Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 AND Psalm 124:1-8, Isaiah 51:1-6 AND Psalm 138:1-8, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

Much of the Bible is about “deliverance”, whether it is from personal sin or political oppression, exile, injustice, or slavery. There is a long history, in the Judeo-Christian heritage, of waiting for a Messiah, an anointed one, who would be the instrument of such deliverance. Early followers of Jesus, and Christians through the years, have come to see Jesus as that “Messiah.” Our Gospel lesson has the disciples responding to a question Jesus asked: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They give a variety of answers---John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophets come back to life. (Matthew 16:13-14) Jesus then focusses the question a bit: “But who do you say that I am?” (vs. 15) Many, preaching on this text over the years, have asked listeners to take that question to heart personally. It’s always an appropriate focus and often leads to good discussion and insight. Peter’s answer, for which he is commended by Jesus, is “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (vss. 16-17)

A number of this week’s texts touch upon the theme of deliverance. “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.” (Psalm 124:7) “I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” (Isaiah 51:5) “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” (Psalm 138:7-8)

The epic story of deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures is that of the Exodus from Egypt, deliverance from slavery. The story begins in our reading from the book of Exodus, the story of a son, Moses, born to a slave woman, who finds his way into the Pharaoh’s household. (Exodus 2:1-10---Isn’t it interesting that this is the second Hebrew, Joseph being the other one, who finds his way into such a prominent position?)

This story, and some of the other readings, remind us that deliverance, however, is more than just a magical divine undertaking. Scripture repeatedly makes the point that we are part of the deliverance process. It requires a human instrumentality, our cooperation and collaboration.

Sometimes that collaboration takes the form or resistance or nonconformity. Romans 12:2 has been a favorite of resisters and nonconformers through the ages. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God---what is good and accepable and perfect.” This follows a first verse which calls us to present our bodies as “a living sacrifice.” Deliverance may require us to lay our lives on the line, taking risks in speaking out in resistance to the ways of the powers that be.

In the case of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, women are the resisters. The midwives are told to kill all males as they are born. (Exodus 1:16 & 22) “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” (vs. 17) When Moses is born, his mother hides him for three months, then places him in a floating basket “among the reeds on the bank of the river.” (Exodus 2:2-3) The daughter of Pharaoh finds him and recognizes him as a Hebrew. Despite her father’s orders that all Hebrew male children be killed, she takes the child home with her. “She took pity on him,” it says. (vss. 5-6) Moses’ sister, who has been standing nearby observing, offers to get a women “to nurse the child for you.” It is the child’s own mother that she gets. (vss. 7-8) Powerful women who resist and set in motion the process that leads to escape, deliverance, exodus.

The reading from Psalm 138 comes to an unexpected ending. After speaking of God’s deliverance, it does not say, “Just trust. Sit back and wait." It says, “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8) Passivity is not part of the preparation for deliverance. There is work for every hand. The Romans passage, in fact, leads into one of the great New Testament lessons about the different gifts (abilities, talents) that we bring to the table. “For as in one body, we have many members, and not all have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members on of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” (Romans 12:4-6) We are all “deliverers” of one another, using our varied gifts as we join the Spirit of the Messiah in a mission of liberation.

So, what about the Gospel lesson, which contains troublesome words about Peter being the rock upon which the church is built so that he is given the keys of the kingdom? “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19) These words have been used, by some, to justify calling Peter the first “Pope,” and to establish apostolic succession. Some opponents of that view have suggested these words were added later to serve the interests of an emerging power structure in the church. I’m not going to try to sort all that out here. This comes just after that identification of Jesus as the “Messiah,” the “deliverer.” My simplest takeaway is that the deliverance anticipated requires a human instrumentality, human participation, cooperation, and collaboration. I read it that all who have faith like Peter will be given the “keys” that are needed in God’s, and the church’s, mission of deliverance and liberation. We are all deliverers, working together in the Messiah’s mission.

If we look at the details of this week’s readings, there are a couple of other things that may or may not be woven into these observations about “deliverance.”

1. The Exodus reading begins with the rising of a king who didn’t remember Joseph, how valued he had been to an earlier Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:8) What we remember and forget about our private and social and political history can have enormous consequences. Part of the reading from Isaiah also addresses that point, calling us the “look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you . . .” (Isaiah 51:1-2)

2. The Exodus reading is relevant to the present political and social environment with regard to immigration. Up to this point, the Hebrew people had been welcome guests and participants in Egyptian society. Now the king says, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites.” (Exodus 1:9-10, 13) Resistance to the oppression of immigrants is needed as much today as it was then.

Much deliverance is needed. God is on the side of deliverance, but there’s plenty of work to be undertaken and accomplished by all!

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