Rescued, Exodus 14:19-31
Plymouth First United Methodist, September 13, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
They had come this far, but it didn’t look they would be going any further.
They’d been given some time to prepare for their journey—enough time to gather silver and gold and clothing from their neighbors.
Enough time to prepare for the Passover. They were to sacrifice a lamb, to paint their doorways with its blood, to roast their lamb and prepare bread made without yeast. They were to eat their meal in haste: cloaks tucked into their belts, sandals on their feet, and a staff in their hand.
The instructions given over chapters 12 and 13 in Exodus are for the first Passover, with more instructions added later so that generations to come would be able to remember through these various acts how God delivered their people from slavery in Egypt.
The time came of the final plague and Pharaoh’s instructions that they were to leave now. Moses took the bones of Joseph as the Israelites had promised him they would, and all the people set off, trusting God, and trusting that Moses would lead them to safety and a new way of living.
They didn’t travel the most direct route, which might have been a hint of what was yet to come. God gave the reason for this: the direct route was through Philistine country which could incite war, discouraging the Hebrews and causing them to change their minds and turn around and go back to Egypt. God led them on an indirect route to the Red Sea, and the people followed, prepared for battle with the Egyptians should that become necessary. For these former slaves, “prepared for battle” meant they were armed with spears, bows and arrows and sling shots.
If you look at a map of this ancient journey you will have a hard time discerning exactly where the crossing of the sea happens. It seems that the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reeds that scripture talks about aren’t exactly where these verses tell us they are and modern day excavators have had a hard time pinpointing the location. It’s also worth remembering that there were some 66 descendants of Jacob who moved to Egypt during the famine. In chapter 1 of Exodus we’re told how their numbers multiplied, which led to Pharaoh’s decision to enslave the people and to treat them harshly in an attempt to keep them “under control.” This Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph and all that he had done for Egypt and feared that the Hebrews—now so great in number—might one day rise up against Egypt. However, even with Pharaoh’s instructions to the midwives to kill the infant boys, their number continued to increase. And so now, as we follow the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt, their population over these 430 years has grown to something over 600,000 men, along with women and children. This is an amazing number to think about, particularly when you envision them all leaving Egypt at the same time.
It’s no wonder that Pharaoh begins to panic when he realizes that he has set free his country’s entire workforce. The economy is already a mess because of the plagues! God hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time. Pharaoh sets off with 600 of his best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt in pursuit.
So, we have Israel’s 600,000 people on foot, including children with 600-plus chariots following behind—each of those chariots most likely carrying 3 men: a driver, an officer and a navigator. It doesn’t take long for Pharaoh’s army to catch up.
The Hebrews are terrified when they see the army approaching in the distance. Ahead of them is only water. There’s no place to go. They confront Moses: This wasn’t our idea—it was yours! Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here in the desert to die?
Moses understands their fear and tells them to “Stand firm. You’ll see that the Lord will deliver you today. The Egyptians you see today, you’ll never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
It seems that the stillness Moses calls for, is to quiet the panic, to take a deep breath and listen for what God has to say. And what God says is move!! God tell Moses to raise his hand, and to stretch his staff out over the sea. The water will divide so the people can walk across on dry ground.
The people stand at the edge of the sea and are convinced they have no options. But we are reminded that God has ways, sees ways, can make ways through situations that we never realized were possible!
Aren’t we as guilty at limiting God to what we know we can do? We remember how Jesus knew not put God to the test when he was tempted in the wilderness, we know God isn’t our own personal cosmic magician, and yet…how often do we rely on our own strength and knowledge rather than turning to God for another possibility?
As the Hebrews have traveled since their freedom, God had provided a visual reminder of God’s presence with them, in an angel, and in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The pillar guided them to this point, giving them the ability to travel no matter the time of day. Now the angel and the pillar move behind them, shielding them from the Egyptians, providing light for them, and darkness for the Egyptian army.
When Moses stretches out his arm, that whole night the wind blows, driving the sea back and drying the floor of the sea. The Israelites walk on the floor of the sea with walls of water on each side.
