Faith Versus Fear
The Parting of the Red Sea
Exodus 14: 5-25
I imagine this is a familiar story to many of you. We have likely heard it since our childhood and might have experienced depictions like red Jell-O being prepared and separated by our Sunday School teachers symbolizing God parting the red sea. We all remember Charlton Heston playing Moses in the classic movie Ten Commandments. The parting of the red sea was one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie. This is one of the great stories of the Torah and one that has been told to every generation.
The build up to this dramatic action was that the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years. They suffered under Egyptian rule and were looking for a savior. The story of Moses and his upbringing in the ruling palace sets the stage for a showdown. Moses is called by God to lead his people out of Egypt and God sent a number of plagues to the Egyptians culminating in the death angel killing the first born of every family in Egypt sparing the Israelites from this horror and creating the first Passover. The Egyptians want the Israelites gone and grant them freedom to end this devastation. The Israelites leave to pursue the promised land of Canaan for their home. However, the Pharaoh and other leaders have second thoughts as they realize they have lost all of their free labor and pursue the Israelites. The Egyptian army is on the run chasing down the Israelites in their journey to Canaan culminating in the encounter at the red sea.
Ruthie and I had an interesting interfaith clergy experience last Friday at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation listening to a respected Jewish scholar discuss how scripture should be read and interpreted. He outlined many discrepancies in the translations and texts and noted that our intense interest in science and verifiable facts extends to the Bible. The advent of science is a fairly recent advancement and we have taken science to try to understand the Bible. The Bible is not suppose to be scientifically plausible, rather it is written to help us understand God, our human condition and what might we learn about how we should live in this world. The writers of the Bible knew nothing about scientific theory.
I read several articles as I was preparing this message that were trying to justify and support how the red sea might have parted for the Israelites. It talked about how the part of the red sea where the Israelites were camped was a marshy shallow area and the winds could have caught up at such a force to allow the Israelites to cross on the reef and then the winds died down when the Egyptians attempted to cross and they could not make it to the other side.
Frankly, there are so many stories presented in the Old Testament that defy any scientific theory. Men living to 923 years old, a man bringing 2 of every animal onto a boat, the creation story, the plagues that preceded the encounter at the red sea – the list goes on and on. It is dangerous to try to read the Bible without context and without understanding that the Bible is not good science. The Bible was created to transcend science. The Bible can be good religion when it is incorporated into authentic practice. But it is not good science. It is a tradition and a culture that has changed and is changing. And yet the Bible has much to teach and reveal to us about God, humans, God’s love and redemption.
So what does this story mean?
I have spent the last week trying to step into the life of an average Israelite following their leader Moses to the edge of the Red Sea – there have been many moments of faith for us during the last year and God has provided. Yet here we are faced with a crucial moment with the Egyptian army advancing towards us and a huge body of water in front of us with no where to go. We really don’t see any alternative. Our back is against the wall and we feel a tremendous amount of fear. Our lack of faith in God has us asking Moses to take us back to Egypt to be enslaved once again.
Really? I know God has provided for me in the past, yet I don’t have enough faith to believe that God will provide a way in this moment. I say I would rather be enslaved, stuck in my bad situation, willing to be abused, degraded, dismissed and hopeless because I don’t believe that God will provide a way.
Many of us might be might be facing our own red sea. We don’t really see a way out of our situation and are too afraid to step into the Light towards wholeness – we can’t see the way forward. We might ask God to take us back to something that wasn’t good but felt comfortable. We just can’t let go and step into the waters of the red sea. Yet this amazing story here shows us that God will help provide a way out of our circumstances even when we have no understanding or comprehension of possibility. God can open a way when we see no hope or opening. Sometimes it is dramatic like the parting of the red sea. Sometimes it is just enough to help us take a step forward.
I asked a Rabbi that is leading a division of one of our Quaker organizations what he thought about this story – he shard a Jewish midrash which is a biblical interpretation that fills in some gaps of the story taught by rabbis and I share it with you today:
The story of Nachshon is a favorite midrash. Nachshon was a slave with all the other Israelites who found redemption at the hand of God. He packed and didn't let the dough rise and ran, breathless and scared and grateful, away from the land of Pharaohs and pyramids and slavery. Nachshon ran into freedom.
And then he got to the sea. He and some 600,000 other un-slaved people, stopped cold by the Red Sea. It was huge and liquid and deep. They couldn't see the other side. It was so big they couldn't see any sides. Just wetness from here to forever.
And behind him, when he and the 600,000 others dared to peek, were Pharaoh and his army of men and horses and chariots, carrying spears and swords and assorted sharp, pointy things. Moses went to have a chat with God, and just like that, he got an answer--- a Divine Instant Message. All the Children of Israel needed to do was walk forward into the sea, that big, wet, deep forever sea. God would provide a way. "Trust Me," God seemed to say, "I got you this far, didn't I? I wouldn't let you fall now!"
Nachshon and the 600,000 stood at the shivery edge of that sea, staring at that infinite horizon in front and the pointy, roiling chaos of death and slavery behind them. They stood, planted – and let's face it: not just planted, but rooted in their fear and mistrust and doubt. They may have felt reassured by the image of God as a pillar of smoke or fire – impressive pyrotechnics, to be sure – but the soldiers and the sea were so there, present and much more real.
Then, in the midst of that fear and doubt, something changed. Nachshon – recently freed, trapped between death by water and death by bleeding – did the miraculous. He put one foot in front of the other and walked into the sea. The 600,000 held their collective breath, watching the scene unfold before them as Nachshon did what they could not: He decided to have faith. And though the water covered first his ankles, then his knees, then his chest, then kept rising, until he was almost swallowed whole, Nachshon kept walking, kept believing. And just when it seemed that he was a fool for his faith, that he would surely drown in that infinite sea, another miracle: The waters parted.
The sea split and Nachshon, so recently in over his head, walked on dry land. The 600,000 breathed again, in one relieved whoosh of air, and they found their own faith and followed Nachshon into the dry sea to across to the other side. And then the journey truly began.
I pray to have faith enough to walk into my own sea – of doubt and fear and darkness. I want to walk and feel the waters part, to be released from the tangled web of thought that holds me immobile and disconnected. I have learned, again and again, without fail: When I take that step, when I find the faith to put one foot in front of the other and to trust, as Nachshon did, I am carried forward. I am freed from my self-imposed bondage. I am enough, and I can walk again on dry land to freedom.
Let us enter into a time of unprogrammed worship together. A time of listening for God’s voice. God may speak to you with a message just for you and I ask that you hold that and sit with that during this time. God may share a message that needs to be vocalized with all of us and I ask that you stand and give this message if God is calling you to this.