Friday, April 6, 2012

Arab Springs - Exodus 15:1-21

In December of 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a small fruit vender, borrowed about $200 (US) to buy fruit to sell in a hand cart.  City officials harassed and beat him for not having a vending permit.  Finally, when he refused to pay a bribe, they confiscated his equipment and dumped his fruit into the street.  After the local governor refused to hear his complaint, Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of corruption and oppression in Tunisia.
28 days later, after non-stop protests, Tunisia’s President Zine Ben Ali, stepped down after 23 years in power.  
9 days after that, protests began in Egypt.  It only took 18 days to dethrone Hosni Mubarek after 29 years in power.
By the time Mubarek left, protests had already begun in Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.  Within a few months the protests spread to nearly every country in the Middle East and Northern Africa. 
Together, people around the region stood up to demand their dignity and basic human rights.  Together people called for an end to corruption, abuse of power, rigged votes, and - a new word for me - kleptocracy, which means “rule by thieves.”  I remember an interview of a woman in Lybia.  The reporter was asking her if she thought the Lybian rebells would be successful.  She was adamant that they would be.  She kept saying things like, “Ghadaffi has to go,” and “This is the end of all of that.”
The Arab Spring was a tidal wave of hope and urgency that swept through nation after nation where people longed to be free.  Although, it is still underway in places like Syria and Jordan, we can see clearly that the Arab Spring has reshaped our geopolitical landscape.  They defeated their enemies by joining together in protest.  A frustrated fruit vender has toppled a tyrant and changed our world.
But this was not the first Arab Spring. 
Thousands of years earlier, a shepherd returned to Africa after several decades of wandering in the wilds of Arabia.  He was drawn back to Egypt by his people’s suffering and pushed into involvement through an encounter with God.  His people were slaves, who had forgotten what freedom felt like.  His first task was to convince his own people that freedom was worth the struggle.  Next, they petitioned the king for some marginal freedoms.  After that original protest was crushed, the people almost gave up the whole struggle.
But God wouldn’t let them give up.  God wanted them free.  So God sent Moses to Pharaoh again and again and again.  Finally, after ten plagues, between fall and spring, God set Israel free.  
As the people of Israel marched into freedom, Pharaoh changed his mind again.  Pharaoh and Egypt’s army chased Israel to regain their slaves.  God split the Red Sea and Israel crossed on dry ground.  The Egyptians were so blinded by their greed and lust for revenge that they charged into the seabed after Israel.  The walls of water crashed in around them, killing their king, their generals, and every soldier in the battle.  
Israel emerged on the other side of the Red Sea, dry and free.  That started one of the largest parties of all time - with unrestrained singing and dancing in praise of the God who had defeated their enemies and set them free.  God defeated their enemies by giving them the strength to stand and to stay standing while God set them free.  A stuttering shepherd sank a Pharaoh.  This was the first Arab Spring.
The second Arab Spring was more than a thousand years later, with another oppressed class of people.  A nation of Middle Eastern tribesmen had lost their battles with the larger European colonists.  But no one had to convince this group of the value of being free.  They carried a living cultural memory of freedom and burning passion to throw off the yoke of their oppressors.  Sometimes, this fiery longing erupted into outright war.  Other times, it came in short bursts of terrorism or assassinations.  But always the longings for freedom and vengeance were there, seething just below the surface in every soul.  Deep within them was a Divine calling to be free and a Divine promise that they would in fact be totally free - one day.
A peasant laborer arranged a marriage with a girl barely into her teen years.  As they had one baby after another, the father trained his boys in the family trade.  Their hands were calloused by the age of 5.  They learned to use the family tools as they learned to walk and talk.  
The oldest boy surprised them all by becoming a teacher - a religious teacher.  Then, he started drawing huge crowds of people.  They came to hear his unique take on God’s promises for the people, and they came because this simple, peasant preacher healed people body and soul.  He started calling forward the old promises - giving them new life.  Hope began to spring up in all the dried up cracks where hope had long ago died.  People began to think freedom was actually possible.  