The Egyptians follow in pursuit. Early in the morning God looks down from the pillar of fire and cloud and throws Pharaoh’s army into confusion. The wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud and they can’t go forward. They try to turn around, realizing (once again) that the God of the Hebrews is not only watching over these people, but their God is fighting for them.
Before they can escape, God instructs Moses to stretch his hand out over the sea once again, and the sea returns to its place, sweeping over the chariots and horsemen. Not one of them survives.
The Hebrew people see they are saved and put their trust in God and in Moses, God’s servant.
This is the central story of God’s saving act in history for the Hebrew people. God’s power is experienced and known; God frees the people from captivity and leads them through the waters of the sea. We can’t help but envision birth or baptism both signifying new life: the people are reborn to freedom, and though they have begun the journey with God’s guidance and protection, they aren’t totally free yet.
Their bodies have escaped enslavement, but their minds will need to be re-formed as they come to understand and know what it means to be a free people.
These lessons have begun in these first days of freedom, and their learning will continue as they wander in the desert. Some of these lessons may be important for us, as well, as we journey in the wilderness of our lives.
Their first lesson is to see and trust the power of God.
From the moment the Hebrews stepped out of Egypt, God provided that pillar of cloud and fire to light their way and to protect them as Pharaoh’s army approached. I would think that in any moment of insecurity or fear, all they would need to do would be to look ahead or behind, and they would see the pillars and be reminded that God was with them.
These were things that only a mighty and powerful God would be able to accomplish.
We talked about it earlier—but, it’s important for us to always keep in mind that we’re not limited by what we know and what we can do.
God can and does do amazing things and knows ways through situations that we perceive as being impossible. We can’t do it, so we figure God can’t either…or God won’t.
Maybe it would be helpful for us to think about the ways in which we experience God’s power today. To remind each other.
Think for a moment and I invite you to share where you experience God’s power in the comments online…where do you today see God’s power and might?
The second lesson I think about is how God works. Remember how the people began complaining when they saw Pharaoh’s army approaching. Moses tells the people to “wait” or to “be still” (depending on translation), which seems to me to be a reasonable word. But almost immediately God interjects, saying “Why are you complaining to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!" I perceive Moses’ word to “wait” not as a “stop and do nothing” kind of wait, but as a moment to take a breath—a moment—to listen for God’s instruction. God gave it pretty quickly. Keep moving! Don’t stop! After liberation, keep going.
Moses tells the people that God will fight for them that day, and God does. But that battle required action on their part.
You'll notice that God leads the people out of bondage in Egypt; God doesn’t carry them. God doesn't part the waters, but requires Moses to lift up his staff and reach out his hand to divide the sea. God doesn't vaporize the army but tells Moses again to stretch out his hand so that the waters return to drown Pharaoh's men. The people need to take action—to move forward, through the waters, and ultimately through the wilderness, to go to the place they’re going. To go to the place where God is leading. That place isn’t simply a geographical place. We can’t even find it on a map! But it is a place where they will experience true freedom—in their bodies, minds and souls.
They need to act and be a part of what God is doing in order to be truly and fully free.
As I think of God’s word to the Hebrews, I wonder if God has a word for us in this day. Is God calling you to be still, to listen, in order to be ready to move forward when the time comes? Is God calling you to move forward in your faith journey? Is God calling us to prepare ourselves as a church, as we approach a new day? I God calling us as a nation to deal with justice, to seek unity, to better care for all people? Is God calling us to be still for a moment in order to be better prepared to move forward?
The third thing I want us to hear this morning is this: As God fought for the people of Israel, so, too, does God fight for us today, alongside us, as we do his work in our world. God fights for us as we work together to create a welcoming community, as we engage in work to lift up the downcast, to offer love and care for the brokenhearted. As we work to fulfill the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
God fights for us, to bring about transformation, that we might be free of those things that enslave us heart, mind, body and soul—that prevent us from fully being the people God calls us to be.
May that knowledge empower us as we move forward on this journey. Amen.