To offer some background of our passage today, the Israelites have lived in Egypt for 430 years. Over those centuries the population of Israel swelled to the point that the pharaohs, Egypt’s rulers, began to fear that one day they would overtake the Egyptians. So, Egypt enslaved the Israelites, by the time of Moses, “they were powerless,” and being crushed under heavier and heavier forced labor (Dr. Kace Leetch, https://clergystuff.com/daily-devotions/the-exodus-from-rameses-to-succoth).
Israel cried out for freedom. God heard their cries and sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go; but Pharaoh refused. So, as the story goes in Exodus, God sent 10 plagues upon the Egyptians. After suffering through the first 9, still Pharaoh refused to free Israel. A 10th plague was sent, when in the night God passed over Egyptian homes, killing every first born, both persons and animals, from prisoners to the Pharaoh’s own son who sat on the throne. Every Egyptian home experienced death that night and their cries filled the air. And at last, Pharaoh begs Moses to leave and take every last Israelite with him.
The Israelites were in the dark. They did not know they would be leaving Egypt that very day nor that they would have little warning and have to leave in such a hurry. Doing as Moses and Aaron instructed, the Israelites gathered their families and flocks; they gathered their bread bowls and dough, which had no time to rise, and wrapped them in their coats and secured them on their shoulders. As to where they were going and how long it would take to get there, they were also in the dark. As the Israelites left their homes, their Egyptian friends and neighbors gave them gold and silver to help sustain them on their journey. So, all of Israel left that day. Slaves one day, free the next. Life as they knew it had ended, something new had begun.
If the Israelites would have known in advance, I wonder how they would have prepared for their journey? Would they have made sure they had already-raised bread dough ready, instead of unleavened? Would they have filled large packs with food, family heirlooms, their favorite books? And if they knew they would be wandering in the wilderness for the next 40 years, would they have tried to pile all their possessions onto their backs and donkey carts and tried to take it with them?
Back on a particular day in March, life as we knew it ended in some ways. One day we were carrying out our routines – going to work, to school, running errands, going out for dinner, having play dates, planning vacations. The next day we were in lock-down, quarantining, sheltering in place, along with much of the world, while COVID-19 flourished around us. Even though the news kept us informed and we watched and listened as the virus spread, as country after country closed its borders, as the virus got closer and closer to home, and we found ourselves stocking up on toilet paper and food, still, in many ways we were in the dark – caught off guard by that sudden shut down. We could not have known all it would mean for our lives.
Had you known that overnight your life would halt or be drastically redirected, what would you have done differently to prepare? If you had known you’d be physically cut-off from loved ones for an indefinite time, how might you have lived differently up until then? How might your priorities have shifted? The Israelites left with little more than the bread dough on their backs because they had to act fast. If you knew back in March, what you know now, what would you have put in your pack for the unknown journey ahead?
This scenario about being in the dark and life changing in an instant recalls a family story from my past. My family’s first home was a big old farmhouse on our family fruit farm. When my 3 siblings and I were quite young (ages 3-8), in the middle of a November night, while my family slept upstairs, a fire started to rage below us downstairs. By the time the smoke woke us up the fire had spread too much for us to escape by going down the stairs. So, my parents rushed us to my brother’s bedroom in the front of the house. My Mom broke the big picture window that had been painted shut, and my parents quickly helped us kids onto the snowy roof. Mom huddled us 4 kids under blankets from my brother’s bed, while Dad climbed down the front porch poles and ran to the barn for a ladder. My parents helped us kids down the ladder, we all raced to the car and drove to my aunt and uncle’s house a couple of miles away. We left our home with only the pajamas we were wearing and a few blankets. There was no time to even think about taking anything with us.
When the Israelites had to flee Egypt with little warning, God knew that the bread dough they were instructed to carry out with them was enough for the start. Israel could not imagine how it would be enough, however, and they struggled to trust God with their day to day as they wandered in the wilderness. But God had in mind manna– bread from heaven that showed up like dew every morning. Knowing that Israel would cry out in fear and discomfort as days in the desert became weeks, knowing they would forget the hell of slavery and beg to go back to Egypt where, though enslaved, they at least had meat to eat, God had in mind to send quail to satisfy them. And when Israel cried out in thirst in the desert, God had in mind for Moses to bring forth water from a rock to quench their parched mouths. That day they left Egypt, God knew what Israel was did not yet realize – that they did not need to pack much for their journey, for God would take care of them and show them the way forward one day at a time, leading them in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. In a two-steps-forward-one-step back fashion, Israel grew in faith as time after time God kept God’s promise to provide and remain near them, always.
My family would lose everything in our house fire. Moments after we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s home that morning, while it was still dark, neighbors from all around began arriving. They came with tears of relief to find us unharmed; they brought their hugs and bags and bags of clothing and food. My church-grade school quickly organized a food drive for us. Like those Egyptian neighbors who showered the Israelites with silver and gold to help them on their way, our community sustained us until we could get back on our feet.
As I grew older, what I came to know about the night of that fire was that my Mom and Dad took with them the only thing that mattered – us kids. And that while my Dad ran for a rescue ladder, my Mom covered us kids with more than blankets on that snowy roof – she covered us in prayer as she cried out to God for our care and for a light to guide us in the darkness.
The year 2020 – with the pandemic and all the lives lost and affected by it, our local and global politics, record breaking numbers of natural disasters – has left many us feeling like we’re in the dark…a lot! We can’t be sure what will come next, what may come to an end, and when. Perhaps we are learning how fragile life is, how finite our situations and time here on earth are, and how truly precious is any love we give and receive. Given these and other truths we’ve discovered or rediscovered this year, how are we living differently today? What do we put in our backpacks for our daily living?
For some of us packing is the hardest part of travel as we belabor every choice. On some trips I’ve carried a huge backpack, filled so full I could barely lift it, let alone put it on my back without help. Trying to shoulder its weight and make it fit on public transportation interfered with my ability to be present and enjoy wherever I was. And, it was not uncommon to get home to discover I had only used half of what was in there; the rest was unnecessary burden.
What’s in the pack you are shouldering today? Is it so full you can hardly move or do little else but manage its size and weight? I wonder if God’s invitation to us today is to travel lightly. Maybe, instead of thinking we have to be prepared for everything, we take only a nylon string pack and put in the essentials: our faith in God our rock and our salvation; photos or names of those we love, those who have been God’s saints for us, helping us on our journey; kindness – we can all use kindness; a bible or passages of scripture to remind us of God’s promises. A passage I will put in my nylon string pack is Jesus promise is the gospel of Matthew: “Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Jesus also says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – lighter than a nylon string backpack.
Our passage from Exodus ends with God keeping vigil over God’s beloved children, keeping watch over them that night as they fled Egypt for freedom, and God gives a decree for all generations to recall that first Passover, and to bake and eat unleavened bread in remembrance, and to continue to keep watch for God’s light to break into the dark. This is our hope too, this is what we watch and wait for in Advent – for that glorious Light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness does not overcome. Thanks be to God.