Saturday, October 8, 2022

“Move Forward” - October 9, 2022

Text: Exodus 14:5-16, 21-31

There are those epic stories that are remembered and retold and passed down from generation to generation.

For American Baptists it might be the story of Roger Williams fleeing for his life from Salem, Massachusetts in the dead of winter, getting assistance from the Naragansett Indians and establishing Providence, Rhode Island as a place that provided religious liberty to people of all faiths.  Or maybe the story of Ann and Adoniram Judson, who traveled to India as Congregational missionaries.  On the voyage, through their study of the Bible they decided that 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 they became our first international missionaries.

For Iowa State fans, maybe it is the story of Jack Trice, the first African-American football player at the school and only the second Black athlete at a major university.  He died of injuries suffered in his second game he played, against the University of Minnesota.

Maybe your family has an epic story about your great-great grandparents arriving on the boat or maybe the story of how your grandparents met.

There are those stories that are told and retold.  Our scripture today, more than any other, was that story for the nation of Israel.  It is the most important story of the Old Testament.

The crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Egypt sets forth the idea that God calls people from slavery to freedom, that God provides, that God will never abandon us, and that because of that, we have nothing to fear.  This is the great story for the Jewish people, and for Christians all of these ideas will come to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Last week, Joseph and his family were in Egypt and after a lifetime of intrigue and family rivalry, things seemed to going great.  But in our scripture this morning, the Israelites are in slavery.  What happened?  How did they get to this place?

Joseph and his brothers and their families settled in Egypt and remained long after the famine.  The family grew numerous, so much so that it made the Egyptians nervous.  Long after Joseph’s efforts on behalf of the nation were forgotten, the Israelites began to be seen as a threat.  And in time, 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 that we sang puts it.  The Pharaohs had some serious building projects, and they 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, one after another.  It was basically one big disaster movie, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, water turning to blood.  Yet Pharaoh was stubborn.  Pharaoh still would not let the people go.   But God told Moses, one more plague and Pharaoh will relent and will in fact drive you away.  It was the Passover, and every firstborn in Egypt died.  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 people, 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 camped in the wilderness by the sea.  They were free.  

But when the reality of their leaving actually hit him, Pharaoh had a change of heart.  Pharaoh forgot about the plagues and thought about what he was losing.  The economic engine of the nation was just walking away.  Egypt would not be the same once the Israelites were gone.  And to give in to the Israelites meant a massive loss in his reputation and prestige – it was a loss for his personal brand.  

So he hurriedly got his army ready, with 600 choice chariots along with all the other chariots – apparently there were 600 limited edition turbocharged chariots, along with a lot of standard-issue chariots - many soldiers, and top members of his officer corps.  We read a lot of information about military infrastructure, reminding us of the massive power differential between the Egyptians and the Israelites.

And so just at the moment when it seemed that the Israelites’ fortunes had changed, just at the moment when they were beginning to feel the exhilaration of freedom, here came the Egyptian army.  The people saw the Egyptians advancing on them, this mighty army coming their way, and of course they panicked.  The Red Sea was before them and there was no escape.  They were terror-stricken.

“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.”

How could they have wanted to stay in Egypt?  How could they have witnessed all of the plagues and miraculous signs, how could they have seen God work wonders to bring them to this point, just to wish they had remained as slaves?

Well, their cries and complaints actually ring true.  It is just human nature.  As bad as things may be, it can be easier to hold on to what we know than to journey into the unknown.  Fear is a powerful thing, and 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.”  And then God says to Moses, “Why are you crying to me?  Tell the people to move forward.”

The people did so, and as Moses stretched his arms, the waters parted.  There is a Midrash, a Jewish story based on this text.  (Actually there are a lot of them.) But in one, a man named Nokshone was the first one into the water.  The waters were up to his knee, up to his hip, up to his chin before the waters parted.  It took great courage for the Israelites to keep walking.

However we imagine it happening, it took bravery and it took faith to enter those waters.  Water, of course, represented chaos and destruction.  We had the story of Noah’s ark and the great flood just a few weeks ago.  In the story of creation in Genesis 1, when God creates all the creatures living in the sea, do you know the one creature that is singled out specifically?  The great sea monsters.  The Psalms talk about sea monsters as well.  To walk into the sea – even if the waters are parted - is to face chaos and great danger.  

So the Israelites walked through the waters on dry ground.  The pillar of fire and cloud that had been ahead of them, representing God’s presence, 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, and in the New Testament as well.  Chapter 15 is filled with songs of jubilation at the great victory.

It is an amazing escape to freedom.  Now as you read this scripture, you may be like me.  While this is an amazing display of the power of God and while this calls for jubilation, there is also a lot of death.  We lament the violence and loss of life.  It is kind of like the flood – for the Egyptian army, pretty much everybody dies.  

But in a sense, this is what happens, what has always happened with empires that coerce and oppress and enslave.  This story says something about the power and the hubris of such empires.  
God had sent plague after plague, but Pharaoh would not relent.  Eventually the refusal to listen to God and the power of this one man proved very costly.

It’s not that all of these Egyptian soldiers were bad people.  They did not have a lot of choice in the matter.  They had to serve Pharaoh.  They had to follow orders.  We can imagine many of them saying that trying to cross the sea in chariots, even the new turbocharged models, is a really, really bad idea.  When we read that the Israelites walked across on dry land – maybe that means it wasn’t a river and that it was doable.  It’s not like it was a paved highway.  It’s not like it was I-35.  

Even after terrible plagues and the loss of life of so many children, Pharaoh still could not imagine just letting these Israelites go.  And so he orders the Egyptian army to continue to pursue.  But the chariots get bogged down.  And by the time the higher ups realized what was happening, it was too late.  

Essentially, in its hubris and power hungry-ness, the empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction.  Even after the plagues – even with clear signs that this was a very bad decision – Pharaoh just could not help himself, and it leads to great suffering.  And now we are not only talking about an ancient story, are we?

In many ways, this is a very contemporary story.  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 those things that have a hold on us, it can be painful.  It is not easy.  It often has to get worse before it gets better.

There are all kinds of things we would like to change, maybe know we need to change, but holding on to what we have is just easier than moving on toward what we can’t yet fully see.

The Israelite experience of freedom, so far, was deeply confusing.  They were freed with gifts of gold and silver, and then they were pursued by an army.   The pillar that had been leading them moved behind them, and they started to walk right into the sea.  Freedom, at least at first, can feel like chaos.  It’s not easy.

We can be like the Israelites, clinging to ways of living that are unhealthy, that are maybe even killing us, but at least are 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.

But God’s word is, “Move forward.”  Nothing ever changes unless we take that first step.  What is that first step for you?  How do you need to move forward?  And what about us, what about First Baptist Church?  After a strange and difficult 2+ years, what do we need to do to move forward?

I would invite you to give those questions some thought and prayer.  And as we take those steps, as we move forward, we have the assurance that God goes with us.  Amen.  

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