Stories. Stories are so important to us. Stories are a way of looking back. We are claiming our history, because we don’t want to forget our past. Our stories remind us of where we’ve come from and telling our stories gives us the opportunity to reflect on how our history has formed us to be the people we are now. Stories are so important.
I’ve heard many stories from you. Stories about the newspaper up town and the various businesses that used to be up town. You have stories about rabbits being sent up north by the trains. You have stories about the pastor that carried a knife and children’s sermons with Barbie Dolls. You have stories about Annie Oakley visiting Bethany and the Native American blessing protecting Bethany from tornadoes. I probably hear the most stories when I am visiting with a family planning a funeral. They are stories about how that loved one’s life was shaped by their friends, family, and church.
I am loving the Narrative Lectionary, because we are taking a journey through the history of the Jewish people hearing their stories, their history, our history as a people of faith. This story of God parting the Red Sea is a particularly fun story to research. I think about the story in the context of the full Exodus story, like we see in the film the Ten Commandments. It is such a powerful story told in a spectacular movie that airs every year near Easter. The story through the movie is remembered every year near Easter, because it is a story that significantly shifts the thinking of a people about who God is and what God does.
Up to the time of the Exodus, God is known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We hear God called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because, before the Exodus, you might think of God as a family’s God. In the book of Genesis, God is called by a few different names, because people are trying to figure out who God is. He is often called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because their stories are prominent in the book of Exodus. God established a covenant with them and their ancestors to be their God. But, the Exodus marks a shift in a people’s thinking about who God is.
There are some Biblical scholars who think that the Exodus may be a legend or folklore, because they don’t find enough historical evidence to support thousands of people leaving Egypt in mass or the demise of an entire army. I find it hard to believe that a story so dear to the Jewish people and so momentous in their theological development would be fiction. This is the story when the Hebrew people become the Jewish people and the people come to understand that God is One who saves. There is no way this could be made up.
The Exodus story leading up to the parting of the sea is complex and full of promise and salvation. The people left Egypt in a hurry after the Passover. They fled with little prepared for a long journey, they just didn’t know how long. They traveled from Egypt across the Sinai peninsula fleeing the Egyptian army. They traveled through rocky and mountainous terrain, through craggy, narrow ways and hot desert. They traveled by day covered by a great cloud to provide them shade and a pillar of fire by night to light their way. Then, they find themselves trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army with nowhere to go.
Caught between a rock and a wet place, the people complained. Were there not enough graves in Egypt to bury us that you brought us into the desert for us to die? As much as they cried out in despair for God’s help when they were forced to do manual labor in the hot sun in Egypt, the people were more willing to go back to Egypt than to die.
Moses’ response is the response we hear over and over again in the Bible when people fear God will not act but, probably, more fearful of what God will do next. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. We more often hear the Lord or angels utter those words, than man, but they are assurance of God’s coming action.
Now, I have 2 stories for you about this story of the parting of the sea. The Jews have a rabbinic practice called midrash. It is the work of a rabbi to fill in details of a story, the back story that the Bible doesn’t tell us. Midrash is the work of rabbis to interpret Biblical texts by answering the questions we might have about texts. It is a method of interpreting Biblical stories that fills in the gaps left in narrative regarding events and personalities.
The first midrash story is about wading into the sea. The people were on the edge of the sea with nowhere to go unless they surrender to the Egyptian army and go back to slavery. Then, Moses tells the people to move forward, into the sea. Now, the midrash interjects with the story of Nahshon. He is said to be a leader of the people from the line of Judah and the great, great, great grandfather of King David, meaning he is in the family tree of Jesus. Nahshon was the first of the Hebrew people to enter the waters of the sea. The story of Nahshon tells us that the waters did not immediately part when Moses raised his staff. It took one brave man to wade into the waters. It was not until he was eyes deep in the water before the sea parted. Someone had to trust God enough to take the first step before God performed the miracle of parting the sea. Nahshon had to give himself over completely to God’s future, trusting God, before God acted.
The second midrash story is that of 2 men walking across the dry land in the middle of the Red Sea.
Apparently, as one might imagine, the land they crossed wasn’t all that dry, not as dry as the desert. It was more like riverbank dry. As the people crossed the sea, their sandals were sinking into the mud and with every step the mud was caking on their ankles and squeezing between their toes, clinging to their feet and making each step heavier and harder with the weight of sea sludge. Two men complained about the journey through the mud. They kept their eyes focused on their feet and bemoaned their labored path. Not once, did the men look up and marvel at the miraculous walls of water being held back for them to make their journey.
These midrash stories, the wisdom of the sage rabbis, give us something to reflect on. Sometimes, it takes one person to get eyes deep in what seems could swallow you whole, trusting God explicitly, for God’s plan to be revealed. How scary it must have been for Nahshon to trust in the Lord among a people who were so distrusting? The people were ready to turn back and submit themselves to a life a slavery rather than trust in the Lord. But, Nahshon had to be the one who would take the first step and trust that God had something better planned than watery graves.
Sometimes, we have to lift our eyes from the muck to see the miracle. We can often get bogged down in the present situation unable to look up to see the miracle surrounding us. We can’t see the future if we resign ourselves to sinking in the mud.
As I was writing this sermon and researching this text, I kept thinking that it was Moses that parted the sea. Often, when we’re teaching our kids this story, we say Moses parted the Red sea. It was, however, God who parted the sea, not Moses. Moses was an actor in the plan of God’s salvation. It was God who performed the miracle, not Moses.
The future is a matter of perspective. We have to be willing to take the first step, keep our eyes up, and remember who is at work. We can stand in our fear, focus on the problem and rely on ourselves or we can step out in faith, keep our eyes ahead and rely on God.
A letter of the Apostle comes to mind as a reminder of what to do when fearful about the future. Philippians 4 says:
4 Rejoice[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.[d] 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved,[e] whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Whether you’re standing on the precipice of an uncertain future or feel like you’re stuck in the mud, focus on what is true, honorable, pure, and worthy of praise. Focus on and trust God; then, act when He says go.