Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
-from Exodus 14
At midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first born of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.
This is how the story of freedom begins, in darkness.
Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
The story of freedom begins with an awful lot of death.
Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night, told them to get the whole Hebrew people out of his sight. The frogs had not convinced him, and the gnats had not convinced him, and the boils had not convinced him, but now Pharaoh sees every house in his realm in mourning, and he knows he’s lost the fight.
Laments are being wailed, and bags are being stuffed. It’s not like the Hebrew people had much to begin with, but rushing in the dark, how do you know what to grab? Better decide fast, because we’re on the move.
Look, everyone knows that tomorrow morning, staring at those bricks that aren’t going to bake themselves, Pharaoh is going to change his mind. He always does. Four hundred years of slavery, then, and one night to make a getaway.
The people took their dough before it was leavened, that’s how quickly they left. They wrapped their kneading bowls up in their cloaks, and they were gone. Six hundred thousand adults, goodness knows how many children, surrounded by flocks and herds. They camped at Succoth, baked themselves some flatbread to eat because unleavened dough was all they had.
The story of freedom is, at least at the beginning, the story of a people on the run.
I know we’re all supposed to dutifully picture Charlton Heston when we read the Exodus story, but it is hard for me to imagine this trek without seeing more contemporary images in my brain. At the end of 2010, the United Nations estimated that there were 10.5 million refugees on the planet, and this number only included people who had crossed a national border while fleeing. Add in the “internally displaced persons” who haven’t left their country but also cannot go home – this would be you, if war came to Ohio and you found yourself in a refugee camp in Arizona – add them in and the total number of refugees climbs to 38 million.
Generations of Palestinians have lived and died in refugee camps since the founding of the State of Israel. Maybe 70,000 Africans have have taken refuge in Israel, fleeing violence in their homelands, a small percentage of whom are recognized as legal residents. We’ve all seen the images of the Christians and Yazidis fleeing ISIS in Iraq. And, while we’re watching, children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are piling up on our border, looking for a home.
There is nothing romantic about refugee status. The Hebrew people, in this story, are running for their lives, for their children’s futures.
There was a road, you know, that led from Egypt to the Promised Land. Well, to be more accurate, it led through the promised land, because the point was to get to more interesting places like Turkey. This road would have been a direct route, much more efficient that hoping to magically ford the Red Sea.
This road would look pretty good, compared to taking chances in the desert. It would have been a smooth road- smooth because it was specifically built to take the kind of beating that chariot wheels dish out. And the Hebrew people would have been fleeing past heavily armed Egyptian garrisons.
So the easy road was off limits, and out into the wilderness they went.
Pharaoh changed his mind, of course, and the armies followed the Hebrew people, and then they were trapped, tucked in between the devil and the deep blue sea. They could see the water before them, and they could see Pharaoh’s men behind them, and they could see the presence of God leading them in the form of a pillar of cloud.
The pillar did a half-circle around them, moving from the front to back of the camp, insulating the Hebrew people from the encroaching army. Which is great, right? Because if you have bundled up your family and the possessions you can grab, and you’re being chased by a military power exponentially more powerful than anything you could conjure, and you just realized that there’s nowhere left to run, what could be more comforting than a suspended mist of water?
That’ll fix everything.
Ok, so we can see the threat. Our Scriptures don’t end here on the west bank of the Red Sea, though, so while I haven’t finished the story yet, I think y’all can guess that it ends well.
Our story ends like this: then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Can you see the joy? Can you see the women dancing around the campfires, the flames reflected in the jewelry that, just yesterday, belonged to the women of Egypt? Can you see the men staring reflectively across the body of water that should have eaten them whole? Can you see the children, hyper like it’s Halloween, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but knowing that there will be no brickmaking involved, hallelujah?
On the west side of the sea, they were runaway slaves. On the east side of the sea, they were the people of God.
Joy is thanksgiving with a bit of attitude. Whatever else you might say for our little band in the wilderness, they’ve got a lot for which to be thankful. Tomorrow they may die, so tonight is for dancing.
