Facing the Red Sea

Sermon from Huntington UMC, Hunington, TX 1/19/20

19 God’s messenger, who had been in front of Israel’s camp, moved and went behind them. The column of cloud moved from the front and took its place behind them. 20 It stood between Egypt’s camp and Israel’s camp. The cloud remained there, and when darkness fell it lit up the night. They didn’t come near each other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. 22 The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left. 23 The Egyptians chased them and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and cavalry. 24 As morning approached, the Lord looked down on the Egyptian camp from the column of lightning and cloud and threw the Egyptian camp into a panic. 25 The Lord jammed their chariot wheels so that they wouldn’t turn easily. The Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt!”

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the water comes back and covers the Egyptians, their chariots, and their cavalry.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. At daybreak, the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians were driving toward it, and the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained. 29 The Israelites, however, walked on dry ground through the sea. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.

30 The Lord rescued Israel from the Egyptians that day. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the amazing power of the Lord against the Egyptians. The people were in awe of the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses (Exodus 14:19-31, Common English Bible).

God is faithful! It is a statement most of us would say we believe. Are we sure? Are we sure that when we are facing a big and very real problem or decision that God will be with us and see us through our problem and that everything will be ok? Well, since we are so sure, what would we say to someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

        The late Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite theologians. He is challenging but he is also one of the easier theologians to understand. I have learned a great deal reading and studying his theology. But from learning his story, I have come to respect this man as more than just a Theologian. During his life he has made history. Through the end of his life and death, he has become an inspiration to many, both those who witnessed the last years of his life and death, and people in generations since.

        I don’t know how many of you have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was born in 1906 in Germany. During his formative years he saw Germany defeated in World War I. He went, first to college and then on to theological school. He even came here, to the United States and studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He made may friends here. He was also an ordained clergyman in the Lutheran Church of Germany.

        Around the time Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, Adolph Hitler came to power. Bonhoeffer and his brothers in the clergy (at that time, the clergy was still an all-male profession), had to determine what it meant to be a faithful witness for Jesus Christ and His Church. On the one hand, you have Hitler doing things to Germany and its people that quickly proved to be evil by the standards of most anyone who would call themselves Christian. On the other hand, you have what Jesus and Paul said in Scripture about duty to the governing authorities. It would not have been an easy decision for me to make, and I doubt it was easy for many members of Germany’s clergy.

        Many of those clergy did align themselves with Hitler and his Nazi German government. Bonhoeffer, a theologian often labeled a pacifist, a tag that, in my opinion, is not all together accurate, went in the opposite direction. He spoke out boldly against the atrocities of Hitler’s Nazis.  For obvious reasons, Bonhoeffer’s life was in danger. His friend here in the States did have some power and influence and managed to arrange an offer of political asylum. At that point Bonhoeffer could have gotten out of Germany, and he did manage to get his family out, but he knew that the flock God had called him to lead was not in the United States. It was in Germany. He continued to speak out against the government. In 1942 the Nazis arrested Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They accused him of being part of a plan to execute Hitler. He floated around between several jails and concentration camps. On April 8, 1945 the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer. The war in Europe would end just after a month later.

        So, after hearing that, do you think God was faithful to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Here is a man that if you read his story and any of his writings, you would know he was a man of great and uncompromising faith. He truly believed God was with him and would see him through all his trials. And yet, he died anyway. An evil government executed him because he was faithful to God. WHY DID GOD LET THAT HAPPEN? Many theologians call this the theodicy question. Why does God allow evil to happen?

        You have heard it before, maybe not by that name, but you have heard it. It goes something like this, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Another version might say, “Why are the wicked allowed to prosper?”

        They are tough questions. They are questions that have no easy answers. And, to make matters worse, there are those who, because they don’t know the answers and cannot find the answers are quick to blame God or say there is no God. In short, these questions keep them from the faith.

        Our lesson this morning is about God’s faithfulness. It is a familiar story. When we hear it many of our minds spring to images of Charlton Heston as Moses in the old movie, The Ten Commandments leading the Israelites across the Red Sea and suddenly seeing the waters come crashing over the top of the Egyptian army. We can easily remember it because that is the point of the movie that had the greatest visual effects. Our kids look at those affects and are not impressed at all, but at the time they were special effects.

        What we may not remember of the story, or even the movie for that matter was that when the Israelites were moving through the wilderness they were running from Pharaoh’s army. Now, with the army hot on their tails they suddenly find themselves facing the Red Sea. And, they started to grumble. “Why Moses, did you pull us away from Egypt and bring us out here in the wilderness to die.” They were afraid of the sea. They were afraid of Pharaoh’s army. They didn’t trust God.

