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Sermons

Staying Too Long in Egypt

August 15, 2004

Bible Reading

Now when the Lord spoke to Moses in Egypt, he said to him, "I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you."

But Moses said to the Lord, "Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?"

Then the Lord said to Moses, "See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it."

Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them. Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

(Exodus 6:28-7:6)

Reading from Swedenborg

In the inner meaning, Exodus chapter 7 deals with the first three stages of devastation.

The first stage, when utter illusions giving rise to falsities begin to reign among them, is described by the serpent into which Aaron's rod was turned.

The second stage, when actual truths among them were made into falsities, and falsities into truths, is described by the blood that the waters were turned into.

The third stage, when from falsities they reasoned against the Church's true teachings and its varieties of goodness, is described by the frogs coming out of the river. (Arcana Coelestia #7265)

Sermon

Our sojourn in Egypt is initially a good thing. Egypt is the place of learning, of getting a grip on the material plane, of mastering skills, of developing a foundation for our career. We would have sorry lives if we could not or did not use our brains to collect information and use our minds to understand it. Knowledge becomes ours for putting to good use--the use of loving the Lord and the neighbor, of taking care of our world and of ourselves. But if we stay too long in Egypt, we run a risk: instead of possessing an understanding of the material world, we can become possessed by it.

This is the situation we face when we "just don't have the time" to remember God and heaven; when we get so caught up in the daily-ness of life's demands that we begin to think life really is about career paths, 401K plans, bigger houses, nicer furniture, and smarter over-achieving children. We begin to believe it when Madison Avenue tells us that to be happy, safe, fulfilled, or loved we just need to buy this or buy that, have this or have that, do this or do that. And the truly good things about life, the God that really protects and fulfills us, the God that gives us life, gets tucked away into some forgotten place inside. We end up living, not for heavenly truth, but for material truth--which, by itself, is not true at all.

The family of Israel left Canaan and came to Egypt to escape a famine. Egypt had created a storehouse of physical and spiritual nourishment that fed both its own people and others. Joseph, one of the twelve brothers, became the most powerful person other than Pharaoh in the land. Joseph's priorities were straight; he kept faith in the Lord, and the Lord was with him.

But many years later, after much productivity, we get the impression that the family of Israel, now the tribe of Israel, may have stayed too long in Egypt. Where they had once been blessed, now they were oppressed. Where they once had been in command, now they were slaves. They had forgotten to return to Canaan, which represents a heavenly state--the place of communion with the Lord. Remaining where they were cost them their newborn sons; it cost them the truth.

God cannot leave the church in this condition unaided. That's where Moses comes in. Moses was one of the boy babies who should have been disposed of under Pharaoh's genocidal order. But his mother hid him in a basket. Pharaoh's own daughter found him and adopted him, giving him back to his birth mother to feed him. He was educated at the court, and was not enslaved.

Moses gained knowledge, but his was spiritual, not material knowledge. Even so, he was not crazy about his assignment: to go to Pharaoh and tell him, "Let my people go." Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to tell him that the long-forgotten God of the Israelites wanted to be remembered and worshipped, wanted to keep the covenant made with Israel, and wanted it to be understood that this is a mighty God.

Interviews with Pharaoh, generally speaking, did not go well. Ten plagues followed. One key to understanding Bible stories is to know that, even if it says "God was angry" or "God smote them with plagues," God does not have temper tantrums and smite anyone. God does, however, allow us to see what a mess we have made of our own lives. This story is thick with meaning. It is multidimensional. I'd like to explore some of those dimensions.

Swedenborg tells us that this is the story that explains why God decided take on human form. In its inner meaning, it tells about a spiritual world gone out of balance. It describes the death of a church. Those who loved evil and falsity were in power, and those who loved God were cowering in corners. The operative question became, from God's perspective, "Just how bad do things have to get before I have to show up there in person?"

