Sermon: Rivers run through it
Preached on 29th March 2009
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Exodus 7:8-24; Romans 5:12-21
Durham Cathedral Matins
Rivers run through the bible from start to finish and have a part in God's story with the world. In Genesis 2, the second creation story tells of God planting a garden watered by a river which then flows out of the garden to become four rivers which flow through the then known world. It's an early attempt to say that the whole depends upon God's life-giving provision of water. In this watered garden is the tree of life. The last chapter in the New Testament describes a vision of the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God through the new Jerusalem. This river also nurtures the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. In between these two framing chapters there are other significant references to rivers, not least at the end of Ezekiel, which dates from the exile in Babylon, when the vision of the river flowing from the temple describes a trickle of water that becomes an enormous river which waters trees on the riverbanks that provide food and leaves for the healing of the nations. Jesus begins his ministry by a river, being baptised, as did Moses who was rescued from the river and saved his people in a way that prefigured Christ's salvation. Today we find ourselves by the river associated with Moses' miraculous survival of Pharaoh's edict that all Hebrew boys should be killed, the 4000 mile long River Nile, observing the beginning of the extended showdown between Moses and Pharaoh which followed from God's words to Moses at the burning bush, ‘I have seen the misery of my people and have come down to deliver them.' The reference to the river as the location for this story should remind us not only of the Genesis creation story but of God's overarching intention for good towards creation.
This is the beginning of a story that is, in some ways, the antithesis of the creation stories in Genesis, that tells of the undoing of the goodness of God's original creative acts by the brutalism of Pharaoh's policies. This story of the battle of wills and wits with Pharaoh is told in a very particular way. It gives us the impression that this was centre-stage in Egyptian politics, that the exodus of the people of Israel was a critical moment in Egypt's history and that the people of Israel were major players on the world stage at the time. It may come as a surprise to know that this was not so. We search almost in vain for evidence of the Hebrew people in Egypt's records and have to rely on tangential external evidence like the presence of hundreds of Semitic words in the Egyptian language. Events in Egypt's history can be fitted with the biblical story: Rameses II was probably the Pharaoh who oppressed the Hebrew people and his son, Merneptah the Pharaoh of the Exodus. About 1220BC Merneptah erected an obelisk, called a stele, on which he wrote ‘Israel is no more', the only reference in Egypt to Israel. Like many oppressive regimes today, the oppressed count for nothing. The Exodus was not a major event in Egyptian history but we can't dismiss it for that reason: it is a formative story for a nation emerging from slavery and we might be more surprised if they didn't tell the story in a way that made their former oppressors look stupid and defeated. This is the beginning of their story of deliverance and it starts with confrontation.
Creation was a wonderful act by God and now Pharaoh wants a wonder performed specially for him by Moses and Aaron. Wonder has been reduced from life-giving miracle to entertainment. What happens? Aaron throws down his rod and it becomes a snake. Moses had done the same at God's command earlier on and perhaps we are supposed to remember the serpent in Genesis and the havoc it wrought. But the word used here can also mean sea monster, an evocative image given the river context - here is a monster from God lurking in the Nile, the same Nile that will soon swallow up the enemy army. But Pharaoh, hooked on the power of magic, wants to win this contest and simply makes things worse because his magicians make the place swarm with snakes or sea monsters and order is only restored when Aaron's eats the rest. Whatever else you make of it, it's a good story and a warning against the use of power for power's sake, but it can also prefigure the deliverance when the people cross the Reed Sea.
What happens? Pharaoh refuses to face the questions that this power-play raises; instead his heart is hardened and he won't listen to Moses and Aaron. And so begins the ten plagues of Egypt that ratchet up the pressure on Pharaoh until, at the Passover, all the first born of all Egypt are killed. Again there's a reference back to Genesis - remember the murder of Abel by Cain, himself the firstborn of Adam and Eve and thus the first person to be born rather than created by God. In Genesis the first born kills, in Exodus the firstborn is killed. Violence and death are now an inescapable part of life for humans.
