seeing the brutal experience of his people and experiencing the reality of Yahweh, things began to click. On the one hand he could readily experience the comfort and benefits of living in the Egyptian royal court, but on the other hand, he knew God was calling him to something greater, something that would require him to give up a lot, if not all, of what he now enjoyed.

John J. Markey in his book Theology of Liberation for North America puts it this way, “As the story of Moses shows, such questioning can be dangerous, life altering, because to reject the order of things means that one must reject the many rewards and gratifications that come through the existing order. Such a course of action will likely bring one into conflict with those people who continue to benefit from things as they are…Only those such as Moses, who came to a sure trust in the final and lasting triumph of God’s vision of creation, can accept its consequences.”[4]

So as we begin this week of solidarity through prayer and fasting, what do these words mean for us in regards to our Nigerian sisters and brothers? Are we open to the call of God to find our identity fully in Christ, even if it means we will be at odds with society? Are we willing, if necessary, to forsake the privilege and benefits we currently have to help our Nigerian sisters and brothers in their struggle for peace, freedom, and justice? Do we have the courage to stand up to oppressors both at home and across the world who have tried to hinder and abuse our sisters and brothers in Christ? Do we have the faith to pray and work for their freedom, and in the process find a new freedom in Christ, we never imagined impossible? I pray this week of prayer and fasting may allow us to ponder and wrestle with some of these tough questions that the example of Moses gives us.

In closing, I wish to remind us that we sit here and worship freely with no immediate threat of violence or oppression, do we not wish our Nigerian sisters and brothers can do the same? You remember the second part of Yahweh’s command, don’t you? Everybody knows the first part: “Let my people go!” Yes of course Yahweh wants Pharaoh to let his people go, but Yahweh wants his people let go so that they can then worship and serve him! The Lord desires not just freedom from oppression for his people, but their freedom to serve God and be God’s people!

And this same God who wanted his people out of bondage in Egypt, wants his people out of bondage in Nigeria!

Now we must be the ones who have the courage and faith to pray for God’s spirit of liberation to be on the move and to tell the Pharaoh’s of this world, “Let My People Go So That We May Worship The Lord together!

Amen.

[1] Cone, James H.. God of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press, 1975. Print. 63

[2] Cone, 64

[3] Wright, N. T.. Scripture and the authority of God: how to read the Bible today. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011. Print. 42

[4] Markey, John J.. Moses in pharaoh’s house: a liberation spirituality for North America. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2014. Print. 11-12

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