Scripture: Exodus 14:19-31
When I was young, I loved comic books. I was enthralled by the adventures of the mighty, spandex-clad super-heroes and villains.
I was especially fascinated by their origin stories – how they got their super-powers, and what motivated them to lives of crime or heroism. One monthly series, called “Secret Origins” fed my curiosity.
Take Spider-man. He got his spidery powers after being bitten by a radio-active spider. His first impulse was to use his power for selfish gain. It was only when tragedy struck – one that he could have prevented – that he realized “with great power comes great responsibility.” He became driven as much by guilt and duty as by altruism and justice.
Spider-man’s secret origin has a fascinating twist. Today’s generation has replaced the radio-active spider with a genetically-modified spider. I think that says something about the changing fears of our society. But then, don’t ever take the physics and chemistry of comic books too seriously!
Our Old Testament reading today is the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. It is a key moment in the story of God’s People. If we wrote a “Secret Origins” comic about the ancient Israelites, where they came from, and what motivated them, crossing the Red Sea would get a prominent mention.
And, because of how the New Testament reinterprets the story, it’s a central part of our own “Secret Origin” as God’s people called the Church.
Let’s take a closer look.
Today’s reading starts at Exodus 14:19, but the full story begins back in 13:17, after the 10 plagues and the Passover. The Israelites leave Egypt, following Moses and the pillar of cloud and fire. What a sight! Thousands of people streaming out of the region, not running from clouds and rain and wind as in Florida, but following a spectacular, illuminated cloud.
Unfortunately, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, has second thoughts about letting them go. He pursues them in force, with his mighty chariots leading the charge. And suddenly, the Israelites find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak. They are boxed in, with nowhere to turn. On one side is the Egyptian army. On another side, barren wilderness, the edge of the desert. On another side, water. That water is traditionally called the Red Sea, but the exact what and where details have been lost in time.
Wherever they were, the Israelites panicked. They complain loudly to Moses, wishing that they had never left Egypt, never been freed from their oppressors. (v10-12)
Moses tries to calm them. He starts by offering words of comfort: “don’t be afraid!” He tries to reassure them and bolster their faith: God is about to rescue you. After today, you will never see your oppressors again. “The LORD will fight for you (14).” Finally, he snaps at them: just shut up and watch God work. I know, our translations soften the words: “you need only be still.” But in the original language, it’s a stern, forceful command.
Following God’s instruction, Moses raises his hand over the water. And, amazingly, slowly but surely, the waters part. They don’t recede or evaporate; they divide. And dry ground emerges.
This is part of the “Secret Origins” of God’s people because it’s full of creation language and images, echoing Genesis 1. There’s wind. In Genesis, God’s Spirit hovered over the waters (1:2). In Hebrew, it’s the same word for the Spirit in Genesis and for the wind here in Exodus. In both, dry ground emerges from the water.
There’s also some anti-creation imagery. In Genesis, the waters were gathered together and the ground appeared. In Exodus, the waters are divided. In Genesis, the water was filled with life, teeming with living creatures (1:20). In Exodus, the water will return, sweep over the Egyptian army, and be teeming with death.
In the end, it was a mighty, divine act of deliverance. Rescue. Salvation.
God’s people passed through the sea and emerged on the other side. Free from their tormentors. God brought them into new life through the waters.
It’s a birth. The Israelites were born again, to use a New Testament phrase. Our first birth comes through both water and blood. It involves pain and joy. Yes, I know that as a guy, I have the easier role in childbirth. But just as a new baby is born through water and blood, so God’s new people is born through water and blood.
The water is this crossing of the sea. Who can tell me what was the blood involved in their rebirth as God’s people? (Answer: the 10th plague and Passover, Ex11-12)
The pastor in me is tempted to draw simple lessons for your life. Something like: “just as God rescued his people from a tight pinch at the Red Sea with mighty acts of divine power, so God is with you as you face your challenges and oppressors, and will deliver you, you have only to trust God.”
Sounds great! But what happened in crossing the sea is so much bigger than that. It’s not us and our challenges. This story is bigger than you and me. It’s not even about the people who stood on those shores, waves ahead of them, the Egyptian army behind them. Many wanted to return to Egypt. Hardly examples of faith and trust.
But God delivered them anyway. Because God was doing another act of creation. God was giving birth to a holy people, what Peter calls a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1Pet2:9).
