The Fourth Sunday in Lent
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who
for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished,
by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s been said that Egypt was old when time began. While we tell our national story in decades, and Europe tells its story in centuries, Egypt’s story stretches back millennia. Historians and scientists continue to work alongside archaeologists investigating the remains of this great civilization. The Old Kingdom is often dated around 3000 BC and the building of the pyramids around 2500BC. So we’re talking about a civilization that flourished 5000 years ago! Another way to think about it might be to consider that the Lord brought Abraham to Canaan around 2000BC. That means that the pyramids were already 1500 years old when Abraham came down from Canaan during the famine and Jacob and his 70 relocated to Egypt at the end of Genesis. Truly astonishing!
But there is much here that we just don’t understand. There are no dates attached and there are few names. We don’t know who was the Pharaoh when Joseph saved the day in Genesis and we don’t know who the new Pharaoh was that didn’t know Joseph. We don’t know where the city of Pithom was, though we do know about Pi-Ramses. We aren’t quite sure how long the Hebrews were in Egypt before they were enslaved or how long they remained slaves before the Lord sent Moses to bring them out and return to Canaan. Some scholars prefer an early date for the Exodus in the time of Thutmose III in the 15c BC. Some prefer a later date during the reign of Ramses II in the 12c BC. Some have even proposed that the best way to explain the Pharaoh not knowing about Joseph and the now great and powerful Hebrew nation living within his borders is that the Pharaoh was not Egyptian at all, but a Hyksos ruler that had successfully captured Lower Egypt.
All these are fascinating questions, but the point of these opening verses is to set the stage for the great drama that will not only bring the nation of Israel into being, but will be the fundamental image of God’s saving relationship to his people and the world. The God who makes the whole world from nothing is the same God that can bring his people out of the nothingness of slavery. They are brought out of death to life. They are resurrected, they are adopted as children and they are commissioned for ministry. When they go into exile in Babylon in the 6cBC the prophets will remind them that the same God who brought their forefathers out of Egypt is powerful enough to redeem them from Babylon. When Jesus begins his ministry he sits upon the mountain and delivers his new law in the Sermon on the Mount and he feeds the 5,000 in the wilderness. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he reminds those newly converted Gentiles that it was their forefathers that had crossed the Red Sea and had followed the pillar of cloud and fire thru the wilderness. When John writes his Apocalypse at the end of the New Testament it is the plagues so reminiscent of Egypt’s suffering that break out as the seals are broken on the scroll of God’s redemptive plan. The Church, the new Israel, is described as coming out of the time of great persecution as the final exodus.
Little boys like to brag about their dads. I used to brag about the fact that my dad knew more languages than most of my friends’ dads did. And since we were all Christians it pulled even bigger weight that my dad could speak Hebrew. That was cool. We imagined him hanging out talking to Moses or Abraham. But I always lost the bragging rights to the kid whose dad had served in Vietnam. His dad was a medic in the Marines which meant that he was in combat but didn’t get to carry a gun. We all agreed that this was disappointing. It would have been cooler if he had driven a tank or had flown a fighter plane. But we all agreed that being a Marine medic in Vietnam was cooler than knowing Hebrew. His dad was cooler than mine.
The author of the letter has been making an argument from the very beginning of the letter based around this fundamental claim, ‘Jesus is better than…’ Jesus is better than angels. Jesus is better than Moses and Moses’ law. Jesus is better than the line of priests that come from Aaron. Jesus is better than the sacrifices that they offer. Now we find in this chapter that Jesus is better than the tabernacle Moses built and the covenant that he made for his people is better than the one that God made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.
So, first, Jesus is better than the tabernacle built by Moses. God showed Moses a vision of the temple in heaven while he was on the mountain surrounded by God’s glory. Moses was careful to build the tabernacle to look just like the one that God showed him. At this point we too quickly jump to a dualism that comes to us from the great Greek philosopher Plato. He, following others before him, proposed that the material world was simply a shadowy representation of the real world ‘in heaven’. The world of form or idea was eternal and unchanging. This world that we inhabit is constantly changing, being born, aging, dying, and being reborn. The spiritual or heavenly world was greater while the material world was lesser, and to some, a sad mistake that must be endured and escaped.
But that isn’t what our author is saying at all. The tabernacle, and later the temple in Jerusalem, participated in that heavenly perfection. God had designed it, revealed it and commanded it. In the mind of a devout Jew the partition between ‘heaven’ (God’s realm) and ‘earth’ (the human realm) was porous in the tabernacle. Indeed, the holy of holies was part of God’s throne room. So, instead of reading this in the platonic terms of spirit/heaven ‘good’, matter/earth ‘bad’, this should be read in terms of the fulfillment of the tabernacle/temple in Jesus. And this is the conclusion of the chapter quoting the great promise in the book of the prophet Jeremiah 31. God had made a covenant with Israel thru Moses. He had given them his law and made him his people. It was thru them that he would save the world. But the law could never give life. It could only guide and condemn. And it separated the Jew from the Gentile. But Jeremiah says that there would come a time when God would make a new covenant with his people. And this time, he would write his law upon his people’s hearts. And when he did that he would forgive their sins forever. And he has made this new covenant thru the blood of Jesus.