Text: Exodus 14:19-31– The Crossing of the Red Sea
The crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most iconic scenes in the Bible, thanks in no small part to several theatrical treatments. Most, of course, remember Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic treatment in the Ten Commandments, but my personal favourite is an animated version of the film called “The Prince of Egypt.” If you haven’t seen it, do. Especially the crossing of the sea.
A few weeks ago, we met Moses as a child on the banks of the Nile. As the story goes, he grows up, he flees to Sinai, and then God commissions him to be the liberator of his people. We have come a long way.
Now all the people of Israel are gathered at the shore, at the edge of the sea… caught between certain death at the hands of Pharaoh’s soldiers, or to be drowned amongst the dark waters of the sea. Pharaoh had let them go after God had struck Egypt with great and terrible wonders, but it wasn’t willingly. By the time the slaves had made their way towards the shores of the sea, Pharaoh had changed his mind. He would sooner see the slaves dead than free in another land.
Caught between Pharaoh’s murderous rage and the angry waters of the sea, the Hebrew slaves have no way out. They feel betrayed, turning to Moses in their desperation and accusing him of leading them to their doom. When their path is blocked by the sea, and Pharaoh’s army has come to exact their vengeance, the fear of the people is tangible.
They say to Moses,
“Why did you lead us here? Surely we had a better life back there, even if it was merely as slaves in Egypt? You’ve led us out here to die!”
They do have a point. By all accounts, Moses has led them to a dead end, trapped and with nowhere else to go. Sure, there was a sign of the pillar of cloud and fire… but these elements would not hold back a spear tip or a barbed arrow. The soldiers are going to drive the panicking refugees into the sea, to be swallowed up and drowned by the great and terrible deep.
If there was one thing that the Hebrews feared more than Pharaoh’s army, it was the sea. They are a people who like dry land, they liked solid ground. They were a people who lived away from the shorelines… leaving sailing and plying the waters to the Phoenicians or the Egyptians.
To get an idea of how they saw the deep waters, think Jaws, think hurricanes. The great swirling terror of such powerful storms and strange creatures–this is more the great and terrible waters that the Israelites know. It is those images of horror, of churning chaotic waters of swallowing communities whole that give us a glimpse of the kind of terror that the fleeing slaves faced. The “Red Sea” in Hebrew is better translated as the “Reed Sea” –but there is also a play on words here that doesn’t come through in English translation. It can also mean a dead end. Coming up against the sea was the end of the road. Given the choice, going back to slavery or even the soldier’s spear seems like a far more reasonable option.
It is here, in this darkest of places, at this time of deep terror that we experience the greatest of God’s wonders. At this time of greatest despair by the Hebrews, God tells Moses to hold out his staff and point to the one place where the Israelites will not go… This way… Suddenly the waves of the deep are driven back and it’s divided. Through a dead end, a place of certain death, emerges a path of dry land right through the water. They stand at the shore, staring at this new path before them; a new way, just when it seemed that all was lost.
It really does make for good theatre, a people who struggle under the burden of oppression and slavery, who seek to taste freedom… at last they are delivered through the waters of the sea by the hand of God… and we tend to think, “they lived happily ever after!” After all, the crossing of the sea in usually at the climax of the films we have seen.
But that’s our first mistake.
The crossing of the sea is all about a new beginning. It’s not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. Up until this point, it’s been about the struggle for freedom… but the real story begins once they have it. If we think of it this way, the crossing of the Red Sea comes at Chapter 14 of the book of Exodus… Exodus has forty chapters. We’re barely 1/3 of the way into the book, and we’re ready to say that they lived happily ever after.
The crossing of the sea was not the ending, but the beginning of a new story. God gives them safe passage through the very place that they feared the most. Through that which we thought was a dead end, God carves a path to a new beginning. God calls them to move through the waters, through this dead end, to a new beginning, a new hope, and into a new relationship with God. This is what begins the story about a new path to the Promised Land.
Our faith is all about new beginnings. Think about it, where other people see the end of the story, something new happens: a path through the waters, a stone rolled away and an empty tomb. As Christians, as people of faith, God calls us to see new beginnings, where others would see a dead end.
Here in September the summer draws to a close this week, the new school year has begun, our children are going into new grades, new programs are starting throughout the community. We return from our summer holidays and vacation times to what is the real “New Year” in Canada. It seems rather appropriate that we have one of the best stories recalling new beginnings as our text for this Sunday. With any new beginning there is that sense of fear and wondering about what is coming next. A number of you may be starting a new program, some of your children are going to new schools, and some of you are starting at a new school yourself. All new beginnings come at the end of something else… and it often comes with a sense of nervousness and unease. Sometimes we cannot see the new beginning, and feel trapped amidst the chaos of a dead end. Sometimes new beginnings come out of something we never thought possible. God call us to move through those dark and terrible places to a new beginning, a new hope, a new life.
Standing with the Israelites on the shores of the sea, we realize what God has truly done. It is no coincidence that some of the language used in this story echoes those of creation. God brings order to the primordial chaos of creation, dividing the great waters, and forming dry land. Parting the waters of the sea was a reminder to us that we are part of God’s creation, and through the Exodus it begins a new relationship between God and humanity. God delivered and redeemed the slaves of Egypt, brought order to chaos, and shown that the great powers of the earth who’s really in charge. The people of Israel would be forever changed… for this would finally bring an end to their lives of slavery, and bring them into a new chapter in their relationship with God.
When the waters rolled back in front of the fleeing Hebrews, it was still their own choice to flee through this new opening. God did not push them into it, nor were they driven into it by Pharaoh’s forces. Remember that they feared the sea more than they feared Pharaoh. They had the choice to take that step, to overcome that deep seated dread, and to put their trust in God. Taking that step through waters, into the new beginning can be a frightening experience… but it is also where the challenge truly lies. In this season that we mark new beginnings in the church, maybe we open our eyes to the new paths God is calling us to take… daring us to move through it and trust that God is there in the midst of it.