Title: The Pack of Obedience
Pastor: Dr. William S. Barnes
Scripture: Exodus 12:29-39
The Fourth of July in America makes us think about freedom and liberty in ways that we take for granted for most of the rest of the year. The annual celebration of Passover does the same thing for our Jewish friends. Today our thoughts about Washington and Jefferson intermingle with thoughts about Moses and Aaron. I don't know how it is these days with kids learning American history, but it was always a staple of multiple choice tests to have to identify who stood up in the House of Burgesses in St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia and said, "Give me Liberty or give me Death!"
In religious terms, when Jews think of freedom and liberty, their thoughts center on the Passover, when the Hebrew slaves left Egypt in the middle of the night. It was Moses who stood before Pharaoh and said, "Give us Liberty or you'll get Death!" And so it was that the angel of death passed over the land of Egypt striking down the firstborn children in all of the homes of the Egyptians, from Pharaoh's palace to the smallest home of a day laborer.
In the chaos and grief of that terrible night, the Egyptians urged the Hebrews to leave as quickly as they could in order to somehow stop the dying. Moses had already made his people aware that this was going to happen and they had been given instructions to be ready to move quickly. Aside from their herds and whatever they could carry on their backs or pull behind them on makeshift drag carts, everything the slaves had was left behind them in Egypt, even the leaven for their bread. Moses had given specific instructions for things they were to pack for their escape, and probably the most important thing the refugees of freedom needed to make sure they had in the bag was something no one could see: obedience. Ironically it was the one thing they probably assumed that they were going to leave behind.
This is a photo of Noble Leslie DeVotie, founder of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and the first Southerner to lose his life in the American Civil War.
The Civil War, or "The War of Northern Aggression" as I heard it called in Georgia years ago, was a war that tested and then refined the tenets of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all citizens. During my college years in Atlanta, I was a member of the SAE fraternity and often heard the story of our founder, Noble Leslie DeVotie and his distinctive contribution to the Confederacy. It wasn't until many years later that I researched and learned the true story of his death.
DeVotie had graduated as Valedictorian from the University of Alabama and then gone on to the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Princeton University. He was ordained and became the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Selma, Alabama. At age 23 he enlisted as a chaplain in the Confederate Army, and while on duty as a chaplain to the troops from Alabama he died. As he was about to board a steamer at Fort Morgan, Alabama, he missed his step and fell into the water. His pack was so heavy that it carried him deep into the water, and is was three days before his body washed ashore. It was February 12, 1861, and even though the War would not officially begin until April 12 of that year, since Alabama had already seceded from the Union, he is considered the first casualty of that conflict. How "noble" for Noble to die while serving his state, but how embarrassing that he did so because he never learned to swim and never learned to "pack light!"
As our group prepared for the trip to the Holy Land this past spring, I urged everyone travelling with me to pack light. Not too many took my advice. Even though I assured them that they could buy anything in Israel that they needed if they ran out and that I would be wearing the pretty much the same jeans and T-shirts for the whole trip, the need to have their own stuff from home easily accessible ended up trumping anything I recommended.
In Moses' case, apparently his packing list was heeded for the most part. The Hebrews evidently threw as much Egyptian jewelry and silverware in their luggage as they could, as they carried their unleavened flour mixture on their shoulders. So they had dough in their bags and dough on their backs. They didn't know at the time that what they were told to take would be used to shape their worship life. The gold, silver, and fancy clothes of the Egyptians would be used to make God's tabernacle in the desert. And the unleavened bread would be the centerpiece of the Passover meal from that time forward, even to today.
Check it out in Deuteronomy 29:2
"Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drinkâ€”so that you may know that I am the Lord your God."
You see, the most important thing that the liberated Hebrews had to pack was nothing they could grab with their hands. It was obedience! In an interesting but often overlooked portion of the scripture lesson today Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night,
"Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go worship the Lord as you said."
The word that the New Revised Standard Version translates as "worship" is really the word for "serve." The writers are making a distinction between the demand to worship and serve Pharaoh (who was considered a god) and the demand to worship and serve Yahweh, the one true God. Freedom from obedience to Pharaoh did not mean that from now on it would be "anything goes" for the Hebrews. Now their obedience would be transferred to the Lord.
Obeying God and trusting in him would mean that seas would part, enemies would be defeated, and food, water, and clothing would be provided. Justice would reign, and a land of milk and honey would be their final home. And yet, as was the problem for Adam and Eve in the Garden, and still is the problem today, people inevitably use their freedom to serve themselves and not God.
Even the Apostle Paul wrote about this dangerous temptation in his letter to the Galatians: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Gal 5:13)
Freedom is not just liberty from oppression; it is the opportunity to choose to be obedient in love. As Jesus said when asked about the greatest commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." That's all you really need to pack.