Complementary Text: Matthew 2:13-15
Preaching Text: Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
As the people of Israel huddled by the Red Sea and watched the advance of the Egyptian army, it was probably terrifying to recall just how far the people had come since the days of their ancestor Joseph. It had been centuries, yes, but there had been a time that this people had been welcomed to Egypt with open arms and settled in choice land, all of it a token of appreciation for everything that Joseph had done in bringing that region through seven long years of famine and destruction. Recently, however, a new pharaoh had risen to power, one who didn’t know or much care about the debt that Egypt owed to Joseph and his descendants. On the contrary, he was terrified that this successful and numerous people would turn against him at the earliest opportunity, so he did what many a ruler has tried to do throughout the years: he tried everything possible to break that people, to crush their spirit, to make them so afraid that they wouldn’t dare rise up against their oppressors.
Pharaoh’s strategy may well have worked if Israel had lived alone under the burden of slavery and oppression. That, of course, wasn’t the case. The desperate cry of the Israelites rose up, and the Lord who had brought Joseph to Egypt to bless that nation now heard the pleas of a people in danger of being erased from the pages of history. To save Israel from destruction, God chose Moses – a stranger in a strange land, a mystery to his own people, a traitor to the Egyptians among whom he had been raised – to lead that people out of slavery into freedom. In an epic battle with the Pharaoh (and the gods of Egypt), God unleashed the forces of creation upon the Egyptians, bringing plague after plague upon them until they finally agreed to let the children of Israel go in peace – until they changed their minds again.
The shouts of joy that had echoed from the lips of Israel now became wails of despair. Trapped between the sea and the might of Egypt, the Israelites were once again on the verge of being broken, this time by their fear of the unknown. Moses tried to rally them once more – “Don’t 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!” – but it was hard to see past their desperate situation. Then, to their amazement, they watched as Moses stretched his hand over the sea and the waters parted to form a pathway that brought Israel to freedom and spelled the end of the Pharaoh’s reign of terror and oppression!
The story of the Exodus is arguably the most important story in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of a people united in their struggle against oppression and formed by their experience of God’s gracious deliverance. It is the story of God working through ordinary people to make that deliverance possible. Some of those people are not well-remembered. How often, after all, do we simply pass over the bravery of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied the Pharaoh’s order to eliminate Hebrew boys at birth, a decision that saved Moses’ life long before God called him to leadership? Even Moses, who occupies an almost unparalleled place in the Scriptures, started out as a stuttering wanderer who refused to follow God’s call unless his brother spoke for him! Yet they were all important parts of God’s saving work in bringing Israel from slavery to freedom.
Throughout the centuries, the Exodus has resounded in the lives of countless people who draw strength and encouragement from the truths it communicates to us. The story of the Exodus reveals that God cares deeply for God’s people: that in times of deepest pain, when the powers of this world and the forces of sin and death threaten to overtake us, God hears our cries and acts to redeem and save us. People throughout history have continued to see God’s hand at work in their own struggles for freedom, from 18th century American revolutionaries to 20th century civil rights activists. Wherever people are oppressed, the story of the Exodus stands as a testament to God’s desire for freedom and justice for all God’s people.
We who gather today at St. Paul’s stand with those brothers and sisters in claiming the story of God’s deliverance as our own story. Like the early church, we read the Exodus story in light of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, the one who was obedient even to the point of death so that we who are joined with him in the waters of baptism might be drawn with him through death into new and abundant life. Liberated from the power of sin and the fear of death, we are free to raise our voices in defiance of violence, hatred, conflict, and oppression, to speak truth to power for the cause of justice and peace, to join our hearts and hands in contributing to the healing of our families, our community, our nation, and our world. To be sure, that’s not an easy task. Like Moses, too often we question whether or not we are the right people for the job. We wonder how we could possibly stand up against the powerful and influential. Perhaps we even adopt the mindset of the Israelites, preferring the world we know – as awful as it might sometimes be – to an unknown world, even if that world might be more just, more peaceful, more aligned with God’s purposes.
The good news is that the God who once delivered Israel from slavery with a mighty arm, and who has freed us from the power of sin, death, and the devil, is still working to redeem and save this broken world. Even though things seem dire, God continues to speak to us through the words of Scripture – “Don’t be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today!” – so that in faith we can walk through the waters into the future that God is preparing for us and this world. This week, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks to God for the salvation that has been so graciously given to us, and let us pray that God would inspire us to make that salvation known to others as we work to extend God’s reign of justice and peace in ways both large and small. Amen.