It was back in the winter of early 1994 that I had my first conversation with the Call Committee at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I was serving essentially as Executive Pastor at St. Philip the Deacon in Plymouth, and it was a good gig: lots of responsibility and challenge in a church that was growing rapidly. Also, there were great relationships with the staff there, especially the Senior Pastor, David Hoffman, who was (and is) my mentor and great friend- we had worked together for almost fourteen years in two different churches. Deb, James and Alison were well connected in that community- and James, who had heard about St. Philip’s confirmation program, which I ran, since he was three, was going to start in it the next fall...
The conversations moved swiftly- barely three weeks later, Naomi Staruch, who was chairing the Committee, called me, and said that I had been selected, and asked me if I wanted to proceed with the process...and time stood still...
Like I said, I KNEW the job at St. Philip- and I had never been a senior pastor before. I knew how things worked at St. Phil’s- but not how Bethlehem did things... I knew all the players at St. Philip the Deacon, and with the exception of the seven on the Call Committee, NO ONE at Bethlehem... Could I do it? I thought I could; I was eager to try, but what if I couldn’t? Bethlehem was a whole new level of responsibility... And all the family trauma that would come along- needing to move, changing schools, changing churches...
Many of you have faced similar kinds of job changes- with all those questions, whether it has been an internal move in your company, or starting completely in a new one. Or maybe leaving a secure job to start your own company... For some of you, maybe the move was not your choice...
And let me suggest to you that these kinds of questions span all kinds of places in which we find ourselves, not just jobs. Our high school seniors and their parents are beginning to wrestle seriously with which college is the right match...
Should I get married? Is this the right person? Or, our marriage is OK, but with counseling and some work, we could go from an OK marriage to a great marriage...
Is it time for us to downsize? To leave the house we’ve been in for decades, and move into a condo...
These are very serious and difficult decisions. Even when things are mediocre, at best, we often stay with them, because that is what we know! To leave what you’re used to- to take that step in the new (and more difficult) the unknown, is a very difficult thing to do!
So with those questions in our minds- do we make the difficult change, are we willing to take the chance of change, let’s turn to the story from the Exodus we have for today- one of the most important in all the Bible: the Crossing of the Red Sea...
Let me review: The Children of Israel had come to Israel to escape famine. Jacob’s son Joseph was already there, sold into slavery years earlier by his brothers. But God had helped him find favor with the Pharaoh, and when his family arrives, he is the second in command of all Egypt.
But in succeeding generations, the following Pharaohs saw the Israelites as a threat to them, and enslaved them. For four hundred years, the Israelites have been slaves. God hears their calls for freedom and sends Moses- an Israelite who had been rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess, brought up with an Egyptian name in the royal court, murderer of an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, fugitive in Midian to be his representative and to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
Pharaoh, the incarnation of the sun god Ra, of course, says “NO WAY,” and so begins the struggle between God and Ra, acted out by Moses and Pharaoh in the plague cycle we talked about last week. And finally, after a devastating series of plagues- frogs, gnats, boils and the like, culminating in the death of the first born of all of Egypt and the Passover, Pharaoh relents, releases the Israelites from slavery, and Moses and Aaron lead them out. And they head east to the sea which separates them from Egypt and safety...
Pharaoh changes his mind- in fact, he is furious about the deaths of the first born, and with his best chariots and troops, goes after the Israelites, has them trapped against the sea, and has plans to slaughter them all, and that is where our story begins today...
This is the climatic battle; note that the Children of Israel have no part in it: it’s all God at work...
The sea is divided (or blown back by a strong east wind- there are two stories intertwined here: a strong east wind does not make for a “wall for them on their left and on their right.”) and the people go through the sea to safety. The Pillar of Cloud or Fire holds Pharaoh’s troops until the Israelites are almost safely across, and then they charge after them. Note how the Egyptians confess that it is God who is fighting against them: “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt...” (And Egypt= Pharaoh...) And then the waters collapse or return, and all the Egyptian soldiers, chariots and horses are consumed by the water.
