10As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13But Moses said to the people, “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 you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” 15Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. (Exodus 14:10-16, NRSV)
The great escape started with such promise. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites, under the capable leadership of Moses, finally made a break for it. Pharaoh begrudgingly liberated the Israelites after enduring a series of terrible plagues inflicted by Israel’s God. Everyone figured he’d change his mind in the light of day. So this was it. Time was short. The newly freed slaves grabbed what they could carry, earthenware pots and wooden spoons, a bag of flour and the baby who just learned to crawl. It was pure mayhem.
This was no orderly exodus. No one had time to celebrate. They moved as quickly as their legs would carry them, as if their lives depended on it, because their lives did indeed depend on it. All went well as they trudged through the desert night. But just after sunrise, the sound they heard made them tremble with fear—the mighty Egyptian army was in hot pursuit on horses and in chariots. Knowing they would be overtaken soon, the Israelites glanced ahead and felt their hearts sink, for ahead of them loomed the Red Sea. So here they were between the devil and the deep blue sea—a hostile army preparing to crush them and an angry sea waiting to swallow them.
In the blink of an eye the Israelites turned on their heroic leader, Moses. “Why did you do this to us? What were you thinking? We told you it would never work. But no, you with your song and dance routine hood winked us into this disaster. We would rather be slaves in Egypt than die in this godforsaken wilderness.”
What could he say? Moses’ life had been in jeopardy from the beginning. From the very first time he walked into Pharaoh’s palace trying to cut a deal, his head had been on the chopping block. And yet, following God’s directives, Moses went before Pharaoh time and time again. Warning of one plague and then another. When Pharaoh finally relented, Moses hurried to lead the people out of Egypt as quickly as possible. But now the people had lost faith, and for good reason, obviously this was the end of the road. In only a short time, they would die.
This was the moment of decision. What would they do? They could turn around, hold up their hands in defeat and hope the Egyptians might spare them, since their slave labor would still be useful. Or they could do what, swim for their lives? Who knew what to do? Again the burden falls on Moses, who believed that God had not brought them this far to abandon them now. In today’s text Moses says to the people, “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 you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:13-14). These were audacious and outlandish words flowing out of Moses’ mouth. In essence he said, “Keep the faith. Don’t throw in the towel. Don’t let yourselves be enslaved once again. Trust. Believe. God will make a way out of no way.”
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Half way up the mountain only to discover that the climb is harder than we thought. Should we give up, turn around, and walk back down with our heads hung low?
Canadian minister, Reverend Barry Robinson writes, “Trust was the issue. Would the people trust God and trust that deepest place within themselves that allowed them to have faith in God once the moment of their defiance melted away? This was no Patrick Henry moment. ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ They knew that there would be no battle. Pharaoh was a formidable foe. They could no more stop him than they could stop the wind...[Moses said to them]‘Do not be afraid, stand firm…’There comes a moment of unearthly silence when we stand firm in our resolve…a moment when we must wait upon our own convictions…to see what God will do because it is the only thing we can do…There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes. That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future…When no one can see a way for us to the other side. When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity, and integrity. The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.”
In verses 15 and 16 we read, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground’” (Exodus 14:15-16). It is as if God says, “Why are you whining? Did you think I had forgotten you? Did you think I had no plan? Go forward. Take one more step in the direction of faith…Oh, and Moses, lift up your staff and open a dry path through the middle of the sea.” At first I imagine Moses is shaking his head yes. “You tell ‘em Lord. I know. I know. You free them from slavery and now they want to go back to Egypt. I keep telling them, keep the faith. Keep the faith. Well, what are you going to do?” And then God tells Moses to lift his walking stick in the air. “I keep telling them, keep the faith and say what? Do what? God, your bright idea is for me to wave my staff up in the air? Am I going to fight off Pharaoh’s army with my staff? I’m not a one man fighting machine. Great plan God! You know maybe Egypt wasn’t that bad after all.” And God replies, “Don’t be ridiculous Moses. You’re not raising your staff to fight. You’re raising your staff out of faith, faith that I can deliver you.” Moses says under his breath, “Well here goes nothing.” Wrong. No sooner had Moses raised his staff than the waters parted and with no time to lose, the Israelites streamed onto the dry path.
Couldn’t the Egyptians pursue them across God’s newly opened superhighway? “Not to worry,” God says. “You get across and these miracle miles will disappear as quickly as they were created.” And so they did.
With whom do you identify in the story? Hopefully not Pharaoh and the Egyptian army. We can all relate to the Israelites. When the going gets tough, the timid turn around and go back to Egypt. We all want to throw in the towel sometimes. Wasn’t it enough that their people had suffered in slavery for 400 years? Wasn’t it enough that they had to run for their lives? Weren’t things supposed to get easier at some point? Leaving Egypt is never as easy as we think it should be. We chomp at the bit to make a change, to be free of dire circumstances, to start over. And then we take a few steps in to the unknown only to discover that maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. No it wasn’t perfect, but at least we knew what to expect. So what do we do?
Those of us who are slaves to our jobs, to abuse, addiction, anxiety, despair, or hopelessness need God’s help. And most of the time God works through a Moses—someone who believes in us, believes for us. Someone who will hold our hand through the swirling storm and lead us forward to a new tomorrow. We need God to send us a Moses in the form of a teacher, a coach, a doctor, a psychologist, an AA sponsor, a mentor. None of us got where we are in life alone. With any luck we had supportive families and good friends. With any luck we met the right person at the right time.
Australian minister, Reverend Bruce Prewer writes, “Those who trust God, who live by faith, find divine co-incidences happening to them and through them. I use the word ‘co-incidence’ advisedly. The word literally means two events occurring together. If someone says to us: ‘It was just a co-incidence’ they may think they are giving an explanation, but they are not. They are merely reiterating that two things have happened together; co-incidents…. I believe that many of the miracles of God consist in having the right person in the right place at the right time. A divinely inspired coincidence. Moses, who was utterly devoted to God, was often the right person in the right place at the right time.”
Not only do we need Moses, but God needs to use us as a Moses in someone else’s life. In AA, once you have had a sponsor for some time and have reached a certain level in your sobriety, it is expected that you will become a sponsor and encourage someone else. At some point it is our turn to be Moses.
We all need encouragement and we need to encourage others. We need to be taught and we need to teach others. We need love and we need to love others. When we meet someone stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, we need to say, “Keep the faith. Hold on. Don’t give up.” After all, it was Jesus who said, “Ask and it shall be given unto you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will open” (Matthew 7:7). AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
July 23, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Compassionate God, Jesus told us to ask, see, and knock. But sometimes this gets us nowhere. Sometimes we want to give up. Sometimes we don’t feel we can take another step. In these moments of discouragement, give us courage and strength. Remind us to hold on through the storm, to keep the faith no matter how dire the circumstance. Send people to inspire and support us. Send people to help show us the way. And when our turn comes to offer love, wisdom, and guidance, may we do so with the very best of intentions.
Through Jesus Christ we pray. AMEN.