“Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” So says God to Joshua in our First Reading. The Book of Joshua picks up the story of Israel after Moses’ death. Moses’ death marks the end of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Popular images of the Exodus are of oppressed slaves being gloriously freed, but the books of Exodus and Numbers depict the Israelites as whiny, miserable jerks who keep wanting to go back to Egypt and who disagree with Moses’ leadership but have no constructive ideas to offer. The people aren’t walking around the wilderness mad at Egypt for making them slaves; they want to go back! And they don’t want to go back because after years in the desert they’ve come up with some really good insults to hurl; they want to go back and be slaves again. They want God to be far away and life to be explained by overseers who could dictate their lives to them. The disgrace of Egypt seems to be how much the Israelites liked it. The disgrace was that they needed Egypt. The disgrace was that they wanted to turn away from God and go back.
Sin is a sick and twisted mess.
Any more we have such a hard time even talking about sin that I was reluctant to bring it up. It is not that we’ve simply decided we don’t sin, but rather that so many attempts to explain it clearly fall short. In the early centuries of the Church, theologians distinguished between Actual Sin (bad stuff you do) and Original Sin (a state of being). When some would try to say, “I don’t need God because I haven’t done anything wrong,” the Church could reply, “You’re born with original sin which makes you not trust or believe in God and want to commit actual sins.” Typical of humans always finding creative ways to miss the point, we attached this Original Sin to genetics—it was transmitted at conception. Great, now sex is bad. Thanks a lot, Church.
So in the Reformation, new theories arose. You can probably identify with one of the following. Some define sin legalistically: it is a violation of the divine moral law. Others define sin subjectively: you know in your heart if what you did was wrong. Some define sin in terms of the will: sin is willful wrongdoing. Still others define sin as particular physical states and actions. Each of these is appealing in its way but fails to explain things. I’m not sure we’ve actually surpassed the statement of Philip Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession: We are born without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with desires and motivations similar to those of the animals, which feel base to us. This original sin bears bitter fruit, such as freed slaves desperate to return to Egypt. Or lead pipes.
If you want to see the sick and twisted mess Sin can be, look at lead pipes for drinking water. It is not just an issue in Flint, MI, though that is still a thing, by the way. It didn’t go away with the Oscars and Super Tuesday. Lead goes in a lot of things. It’s abundant—it’s everywhere and available. It is easy to smelt—the apparatus required is simple and cheap. It is soft and easy to shape. People have used lead in pipes, paints, weights, and building materials for millennia. In the first two decades of the 1900s we began confirming that lead could be dangerous—it caused terrible nervous reactions and was especially harmful to children. But we kept using it widely into the 1940s. When studies in the 1950s indicated childhood lead exposure and its attendant impact on stunted intellectual and emotional development disproportionately affected poor blacks, lead industry PR firms argue that blacks were likelier to be stupid to start out with, and therefore also likelier to expose themselves to lead. I can remember as a child in the early 1980s still having to specify if we wanted our gasoline regular or unleaded. And it is still in pipes all over the world, carrying water to thirsty people, waiting for when more corrosive water will let the lead leach into the system.
Now, we can point to “actual sins” in this broad story or the specific one regarding Flint, and in either case can try to dole out blame. At some point the whole system collectively screwed up. We collectively pretend or choose not to know there is a problem and find excuses not to fix it. I mean, do you, personally, want to shut off the water, pay people to extract all the pipes, pay other people to dispose of them properly, buy more expensive new ones, pay people to install them, deal crippling damage to the lead industry and all those industries that depend on lead as a cheap material, and be forever vigilant in keeping lead out of everything? Or do you want to pour a glass of water and not think about it? Well, now you’ve got some idea of how the Israelite slaves felt. Do you want to take on the powers of the world and trust that God is with you and will feed you and provide you with what you need? Or do you just want to go back home and rest?
Only some kind of rupture can pull God’s people out of this mess. They must die to their past. Indeed, that is what happens in the Wilderness. Everyone who knew slavery in Egypt died, except for Joshua (and Caleb, but he doesn’t get his own book). Only when slavery was not ingrained, only when Egypt was not remembered, only when the past was completely irretrievable could Israel press on. In the Book of Joshua, this has finally come to pass. The book opens with the slavery generation dead. God pulls Joshua aside, and says, “Are you ready? YOU READY FOR THIS!? It’s time.” The angels cue up “Eye of the Tiger,” and God sends Joshua and Israel across the Jordan River. Now, here they are. No one is left who remembers Egypt. Even the Wilderness is on the other side of the river. And God says, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt. It is dead to you. Not one of you knows it or wants it. Egypt has no claim on you. It does not tempt you to waste your future. It does not consume your present. And it has no power over your past.”
So, too, God ruptures our sinfulness with Christ. For in Christ we die. This is one of those parts of our baptismal theology that we sometimes gloss over, one of those places in Luther’s Small Catechism that we often decide not to mention: we die in Christ. Just as Christ is crucified, dead, and buried, so, too, are we. Timothy Andrew—who does not know God and does not trust God and has a lot of creative ideas for disobeying God—has been killed and removed from the vicinity so he cannot cause further disturbance. And just as Christ has risen from the dead, Timothy Andrew Child-of-God rises daily. That’s what Paul’s after when he writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ has ruptured us and swapped places with us—we’re dead and Christ is alive in us. And Christ doesn’t have any time for going back to Egypt.
As we live into our baptism, we find that God rolls away from us the disgrace of Egypt. As we are fed at Christ’s Table and nourished with Christ’s good news, we find sometimes that our creative ideas for ignoring or disobeying God are buried in the past. As we hear the pronouncement of forgiveness of sins, we sometimes find ourselves like the younger son in Jesus’ parable, no longer weighted down by the past but with an open future. As we are surrounded in prayer by Christ’s brothers and sisters, we find ourselves joined to those faithful who yearn for the disgrace of Sin to be rolled away from them.
Who will roll away the disgrace of Flint’s poisoned drinking water? Who will roll away the disgrace of an infrastructure that it turns out could kill you? Who will roll away the next disgrace (because you know there’s going to be one)? As our Lenten pilgrimage passes its halfway point I am reminded of the words we will hear on Easter morning: “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.” And they don’t understand it at first, and neither do the disciples. It takes the better part of the day, and Jesus eating some fish and walking around to prove he’s not a ghost before they realize what has happened. But they get it, and they proclaim what has happened despite all the grief it brings them. God calls them and they answer because God has rolled away their past and opened a future to them in Christ.
God has rolled away the stone from the tomb. God will roll away the disgrace of Flint. God will roll away the next one, too. But listen carefully. For God has rolled away your past. God has rolled away your sins. And God may just pull you aside, and ask you: Are you ready? Are you ready for this? It’s time!