After wave and wave again of plagues—river turned to blood, frogs everywhere, fire from the sky, darkness at noon, and even the death of the firstborn—Pharaoh had finally relented and let Moses take the Israelites out of Egypt. There must have been a feeling of wonder among the Israelites, realizing for the first time in hundreds of years they were finally free people. The cruelty of slavery was done for and they were on their way to the Promised Land! Moses must have seemed like quite a hero to them as they walked together, belongings in tow, down the coast road toward Canaan.
Then for some reason they veered off the road. The pillar of fire and cloud that had been leading them on the way suddenly led them down into the wilderness, where they camped by the shore of the sea. And then, dust appeared on the horizon. A cloud rising that could only be from the hoofs of horses, the whirling spokes of chariots, and the stamping feet of soldiers. Pharaoh, ever the dithering, indecisive tyrant, had gone back on his word to free them and decided not to let them go. And he’d sent an army to retrieve them.
Imagine the panic in the camp. Imagine knowing that you have just tasted the fresh air of freedom for mere days when your captors have caught up with you, and you are pinned between their approaching army and the sea. There is no way out. This is the end. You and everyone you know are either going to die at the hands of Pharaoh’s soldiers, drown trying to escape into the sea, or be taken prisoner and forced back into the slavery you had so recently just escaped.
But just then, the pillar of cloud and fire suddenly leapt to block Pharaoh’s army, coming between the camp and the horde. It blocked any movement of the chariots or the soldiers. They could do nothing but stare malevolently as a sudden east wind kicked up, and the impossible started to happen. The sea, that cold dark place that was going to be a watery grave for panicked Israelites, suddenly started to be pushed back. Its waters piled up on each side and a causeway emerged. The Moses issued a command to go—go through the causeway to the other side. And the whole congregation of Israel escaped through the sea. And when the pillar finally relented and let Pharaoh’s army chase Israel into the sea, the wind died. The water came crashing down. God saved the people of Israel, putting an end to any threat Pharaoh and his army may have had over them anymore.
God makes a way where there is no way. This story gives us a dramatic reminder of that. When we find ourselves pinned between the army of Pharaoh and the unforgiving sea, God opens up a causeway to lead us to freedom. God did this, and it’s no wonder that it’s such a powerful reminder for us of God’s faithfulness and protection.
But I want to back up for a minute, and focus on those moments before the sea was parted. See, when the Israelites saw the dust cloud of Pharaoh’s army appear on the horizon, they didn’t quietly wait for Moses to tell them all would be fine. And they didn’t think there would be some miracle, despite having seen God’s mighty acts in Egypt. In fact, they didn’t so much as ask God to save them! Instead, do you know how they reacted? They turned to Moses and bluntly asked him, “was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us out into the wilderness to die?”
Because looking at it, they were right. They had been led to an impossible position where they were stuck. Pharaoh had the most powerful army in the world—what exactly was a ragtag assembly of Israelites supposed to do to stop them? And the sea—the sea blocked their path entirely. There was no going there. Sure, some might be able to swim to the other side, but that would be few and far between. This was the end, as far as anyone could tell. And that anxiety rippled over the whole congregation.
In a way, I think we may feel something like them. Pinned against the shore, unable to go back but terrified of what lies ahead. We have anxiety and grief about how we can’t do things as a church the way we’ve always known how to do them: whether that’s worshipping inside the sanctuary together; or doing the Lutefisk supper with the tables and the outfits and the music; or gathering altogether every week for confirmation or every Sunday for Sunday school. We look at all that we want to do, all we could go back to, and we can’t go there. But how do we go forward? We look ahead and all we see is open water, an unknown future that we don’t even know how to navigate, let alone survive. What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to be the church if we can’t do what we’ve always done?
I know it’s not in the text, but there’s a Jewish tradition called midrash where they take the stories in the Bible and embellish them a little to help see the text differently. I have this midrash in my head of the moments before the sea is split, when the Israelites are worried about how long the pillar of fire and cloud will keep Pharaoh’s army at bay. And Moses commands the people to start walking into the water. I imagine their fear and confusion, but some start doing it. They step into the water, waves lapping up their ankles, then their knees, then their hips and chest. Fathers put children on their shoulders, grandparents hold their children’s hands, and slowly the congregation starts venturing into the sea. And it’s only then, after they’ve started, that Moses raises his staff and the east wind blasts the waters and the sea is split. Suddenly those who were anxiously up to their necks, hoping Moses knew what he was doing, find themselves on dry ground. And they make it to the other side. But they had to step into the water first.
Siblings in Christ, we are being asked to step into the water. We are being asked to do the very thing that every fiber of our being says we can’t do. We’re being summoned to have the faith to trust that God is at work even now, in the midst of a pandemic, when we can’t meet in the sanctuary for worship and we can’t gather for the Lutefisk supper and we can’t do all those things we have always associated with “church,” and trust that God is not going to let the Church drown!
God is not going to let the church drown when it can’t meet together in the sanctuary because God is present with you wherever you are, my beloved congregation!
God is not going to let the church drown when our young people have to learn about their faith whether in confirmation or Sunday school in a totally new way because God is the one who carries us and who sets the fires of hope in our souls and deepens our faith!
God is not going to let the church drown when the fair is cancelled and the Lutefisk supper goes to a pickup service and baptisms happen outside and Bible studies happen in the home and not in the Blue Chair Room because God—God alone—is the one who has called this church together—not us!
So step into the water, my beloved congregation! Step into the water and trust that God is going to save us from this pandemic too. God is going to hold our faith together in this hard time. God is going to inspire us to deepen our trust in Jesus at home and at work and in the public sphere because the church has left the building! So get together into small groups at your homes to study the Bible, or pray through the directory, or sew quilts, or write notes of encouragement. Set aside time every day to explore faith with your children or grandchildren. Call the school, the food pantry, the women’s shelter, the hospital, and ask what help the people of God can offer to help them weather this pandemic. Step into the water. Be the church.
And just you wait, my beloved congregation, because God is going to send an east wind like we’ve never seen before to split the sea before us and show us that glorious vision of the Promised Land, where the Church is truly the body of Christ in the world, where faith leads us to do wonders, where forgiveness and reconciliation reign supreme, where hope does not end, where life conquers death. And it all starts with stepping into the waters of the unknown, and trusting God to guide us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.