Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sermon: Moses Parts the Waters

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
July 7, 2013
Text: Exodus 14

(Opening/closing line from A River Runs Through It, while spreading blue river cloth down the center aisle.)
“Eventually all things merge into one. And a river runs through it. The river was cut from the world’s great flood and flows over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

We are in week two of our 5-week series on rivers in the bible. Last week we looked at the story of baby Moses in the bulrushes along the Nile River. We saw that from a very young age Moses is inextricably tied to the river. And we learned last week that Moses’ name has more than one meaning. The name in Egyptian means “son”. The Hebrew word “Mosheh” means, “I drew him out of the water.” The word “Masheh” means “the one who draws out.” It is Moses who draws out the people of Israel, pulling them from slavery in the land of Egypt, and, in today’s story, drawing them through the Red Sea unharmed.

Now some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, the Red Sea isn’t a river.” That’s true, but the Red Sea is actually a bit of a misnomer. There is some dispute about the exact location where this parting of the waters took place. Some scholars believe it might actually be at a place called the “Sea of Reeds”, indicating a marshy area where a river empties into the sea.

In any case, a spectacular event took place at this body of water, so you’ll just need to permit me a bit artistic license, or preacher’s license. Because today we will learn that sometimes the river can make you believe in God.

Now in order to do this, we’re going to do a role play here. On this side (pulpit side), you are all Israelites. Let me paint a picture of what your life has been like. Everyone stand up. If you are an adult male, you have worked everyday of your life without a day off, and without pay. Your family is given just enough food to keep you alive. You work carrying huge stones for the Pharaoh’s pyramids. Your Egyptian slave-masters taunt you and mock you, trying to get you to strike back so that they have an excuse to beat you or kill you. You are worked until you collapse and die.

If you are a male under age 30, sit down, because you do not even exist. You were drowned by the Egyptians in the Nile River when you were born.

If you are an adult female, you, too are forced to work on the pyramids. No exception is made for you unless you are pregnant or nursing. Then you are given domestic work in the households of Egyptian women who boss you around and treat you like dirt. Your only children are girls.

If you are one of these girls under 18, you help your mother in whatever task she has. And you are beaten and abused by the Egyptians.

Everyone sit down.

Now on this side of the waters is the Egyptian army. Everyone stand up. If you are an Egyptian, you are especially alarmed about a man named Moses and his brother Aaron who have risen to power among the Hebrew slaves and seem intent on inciting them to riot and overturn the social order. And then, over the past several weeks, a series of natural disasters has befallen your country. The water in the Nile has turned to blood. Frogs infested the land. Gnats and flies attacked in swarms. Disease and boils have afflicted your livestock and everyone’s skin. Terrible thunder and hailstorms caused countless amounts of property damage. Locusts have destroyed the crops. Darkness covered the land for three days. All this, they say, is because this Moses fellow has brought the wrath of the Hebrews God among you. Ridiculous, your friends say. It’s just those slaves trying to scare us into letting them go free. We’re Egyptians, the most powerful nation on the earth! We can withstand this.

But just last night, a terrible epidemic swept through the land which took the lives of every person who was the first-born in their household. So if you are the oldest child in your family, sit down. You’d all be dead. Even Pharaoh’s first born child is dead.

Now, if you’re an Egyptian, you really are scared. Because none of the Hebrew’s first-borns were killed. So you’re convinced, now, that there’s something to this Moses and the Hebrew God. You’ve heard that the Pharaoh has told the Hebrews to leave Egypt, and you agree with him. Enough is enough. They are more trouble than they’re worth.

But then a few days go by. All is quiet. No more plagues. But - nothing is happening in Egypt. No one’s pulling stone up the pyramid. No one’s cleaning your houses. No one’s making your clothes. No one’s cooking or serving your meals. The entire economy has shut down! What are you going to do?

I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, says the Pharaoh. We’re going after them! So he marshals his forces and charges out into the wilderness. And let me tell you, you’ve got the most powerful army with the latest technology. You’ve got chariots! One person drives the horse, one holds the shield for protection, and one hurls the spear. It’s like the ancient version of tanks! And you’re all riding right within sight of this vast stretch of water. And there are the Hebrews. Oh, you’ve got ‘em now - they’re trapped!

[To the Israelites] You’re trapped! Everyone stand up. You’ve got this massive body of water in front of you. You’ve got this massive army behind you. You’ll either be drowned or slaughtered. What are you going to do?  I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, says Moses. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm! Watch what God will do.  Believe in God!”

