Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
SERMON “Cross the Divide”
Rev. Alex Rodgers
January 9, 2022
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Cross the Divide (Parting of the Red Sea)
This morning we continue with the theme of Baptize and our text comes from Exodus. It is the pivotal deliverance story for the people of Israel. Moses has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they are in the midst of their escape with the Egyptian army close on their heels. The Red Sea is before them and the Egyptian army is behind. The Israelites are definitely in the wilderness now and they are afraid. To turn back would mean, at best, enslavement and, at worst, death. There doesn’t appear to be a way forward. They are stuck: between the devil they know and the devil they don’t; between an untenable situation and an impossibility; between death and no clear path. In your bulletin the text is listed as Exodus 14:10-31 though I will only read 10-16.
We probably know the next bit. The Israelites walk on dry ground through the sea, the Egyptians follow and meet a watery end. God’s power and glory and might are on full display. The Israelites, these nobodies are saved. This group of people who had no discernable identity became God’s chosen people. Their fear turned to faith and not for the last time. This is a story that repeats itself over and over again in a variety of different ways perhaps in less dramatic ways but it happens again and again. In the face of fear and doubt and impossibility, God’s people are met with a way forward, nourishment in the wilderness, God’s power and mercy and grace: salvation. Now, you’d think the parting of the sea would guarantee their faith in God, wouldn’t you? You’d think that crossing this divide from death to life would convince them of God’s faithfulness, right? Surely they’ll never be fearful again, never question God’s purposes again, never cry out in despair again. They’ll definitely trust God from now on, right? If only. The truth is we human beings tend to be stubborn creatures and even on our best days we are all too often governed by fear.
It is fear that cried to Moses “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” It is fear that makes rash decisions. It is fear that mires us in place, afraid to go forward or backwards. Fear makes us believe we’re all alone. Fear keeps us small. Fear robs us of hope, joy, and possibility. It is fear that blinds us to God’s goodness, grace, mercy, salvation. Throughout the biblical narrative we see what happens when people are afraid. Reflecting on epiphany this week, when the wise travelers followed the star to find Jesus they did so at the insistence of Herod who didn’t actually want to worship the child. Herod wanted to kill the child because he was afraid of losing power. And just to be safe he killed every child in the land under the age of two. That murderous rampage didn’t halt God’s plans, though. It didn’t prevent God from coming into the world. Fear is a powerful motivator and though we may not go to the same extremes as Herod we allow fear to have too much sway in our lives.
The biblical narrative tells us how to combat fear. For God did not give us a spirit of fear it says in 1 Timothy. And perfect love casts out fear it says in 1 John. God is love we are told implicitly and explicitly all throughout our sacred text. In love, God led the Israelites out of Egypt through the wilderness. In love, God saved the people time and time again. In love, God came into this world to be one of us. In love, God gave us his only Son Jesus who died and rose so that we might live. And when we look down deep into our hearts and souls we know this to be true: God is love. When you are loved by God, when you live a life of love, you have nothing to fear. Fear cannot halt God’s purposes. Fear cannot triumph over love. Fear does not get the last word. So, it makes sense that the God who claims us and calls us by name and loves us would provide a way when there appears to be none.
I wonder, who among us has not been caught between a rock and a hard place, the Egyptian army and the Red Sea? Who among us has not felt stuck and unsure of where to go from here? Who among us has never faced an unknown future with no clear path? I’d venture to guess that we all feel that way now to one degree or another. What happens next? Where do we go from here? It’s the question every church is asking right now whether you have a pastor leaving or not. It’s not clear, you see. Nobody knows where to go from here. It’s looking a lot like the wilderness. So we can try to go back or we can stay still right where we are or we can move forward into the unknown. Fear of the unknown is what calls us to go back. It feels safer. It feels comfortable. We think the expectations are clearer. I think we know that we can’t go back, though. And we’re not quite sure what going forward looks like. That’s when it’s awfully tempting to stay stuck. What if we just hunker down and not ask too many questions? What if we just do things the way we’ve always done? Well, that doesn’t seem right either. The answer must be to move forward. Moving forward requires risk. What if there’s a wall of water up ahead? What do we do then? What if everything is different and the landscape is wild and we don’t know what to do?
The Israelites were in a life or death situation that they interpreted as death or death (the Egyptian army behind and a body of water ahead.) What they didn’t know at that moment was that the God who claimed them as God’s own would provide a way. Impossibly, improbably the waters part, dry land appears. Sometimes that’s exactly what salvation looks like: a way where there appeared to be no way, possibility when all seemed impossible, getting unstuck and moving forward in faith, getting out of our own way and trusting that God is up to something good. Love provides the way, you see. God’s call and claim on our lives empowers us to do what seems impossible. God’s call and claim on our lives empowers us to do what we thought we couldn’t do. It’s the nudge, the push, the shove out of complacency and fear.
For weeks now I’ve thought what a strange idea to read the Exodus story and the parting of the Red Sea in light of baptism but the longer I have sat with this story of deliverance the more it makes sense to me. The waters of baptism are meant to represent a journey from death to life, a dying and rising, a passing through that which feels dangerous and risky as we say ‘yes’ to God’s call and claim on our lives. As we say to God, “I love you, too.” We go into the water and we come out on the other side empowered to live a life of faith. We go into the water and we come out on the other side knowing that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations. We go into the water and we come out on the other side knowing that God is with us no matter what. This is the promise to which we cling, the foundation on which we stand.
Annie Dillard famously said “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” I’ve often heard this quotation in regard to baptism for this life of faith is not a life of certainty and safety. It is a life of risk and challenge. It is a life which calls us to courageously or with fear and trembling walk forward in faith. I’m not actually sure that courage is required, just a willingness to take one step and then another and another. Scripture reminds us, too, that the wilderness isn’t as scary as we make it out to be. Growth and challenge, revelation and transformation can happen in the wild places of our lives. This life of faith is a life which calls us to live with love as our guiding star and to set aside and cast out all fear.
The prophet Isaiah gives us these words: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
There are no ‘ifs’ here: when you pass through the waters, when you walk through fire. That’s the guarantee, my friends. “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today” The Israelites had to be reminded of God’s faithfulness again and again and again. We need that reminder, too. We are saved at every turn: from our fears, our selfishness, our certainty. We are called and claimed and loved by God who calls us forward into each unknown. Impossibly, improbably, the waters part and dry land appears.
Thanks be to God.
Rev Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Januray 9, 2022