For the past few weeks, we have spent a lot of time with Moses. He was the great leader of the Hebrew people; and yet we are constantly reminded of his imperfections. We may be tempted to idolize Moses, but time and time again, he makes it clear that his feet are made of clay.
But today we don’t get one of those stories; today, Moses gets to play the hero. The Israelites have groaned against their slavery inEgypt. God has sent the reluctant, excuse-making Moses to confront Pharaoh. Plagues have descended, and now the Israelites are on the run, with the Egyptians close in pursuit.
The Red Sea parts. The Israelites cross on dry ground. And as the Egyptians attempt to do the same, the water comes crashing down on them, and they drown. This really is cinematic stuff. I’m surprised no one has made a movie of this!
These are the stories we long for, where the line between good and evil is clearly marked, where the good triumph, and the evil perish. The good guys get away, and the bad guys are punished. And there is no doubt in our minds that it should be any other way.
How often does life end up being this cut-and-dried?
If we’re not careful, we might chalk this up to a distinction between fact and fantasy: life is tough, full of challenges; the Bible, on the other hand, sure is a nice idea…But when we see things this way, it means we have forgotten the rest of this story: the 400 years of enslavement that came before, and the 40 years of desert wandering that follows.
It’s this last piece which is the focus of our sermon series which begins today, this time in the wilderness. For the Israelites, it was almost like an experiential sorbet of sorts. The slavery of Egypt eventually became a thing of the past, and the land of promise lay just out of reach.
Forty years was enough time for two generations to pass away and two more to come along, meaning that the number of those who experienced both slavery and promise were few, if any. Not even the age-defying Moses got that pleasure, dying on a mountain overlooking where the people were headed.
But what does this Exodus story teach us? As a community of faith, as individuals struggling with what it means to be faithful, how can we connect? We may not be on a physical journey; but is there something that we can learn from this lesson about our own spiritual path and where we find ourselves on it?
I also want to plug our Thursday evening Connect series, beginning a week from Tuesday, which will be asking many of the same questions, but with the leisure to explore them in depth and in conversation with each other.
Today, I simply want to talk about the wilderness as a place framed by two simple truths: we are never above God’s judgment; and we are never beneath God’s grace.
In other words, we can never think of ourselves as so righteous that we are beyond divine accountability. But neither can we think of ourselves as so rotten that we are unworthy of God’s love.
These extremes represent the potential danger of these cut-and-dried passages of Scripture. We tend to self-identify with either the Israelites or the Egyptians so strongly that we cannot imagine anything other than total victory or total defeat.
And that may be the temptation that faces us on days like today. So many in our nation are looking back and remembering the events of September 11, 2001. Much of the conversation we have heard the past few weeks is the same sensationalist drivel that marks so much of our news these days. And much of the thoughtful commentary focused, rightly so, on our economic and military policies over the past ten years.
What has been absent has been theological discussion. Sure, there has been anger vented about the lack of prayer at today’s Ground Zero remembrances. But there has been very little conversation about where God was and is and will be, or where people of faith were and are and ought to be. And what conversation there has been is so over-simplified as to be unhelpful:
For some, 9/11 was a day that clarified our call as the most righteous of nations; for others, it was evidence that we are accursed and have strayed from God’s desires. The truth, unfortunately, is not so simple.
I do not believe that God caused or allowed the terrorist attacks, as some would claim. Nor do I believe that God gave us a righteous, holy mission as a result, either, as others would try to convince us. My faith convinces me that God’s mission that day was as God of courageous rescue and as God of the broken heart. And my faith also convinces me that, ten years on, God’s mission for us is still one of courage and compassion.
We all have our own memories. Elizabeth and I were living in a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank. But though we were a world away, we became aware of the attacks probably like many of you did. My mother-in-law called and told us to turn on CNN to see what was happening.
We watched in horror, worried about friends and family living in New York, working in the financial sector. We heard about the attack on the Pentagon and that there were several planes that were unaccounted for, one crashing in a Pennsylvania field. I remember an overwhelming feeling of dread, convinced that there was much more to come, and yet unable to pull away from the lure of the screen.
What was unique about our situation was location, location, location. In the simplified worldview that quickly developed in some corners, we found ourselves on the “wrong side”, and in “enemy territory”. We were Western American Christians living in an Arab Palestinian Muslim majority. But here’s the thing: we never once felt unsafe.
Friends and co-workers, Muslim and Christian alike, came by to offer their condolences. They, too, were concerned that we might have had family at Ground Zero. And they worried that we might begin to see all Arabs, all Muslims, all non-Westerners in a harsh light.
I’m convinced, regardless of location, that we can all learn something from the story of Red Sea partings. This is one of those clear cases where God has chosen sides, favoring the Israelites and disdaining the Egyptians. And yet, notice what the Israelites don’t do, at least not right away: they don’t celebrate. Their reaction to what has happened is not self-righteousness, but, as various translations put it, “awe”; “fear”. It is as though they have seen the mighty power of God and stand before it with mouths agape. They recognize that they have just been the beneficiaries of God’s direct intervention; but they also seem to recognize that this fearsome power could be turned against them.
We are never above God’s judgment.
And what about the Egyptians? Getting to the rest of their story is a bit more complex, since much of the stories of the Hebrew Bible are written with a nationalist lens, with warring between ancient Israel and ancient Egypt. But the most consistent Biblical image of Egypt is not that of slavery and Pharaoh; it is as a place of refuge. Both Abraham and Joseph’s brothers had fled there, seeking – and finding – respite. And as the infant Jesus was threatened with King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, his parents wisely fled to Egypt where they found safety until Herod was dead and gone.
We are never beneath God’s grace.
Our other two texts today, from Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letter to Rome, underscore this point.
In Romans, Paul cautions the church against passing judgment – “each of us,” he says, “will be accountable to God.”
And in Jesus’ parable, the point to be made is simply this: we all have access to God’s forgiveness, no matter what. And knowing this binds us to the obligation to pay that mercy forward. We forgive because we are forgiven; or, as we pray to God each Sunday, “Forgive us our debts”, what we owe to you, “as we forgive our debtors”, those who owe us.
We are never above God’s judgment; and we are never beneath God’s grace.
Let it be these two realities that frame our journey through the wilderness. As we follow in the footsteps of the Israelites, let us remember that God thought that they were worth saving. And as that journey continues, let us remember how they grumbled and complained and hoarded resources and built false idols; and as they did, God thought enough of them to hold them accountable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, whether through the cloud by day or the fire by night, God traveled with them every step of the way. Can we know that the same is true for each one of us? Will we live as though it is?