Sermon for Sunday September 14, 2008, Exodus 14:19-29
(The sermon was preceded by a slideshow of images depicting the “Crossing of the Red Sea” and pictures of people crossing through calm and troubled waters, set to the Dave Matthews song “Where Are You Going?)”
The Book of Exodus is an amazing story of epic proportions. With its array of heroes and villains, mystery and suspense, danger, action and adventure, horror, romance, and drama, it’s not surprising that Exodus continually captivates us and draws us deeper into the story time after time. Exodus has been told in a variety of powerful ways, each one providing a new insight to our understanding of the story.
Most of us, I suppose, read Exodus, and immediately recall images from the larger than life 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments, starring the rugged square jawed Charlton Heston as Moses. Others, particularly children, youth and young adults, likely recall the 1998 landmark animated film The Prince of Egypt starring action star Val Kilmer as the voice of God’s chosen liberator.
Each film presents a stirring interpretation of the story of the shepherd Moses who is called by God (through a burning bush) to go to Pharaoh and demand that God’s people, the Israelites, be released from Egyptian slavery. The story reaches a climatic turning point as Moses and the Israelites eventually flee from Egypt with Pharaoh’s army nipping at their heels. The Israelites mood quickly goes from joy to fear as they realize that they may not make it to freedom. They cry out to God and then say 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? It would have been easier for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Moses urges the Israelites to be patient, to trust in God’s protection but the people remain frightened.
But then comes that moment when we as the readers know something incredible is about to happen that’s going to make a profound impression: God tells Moses to lift up his staff and stretch his hand over the sea and divide it so the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground!
And without hesitation ole Moses lifts up his staff and stretches his hand out over the sea, and God divides the Red Sea with an east wind that allows the Israelites to go into the sea on dry ground, waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left!
That is the part of the Exodus story many of us know very well. Both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt re-imagine this scene in grand fashion, painting a heroic characterization of Moses as the one man who could do it all with God on his side.
But let’s consider for a moment a not-so-well known story where Moses has to rely on the help of a fellow Hebrew to get the people to cross the Red Sea. The Jewish Midrash “Between Pharaoh and the Deep Red Sea,” provides some interesting insights about how the journey through the waters is not meant for one person to do alone.
The Midrash—a fantastic interpretation of scripture by rabbis—suggests that Moses had an extremely difficult time convincing the Israelites to trust in God and go into the water which would immediately be divided. When the Israelites refuse to budge and go any further…
Moses felt a deep pain in his heart (and thinks to himself): “Will my brethren fail in this emergency? Won’t they show absolute faith in God’s words?” But the next moment he heard a splash, and saw how Nachshon the son of Aminadav jumped into the sea.
No sooner did Nachson’s feet touch the waters of the Red Sea than the waters split into 12 lanes, one for each tribe, and the children of Israel rushed down to the bed of the sea…Jubilantly the children of Israel were crossing the Red Sea, and wonder of wonders! On each side of them the mighty waters of the sea piled up like crystal walls and formed a ceiling over their heads, so that they were passing through tunnels which God had carved out for them in the sea.
Moses’ assurances that God would protect the Israelites inspired Nachson to jump into the sea first which eventually inspired the people to move forward together through the waters to a land of freedom and promise. And while Nachson’s faith is not mentioned in the Torah or the Bible, the midrash underscore a prevalent theme in Exodus: Moses is never leading by himself. He always has others helping him do what’s best for all of God’s people.
When God first calls Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Moses is not sure Pharaoh will listen to him because he is a stutterer and a poor speaker. So God instructs Aaron, a more fluent speaker, to go with Moses to talk to Pharaoh.
Shortly after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites begin to complain about not having any water to drink. Moses tries to assure them that God will provide, but the people refuse to listen and threaten to stone him. A desperate Moses cries out to God who tells him to get the elders together and go to Mt. Horeb to strike water from a rock.
Several days later, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, the priest of the foreign land of Midian, visits the Israelites camp in the wilderness. While he is there, Jethro notices that Moses spends the entire day, from sunrise to sunset, working as a judge for the people of Israel. Folks wait in the baking sun for hours to present their arguments and concerns before Moses. Jethro tells his son-in-law that if he keeps working like this, he’ll wear out himself and the people. Jethro offers to assist Moses, suggesting that he look for the most capable folks who can serve as judges for the people at all times.
Throughout the Exodus, God, through Moses, inspires all of the Israelites to be servant leaders—to be a community of people who take care of one another along the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. This is most evident in modern art and animated versions of the Exodus, in which the Israelites help the children, the elderly, the crippled and the sick cross over the rocky path and prevent the people from veering too close to the walls of water where dangerous sea creatures reside.
Knowing that the Israelites are supporting each other through the waters and in the presence of God’s power gives me hope when I see images from the devastating hurricanes, tsunamis and floods that have affected so many lives across the globe. In many of the modern day photographs, it’s not one person trudging through those flood waters but many people pushing through together and helping one another in the difficult parts of the journey.
Even in photos where the waters are not as threatening as those in the midst of storms, there are often two or more people going through the waters of God’s creation together: Athletes swimming; a family walking near a reflecting pool; a father teaching his son how to walk in the ocean surf; a group of friends paddling through the rapids; a man getting baptized with other church members in a river…
I experienced what it was like to go through the waters about a month ago when I went with the High School youth on a trip to Lake Keowee just across the South Carolina border. Considering it was my first time with the youth of this church, I had to jump right in and get my feet wet…literally!
Jumping in and embracing that initial sensation of cold water takes a bit for me to process. I have to really psych myself up for it. With the encouraging cheers of the youth and advisors, though, I did it and it felt great! It got me so pumped that I decided to go tubing with Tyler Kallgren and Jackson Millway on the back of Bob Stuke’s speed boat. Bob drove and Zach Ruege sat at the back of the boat to keep a watchful eye on the tube riders—Tyler and me on one tube and Jackson on the other. The ride was awesome…and a little scary because I’m bouncing up and down on the tube, twisting this way and that at high speeds with the water spraying in your face. After several minutes, I fell off the tube because I couldn’t hold on any longer, and as I was going underwater, my thought for a couple of seconds was, “Uh oh.”
And yet, I knew immediately as I came back up to the surface that I was ok because there were people with me in those waters. There was Zach who told Bob that I had fallen off the tube which prompted Bob to turn the boat around. There was Tyler and Jackson who helped me back on the tube. And, I do believe, there was God in the midst of it all helping us get through those waters together that day.
We are a people whose purpose is to always travel through the troubled, amazing and peaceful rivers of life together.
Even when it appears that a person is traveling unaccompanied through those waters, as some images indicate, those individuals—like the man struggling to keep his head and car above water or the teenage girl walking through puddles late at night—are never truly alone. God is actively present with the individual just the same as God is present with a group of people. And we are meant to witness God’s presence by being with those who feel as if they are always alone in the murky waters of life.
All of us are heading through the waters to the Promised Land—to that place where heaven meets earth. That place where we are and will be forever claimed, renewed and restored as children of God. If along the way to that place, we are growing weary, be assured that we can rest with God and one another until a brighter day. Where God goes through the waters is where we want to be.