Sunday’s sermon: Sometimes a Promise Needs Proving

Text used – Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

  • Is anyone here familiar with the Disney Pixar film “Onward?”[1]
    • Basic storyline:
      • Main characters = 2 elven brothers named Ian and Barley
        • Ian = 16yo and struggling with self-confidence
        • Barley = a few years older → enthusiastic and impulsive player of a magic role-playing game based on how the world used to be before technological advances made magic obsolete
      • Both boys given a gift by their mom on Ian’s 16th birthday = magical staff that was their father’s before his death when Ian was just a baby and Barley was barely old enough to remember him → staff comes with a magic spell that will bring their dad back for one single day
      • Barley, the magic role-playing officianado, is ecstatic and tries the spell, but it doesn’t work → Ian tries it and gets halfway through before his confidence falters → results in bringing half his dad back (the lower half) before the magic gem in the staff disintegrates
      • So with the clock ticking, Ian and Barley head out on a quest to find another magical gem so they can complete the spell and bring the rest of their dad back before his 24 hrs. runs out. In true Disney fashion, this quest is full of mishaps and mayhem, funny moments as well as moments that will truly touch your heart.
    • Why am I bringing up this movie this morning? → There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where Ian and Barley’s path bring them to a bottomless pit. There’s a drawbridge to cross the pit … but the release lever is on the other side of the chasm.

  • And this light and family-friendly scene just kept reminding me of our Scripture reading this week and the way that God has to continually prove God’s presence and protection and provision for the people of Israel after their escape from slavery in Egypt.
    • Catch up with where we are in the Grand Story of Faith today: after the final of God’s 10 plagues swept through Egypt and every first born – from livestock to humans – has died, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Hebrew people go free → people gathered up all their belongings and all the members of their households and left the land of Egypt following God (pillar of cloud by day, pillar of fire by night)
    • But today’s reading finds Pharaoh changing his tune – text: When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about the people. They said, “What have we done, letting Israel go free from their slavery to us?”[2] → So Pharaoh amasses 600 of his most elite soldiers as well as all his chariots and captains and pursues the Israelites so that they can be recaptured and re-enslaved.
      • Find it interesting that our text says, “When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away …” → I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise to Pharaoh that Moses and the rest of the Israelites are leaving because he told them to go. – Ex 12 (the night after all the first-born in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s own son and heir, were struck down by the 10th plague): Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron that night and said, “Get up! Get away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go! Worship the Lord, as you said! You can even take your flocks and herds, as you asked. Just go! And bring a blessing on me as well!”[3]
        • Maybe Pharaoh is surprised that Israelites are actually gone because he didn’t believe them strong enough or brave enough
        • Maybe Pharaoh is surprised that the Israelites are actually gone because he was speaking from a place of grief-fog → We all know how fuzzy and dysfunctional our minds can sometimes become in the fresh wake of grief.
        • Whatever the reason, I just find it interesting that apparently Pharaoh needed to be told that the Israelites were gone. Apparently he was unaware that they had left Egypt, despite the fact that the order (permission?) to do so had come from his own lips.
    • Then comes what could be the most dramatic part of the whole Exodus story – the scene at the Red Sea.
      • People of Israel = trapped btwn. the swiftly advancing Egyptian army on one side and the vastness of the Red Sea on the other → And immediately, they turn on Moses (and on God) – text: The Israelites were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt? ‘Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!’ It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”[4]
        • Definitely a theme throughout the life of the people of Israel: they follow God for a time → something upsets them or scares them or distresses them in some way → the shy away like horses startled by a snake → Moses plays his role of mediator with an irritated God on one hand while he reels in the spiritually scattered Israelites with the other hand → God provides for the people despite their complaints and lack of trust → eventually the people return to God
          • And folx, this is a really good and really important time to remind ourselves that the ancient people of Israel are far from alone in this cycle. We follow. We become distressed. We question and doubt and balk at where God is trying to lead us. But God remains with us, continuing to protect and provide, and eventually, we swing back into a mindset and heart-set of faith and following. It’s a story as old as time, as recent as yesterday, and as predictable as tomorrow.
            • Cycle that reminds me of the scene from “Onward” → As Ian is crossing the bottomless chams with his invisible bridge, just before the rope slips from his waist, he hollers back to Barley, “You’ve got me, right?” And Barley yells back, “Yeah, I’ve got you!” In the midst of the scary and the uncertain, the Israelites continue to shout to God, “You’ve got us, right?” and God replies, “Yeah, I’ve got you!” In the midst of the scary and the uncertain, we continue to shout to God, “You’ve got me, right?” And still, God replies, “Yeah, I’ve got you!”
      • True to God’s promise to the people, God provides: instructs Moses to take his staff in his hand, stand on the banks of the Red Sea, and raise his arms high → God parts the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites can cross safely to the other side → God even goes so far as to hinder the chariots of the Egyptians so the Israelites have enough time to cross → finally Moses stretches his arms out over the waters again (at God’s instruction) and the waters of the Red Sea “returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained.”[5]
  • So we’re encountering this passage as we work our way through this year of the Narrative Lectionary – those readings chosen and ordered to help us follow the thread of God’s Grand Story of Faith from the beginning all the way through the history of the people of Israel and up through God’s saving act of grace and love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So with that purposes, by beginning at the beginning, we’ve come across this text fairly early on in the cycle of the church year. But within the context of the Revised Common Lectionary (a different schedule of Scripture readings), this passage is always read on vastly different day: Easter Vigil – the Saturday between Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and the resurrection joy of Easter morning.
    • Scholar put powerful words to the significance of this: Hearing this text in the darkness of a church at the Easter Vigil is an occasion for a congregation to engage a crucial portion of Scripture in an environment that provokes fear, wonder, and mystery. … Terror is not too strong a word for the potential brutality and ruthlessness that could be meted out by the forces of Pharaoh, under whom the people and their ancestors that labored as slaves for generations. These unarmed fugitives now feel a most intense “buyer’s remorse.” Why did we ever listen to this man Moses? Better to live as slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness. However, slavery and death are not the only alternatives. God has another plan. In a foundational text of Israel’s very existence – the exodus – Christians find their most profound foretaste of the message movement of the Easter Vigil “on this most holy night, when our Savior Jesus Christ passed from death to life.” As the crossing of the Red Sea marked Israel’s passage from slavery in Egypt to service of the true and living God, so does Christ’s resurrection open the way for [our] journey from death to life. Radical grace is at work in this saving event.[6] → “Radical grace is at work.” Radical grace is at work. Now and then and always. Friends, radical grace is our promise from God – a promise that God holds to even when we are too afraid to step out into the unknown … even when we need more encouragement, more coaxing and cajoling, more proof than we should. God’s promise holds as that proof. God’s promise holds despite that proof. God’s promise holds. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon, featuring Chris Pratt and Tom Holland (Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, 2020), 0:58:21 to 01:02:24, https://www.disneyplus.com/video/c54728c5-8618-4dea-a4fd-398c3f41a742.

[2] Ex 14:5.

[3] Ex 12:31-32.

[4] Ex 14:10b-12.

[5] Ex 14:28.

[6] J. Michael Krech. “Easter Vigil – Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 331, 333.