Exodus 14: 19-31
Click here to view the full video for September, 13th's sermon titled, Stretch.
The path to freedom is rarely easy. The plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt unfolded in conjunction with the negotiation that took place between Moses and his adoptive brother. The whole point of Moses’ return from his fugitive existence was to convince the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews worship the Lord their God in the wilderness. They were not free to do so in Egypt where other gods were worshipped. To get Pharaoh’s attention, God sent plagues. The first three didn’t even move the needle. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against Moses and his people. Then came the flies, and the negotiation was on. They could worship God, but not in the wilderness. Not good enough. Fine, then only a little way into the wilderness, not too far away. Negotiations broke down and there were three more plagues before they resumed. Fine, go. But as soon as things got better, the deal was off. Then came the locusts. They could go, but only the men- not the women or children. Negotiations broke down. Then came the darkness. They could go, but they had to leave their herds behind. That was a deal breaker. Then came the final plague, the death of the firstborn. The cry was heard across Egypt. Finally, the terms were set. “Rise up,” Pharaoh told Moses and Aaron, “go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone.” It was a done deal. Or so they thought. But the path to freedom is never straight shot.
For the Israelites in the wilderness, that was by design. If they took the direct route out of Egypt by way of the land, they were sure to run up against the might of the Philistines and be driven back to Egypt by their own fear. Instead, God led them the long way around, by the Red Sea, journeying with them in a pillar of cloud by day that sheltered them from the sun, and a pillar of fire by night lighting the way. Just as they were making camp by the sea, reality began to set in for Pharaoh and the rest of Egypt. The Israelites had wasted no time and were gone. Soon, the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit. When the people saw Pharaoh’s chariots closing in on them, they cried out, “was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the thing we told you in Egypt…’It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” Sometimes, the path to freedom looks for all the world like a dead end.
That is where our reading this morning picks up, with the angel of God who had been leading them forward moving to cover them from behind. The pillar of cloud shrouded them in the darkness and kept the Egyptians from coming near them all throughout the night. But they were stuck. They were stuck between two impossible options. Behind them, on the other side of that cloud was the Egyptian army breathing down their neck with horses and chariots. There could be no going back. They would almost certainly be killed if they tried to go back. They had reached the point of no return. In front of them was the sea, a vast expanse of water they had no hope of crossing. They had not boats, and beside that there were far too many of them (hundreds of thousands, according to the bible) not to mention the herds and flocks they had taken with them. God had instructed them to go forward, but how could they? The truth is that the path to freedom is always found in what lies ahead of us, never behind us. The hardest thing to do is to step toward it when there is no path to be seen.
In Judaism, centuries of commentary and wisdom on Torah and other scripture comes in the form of Midrash. These observations may come in the form of legal conclusions derived from the text, or narrative accounts that fill out the larger meaning of a biblical story. Once such Midrash on Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea comes in the story Nachshon ben Aminadav, leader of the tribe of Judah, whose sister would eventually be married to Aaron. As the story goes, the leaders of Israel from every tribe stood on that shore. They had been told to go forward, but they hesitated. They formed a committee and held a meeting. How very Presbyterian of them. No doubt the danger of the advancing Egyptian chariots was very real, but so was the undeniable risk of walking into the water. As they debated, their anxiety grew and grew, until Nachshon remembered what had brought them to this point and was the first to walk into the water. It is said that he walked into the water up to his ankles and waters did not part. Then up to his waist and the waters did not part. Then up to his shoulder, his chin, and the waters did not part. He kept going. As he took the step that would have put his nose under the water, the sea began to part, and the rest of Israel followed him on the path to freedom through the waters. As it turns out, on the long path to freedom when all we can see is a dead end, the best we can hope to do is the next right thing, taking it one step at a time. Of course, it’s entirely possible that in seeing only what we’re used to seeing, we will miss the miracle of what God can do in making a way where there is seemingly no way.
Another Midrash tells the story of two Hebrew slaves, Shlomo and Buz. Like most of the Israelites they had been slaves their entire lives when Moses led the people out of Egypt. Slaves aren’t in the habit of looking up, only down. After awhile it got so they only looked down and couldn’t look up. As the waters parted, the people saw the miracle before them as they were led through the sea. But not Shlomo and Buz. “What do you see,” one of them asked the other. “I see mud,” he replied. “I see mud too. What’s all this about freedom? We had mud in Egypt, we have mud here.” They completely missed the miracle of their escape and the water piled on either side of them because they only saw what they were used to seeing, what they’d always seen.
No, freedom isn’t easy. It takes the kind of persistence that doesn’t settle for less or allow the terms to be dictated by the one holding us captive. It often means taking the long way around even when there is a more direct route, because there is wisdom to be gained on the way. One piece of wisdom that comes on the long way to freedom is that we would do well to let God come between us and the enemy who would stop us, because engaging in that fight will only pull us backward and keep us from making our escape. Fighting with the past that does not want to not let us go only keeps us from what lies ahead. So does letting the fear and anxiety about what might lie ahead. Paralyzed by inaction we start to wonder if we wouldn’t be better off remaining captive. Only when we are willing step forward, trusting in what God has promised, do we begin to see the path to freedom. And it is entirely possible to find ourselves on that path, with miracles the left and to the right of us, and still see only the mud at our feet and miss out on the gift of freedom all the same.
In the end, freedom is a stretch. It is a reach. Moses stretched out his hand as God instructed, but make no mistake, it was God who parted the water on the path to freedom. Maybe that is the best we can do. Reach, stretch, negotiate, persist, meander, refrain, and step forward so that we can see what God is up to in and through it all. In that sense, for all the obstacles that come on the path to freedom, the best thing to remember is that setting us free is ultimately God’s idea, it is what God wants. There is no earthly power, no army, no sea, nothing that can match the will of God to bring about what God wants. The path to freedom is the path to freely worship God, to stretch ourselves in the direction of the one who is always saving us from the forces that would hold us captive, always making a way where there is seemingly no way, and always miraculously with us through it all.