The Bible is a drama in six phases. Phase 1 is Creation: a good God makes a good world and fills it with good things. Phase 2 is Crisis: the good creatures begin to use their God-given free will to damage themselves and the good world. Phase 3 is Calling: God responds to Crisis by calling a tribe of people to represent God's intention for the world and resist evil, by making a covenant with them. And then in Phase 4, this tribe goes through Cycles of following God's calling, then drifting or rebelling, and then repenting and returning to God's agenda. Our story picks up this morning at a major event in one of these cycles. Last week we heard about Joseph who had been sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph became powerful and saved Egypt from a famine, which lead his whole family to move to Egypt, where their descendants lived for generations. Hundreds of years later, the Egyptians began to feel threatened by these immigrants and enslaved them. God inspired a man named Moses to stand up to the Egyptian Pharaoh and persuade him to let the people go. After 10 devastating plagues Pharaoh relented and the people left Egypt and headed into the wilderness. And these precious people who have a covenant with God get to choose what to believe about who God will be to them this time. Let's hear what happened next.
Scripture Reading Exodus 14 NIV
Narrator: 5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said,
Pharaoh: “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!”
Narrator: 6 So Pharaoh had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. …
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses,
Israelite: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
Narrator: 3 Moses answered the people,
Moses: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Narrator: 15 Then the Lord said to Moses,
God: “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground….
Narrator: 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 2 God jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses,
God: “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.”
Narrator: 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
If you only know one story from the Old Testament, this is the one to know. Not only because it makes a great movie. This is the decisive event that forms the identity of the ancient Hebrews as God's people. The key identity of God in the Old Testament is that THIS is the God who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt. When God speaks to the people and identifies Godself, God most often says, "I am the God of your ancestors, the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt." God hears the cries of the oppressed and acts decisively on their behalf. The people cry out and God responds with magnificent deliverance. Glory!
One of the results of living in an individualistic society is that we interpret everything from the standpoint of the individual. We want this story to mean that God is going to part the thing that feels like a Red Sea to me individually. But as my mentor the Rev. Dr. Marti Baumer likes to remind me, the Gospel is always personal but never individual. And while I know that I have experienced things that feel like miracles to me, that's not what this story is about. This is not a story about God healing one person. It's a bold assertion that God does not allow oppression and violence to get the last word.
The problem with interpreting this particular story individually is that we all have times when we prayed and didn't get the outcome we asked for, and so we feel like God didn't show up. I've had times in my own life where I felt like God didn't show up. It wasn't that I doubted whether God COULD. I just didn't know whether God WOULD. I was afraid that my faith could not survive asking for something and not getting it, so I didn't ask in the first place. I was so afraid of being disappointed that I kept hedging my bets.
But I have to tell you friends that I'm getting tired of hedging my bets. In a world where our neighbors in Flint, Michigan, still don't have safe water in their homes, where people of color, especially young men, continue to be gunned down by an inherently racist system, where almost every woman I know, myself included, has experienced an assault on her personhood and dignity, where people can work full-time jobs and not afford to live, where refugees are literally dying to find safety, where we continue to devise new weapons to destroy one another while simultaneously destroying ourselves by destroying our planet ... in this world, friends, WE have some Red Seas in need of parting, and our sacred texts boldly claim that our God does that.
We tell this story exactly the way it's written, without worrying about PROVING it archaeologically, because taking the story into ourselves forms us into the kind of people who are hard to intimidate. This story makes us brave and gives us hope and keeps us moving when we feel like we have nowhere to go. In this story, the people have no good option. They are facing unpassable chaos (as symbolized by the sea) with violence and oppression coming right up behind them. They're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. There is nothing for them to do here. They can't swim and they can't fight. And so they cry out to God. Moses tells them, "DO NOT BE AFRAID. Stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
And he's almost right. This cracks me up. Moses has just told them to keep still. And God responds with, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to GO FORWARD." Moses tells them to stay put and God tells them to get moving. When we are facing the chaotic unknown, we may just hear God telling us to go forward straight into it. Because what is impossible for humans is possible with God. (Luke 18:27)
The message of this story is that our infinitely creative God of Love who is absolutely committed to liberating captives may just have a solution that we never expected and could never have conjured through our own efforts. AND we are called to go forward even when we can't see that solution yet.
Sam and I were talking about this passage and he asked me what happens right after this. And I said, "Well Miriam and Moses sing a song of victory, and then the Israelites start complaining because they don't have enough fresh water. And Sam said, "That's the pattern for us isn't it?" Experience a miracle, sing a song of victory, start complaining. God parts the Red Sea and THREE DAYS LATER they are back to, "We're all gonna die!" I honestly believe that part of the reason we have the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is to show us how ridiculous they were. And how ridiculous we are sometimes.
Beloved, no matter how many miracles or blessings or serendipitous events or whatever you want to call them, no matter how many of those we experience in our lives, we still get to choose what to believe. Will we make God prove Godself again and again, every time we face a new situation that seems impossible? The situations that the Israelites faced were serious. Between the devil and the deep blue sea is a deadly place to be. No water in the desert is a deadly situation. But God proved over and over that what is impossible for us is possible for God.
Now, does that mean that every one of our individual impossible situations gets resolved the way we want it to be? No. And that's another story for another day. But we can choose what kind of God we want to believe in. I want us to be shaped by THIS story. I am personally, day by day, choosing to trust the God who parts Red Seas.
I trust that this God takes notice of the deep needs of the world and hears the cries of the enslaved. I trust that this God can and someday will sweep away all the systems of violence and oppression and set this whole world right. I am learning to allow the goodness I have personally experienced in the past build my faith for the future. And, relying on God's grace, I am choosing to trust that God is good and trustworthy and loving even when I don't get what I think is best. I am choosing to trust that God has a strategy for redeeming the all of creation which both includes and transcends my own short lifespan. Amen.