The ancient Greeks told stories of Sisyphus, the cunning founder of Corinth. For making fools of the gods of the underworld he was punished to labor at a hopeless task. He was to roll a huge block of granite up a high, very steep hill and roll it down the other side. Each time he got the huge stone to the pinnacle his strength was gone and it rolled back down to the bottom. It wasn’t just the effort that bathed him in sweat and exhausted him completely that made the punishment intolerable, it was the ‘almost but never’ aspect of it. Had he believed, without doubt, that it was beyond him, the torment wouldn’t (perhaps) have been so exquisite but coupled with the endless failure was the conviction that this time he could manage it.
Exodus 14 tells of Israel trapped between the Red Sea and the most powerful army in the world, between an insurmountable obstacle to freedom and pitiless tyranny. In response to their despairing protests Moses assures them God will deliver them. “You see these Egyptians?” asked God (14:13), “you will see them again no more, forever!” The waters opened up for Israel and closed to bury forever the army of their bitter oppressor. The text tells us that Israel looked at the dead bodies of their once feared tormentors and believed in God and Moses. Finally! Those who picked their bones clean, those who bled them white were dead! “You will never see them again,” said God. Whatever they had to face in years ahead—this battle was won and it would remain as a prophecy, a promise that nothing was beyond their hope!
Years of torture and generations of humiliation—ended. How many rebellions had been planned and come to nothing? How often had they turned their eyes heavenward in despair? The hope born in youth would often die in old age. Optimism and cheerfulness would have been replaced in a nation’s heart by grim submission and a sullen endurance. Then with such speed and finality the tyranny was obliterated and the years of bondage were forgotten in the joy of liberty as they gaped on the corpses of their oppressors on the shores of the Sea (Exodus 14:30).
And has “the Exodus” no message for the world at large? Is there any aspect of biblical teaching more eagerly sought than the message that the God of all the earth hates oppression and takes note of the weeping of the poor and exploited? That the Lord of all the earth will right all wrongs? Israel wasn’t just lucky that their God happened to hate cruelty and felt the pain of the defenseless. No, Israel’s God is the God of all humans and they all need to hear that He is as opposed to their tormentors as He was to Israel’s! This is the one true God we must take to the nations of the world who (often in desperation) have turned their eyes to lifeless idols or dark and savage deities.
Well-bred and well-fed secularists sneer at a message which has become too familiar to them but that message laid the foundations of their freedom and prosperity. Some years ago theologian Clark Pinnock protested against our Western way of allowing the bored and argumentative secularists to set the agenda for our proclamation while multiplied millions of bewildered people are eager and need to hear about the true God who delivers the oppressed from the clutches of their enemies (see Psalm 10). Since secularists thrust the message from them, we need to turn to the rest of the world and maybe they will hear.
But the message of the Exodus is not only for brutalized nations and communities; it has a word of assurance and hope for all who suffer under tyranny of any sort. Too many of us have lived under a tyranny of a personal nature. Uncleanness, bitterness, drunkenness, greed, gossip, arrogance, immorality, self-righteousness, evil temper, base ingratitude and more. To be endlessly assured that we were forgiven was grand but not nearly enough. Years ago we became captives. So long ago, perhaps, that we can’t remember when we knew what freedom was. There was never a doubt in our minds that it was slavery and there never was a time when we didn’t long to be free but endless rebellions, countless uprisings against the dictator came to nothing, hope died and we were left with gloomy views of the future; a future in which we saw ourselves as old men and old women still in the clutches of a cruel parasite. When we came to see it as that, life became grim submission, a joyless patience; better than nothing, of course, but so far beneath the life in which the soul dares to believe that the tyrant can and will be destroyed and we will be free.
Then one day it happened. For some of us the calendar could be marked because on that day our Redeemer arrived, not silently and in secret but as though with a mighty rush of water and we saw the enemy dead and lying at our feet. It felt like we wakened out of a nightmare and the terror was gone.
For many of us the passage from death to life, from slavery to liberty, from shame and humiliation to honor, happened almost without our noticing it, slowly and without drama, and the tyrants we saw in former days passed away. We saw them again no more. Whatever the future was to hold, whatever tyrant we were to face—we’d see that slave-lord never again for ever.
(I don’t believe every person is enslaved to a particular besetting sin that is of life-destroying proportions but I believe that every person—no exceptions—is in dire need of saving and keeping grace. I believe that every person—no exceptions—can be humbled by a tyrant and I believe that there are those who haven’t yet sensed their bondage. Comparing themselves with themselves they’re blinded by their own glory.
I believe that God is anxious to deliver hosts of us not from particular and grievous wickedness but from pathetic lives, shallow views and trivial pursuits. But it’s mainly for those who struggle with evils that single them out, evils that make others doubt the genuineness of their discipleship, evils that cause even themselves to doubt their longing for a holy freedom—it’s for those these words are especially aimed.)
The healing of others must not be viewed as one more nail in your coffin but as another prophecy, another assurance that tyranny will die; that God will not allow his child to vanish without rescue. Your day is coming. Your name is not Sisyphus. Those who have never known a deep, enduring and awful struggle can still sympathize and are praying you on. Those who have finally found God’s redeemer in a friend, a husband, a wife, a child, a parent, a doctor, someone, and now know the joy of liberation, they are urging you on. One day God looking out of heaven will hear you, out of the darkness of your own crucifixion, taking on your lips the words His own Son had on His: “It is finished!”
Finished the power and lure of the evil, finished the shame and humiliation of it, the bird has escaped the snare and the tyrant is dead!
(Holy Father, help us to believe this because you say it’s so and then believe it because we’ve found it so.)