When everything seems to be against us, God will open up for us a way to freedom and life.
Three years ago, when the selection of readings we have heard read tonight last came up, I was travelling in North America. The Sunday was September 11, or 9/11 as the Americanís call it, and the nation was also reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans just a week or so earlier. If I were preaching there again this week, things would be strangely similar, for we have again marked the anniversary of 9/11, and Hurricane Ike smashed its way across the Texas coastline last night. Terrorist atrocities and increasingly frequent natural disasters associated with global warming may seem a long long way from the experience of the Hebrew people at the Red Sea in the days of Moses, but as is often the case, there are some basic things in human experience that tie such things together despite the obvious external differences. And the story of the Exodus through the Red Sea is one of the foundational stories of our faith precisely because its themes are so universal. The Jewish People tell this story every year around the table in the celebrations of the Feast of Passover. And we followers of Jesus tell this story every year in our celebration of the Paschal Vigil and we connect to it again in every celebration of baptism.
For several generations, the Hebrew people had been living as slaves. As the cruelty of their oppressors increased, God heard their cry and called Moses to lead them out in a mass escape known ever-after as the Exodus. But as we arrive at tonightís point in the story ó and I hope youíve been keeping up with the daily readings to fill in all the gaps between Sundays ó the Hebrew people are trapped. The armies of their slave drivers have come out in pursuit of them, and they have run into a dead-end on their escape route; they have hit the shore of the Red Sea. There is no way to get across and no way to go back without being captured and punished with even harsher conditions in slavery.
Surely you recognise that feeling? Isnít much of the fear and uncertainty around terrorism precisely because we recognise how much the ways of our past have contributed to it, but we canít go back and undo our past, but now all we see in front of us is a raging sea of chaos that we can neither control nor find a way through? And isnít much of the distress over climate change precisely because we recognise that our past is catching up with us and threatening to destroy us, and yet there seems to be no way forward, nothing we can now do that will open up a pathway to a land flowing with milk and honey?
Such scenarios do not only confront us at a global level. Iím sure most, if not all, of you have had times when you felt similarly trapped in some area of your own personal circumstances. You have felt trapped, enslaved, oppressed. You have sought to escape. But behind you you can feel it pursuing you and trying to drag you back. And in front of you suddenly there is an impassible obstacle, a challenge too great. Behind you come forces trying to drag you back into the captivity of your past. In front of you lies an angry sea of unknown chaos and peril. And there is nowhere to go.
Some of us will be feeling similarly about the challenges facing us as a congregation at present. The past canít be undone, but nor will it leave us alone. And what lies ahead of us still looks frightening and full of peril.
As I said, this story is one of the foundational stories of our faith because we all live this story in one way or another. All of us sometime find ourselves standing with our ancient forebears on the banks of the Red Sea crying out in terror. We promise in our Church Covenant that we will take this seriously and not try to see things through the rose coloured glasses of denial and delusion. We commit ourselves to feeding the voice of hope in each of us, while not shutting out the voice of despair. For the voice of despair is part of the story too. It is the voice of despair which prompts God to say ďI have heard their cry and I have come to set them free.Ē And when Jesus stood on his own Red Sea shore and cried out in despair in the Garden of Gethsemene saying, ďFather, Isnít there some other way than plunging into the sea of death in front of me. But not my will but yours be done,Ē there was God, ready to act again to ensure that although he plunge into the sea of death, the way would open to the promised land of resurrection life on the other side.
It is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder what might have happened if Jesus shut out his own voice of despair and not given it voice in his prayer. I suspect that the danger for him, as it so often is for us, would have been to start to try to engineer solutions for himself instead of looking for the way that God would open up before him. When we shut out that voice and try to pretend that everything is on track and under control, we start trying to prove it by asserting control and grasping at straws. For the Hebrew people only two options seemed possible. Either surrender and return to slavery and endure the increased suffering, or fight the armies of slavery and at least die as martyrs in some kind of heroic freedom fight. The odds behind them were overwhelming, but the sea in front of them was impossible. And had they turned to engage with the pursuing armies, either in surrender or in battle, surely they would never have even noticed the opening of a way through the impossible.
The God who hears our cry of despair, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will act to save us. ďThe Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.Ē Last night at the MCG there was a moving moment at the end of the game when the Collingwood players formed a guard of honour to farewell an opponent who they will never line up against again; Robert Harvey who is retiring after 21 seasons of football. The men who had been the odds-on impossible opponents a couple of hours earlier, now parted, and formed a wall on his right and a wall on his left and allowed him to pass through honoured and unharmed. It is a weak illustration, because football is only a game and the places where we are often trapped are all too real and all too impossible. But they are no more real and no more impossible than the Sea that the Hebrews faced or the storm of fury and hatred that Jesus faced.
God will come to save us, to open a way through the sea of impossibilities and allow us to walk through. And if we will take the way that God opens before us, that same sea that saves us will sweep away and destroy the forces of slavery and oppression that sought to drag us back and hold us down. The challenge is always, to be able to wait and trust, to resist the urge to hastily manufacture some half-baked solution of our own, and to thus, in our busyness, miss the sign of the waters parting in front of us. For God does not push us into the path that has opened. God opens the way and bids us follow. And just as the towering walls of angry water looked every bit as fearful as what the Hebrews were fleeing, and just as arrest and crucifixion looked horribly worse than the mess Jesus was already in, so too for us the way that God opens will probably not look like a walk in the park on a summer day. But God hears the voice of despair. And God responds and comes to save. And the promised land of life in the wide open spaces of Godís love lies on the other side of the opening sea. And blessed are those who put their trust in God our Father and step forward when God opens the way.