Proper 19A

September 08, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 18:21-35

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Exodus 14:19-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Sample Sermons

    “Israel’s Red Sea and Ours”

    When you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, most everything you believe, or thought you believed, is sorely tested. In times of crisis all the old pat answers, all the most tried-and-true aphorisms, all those seemingly sturdy slogans which had previously supported you suddenly begin to feel brittle, and some of them crumble to dust. When your back is to the wall, even those things you yourself once said to people sound only irritating when others now speak them to you in your own dark night of the soul.

    Years ago the fine teacher and author Lewis Smedes preached at my church as a guest pastor and he told me he would be preaching on themes related to the providence of God. I offered to pick out the hymns for that service, which was fine with Lew but he made clear to me that he did not want any hymns that talked about God’s moving in any “mysterious ways” with bitter buds becoming lovely flowers.

    His request to avoid that song came back to me when reading Smedes’ beautiful final book/memoir, My God and I. In the chapter where he tells about the death of his first child, Smedes candidly says that when people tried to comfort him by reminding him that “God is in control,” in his heart he replied, “Not this time.” In referring to that hymn, one line of which says that “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain,” Smedes wrote that he doesn’t want God to make plain bad events because that must mean they weren’t bad after all.  Yet our hearts tell us otherwise. We know they were bad and wrong.

    When you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, much that you previously believed will be tested, refined, clarified. Hopefully your faith will come out stronger and more honest as a result. But there is also the possibility, grim though it is to admit, that your faith may be so badly shaken as to lead you, however briefly, to despair.

    Israel was freshly released from a centuries-long captivity in Egypt when suddenly the people hit a dead end, and things unravel with remarkable swiftness. In an ironic twist, Exodus 14 shows both the Pharaoh and the Israelites in complete agreement for the first time in this book.  But once he recovers from his grief over the death of his son, Pharaoh wakes up as from a bad dream and immediately reverts to his long-held stance that the Israelites belonged in Egypt. “Those people belong here, under my thumb!” the Pharaoh declares. A few verses later when Egypt tries to retrieve its lost property, the Israelites say the same thing to Moses. “Why did you take us out of Egypt! We belong there, under the Pharaoh’s thumb! Didn’t we tell you that we liked it there!”

    It was a ludicrous thing for the people to say, though it won’t be the last time they will hanker to go back to Egypt. Never mind the deaths of their babies in the Nile, never mind the way attractive women were raped and old men were beaten to death by cruel taskmasters, never mind the back-breaking labor and the sheer grimness of life back there. All of that evaporates, vanishes from their hearts and minds and so suddenly Egypt starts to look like Club Med compared to death in the desert. With Egypt behind them and the sea before them, the people felt desperately afraid and so could no longer believe they had a bright future. Even God could not help them now.

    We know this story very well, of course. Whether or not we understand the panic the people felt, whether or not we can approve of the dreadful things they said about God and about Moses’ leadership, the fact is we know what is next. The sea will open up, they will pass safely through, Egypt will be defeated by that same sea, and the people will repent of their prior doubts, giving praise to Yahweh who had truly revealed his might.

    We know what happens but do we know why? When I was a child, I always assumed that the Israelites bumped into this Red Sea barrier for the same reason a westward trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will eventually cause you to bump into Lake Michigan; namely, because it’s there, it’s wide, it is in the way and one does not quickly skirt around it. True, you can go around such a big lake, but it takes a while and if an army happens to be hot on your heels, taking the long way around is not much of an option.   In other words, I assumed the Israelites ran up to the brink of the sea because to get from Point A to Point B in a straight line, there was no choice but to run into this water hazard eventually.

    But it’s not quite that simple. Scholars have long disputed just what body of water this is. The original Hebrew seems to say this was the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea, though no one knows where the Reed Sea would be located if that is its real name. Some think it was a marshy expanse of the southern Mediterranean Sea, others are not certain where it might be.

    But the precise location is not the issue. Given where the Israelites started out in the northernmost portion of Egypt, and considering they were headed for Canaan sharply northeast of Egypt, it was not inevitable that their path would cross any bodies of water. As even Exodus 13:18 admits, God quite literally went out of his way to get the people stuck in front of a body of water. Given the vast tracks of arid desert in that part of the world, encountering a body of water was not like coming up against Lake Michigan en route from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee. It was more like deciding to go from Grand Rapids to Detroit but then choosing to do so by way of Cleveland, finally crossing Lake Erie westward to get to Detroit!

    Why did God need this watery crossing?

    Perhaps because Israel needed to be baptized.

    Because Exodus is a theological sequel to the Book of Genesis. In Genesis the original creation emerged from the waters of chaos through God’s careful separating of the waters from the waters and the waters from the dry land. So now in Exodus God’s act of new creation through Israel must also include a separating of waters so that life can emerge from death, cosmos can once again triumph over chaos.

    Beginning with the creation account, and continuing all the way through our baptism into Christ, water plays a key role in Scripture. The Flood narrative in Genesis is a story of un-creation in which the same waters that drowned the other creatures in the chaos of sin lifted up Noah’s ark to preserve that family and all the creatures in the ark. Earlier in Exodus the waters of the Nile became a graveyard for Israelite babies as a direct result of the chaos incarnated by the Pharaoh himself. Again, however, those same waters buoyed up Moses’ reed basket, preserving his life. Now the Red Sea will again become a source of life for the Israelites even as God again fights chaos with chaos, allowing the chaotic power of water to defeat the chaos of Pharaoh and his hosts.

