Scripture Readings: Exodus 14:19-31 | Exodus 15:1b–11, 20–21 | Romans 14:1–12 | Matthew 18:21–35
“Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”
I was baptized when I was 15 years old, 20 years ago. Though I grew up in a Christian family, which was quite active in our Church, it was the norm in the denomination, the branch of the Church I grew up in, to wait until someone was old enough to make up their minds for themselves. I can remember a lot about that day: I remember standing up at the front of the Church looking out at everyone. I remember the great big tank that was prepared for us to be submerged in. But most of all I remember what I was feeling: fear. I knew that this was to be one of those decisive moments in my life… when something was supposed to change… and that something was supposed to be me. I was afraid that this was my one big shot to get things straight with God… and that if I messed up after taking this step, then all hope for me would be lost. It turns out, I still had a lot to learn about what the Living God is like, and what He actually has in store for those who seek to follow Him. But at the time that 15 year-old infant in faith, looked at the water and felt dread.
As strange as it may seem, facing baptism I felt hopeless.
As we turn to the Exodus story today, we find that the Israelites have been brought to the brink of a seemingly hopeless situation as well. After the final plague, in which the firstborn of Egypt all died, while the Israelites who faithfully ate the Passover supper were spared, Pharaoh finally relents, and grudgingly lets the people of Israel go. But not long afterwards, he changes his mind again, and with his army, Pharaoh pursues the Israelite host, catching up with them by the shores of the Red Sea, (or the Reed Sea). What we miss in our reading today is how the Israelites respond. In Exodus 14:10-14 we hear it loud and clear:
“In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “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 very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.””
What follows is one of the most dramatic images in the Bible of the Living God’s decisive acts of deliverance.
The waters part, and Israel crosses the sea completely unharmed. Pharaoh’s army pursues, the LORD completely washes them away. All that had once held them in bondage and terror, God covers with the waters, to free His powerless people. The scholar Brevard Childs makes this claim about the importance of this story:
“God’s miraculous rescue of Israel at the sea was remembered as the event by which God brought into being his people. Israel left Egypt as fleeing slaves, and emerged from the sea as a people who testified to God’s miraculous deliverance. The tradition is unanimous in stressing that the rescue was accomplished through the intervention of God and God alone. He had provided a way of escape when there was no hope.”
This passing through the waters was God’s act of re-creating Israel: a new beginning, only made possible by His power and grace. Stunned, but saved, the Israelites soon broke out into song, praising Yahweh, the LORD, and worshipping Him in faith and reverent fear.
Sounds like a wonderful conclusion to the story… but it’s not. Really, we are only just at the beginning.
We can do this in our own lives too: mistake beginnings for endings. Looking around and seeing no signs of hope, no possible way forward, when in fact we are on the brink of an unlooked-for opportunity, a breaking in of grace we could not have imagined before.
This happens over and over again, in the Scriptures too: God’s people find themselves in hopeless situations, usually, but not always, because of their own unfaithfulness, but then God opens up for them a new pathway to life: finding them in the darkness, and leading them into the light.
At the root of this confusion, this temptation to despair… to look at our situations, or even ourselves, as completely hopeless… is a misunderstanding of the character and nature of God. A misreading of the story of who He is and what He is up to. Too often, when like the Israelites, all we can see are Pharaoh’s armies and the impassable waters, we believe in them more than we believe in our Saviour, assuming the LORD has left us to fend for ourselves. We might doubt His rescuing power, or His concern for us. We might even imagine that God Himself wants to wash us away. That He’s just waiting for an excuse to crush and condemn us… cutting us off, and covering us with the deadly waves.
This is what filled my 15 year old heart and mind with dread. But what I failed to understand all those long years ago, as I was standing in fear in front of my Church, about to be baptized, was that this was not my one big shot to get myself straight with God… it was all God’s gracious act to wash me clean and set me free: This was God’s gift, to unite me in faith to Jesus, His Son, who loves us and gave His life for every one of us. I had completely misjudged the LORD and what He wanted for me, which is something I often continue to do, even 20 years later. So focused on my own struggles and sins, I couldn’t imagine He’d really love and fight for me. That God would strive to save somebody as broken as me.
But that’s exactly what God is up to, that’s EXACTLY who God is: rescuing, saving lost, and broken, sinful, hopeless people… mercifully setting us free from everything that keeps us ensnared and enslaved, and eager for us to share in His freedom and holy love. Eager to be God for us, and to bring us all to a new beginning: to re-create us into His people, that is, to become like Him. Not driven to look down on or condemn, but to strengthen and support. Not vindictive or unforgiving, but overflowing with mercy.
Our other Scripture passages point to this new pathway… to this God-shaped way of life. Not as perfectionistic ideals, but as life-giving steps towards our LORD, sharing in His nature through His Spirit at work in us.
In our reading from Romans: St. Paul insists that judging each other must cease. Self-righteousness tears communities apart, and breeds all sorts of bitterness, feeding the selfishness that quickly forgets the graciousness of God. Israel was not rescued because they were great, or because they did everything right… but because God was merciful to them, so we must be merciful too.
And in Matthew, we heard the words of Christ that forgiveness must flow. That we are to be a community where it is both received and offered. This is so hard, but so vital, so essential to our story. We confess each week when we recite the Creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. That when Jesus Christ came in the flesh “for us and for our salvation”, that He brought the forgiveness of God tangibly to our guilty world, to set us free from our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. For this to be more than pious words, we must actually put them into practice: following Jesus and stepping towards forgiving others… and maybe even ourselves.
This is only the beginning of where God is guiding us. Wherever we are today in our walk of faith, God has more for us in store. More peace to be found in placing our trust in His power and grace. More joy as we see His Spirit still at work in the world. More freedom as His forgiveness flows both to, and through, us. More life as He leads us into the way of holy love.
I have learned a lot more about the power and grace of God these past 20 years, as time and again in my struggles and fears, Christ has covered me with the waves of His love… calling me to a deeper faith, a deeper trust in Him, to be who He really is: the Saviour of the world, and my Saviour too.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 237.