Sunday, March 01, 2009

From Fear to Faith (Exodus 15:1-19)

You may have noticed I sometimes focus on unusual responses we see in the Bible. Something happens and people react, but not in the way that we’d figure they’d react, or not in the way that we’d react if we were there.

Here’s a good example. The Hebrew people have been slaves for 400 years, almost twice as long as we’ve been a country. Four hundred years ago, about 99 percent of the Europeans in North America spoke Spanish and lived in Florida, if you want to get a picture of the time involved. Just within the last few days, they’ve finally been released from their slavery by Pharaoh. But now, they face that same Pharaoh and his mighty army of chariots, sweeping towards them. They’re terrified because they’re trapped against the Sea of Reeds, sometimes called the Red Sea.

These are a broken people – according to the estimates Exodus makes of their population, they heavily outnumber Pharaoh’s army, but they were slaves so long they can’t even dream of fighting. God acts through Moses and offers them an escape route, through the very sea itself, which he parts so they can walk across on dry land.

The Egyptians pursue and the danger is not over yet. But God closes the sea up again and the Egyptian army drowns in its midst. Their God has used his power over the sea itself to defeat the mightiest foe they could imagine. What would you do if you had seen that?

I figure I might have backed away slowly until I was outside the crowd and then I would have run for the proverbial hills. Did you see what God did? To the Egyptians? You hang around and stay on his radar if you want to, buddy, but I’m not that brave.

The Hebrew people, though, sing. In fact, they sing praises to the God whose awesomely lethal power has just been demonstrated. I’d still be scared. What if he didn’t like the song? What might happen if that awesome power gets aimed at us? Why risk it.

But the Hebrews sing songs of praise to God, seemingly without fear even in the face of the overwhelming power they’ve just seen at work. Why do they do this, instead of run screaming in fright?

I believe it’s because they know the God whose power they’ve just seen demonstrated. Yes, it’s an awesome power, and yes, it could destroy them with the same ease it wiped out the Egyptian army. But it is the power of God, and as they are just beginning to rediscover, that God is on their side. I don’t mean that God picked a side like we might pick a football team. I mean that they understand this God made a covenant with their people in the time of Abraham and no matter what else happens, he’ll keep his end of the deal. This awesome power will be used to protect them, guide them and strengthen them so they can fulfill his purpose for them. Their troubles later on in the story come because they forget the “fulfill his purpose” part.

Now, because we don’t see God’s power demonstrated in things like the Red Sea Expressway, we may tend to be less in awe of the idea of that power. Our science and our abilities have expanded over the years, and we don’t have as much to marvel over as the people of ancient times did. Or do we.

A minister friend of mine went on a mission trip with his church to a Latin American country a few years ago. One of the people they met there was a man who had been in prison during one of his country’s different political upheavals, one in which he was on the side that wasn’t in power.

The prisoners were beaten or tortured in some way every day. Their jailers were told to make life very hard for them in order to break down their opposition. This man told my friend and his church members that after some time in the prison, he found himself as a sort of spokesman for the inmates. He would go to the guards and ask to see the commander and communicate on their behalf.

One day, he went to the commander and asked a favor. We know you must beat us, he said. We know you have orders and you have to do these things. But could you do them at the same time every day? That way we would know we would have some hours of the day where we wouldn’t have to be as fearful. The commander agreed.

Some time later, the man went to the commander again and said that he and many of the other prisoners who were Christians wanted to have communion. Could they have just as small amount of bread and wine so they could have communion together? The commander agreed, but he and his men were present for security reasons when the prisoners gathered for their communion. We have one more request, the man told the commander when they were all together. Will you and your men take communion with us?

The beatings and torture completely stopped the next day.

We may look at this bread and juice as just symbols or we may hold a deeper understanding of them, depending on what we’ve been taught about them. But there is power in them, symbol or not, that is beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond our capability to even imagine. Annie Dillard once wrote that when we come to worship and invoke God’s presence, we do it with such a lack of concern when we ought to realize we’re like children playing with dynamite.

I say this not to make anyone scared to touch the bread or worry about spilling the juice or wine, but to remind us of what the Hebrew people knew and sang their lungs out about when they were on the shores of the Red Sea. The unimaginable power of God is real and a part of the word in which we live – and it is in the hands of One who loves us so much he would rather die than live without us and who has made for us a role in his work.

That, I believe, is good news.

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