    Over and over again, water can be at once the source of death and the source of life, both. God draws life out of the waters of death, using water to preserve Noah, Moses, Israel by carving out islands of cosmos on the vast sea of chaos. God’s people do not fully avoid the threatening waters but are somehow preserved through them.

    Yet we should never forget that were it not for God’s grace, we would be consumed. Make no mistake: the waters are dangerous. The people were not wrong to feel threatened and frightened when their only escape route from the chaos of Egypt was blocked by the chaos of the sea. When Yahweh tells them in Exodus 14:15 to “move on,” it surely looked as though Yahweh himself was intent on drowning the whole lot of them. “Move on!?” the people could have cried. “Move on to where precisely?” Death was behind them, death was before them. They were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and no earthly power was going to deliver them.

    More than we realize many days, more than we’d care to admit even when pressed to do so, this is the human situation in a fallen world. Death is all around us and on our own, no matter which direction we travel, we will sooner or later bump into barriers from which there is no escape. You can eat right, exercise, watch your cholesterol, avoid smoking, drink in moderation, drive carefully, and take your vitamins but still you can drop dead at 50 from a blood vessel that bursts, from a drunk driver who plows into your car in a fatal way.  Or you can grow old and full of years and expire quietly in your little room at the nursing home. As the people at Maybelline cosmetics say, “Don’t Look Your Age–Defy It!” But it’s a rearguard battle. You can defy your age for decades but still the day will come when you feel your heels catching the edge of a cliff, you turn around, and there is the Red Sea in front of you and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to defy it or avoid it.

    It is at that moment when the words of Moses, cast now into a gospel context, need to ring in your ears and take root in your heart: “Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you–you need only to be still.” Or as Another once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me for I am the way, the truth and the life.” But the way of even Jesus leads through a cross, through the chaotic waters of death, if you will. Baptism ensures that we journey with him through that sea. But like Noah, Moses, Israel, Jesus, and untold numbers of Christians since, our new life emerges from the waters of death.

    The Belgic Confession is one of the classic and more well-known confessions that emerged from the Reformation era in Europe.   Strikingly, when describing baptism, one article in that Belgic Confession tells us that we are saved not “by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”

    Calling Jesus “our Red Sea” is either a most colossal stretch of allegory or one of the most sublime of all truths. I opt for the latter. We live in a world of death, as the grim summer of 2014 so poignantly reminded us with jetliners being shot out of the sky, bombs falling in Gaza and Israel, ISIS marching across Syria and Iraq (beheading people as they went), and Ebola threatening so much of Western Africa.   But Christians of all people–marching as we do under the sign of a cross–should know we also do not ignore nor escape death’s reality. If there is new life to be had and a new and better country at which one day to arrive, it will emerge through the waters of death as somehow the water that drowns all that which is evil becomes for us, by the alchemy of grace, a river of life flowing from the throne of God.

    But the walk of faith is not easy. Death is not something we take lightly. Indeed, barring terrible pain from which one pines for release, even some of the most aged of Christians testify that when it comes right down to it, they are in no hurry to hook up with death. We baptize our children and we believe, we really do, that the power of our Jesus will preserve those little ones come what may. And yet we send our youth out into a world of terrorism, cancer, and warfare such that we cannot help but fret, cannot help but wish it were a safer world.

    It’s not easy to believe in life in the midst of so much death. It was probably the same of the Israelites: they may have passed safely through the sea, but as they did so, I suspect most of them kept cutting their eyes at those walls of water, fearing like crazy that they could crash back in on them at any moment.

    That’s the way life often feels in a dangerous world.   But in faith we go on, we press forward, and we do the same thing the Israelites had to do: we live by the promise. We move on believing that love is stronger than death, that the one who said “Surely I am with you, always” meant what he said, and that the waters of baptism through which we have already passed, and in which our sinful selves have drowned, will somehow become for us a source of unending life.

    By the time you get to the Book of Revelation, you discover the apostle John’s observation that in the new creation “there is no more sea.” In a book full of allegorical details most of which are not meant to be taken literally, this is one item that I am sure is not literal. The God who created the oceans and who makes clear in Scripture how much he delights in the frolicking of the creatures he poured into the seas cannot have a new creation where that marine life has no place. But in saying “heaven” will have no sea, I think we know what the Spirit was symbolizing for John. If water is a symbol of chaos and of that which can threaten human life, then of course that threat will have been once and for all eliminated when cosmos, the order, the wonderful life of God becomes the all in all.

    For now in this world, those of us who have been saved through the waters of baptism by Jesus our Red Sea must still contend with death and a dangerous world. But those same waters of baptism assure us that we are finally safe somehow. Sometimes we still feel caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But thanks be to God that in Christ the way through that sea has opened wide as we follow our ascended Lord Jesus Christ to the glory he has prepared for us.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 114

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 14:1-12

    Author: Stan Mast