I’m going to date myself here by admitting that my first experience of this story was seeing it told on flannelgraph. (Yes, we did ride dinosaurs to church. No, we didn’t find it odd that humans and dinosaurs were living in Upstate New York at the same time, because we were all six day creationists.)
The Red Sea was made out of two separate parts of flannel- one sea, divided down the middle. The teacher would pull apart the sea so that the flannel Hebrews could pass through on dry ground. Then the flannel Egyptians would try it, and prest-o-change-o: the flannel sea would reunite, covering them up.
That’s pretty convenient. What this edited version of the story leaves out, though, is Pharaoh’s army dying in a pretty gruesome way. They drowned, because God threw the water on top of them. The horse and rider have been thrown into the sea, and that’s why the women are dancing.
That’s inconvenient, to say the least. It’s a little harder to look reflectively across a sea of water that’s filled with dead bodies bumping and jostling like rubber duckies in a fairground game.
But if we don’t acknowledge those deaths, then the story sounds hollow. God has thrown the horse and ride into the sea. That’s why we see the dancing.
Who are we to ask Moses and Miriam not to rejoice? Those dead bodies represent the most mighty force any of them could ever have imagined, and that force wanted them to stay in slavery, and that force is now seen bobbing dead in the water.
This is comedy, Friends, in the classical sense. The good guys are unexpectedly olly olly oxen free, while the bad guys have met with unexpected doom. So we grab the tambourines, and we start to shake.
But “to shake” is a double edge. Ask yourself this: are you the refugee, or are you the Egyptian? Do you need to be delivered, or do the people of God need to be delivered from you? The story doesn’t specify, one way or the other. Are you shaking your tambourine, or shaking in your chariot because you see the waters meeting overhead?
It’s probably some of both, of course. As citizens defended by the best army on the planet, we bear an uncanny resemblance to Egypt, and I think we ought to sit still and be uncomfortable with that.
No person is only an oppressor, though. The world is a bit more complicated than that. We overlap each other, holding each other down, forestalling the vision of healing and oneness that God has for all creation.
We can see the story from both points of view. Can we see the salvation?
Here is a thesis for you, Friends: the people of God, more often than not, have no idea what salvation looks like. We watch, but we don’t know what we’re watching for.
The Hebrew people passed through the Red Sea on dry land. Does dry land ring a bell?
(Protip: I mentioned dry land in passing just a couple weeks ago, so everybody nod like it made a deep impression.)
It’s the third day of creation. We have light, and darkness; we have the waters above, and the waters below. Then we have the rumbling up of dry land from within the seas, barren, then covered with plants and trees.
Dry land is the step that comes between the beginning of creation and the beginning of life. Dry land appears, and then plants, sea monsters, birds, cattle, people. Even the sun, moon, and stars come after the rising up of the dry land.
The spirit of God hovered over the deep, sure, but did you suspect that such a path would be raised up out of the waters? Were you watching for it?
Look, a quick story: a woman is standing weeping outside an empty tomb. A man approaches her, asks her why she is crying. Face in her hands, she explains: she came to visit the grave of a friend, came to pay her respects. She asks the gardener if he knows where her friend has been laid.
That was the morning when Mary Magdalene learned to watch for salvation in unexpected places. The gardener was Jesus, and her friend wasn’t dead at all, and if she hadn’t looked up, she would have missed the whole Gospel.
If the Hebrew people had kept their eyes on Pharaoh’s army, they wouldn’t have seen the sea part. They would have known where their enemy was. They would have been best prepared to muster whatever defense they could.
But, they would have missed God’s salvation.
If you want to see salvation, two things are required. You have to commit yourself to watching for it, because the seeds of salvation are the smallest in the land. And you have to be willing to be surprised, because God will plant them in the oddest of places.
Generally I like to end with a query, but this morning, Amy and I have mixed up the schedule and we’re going to head into waiting worship with a song. Please stay seated- it’ll make for less fuss when we’re done singing.
Our second hymn is Open My Eyes, That I May See. It’s #166 in your green hymnal You’re welcome to sing the Spanish lyrics if you like, but we’ll sing four verses regardless.
May the Living Christ open each of us this morning.