October 18, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The ancient Romans would have said that the Israelites were caught with a precipice in front and wolves behind. The French would say that they were between the sledgehammer and the anvil. Here in America, we’d probably say that they were between a rock and a hard place, or your grandmother might have observed with more metaphorical accuracy, that the Israelites were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Human beings throughout history and across cultures have used memorable idioms to express the suffering we experience when we can see no positive outcome for a bad situation. When we feel trapped by our current circumstances, when we can only imagine loss and heartache ahead, our suffering may not be a physical pain like the suffering that comes from hunger or illness, but that doesn’t make it any less debilitating. It would take some pretty thick rose colored glasses for someone to have said to the Israelites at that moment in their lives, “Hey, try not to think about those chariots thundering toward you or the sea behind your back; let’s all instead just focus on the present and be grateful because in this moment your health is good and your stomachs are full and you have your family and friends surrounding you.” Sure, at that moment, the Israelites were not suffering any physical pain but as the darkness closed in on them they didn’t need physical wounds to be stricken to the core.
For many of us, what we have suffered in 2020 is similar to that of the Israelites at the shores of the Red Sea because even those of us who have been fortunate to have escaped Covid-19 or economic devastation have still suffered from the psychological toll of feeling trapped by circumstances beyond our control and from the fear that there is no good way out of this mess. Every issue in America right now feels like a choice between a rock and a hard place. Do you shut things down to slow the spread of Covid-19 or do you open things up to prevent economic collapse? Do you defund the police to avert racial injustice or exert law and order to maintain calm in the streets? I have read several articles warning of the totalitarianism that will follow in the wake of the election if the wrong person wins, but the strange thing about those articles is that they are written by people on both sides of the aisle; everyone is afraid of the possible collapse of civil society after the election but we disagree on which party is the one that will cause it. I saw a sign in a bookstore someone had posted to Facebook that informed customers: “Post Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to our Current Affairs Section.” In these most divisive and contentious times, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that we are all feeling caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Yes, we can find solace and comfort by turning off the news for awhile, by spending time with family, walking in the woods, and being grateful for simple pleasures, but solace and comfort are not the same things as hope. If we didn’t know if before, 2020 has made us fully aware that hope is as important to our well-being as food and shelter and health. And what the Israelites were experiencing there on the shores of the Red Sea was an absence of hope. Is there anything we can learn from this story in Exodus 14 that might restore our hope in the face of our own difficult times?
Most people reading this story focus on the remarkable miracle that takes place when God parts the waters so the Israelites can escape to safe ground and it is, after all, the biblical equivalent of cool special effects, but for me, the real power of this story occurs before the wind ever begins to stir over the face of the waters. The message for me from the story in Exodus 14 happens in the conversation that Moses and God have with the people in the midst of their despair. I want you to listen again to the words the Israelites speak to Moses in this passage and as I read them, remember that these words are coming from the mouths of people who have been freed from slavery by God; a God who defeated the power of the Pharaoh while protecting them from harm, who led them out of bondage, who has gone before them as a great pillar of cloud by day to show them the way, and who has stood by them in the night as a pillar of fire shining in the darkness. As you listen to the Israelites’ words, I want you to count how many times the people mention God, versus how many times they say “Egypt.”
Exodus 14:11-12 [And the people said to Moses,] “Weren’t the cemeteries large enough in Egypt so that you had to take us out here in the wilderness to die? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Back in Egypt didn’t we tell you this would happen? Didn’t we tell you, ‘Leave us alone here in Egypt—we’re better off as slaves in Egypt than as corpses in the wilderness.”
How many times did the Israelites mention Egypt as they wailed their despair to Moses? Five times in four sentences. And how many times did they mention God? Not a single time. Nada. Zero. Zilch.
Moses may have led the people physically out of Egypt but Egypt still has hold over their hearts. Even after all that God has done for them, they still refuse to believe that they are free to live as God’s people instead of being enchained to the powers of Pharaoh; they are still allowing Egypt to define the rules. In Egypt, might made right. In Egypt, it was Pharaoh’s way or the highway. In Egypt, a functioning society was a society grounded in order and certainty, and the thing to be most feared was disorder and uncertainty.
God, on the other hand, seems to thrive in disorder and uncertainty. In order to free the people, God sent ten plagues upon Egypt that overturned everything they had taken for granted: water was no longer water but blood; day and night were reversed; the slave became the conqueror. And the plagues weren’t the first time God had upset the status quo nor would it be the last. God ignored the careful rules of inheritance when God chose the younger brother Jacob over the older brother Esau to be the bearer of the covenant. God chose women and prostitutes to ensure God’s will would be done. God chose Paul, the persecutor of Christians, to become the most important missionary of the new Christian church. And of course, God chose to appear to the world as a baby born to an unwed mother in a backwater of Judea. None of this is how we expect the world to be run and we, like the Israelites, have problems believing in the power of God because our minds are so entrenched in the ways of Egypt. We may rail against the ways of the ruling powers but when the world begins to unravel, we run back into the arms of Egypt because of the familiarity and security it provides. Nothing makes us more afraid of the future than uncertainty.
In Exodus 14, the Israelites are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, but the devil that holds them in bondage is not Pharaoh but their own desire for familiarity, for certainty, for order, predictability, and from the security that comes from knowing what is going to happen next even if what is going to happen next is oppression. How many times have you been trapped in an unhealthy situation yet you could not bring yourself to try to change it because you couldn’t imagine what a different future would look like and the uncertainty paralyzed you? And if the devil is the bondage of the status quo, uncertainty is the deep blue sea that threatens to swallow us up. The Black Lives Matter movement frightens people because it’s hard for people to imagine maintaining peace through access to community services instead of through force. Making room for immigrants and refugees in our nation scares people because immigrants might bring new languages and customs that would force us to change our familiar ways of doing things. We as human beings are afraid of a lot of things — snakes, heights, ghosts — but the thing we might be most afraid of is uncertainty. And so here we stand, suffering in despair as we try to choose between the devil of security and order, and the deep blue sea of trusting a God who we know will undo every rule and expectation and leave us awash in uncertainty. Our loss of hope in these times is really a loss of faith, because here in chapter 14, God tells us clearly that the way out of this mess is to trust God and continue to follow God no matter how deep the waters look. When Moses suggests that the Israelites should just stand still, God won’t have it. God says to Moses, “Why cry out to me? Speak to the Israelites. Order them to get moving.” God knows that the Israelites have to knowingly cast aside the chains of Egypt and willingly step into those waters where the future is uncertain if they are to be freed from their despair and find hope again. God doesn’t tell them what lies on the other side of the Red Sea; God doesn’t promise there won’t be tough times ahead, or that everything will magically get better. God tells them, however, that their hope lies in turning away from the familiar and the secure that diminishes us and trust in God’s way, no matter how chaotic that way feels.
I know these times feel hopeless and I know we are all afraid of what may come next, wondering how on earth life will ever get back to normal or whether normal is even going to ever look normal again. The story in Exodus reminds us, however, that faith calls us to keep doing what we have been doing — committing ourselves to following in the footsteps of God. With God leading, we don’t have to be afraid of uncertainty. With God leading, we don’t have to worry about what comes next. With God leading, we just have to keep moving forward, trusting in the ways of God, and believing that with God going before us, the waters will not overwhelm us. In other words, when you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, don’t look back toward Egypt, but look forward and step into the water.