Some years ago, the eye of a small hurricane stalled over that sizable body of water known as Mobile Bay. To everyone’s astonishment, the hurricane sucked up virtually all of the moisture of that vast body of water, creating a dry walkway where once had stood a sea. Then the hurricane deposited all the contents back in the bay via a deluge. Did some similar natural phenomenon create a path of deliverance for the Israelites? Could a combination of swiftly-changing tides and strong, shifting winds have created a dry walkway where once there had been water? Could a tidal wave, sparked by volcanic activity in the area, have swept away Egypt’s chariots? We don’t know. A variety of explanations have been offered. But we know this: the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt for centuries. Then, under the leadership of Moses, they took tentative steps toward freedom. Somehow God wrought an amazing deliverance of those Hebrews from Egypt. After Israel had walked on dry land through the body of water, the Egyptian chariots tried to pursue them, and the waters collapsed upon them, so that not one of them remained. The people of Israel were thus free. They watched the bodies of the dead Egyptians wash up on the seashore. They realized that the people who had held them in bondage for centuries were dead. They were free of the forces that had enslaved them. God had wrought their miraculous deliverance, and they would never be enslaved by Egypt again. Those dead Egyptians on the seashore represented for those Israelites the fact that God acts in history to bring about liberation, freedom and good.
The truth is, God is always at work in history challenging forces of evil, challenging the seemingly indomitable status quo and usurping it, eventually overthrowing it. God is always active in history and in human lives, seeking to liberate people and community from forces that are oppressive and destructive, trying to free people and societies from powers that would weigh them down. Dead Egyptians represent the fact that history, while it seems to unfold in cycles and forms something of a perpetual wheel, is a wheel that ultimately rolls forward in the direction of progress, in the direction of justice, in the direction of liberation, in the direction of good. One of the basic tenets of our Christian understanding of God, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is that God is active in creation, working to bring about dead Egyptians in history, in society, and in our lives.
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955. I grew up knowing that I attended schools, hospitals, stores, and churches that others could not use because their skin was black. I drank from water fountains from which they could not drink, went to bathrooms they could not enter. Even as a child, I thought black people were supposed to serve white people. I thought white people were inherently superior to black people. No one told me this was true. But even as I child, I imbibed this from my culture. A generation later, my children could not imagine that such a world ever existed! Why? Because between my generation and theirs, God acted through courageous visionaries to bring about a world where all people were treated with some degree of equality and respect. The world into which I was born, with its horrific attitudes that shaped me as a child, that world was a dead Egyptian! God had moved in history to overthrow that world, casting it upon the ash heap of desuetude, moving a nation and the world in the direction of progress.
About the time I was born, a famous kitchen debate happened between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Nikita Khrushchev thundered to Nixon, “Your grandchildren will grow up in communism.” Nixon retorted, “No, your grandchild will grow up in freedom.” Years later Nixon admitted, “I knew he was wrong. But I did not know if I was right.” The truth is, when I was born, a third of the world’s population lived under totalitarian governments. Now there are only about fifteen totalitarian governments in the world. And though some people don’t know it, totalitarian governments are a dead Egyptian. God is working in history to liberate people from oppression and injustice, working to allow people to maximize their potential and express their self-determination.
God works in individual lives to create dead Egyptians, too. I think of a middle-aged drunk who had been admitted to the sanitarium so many times that he was on a first-name basis with the doctors. In fact, he begged a drink from one of them. The doctor agreed to slip him a drink in return for a favor – that the man would speak to a younger drunk housed a few doors down. “I wouldn’t know what to say,” the man growled. The doctor said, “Just let him look at you. That might cure him.” So the guy walked down the hall and started talking to the young man. “You need to change your ways,” he advised. “How can I change my ways?” the young man asked, desperately. “You have to pray, son,” the man said. “You have to open up your soul to a Higher Power who can give you a strength of will and determination that you cannot give yourself.” The older man went back to his room unsure that his words had any impact upon the younger drunk. But his words had converted himself. That middle-aged drunk took his own advice, fell to his knees in prayer, asking, “Lord, give me the strength of your Spirit to give me a will and power that I cannot give myself. Come into my life.” That man testified that immediately he felt a peace and strength he had never known before. History knows that man today as Bill, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. For him and for many a drunk after him, their dependence upon God and reliance upon others who have similarly experienced God’s transforming power in a similar way, have delivered them from their addiction to substance abuse. God has made their drunken lives a dead Egyptian in their being.
