Charlton Heston portraying Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments in 1956
September 14, 2014
Crossing the Red Sea.
God parts the waters of the Red Sea and we have this vision, at least this is how I remember it in the movie, of there being a wall of water on the right and another wall on the left and the people marching through the parted sea. Then the sea closes and the Egyptian army is drowned. Swallowed up by the sea.
I suppose it is a good enough story if we believe that God is on our side. But not so good if we are one of the Egyptians bringing up the rear. Of course it begs the old question: Does God have that sort of power or did God give Moses that sort of power? Would God drown the Egyptians? Shall we answer no to all of those questions and examine the text?
Of course you can create your own answer to the questions just presented.
I’ve seen dozens of explanations regarding the parting of the Red Sea. These explanations range from tides to winds to tectonic earth movements. The most imaginative was a study done by a meteorologist of mirages. All of these make sense to some extent but they all miss the point. It’s the impossibility that is crucial to the story. This story is about our ability to believe in the impossible. It is about how we believe, and how we live out our beliefs.
We don’t know how long it took the Israelites to reach the sea, but it was long enough for the Egyptians to hear about their coming, and to get an army ready and prepare for an attack. Long enough to figure out a way to recapture their slaves. If this had been a present day sort of massacre the mob would have been mowed down on the shore. Probably something like Iraq or Gaza where thousands of women and children died. But that is not what happened that day. Something else happened that day. This story has become central to the lives of the Jewish people and for many Christians as well. Three thousand years later we seek new ways to relate it to our lives.
What about this impossibility – what are the possibilities hidden within it?
I can imagine some of what is happening that day by the Red Sea. The people have been running from there oppressors for a very long time. They were unhappy with Moses, they were murmuring, and grumbling, they were unhappy about most things in their lives.
You know what that feels like – that moment when you understand it will take a lot to put things right. That’s how it was that day, there was murmuring, anger, fear and anticipation, because they were approaching the Red Sea. Then they looked over their shoulder and they could see in the distance the Egyptians approaching. Just for a moment, think about it… imagine that you are by the sea, maybe you are at the front of the crowd close to Moses and you could give him a dirty look because you are angry with him, the wind is blowing, and so your hair whips around your face and you are probably hungry and for sure there isn’t any safety.
Now your leader is going to do what… lead you through the Red Sea? Not likely, you say under your breath, but already you can see there are no other options available, well maybe death or slavery. Going back certainly isn’t an option, at least not now. Going forward doesn’t look good either.
How often do we get caught in that place? That place where we feel stuck, like when there is no way to turn. That day they did go ahead. We know that happened because we know the story.
However, we don’t know how our own story will work out. We don’t know what the future will look like.
The parting of the Red Sea, the going forward, not knowing at all what is possible is an interesting metaphor. It raises questions that we face all the time: Do we enter into that place that we don’t yet understand, or do we turn back and continue on that same old path that is leading nowhere, in this case death or slavery. There all sorts of ways to die. Not only is there physical death but often we experience spiritual death in our lives or emotional death.
I want us to go again to the Red Sea: Imagine yourself there, the wind is blowing, Moses is looking you in the eye and saying we need to go, you are angry and of course wondering how did I get into this mess? So, are you going to go, or not? In terms of what’s happening in your life at the moment, are you going to go or stay, where you are?
The crossing of the Red Sea is the resurrection story for the people of Israel. In the Old Testament this story is the biggest story of all. It is the most miraculous story, it is the one with possibilities. It is a story of hope when their appears to be no hope.
Like our Christian resurrection story, we understand there is possibility to be resurrected to a different sort of life. As I said earlier it’s more about possibilities than miracles. Somewhere inside we believe that the impossible is always a possibility.
A few years back at Vancouver School of Theology I took a literary/theology class. One of the things we talked about was, “What is believable?” What makes a story believable? What is possible? And why do we believe some things and not others? Harry Potter is a good example. Some parents don’t like Harry Potter; they say the story isn’t true. They say its fantasy, and they want their children to be in touch with reality! (Like Bible stories?) These are the same people who like the Noah’s Ark story? They want them to know that, “truth” or what they consider to be truth, is the focus of every story.
In class a woman told this story: A young mother who falls into the category of disliking Harry Potter took her children to the zoo. She felt that fantasy and science fiction were not good for her children. They arrived at the zoo and she parked her car. Off they went to enjoy the animals. When they got back to their car it had a huge dent in it and there was no one around. Suddenly, a man appeared and he said, “I am so sorry about your car. I was exercising the elephants and she sat on your car. Don’t you worry, we will pay for the damage.” The woman was not pleased, but there wasn’t much she could do, and her car looked as though she could drive it.
She piled her children into the car and off they went. They turned onto the freeway and in a few minutes they came upon an accident. The police were there and there lights were flashing, but she felt this had nothing to do with her, so she sped by. Soon the police lights were flashing in her rear window, and of course she pulled over. The officer approached her window and he said, “Why didn’t you stop at the scene of the accident? You were involved, look at this freshly made dent in your car. I’m going to charge you with hit and run.”
“Oh no,” she said, “I wasn’t involved in the accident. I was at the zoo and an elephant sat on my car.”
The policeman laughed and said, “Right, an elephant sat on your car. I don’t believe you.”
So, what is it that we believe, and why do we believe it, and why is it so important?
What do we believe about crossing the Red Sea? Or what don’t we believe? And why? It’s a great story. It works for the people who live by it. If we think about it, it is about our very lives. Most of us, at times, take on the role of Moses; struggling to offer leadership and we are all one of those people following him, struggling to understand what the next piece is. We all struggle with whether or not we should take a chance and enter into the parted waters. We all ask, “What if?”
The story offers us a narrative; a narrative that we can integrate into our own lives. It is a sort of an impossible narrative, just like the elephant sitting on your car, just like Harry Potter saving his world, but even so a narrative that brings us to the edge because it’s inviting us to take a big step into something uncertain. Everything hinges on us believing that perhaps the elephant really did sit on the car, because then and only then can we step into the sea. We have to believe that we can step into the parted waters and possibly change our futures.
As I watch the National news and listen to Barack Obama and his plans for Iraq, I think that for him this must involve taking a long hard look at the Red Sea, I am not talking about whether or not he has made the right or the wrong decision, but only wondering about the difficulty of whether or not to enter the water and take a chance on making change, or simply turn around and not acting. Most of us will not have to make those sorts of decisions, but most of us can understand the feelings that come with them.
As for us gathered here we are faced with the question, how will we survive as the church? Making these decisions will require risk. The survival of the church will require entering the parted waters of the sea. As we do this work, like Moses and his people we will care, we will want things to work out, and we will want the impossible to become a possibility.
I invite you this week to think about your experience with entering the Red Sea. What was that like, and when did you risk everything and enter the parted waters, and when did you choose not to do that? When did you choose to turn around and not move ahead?