The Sunday Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017
Scripture: Exodus 14:19-31
Why Do We Believe?
Read Exodus 14:19-31 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, for all you “lectionary” wonks out there (and there are a few of you … or maybe just one of you), that reading from Exodus is from the lectionary for Proper 19, which is today. I’m following the lectionary!
I got an email last Tuesday from a colleague inviting me to be a part of his “lectionary” group that meets once a month for lunch. And in my time later on Tuesday with Ashia, one of our student ministers for the next eight and a half months, she asked me if I preached from the lectionary. No judgement from her (at least none that showed), but when I said, “No, I don’t,” I once again felt a little guilty. I don’t know exactly why I feel that every time I answer that question. But, I do. Something to do with all the work that’s put into it for congregations, for you, and then my disregard of it. I’ll unpack that later with anyone who’s as curious as I am … which is probably no one. But, anyway …
I’m on lectionary this morning, and next week, too, curiously enough. In the Book of Exodus, on the exodus with the ancient Israelites, crossing the Red Sea. The verse that caught my ear in this passage, perhaps it caught yours, too, is the last one:
Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in God’s servant Moses.
Because they saw the “entire army of Pharaoh” drowned in the Sea, they believed in the Lord … and in the Lord’s servant, Moses. That’s our takeaway. In spite of any other meanings and interpretations of this passage, that’s what we have and will remember about who God is.
If you know me in the slightest as a Pastor and a Preacher, you know how deeply verses such as this one trouble me. The sermon title, that question, springs from my despair: Why do we believe? I’m afraid of our answer too often. Like the Israelites of old, “we believe” when we experience death, destruction, or devastation that we attribute to God, to the almighty power of an angry deity. It’s so … visceral, so seemingly instinctual, even satisfying on some sort of primal level to imagine a God so in control of creation and so active in crushing evil and disobedience, in spite of the fact that we’d all be toast if this was how “God is.”
We don’t even have to interpret this particular event, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites and the drowning of the Egyptian army, as any supernatural event to still attribute it to God’s will. How strained has speculation and scholarship been over the millennia with explanations for this story. From Josephus Flavius in the first century to scientists in the twentieth, we’ve been debating whether the events in Exodus (or any other part of scripture) “actually took place” as if our very faith depends on it, and in too many cases it does.
Flavius exhorted everyone to “believe at (their) own discretion” two millennia ago. And just this past century, oceanographer Doron Nof, accepting the biblical account as a “possible description of an actual event,” used the phenomenon called “wind set-down effect” to posit that “a northwesterly wind of twenty miles/second blowing for ten to fourteen hours (would be) sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5 meters. Such a drop in sea level might have exposed an underwater ridge, which the Israelites crossed as if it were dry land.” Although Nof, himself, acknowledged that the likelihood of such a storm occurring in that place and time of year is less than once every two thousand four hundred years. Still, if God could … That makes believers out of people more skeptical than the ancient Israelites! How appallingly appealing to our need for stability.
The hurricanes, fires and earthquakes of the last month beg to be rationalized by the primordial side of our brains. We know intellectually that these events aren’t the “wrath of God” (don’t we?). I wonder … holding out this possibility in the dark corners of our minds allows something to be in control of the chaos in our world, and in our lives, doesn’t it?
Did any of you read or see how the water of the Florida shores receded as hurricane Irma approached? The “storm surge” we heard so much about once again, sucked up water from one place and moved it miles away to another. The urgency, then that was communicated to anyone and everyone who stepped out into the drained seabeds, to “get out of them” was immediate and insistent. The direction of the winds were getting ready to change, the water would be blown back into the bay, and all that will happen extraordinarily fast. People will drown if they do not get out of there. We can’t miss the parallels to our biblical account.
But, I’m even more “tuned” into our fascination with, our need for, a wrathful God in these weeks, because we’ve just begun a study in our Thoughtful Christian (adult) Sunday school class entitled Violence Divine in which we’ll be taking a very close look at what the authors call the “greatest of Christian treasons,” namely, that everlasting peace can (ever) be achieved through the onslaught of Divine violence. That all comes to a climax in the way we’ve insisted on interpreting our Book of Revelation. But peace and stability from Divine violence begins much earlier in our story. So, that “Israel saw the great work,” the drowning of an army, attributed that to their God, and then “believed in the Lord” troubles me. And it should you.
Now, to be fair, the writers of Exodus didn’t intend the point, the purpose, the focus of this passage to be on the drowning of the Egyptian army. I’m just being realistic. That’s what grabs our attention today and stokes our imagination. Take a look at page 61, somebody. What is the subtitle written right before verse twenty-six? The Pursuers Drowned. Yea. Shouldn’t it be “The Israelites Delivered”? Isn’t that the real “focus” of this passage? Apparently it’s not for us. Our own translations betray our real interests: An almighty “Angry” that can get the job done and that incomprehensibly comforts us.
That is what our conversation partner in the Thoughtful Christian study calls the “normalcy of violence, as a given in civilization.” ‘Twas ever thus, even in ancient Egypt, and violence is the instrument even God uses to establish peace and “save” the world. Right? Wrong. Violence is the norm for civilization, a power at work in our world. But that violence is not, and never was from God, or whatever other name we decide to give the creative-transformative power also at work in the world.
No one in the ancient world would have read this story and focused on God’s wrath, satisfying as they might have found it. The focus would have been, and should be, not on what is ending, but on what is coming to be in the first days of the exodus. The whole Exodus story is an “act of creation.” The redemption of a people, the formation of a nation, the foundation of a faith. In pretty straightforward “moral order” talk the writers of Exodus simply show how the Egyptian’s anti-creation activity turns creation itself against them. I don’t know if those are the words the ancient Israelites would have used when they first heard this story around their fires. They probably wouldn’t have given it that much thought. The death of the Egyptians is a peripheral event, secondary at least to the God of redemption and deliverance and Love.
I’d tell you all to take out your pew bibles right now, turn to page 61 and change that subtitle before verse twenty-six to “God Delivers,” or better yet “Life Conquers All,” if I wouldn’t get into more trouble than it’s worth. So, I won’t ask you to do that. (But I won’t stop you, either … perhaps we should go through the whole book and find all the places that our “propensity for violence” has been translated into Divine intention. We’d be editing for quite a while.
So, if we can’t give our hearts to a wrathful God who can strike down our enemies in waves of devastation, why do we believe?
We believe because we have all experienced something bigger than fear, something greater than evil, something stronger than death, planted more deeply in the midst of creation, in the midst of us, than all that is wrong – the true “power of God:” Life – old life, new life, redeemed life, resurrected life, eternal life.
This week, as you discern anything in your life that is “pursuing you,” trying to pull you back into bondage, into a fearful existence of “what’s next” or “how am I going to take care of that,” don’t waste your time on trying to defeat those forces of “anti-creation” (!). Spend your time following the creative power of God that you know is at work in your lives. Remember your subtitle: Life Conquers All. Only then will we see the truly great work that the Lord does and come to believe … in life.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 17, 2017