Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Centuries ago in ancient Israel, long before the Jerusalem Temple stood, certain holy sites were established across the land. When invaders or pestilence troubled the land OR when the rains did not come so that the people were faced with starvation OR when anyone had some personal anguish, the people would go to these holy sites to ask - confident that they would receive a word from God. Several examples can be found in the O.T.
+Hannah praying at Shiloh that she might have a child.
+Gideon’s fleece in the war against the Midianites.
+Moses going up onto the Mountain where he talked with God and received the Commandments.
In each case, the people were in a time of great danger and distress. In each case, the people waited for a Word from God: a word of hope, a word of healing.
+ They waited for a word that God was still with them in their time of trouble.
+ They waited for assurance that God held a better day for his people.
While that ancient custom of going to those holy sites for a Word from God has fallen into disuse, our need for a Word from God from time to time has not changed.
Most recently, our national need for a Word from God occurred on April 15. That day used to known to most of us in East Tennessee only as Tax Day. In Massachusetts, the third Monday of April is called Patriots’ Day. This state holiday commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were fought near Boston in 1775 at the opening of the Revolutionary War. It happened this year that Patriots’ Day fell on April 15 and with it the running of the Boston Marathon.
You know, of course, about the bombing that took place near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. You know the terror that the two bombers intended to unleash upon the people of Boston and the nation. You know about the 170 injured people who will live with their scars for the rest of their lives. In addition, you know about the three people who were killed by the explosions and Officer Collier who was killed when he confronted the bombers.
As we have watched the news of that bombing and the massive manhunt that followed, we have all wondered, “What is our world coming to?” when this kind of senseless killing can take over a great event like this.
+ We have wondered if these hurts can be healed or whether we must live with these scars always.
+ We have also wondered if there is any Word from God when human tragedies like this are unleashed on the innocent.
+ Is a world of such tragedy the future God holds for human life?
+ Does God intend and does God work for a better world than the one human beings have managed to twist and abuse?
Therefore, we go to our holy place – the scriptures - to ask, “Is there any Word from God for us?”
I. Did you see the made-for-TV series, “The Bible”? During Holy Week, they showed the whole series throughout one day. My wife and I were at home that day but busy many things, so we left the TV ON. That way, as we passed through the living room, we caught bits and pieces of the series.
One of the scenes that I watched closely was the story we just read from the Bible: the Crossing of the Red Sea. Because of the TV version, I saw - with new eyes - whole families among the Hebrews as I never saw them before. Mothers and children were clearly frightened at the arrival of Pharaoh’s army. Then, I do not think I have considered how far they had to run to get to the other side; their run was exhausting! Finally, I appreciated in a different way their relief and joy on reaching the other side, followed by the realization of freedom when God sent the Sea back to wash away all Pharaoh’s chariots and soldiers. The TV series was true enough to the Biblical story; I just saw new details that before I had missed.
II. The connection between the events in Boston on April 15 and the Crossing of the Red Sea is strong.
1. First, families were prominent in both events. Mothers, fathers and children - along with runners of every age - were Boston. All the same age-groups could be found among the Hebrews. At some point, they all became runners as they hurried to get away from Pharaoh and his army. All were terrorized; all were fearful.
2. Secondly, emotions ran jumbled together in the first minutes of each event. For the Hebrew children, the arrival of Pharaoh’s army was going to mean slavery, injury or even death. For those at the Marathon, bombs exploding brought confusion: What was happening?
This is the work of terrorism: to plant that raw fear in people’s minds that they can never be safe again. Instinctively, we reject that fear. We Americans are a proud people – proud of our civic freedoms and proud of something our Declaration of Independence calls “the pursuit of happiness.” Quoting from the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This conviction was burned into our American DNA, and we gladly offer it to all the world’s peoples. Terrorism attacks this deeply held conviction. It is no wonder that we react so strongly against violent treats to our way of life. It was with great relief that we watched the authorities track down and capture the last of the bombers on the Friday following the Monday bombing. Watching the people of Boston singing “Sweet Caroline” at the ballpark after the capture brought tears and smiles to Americans all over the nation.