(fold up the river cloth, reciting Exodus 14:21: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.”)

Now if you’re an Israelite on this side, when I say, “Cross,” I want you to cross the aisle, if you are physically able. Take everything with you. Stay standing when you get there.

And if you are an Egyptian on this side, when I say, “Cross”, you too, cross the aisle if you’re able. Take everything with you. Stay standing when you get there.

Everyone ready? “Cross.” Remember to stay standing. [Congregation crosses.]

Now, again, if you’re an Israelite male under the age of 30, sit down.

And if you’re an Egyptian male between the ages of 18 and 50, sit down. Because you are all in the army, and you have all drowned in the waters.

Israel, whose sons had been marked for death by drowning in the Nile River, were now safe on dry land; while Pharaoh and his army, the sons of Egypt, are swallowed up by the water.  Everyone have a seat.

Sometimes the river can make you believe in God.  You know, the Egyptians finally came to believe in God.  But it happened too late.  They started out across the dry sea thinking, Hey, isn’t this great! We’ll cross right over, too, and get those Israelites once and for all! But little did they know what God had in store for them! You’ve heard of the old 1-2 punch? Well this is a 1-2-3.

First, God looked down on the Egyptians and threw them into a panic. Second, God clogged their chariot wheels. Here they were, this great and powerful army with all the modern technology, the marvel of all the world, literally stuck in the mud.

And third - [Pull water-cloth back down aisle] Moses stretched his hand back over the waters, and that was it. God tossed the army into the sea. Remember I said that the river can sometimes make you believe in God? Well, it happened at that moment for the Egyptians. They finally got it. After all those locusts and frogs and flies and boils and the angel of death, they finally say, “Let us flee, for the Lord is fighting for the Israelites against us!”  The Egyptians finally believed in God. But by then it was too late! By the time the morning sun rises, the Israelites see only the bodies of the Egyptians floating on the shore.

 The  Israelites finally believed, too. They rightly feared this God who could command the waters and destroy the most powerful army in the land. It must have been a humbling moment realizing for the first time they could, indeed, believe in God.

This is one of the most powerful stories of the Bible, because it marks the first time that God stands up for the losers. It is the story that has inspired whole communities of people suffering oppression throughout the centuries. This happened most notably in our own country, where the slave population drew strength and hope for deliverance from this story of the Exodus.

And it’s a story that has inspired individuals as well. You know how there are times in your life when you are caught between a rock and a hard place. Or in this case, between an army and a wet place. And it can send you into a panic, crying out like the Israelites, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Why is this happening to me? I’m trapped! I have no choices left! I’m doomed no matter what happens!” And you’re stuck in that “fight or flight” mode, knowing that either alternative will lead to disaster.

We’ve all been there. Those times in life when you feel like nothing you do will save you. You’ve gotten yourself into a real mess, or someone else has gotten you into a real mess, and you’re doubting yourself, other people, and especially God. You’re standing at the water’s edge feeling like all hope is gone.

If that ever happens in your life, then this is a story for you. Because there are some lessons to be learned here about what to do when you are facing a hopeless situation. The key is to remember Moses’ words, “1) Do not be afraid. Stand firm!” There is something to be said for simply staying put when you’re being attacked on all sides. Notice, Moses doesn’t say, “Run for your lives!” And he doesn’t say, “Prepare yourselves for battle.” He says only to stand firm and to watch what God will do for them.

The second lesson “2) Watch what God will do.” Remember that sometimes God is working in your life even when you don’t realize it. One of the most interesting things about this miracle that people rarely notice is that it happened at night. Remember, verse 21 tells us that the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land.

It must have been extremely frightening being told to go forward in the darkness of night. This is what we might call a leap of faith, taking a deep breath and taking that first step, expecting to feel cold water swirling around your feet and legs, but instead - it’s dry. You take another step. Still dry. On and on you walk, your mouth hanging open, wondering what’s going on here? And before you know it, the entire population of the Israelites has crossed over on dry land and is standing on the other side.

So the third lesson is - 3) “Believe in God!” Watch for what God may be doing in your life to open up a way you had never even dreamed possible. Remember, God is always thinking outside the box, so to speak. And a solution may be blowing your way like a strong east wind.

So when you are in that place where there seems to be no options, no way out, and no hope, I want you to remember these words that Moses spoke to the Hebrews and the lessons they teach us: “1) Do not be afraid! Stand firm! 2) Watch what God will do. 3) Believe in God!”

Sometimes the river can make you believe in God. You have only to stand firm, trust God, and then take those steps on dry land.


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