Preaching this passage just doesn’t feel right without Charlton Heston here to don a long wig, robe and staff and say something really commanding. For better or for worse, the images from 1956 movie Ten Commandments burn in our minds as our primary images from Exodus. To us, the parting of the Red Sea is a really fantastic use of special effects and drama.
But to the Israelites who followed Moses, and the Egyptians who lost their lives, the parting of the Red Sea is much, much more.
After experiencing horrible plagues via the hand of God, Pharaoh has finally had enough, and allows Moses to the lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Rather than taking the Israelites through a direct, coastal route out of Egypt, God commands them to go out by way of the Red Sea, which makes no sense tactically. But Moses obeys God, and the people follow Moses, so they set out in the dark night and trudge through the swampy wilderness surrounding the sea.
Once again, the Pharaoh’s heart gets hardened and instead of letting the Israelites go, he sends all the chariots at his command after Moses and his followers. The Pharaoh scoffs at the Israelites, since he thinks they are wandering aimlessly right into a position where they will be trapped between the water and the Egyptians.
But, of course, the Israelites are not really trapped, because Moses stretches out his arm and God sets a strong east wind blowing, and soon the Red Sea parts and dry land appears. The Israelites scoot across, but when the Egyptians follow they are drowned.
One can argue that this moment, as the Israelites move through the waters, is when Israel is formed as a nation. So, for the Israelites, the parting of the Red Sea is a birth narrative. Moses’ birth narrative begins when his basket is placed on the river by his mother. Israel’s birth narrative begins with waters parting. Their self-identity shifts as they realize what it means to have a covenant established between God and a people. The people of Israel begin to realize that this God not only has chosen them, but will guide and protect them from harm, as well. With their collective backs against a wall, only God’s intervention could have saved them-and that intervention did save them and in a spectacular way they could never forget.
And all of that is wonderful, but I can’t help wonder-what about all those dead Egyptian soldiers? The liberation of the Israelites leaves us feeling ambivalent-we’re excited for the Israelites, but uneasy about the slaughter that was involved in freeing them. For that matter, what about all the dead first-born Egyptian babies after the final plague? Why does God need to show his power through such bloody means? This may be Israel’s birth narrative, but when a nation is born, enemies are born, too. From here on out, the nation of Israel will be in conflict with its neighbors as they take turns invading each other’s land and killing each other en masse.
The Israelites did not invent this idea of nationhood or warfare, but neither does God call them to transcend their ideas about what it means to be a nation in the sense that any nation with undefined borders has built-in enemies.
Thankfully, thousands of years after this bloodshed, God will give us another birth narrative-this time of a boy born in a stable. This boy will grow up and explain that God wants to reconcile all people to himself, not just one nation. Throughout his ministry Jesus will come to realize that his mission is not just for Jewish people, but for all people.
After his death, his followers, people like Paul and Peter, will have dreams, visions and experiences that lead them to invite people who are not like them-who are not circumcised, who come from a variety of cities and countries, who have different skin tones-to join this new community of believers. These new believers will even have their own birth narratives as they each go through the waters of Baptism and come out safely on the other side, sins forgiven, members of the Christian church. These new believers will have new primary identities-not as members of a nation, but members of a church.
And you’d think, that two thousand years after this miraculous event all humans would be able to engage with one another as beloved children of the one true God, but I guess that’s just too good to be true! We are still wrapped up in our idea of nationhood, our nations are what define us and even within our own nation, we use religion to partition ourselves into even smaller competing factions.
Last week, Matt and I were watching an episode of The Onion News Network. These three minute clips are parodies of news channels like CNN. The episode we were watching was about hurricanes. The fake meteorologist was talking about a fake hurricane that was headed right for the Texas-Mexico border. However, instead of calling it Mexico, he just kept saying, “Hopefully this hurricane will hit this landmass here instead of Texas.” It was a funny commentary about how we don’t pay enough attention to natural disasters in other parts of the world.
I did not think much about it until the following Monday. I was at the gym, watching The Today Show and the guest meteorologist was talking about Hurricane Ike, which as we know has devastated the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. On Monday, however, no one knew exactly where Ike would hit. The meteorologist indicated that the hurricane was going to hit Cuba at full force. He said this fact as if it was wonderful, exciting news. He explained that when a hurricane hits land it is like a top spinning on sandpaper-the whole hurricane weakens. The hurricane hitting Cuba would weaken in for the United States. He did not mention the hurricane’s devastation of Haiti or seem at all concerned about the people who live in Cuba! Cuba was treated like a really handy, large sand bar off the coast of Florida.
Now, whatever political differences we have with Cuba, what does it say about us as a culture if we cannot recognize the humanity of people who face the same threat of natural disaster that we do? Who have we become?
I must say, I was relieved when I went to the webpage of the Episcopal Life newspaper and found a large amount of coverage of how the hurricane affected Cuba, Haiti, even Hispaniola, which I had to look up on a map! Even in our world where nations are pitted against nations, the church can provide a bridge between nations. When we become Christians, we become part of a borderless community of those that follow Christ. When we become Christians we become aligned not only with other believers but with all those whom God wants us to help. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when a person is baptized, they were also automatically issued a passport?
That may not happen, but we can take our responsibilities as citizens of the world seriously. We can pay attention to world news. We can make pen pals or support someone in need in another country. We can pray for a church that is not our own. We can go on mission trips and immerse ourselves in another culture. We can send money for relief aid not only for Houston, but also for Havana.
And together, we can celebrate the fact that the liberation of the Israelites was just the beginning of the liberation God had planned for us, that one day he would send his Son to liberate us not just from political powers that repressed us, but our own sin and limitations. Whether American, Cuban, Iraqi or Chinese, Christ came for all of us and offers us the same grace and forgiveness. Thanks be to God.