September 14, 2014
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Have you ever been in the midst of a fog so thick and deep that you could barely see a foot in front of you? I remember driving one morning before dawn, Tyler and the twins asleep in the car as we drove home from Nebraska last year. At 3 am in the morning that day, not another car could be seen driving down the dark interstate. All of a sudden, a cloud of fog descended on the road. The beams of the car’s headlights bounced off of the thick wall of moisture and I could barely see the white and yellow lines on the dark pavement pointing me forward. I slowed the car to a measly pace as my knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. Where was the road? What was in front of me? Could I be sure I was still in the right lane? Eventually another car pulled alongside me and I was relieved to follow the glow of his tail-lights until the fog lifted.
I remember thinking how powerful a cloud can be – amazed at how a billion minute water droplets could completely obscure one’s view beyond a few feet. A cloud holds water, the basis of life and promise of sustenance. A cloud can mean life-giving rain or a powerful and destructive storm. A cloud can bring relief in the form of shade from the glaring sun, or it can form a barrier in which none can find their way.
Such is the case in our scripture passage for this week – the story of Moses leading the Israelite people to freedom with their former captors, the Egyptian army, in hot pursuit. Picture this: a well-equipped army, with shiny armor and metal spears, food and water and power in abundance, runs full-force from the city toward the desert. Hundreds of young, well-muscled men on horseback and riding in chariots brightly adorned race toward the horizon...where a rag-tag group of former slaves limps along toward what they can only hope to be freedom. Men, women, and children, young and old, carrying all that they own on their backs as they go step by step into the future. Elders urging the young ones to pick up their feet, to pick up the pace, as word reaches the front that the distance between the two crowds narrows. The Hebrew people run and pray, pray and run, while the sound of their former captor’s trumpets grow louder. How will they possibly outrun their enemies, they wonder aloud, with worried tone.
Day turns into evening, which turns to night. Still the people run. Scripture tells us that just when the darkness seems too deep, just when Moses and his people start to falter, God moves into action. Word spreads throughout the crowd, of a pillar of cloud that had taken up residence to the rear of the group. A fog so thick that they couldn’t see or hear the Egyptian army behind them. A cloud of white that glowed so brightly that Exodus tells us it “lit up the night.” The Egyptians could not see two feet in front of them. They were forced to pause. The Hebrews were safe…for now. They cheered and ran on.
Until they were forced to stop dead in their tracks. In front of them lay a body of water, too deep to walk across. The Hebrew people wailed in despair. “How could God bring us this far, only to be caught now?”Caught between a rock and a hard place, they were. The Sea of Reeds, or the Red Sea, lay perilously in front of them and a malicious army closing in behind them. To try to swim across the sea was out of the question for many, not to mention the trouble of getting supplies through the water. But to stay put meant death, or return to slavery, or both.
But Exodus tells us that “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
I wonder who led the Israelites through the waters. Who took that first step onto the dry land that shouldn’t have been dry, the pathway through the water that shouldn’t have been there, the waters that were divided by a force beyond that of nature. Was he scared, as he took that first step forward? Did he tremble and look back? Or did he take a deep breath and move forward with purpose and trust, his foot feeling steady on the dry ground pointing forward?
There are two words for “dry land” used in this passage. One is yabbashah. This Hebrew word is most often used in descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). descriptions of the miracle of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16, 22, 29, 15:19, Psalm 66:6 and Nehemiah 9:11). Yabbashah is the dusty ground that led the Hebrew people ahead to freedom, the stable ground upon which they walked. It also describes God’s work in creation, when God gathers all of the water of the earth into unified oceans and seas, leaving “dry ground” for animals and humans to inhabit; Dry ground that sustains and provides a home.
But there is another word for “dry land” that also appears in our scripture passage this morning. Charabah appears in Exodus 14:21 and is derived from the root word meaning “to dry up” or be in ruins. Biblical interpreters say that this version doesn’t merely distinguish between liquid and solid, water and its absence, a place to swim and a place to walk. Instead it’s often interpreted as pointing toward waste and desolation that follows warfare, judgment, and destruction.
Exodus 14:21 is part of the story that comes next: “The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers…Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.”
For the Hebrew people, “dry land” meant safety and security, but for the Egyptian people, “dry land” meant death and destruction.
The story of Exodus is the story of freedom and hope for the Israelite people, the Hebrew people. It’s a story of God’s power to create from nothing, to make a way out of no way. It’s the power by which God saves and transforms—one in which God reveals a path for God’s people to travel. And yet, “the crossing of this path remains treacherous. Though there is light in this new creation, there is also darkness.” The road to freedom wasn’t exactly rainbows and sunshine.