Let's review the story:

1. Moses says (on Jehovah's behalf), "Let my people go. Here is what a mighty God I am." Aaron raises his staff, and the Nile River turns to blood. By this the rulers see that they have used lies to make the holy things of the Lord profane. The court magicians go so far as to replicate this miracle, showing how easily we misuse divine power for material ends, perpetrating the illusion that materialism is not only enough, but powerful. Pharaoh is unimpressed with this gruesome revelation, and walks away.

2. Moses says, "Let my people go, or else." Aaron raises his staff and frogs come out of the river and cover the land, "even onto Pharaoh's bed." The frogs show that the Egyptians based their reasoning on the lies they told themselves. Well, the court magicians also call up frogs, substituting appearance for reality. Pharaoh shows the first sign of weariness by asking Moses to remove the frogs. He does, and the dead frogs begin to rot, showing that faulty reasoning stinks. Despite his promise that the people could go worship their God, as soon as Pharaoh no longer has to confront the evidence of his faulty reasoning, he reneges.

3. Moses does not go to Pharaoh to say "Let my people go," but immediately they get a plague of lice, which represents external evils. The magicians cannot replicate this trick. "Science" has failed to keep up the game, and the magicians warn Pharaoh that God has something to do with this. But Pharaoh is into his control issues and knows what he knows. He just wants to keep things normal here.

4. Moses says "Let my people go, or else--but this plague will not affect the Israelites living in Egypt." Here we see the first signs of protection and separation of the good from the evil. The land is filled with flying insects that bite every animal and person, indoors and outdoors. These are lies based on evil, and they're mean. They corrupt the natural mind, but will not be able to harm the people of the true church. At this point Pharaoh begins to negotiate. He says, "worship your God here." But "here" is a land of corruption. Moses says no. Pharaoh says, "Okay you can go, but not too far, and make the flies go away." Of course, as soon as the knowledge of his mean lies was taken away, Pharaoh changes his mind again.

You get the idea. Moses demands, Aaron demonstrates, and Pharaoh may even say "Go ahead and go," but he doesn't mean it. There are variations on the theme. Sometimes the conversations are longer, sometimes they are shorter. Sometimes the court officials switch sides. Surprisingly, Pharaoh confesses his sins and begs for intercessory prayers. Eventually, he begs for forgiveness, but still doesn't have a true change of heart. One downward step leads to another, until those in this dying church who have no affection for charity have assigned themselves to hell. The continuation of belief is dependent upon a remnant of faithful people who are oppressed by this madness. The foundation of this story is a disordered condition: evil and falsity are in a ruling position over the people of good and truth.

At that time, the state of the spiritual world was in disarray. And as goes the spiritual world, so goes the physical world. Religion, good and truth, lovingkindness, and genuine worship had been supplanted by self-serving greed, image, power, and position. How bad did it have to get before God had to show up here in person? Really bad. The story of the ten plagues contains that tale.

You may say: That happened thousands of years ago. It's interesting, but what does it have to do with us?

Bible stories are multidimensional, and are applicable on many levels. We, too, are at risk of staying too long in Egypt.

The same downward spiral remains available to us today, both as a church and as individuals. Remember, the Lord does not send us plagues (although it seems that way sometimes), but helpfully displays to us our faults: the things we have mistakenly or selfishly substituted for good and truth. When Aaron raises his staff, he does not kill the livestock, but demonstrates that "the Egyptians," meaning any of us who treasure the world more than we do God, have killed off the usefulness of our hearts. There we are, minding our own business, when some Moses or Aaron strolls into our lives and shows us the ugly underbelly of our beliefs.

Initially, we might say, "No big deal. It is not what it appears to be." We tell ourselves lies to make the world appear to make sense without God. Just as the magicians also turned the water into blood and conjured frogs from the river, when God is trying to get our attention we might be tempted to say "That is my doing." Our personalities insist that a "movement of power," even a miraculous one, is a personal possession, not the working of the Divine. This twists the incoming message--the message that is an invitation to reorder our priorities. We become stupid, like the people in hell.

