Text: Exodus 14:5-7, 10-16, 21-29
Groups often have those epic stories that they tell again and again. For Baptists it might be the story of Roger Williams fleeing Salem in the dead of winter, being assisted by the Naragansett Indians and establishing Providence Rhode Island as a place that provided religious liberty to all faiths. Or maybe the story of Adoniram and Ann Judson, who traveled to India as Congregational missionaries. On the voyage they studied the Bible and decided they were actually Baptists. And when they got to India, officials would not allow any missionaries into the country. So they continued to Burma, while Baptists back in the US raised money, and became our first international missionaries. They labored for seven years before there was a single convert.
For Iowa State fans, maybe it is the story of Jack Trice, the first African-American football player at ISU and only the second African-American to play at a major university. He died of injuries suffered in his second game, against the University of Minnesota. Our football stadium bears his name.
Maybe your family has an epic story about your great-great grandparents arriving on the boat or maybe about a family member meeting President Kennedy.
There are those stories that are told and retold. Our scripture today, maybe more than any other, was that story for the nation of Israel – they loved to tell about how God rescuing them from Pharaoh’s army and brought them out of Egypt.
Last week, Joseph and his family were reunited in Egypt and after a lifetime of intrigue and family rivalry, things seemed to be on track. But this morning, the Israelites are in slavery. What happened? How did they get to this point?
I’m glad you asked. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah was continued through Jacob, whose family was now in Egypt. They stayed there long after the famine, and grew very numerous, so much so that it made the Egyptians nervous. As the scripture says, “There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.” Long after Joseph was gone, his efforts on behalf of the nation were forgotten, and the Israelites were seen as a threat. And so they were forced into slavery.
Four hundred years after Joseph had come to Egypt, the Israelites were “oppressed so hard they could not stand,” as the old spiritual puts it. The Pharaohs had some serious building projects and needed the cheap labor. The Israelites were treated harshly, brutally. God heard their cries and called Moses as a leader, speaking to him through the burning bush. A reluctant leader at first, Moses nevertheless went before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.” But of course Pharaoh was not going to do that without a little push, a little incentive.
So God sent plagues upon the Egyptians. There were ten plagues in all: the Nile turned to blood, there were plagues of frogs and gnats and flies, a pestilence came upon livestock, there were boils and hail and locusts and darkness. It was basically one big disaster movie.
But Pharaoh was stubborn and still would not let the people go. God told Moses, one more plague and Pharaoh will relent. The Egyptians will in fact drive you away, they will be so eager to get rid of you. It was the plague of death, and every firstborn in Egypt died. This death passed over the Israelites who had dabbed lamb’s blood on their doorposts. With this, there was a great outcry in the land and Pharaoh relented.
The Israelites packed up quickly – so quickly they didn’t wait for their dough to rise, and this is where unleavened bread for the Passover meal comes from. As God had promised, the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, and they gladly gave it to get them as a parting gift to get them out of the land – a kind of reparation for the 400 years of forced labor.
So the Israelites left. They took the bones of Joseph with them, as he had asked so many years before. God went before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They traveled a roundabout way and camped in the wilderness by the sea. They were free and they were now actually wealthy. But when the reality of their leaving actually hit him, Pharaoh had a change of heart. To give up this massive pool of free labor wasn’t easy.
And so, he hurriedly got his army ready, with 600 choice chariots along with other chariots – apparently there were 600 limited edition turbopowered chariots along with some standard-issue chariots, many soldiers, and top members of his officer corps. The people saw the Egyptian army advancing on them and panicked. The Red Sea was before them and there was no escape. They faced certain death, they thought.
“What, were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die?” they asked Moses. “We told you to just leave us alone and let us serve Pharaoh.” It sounds a little like the Stockholm syndrome, or maybe the Alexandria syndrome. How could they have wanted to stay in Egypt? How could they prefer to stay with their captors?
And what about all of the plagues? What about the miraculous signs? How could they have witnessed all of that, how could they have seen God work wonders to bring them to this point, just to doubt and want to give up, just to wish they had remained as slaves?
Well, their cries and complaints actually ring true. As bad as it may be, it can be easier to hold on to what we know than to journey into the unknown. The hell we know may seem better than the heaven we don’t know.
And so here they are, on the edge of the sea, Pharaoh and his army approaching, the people melting in fear. Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see God’s deliverance. God will fight for you – you only need to keep still.”
But immediately, God overrules Moses. There are different instructions. “Why are you crying to me? Tell the people to move forward.”
It had to be confusing. They had been through so much, they had come all this way. They finally had freedom, and not just that, they had wealth! And just at the moment when when they were beginning to feel the exhilaration of freedom, here came the Egyptian army.
Moses followed God’s instruction, the people moved forward, and as they did so, Moses stretched out his arms and the waters parted. The Israelites walked through on dry ground. The pillar that had been ahead of them now went behind them. The Egyptian army followed, but they became confused by the pillar of fire and cloud. The chariots became stuck in the mud. And when Moses stretched his hand again, the waters covered the Egyptian army.
This escape through the waters is retold again and again through the Old Testament. Chapter 15 is filled with songs of jubilation at the great victory.
