Saturday, June 22, 2002

Parting Words for a Divided World

The following is a talk presented to Grace Connection on June 22, 2002, by Heather Isaacs, then a graduate student at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

I sometimes wonder why God doesn’t be the God of the Old Testament and DO something. I mean, we have biblical stories of how God stepped into human history time after time and DID something. God LOVED a good miracle. Especially in the Hebrew Bible. Fire from heaven, talking donkeys, floating axheads. These were dramatic, creative expressions of God’s will. God seemed to like to step in and do something. So my question may seem too obvious but I ask it anyway--where is God now? In a world desperately in need of intervention, has God begged out? Has God thrown up her hands, departed and left the rest of history to us?

Of course, the easy way out is to say that the miracles of the Bible aren’t historical. That God NEVER acted that way. Therefore, God is no less engaged with the world now than God was in the Bible. But that presents an equally difficult problem. What kind of God do we worship if God isn’t capable of doing a small thing—like floating an axhead? If God can’t do the small things, can we really believe that he can do the big things? Process theology suggests “no” and confesses a God who is, in many ways, powerless to help or to DO. Process theology solves some problems of theodicy but not all. If we don’t believe God can work miracles, can we really believe in resurrection. And if resurrection is not possible, where would our hope be? This world would suffer into infinity unless it destroyed itself first, which it probably would. God would just watch on and grieve. Redemption would not be possible, neither at a personal or cosmological level. As you can gather, I believe there are just as many problems when we reject miracles as when we believe in them.

To be honest, I don’t think it really matters if we can discern any miracle’s historicity. We can’t PROVE anything about God to each other. People die trying to prove their point about God. Maybe if we could call down fire from heaven like Elijah we could convert the non-believers, but as it stands I don’t believe God will answer that prayer. But that doesn’t give us a whole lot of comfort when we ask the question—Where is God now? I think it’s ironic that even the people of the Bible to whom miracles were directed often did not know the answer to this question. The Bible is full of stories that describe a miraculous revelation of God only to have the next scene be full of doubts, fears, and expressions of God’s abandonment. Paul Yancey, in his book Disappointment with God, writes that “some Christians long for a world well-stocked with miracles and spectacular signs of God’s presence. I hear wistful sermons on the parting of the Red Sea and the ten plagues and the daily manna in the wilderness, as if the speakers yearn for God to unleash his power like that today. But the follow-the-dots journey of the Israelites should give us pause. Would a burst of miracles nourish faith?” (44).

Today, in my own “wistful sermon,” I want to look at what may be the biggest miracle of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Parting of the Red Sea, and look through it, toss it out if it gets in our way, to the nature of God in relationship to God’s people. I want to approach the Red Sea with those who are in the story and ask What is it that we can take from this experience that can nourish and sustain our faith rather than let us get by on the short-lived thrill of a Charleton Heston movie moment? What will let us see God at all in a world where God no longer parts the sea or rains fire from heaven just to make a point? What will allow us to begin to answer the question—Where is God now?

I want to try and answer this question by starting small. So this means that we have to put aside our movie images and begin with the smaller realities of this story.

Two men. Moses and Pharaoh. Both from privileged backgrounds. Pharaoh, privileged by birth. Moses, privileged by adoption. I think we have enough images from history to understand implicitly the power that accompanies royalty and therefore can project much of that understanding onto a sketch of Pharaoh. But it might be of interest to contrast the leadership of Pharaoh with that of Moses. We might remember Moses’ reluctance to return to Egypt after building a life and family in Midian, after living in the comfort of the household of his father-in-law Jethro, a priest. Moses’ reluctance at the Burning Bush has been interpreted as a sign of fear of retribution for the Egyptian he had killed as a young man. Or as an indication that Moses’ faith is weak in heeding the call of God. But I think we can equally suggest that few people, including Moses, would be willing to give up their warm beds for a long, hard trek in the wilderness. Moses would have to leave his privileged life in order to do God’s bidding. One would think that if God appeared to you in a burning bush that there would be little doubt about the authority given you to answer God’s call. And yet Moses sits there in chapters 3 and 4 of Exodus and keeps trying to find an excuse NOT to go to Egypt. In fact, Exodus doesn’t record Moses ever saying “Yes” to the plan. The last words Moses shares with God at the burning bush, are “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.”

