A Difficult Path: A sermon based on Exodus 14
This story is one of the greatest moments in the Old Testament. God shows himself as a freer of slaves, a protector of the helpless, an oppressor of tyrants. Certainly this is good news, wonderful news! For this is how we can anticipate how God will work in the world! Yet the people of God went on a very difficult pa th to get there. God showed great power, but the Israelites went through great suffering. Why doesn’t God just show these magnificat acts of power, why does suffering and slavery need to be such a big part of God’s people’s story? Why did these people have to submit to forced labour? Why were some of the women sexually exploited? Why were they subjected to genocide with their babies being thrown into the Nile. Why were they beaten when they couldn’t deliver the brick quota Pharaoh forced on them? Why did they find themselves underneath the rule of that tyrannical egomaniac? Why did they find themselves trapped between the sea and the most powerful military force in the world bearing down on them. This story shows God as a rescuer, but wouldn’t it be better if none of that happened in the first place? You know the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The chapter we just read had a megaton of cure — the cloud and fire protecting the Israelites, the breath of God splitting the sea, the enemies of God being drowned as the watery walls collapse on them. But as people who follow God, wouldn’t we prefer God to give us an ounce of prevention, prevent calamity from ever touching our lives? Why doesn’t God just start out with an ounce of prevention?
Let’s make sure we don’t let ourselves off the hook by simply talking about free will and God was responding to bad human choices. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant promise to Abraham, saying that Abraham’s descendants will become a great nation. God then says this to Abraham, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be slaves for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” This prophecy happened roughly 700 years before the story we heard this morning. If God foresaw this coming, why didn’t he stop it? Surely then there must have been some ounce of prevention. Abraham’s great great grandson, Joseph, was in Egypt. Joseph invited his dad, Jacob, to bring his family down to Egypt. Jacob certainly knew the prophecy about their family becoming enslaved in Egypt. As he was about to depart for Egypt, Jacob grew a little troubled. Certainly this was the moment for the ounce of prevention, when God would say, “Do not go, for there you will be enslaved by the Egyptians. Instead, God appeared to Jacob in a dream, and said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” The disaster of Egypt for the people of Israel did not take God by surprise, and there were plenty of opportunities for an ounce of prevention. Why doesn’t God use an ounce of prevention?
According to what God said to Jacob, its not about prevention or cure at all. It’s about God’s purpose. God said “Go to Egypt, there I will make you a great nation.” Everything that happened in Egypt was working towards God’s purposes of forming the people of Israel into a nation. This is a deep and difficult lesson. God uses everything in this sordid story of Egyptian enslavement to bring about His purposes. This is what faith is all about. Faith is trusting that our good God can and will accomplish his good and perfect will in our circumstances, even slavery. There was a priest named Pere de Caussade who wrote a book called Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. In that book he says that the most important spiritual practice we can do is to trust God with whatever comes your way. He says our number one spiritual practice is trusting God to work His will in us through all circumstances. “God carries out very successfully His designs on souls under these obscuring veils (such as) misfortune, bodily infirmities and spiritual weakness. God arranges and prepares His highest designs by means of these things so distressing to nature. In the shadow of death He produces life, and though the senses are terrified, faith, taking all for the best, is full of courage and assurance.” Paul puts it this way, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” That’s what slavery in Egypt is about, and the crossing through the Red Sea is a testimony that God’s purposes are being accomplished.
James Byran Smith tells a personal story of how he came to this sort of faith in his book, The Good and Beautiful God. He and his wife were in the doctors office when he got the news that the little girl they had been carrying for eight months was going to be born with a rare chromosomal disorder that would likely cause her to die at birth. Their daughter Madeline, survived birth and lived for two years, but it was a painful two years of being in and out of hospitals, in despair, desolation, sadness and suspicion of God. Smith said that after two years “her little body finally gave up the fight,” and people began making the most ignorant and tactless comments, like “Its okay honey, you can have another child.” “Well, I’m sure the Lord had a reason for this.” “I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than he wanted her here.” He said the god they talked about was just too mean or too small. At the end of the chapter, he described a time of prayer when he was wrestling with God in his pain, grieving “the sleepless nights, the time in hospital floors, the soul wrenching pain of burying his daughter, and he said to God without thinking, “Maybe it would have been better if she had never been born”’. He said he immediately heard the voice of a little girl in his mind, a voice he had never heard but recognized immediately as Madeline’s. She said, “Daddy, you should never say that. If I had never been born, I would not be here now. I am so happy here in heaven, and one day you and Mom and Jacob will come and see me, and we will live forever together. And there is more good that has happened because of me that you can’t see now but will one day understand.” In this story its not about an ounce of prevention, God could have prevented Madeline’s Illness. In this story it’s not about cure, he could have cured Madeline as well. In this story James Bryan Smith got a glimpse of God’s purposes through tragedy. He said that as a result of that moment, he began to “see how a person could face tragedy and still say “God is good to me,” to understand how Job could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” and to know how Jesus could tremble in a garden and still call his Father, “Abba.”
