10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “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. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”
19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
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. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged[a]their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
1 Peter 2:10
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
We have begun a series on baptism this month. I took two weeks off for the holidays and missed the first in the series. In that first week, Tully Fletcher (our new associate minister) emphasized both the corporate nature and the enduring inclusiveness of the sacrament. Baptism is the sacrament to mark how we belong to God and the way we belong to each other.
The Exodus and our Baptism announce and celebrate a new way of living that was previously unimaginable. The Israelites fleeing Egypt had no idea what they were getting into anymore than an infant has any idea what it means to be a Christian. That is a lifelong process. A group of nobodies came to understand that they mattered and that God was with them. Secular values that defined importance and worth were turned on their head—a wonder to the Israelites and enraging to the powerful. It is a story that is told every year at Passover, it is foundational to the identity of the Jewish people—and by extension, it is foundational for us. The New Testament version is 1 Peter: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people…”. We believe that new identity is transformational.
I need to point out we spent a fair amount of time in FIRL discussing specific details in the narrative that can pull our attention from its central point. When we read about the sea parting, God hardening the hearts of the Egyptians to enhance his own reputation and then drowning a whole army who were ready to retreat, the details of the Exodus point to a violent, self aggrandizing God who manipulates people into belief. All of those elements are recorded in the narrative. But, such interpretations reflect our point of view as much as they inform us of the writer’s intentions.
Once again, we can only use words we know to describe what we don’t know. The same was true in the writing of Exodus. The cosmology of the day suggested that the God of thunder and lightning would defeat the God of flowers and sunshine every time. A people who failed or a people who struggled had a weak God. God was viewed through a human understanding of power. This God punched the bully in the face. He showed them. That is a very human way to view protection. Protection and connection were to be defined in new depth in the servant kingship of Jesus.
The focus upon the ‘how’ of deliverance however, distracts us from the miracle of deliverance. This scripture is not a history lesson, it is the record of how a people came to understand their God. In fact, there is no secular documentation of the event but none of that changes the deeply held faith that they believed God chose them and delivered them into new life. If we focus upon literal history, we will miss a God of compassion who sees people, no matter their station in life, as uniquely valuable. For reasons beyond human understanding, God chose a group of refugees whose lives had been spent at the bottom of the social totem pole. Their deliverance and new found identity was unexpected and improbable. They were not even particularly good or faithful people. They were ordinary people. Even in this brief passage, they were a complaining and ungrateful people— “For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” They wanted freedom—but not at the cost of living and dying in the wilderness. They, like most of us, wanted a God who would protect them on their terms. They were to spend the next several thousand years making sense of ‘God with us’.
Remember, as a child, wishing you were a grown up. For most of us, that meant we could do whatever we wanted. We could stay up late and have as much candy as we wanted. Little did we know that the ‘freedom’ from grown ups telling us what to do meant entering the wilderness of adulthood. (In such a wilderness, it doesn’t take long for us to yearn to be protected as children). Real life is full of uncertainty and hardship and most of us wish it were otherwise. We would much prefer a God who fixes things to a God who walks with us. We, like the Israelites, will tend to imagine that God is with us when our enemies are being defeated.
The concept that God is with us even in the most extreme hardships took another 2000 years. We are still struggling with that one but we celebrate that new reality with each baptism. Before we have a clue what it means to be an adult, much less a Christian, we are part of God’s family. We matter. We are loved. Our baptism takes us beyond God’s loving a particular people to God loving all people. Secular rules of inclusion and worth are broken. There is no earning our way. The gratitude of Passover extends to each of us as we accept that we belong and we are loved. It is the foundation of our lives and our faith.
May each of us remember our baptism—which announces and promises that no matter who we are, we belong; we are accepted and we are loved.
Let it be so.