Crossing the sea was a key moment in that creative act. They would soon go up a mountain, and receive their Constitution and Bill of Rights, so to speak. Through those laws and commandments, God spelled out the highest ideals of what a holy people would look like, and we will explore some of those themes with our new series starting in October.
In that sense, crossing the sea was like a sacrament. Sacraments are outward, visible signs pointing to an inner, spiritual, divine grace. In our Anglican tradition, we have two Sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Water and Blood again. The water of Baptism, and the Blood of Christ at the Eucharist.
Water is a central part of Christian Baptism, and I appreciate that Rev Graham uses a pretty good amount of water, for an Anglican! I’ve seen some Anglican baptisms where a cloth is hardly necessary, since the priest uses so little water. I grew up in a Baptist church, and when I was baptised at age nine, I was submerged in a tank of water. Julie’s baptism used even more water – she was baptised in a lake (Lake Utopia, no less!)
I don’t really care if you were sprinkled or dunked at your baptism. Full immersion does a great job of symbolizing that we have died to our old life, and we are drawn up into a new life in Christ. God has saved us, through water! But it can also be too much about me: my sins, what Christ has done for me, giving me new life.
Baptism is not just about the individual. It’s about God creating a whole new people. It ties all the way back to our Exodus story, on the shores of an Egyptian sea.
Hebrews calls Jesus the new Moses, and us, followers of Jesus called the Church, are the new people of God, the new Israelites. Jesus pushes our relationship with God and with one another even further. Jesus says that God is not just the almighty, holy creator. God is also the loving, approachable father. Jesus taught us to pray, beginning with “Our Father…”
If we children share a common father, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
My weekday job is with a company up in Markham. One day this summer, at a company lunch, I was chatting with a man I only know a little. We were talking about hospitality, having people over to our houses and back yards. He mentioned that the last time he did so was for some people from his church. “Oh?” I said, “I attend an Anglican church in Scarborough. Tell me about your church.” And immediately our conversation went to a whole new level. Because we realized that we were more than co-workers; we were brothers!
For many people, family – blood-relatives – are our closest friends and loved ones, those who stick with us no matter what. That family bond, Jesus says, should be found in the same way among our Christian brothers and sisters. Look around you. Beside you. Behind you. They are your family. And they are God’s people.
The holy people of God stretches back to the beginning of humanity, and forward to the end of time. That’s the breath-taking reality of the Communion of Saints, that we will profess in the Creed in a few minutes. And we are part of it! We may not be spandex-wearing super-heroes, but we, as God’s people here in 2017, at Grace Church Scarborough, we trace our own Secret Origins back to this Exodus story and beyond.
Grace Church was started when four parishes were merged into one. I was not here in those early days, so I don’t know how hard you found it to mesh into a new church, called Grace. I have been through mergers elsewhere, so here is what I imagine: in the early days, it was more comfortable to stick with the familiar faces from your original congregation. Maybe some decisions divided along the lines of the old congregations, and threatened to blow up into bigger conflicts. I expect that the leaders and priests worked hard to hold the pieces, like a broken bone, together long enough for the pieces to set and strengthen. I expect some people disappeared, angry with the Bishop or the leadership, saddened by the loss of the familiar.
If you are still in touch with some like that, who have sworn to have no part of the merged church, let’s talk. I would love to meet with them, and tell them what Grace has become.
Because you have bonded. You have blended. Sometimes, tiny divisions that crack along the original four lines surface. But you have persisted. God’s creative work has drawn you together. Like the Israelites at the sea, there may have been complaints and fears, but you followed God and emerged as a whole new family. Through the sacraments of water and blood, you are regularly reminded and reformed into this exciting new family of Grace.
The first proof of God’s creative people-building at work here is that, five years later, you are still here. The second proof is that more and more among us today had nothing to do with that merger five years ago. God has drawn people – like my family! – to this place because something holy is happening here. Through you, the family of God is growing. The good news of God is spreading in this neighbourhood. Our family is growing, we are meeting and making new brothers and sisters in Christ.
Isn’t God amazing? Three thousand years ago, God deliver an oppressed people. In doing so, God created this living, breathing, history-shaping, globe-spanning family, God’s holy people. We see that today, and every Sunday, and every day right here, at Grace Church.
Let us pray. Thank you, God, for your communion of saints, around the world and through so many years. We are thrilled to be part of your people. And thank you that you have made us brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Thank you that you have brought us into this family here at Grace. Help us to be a family to one another. Forgive us for any resentments we still hold. Lead us forward into the exciting things you have planned for us. We want to follow you today. Amen.