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When the Hebrew people first went to Egypt, they were not slaves. Joseph had helped Egypt through a famine, and his family moved in, planted gardens, had families, and thrived. A new Pharaoh came to power, one who didn’t know Joseph, one who decided that the Hebrew people were different enough, numerous enough, to be a threat. So, the Hebrew people living in Egypt were enslaved, and were subject to laws and policies that tried to limit their childbearing, their movement, their autonomy.
How did it happen? How did they allow themselves to become enslaved? Why would they give up their freedom?
I suspect it was a slow process, an erosion of freedoms, little by little.
Maybe they didn’t really notice it until the shackles were on and it was too late.
Maybe they thought Pharaoh was kind of a jerk, but his economic policies were good and might end up trickling down to them.
Maybe they figured the next Pharaoh would see the injustice and reverse the policies, and their freedoms would come back.
Maybe they saw Pharaoh removing freedoms from other groups of people first, and didn’t worry about it, because it didn’t involve them and they didn’t want to rock the boat.
The Hebrew people cried out to God and God heard the cries of God’s people.
Before today’s story, the Hebrew people had fled Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The plagues God had visited on Egypt made Pharaoh decide it wasn’t worth it to keep his slaves.
As the story picked up today, Pharaoh has changed his mind. It’s hard to let go of a system of injustice and privilege when it benefits you. And so, all of Pharaoh’s army goes in pursuit of our plucky band of Hebrew slaves, led by Moses. The text says the Israelites looked back and saw their taskmasters coming for them.
I’m sure there are many interesting parts of this story, but I confess I couldn’t focus on anything after this sentence: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.”
So, the Hebrew people are on the move. They are fleeing their lives of slavery and bondage to Pharaoh. They are on the way to the Promised Land. But they have miles to go before they sleep. They’ve got a long journey ahead of them and a wide, wide river to cross.
But they aren’t alone. They are being led by the angel of God and by a pillar of cloud.
Now, being led by an angel and a cloud has its own issues, for sure. How do you know who to trust? Which cloud do you follow, exactly? The Israelites had to decide if they were going to listen to Moses and follow God into this strange new future. Did they trust that God was providing the pillar of cloud? Could they trust the angel of God, who had just passed over their doorposts, killing the first-born sons of Egypt, would keep them safe?
Apparently, they made it through those questions and followed behind the angel and the pillar of cloud.
But then the angel and the pillar move to the back of the column and start leading from behind.
And that’s what got me thinking about the relationship between the leader and the led.
It is one thing to follow a leader. You trust they know where they are going. The leader trusts that the people behind will follow. It requires an amount of trust on both sides.
But leading from behind seems a whole different venture to me. On one level, I’m sure it was reassuring to the people, especially to the ones in the back, to know that someone “had their back”, that someone was between them and the advancing Egyptian army.
But I wonder how it felt to the people at the front of the line? How many of them, who had been happy to follow behind the cloud and the angel, all of a sudden paused and said, “which way do we go now?” How many of them offered to let the people behind them go ahead. “No, really, that’s okay. You can go first for a while. I insist. You first.”
And, while I’m sure the angel and the pillar of cloud had their hands full taking care of the Egyptians, I also wonder if they were wondering how things were going at the front of the line. “They didn’t turn left at that intersection, did they? They needed to turn right. I hope they went the right way!”
Because that’s the problem with leading from behind. You have to let go. You have to trust that the people at the front have learned from you and have what they need to find the path without your direct help. Leading from behind becomes an exercise in collaboration, with the leader and the led each playing an important role.
And I confess that I haven’t thought much about the responsibility for their own journey the Israelites had to make. I tend to think of them as sheep, just following along where they are led, complaining about the conditions, forgetting about the promises.
But, if the pillar of cloud and the angel of God have gone back to take care of the situation at the back of the line, then the Israelites were more than sheep. Yes, they had Moses with them at the front. But they didn’t have to follow him either. They could easily have said, “yeah, thanks, but we’re going to wait for the cloud to come back, Moses.”
God does the delivering. But we still have to move ourselves on the path out of slavery.
So, with their divine leaders at the back of the column, they reach the Red Sea. And they wait for the morning. Water on one side, approaching Egyptians on the other. While they wait, in the darkness, Moses stretches out his hand to part the waters. And all night long, the Israelites must have heard—I don’t know what they heard—but there must have been a sound that accompanied the parting of the water.
And despite the fact that they are up against a large body of water and have no boats, life preservers or inner tubes, the Israelites don’t turn themselves in to Pharaoh. They remain facing toward freedom, even if it might be on the other side of a big swim.
