God with Us: Moses Parts the Red Sea
Exodus 14:5-7, 10-16, 21-29
We are in the fourth week of our sermon series on God With Us. We are following the Narrative Lectionary this fall which is taking us on a journey through the Old Testament. We are able to see the order in which things happened and we are learning how to find the Gospel in these Old Testament texts. Today we are reading a very iconic text. In the New Testament, God is known as the God who raised Jesus from the dead. That action defines who God is. In the Old Testament, God is known as the God who rescued Israel from slavery and parted the Red Sea. That action defines who God is in the Old Testament. Let’s see what we can learn about God from this action and what it teaches us about God being with us.
Before we dig into this text, however, I’d like to say that this story should not make us feel biased against Egypt. As we know from our own political landscape today, politics change. When the movie Exodus: God and Kings came out, there were a lot of people who suddenly decided that they did not like Egypt anymore. It is important to remember that Egypt also has positive roles in the Bible as well. The Pharaoh who knew Joseph put Joseph in charge of the whole country. And when Jesus was pursued by Herod as an infant, Egypt provided shelter for the Holy Family (as we read in Matthew). We have to remember that all people are made in the image of God regardless of where they are from and that we cannot judge others based on the diverse political landscapes that we find in the various Biblical texts.
As I said before, God is defined by the resurrection in the New Testament and by the parting of the Red Sea in the Old Testament. Let’s unpack God’s association with the resurrection first. Of course, we understand God’s work through Jesus’ death and resurrection to be for the forgiveness of sins. But, in addition to that, when we look at how God acts, we can learn about God’s character. When we understand that God is a God of resurrection, it teaches us that God takes us from death to life, from suffering to peace, from wounds to healing, from brokenness to wholeness. We learn this from the the resurrection because that is what happened to Jesus through the cross. He died and was raised, he suffered but was brought to peace, he was wounded but then healed, he was broken but made whole. The New Testament is clear that through baptism we enter into Jesus’ death and resurrection so that what he went through is what we will go through. God will bring us from death to life, from suffering to peace, from wounds to healing, from brokenness to wholeness throughout our lives. This is true in this life AND in the next life. This is how God works now and this is how God works in eternity. This is what the New Testament teaches us about God through the resurrection.
What do we learn about God’s character and God being with us through the iconic story of the parting of the Red Sea? We learn that God is a God of liberation. In the story of the parting of the Red Sea we learn that God will take us from bondage to freedom. Now, this can apply to our lives in many different ways. We will sing / we have sung hymn #708, When Israel was in Egypt’s land because it is an African American spiritual. This story was so important to African slaves in the United States because in it, God liberated Israel from slavery. It is easy to see the connection to real life when we have an obvious case of slavery and the road to freedom. But how does this text apply to our lives if we are not slaves?
We can find ourselves living in bondage even when we are not technically slaves. The Bible talks about being in bondage to sin. Sins can hold us hostage or enslave us to destructive behaviours. It can seem impossible to be freed from that. Also, things like addiction can hold us in bondage. We cannot control addiction and when it takes control of us, finding freedom from it is a long and difficult journey that often requires miracles to be successful. Another thing that can hold us in bondage is fear. Fear can keep us from living freely. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the truth. Fear can enslave us. Another thing, is that unjust systems can hold us in bondage. Systemic racism, sexism, and classism can also function in our lives as a form of bondage. Those who experience these unjust systems seek liberation so that all can be treated equally.
What about those of us who do not experience these types of bondages? In those cases, we can identify with Moses who walked alongside the Israelites as God led them on an uncertain and miraculous journey to freedom. Moses was living in Pharaoh’s household. God called him to lead Israel to freedom, but he could have refused. It’s like the story of Esther, which we will come back to during Advent. In chapter 4:14, Esther is told, “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter… Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” When we think of Moses’ calling, God appearing as a burning bush, perhaps we might think that this appearance of God would be impossible to refuse. But, it’s important to remember that God does not assert control over us, but rather gives us the choice to follow God or not. Moses chose to leave his life of luxury in order to lead the Israelites on a difficult and uncertain journey from bondage to freedom. Those of us who do not experience bondage in this life can look to Moses for inspiration in how accompany people who do need to walk through their own Red Sea.