Then, as the days since the bombing passed, I realized that the events of that week now lead us to ask some questions of our faith. Yes, the bad guys were killed or caught. But much damage to innocent lives remains: three deaths. 170 injured, some with amputations they will carry for the rest of their lives. We need to keep these victims of the bombing in our prayers. I knew one person who ran in the Marathon; I expect that, across this congregation, many of us knew someone who was personally involved in Boston that day.
Now the question of faith: Knowing now that there are those who would use such violence to destroy our lives and our way of life, is there any word from God for us? Actually, there is a Word for us, and it is a word which inspires confidence that the future is good.
III. When the Children of Israel reached the edge of the Red Sea and realized that they were trapped between the “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” our God heard their cry and responded in a decisive and saving way. They had been until this moment slaves of the Egyptians. By all rights, they had no rights. By the laws and traditions of that time, slaves were common and the legitimate property of anyone strong enough to hold them. Whatever Pharaoh might have done to them would have been approved by every other government who heard the story. The Hebrew children cried out because of the terror of that moment and also because of their deep desire for freedom from slavery and oppression.
God heard; God acted; God led them to freedom. This vision of God hearing, acting and leading them to freedom is the future toward which God leads us, also. This is Good News.
As you know, God did not lead them to Easy Street and to Lazy Way. There were still forty years of journey before them; they had to become a people and a nation after being no people for 400 years. The only thing they knew about freedom at that moment was that Pharaoh was no longer a threat to them. But, as you know, there is much more to know and to do to make freedom real.
Think about the freedom and safety God still held for them in the Promised Land. There were many years of hard journey before them; there were going to be times of testing. Still, this freedom was God’s demonstrated purpose for them – just as freedom from terror is God’s demonstrated purpose for us. This is God’s Word for us on the day of terrorism.
IV. Now, let us turn to the details of the story for God’s further Word:
A. The children of Israel saw Pharaoh’s army and they were terrified. In their fear, their first instinct was to run or surrender or hide. But, “Moses said to the people: ‘Do not be afraid, STAND FIRM.’” You see, only by standing firm could they see the deliverance that God would accomplish for them that day. Standing firm can be the last instinct we have. Fear tells us to run! But, as Moses could see, God was at work for Israel, and God would bring deliverance.
We are equally confused by terrorism. What do we do? Do we run? Do we surrender? Do we hide and never venture out again? Such instincts are natural, but such instincts are not going to build that nation God intends for us.
+ Stand firm, to see that God’s justice will win the struggle.
+ Stand firm, to see that faithful resilience will endure.
+ Stand firm; others nearby are depending on us. (Heroes that day were those who ran TOWARD the blasts.)
As the people of Israel were about to break and run, Moses called, “Stand firm” so that you see the deliverance that God will accomplish for you this day.
B. Then, when the pathway was ready, God commanded Moses to tell the people, “MOVE FORWARD.” Actually, the command to move forward came before there was a pathway open through the sea. Moses lifted his staff to mark the opening of the Sea only after the people heard the command “MOVE FORWARD”. Of course, this is hard. It took trust to MOVE FORWARD when the pathway was not open before them.
So it is with us. The pathway from the present where terrorism and violence are possible to a place where violence is unthinkable is not clearly open to us, either. Hear the command; it is God’s Word for us: Move forward. Build a society where justice is open to all. Build a society of opportunity, which is the envy of peoples around the world. We are not required to give up our soul as Americans to build a safer world. “Move forward.”
C. Thirdly, when Israel had crossed over, when Israel had looked back to see what God had done, when Israel realized that they were truly free of Pharaoh’s tyranny, then THEY BELIEVED IN THE LORD.
Seeing God’s great deeds of wonder and power, we want to have everything accomplished. If God can do all this, why bother with 40 years of the Exodus Journey? But, that was not the place Israel stood. Only the crossing of the Red Sea is accomplished, still they already believe - at the beginning of the journey. It is a journey which will make them into a nation. They are only on the other side of the Red Sea; forty years of wandering in the wilderness lies before them. It is there that they believe – at the beginning, as their first steps were being taken.
So, it is with us. We have been commanded to STAND FIRM and then, before the way is truly clear before us, commanded to MOVE FORWARD. We will see some signs and victories. We will have some moments of relief and assurance. Still, there is a long journey that stands before us. Starting here, starting now, we BELIEVE IN THE LORD who leads us forward.