Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
September 13, 2020
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.
Tony Evans tells the story of a conversation a mother and son had after church one Sunday. “What did you learn about in Sunday School today?” the mother asked of her boy. “We learned about Israel crossing the Red Sea.” The mother was quite pleased that her son remembered something. She then asked, “What did the teacher say about the crossing of the Red Sea?” The boy replied, “Well, it went like this. Israel built a bridge over the Red Sea. They got in buses and crossed over the bridge. Then when the Egyptians came after them, God sent some F-16 fighter jets and dropped bombs on them until they were all destroyed.” The mother was quite skeptical. “Come on now! Your teacher couldn’t have explained Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea like that.” Her son quickly replied, “I know. She didn’t. But if I told you how it really happened, you’d never believe me!”
The Scripture lesson this morning is the memorable narrative detailing the crossing of the Red Sea. While we may not have heard the version of the story that the little boy shared with his mother, perhaps most of us know the story best from magnificent story. We recall the movie scene in The Ten Commandments, where Cecil B. DeMille directed Charlton Heston to divide the special effect waters that were supposedly made out of Jello. And there are all sorts of rational and scholarly explanations of this miracle. Some claim a freak windstorm caused the waters to part. Others claim that the Israelites actually crossed the Reed Sea, something more like a swamp rather than a deep and long waterway. But perhaps the theatrical version and the logical theories miss the actual point of the story. The writer of Exodus wasn’t concerned about the depth of the water or the the science behind the parting of a sea. The writer was convinced only that this was a miracle, an act of God, a demonstration of the strength of God in sharp contrast to the weakness of the ability of the people.
If you remember the actual story, you will know that the people of Israel were living in slavery in Egypt. God had raised Moses up to be their leader, calling him through a burning bush. God had acted on their behalf, causing misfortune to fall upon their oppressors. By God’s hand the Pharaoh had agreed to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. By a pillar of cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night God had lead them to the very edge of the Red Sea. But now, at the very beginning of their Exodus, they were trapped. Deep water was on one side. Pharaoh’s mighty army was on the other. They were struck with terror and with helplessness. Where was God now? What were they supposed to do? Had God simply brought them to this point to fail or to die?
It may feel that way for us right now. The events of our world and of our lives seem to have placed us in a tight corner. The uncertainty of pandemic complicates our every choice and action. We fear for our health. We fear for the health of our loved ones. The economic uncertainty caused by the virus weighs upon our budgets, our jobs, and our community. Civil unrest dominates the cities and streets of our country. We are a divided nation in the midst of an important yet divisive election. Even the weather seems to be causing more grief than relief. Every day we hear of the ravages of wildfire and wind and hurricane and flood. It surely seems that we are in deep water, or at least pressed up against the edge of the waters of fear and uncertainty.
Disciples of Christ minister Linda Hutton tells a story about a milkmaid and a holy man. The holy man lived in a remote location and he relied upon the milkmaid to bring him milk and food every day. She had the terrible habit of arriving late each day. One day when the holy man scolded her about her tardiness, she explained that she had to walk along the bank of a river for a good distance before come to a bridge that would take her to the other side of the river. It was the river that was delaying her bringing the holy man his much needed supplies. The holy man then asked her, “Why don’t you just walk across the water? It would save you a lot of time.” From the time on, the milkmaid was never late.
But after a few days the holy man’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the milkmaid how she managed to arrive so early. “Why,” she responded, “I did as you told me. I now walk on the waters of the river.” The holy man said, “This I must see. Let me go with you when you return to the village. If someone like you can walk on water, perhaps I can too.”
The two reached the river and without hesitation the milkmaid stepped onto the water and walked to the other side. She turned to watch the holy man. Slowly, carefully he gathered his robes up about his knees and stepped into the river. He took a few hesitant steps and began to sink. The milkmaid ran back across the waters and helped him to shore.
“What went wrong?” asked the holy man. “Well, sir,” the milkmaid answered, “You said that you believed you could walk on water, but then you gathered up your robes so as to not get them wet. Did you not have faith that you could do it?”
As people of faith, when trapped between forces of doubt and uncertainty, we act much like that holy man. We would love to experience and witness the hand of God at work in our complex lives. We prefer that God work a miracles and obvious displays of power, things that bring to us a situation of certainty and ease. But God usually works more quietly, more patiently, more anonymously. And that runs counter to our wishes. We often live out our days in such a way that we refuse to place reliance upon our faith in God. We are more likely to think we can be saved by our own cleverness or rescued by our own strength and possessions. We tap our limited amounts of patience, compassion, and forgiveness to deal with the negative situation and people around us. In crossing the rivers of discouragement and difficulty, we gather up our robes to stay dry, relying upon our own ingenuity. Alone, we usually still get wet.
God commanded Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea. This phrase is mentioned three times in the story. When Moses obeyed, the water parted, giving the children of Israel a safe passage. I suppose God could have magically transported the people to the other side of the sea by flying chariots or rainbow bridges. But it didn’t work that way. God didn’t use the magic of escape. God used the faithful action of God’s people.
How can we stay dry amidst the torrents of chaos that surround us today? We walk through the waters by our faith. When we can find no way out, that is the time to trust in the One who has found a way for us forever. The story of the people of God is a story of God’s hand in leading the faithful through flood, over the Red Sea, out of exile, from the belly of the whale, avoiding bloodthirsty Herods, and even the ultimate threat of the cross. A story of deliverance is always told, so we can remember it ourselves, so we can come to believe it in our hearts, and so that can tell others about it. God is mighty to save and God’s purposes cannot be changed by the powers and principalities of the world.
How can we keep dry? By recognizing that our faith is always part of the divine action. Moses didn’t part the waters. God did. But Moses had to stretch out his hand and believe something could happen. His hand became an extension of God’s power. And the people of Israel had to summon the courage to walk through the Red Sea. They weren’t totally passive. They had to have feared, just a little bit that the waters would suddenly return to overwhelm them or that Pharaoh’s army would catch up to them. But their walk was a realization that they recognized the possibility of God’s presence in that moment. Sometimes the only hindrance to God’s saving action in the world is the lack of a faithful response of its possibility by God’s people.
Keeping dry. It is within the power of God. The story of God’s people teaches us that when we cannot see a way out, God can still make a way. Keeping dry. The story of God’s people calls us to be a participant, not just an observer. Let us stretch out our hands over the uncertain waters before us. Let us take those steps toward the possibilities of God before us.