The stories that follow today's episode tell of the undoing or reversal of the goodness of the Genesis creation. God formed man from the dust of the ground and placed him in the garden which God planted and was watered by a river from Eden. It's a picture of bliss, of fertility. Now Moses is told ‘Go to Pharaoh in the morning, stand by the river bank to meet him' but instead of watering the garden and sustaining life, this river, essential to Egypt's existence, becomes a river of death as it turns to blood, all the fish die and it becomes undrinkable. The river in Genesis divided into four rivers that covered the land and were life-giving; here the rivers, canals, ponds and pools of water that are a feature of the Nile basin become polluted and death-giving.
Pharaoh's only answer is to do more of the same, to beat God at his own game, and make matters worse. As a result all the Egyptians have to dig along the Nile for water to drink because the river itself becomes undrinkable, fulfilling the words of God that the ground was cursed because of Adam's actions and would produce thorns and thistles, requiring sweat and toil to live on it. Now by the Nile even drinking water requires digging and again there is blood on the ground, as there had been when Cain killed Abel and his blood cried out to God from the ground.
We could go on exploring how the plagues undo the delicate relationship of humans and the natural world in God's creation. No longer are humans stewards of the earth to everyone's benefit, instead the natural world is twisted and skewed and humans are its victims. It is a sorry sight, not what God intended. Whether we take the plagues literally or not - and there have been interesting attempts to explain them in environmental terms - the story they tell is of broken relationships amongst humans and between humans, the natural world and God. That much we cannot deny, however we interpret the stories. Our Lenten theme of ‘Being Human' is illustrated in these early books of the bible by the affirmation that being human should be about being nurtured and nurturing in a good creation, being its stewards and delighting in a life-giving relationship with birds and animals. But they also tell us that the effect of sin is the perversion of that intended relationship so that not only are humans at war with each another but their relationships with the natural world are also distorted and at times become deadly. We can see it today in the impact of politics, particularly the politics of oppression as Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews, on water supplies - much of the conflict in Gaza can be traced back to the politics of water - and in the effects of water pollution on the poor of the world. Whether they are factual or not doesn't really matter, these biblical stories tell us uncomfortable truths about ourselves, about being human.
So, as we turn our gaze today towards the passion of our Lord, what can we take with us on the last stages of our Lenten journey? On the first Sunday in Lent we heard the same reading from Paul's letter to the Romans that we heard this morning. We find Paul - as we frequently do - in the middle of a complex argument, the drift of which is that we have all sinned, we cannot save ourselves, but God has acted to save us in Christ. Here he is arguing that sin came into the world through the first Adam - remember that ‘Adam simply means ‘human' - and with it came death which is not so much punishment for sin as its end result. Death is universal so in that sense we are all affected by what Paul describes as ‘one man's trespass' even though we have not done exactly what that one man, Adam, did. It is cause and effect rather than crime and punishment.
But Paul goes on to say that just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. God's ultimate response to the sin of the first human he created was to live for himself in Jesus Christ a truly human life where grace abounds so greatly that the dominion of death is undone. Whereas Pharaoh's response to his will being thwarted and the people's bid for freedom is to take power into his own hands and make matters worse by increasing the oppression, God's response to the thwarting of his good purposes is to take human nature into his own hands and, in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, to break the power of sin by freeing us for eternal life. In the ascension, human nature is taken into heaven and Jesus Christ is exalted at God's right hand in glory. What is it to be human? It is, ultimately, in Christ to share God's life as God has shared ours.
And if we look at the end of the bible, there is the river of the water of life and the throne of God around which his servants worship - a vivid contrast to the throne of Pharaoh and the oppression of the slaves by the river Nile. This is the ultimate undoing and reworking of the Genesis and Exodus stories, the fulfilment of God's eternal purposes expressed in creation.
Exodus reminds us this Lent that to be human is to be created for life but to live in a world where injustice and cruelty pervert God's purposes. How should we then live? As people who refuse to be coerced by the world's misuse of power into oppressing others and who actively seek to bring life and healing to those who suffer. Over the next two weeks we will hear again the story of our salvation and we will rejoice in our future hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. But we are human beings who live in God's world and God has good purposes for that world which involve us. So long as there is oppression, so long as rivers are polluted and bring death not life, we have God-given responsibilities. To be human is to be created to promote the well-being of God's wonderful world.