This dad had to travel a lot of ground before he could get to that place of saying God is good to me. Yet God was faithful in leading him there. God leads us into faith by the most difficult, twisted, desolate and lonely paths. That’s the path along which He led the Israelites as He brought them out of slavery. He did not lead them by the most direct path. In fact, the way he led them looked confusing and strange. To those watching, like Pharaoh, it looked like the people were lost. To those on that path, they must have thought God led them right into a trap. They must of thought, “what kid of God is this?” With their back up against the wall of the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s Army bearing down on them, they were learning the spiritual practice of trusting that all things work for the good of those who love God. In the midst of that lesson, they cried out in terror, “Was to it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt?” Moses responds attempting to teach a lesson about faith. To trust that even in the worst circumstances, you are not beyond God’s purposes. He says, “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.”
Moses’ word is the same word that Paul said in Romans, Causade said in his book, and its the same word that Madeline said to her daddy. Be still and trust. Trust that God is working for your good in what appears to be your annihilation. Be still and trust. Of course, there are times when God calls us to act, and there are times when he calls us to be still. Earlier God called the Israelites to physically get up and walk out of Egypt, and now he calls them to be still. Whether he calls us to action, or he calls us to be still, He is calling us to trust that He will accomplish His good purposes in whatever comes our way. It won’t feel good. Often it can feel terrible. The Israelites were terrified. Cassaude says you’ll feel like a piece of wood that’s being carved in the hand of a great master. “The wood feels nothing but the cruel edge of the chisel cutting it away and destroying it, for the wood being chipped by repeated blows is totally unaware that it is being carved into the figure of a beautiful statue. The wood only feels the chisel which is reducing it in size, is beating it, cutting it and changing its shape.” If you asked the wood “what is happening to you,” it might answer, “Don’t ask me. I do not know what the master is doing or what I am being turned into by his work; I only know that whatever he is doing is best and most perfect, and I accept each blow of the chisel as the most excellent thing for me, although to speak the truth every blow makes me feel that I am being ruined, defaced and destroyed.” The road to that sort of faith is long and painful. But notice that in this little illustration, the focus of the stone isn’t on what is causing his pain, the focus is on the goodness of the master. The Israelites can only keep their head if they don’t focus on the Egyptians and their chariots and their entrapment by the Red Sea. They will only be able to keep their head if they focus on the Pilar of Fire and Cloud that represents God’s presence among them. To keep their head, to keep their faith, they must fix their eyes not on what’s going on around them, but rather on the hand of God. On the journey of trusting God in whatever comes our way we must train our eyes to look continually to Jesus.
If we look to our circumstances, we will despair. If our eyes first look to the waves around us, we will sink. If our eyes look to the strength of our enemies, we will surrender. If we look at our blocked path forward, we will retreat. We need faith is that there is so much that we can’t see. The Israelites couldn’t can’t see the path through the sea. They couldn’t see the walls of water that would drown their enemies. They couldn’t foresee how the powerful hand of God would bring them into a new land. We need faith because we cannot see what the Lord is up to. Exodus 14:21 says “The Lord drove the sea back with a mighty east wind all night, and he made the sea dry ground.” This is a new act of Creation. Remember the Creation story of Genesis begins with the Ruach of God blowing over the waters? Ruach can be translated, Spirit, or Breath, or Wind. That’s the same thing that happens in the crossing of the Red Sea. The Ruach of God blows over the waters, and the waters are separated and dry land appears just like in the first chapter of Genesis. A new creation is emerging, and this time it’s a people, a nation of priests intended to be a light for the world around them. When we emerge from God’s purposes we will look at ourselves and discover that in Christ we are a new creation, that through the pain of being chipped and carved God has made you into a work of art. The passage says that the waters weren’t just divided, they were split. Just like you would split wood with an axe. This is a violent word. In the midst of his new act of creation, God also obliterates the obstacles blocking the path of His people. When those obstacles no longer serve his purpose, they will be decimated. Finally, as Pharaoh and his army chase after the people of God, the walls of water fall upon and engulf the army. In the next chapter Moses sings about how God’s furry consumed Pharaoh’s Chariots like stubble. They were kindling wood for God’s wrath. Injustice, abuse, idolatry will be subject to the fire of God’s judgment, and God will swallow up His enemies. Our challenge is to trust in Moses’ word, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
This was the path that God led the Israelites on towards fulfilling his purposes. The path went through slavery, bondage, exploitation, misery, cruelty, and death. There are no shortcuts, there is no map, but the outcome is sure. God’s purposes will be fulfilled and the outcome will be beautiful beyond description.
How are you on the path? Are you in the middle of a story and can’t picture a pathway through the sea. Fix your eyes not on the obstacles around you, fix your eyes not on the power of those opposing you, fix your eye not on your own miserable condition. Fix your eyes on the one who carves paths through the sea. Trust in His goodness. Trust that He is alongside you, whether your path runs through green pastures, along quiet waters or through the valley of the shadow of death. He is with you. Learn to trust Jesus, your master, in all things, in all circumstances, for he loves you and shall bring you through to the other side.