A sermon for Proper 19; Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
I have mentioned our family beach traditions. One of my favorite is riding the waves. We love the rough water; wading out waist to chest deep, waiting for the perfect wave, timing it just right and riding it in using your body as a surfboard. It is exhilarating. There are moments not quite as exciting but are none the less memorable. There are times when the water going back into the ocean is literally rushing, so much so it can knock you down, and pull you out to sea. Hurricane Irma delivered an extreme example when all the water on some west coast beaches was blown out to sea. There are also times when the waves break unexpectedly; on more than one occasion I remember being hammered as a wave, taller than me, broke right on top of me driving me into ocean bed. Irma delivered an extreme example of this when all the water blown out to sea came rushing back. All the stories showing people walking on dry ocean floor warned people not to stay because the water would come back violently and far too fast for them to get out of the way. Irma’s blowing the ocean away and the ocean rushing back sounds a bit like this morning’s exodus story of crossing the Red Sea; except for the walls of water on either side. However, before we get there, let’s review what happened after last week’s Passover liturgical story.
The Passover Liturgy is given through Moses to Israel. That night death swept across the land. We touched on the complex reality that the story includes the death of every 1st born male (child or animal) in every Egyptian household, irrespective of their role in the oppression of Israel. Egypt is so mortified and terrified, that Pharaoh allows Israel to go. They also gave Israel a bounty of silver, and gold jewelry, and clothing (Exodus 12:35). There are additional liturgical instructions for unleavened bread and for the redemption of firstborn sons. Then, after 420 years, Israel, 600,000 strong, sets out. They wander around in the wilderness for a time and the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night (Exodus 13:21). Then Pharaoh has a change of heart, gathers 600 chariots and goes after Israel. Chariots functioned mainly as vehicles for archers, who were relatively safe on their mobile platform; think tank. The typical number of chariots deployed is 200 to 250; so, 600 chariots is much larger than anyone would ever expect. Collectively they are a weapon of mass destruction, which is Pharaoh’s intent (Keener and Walton). Egypt catches up to Israel at the sea side; Israel complains:
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? 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. (Ex 14:11-12)
Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today (Exodus 14:13)
We pick up the story this morning with the Angel of God and the Cloud swapping places.
We all know Israel walks across the dry sea bed to freedom, and the Egyptian army is completely destroyed. As with last week’s story there is a difficult bit of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart which leads to the death of the Egyptian soldiers. There is no reason to hash that point again. What is interesting in today’s reading; however, are the references to creation stories, both from Genesis and of the surrounding cultures.
Israel is between the waters of the sea and the Egyptian army. God and Moses encourage them to go on. They would of course, except to move on is to enter the deadly waters of the sea. The sea is an image similar to the chaos that cover the face of the earth, before creation, it is a symbol of death (Bratt). In Isaiah, we read about God who “pierced” the sea “dragon Rahab” (another name for Leviathan) “and dried up the sea” to make a way for Israel out of Egypt (Isaiah 51:9-10) (Harrelson).
The story is also recounted in Psalm 74 (vs 12-15).
We heard this morning that The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night (Exodus 14:21); ‘wind’ is the same word in Genesis 1:2 a ‘wind’ from God swept over the face of the waters. (Olive Tree); thus, “God does a deed as powerful, original, and life-giving as the very newness of creation” (Harrelson, Brueggeman). I wonder if future stories about Irma will evoke similar memories? Or, if the story of new creation within Exodus will inspire recovery efforts in the devastation following any disaster, to be a commitment to a new creation?
In surrounding cultures, there are similar stories. Baal defeats Yam and Nahar, the “sea and river” gods, marking a victory for order, creation, and fertility. Babylon’s god Marduk defeats Tiamat, a sea monster, in the creation myth of Enuma Elish (Harrelson).
God’s control of the sea is central to Israel’s salvation story; it begins with the story of crossing the Red Sea and ends with Israel crossing the Jordan River, which God dries up so Israel can enter the promised land (Josh 4-5) (Harrelson). God not only shows Israel the path, God clears the way; more than seven times.
Another piece of the story found in surrounding countries is the Cloud. For Israel, the cloud is a rear guard protecting their escape. It also provides light at night (Brueggeman); it takes a while for 600,000 people to move even a short distance. The cloud brings darkness to the Egyptians, a reminder of the 3 days of darkness of the 9th Plague (Exodus 10:22) and yet another symbol of the “pre-creation chaos” (Bratt) earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, (Genesis 1:2).
The Hittites have stories of gods coming to their aid causing it to rain, and sending a cloud that causes darkness so their enemy could not see their camp, or goes before their troops hiding them (Keener and Walton).
Creating light and darkness are part of the Genesis creation story (Bratt). In the control of both the chaos of water, and control of the dark and light we begin to see that Israel’s’ exodus is also Israel’s new creation. (Sigmon).
One more little creation related bit. In observing Yahweh’s control over the chaos of water and the light and dark, the Egyptian Army recognizes that Yahweh not Pharaoh, or any other Egyptian god, is the Lord of all creation. This is a key lesson of the Genesis creation stories. The sovereignty of God, revealed in binding and losing the chaos of water, is significant to Israel coming to faith (Bratt).
So, this is where all this leads. Not unlike ancient Israel our world is shaken. We face our own exodus from the known, that is, to the unknown, that is to come. There are uncontrolled tyrants, of international, national, business, and faith persuasion, threatening all kinds of people, including us, with all kinds of weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t matter if it is
- the North Korean nuclear missiles,
- or the loss of medical care or the DACA program,
- or the rise of Neo Nazi, white supremacy,
- or leftist purists driving any and all dissenters away,
- or voraciously greedy financiers,
- or corporate executives,
- or degenerate ministers and priests,
- or corrupt local, state, or nation politicians,
- or dominating local school teachers,
tyrants disrupt our world; they bring fear into our hearts. Such fear often provokes the worst in all of us. We may seek to return to the known, as difficult, and oppressive as it is. Or we may abandon the core of our faith, and anoint our own abusive oppressive tactics with divine imprimatur, the authority of God.
- We forget the beginning of Jesus last days. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, not a horse, which is a symbol of imperial power and an integral part of the Roman Legions, the emperors’ weapon of mass destruction.
- We forget, God alone has the power to cast out the tyrant’s weapons of mass destruction; God alone cast the horse and rider, the purveyors of chaos, fear, and oppression, into the sea (Sigmon).
- We forget, God alone brings creation, light, and life, out of chaos, darkness, and death.
- We forget, the amazing grace and love of God, who is the singular causal act of creation, has, and is, and will bring new creation out of existential exodus.
In the mist of your exodus from the known, that is, to the unknown, that is to come, trust the Spirit to direct and rule your hearts, revealing the images of creation, in which the divine shows you your path, and clears the way to a new creation, renewed life in the presence of God.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 19 A Exodus 14:19-31 . 17 9 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Brueggeman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 9 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31. 17 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.