There’s a popular saying that you might have heard before: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” It’s like those old wives tales, in that it’s a saying that has been passed down from generation to generation because people have found truth in it. It implies that there is always a path forward in life and faith, even if it’s not the obvious, or most desirable one.
I’ve thought about that phrase a lot this summer, as Tyler and I have done all we could do to sell our house up in South Euclid. Many of you know that we had hoped to sell our house up there so that we could move closer to the church here. The original reasons we bought a house 25 minutes away from the church no longer hold, and it just seemed like things were lining up in our lives to make moving this summer the best thing to do. So we exhausted ourselves cleaning, organizing, storing, and painting, while also parenting 2-year-old twins. We worked so hard, prayed so hard, and made lots of sacrifices to keep our house clean and ready for showing. We felt that God was calling us to move, to be more invested in this community by living here, to be closer to family (and childcare). We trusted that all of our hard work would pay off.
But 5 months later…we haven’t had a single bite on the house. I’ve prayed all the prayers: prayers letting God know our deepest desires, prayers asking for help with decisions, prayers of letting go and trusting God’s movement in it all (while still telling God what direction I’d prefer that movement to be…but mostly letting go.) So now here we are, 3 weeks from baby Delaney’s due date, not quite sure what to do. Do we keep our house on the market, trusting that sense we had earlier in the spring that this was the time to try to sell? Do we risk selling our house and having to pack up and move with a newborn? Do we take the house off the market, even though we were so sure this was what we needed to do? It’s a small problem, and our family will be fine no matter what, but in our prayers as of late we’ve felt the tension, the stuckness, between a rock and a hard place. We don’t necessarily see any open doors or open windows. So we wait and watch.
You’ve felt that way before, too, right? When the prayers just don’t seem to be leading to answers, when the pathway ahead isn’t quite as clear as it was for the Israelites when the Red Sea parted in front of them. You’ve known times when it seems like you’re up against a wall (of water, of brick, of emotional or physical or financial struggle) on one side and an army threatening to destroy you on another? You’ve known times when it seems like there is no way forward, when the fog that might stand between you and the army also seems to surround and confound you? Times when you pray, and cry, and fear for the future, or want to scream and charge recklessly toward the “enemy,” whatever it might be.
We’ve all been there. Or we’re there right now. Or we’ll be there at some point in the future: Stuck; Unsure; Fearful or anxious about a future that doesn’t seem to hold much hope in either direction. We understand the power of this story in scripture because we understand what’s at stake: hope. We understand the fear that threatens to overpower us like an army when we feel trapped.
So let’s go back to what happened that day on the Red Sea: when Moses raised his staff and the waters parted, when a path of dry ground appeared in front of the Israelite people, but a path of dry ground that was also completely overshadowed by immense walls of powerful water. A path of dry ground that could so very easily go from the kind of “dry ground” that is life giving in creation, to the kind of “dry ground” that results from the aftermath of destruction and war. Think about the courage it took for the first Israelite to step onto that dry ground, trusting that the path would lead not to death, but to freedom.
This is a story of a literal “stepping out in faith.”
And it’s a story that asks us to consider how and where and when we are willing to step out in faith. This story asks us to take stock of the fear that might keep us paralyzed, curled up in a ball, or constantly ready to fight. It asks us to walk through the cloud that obscures our vision into the far future, to look deeply into the powerful waters that appear as a wall of impossibility, to face the darkness and the light together, and trust God enough to step forward in faith.
Gerald Janzen writes beautifully about this kind of faith, which she calls “the willingness to pick up and carry one’s fear in one’s bosom…and go forward in the direction that trust calls for.” The people of Israel, Janzen writes, “are saved in a double sense. Not only are they delivered from the power of Egypt but they are also delivered from the power of their fear and their doubt.”
The moral of the story is that whether we’re facing a foe as formidable as an ancient empire or as immobilizing as our own fear, God is there to deliver us. Such is the truth of the Exodus, and the Israelite people, as well as the message Jesus proclaimed over and over again in his time on earth. It’s in the gospel of Luke chapter 4 that Jesus proclaims his mission to “bring liberty to the captives.”
The story of our faith is one of liberation – from oppression, from fear, from the powers of the world around us that try to entrap us: greed, anger, fear, self-doubt, among others. The story of our faith is that even when we are surrounded on every side by impossibility, God is busy making a way. A way through the Red Sea and a way down from the cross of crucifixion. A way that leads to freedom and redemption, hope and resurrection.
Poet Minnie Louise Haskins writes,“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
 Quote by Anathea Portier-Young. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179