        How like us humans. Remember that God sent Moses to free the Israelites because they were crying out in the suffering of their slavery. And now, because they were facing the unfamiliar, they were ready to go back. To quote the old cliché, “Better the devil we know.”

        We too have our Red Sea moments with Pharaoh’s army on our tails. We live complicated lives and have complicated decisions where none of our choices seem to be the right choice to make. If we move forward, we think we will drown in the sea, and if we move backward the coming army will stampede us. What should we do? It seems a no-win situation.

        I feel certain that Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have felt that way when he saw what the Nazi government was doing. If he spoke out against them, he moved into the Red Sea, he risked his life and seemingly spoke against what Scripture said. But on the other hand, if he retreated to Pharaoh’s army, stay quiet and let the government continue unchecked, he risked the lives of others and went against what he believed, jeopardizing his soul. You can almost hear the torment in Bonhoeffer’s words when he prayed, “Whoever I am, I am thine.” I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer was facing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hot on his tail.

        We know what happened in the lesson. God told Moses to hold out his staff and the sea split and the Israelites crossed on dry ground. As expected, Pharaoh’s army followed the Israelites into the Red Sea. After all the Israelites had crossed, God had Moses hold out his hand again and the waters closed over the top of the enemy army. In the lyrics of an old youth camp song, “all of Pharaoh’s army did the dead man’s float.” In this lesson we see an example of God’s faithfulness. As Moses and Israel faced this problem, God was faithful to them and saw them through.

        But can the same be said of God in all the problems we face? Can the same be said for Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He died. The Nazis executed this great man of faith. Where was God’s faithfulness as Bonhoeffer faced his Red Sea?  Why didn’t God open the Red Sea for him? Again, there are no easy answers. But I believe God was there. I belie God was faithful to Bonhoeffer. I believe Bonhoeffer knew God stood with him and that God was still faithful to him.

        On the day the Nazis took Dietrich Bonhoeffer away to his execution, he preached to his fellow prisoners. He preached from Isaiah 53:5, “By His stripes we are healed.” One prisoner said Bonhoeffer found just the right words to express the spirit of their imprisonment. Immediately following the little service the guards came for Bonhoeffer. Everyone gathered knew where he was going. He told an English prisoner, “This is the end – but for me it is the beginning of life.” A doctor who witnessed the execution said that just prior to the event, Bonhoeffer knelt and prayed. The doctor said he had never seen anyone go to the gallows so serenely. Bonhoeffer could do that because he knew God was with him.

        You see, we must remember that even when we face the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hot on our tails, God is faithful. But we also must understand God may not be faithful in the same way we picture in our mind. Our focus is on the army and on the sea, but God knows what is on the other side. We see the problem, and we may think we know the solution, but God knows it far greater than we.

        God knew the Israelites needed to see divine power in order to truly know who was leading them. God needed to get their focus moved from their problems and onto God so God could lead them in the difficult days ahead.

        In Bonhoeffer’s case, I think he was already focused on God and what God was calling him to do. And, I believe God did open the Red Sea for Bonhoeffer, perhaps not in the way any of us might imagine, but God opened the sea none the less. God opened the Red Sea by making a way for Bonhoeffer to preach, at least for a while, to people who needed the Good News in their lives. God granted to Bonhoeffer the opportunity to preach against the terrible evils of Nazi Germany. God allowed Bonhoeffer to touch the lives of prisoners who needed to hear that God was still with them. And, through his writings, we can see the blessing of God even in the darkest hours of human life.

        We all, at times in our lives, face the Red Sea. I think most of us also know that it feels like to have Pharaoh’s army chasing after us. We all have problems that seem to have no solutions, at least not any good solutions. We face problems as individuals and as a congregation. Moving forward seems difficult at best, we might even have to swim. But going backward is impossible. When we face those problems in our personal lives or when we face them together as members of the church, we can be like the Israelites and stand together as members of the Church, we can be like the Israelites and stand around and complain about the mess we find ourselves in. We can dream about how good things used to be while fearing the future. Or, we can remember that even in this time, and this situation, God is faithful, and that God will see us through. God will open the sea in front of us, perhaps not in the way we imagined, but the solution will come and we will move forward on dry ground. The requirement for us is to remember we are God’s children. We need to look forward and watch and see the power of Almighty God!

Copyright 2020, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved

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