This sermon was written by Rev. KJ Norris for Kerr Presbyterian Church Sunday, September 27, 2020, based on Exodus 14:5-25.
Return to At Home Worship for September 27, 2020.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Have you ever felt stuck between a rock and a hard place?
Do you know that saying? Stuck between a rock and a hard place?
Yeah, it’s a funny saying. We have a lot of these idioms in American culture that are kind of strange, but I think that one is such a good image.
I like to think of life as a series of paths before us. It’s like the Robert Frost poem, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both.”
Every day we see stretched out before us paths that we can take. What choices will we make today?
- Some choices may be inconsequential: What should I wear today?–the blue shirt or the red shirt?
- Some choices may have strong consequences—should I go to college? And where should I go if so? Or what do I do if not?
- And then there are those choices which feel like a decision between a rock and a hard place.
We look to our right and all we can see is a giant rock, a bolder which we need to climb over or tunnel under or travel a long way around. Or we look to our left and we see a hard place—perhaps a fire we have to put out before moving forward.
The Ancient Israelites in this morning’s Scripture are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Coming up behind them is a vast army.
You might remember that when we had last left off in our reading of Exodus, the Passover had come. The people were asked to eat in haste for God was doing a new thing and setting them free from bondage.
Yes, the oppression was finally over—Praise the Lord. Pharaoh had agreed to set the people free from their labor. And the people had left in haste, with their unleavened bread. There was no time to waste—freedom had come, a new day was dawning, a new adventure lay before them in the road untrod.
But in the morning, Pharaoh looks around, hardens his heart, and changes his mind. The God above has been trying to teach Pharaoh about fair labor practices and justice for all people, not only for those who look like Pharaoh but those who are from a different ethic background, a different class, a different religion. But Pharaoh won’t listen to God. He hardens his heart and chooses his own path instead of choosing the path of God. He summons a vast army and pursues the ones who have been struggling for justice.
Meanwhile, the people have already made it out into the desert. All the people together: the aged, the young, with all of their worldly possessions and animals, they all have decided to follow this crazy man Moses who keeps telling them about a God who loves them—A God who wants them to have an abundant life, both in this life and the next life—if only they will follow God.
They are out in the wilderness, and they come to road block.
Interestingly, this part of the story is actually told a series of times in slightly different ways in chapters 14 and 15 of Exodus. I think the multiple retellings remind us that this is oral tradition. This story was told to children and to their children’s children long before it was written down, and so we get to hear it several different ways as we read the Scripture, including through a song written by the Prophet Miriam, a woman who took a tambourine in her hand and sang and danced to commemorate the crossing.
The Scriptures paint an amazing picture of what is happening. The Ancient Israelites have a vast army pursing behind them and as they rush along towards freedom they encounter a hard place. Or in their case, a wet place.
The Ancient Israelites come to this place which has a name in Miriam’s song—the Red Sea, or perhaps better translated, the Reed Sea. A place which we can think of as having red-colored clay soil or an abundance of reeds floating in a marsh.
The people are frozen. They cannot cross through this section. They’ll get stuck in the marshy clay, bound by the red soil, caught by the reeds. They cannot move forward.
But up behind them is a vast army.
They are fully caught between a rock and a hard place. Unable to move.
The people cry out to Moses: Read verses 11-12.
The people are rightly terrified. They see no way forward, no possibility of escape. The choice is to die by drowning or to die by forced labor. There is no way out of this trap.
But Moses has been walking with God a long time. Metaphorically, Moses has been here before. Moses has led sheep through the wildernesses and has learned not to fear when caught between a rock and a hard place. He turns to the people and offers words of hope:
“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today…The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Ex 14:13-14).
And then the hard part comes.
I know, I know, you thought we were already to the hard part. What could be worse, Pastor KJ than an uncrossable bog on one side and an army on the other?
Then, we are told, the Spirit of God moves. The Spirit of God has been appearing to the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night which gave them light in the darkness. The Spirit of God has been going before them, lighting their path so that they can see their way forward, but now the Spirit of God moves.
God moves behind them and creates a wall, a cloud of fire behind them to stand between them and those who mean to do them harm—the army who is catching up to them minute by minute.
And the people are asked to be still, all night long.
Be still. Trust God.
The people know what is coming—death, destruction, oppression—chasing them, coming up from behind. And yet, what does God ask them to do through the person Moses? Stand still.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly would not have gotten any sleep that night. A cloud, between me and an army. Yikes.
It is not until the morning comes that Moses stretches out his hand over the Red Sea, over this sea of reeds in front of him. And as it says in verse 21, the people can now see that “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land.”
While the people where standing still. While they were sleeping. While they were trusting in the Lord, the Lord was at work, turning the marsh into dry land.
And while Moses put out his hand, the people crossed. Verse 22 tells us that there was a path carved out for the people to cross through, as if a wall of water was on their right and on their left with dry land in between, an image many of us have carved into our minds from the famous “10 Commandments” movie of 1956.
When the army tries to cross behind them, they find their heavy chariots get stuck into the mud, and they cannot cross. The army is thrown into confusion, knowing this can only be the work of the Lord, and they turn to flee.
God has brought deliverance at last! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord.
Do you know that God is still at work?
We hear these great stories of faith and we give praise to God and we stand in thankfulness. But do you know that when we come together in faith—whether that coming together is out here on a lawn or in a church building or through a podcast or on zoom, do you know that we come together to praise a God who is still at work?
Sometimes we find ourselves in the same place as the Ancient Israelites. Sometimes we look ahead and see a vast sea. Sometimes we look behind and see an army. We find ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Maybe it’s a decision we have to make about our kids—what is the best way for them to get an education during a pandemic? Should they go to a building or participate in school online or get their education at home?
Maybe it’s a decision about retirement—what is the best way to live our lives as we age? Do we have enough in savings to stop working? What will we do with our time when our years of work have passed?
Maybe it’s a decision about our working years—how should we spend them? Should we work for the same company all our lives or strike out on our own? What should we do if we can’t find work, should we move, start over again rebuilding our lives and our community?
Often times we find ourselves in life making choices that we don’t really want to make. When I was younger, I think I had a sense that as we age, we just know what to do. Adults always seemed so sure to me as a kid. But the older I get, the more I realize how complicated life is and how often I am really unsure of the path to take. The older I get the more I realize that we all have choices to make where we don’t really like either choice: stuck between a rock and a hard place.
So what do we do?
Our Scripture reminds us today that no matter how hard things get, no matter what lies ahead or pushes us from behind, God is at work. God was a work in the beginning of creation, hovering over the chaotic waters, spreading the waters to create dry land. God was at work in the time of the Exodus, standing firm as a pillar of fire and blowing forth a path where none could be found before.
And the same is true for us.
Whenever I come to a difficult choice the words of Micah 5:8 come back to me: What does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of you? In these moments caught between a rock and a hard place, I ask myself, what does the Lord require of me?
Micah gives us an answer. It is simply this: To seek justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with God.
Will my choice make our world a more justice place? Does my choice show loving kindness? Am I walking humbly with God in my choice?
The Ancient Israelites considered going backwards when they hit the wall of water before them. But they couldn’t. Going back to a system of injustice would not be walking with God.
The Ancient Israelites could have risen up and fought the army violently, but violence is never the way of God. They had to choose to stand firmly and non-violently. They chose loving kindness.
And despite their fears walking through the wall of water on the dry land that God had created for them, they chose to walk. Yes, we may stand still for a night, but in the end, we have to walk. To walk in humility with our God. We cannot be frozen forever, the choice awaits.
Let us go forth, trusting God for God is at work. Amen.