And yet, where we pick up the story today is at the shoreline of the Red Sea. Somehow Moses got from the Burning Bush to the Red Sea. This reluctant leader had become the vocal cords of God. God was employing a man who’d rather be somewhere else and yet because Moses ultimately answered the Call, he was being converted into the leader God saw possible within him.

I want to turn now to the two groups of people in this narrative, one comprised of refugees and the other of soldiers. The refugees had little with them. Their escape had come quickly and without any preparation. Chapter 12:29 says that the people had taken unleavened dough “without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.” At this moment that we enter the story they are in total, imperiled flight. They have suffered too much and for too long and cannot yet believe they will even make it through the night. Moses had been promising deliverance from the moment he had arrived in Egypt but as Chapter 6:9 so aptly describes the plight of those who have internalized their oppression, the Israelites “did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” The fear of the Israelites as they see the Egyptian army approaching is palpable in the text—they cry out in the belief they will die that night in the desert.

Their fear is justified. The Egyptian army is quickly closing the gap. Pharaoh has called up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chariots and their officers to lead his army into the desert after the Israelites. When I think about these soldiers, I have a gut feeling that some of them, like Moses, would rather be somewhere else. They don’t really have the heart for this kind of work, this night pursuit that may mean the deaths of helpless men, women, and children. They may have families of their own with whom they would rather be sharing the comfort of home this night. Instead, they are out here tracking down powerless refugees. If you could ask them why they are there they would probably answer that it is their duty to follow their leader and so they do.

Therefore, on this night all the lives of both groups depend on the decisions of two, very human, men. Two leaders in opposition to each other, to each other’s gods and both about to lead their respective peoples into the Red Sea. One will bring his people out of the sea and into new life. The other will lead his into the sea and to certain death.

If I were to leave the story here and you didn’t know about a pillar of cloud or a parting sea, you’d maybe fill in the rest with images of newspaper clippings of the past year, of past years, pictures where the helpless were not helped, where God didn’t DO anything. In our world this is what we expect. And yet, in this story our concept of what God doesn’t do NOW is confronted with what God is capable of doing. Because just at the moment the Hebrews have reached their limit and can go no further, God steps in and turns this situation around.

In verse 19, the pillar of cloud, the hidden glory of God, falls back and takes up the rear thus becoming the line that Pharaoh and his army will not be able to cross alive. Moses stretches his hand over the sea and for the rest of the night the Lord pushes back the waters so that the Hebrews can walk on dry land to the other side.

But in an act that can only be described as supreme arrogance and/or stupidity, Pharaoh leads his army into the depths of the parted sea. What was he thinking? That the parted waters were for him? Pharaoh never got it, did he? Exodus contains twenty references to the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. Half of those, including those appearing in the first five plagues, are self-willed (he hardens his own heart). The rest are attributed to God. But this is the Bible’s way of saying that Pharaoh had made such a habit of defying the Lord that he could not break it. Pharaoh damns himself but it is God who takes ultimate responsibility. This explains why Pharaoh orders his people into the parted sea. And in the last watch of night, maybe three or four in the morning, God finally passes judgment on the Egyptians. The Lord “looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion,” (14:24). God looked down into the Egyptians, the Egyptians looked up and they were confused because they were now confronted with the very truth they had rejected. What do the Egyptians say in reply? They confess the power of God even as they try and escape it. They say, “The Lord is fighting for them (the Israelites) against Egypt.” And with that, God removes God’s hand from holding back the parted waters and the army of Pharaoh and its leader are swept away. Sometimes the gruesome nature of this part of the story is left out in our retelling of the Exodus. But as a professor of mine is fond of reminding his Hebrew Bible students when discussing Salvation Oracles in the Hebrew Prophets, “There is no salvation without judgment.” Therefore, I consider this event not simply as a miracle story but as the retelling of a day of judgment. Not THE day of judgment but A day of judgment. A day when God stepped in. A day when God separated the forces of death from the forces of life. A day when those who would have thwarted the life-force of other human beings dared to step on the holy ground of God at work and were overpowered by the wake God’s deliverance left behind. A day when the enemies of the God of Life did not take their last breath before confessing that the God of the Refugees was undeniably real and present. Viewing this day as a day of judgment points us beyond the obvious miracle to a hoped for reality--THE day of judgment when God steps in for the last time, when God’s footprints split the seams of the earth open, when “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess to God,” and the demonic forces of death will be cast out forever. On that day God will leave the work of deliverance behind and get about the work of restoration, of renewing the lives and spirits of each of God’s creatures.