Yet, this peasant faith-healer was quite controversial.  He wasn’t just calling forward the old promises.  He was reshaping them.  He was stripping them of much of their traditional interpretations.  He was calling into question the deep longing for vengeance which lived in his people’s hearts.  He was pointing out the faults of the people, low and high.  He was proclaiming love and grace for all people, low and high.  
He preached the Divine promises more persuasively than anyone in history, but he pulled forward and maintained the underside of the Divine promises that most people wanted to ignore.  He talked about freedom through bondage, victory through suffering, life through death, wealth through poverty, and love for enemies. 
Quite simply, he confused people.  The rebels were frustrated that he wasn’t calling people to arms.  The leaders were frustrated that he was stirring discontent.  And eventually, the masses of people became frustrated that he wasn’t giving them the kind of freedom they wanted.
Finally, they killed Jesus, the peasant preacher who proclaimed a new kind of freedom based in God’s love and grace.  They rejected his message of nonviolent reform.  They rejected his message of social transformation through humble love.  They rejected his message of forgiveness and transformation through God’s grace.  So finally, they killed Jesus.
But even that wasn’t final.  Jesus died, but his death wasn’t final.  Jesus’ death was the beginning of the end for death.  Jesus’ death was the first nail in death’s coffin.  God raised Jesus from the dead and started a Jewish Spring that turned into an Arab Spring that turned into a Global Spring.
Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem were completely rejuvenated by Jesus’ resurrection.  Instead of disappearing and fading away after his death - as most people predicted - they exploded back onto the scene with more power and love than ever.  They were like garden weeds.  Mow them down, cut them in half, and they simply spread the seeds of their faith farther and wider.  They defeated their enemies by giving their lives in love.  Within a few decades, people from Spain to India were following Jesus - the peasant preacher - and learning to change the world with God’s humble love.  
So where does that leave us now?  We in the midst of a 2,000 year long Spring.  Jesus is leading a global revolt against humanity’s worst enemies.  Jesus is calling all the world to stand up for our human dignity.  Jesus is empowering all who choose to follow him to throw off the yoke of our oppression.
But that raises a new question.  Who are our enemies now?  
We are uncomfortable with the concept of enemies.  When we read Exodus 15 and it’s language of the triumph of God over his enemies, we kind of squirm in our seats.  Will God really crush our enemies?  Should we pray that God will drown our enemies in the closest available sea?
This week I was listening to a TED Talk - a speech - by T. Boone Pickens, a famous American oil billionaire.  He was talking about our need to develop alternative energy sources - like wind and natural gas - which I support.  But he said something that kind of turned my stomach.  He said basically, “I’m for anything American.  We need to stop buying oil from the enemy.”  I know that he was talking about how purchasing oil from the Middle East can sometimes indirectly fund terrorists.  But what really concerns me is his understanding of the word “enemy.”  Are all Arabs or Muslims our enemies?
Who or what are our real enemies?  Are allies and enemies divided along regional, cultural, national, economic, or religious lines?
Jesus radically redefined the concept of “enemy.”  Jesus said, “You have heard that the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:43-44).  When Jesus had nails in his hands and feet and thorns stabbing his skull, he looked out at the men who put him on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
For Jesus, there is no longer the category of “enemy.”  For Jesus, there are only people who need forgiveness and love because “they don’t know what they are doing.”  For Jesus and Jesus’ followers, we no longer have true enemies.  Now, we only have brothers and sisters who have forgotten who they are and who we are.
Yet, the Bible is full of battle imagery.   God is a warring God.  After walking through the Red Sea and seeing the waters swallow their enemies, Israel shouted bluntly, “The LORD is a warrior!” (Exodus 15:3).  But it’s not just the Old Testament.  In Revelation, we see the final judgment with Jesus riding through the earth on a huge white horse with fire flashing from his eyes and a sword that strikes down his enemies (Revelation 19:11-21).  Paul raises battle imagery again and again - calling people to “put on the full armor of God” so that we can fight the battle (Ephesians 6:11).  Our God is a warrior, and we are in his army.  Whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of a great global battle, a massive revolution lasting for millennia.  
So who or what are our enemies?  What oppresses us?  What are we fighting against, and what is fighting against us?  What is the common denominator for a tribesman in Zaire, an English teacher in Korea, and a stock trader in London?  What kind of oppression face both the Syrian rebels and Assad, the Syrian King?  What enemies do all of these people have?