People and communities have an amazing capacity for adaptation. We can become accustomed to almost anything. This capacity is often good, but it can be bad. We can become accustomed to living in a spirit of depression, can become accustomed to becoming enthralled in guilt, or in rage, or in living at enmity with others. We can become accustomed to thinking that life is a prison, or that our existence is boring. But if our Gospel has any truth at all, we believe that God is active in our lives, active in our society, trying to liberate us from that which is destructive and imprisoning. God constantly summons us out of our old selves into our new selves in Christ. God is constantly working within us trying to create dead Egyptians in our lives. God works to impress upon us what is natural and what is unnatural. Zacchaeus was sure that a lifestyle of theft, extortion, and bribery was normal – and inescapable. Then he encountered the Christ and knew instantly that a life of deceit and stealing was untenable. His dishonest life became a dead Egyptian. Nicodemus thought that coming to Jesus by night made good sense, seeking the key to a positive life. Jesus said to him, “You have to be born again. You must leave the old self and become a new self.” Nicodemus took that advice to heart and grew in faith and courage, enough so that he stepped forward publicly to claim the body of the crucified Christ. That timid, timorous self was now a dead Egyptian.
If we truly want to embrace change in our lives, we must accept that this process is twofold. We must be willing to envision large, but embrace small. We must exercise our imagination and envision how we can grow and be transformed. But seldom does significant and lasting change happen instantly. Most of the time change happens by a series of incremental steps. Change is not easy. We must envision large, but we must engage in those small steps that move us in the direction that we desire. In a former church we had a program where we paired older children with mentors in faith discipleship. These children asked me a question, “What does it really mean to be a disciple.” I responded, “To be a disciple means that you never stop learning, never stop learning about yourself and learning about God.” I challenged them to go to their mentors and ask them if they had their faith all figured out. I knew that all of their mentors would say, “No; everyday we must learn more about ourselves and more about our relationship with our Savior.” That is discipleship. Because faith learning is a lifelong process.
There is a great verse in Hebrews that says, “No chastening of the present seems to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” “No chastening of the
present is joyous.” Duh! Chastening is always painful. Change is always painful. Transition from the old to the new is painful. Growth is always hard. Nevertheless, afterward! Afterward, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness. As our spirituality is challenged, as our individual faith is challenged, as our congregation is challenged to move in the direction of progress, of justice and liberation, we must acknowledge that answering those challenges is painful. Letting go of the past is painful. Embracing the new is difficult. Nevertheless afterward – it yields the fruit of peaceable righteousness. Have you ever seen a shaft of sunlight streaming into your house, illumining all of the dust particles in the air that you never knew were there? Likewise, when the beam of Christ streams into our hearts it illumines aspects of our character that we know should not be there. At times we must let the Spirit chastise us, and that is often grievous. But doing so yields the fruit of peaceable righteousness.
For years I kept a picture of a couple exchanging marriage vows at an altar. Theirs was a very special love story. Apparently, three years before, a newspaper had run a picture of the groom when he was a wino lying beside a railroad track, disheveled and too inebriated even to stand. But shortly thereafter, on a frigid night, this wino entered a church who offered a warm place to sleep, and there he found hospitality and compassion. One woman in particular befriended him, and they struck up a strange friendship, strange because the chasm between them was so great. But he kept returning to this church and kept being befriended, particularly by this woman, and one day he walked into a store and saw some Valentine’s candy and thought, “I must buy that candy for my friend.” It was then that he realized that he had fallen in love with her. But, again, the chasm between them was great, so he began to imagine the incremental steps that he would have to take to bridge the gap between them. Over a three-year period he made those incremental steps until the day came when they stood at that altar, exchanging marriage vows. He knew that the picture of the man lying beside that railroad track was a picture of a dead Egyptian.
Go back to the image of those liberated Hebrews looking down upon the lifeless bodies of their oppressors. The Israelites were not saying, “ Wow, look what we have done.” No, they were saying, “Wow, look what God has wrought!’ They had just faith enough to take a few timid steps toward freedom. But in so doing their baby steps toward freedom positioned themselves in such a way that they allowed God miraculously to deliver them. Creating dead Egyptians often requires taking small, incremental steps.
I was born in Birmingham, but I grew up in Montgomery, and I worshipped in a church not far from the small Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored. I found it amazing that Dr. King employed that little church as fulcrum from which he exercised the leverage to change the nature of our nation. Dr. King made an observation that I have never forgotten. He said, God does not look upon injustice with indifference. God does look upon evil with apathy. God does not look upon oppression with detached listlessness. Rather, God acts through people to bring about positive change and transformation. Whether it is in breaking down walls of oppression, or removing barriers of prejudice, or breaking chains of servitude, or turning a tax collector into an agent of justice, or transforming a wino into a responsible citizen, in these and ten thousand other instances God is working to create dead Egyptians in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, and throughout the world.
I leave you with this thought. If the physician who delivered me into the world in Birmingham, Alabama, had said to my parents on that day: “Within thirty years of this baby’s birth, there will be a black mayor of Birmingham; within forty years, there will be a black president of South Africa; and within fifty years, there will be a black president of the United States of America,” my parents would have gone to the hospital administrator and said, “You have a deranged doctor in your delivery room.” But God is active in the world, active in history, making dead Egyptians. The question remains, what dead Egyptians can God produce in our lives and in our church?