You may wonder, well—what about the historicity of the act? Did God really do what this story says God did? If God doesn’t act like this now, then what does it matter? In reply, I say that in the encounter with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, we have our answer. The God we worship is a God who delivers, who liberates, who loves us back into whole, fulfilled life. And we need this God. In thousands of years of human history, we haven’t righted the world on our own--at times we become trapped by the snares of our own devices. The same people who entered the Red Sea that fateful day are alive now. Those who lead the charge against the helpless, those who complicitly follow behind, those who have no safe corner in the world to call their home, and those who are POINTING with their own lives to LIFE, the life that is only possible in the love, mercy, and justice of God. We are living in such a time when people have gathered at the edge of what seems the Impossible. We need this God who can part the Impossible and make a pathway through.

But what does God need of us in return? I would suggest that as Christians if we have not yet begun our own journey towards the Red Sea, we are still standing at the Burning Bush, making excuses. What does it mean to be journeying towards the Red Sea, towards deliverance? Again, I think we can turn to this example of Christ for our answer. As I read a very familiar passage to you, Matt. 25:31-46, I want you to imagine that you are standing on the shore of the sea where the Hebrew refugees have gathered, fearful for their lives as the Egyptian army bears down on them. I want you to stand on this shore in the moments when deliverance seems impossible. And I want you to hear these words:

Matthew 25:31-46 (New International Version)

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Can you identify the people gathered before God here? The similarities between this passage and this reading of the Exodus are striking except that it is not water that is parted here but peoples from all nations. And each has their parallel in the story of the Parting of the Red Sea. The only people who are not judged are the oppressed. Christ identifies himself with the oppressed. Christ IS the hungry, Christ IS the homeless, Christ IS the refugee, Christ IS the political prisoner, Christ IS every child, Iraqi or American, who lives in fear and violence. But in this passage these are not the people who are judged as righteous or wicked. Because Christ is in them, they are welcomed into the Kingdom. It is those who had the PRIVILEGE to help the helpless, the oppressed who are ultimately separated, the righteous from the wicked, by the way they cared for Christ present in the least of humanity.

Before you think that the privilege I speak of now is the privilege of Pharaoh, the privilege of wealth, power, education, race, gender, or any other classification used to stratify society into the HAVES and the HAVE-NOTS, I want to revisit the example of Moses one more time. Yes, he left a secure life to return to Egypt. But the Moses of the bulrushes, the Moses of the Hebrews had been born into slavery, into poverty, into an oppressive world. As a young man he had become a wanted criminal, a murderer. He was only living a comfortable life in Midian as much as anyone hiding from the authorities can be comfortable. The privilege of Moses then was not located in any of the comforts that our culture teaches are valuable. He gave those up to answer God’s call. Rather, the enduring privilege of Moses was to be used by God to share in the deliverance of his people as well as be delivered himself, to be redeemed back into full humanity and to point with his all of his life back to God.

If I make this too personal as I conclude, I don’t really apologize. But I do concede that my own application of this text is informed by the realization that I can no longer belong to the Egyptian army and be complicit in the oppression of God’s children. I repent of apathy, I repent of fatalism, I repent of narrow world visions. And I now confess a Christian hope that is rooted in this reality: that who we are in God is only who we are to each other in the world. When Christians are complicit with the privilege of our own cultural and political Pharaohs, we are as lost as the Egyptian soldiers who may have rather been somewhere else but found themselves at the bottom of the sea, unknown by God.

Perhaps we should not ask so often where God is. God is in the need of the world. Christ emptied himself into our human experience in order to point back to the life that is in him, that is in God. Rather, the question we should ask more often is Where am I? Am I in Pharaoh’s throne? Have I made a habit of denying the God that is in the hurting, the starving, the imprisoned? Am I a footsoldier of Pharaoh? Am I complicit in the suffering of the world? Do I allow my leaders to go unchecked, my culture uncritiqued? Or am I Moses on a mission? Out of my own deliverance do I now allow myself to be God’s hands in delivering others out of physical, spiritual, political slavery?

We have no more excuses. Be a representative for life. Put down the privilege of Pharaoh and pick up the privilege of Moses, of any child of God, the privilege to answer God’s call to reach deep into this divided world’s need and to find deliverance there.

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