Sermon: Out of Egypt
Preached on 23rd March 2008
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
My wife and I were in Egypt earlier this month to visit our daughter who teaches there. I could regale you with travellers' tales about the sights and sounds of that extraordinary country: hair-raising journeys in Cairo taxis; feluccas gliding on the Nile; the colourful souqs or street-markets; the scents of herbs, spices and sheesha overlaid with top notes of pollution and poverty; and from every minaret five times a day, the muezzins' call to prayer. And of course the monuments that testify to millennia of civilisation: the pyramids that were already ancient when Joseph and his brothers came into Egypt; temples and tombs, Coptic churches, monasteries and mosques, museums with an amazing array of artefacts from all eras of Egyptian history. Perhaps the most enduring impression is what you don't appreciate until you fly over it, the miracle of the narrow green life-giving artery that is the Nile valley threading across a thousand miles of wilderness. Herodotus said that Egypt is the gift of the Nile. I came to see how this gift is not only to Egypt but to the whole world, for the contribution of that country to ancient civilisation, to Jewish and Christian history, to the rise of monasticism and to the development of Islam is incalculable.
If there is one man in antiquity whose image dominates the length of Egypt from the Nubian uplands to the sea, it's the Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses II, known to the Greeks as Ozymandias. As we gazed on his image in reliefs and sculptures beyond number, it was impossible not to recall Shelley's great poem.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Ramesses the Great reigned for no less than 66 years of the 13th century BC. Not just the sculptor but the poet recognised in him the cold ruthlessness and the pitiless cruelty of the tyrant. But he saw too how even the grandest of potentates and the mightiest of earth's empires collapse under their own impossible weight. Nothing beside remains, only memories of what once had been, and chimeras to haunt the night visions, and the lone and level sands.
Probably, Ramesses was the pharaoh under whose iron fist the Hebrews cried out in their slavery, on whom Moses brought down the ten plagues and led the Israelites to freedom. It was the defining event in their history, ‘when Israel came out of Egypt' as the psalm says. Exodus meant liberation, an end to oppression, a future full of possibility, and above all, dedication to God as his people for ever. So down the generations, at this Passover time of the year, the Jewish people have told the story we heard as our first reading: how God heard the cry of the Israelites and brought them safely out of Egypt and across the sea; how he utterly destroyed the enemy, and went before and behind them in the desert as a pillar of cloud and fire. It was their resurrection, their salvation, their Easter. They knew now that God could reverse the fortunes of those destined to die. They knew now that life could begin again.
I wonder what it feels like, if you are an Egyptian Christian, or one of the tiny Jewish community there, to read these Exodus stories and constantly hear your country spoken about as a bad place, a land to be delivered from. For that is what Egypt symbolises in so much of the Bible: a fearful place of bad and bitter memories where the Hebrews were cruelly abused and it did not seem possible that their community could survive. For Coptic Christians, there is a New Testament story that redeems the memory of Egypt as a ‘bad place'. This is the account of how Joseph and Mary brought the child Jesus to Egypt to keep him safe from Herod's massacre of the innocents, a beautiful reversal of the story of Moses and his rescue from a murderous Pharaoh. We visited the ancient church built over the place where, it is said, the Holy Family rested in Egypt. For them, Egypt was a ‘good place', a place of refuge and hospitality. ‘Out of Egypt have I brought my son' - not now as an act of rescue but because he was kept safe there.
We need to consider what the Exodus story means. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the message is the same: that God is able to deliver those who trust in him from the worst assaults of princes and potentates. This is why the Bible and the liturgy speak of the resurrection of Jesus as an exodus. The archetypal story of deliverance from the tyrant gives us a language in which to speak about life from the dead. In Jesus, the last enemy, death itself, has been defeated. Its toppled image and the wreckage of its kingdom lies strewn around the open sepulchre from which Jesus is risen. Here is a tyrant, if ever there was, whose dark portal once addressed the world in the grim summons of Ozymandias: ‘look on my works ye mighty and despair!'. But not now. In the resurrection of Jesus, the old world empires and their grip on human beings have been swept away. A new kingdom is coming. In the empty tomb, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth are promised.
Easter faith invites us to believe that our destiny lies not with the great and powerful of this world, whether they be cruel or benign, but with the one who is risen from the dead, whose kingdom is righteousness and peace, whose power is love poured out. It's not to Ozymandias but to Jesus Christ risen and ascended that the honorific belongs, ‘king of kings'. It takes a leap of the imagination to think that this could be true. Everything seems to speak against it: the pain and suffering that surround us, the abuses of power and the threat of terror that are the staple of each day's news, economic crisis and climate change, the unstoppable rise of secularism in our society. Yet it took a leap of the imagination for Mary Magdalen to believe that the one she had supposed to be the gardener was none other than the risen Jesus who ascends to reign with his Father and will one day come in glory on the clouds of heaven. We are always, perhaps, hoping against hope, and never more than on Easter Day.
Yet Easter announces that the promised end of the story we long for is already present in its humble beginnings. Resurrection happens in a garden, like the garden of Eden where the first man was given life. The light dawns on the first day of the week, like the first day of creation when light sprang out of darkness. The message is: the new creation has begun. Today we celebrate how ‘the kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever'. We acclaim this festival day as the day the Lord has made, a day of glory and victory. It is our Exodus, our deliverance, our promise of new beginnings and hope without end. So we make the song of the Moses and the Israelites our own and sing with them: ‘The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation. This is my God and I will praise him'.
(Exodus 14.10-18, 26-15.2; John 20.11-18)