I don't know anyone who believes he or she is a bad or selfish person. But we all have our moments. When someone we don't like needs our time, can we avoid being available? When someone we don't trust needs a loan, can we avoid being generous? When someone who doesn't quite fit in wants to join our group, can we manage to squeeze them out? When someone who gives us the creeps needs a hug, can we suddenly become uncuddly? When someone who hurt us badly needs our forgiveness, can we manage to hold a grudge?

Whether as a society, as a church, or as individuals, we live in a world that would willingly substitute materiality for spirituality, and self for other. Swedenborg warns us repeatedly that doing good for others in order to appear to obey the law, to gain admiration from others, or to earn brownies points for admission to heaven is not goodness, no matter how good it looks.

When the plagues get enough of our attention to get us to take a look, what we see isn't pretty. Where we thought we had a free-flowing river of truth, we see the gory streams of falsity. Where we thought we had fruitful and productive fields of thought, a swarm of locusts has darkened our minds. Where we thought we could stand tall in our success of operating the world, and even our church, we discover ourselves covered with the boils of evil desires. Of course it is tempting to rationalize, to deny, to change the subject, to walk away, to dig in our heels! Certainly that ugly thing cannot be part of me! We either deny its ugliness or deny that it has anything to do with us in order to keep our self-esteem intact. Sometimes, keeping our self-esteem intact is the wrong thing to do. God is ready to help us set our spiritual nature free from its captivity.

This brings us to the good news part of this story. I'd like to take one more look at the tale of the plagues and take hold of the silver lining. Because this is not just a story of devastation and hypocrisy. It is also a story of perseverance and liberation in the face of overwhelming odds because of God's hand on the lives of the faithful. There is hope even for those who have stayed too long in Egypt.

Read the story! At every turn, it begins with "Jehovah said." The voice of God is always available. If we're in doubt and need proof, power will be demonstrated, as when Aaron's staff becomes a snake. In the face of illusions, Moses speaks to us--the inflow of God's presence. The Lord knows we are likely to be disoriented. Repeatedly and patiently, God allows us to see just how we have gone wrong. It will be uncomfortable and disheartening, and we may be tempted to go into denial, to justify what we think we know, to avoid upsetting our apple cart.

During those times when we don't like what we see of our faults, we, like Pharaoh, are likely to cry out for relief. To whom do we cry? Early on, Moses says to Pharaoh, "have honor over me" (Exodus 8:9). That is an inner voice that says, "Trust God!"

Over and over we may resolve to follow God, only to return to our materialistic ways--the familiar, the "normal," the accepted, the popular. Eventually, our ability to use the ruses of science for rationalization will fail, as when the magicians failed to replicate Aaron's miracles. Pharaoh is not consistently unconvinced; sometimes he does get the picture. Our view of our failings becomes sharper--but so does our personal pain and risk of shame. Sharper, too, is the turn we need to take for a course correction.

So let us learn from Pharaoh's mistakes. Now, in the era of the New Church, there is no need to get sucked down into the vortex of increasing error. The Bible is a guidebook, and we can use the warnings we read there in two ways. One is to forgive ourselves when we find we are making the very mistakes the Bible warns us about. The other is to use it to recognize those mistakes early on and say, "I think I've stayed too long in Egypt! It's time to set this person free."

Prayer

O God of clear vision and of justice, you have given us a guidebook with clear instructions on how to move forward toward the spiritual life and freedom that you built into our design. But it is so much easier just to stay where we are--even when we become enslaved to habits that were at first exciting and pleasant, but now bind us with thick cords that we are too weak to break. Oh, we have many rationalizations and excuses. How dare you display them for the miserable things they are! Yet we thank you for caring more about who we can become than what we lazily settle for. Keep showing us the ugliness that needs to be rooted out, so that we can become free, and find the land of true beauty. Amen.

Eli Dale