At the Red Sea

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 13:17-14:31

In the movie, “The Patriot,” set in 1776, Mel Gibson plays an American colonial landowner named Benjamin Martin, who reluctantly joins the rebellion against the British Crown after one of his sons is arrested by the British for being a spy and threatened with execution.  For his trouble, Martin’s home is burned, two of his sons are killed, and he nearly loses his life in hand-to-hand combat against a brutal, sociopathic British officer named Tavington.  But by luck as much as by skill, Martin manages to survive. He witnesses the colonies’ independence and eventually returns to a new home.

Though fictional, “The Patriot” has a strong element of truth. It captures just how much courage it took for the colonists to rebel against the might of the British Empire…and how lucky they were to win.  For those who knew how close it came to collapsing at the beginning, the outcome of the revolution, as George Washington once said, was “almost a miracle”!

Had the colonists lost…there probably wouldn’t be a United States of America.  The population would have been kept confined to the east coast because the British wanted to keep the interior unsettled for fur trading.  Without a United States the Comanche Empire on the Great Plains might have remained and developed.  Texas, Arizona, parts of the Southwest might have remained in Mexican control, making Mexico a greater power.

And certainly, had the Revolution turned out differently, King George III would have made good on his threat of 1775  to “bring to punishment the authors, perpetrators, and abetters of such traitorous designs.” And those towering figures, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and the others, they would have been marched to the gallows.  It was almost a miracle they were not!

We have come to Israel’s Independence Day.  Pharaoh has finally “Let [God’s] people go.”  Broken by the plague of death he decreed, “Get out!”  It wasn’t almost a miracle…the whole thing has been entirely miraculous.  And that makes folks squirm.

In today’s episode we have the famous crossing of the Red Sea.  In Hebrew the name of that body of water is Yam Suph, meaning the Sea of Reeds, the Reed Sea.  Well, potāto-potăto.

Oh, but calling it the Reed Sea is all the excuse some critics need to escape the whole subject of miracle.  “Not the Red Sea,” they say, “the Reed Sea!  It’s just some estuary nearby.  And the only thing that really happened that day is the ground near this Reed Sea was squishy so that Pharaoh’s chariots got their wheels stuck.  And while they were busy calling Triple A for a tow, the Israelites escaped.  QED.  As for the rest of the story, aah, it’s only fictional fluff to pump up Moses’ reputation.”

Yeah, well…not for nothing do Bible critics often sound like they’re not playing with a full deck!  “Oh yeah?” they respond.  “Where’s the proof that it happened?!”  Well, what kind of proof do they think there should be?  A rock on the bottom of the Red Sea with some graffiti?  “Moses was here.”  Petrified footprints in the seabed?  Maybe the remains of some chariot wheels?

A few years ago a man made a name for himself by discovering chariot wheels on the bottom of the Red Sea.  Proof that it really happened.  Except, turns out the man himself put those wheels there.  But even if someone were to discover an ancient chariot wheel on the bottom of the Red Sea, the only thing that proves is that a chariot wheel got to the bottom of the Red Sea!

But the point of the Exodus is not simply the miraculous nature of what happened.  That’s why it’s always a fool’s game to try to prove or disprove the thing.  God has a maddening habit—maddening to both skeptic and believer—a maddening habit of doing things which leave no material trace of His hand at work.  God’s fingerprints are mighty elusive to the proof-seeker…but to faith, those fingerprints are everywhere!

So here’s the point of the story.  In 13:17, as Israel departs from slavery God leads them not by the convenient road along the Mediterranean Sea, but down into the wilderness near the Red Sea.  V3, “Pharaoh will say…‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’”

God deliberately leads His people into a trap.  Even the worst general knows not to put all your forces up against the sea where there is no escape.  But the sheer impossibility of this situation is how God, v4, “will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host.”