God’s victory over Pharaoh is absolute. The Israelites are on the other side of the sea, there is no more possibility of pursuit, and the Egyptian part of the story is at an end. As we said last week, “God is God and Pharaoh is not...” God is actively on the side of the slave- God is in the corner of those who are oppressed...
This is the defining moment for the People of Israel: crossing the sea makes them a nation. In fact, while converts to Judaism are baptized, Jews never are- because their ancestors passed through the sea- THAT is their baptism. The baptism of converts is to include them in that crossing; to make them part of the story...
All very interesting- all very important to remember- when we think about our own relationship to God- or on whose side God is around the world when it comes to those who are oppressed. But it looks like it is God who does all the work in this story, so where does that leave you and me?
Let me back up to our first reading. The Egyptian Army is approaching, the Israelites are in a panic, and they cry out to the Lord and 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...”
Moses, Aaron and family are all in when it comes to the freedom God is bringing. But not so perhaps the majority of the people. Even with all the plagues- the Passover- that they have all seen (they have been eye witnesses to God’s power!), they are unsure about where this is going. Maybe they can convince Pharaoh that it was all Moses’ idea, and they can go back to what they know...
BECAUSE they KNOW how to be slaves- they’ve been doing it for generation after generation for four hundred years! What does it mean to not be a slave? What does it mean to be free? Who will care for them? All things considered, slavery didn’t look bad; the future is uncertain at best!
The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry land...”
One rabbi has written that what happens next is perhaps as great a miracle as the dividing of the sea itself: they start moving forward- one person, one family, then more and more and more. And they do this without Moses leading; he’s behind them holding his staff over the water! They do this in spite of the terror they must have been feeling: a wall of water on either side of you is not un-daunting, and the pride of the Egyptian Army behind them...
One step after another and another, into the newness of freedom, whatever that might mean; the chains of slavery left behind, and there was no going back. They were completely committed now; things would never be the same.
Was it all good from then on? Absolutely not. They had to learn what it meant to be the people of God. As we shall see over the next few weeks, there were some hard lessons coming.
But God’s presence was there for them on a daily- nightly 24/7 basis; they began to see that they were walking into God’s future.
And none of that was possible- none of it- until they realized they had God’s strength in them to take that first step into the water! Until they trusted that God would not abandon them on the journey. If God is calling you to do something, God will give you the strength to take that first step, even when you don’t know where the journey will lead you!
As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we believe that God continued to work in and through the children of Israel, formed on that day when they crossed the sea. And in the fullness of time, as the Bible says, God gave us his son.
God gave you and me Jesus, and in his life, we see Jesus proclaim the Good News- that all people are loved and valued by God- that he has been anointed by God to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives...and to set at liberty those who are oppressed... Do you see any connection between Jesus’ sermon and what God has done in the crossing of the sea???
We see Jesus show his trust in God to meet his needs- and God does. We see his trust in God as he follows his path to Jerusalem, in spite of the danger.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays to “let this cup pass from me- but your will, not mine be done...” In spite of what he knows is going to happen he places his trust in God. On the cross, when for all the world it looks as though he has no future, Jesus prays “Into your hands I commend my spirit...” and then he dies- like you will, like I will, like every human who has ever lived or will ever live does.
And in his resurrection from the dead on the third day, Jesus’ trust in God is justified. Jesus is alive! There is nothing in your life or in your death that can take you away from God! Even in death, God’s promises can be trusted. In your life- and in your death, you can count on Jesus walking with you- helping you take one step and another, until you open your eyes made new forever in God’s presence.
So that would also mean that through every step of your life, Jesus is also walking with you, urging you to trust in him, and take those difficult steps towards whatever change God could be calling you to- just like those first steps the Israelites took as they stepped into the sea!
