The pit and the Presence

(To listen to an audio version of this talk, click the arrow above)

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is one of great stories of the Bible
It is in most of the children’s bibles!
But it is more than a great story

It is one of the key stories in Israel’s memory

Genesis 12.1-11, which you looked at last week, was critical to how the people of God understood their call to be the people of God.
But the event we read about today shaped their understanding of what it means to live as the people of God.

So let’s look at the story.

Abrahams’ descendants have been living in Egypt as a slave people. But God has rescued them and now they are leaving Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, has let them go. But he has changed his mind – a sort of post-Brexit panic when he realises that if he lets the migrants go, nobody will be left to do the dirty work. So he sends his army after them.

And now we come to the odd bit. Because God, in 14.2 commands Moses to turn the people around and rather than walk away to freedom to walk towards the sea.  
Nobody really knows exactly where this sea is. What our bibles translate as Red Sea should be more accurately translated as Sea of Reeds, and because the water level is very different to what it was 3000 years ago, it is possible that this sea is no longer there.
Anyway, Pharaoh follows them with his army, and the people of Israel are trapped. The sea is here – Pharaoh’s army is here – and they are the filling in the sandwich.

The people panic. I guess that is not surprising. They cry out to God in fear.
And then they turn on their leader. It is very predictable.
But Moses answers them:
-          Don’t be afraid
-          Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance of God. And he repeats the word ‘see’. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.
-          Be still and let God fight for you.

On the surface he was calm. But inside he must have been screaming. Because, although we are not told that he cried out to God, in v15 God says to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’ The early commentators make much of this, saying that God hears the cries of our hearts even when they are unspoken.

And then God tells Moses to do something that is even more crazy than leading the Israelites to the edge of the sea. He tells him to order them to walk into the sea. It is suicide.

But the people have nothing to lose. The pillar of cloud that has been leading the people now goes behind the people. It separates them from the Egyptians. Moses raises his staff; overnight a wind blows and the sea separates with a wall of water on either side

The people go into the sea. They cross over on dry land. The Egyptians follow. Their chariots get clogged up in the mud. They panic. Moses again stretches his hand out over the water, and it closes in over the Egyptians.

What is going on here?

1.      God delivers us not by taking away the thing that we fear, but by changing us so that we learn to fear him more.

It is God who makes the situation far worse before it gets better.
God takes his people down into the sea before he brings them deliverance.

God could have simply wiped out the Egyptian army. In 2 Chr 20.17, we are told that Jahaziel uses the same words that Moses spoke to the Israelites, when he says to Jehoshaphat when the Moabites and Ammonites threaten to overwhelm the people of Israel, ‘stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you’. And the Ammonites turn on the Moabites and the Moabites turn on the Ammonites and they wipe each other out. And when Jehoshaphat comes out to meet them in battle he discovers nothing but dead men. God could have done that here.

But God did not wish simply to deliver his people from the Egyptians.
He wanted to change them.
He wanted them to understand that he is bigger than all their fears.

And we are told at the end ‘So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses’ (Ex 14.31).

At the beginning of this story they fear the Egyptians. At the end of the story they know that there is one who is far bigger than the Egyptians or any army, for that matter. And they believe in him.

I don’t know what you fear. I foolishly asked that question in St James when it was there and was told by the year 7 boys that they were frightened of nothing. But assuming you are not year 7 St James boys, I suspect that there are a few things that you do fear. Violence, pain, violence, growing older, being shamed or humiliated, abandonment, death – whether of those we love or of ourselves

What the story of the Red Sea tells us is that God will not necessarily protect us from going through those things.
He may at times take us into those very things that we fear.
But he will work in us and change us so that we come to fear him even more – and when we fear him first, and we believe him, then those other things begin to lose their terror.

2.      God walks with us when we go through the pit

When the people of Israel went down into the water, the pillar of cloud went with them. That pillar represents the presence of God.

You see the God we believe in is the God who comes and stands with us in the pit.
He stood with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were thrown into the fiery furnace
He was the God who was with Daniel in the den of lions.
And he is the God who became one of us, who lived among us, who experienced the fears that we face, who was subject to violence and pain, who was shamed and humiliated, abandoned and who did go into the pit of death.

I’ve spoken before of Michael facing one of the illnesses that we probably dread. He is paralysed now up to the neck. And he was telling me of the God who is with him and who does 24/7
I have an irrational fear not of death, but of being in the box. And then realising that when I am there, he has been there and he will be there.

Some of you are going through deep pits at the moment. He has taken you down into the sea. The walls are on either side. You are being driven by fear. But I hope this story is an encouragement. Because he stands in between you and the thing that you fear. He is with you.

3.      God uses what brings life to one to bring death to the other

One of the fascinating things about this story is that it teaches that the thing that can bring light to one, brings darkness to the other. The cloud brought light to the Israelites but darkness to the Egyptians.
And the thing that can bring salvation to one brings destruction to the other. The water saved the Israelites but brought destruction to the Egyptians.