It reminds me of dat time ven Sven & Ole vent into dis little chocolate shop.  The shop vas so busy no vun paid da two any mind.  On der vay out, Sven said to Ole, “Ya, I’m da best thief!  I took 3 chocolate bars from da shop and no vun saw me!”  “Oh ya?” Ole replied.  “Dat’s nothin’…I can do better dan dat!”  “Uff da,” said Sven.  “Show me!”  So dey vent back into dat chocolate shop and Ole vent up to the shopkeeper and asked, “Vould yoo like to see some magic?”  “Ya,” da man replied.  “Give me a chocolate bar,” Ole asked.  Da man gave him a chocolate bar, and Ole ate it right down.  “Give me anudder vun,” he said. And he ate dat vun too, right ver he stood.  “Now give me a third chocolate bar.”  And, of course, he ate it right up.  “Ta-da!”  Ole announced proudly.

The shopkeeper got angry.  “Hey, yoo said you vere going to do some magic!”  Ole replied calmly, “Ya…yust look in Sven’s pocket and you’ll find all three chocolate bars!”

That’s what God is doing.  He is using Pharaoh’s own power and glory against him. God is stealing from Pharaoh and giving it to Israel.  Just as He will do on the cross with Jesus.  By death Jesus conquers death.  With His back against the impenetrable sea of the grave, Jesus will cross over and emerge on the other side.

It’s the same thing God does in our baptism, our own Red Sea crossing.  The water drowns our Egyptians, our sin, “the good we would but don’t and the evil we would not but do.”  The whole host of it is drowned.  And yet our Israel, our faith, emerges from the water, is raised alive, and we are free.  “Where’s the proof?”  Oh, Baptism’s critics are legion.  “It’s only water.  Nothing happened.”

But faith holds to what God has said.  In Baptism He says, “If we have been united with [Christ] in a death like His, we shall certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” About the cross He says, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” And that’s all the proof faith needs.  God has said it.

Well, back at the Red/Reed Sea, things look desperate.  The Israelites can put two and two together.  Coming at them in fury is the host of Pharaoh’s chariots.  Behind them is the Sea.

And guess who they turn on?  V11, “They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  V12, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

Ah, but Moses, like Ole in the chocolate shop, Moses knows the sleight of hand that God is capable of!  He is a different man now than he was at the beginning.  No longer the sniveling coward looking for a way out.  Moses has been remade by the plagues on Egypt to see how God smoothly steals Egypt’s glory for Himself.

V13, “And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today.  For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent.’”

Now Moses isn’t saying this from some safe distance on the other side. He’s right there with Israel in that mess.  But Moses speaks in faith, just like Jesus on the cross.  “Father, into Your hands…”  And God does what no human mind could conceive.

V19, the pillar of cloud and fire which has been leading Israel so far comes to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  V21, Moses lifts up that famous staff over the Red Sea, the Reed Sea, “and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters divided.”  “A strong east wind all night.”  Not exactly as Cecil B. DeMille portrays it, but God doesn’t have to use any special effects.

And who knows but that Israel was suddenly more afraid of that parted sea than Pharaoh’s chariots.  Yet away they went, trusting what Moses said about God fighting for them.  And despite any fear, they lived and watched in victorious horror and wonder as that Reed/Red Sea came crashing back onto those pursuing charioteers.  In chapter 15, they celebrate their independence day with musical fireworks.  V1, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea.”

It’s what we sing at Easter, because only God could part the silent tomb like the waves of this Sea.  It’s what we sing at a baptism, for only God could do in that water all that He promises to do for us.  And by His hand…we are free.  Not almost…it is a miracle.  The very thing that would have sent us to the depths of hell, is stolen by the nail-pierced hands of Christ.  The very sweet gifts that would lift that Son to glory have now been placed into our own pockets by Christ’s sleight of hand.  And our faith sings, v2, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.”

But…Independence does not end at a great victory.  Now comes the wilderness…as our nation’s Founders learned after Yorktown…as the disciples discovered in those years following Easter…as we learn throughout life following our baptism.  Yes, it is a great victory.  The Lord has triumphed gloriously!  But not yet the Promised Land.  Now comes the wilderness with all of it’s trials of faith.  Next week!