That is the promise made to you in your baptism (in the baptisms of Teagen and Ryder...)- when you were woven into the incredible tapestry of God’s People, God’s story, the promise was made that Jesus’ Spirit is there for you every step of the way- for all of time, and beyond!
Time was standing still for me, as Naomi waited for my answer. I remember Deb staring at me- she knew that this was something that I had wanted- to become a senior pastor- but was this the right one? The right time? Neither one of us knew, exactly, what it meant... or would mean to our lives, our children’s lives.
I prayed silently and fervently, remembered Jesus’ presence and said “yes,” and from that moment, our lives- and your lives, frankly, have never been the same, as we have all worked together in our continuing journey to see Bethlehem become what we have been called to be and do, as we walk into God’s future: connecting people with God, each other and their mission in the world.
All easy and wonderful? No- but that has never been the promise. The promise has been God’s presence. The wonderful thing about the community we share is that while we honor our past, we have not been enslaved by it. And so God has used us in some extraordinary ways to share the Good News of Jesus.
Is God done with us? Not by a long shot- and not while we are willing to continue trusting Him to walk with us into a future that God is planning for us.
Now, and this is important: While many of you know this, there may be some who don’t. This is not just a pastor thing, a nice pastor story. Every one of you has been called by God to what it is you are doing in the world. The same promise Jesus has made to me has been made to you, as well.
And this means Jesus’ presence is there for you as you face whatever issue you may be facing- whether it is that job change, or move, or getting married, or working on your marriage, or a serious illness or whatever- ALL of it, through every change, Jesus is there for you, helping you take that crucial first step and growing in the assurance of His presence.
To our third graders and their families, you have been given a wonderful gift: the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. In it, you will find help and guidance for those times when you need encouragement, or when you’re stuck. But it will be of no early good if it sits on your shelf...
Here’s the process for us all: When you are facing a difficult decision, get your Bibles out. I would invite you to read our text today, but there are lots of others that can help you. That’s why Biblical fluency is important- knowing the stories of the Bible- where they are and how they connect to you matters.
Cry out to God (that is prayer, you know...) WHAT ARE YOU ASKING ME TO DO??? WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO??? IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO??? Envision the pillar of smoke, the pillar of fire, and remember that God is there for you...
And then listen, discern God’s answer for you. Talk to the people you love; God will be using them for you, too! And if God is asking you to do something new and difficult, He will give you the strength you will need to do it- to take those first steps and walk into God’s future.
God has promised, and as we see as we read through this story- and through all of Scripture, when God makes a promise, God keeps that promise... Freedom- God’s freedom is waiting. Trust in it. Count on it- and take that first step.
Will you pray with me: Lord God, as you gave the Israelites the strength to take those first steps into the sea, I pray that you give me the strength to make the decisions you are calling me to make with my life. Walk with me; help me know your presence, your guidance and your protection, as I strive to serve you, and the people you bring me each and every day. I ask this in Jesus’ Name and for his sake. Amen.
“Without risk, faith is an impossibility.” – Soren Kierkegaard
Consider: What are the risks of faith?
The Wilderness of Life
One of the many difficulties with faith is that even with strong faith, religious devotion and good works, there is not guarantee you’ll have an easy or prosperous life. No matter how good we are, we all face difficult choices, hard times or even tragedy. Pastor Chris suggested some areas where we might be struggling with difficult choices – in school, in dating, in marriage, in work. Consider the Israelites: 400 years of slavery, led by God into a wilderness. Even if you did believe, mostly, that you were being led by God, this would have been a difficult decision. Uproot yourself from the known to wander in the wilderness? How will we eat? What about the kids’ health and education?
Lord God, as you gave the Israelites the strength to take those first steps into the sea, I pray that you give me the strength to make the decisions you are calling me to make with my life. Walk with me; help me know your presence, your guidance and your protection, as I strive to serve you, and the people you bring me each and every day. Amen.
Want to get a jump on next Sunday? Monday