We might read this and while celebrating the daring escape, we may lament the violence of it. It’s kind of like the flood, where pretty much everybody dies. We are not real excited about all of the loss of life. But we have to consider this scripture in its context and remember that the people had been oppressed in slavery for a few hundred years. God had sent plague after plague, but Pharaoh would not relent. Eventually the refusal to obey God caught up with them.
This morning I would like to think about two very interesting themes that we find in the story. First, the people said to Moses, “What, did you bring us out here to the wilderness to die? We told you we would rather stay and serve Pharaoh.”
Well, the fact is, when we leave behind slavery, when we leave behind those things that have a hold on us, it can be painful. It often has to get worse before it gets better.
Walter Brueggemann said, “It is difficult to sustain a revolution, because one loses all the benefits of the old system well before there are any tangible benefits from what is promised.”
It’s kind of like remodeling your kitchen: eventually it will be nice – there will be a bright and shiny place for preparing meals and gathering with friends and family. But in the meantime, there is chaos, noise, and dust. In the meantime, you may not have a way to prepare food at all.
Moving toward freedom can be scary. The Israelite experience of freedom was deeply confusing. They were freed with gifts of gold and silver, and then they were pursued by an army. Moses told them to be still and see what God would do – and then God told them to stop standing still and move forward. And then the pillar that had been leading them moved behind them, and they started to walk into the sea.
We can be like the Israelites, clinging to ways of living that are unhealthy, that are maybe even killing us, but at least familiar. We can hold on to patterns of behavior that are destructive, not life-giving, but it just seems easier to continue as we are than to change.
John Killinger tells about a man who is alone in a hotel room in Canada. The man is in a state of deep depression. He can’t even bring himself to go downstairs to the restaurant to eat.
He is a powerful man - the chairman of a large shipping company - but at this moment, he is absolutely overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of life. All of his life, he has been fastidious, worrying about everything, anxious and fretful, fussing over every detail. And now, at mid-life, his anxiety has gotten the best of him, so much that it is difficult for him to sleep and to eat.
He agonizes about everything: his business, his investments, his decisions, his family, his health, even his dogs. Then, on this particular day in this Canadian hotel, he hits bottom. Filled with anxiety, completely immobilized by his emotional despair, unable to leave his room, lying on his bed, he moans out loud: “Life isn’t worth living this way. I wish I were dead!”
And then, he wonders, what God would think if he heard him talking this way. Speaking aloud again he says, “God, it’s a joke, isn’t it? Life is nothing but a joke.” Suddenly, it occurs to the man that this is the first time he’s talked to God since he was a little boy. He is silent for a moment and then he begins to pray. He describes it like this: “I just talked out loud about what a mess my life was in and how tired I was and how much I wanted things to be different in my life. And you know what happened next? A voice!! I heard a voice say, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way!’ That’s all.”
He went home and talked to his wife about what happened. He talked to his brother who is a minister and asked him: “Do you think it was God speaking to me?” The brother said: “Of course. That God’s message to everybody. That’s the message of the Bible. That’s why Jesus Christ came into the world - to show us that ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’
A few days later, the man called his brother and said, “You were right. I’ve had a rebirth. I’m a new man.”
He is still prone to anxiety. He still has to work hard. But, now he has found a source of strength. During the week, he often leaves his work-desk and goes to the church near his office. He sits there and prays. He says: “It clears my head. It reminds me of who I am. Each time as I sit there in that sanctuary, I think back to that day in that hotel room in Canada and how lonely and lost I felt and I hear that voice saying: ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’”
The Israelites had known oppression for 400 years. Established patterns are hard to change. Moving toward freedom isn’t easy.
An ancient Jewish commentary compares the rescue at sea to a man walking alone with his son on a dark night. They walked single-file on the narrow road. When the man sensed a thief ahead, he moved his son behind him to protect him. When the man sensed a wolf behind them, he moved his son in front of him. When both a thief and a wolf approached at the same time, the man put his son on his shoulders to protect him from both threats.
God was with the Israelites, going ahead of them in the pillar of cloud and fire when they needed leading, and going behind them when they needed protection. And in our times of despair, our times striving toward freedom and wholeness, God goes with us, providing us what we need.
The second thing that grabbed me in this experience of the Israelites was God’s word to them. Moses said, “Just hold on, God will fight for you.” But God quickly said, “No Moses, tell the people to move forward.”
We can be incapacitated by the enormity of what faces us sometimes. We can want to look to the past, we can want to hang on to the way things are, we can be pretty passive and wait for God to somehow change things. And God changes things to be sure, but God works a change in us and with us and through us. God calls us to be participants. As our American Baptist tag line puts it, we are the hands and feet of Christ.
We can want to look back, we can want to stand still, but God says, “Move forward.” Look ahead. Move toward the future and work toward the future that God is calling us to.
The obstacles can seem insurmountable. I mean, being stuck between a sea and an advancing army with turbocharged chariots is pretty daunting. But in the face of hardship and difficulty, in the face of dangers, toils, and snares, God says to us: Move forward. Move forward and I will be with you, going before you, going behind you, going alongside you. Amen.