“What have you done for me lately?” In a results based world this phrase indicates that past history doesn’t mean anything. For the aging sports star or the product line of a business, past performance is irrelevant. What matters are the benefits produced now and those that can be expected in the future. Anyone or anything that that doesn’t produce now is expendable. The past doesn’t matter.
In our text tonight, we learn that this is the position in which Israel found herself. That past had been remarkable. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers and taken to Egypt. However, God had cared for Joseph and blessed him. Eventually, God used Joseph to reveal to Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, that seven prosperous years were coming followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh made Joseph second in charge over all of Egypt as he made preparations during the seven good years by storing up grain, and as he then began to sell it during the seven bad years.
Joseph’s family in Canaan was effected by the famine and traveled to Egypt to buy food. As a result, they learned that Joseph was alive, and that he forgave his brothers who had mistreated him. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob and the entire family came to live in Egypt. There Joseph was able to provide for them.
Yahweh had promised Abraham that he would give him the land of Canaan along with numerous descendants. In our text we learn that his grandson Jacob went down to live in Egypt and that the entire family amounted to seventy people. Jacob’s family left the land God had promised to them, and while they were away Yahweh kept his promise about many descendants. We hear in our text: “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
God’s blessing arrived in an unexpected way. Israel didn’t become a nation while in the land of Canaan that God had promised to give them. Instead, they became a numerous people while sojourning in a foreign land – in the land of Egypt. We see here that God gives his blessings in surprising ways. He works to bless us in ways that we don’t expect.
That doesn’t mean everything that happens is what we would consider good. Joseph had been the reason that Egypt had been saved from the famine. Through his plan and administration, Pharaoh’s wealth soared. But we learn in our text: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Time passed and the actions of Joseph were forgotten. When the new Pharaoh looked around, he now saw in Israel a threat and a resource. He said, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Though we can’t be certain, the circumstances of the time may have shaped his view of the Israelites. The eastern Mediterranean was ravaged by a group who are described in the ancient sources as the “Sea People.” They threatened Egypt too. As Pharaoh faced this threat from a foreign people, it may have caused him to look inside his own land and see the Israelites as a potential threat.
The Israelites may have been a threat. However, they were also an opportunity. The Egyptians began using the Israelites as forced labor. Moses tells us, “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.”
Yet something unexpected happened yet again. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more the more they multiplied. The result was that the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So the Egyptians increased the pressure. We hear: “So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. And then they took steps to control the numbers of men who might threaten them. We learn in our text that orders were given to the Israelite midwives that male babies were to be killed. When they didn’t comply, Pharaoh commanded his own people: “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” Male babies were to be drowned in the Nile River. They would not be allowed to grow up as a potential threat to Egypt.
Slavery and death – that’s what we find in our text tonight. In the exodus, Yahweh will rescue Israel from these. The Old Testament refers to this using the word “redeem.” Originally the word “redeem” came from the world of commerce. It meant “to buy a person out of slavery.” Eventually it took on a more general meaning: to free from slavery.
That is what Yahweh does in the exodus. He redeems Israel – he frees her from slavery and death. In time, the New Testament would take up the word “redeem” and apply it to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. St. Paul wrote, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The New Testament teaches us that in Israel’s experience we see a picture of what God has done for us.
Slavery and death – that’s what describes life. It has been that way since the event that we heard about in the Old Testament lesson on Sunday. Adam and Eve rejected God’s ordering of the world. Being the crown of God’s creation wasn’t enough. Being the only creature made in the image of God wasn’t enough. Instead, they wanted to be like God. They rejected the one limitation God had placed upon them as creatures. Adam and Eve were to show that they feared, loved and trusted in God above everything by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Yet instead they tried to be God. They ate. They sinned. And they learned that the wages of sin is death. God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s what we heard last Wednesday. As descendants of Adam and Eve, we are conceived and born as slaves to sin. And that sin always leads to one outcome: death.
Because this is so, God acted in his Son Jesus Christ to redeem us – to free us from this slavery. During Lent we are preparing to remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. We will follow him to the cross because by his death and resurrection he has redeemed us from sin and death – he has freed us.
We are freed because on account of Christ God no longer charges us with our sin. Instead, we are innocent in his eyes. We are freed because death can no longer hold us. Instead, in Christ we already have eternal life. And in the resurrection of Jesus, our resurrection has already started. Sin and death have not ceased – we still fall into sin, and until Christ returns we will die. But through repentance and faith in Jesus we have forgiveness and the certainty of resurrection on the Last Day.
We know that this is true for us because we have received Holy Baptism. St. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” You have been redeemed. You have been freed from the slavery of sin. You have been freed from the slavery of death. Through water and the word God has given you the redemption earned by Jesus on Good Friday and Easter.