"Look for the Point!"

Date Sunday September 17, 2017
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Finitum Capax Infiniti!"

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Exodus 14:19-31



     Let the whining begin!

    The people of Israel have barely left Egypt, freed from slavery, when doubt and fear overtakes them and the begin to whine. (Unfortunately, this becomes a pattern as their story unfolds.) As we continue our focus on the Old Testament, remember that God sent Moses and Aaron to seek the freedom of the Israelites from the Egyptian Pharaoh. That freedom is secured after the 10th plague, which killed the first born in every Egyptian household. The Israelites, however, were saved by the blood of the sacrificial lamb, placed on their doorways as a sign – the plague passed over their homes.

     Overwhelmed by his own, and others’ grief and fear, Pharaoh told them to leave; so after 430 years in Egypt the descendants of Abraham and Sarah set out. But, instead of going the direct route, where there was the chance of enemy attack, we read that God led them the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds), and God went ahead of them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

     Sounds good so far; so why did I mention whining? Well, it seems that God purposely hardened the Pharaoh’s heart so that he changed his mind and sent his armies after the fleeing Israelites. Why would God do that? Could it be that God wants the Israelites to learn about trust?

      Listen to this: “As 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. They 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?’ But 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 who see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have to keep still.’ (Exodus 14:10-11, 13-14)

     Keep still? That’s hardly the case! In my imagination, I see horses and chariots gaining on the Israelites as they trudge along on foot – the elderly, the toddlers and teens, the men and women, along with livestock – and the more ground the horses cover, the louder their crying becomes. But then, suddenly, the cloud that has been leading them moves to following them, cutting off the Egyptians’ advance. And, as they reach the body of water that stretches out before them, it becomes a passage way rather than a barrier.

     Moses raises his hand and the water follows his command. The rest, as they say, is history. The Israelites cross to the other side, with the cloud bringing up the rear. The Egyptians attempt to follow, their chariots (which turn out not to be a great military advantage) get stuck in the mud, they panic and try to retreat, but drown as the water returns to its normal place.

     The fear of the Israelites is transformed into fear of the Lord, at least temporarily. They are overwhelmed by awe and wonder at what God has done, and their doubt becomes faith. They have new life and new purpose, because of God who heard their cries for help while they were slaves in Egypt and delivered them. So, today’s passage ends with the proclamation that because of all that has happened they believe in the Lord, and in Moses, the Lord’s servant.

     Whenever this story is one of our Sunday readings, and I spend time studying it, I always run across a debate concerning whether or not the parting of the sea really happened. Was it a historical event? After all, it cannot be proven, and a likely body of water, or its remnants, have not been located.

     Also, scholars have spent a lot of time contemplating whether or not there are two accounts of how God parts the sea in the very same passage. On the one hand, the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind, creating a passage-way (think of low tide at the sea shore). Or, on the other hand, the more dramatic method of creating a pathway, with walls of water on both sides. Are there two options, and if so, which one is right?

     These discussions always end (at least in the sources I’m reading) not with concrete answers, but with a statement that it does not matter who is right, or if the story is historical, because the point of the story is, well, is the point.  

     More than a few scholars write that the central message is found in Moses’ response to the Israelites’ fear. “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” In other words, God will act. It’s not up to you. And, in fact, what better illustration is there of that than being at the edge of a large body of water while the enemy is fast approaching from the only possible escape route?

     The message is that God is the God of life, writes Old Testament scholar John Holbert, and God is ever active against the forces of death. He points out that, “this story has sustained Judaism for three millennia through horrific persecutions and hatred and rejection throughout the centuries and in nearly all lands of the world. The history of the thing is beside the point. It is the story that counts.” (1)

     Or, I might put it this way … it doesn’t matter to me how historical many of the Bible’s stories are, what matters is what they teach us about God, and how they impact how we live. So, if we are tempted to whine, doubt and give in to fear, today’s message is: God will act.

     The Bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Golf Synod, Pastor Michael Rinehart, is a seminary classmate and friend of mine. I’ve been following his posts on Facebook of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, from when it was arriving, until today.

     He has shown admirable leadership in the midst of horrendous circumstances, but his message has been simple. It has been a variety of ways of saying: God loves us. God is with us. God will act.”

     Last week he shared photos of people cleaning out their homes, with the help of Lutherans who were doing ELCA Day of Service activities. It was appalling to see the furniture, books, carpeting, appliances piled in front of people’s houses. Anything that was located below six-feet-high had to be trashed because it had become trash.

     Now just pause of a moment and think about the first floor and basement of your home. (In my case, the first floor is the only floor.) What would you be putting out on the lawn as trash? Would it matter to you? We’d like to say, “no”, but I imagine it would matter – even though most of us would be grateful if our loved ones were safe.

     Now, think about the scene when more than three feet of rain was falling, and the streets were filling. It’s fair to say, I think, that in that situation we would feel somewhat like the Israelites trapped between the water and the Egyptians. Trusting in God would be our only hope.

    When we feel caught, God acts. Admittedly, not always as we might have hoped, but … God acts. That’s what Bishop Rinehart is testifying to on Facebook, that over and over and over again, God is acting, primarily through God’s people.

     And that, my friends, is the point. AMEN


(1)   “Resurrection by Another Name: Reflections on Exodus 14-15” by John Holbert, April 20, 2014, www.patheos.com