And all night long, while on one side they hear the noise of the chariot wheels and the neighing of the horses, the sound of the Egyptians cooking their dinner and singing around the fire as they anticipate the rout and destruction of the foolish Israelites in the morning, on the other side they hear the wind. It is dark, so they can’t see what’s going on, but they can tell that something is happening on the Red Sea.
And in this part of the story, you can see the trust that is often hard to see from the Israelites during the rest of the Exodus story. They wait. They stay in place over night, trusting that the pillar of cloud and the angel of God will take care of what is behind them and that Moses has some sort of plan for what is ahead of them.
If they didn’t trust, I suspect we’d read about them deciding to quietly slip off up one side of the waterfront or down the other.
But they wait through the night.
And in the morning, a miracle happened.
I can’t explain this miracle, and it doesn’t seem to be worth our time to do that today. (Although if you google it, plenty of people will explain it to you…) But I want you to notice WHEN this miracle occurs in this story.
It doesn’t happen in the first few miles of the journey. The Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and angel for a while. The miracle doesn’t happen when the darkness at the end of the day arrives either. The Israelites sit through a dark night, not knowing what would happen in the morning.
The miracle happens with the new day, after a night of trust, weird sounds, and anxiety. In some ways, the miracle is a byproduct of relationships that led to trust—trust in who you follow, trust that the journey is heading where it is supposed to be going, trust that you will make it through the darkness of night.
So, here’s the question.
Who do you trust?
And don’t just say, “God” because you know that’s the right answer.
Because it is easy to say we trust in God.
But often times, it seems we say that, but then we trust only in ourselves.
And I suspect there were a few Hebrew people who were like us. I’m sure some of them were thinking, “I’m sure God has it under control, even though it is dark and I don’t swim and the Egyptians hate us and did I mention it is dark….but I’ll let God take care of the rest of the Hebrew crowd. It’s nice of God to offer, really, but I’ll just take care of myself, maybe move a little further away from both the water and the Egyptians and find a nice quiet spot to rest a bit and then I’ll catch up with everyone later.”
Because when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to have to rely on anyone else. Not even a Divine anyone else.
And in much of our lives, we can get away with that illusion of control. We are very self-reliant people, which is fine, to a point. Refer back to Joann’s sermon from last week.
God doesn’t want us to just lie down and wait for the bus to come to carry us out of slavery and into the promised land. The Hebrew people had to walk and we have things to do as well. But we need to not confuse our participation in the exodus with being in charge and setting the course.
And we need to remember that God sometimes doesn’t lead from the front of the line, but is protecting us at our backs. When the path forward isn’t clear, it doesn’t mean we are alone.
Who do you trust to lead you?
As you do your part in the work of deliverance, who are you following?
The Exodus, the deliverance from slavery to freedom, isn’t about the impressiveness of the Hebrew people. At every turn of the 40-year journey, it is about the power of God to deliver us from un-deliverable situations.
Rich Mullins was a contemporary Christian singer and poet and one of his songs made me think of the Israelites in the wilderness. The song is called Hard to Get.
What I really need to know
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we cannot get free from what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screamin’ in my ears
All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me
Unless You’ve led me here
To where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
Are we lost enough to let ourselves be led?
Maybe that’s our question to ponder this week.
After the past few years, with all the loss, disruption, and change, I think I relate to the wandering in the wilderness part of our faith story more than I used to. And I’m comforted by it.
Sure, we might prefer an express train out of wilderness times, rather than decades of wandering. But the reminder that when we’re lost enough to let ourselves be led, God is there. I feel that when I look back on the past few years. I am so thankful God has led me here, with you, for this time.
And if we trust God is leading us, how does that change the way we face the worries of the unknown future? It takes away my need to worry, even though things change and the path doesn’t seem as clear as maybe it used to be.
It takes away the power of my fear. Maybe this is why the Hebrew people could sit by the side of the sea all night, while their enemies were encamped around them. I’m sure they still had their fears, but they weren’t overwhelmed by them, and they stayed the course and walked through the parted waters toward their miracle.
We’re beginning our season of stewardship this month, when we prepare for next year’s budget, when we make our pledges to support the work and witness of the church. God has led us here and God is leading us still. Your faithfulness in the past few years has provided for us through very uncertain times. Calvary is well positioned to go where God is leading us. Thank you for your faithfulness. We hope you’ll be prayerfully considering how your pledge to the church is a sign of your trust that God is leading us toward a promised land.
I pray that when we find ourselves in the dark of night, with enemies encamped behind us and no clear path before us, that we will trust that our deliverance is not in our own hands. We will not create our own miracles. When we are lost enough to let ourselves be led, it is God who is our refuge, our very present help in times of trouble. Trust in that.
Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed[a] the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[b] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
13 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. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
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