Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sermon: Trapped Between

Exodus 14:19-31

The situation of the Israelites is dire. They have run from Pharaoh, but they are being followed by chariots and warriors on horseback. And now they come to the shore of a sea. They cannot swim across. They have an army at their back and an impassible sea in front of them. It looks like they are going to be slaughtered. But God comes in a mighty way and saves them. The waters of the sea part, and the people walk across between walls of water.

The army starts to follow them, but the mud jams up the chariot wheels, and they are slowed, so the Israelites are able to get across before being caught. Then the waters of the sea close up behind them, and the Egyptians are covered: the chariots, the cavalry and the army, so they are destroyed. It is a miracle of salvation from the hand of God.  But the story may raise questions for us about the character of God. Couldn’t God have saved the people without so much death?

One retelling I heard a number of years ago which is from an ancient source, said that at this moment, the angels in heaven began cheering what God had done, like you or I might cheer the winning touchdown in the last seconds of a game.

But when they looked around they saw that God was weeping. One of the angels asks God, “Why are you crying?” And God says, “Don’t you see my people that are dying in the sea?”

I appreciate that retelling. There is a sense even in the ancient Jewish storytellers that although there is celebration in the freedom of the people, God is also saddened at the cost of that freedom. That’s often the problem with being trapped between things, there is no easy answer, no simple painless resolution for the situations we humans get ourselves into, and even when God steps in there is weeping.

Martin Niemoeller was a commander in the German navy in World War I. After the war, he studied theology and became a pastor. But post WWI Germany was in crisis with high inflation. So when Hitler began his rise to power, Niemoeller saw Hitler as the hope for restoring Germany and became a strong support – so strong that he could speak with Hitler on any subject.

In 1933 Hitler started interfering in the church. He appointed one of his cronies as the bishop of the Protestant church in Germany – and made the churches serve Hitler rather than God. Niemoeller became concerned, and voiced his concern to Hitler. It made no difference.

Niemoeller eventually joined Dietrich Bonhoeffer to create a group of pastors who stood against Hitler. “Niemöller was arrested in July 1937 for speaking out against Hitler from the pulpit, was imprisoned for eight months, fined after a trial, and then immediately re-arrested as a “personal prisoner of Hitler.”  He was sent to Sachsenhausen for “re-education.”  Because he was a poor student and refused to learn the new ways, he was then sent to Dachau, where he was to spend the next eight years of his life.  For all he knew, it was where he would die.”[1] But it was not, he was freed by the Allies in 1945.

I share that story so you can hear the power behind this quote. It was Martin Niemoeller who said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. [God] is not even the enemy of [God’s] enemies.”

He had been on both sides, as a Nazi and as an enemy of the state. And from it he learned what the ancient rabbi knew, that God does not hate those who resist God’s salvation, but God weeps for them because they too are God’s people.

We would be wise to remember that God would prefer solutions that lead to peaceful resolution of injustice, but the hardness of our hearts often leads to answers that are less than ideal – in our eyes and in the eyes of God. Suffering is unavoidable as those who refuse to change their hearts collide with those who must be rescued. That is the first lesson that this scripture has to offer us, a reminder that God weeps when the Egyptians die because they are not God’s enemies, they are God’s people. It is an important reminder in a time when people are far too likely to vilify their enemies. Remember: even our enemies are God’s people.

The second lesson of this passage is about God’s character in another of our situations in life. The fact is, we often find ourselves caught between two things in life and feeling like there is no way out.

We might say we are between a rock and a hard place or the devil and the deep blue sea. This place can be deeply uncomfortable as we feel as though our whole life is about to fall apart. We may feet utterly trapped.

But this story says that there are often paths ahead that we are not able to see. That deep blue sea that is ahead can actually be dried up, that rock can be moved, that hard place can be softened, and that devil defeated. God is able to see options which we are unable to see. In fact, God may have a plan for our salvation that leads us through one of the very troubles we think is impossible to survive. None of us like to think this.

In my mind’s ear, I can hear the conversation right now between myself and God.

“God, I’m stuck, there is no way out. I have an ocean of problems in front of me that there is no way through, and an army of problems about to overtake me from behind.”

“Okay, Rob, step into the ocean in front of you.”

“God, I can’t do that. I won’t survive. I’ll drown.”

“No you won’t. Calm down. Take a deep breath.”

[frustrated!!!] “I am not holding my breath while walking through an ocean!”

“That isn’t what I meant. I meant take a deep breath and get ready. I am about to do something you never even imagined. But you have to step forward.”

At that point I am sure there would be some whining and complaining until God convinced me that God really was going to take care of me.

This passage reminds us that God may be working to part the waters, to create a new opportunity, in places where we thought there was no way through. There is always hope.

But it may require us to leave behind the life we knew, it may require us to step into the mud, it may even require us to wander in the desert for 40 years to finally be at peace with it. But there is always hope. We are never so trapped that God cannot help rescue us and bring us salvation from our troubles.

Ultimately that is what the cross is about. God was willing to do something new that we might be set free. God’s love for us was so strong, that Christ came and died to make a way where there was no way before: parting the waters of death, and bringing life to those who thought they were his enemies. It is a story much like the parting of the Red Sea.

So remember our enemies are not God’s enemies, but God’s people, and we are never so trapped that we cannot be saved. The angels in heaven learned both that day when they saw God work miracles and weep at the same time. And they probably relearned the lesson the day Christ died on the cross.

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