Let’s look in more detail at what happens here in order to get a better understanding of how this unfolded and who God is as a God of liberation. In the verses of this story that we have today, what we learn about God being with us is that God will lead us from bondage to freedom, God will make a way when there is no way, and that God will send people to help us.
When we start on the road, following God, from bondage to freedom, often it is hard to stay on it when the going gets tough. The Israelites at first gathered all of their courage to follow Moses, but once they saw that they were being pursued, they changed their minds in verse 11 & 12. With the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them they did not see a way to freedom anymore. They saw only death. How often this happens to us. The road from bondage to freedom can be terrible. It makes me think of the opioid crisis that we are facing. The road to freedom from addiction to opioids, or from any substance for that matter, is incredible painful. Withdrawal is terrible and picking up the pieces of your life seems like an impossible task. The Israelites felt this way about facing the Red Sea. They did not see it as a way to freedom, but as a wall that would enable Pharaoh’s army to catch them and kill them. So they cried out and said at the end of verse 12 that it would be have been better to have stayed as slaves in Egypt than to face death by Pharaoh’s army against the shores of the Red Sea. How often this happens to us, that we become so afraid of the troubles that we face on the road to freedom that we choose to turn back and remain in bondage.
Moses responds to their fear in verses 13 and 14 by telling them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today [in other words, the forces that have kept you in bondage that you see today] you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Moses is encouraging them not to turn back to their bondage. That if they feel so frightened that they cannot move toward freedom any longer, that they should at least stand still and not turn back. Stand firm and trust in God that God will lead you on your next step. Trust in God that God will make the next step possible. Trust in God that God will make a way where there is no way. That if we have lost all of our courage, at least stand still and seek God, but don’t turn back.
God made a way for them when they thought there was no way. God parted the Red Sea. The Red Sea was transformed from a roadblock into a road. It was a miracle. It was a scary road, though. We see in verse 21 that this happened at night. And we see in verse 22 that the water formed walls on their right and on their left. The pillar of fire was between the Israelites and the Egyptian army so that there was light at the beginning of the road through the Red Sea, but they had to walk away from the light and into the darkness. There was no ambient light like we have today. It would have been very dark and very creepy to walk through the bottom of the Red Sea at night. God made a way where there was no way, but it was not an easy road. This often happens to us. There is a way out of our bondage but the road is hard. Do we have the courage to follow God on it?
Thankfully, God sent Moses to lead them. They needed Moses. Every time the going got tough, the Israelites lost their courage. We saw that at one point they wished they had stayed in bondage. My guess is that fear of the Egyptian army was the only thing that hurried them through the Red Sea road. And then in the next chapter they start complaining again because they were having trouble finding water, then they complained about having no food so God sent manna and then they complained about the manna. The Israelites could never have done this on their own. God made miracles happen and made a way where there was no way AND God sent someone to help them, to lead them. God sent Moses, someone who was NOT in bondage to help the Israelites on their journey from bondage to freedom. Sometimes we need someone to accompany us. We need a counsellor or a doctor, we need a friend or a mentor, we need a pastor or an elder...we often need help when we find ourselves on a journey from bondage to freedom.
I imagine that many of us find ourselves on both sides of this throughout our lives. Sometimes we are called to help others walk through the Red Sea, and sometimes we need help finding liberation ourselves. The thing that strikes me about Moses’ actions here is that when the going gets tough, he does not leave the Israelites to what looks like certain death. He stays with them, deciding that their fate will be his fate. When God responds to Moses in verses 15 & 16, God says that the Israelites should go forward and that Moses should lift up his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea in order to divide it. It is through Moses that God made a way to liberation. It is through Moses that God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites “may go into the sea on dry ground.” God didn’t need Moses, but the Israelites needed him. And so God sent him, someone who was not in bondage, to help them follow God from bondage to freedom.
This iconic story of God parting the Red Sea teaches us that God is a God of liberation. God will lead us from bondage to freedom; God will make a way where there is no way; and God will send people to help us. Do we have the courage to follow God from bondage to freedom? Do we have the courage to accompany others as they walk through their own equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea? God is with us no matter which role we are called to. Throughout our lives God is working for liberation as the God who rescued the Israelites from slavery and parted the Red Sea. Thanks be to God. Amen.