It is the reason, Jesus says, why he speaks in parables. Some will hear the stories and understand; others will only hear the stories. They will be life to one, and death to the other.
Paul in 2 Cor 2.15 teaches that the preachers of the gospel to some are the aroma of life, and to others are the stench of death. It is the same gospel – but some will hear the message of how Jesus in his love died for our sins, for our forgiveness in order to bring us into eternal friendship with God, and they will hate it. And others will hear the message and receive it with joy.
And the New Testament teaches that some will look at the cross of Jesus and they will mock. [Early Roman graffito: ‘Alexamenos worships his god’] And others will look at the cross and they will worship.

What I note here, and it is a mystery and a warning to us, is that God saves his people by making their enemies hate them.

It is what God does. In v8 God hardens the heart of Pharoah. In v17 God says, and literally the passage says this, ‘and look, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians’.
God takes the arrogance of a people who assume that they are the master race and that the Israelites are a slave race fit only to serve them, and he takes their desire for their own material comfort – and he allows that sin to grow so that it becomes a blind hatred and desire for revenge. If the Egyptians had shown any compassion for the fleeing Israelites, then they would have not entered the sea and they would not have been destroyed.

It is a pattern we see repeated. It is the person who abuses another, and then begins to blame his or her victim for being the victim, and hates them for being the abused. They become colder and less likely to repent. God hardens their heart. The sin increases and on the day of judgement God’s justice will be shown to be absolutely fair.

There is a great mystery here – but we need to pray that God never hardens our heart. Can I ask you to think very carefully about who it is that you are sinning against, who do you think is there to serve you? And are you beginning to despise or hate them? We need to repent now, to ask God to give us compassion for them, before God hardens our heart.

And the prayer asking God to give us compassion is a prayer that he will always answer.

4.      God brings his people out of the pit

After the cross comes the resurrection.
The people come out of the sea; they see the judgement of God and the destruction of the Egyptians; they fear God, they believe him and they believe Moses (for the time being anyway!). And they praise God (Exodus 15.1-18)

The people of Israel look back to this event as the incident which shows them what it is like to live with God as their God.
And they have come to realise that the God of Abraham will not protect them from the sea, but he will walk with them through the sea. And he will use the sea to change them so that they trusted him more, to bring his right judgement, and to bring glory to his name.
As Ps 66.11-12 says, ‘You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place’.

And for us as people of the New Testament, this event shapes our understanding of what it means to for us to live with God as our God. The writers of the NT look at this incident as an example of God’s guidance for his people (Acts 7.36), an example of faith (Hebrews 11.29) and also as a model for baptism.

1 Cor 10.2 ‘They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’.

The cloud and the sea. The presence of God in the pit. And baptism, particularly when we think of baptism by immersion, is a very clear picture of what it means for us to live as believers. It is the template, the pattern for our everyday Christian life. We go with Jesus into the waters. We meet with him there, we die to ourselves and we come up as new people.



The crossing of the Red Sea spoken of by Joshua in his final speech to the Israelites, when he calls them to serve God faithfully (Joshua 24.6-7)
The Psalmists speak of the event in 7 different Psalms (Ps 66.6; Ps 74.13; Ps 77.19; Ps 78.13; Ps 106.6-12; Ps 114.5; Ps 136.13-15)
David in a song praising God for the way that he rescues his people, declares: ‘Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were laid bare’ (2 Sam 22.16)
The book of Isaiah speaks 7 times of the events of Exodus 14 (Is 10.26; Is 11.15; Is 43.16-19; Is 44.27; Is 50.2; Is 51.10; Is 63.11-13)
The prophet Nahum speaks of how God ‘rebukes the sea and dries it up’. (Nahum 1.4)
And the prophet Ezekiel declares that the future destruction of Egypt will be like its past destruction (Ezekiel 32.15)
And, after the people have returned from exile and Ezra prays in their presence, he addresses God as the one who ‘divided the sea before them …’ and who ‘led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.’ (Neh 9.11-12)
References in the Psalms
Ps 66.6 He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot
Ps 74.13  It was you who split open the sea by your power
Ps 77.19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen
Ps 78.13 ‘He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand up like a wall’
Ps 106.9 ‘He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. (Ps 106.6-12)
Ps 114.5 ‘Why was it, sea, that you fled?’
Ps 136.13 -15 to him who divided the red sea asunder

References in Isaiah
Is 10.26  The Lord Almighty .. will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt’
Is 11.15  The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea; with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates river. He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals’
Is 43.16-19  ‘he who made a way through the sea,  a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, .. and they lay there, never to rise again .. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! .. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Is 44.27 who says to the watery deep, ‘be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’
Is 50.2 by a mere rebuke I dry up the sea
Is 51.10  was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great dep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?
Is 63.11-13  where is he who brought them through the sea .. Who divided the waters before them to gain for himself everlasting renown, who led them through the depths?

References in the NT
Acts 7.36 He led them out having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness
1 Cor 10.2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Heb 11.29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

The crossing the sea motif is repeated:
Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3)

Elijah (and then Elisha) strike the water with his cloak and it divided to the right and left, ‘The valleys of the sea were exposed’ (2 Kings 2.8)


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