Paul says, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).  Our enemies are not people, but the forces that oppress and attack all people everywhere.
I love the Isaiah 25 passage we read today. It is in full military mode declaring what “the LORD of Heaven’s Armies” will do to our enemies:
There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.  He will swallow up death forever!  The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears.  He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his people (25:7-8).
What are our enemies?  Gloom, shadow, death, tears, insult, mockery.  Or if you stretch it out a little, our enemies are: fear, shame, selfishness, hopelessness, despair, suffering, guilt, and sin.  
These are the enemies Jesus confronts.  These are the enemies with which we do battle everyday.  These are the enemies that wreak havoc in our world.  Assad and the Syrian rebels are both attacked by the same enemies: sin, fear, suffering, death.  Moms and pastors and students both take up arms in the same struggle against shame and selfishness.  
But here is the Good News.  This is the supremely Good News of Easter.  Jesus has won this war.  Jesus was raised from the dead.  Jesus has defeated death.  Jesus took the death penalty we deserve for our sin and defeated both sin and guilt.  Jesus proved eternally that God’s love for us is unstoppable, defeating all our fear and shame.  Paul quotes our Isaiah passage and Hosea as he explains what this means for us: 
“Death is swallowed up in victory!  O Death, where is your victory?  O Death, where is your sting?” ... But thank God!  He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ  (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
When we trust in Christ, we are caught up in his wake as he surges to victory.  ‘This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men’” (Ephesians 4:8).  We are caught up in Christ’s flow toward life, and we experience his new life and freedom over sin and death and fear.
Now, Jesus invites us to stand in our world as Christians like the protestors in the Arab Spring.  We claim our dignity as free children of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.  We have no enemies except sin and death and fear.  We wage war in the method of Christ:
  • with fearless love
  • with kindness that melts the hearts of those who hurt us
  • with forgiveness that reconciles enemies and transforms them into friends
  • with passionate service that unites the world in God’s mission of healing and wholeness.
As happy and gentle as Easter celebrations typically are, Easter is a story of a great battle, in fact, The Great Battle, between good and evil, between life and death, between God and all the forces that oppose him.  The message of Easter is simple.  Good wins.  Life wins.  God wins.  Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Great Battle of our world has been won.  Jesus has brought the victory to all who trust and follow him.
So how can we participate in Jesus’ victory today?  In the midst of our struggle, in the midst of our conflicted lives, how can Christ the Victor be more present in us today?
Three words from our text show us the way forward.
  1. Trust.  “This is our God!  We trusted him, and he saved us” (Isaiah 25:9). This is our fundamental response to God.  Sure we have doubts, questions, and failures.  We are in the middle of a warring world, but our God is a mighty warrior.  Our God has won the Final Battle, and we are on his side.  Put your trust in Christ.
  2. Rejoice.  Isaiah 25 is a beautiful and typical description of heaven: “In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world” (25:6).  Celebration is a foretaste of heaven.  Our potluck feast today, our joyful music, our celebrations and thanksgivings - are all foretastes of heaven.  These are all ways that we “rejoice in the salvation he brings” (Isaiah 25:9).
  3. Follow.  “With your unfailing love, you lead the people you have redeemed.  In your might, you guide them to your sacred home” (Exodus 15:13).  Praying and singing and feasting are all important, but in the end, Jesus’ revolution of life and love is about following him to freedom.  Only in following him can we truly become free.  He is guiding us home.  Our job is to follow as he guides.
A fruit vender in Tunisia turned his government upside down and started the Arab Spring.  
A reluctant shepherd in Egypt set Israel free by letting God use him beyond his wildest imagination.
God entered our world as an oppressed peasant laborer and died on a cross while his movement of reform was just getting started.  But when Jesus rose from the dead, his new life blossomed outward like dandelions taking over the world.  
Now, we stand on the same battlefield.  We are lowly teachers, students, moms, and workers.  What can God do with us?  What can the God who raised Jesus from the dead do with us?  What can the God who set Israel free from Egypt do with us?  What can the God who is always reforming our world do with us?  
If we will trust, rejoice, and follow, God can change the world with us.
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