Sunday, September 23, 2018

Forward in Faith—a sermon on crossing the Red Sea

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Forward In Faith
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-16, 19-29
23 September 2018, NL1-4 (skipped 3), Forward in Faith 3

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!’ So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’
Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.’ Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.


Can you imagine what it must have been like, to stand there at the shore of the sea? Before us, the water, whipped by the wind...the sea had long been a symbol of chaos and destruction, ever since that story of the flood. And behind us, the dust cloud churned up by the thousands of chariot wheels carrying Pharaoh’s army toward us. Nowhere to go, seemingly no hope, anxiety and certain death at every turn.

Listen to the Israelites, when they see the problem they are in: “were there no graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt? It was better in Egypt!” 

Their rose-coloured glasses have erased the memories of being enslaved, of being persecuted, of having their children thrown into the Nile, of being abused by their Egyptian taskmasters. 

Some might say they are finally honestly facing up to the reality of their situation. Others might say that fear has clouded their judgment. Others might point out that they mentioned Egypt five times in about fifteen seconds...they have so thoroughly turned their eyes back to where they came from. The mixture of fear and nostalgia has filled their minds and hearts, and all their thought is of Egypt.

Moses turns their eyes back where they belong: “you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. Pay attention to God.” 

Moses stands there, looking at the entire population of his people, at the shore of the sea, with the dust cloud of chariots coming nearer, and reminds them what is really true: they belong to God, and despite the picture they have painted of despair, of their best days being behind them, of their fear...despite all of that, God is still an active player in this story. So he tells them: “stand firm and you will see.” 

I think one of the greatest laugh lines of Scripture is the next moment, when God then turns around and says “move on!” Every time it cracks me up that Moses says “Stand firm!” And God says “Go forward!” But once I get over how funny I think that is, I can picture it. The people were shaking in their sandals. Some may have been inching backward. Others trying to slink off unnoticed, and maybe make a life for themselves in the desert. Most were likely that fearful combination of paralysed and quivering, easily manipulated into any shape a leader might want to take advantage of. Moses turns their eyes from Egypt to God, and then God gives them the instruction: Forward.

But forward means into the sea.

There is a wonderful midrash, a story the rabbis told about this moment, recorded in the Talmud, the Jewish teachings about scripture. In this story, the Israelites heard the order from God: Go forward...and they looked at the roiling sea and hesitated. The pillar of fire and cloud moved behind them, separating them from the Egyptians, so they could no longer look back. They looked at the sea. Moses stretched out his hand, and the Israelites looked at the sea...until a man called Nachshon, brother-in-law of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses and Miriam, took the first step. He walked into the sea, up to his ankles...up to his knees...he kept walking, and the people watched...up to his waist, up to his chest...still he walked forward in faith. Up to his shoulders, up to his chin...and then suddenly the waters parted, and he stood on dry ground, going on, just as God had called. He went forward and the way appeared, and the whole body of the Israelites walked across, with a wall of water on one side and the other. 

Remember back in the first creation story, the one that’s very orderly and poetic? It says that God separated light and dark...and then separated the waters, on the earth and over the earth...and then drove back the seas to create land, separating the water further. Here it is again: though the sea is a symbol of chaos and destruction, God uses them to create something new. But this time the people will have to wade in to be re-created in God’s image, to be reminded of who is really sovereign—God, and not Pharaoh, not their fear, not their memories of the past, not the way they have always done things. They will have to go forward in faith.

The same is still true. How often do we stand at the shore of the sea, looking forward at chaos and uncertainty, and turning back to look instead at our mixture of fear and nostalgia? It feels almost like an epidemic in the Church. We remember days gone by, we lament that we can’t seem to go back there, and we resign ourselves to drowning under the crashing waves of secularisation and a shortage of ministers and two missing generations in our pews. Too often, I think, we are like the Israelites whose thoughts are filled with Egypt, and we forget that God is still an active player in this story. Even once we turn our eyes away from the dust cloud that threatens us with obscurity, all we see is the sea of decline, blocking our way.

What would happen if we waded in?

It might be uncomfortable at first. We might get knocked down by waves, or find it hard to see with the spray in our eyes. We might feel like we’re alone out there.

We might also feel the waves carrying us. We might feel buoyant. 

We might feel like our footing is unsure, or like one more step is impossible.

And that might be the moment a way opens before us and God re-creates the world and the Church again.

There are big challenges facing the Church of Scotland. We have taken for granted our position in the culture, and the people who make up the church, and the passing on of faith. The world has changed more than the church has—and of course some things are unchangeable, and will always be unpopular with the rest of the world, but some things we hold on to out of nostalgia or fear, not because they are eternal or essential. There are many congregations struggling, and many parishes without a minister, and the projections are fairly dire. In ten years half of the parishes in the Church of Scotland will not have a minister. Everyone is scrambling trying to figure out what to do. We feel caught between the Egyptians and the Sea, and fear feels like the order of the day.

I hope we can turn our eyes to God, who is still the author of and main character in our story. I hope we can let go of the narrative that says the best days of God’s church are behind us. I hope we can wade in, each in our way, and play our part in God’s re-creation, finding ways to share the good news of what God has already done for us and the vision of what God is still doing. 

Some of us clergy are working on ideas and plans to try new things, to work together as a group of parishes here and in the west end of Greenock. There is a lot of uncertainty around the presbytery plan, and the strategic plan of the General Assembly and what it might mean, and the options for a new structure that would be fit for purpose...and so some of us are seizing that moment to forge something together. We hope you will join in the process of discerning where God is calling us, and how we can best be the Church serving the community here. No one is currently planning a union or anything, we are just wading in to the idea of partnership for the sake of the gospel, recognising that our parish boundaries are not God’s boundaries. We are taking God at his word and going on, with hope that we will see God’s new thing being created in our midst.

God is always calling us forward in faith. 
To be the Body of Christ, light for the world. 
To live filled with the creative spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control....the Spirit which makes a way where there seemed no way.
May we wade in!

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