It was not an easy escape. Pulling together a few belongings, grabbing their children and securing their animals, the people began to move. Where? They did not know. They did know that to stay where they were was a death sentence. They did know that they were enslaved by a power mightier than their own. They did know they were afraid. But move they did at the urging of one of their own, a man who seemed to be driven by his own deep desire to free his people.
It had been strange the night before, when each family had slaughtered a lamb, smearing some of its blood on doorposts of their house, and then eating all of the lamb after it was roasted. It was a night of cries in the darkness as if something terrible was happening. Then the word spread from house to house, “Pharaoh has commanded that we rise up and go away from his people.” So the people packed up and moved out.
The escape didn’t happen over one of our super highways, at a speed of 65 or 75 miles per hour. It was more tedious, people plodding along, step after step, not knowing for sure where they were going. They did know what they were leaving behind. It was that kind of security that comes from knowing what tomorrow will bring. But their tomorrows were filled with back breaking work and the yells, taunts and whips of overseers driving them on to work harder. They knew well enough that they were enslaved. They knew the bitterness of laboring, not for their own benefit, but for that of another. It was time they left. It was just so hard to do.
After hours of trudging, feeling some exhilaration in the fact that they were escaping, their fear began to lessen. Their former masters seemed farther away and the anxiety that they might come to take the people back diminished. The people began to feel pretty good, hopeful even. Days passed; the people walked. They rested in campsites at night and moved by day.
Then they came to the first obstacle – a body of water, right in front of them, blocking their path to freedom. The sea looked innocent enough, but it had enough water to be a real barrier. The column of escapees halted and the exclamations of those at the front of the line began to tumble from person to person until the whole people were filled with alarm. Then, the whole group stopped dead in its tracks!
As if the sea was not enough of a problem, the people began to hear the sounds of horses and chariots and shouts as the soldiers of Pharaoh urged one another to hurry. What a trap! With the sea to the front and the Egyptian army in pursuit to the rear, the people cried out in terror. They cried out to the Lord God for deliverance.
Their leader shouted to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you.”
As the people crowded closer to the edge of the sea, they saw Moses lift up his staff, stretching his hand over the sea. Mysteriously the waters parted and the people fled into the dry seabed, moving hurriedly toward the other side. The sounds of the advancing Egyptians grew louder. Their hearts pounding, the people fled faster and faster. No indeed, it was not an easy escape!
Scrambling up the incline marking the other side of the seabed, the people heard the Egyptians right on their heels. Turning at the top of the land, they saw them coming, ferocious they were with charging steeds and war chariots and soldiers holding spears and swords at the ready. Moses once again raised his staff and stretched his hand over the sea. It was as if everything stood still in that moment! Then, one by one the drops of water began to fall, becoming rivulets and then cascades. Then the whole sea collapsed on top of the Egyptians. For those who had enslaved the people, there was no escape.
Pandemonium broke out as the people began to sing and dance, to shout and rejoice. One moment they had been facing certain death. In the next, they had been saved, delivered by the hand of the Lord. It was a moment to savor, a time to recount in story and song in the years to come. Moses’ sister Miriam and the people sang to the Lord,
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him. Exodus 15:1-2, NRSV
Is there any greater rejoicing than that of slaves who have gained their freedom?
It became much clearer to the people that the Lord God was behind the whole escape. And it became clearer that God and Moses were is pretty steady communication. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the people forward were identified with the leading of God. So the people moved away from the land of Egypt, away from enslavement into a new place, a land imagined as “flowing with milk and honey”, with everything the people needed to live abundantly. God would give them this, they believed, because they were God’s people and God had delivered them.
God didn’t want the people to take the short route to the promised land as God was afraid the people, when discouraged and threatened, might backtrack and find themselves once again enslaved in Egypt. So the route forward was actually very circuitous and long.
The journey took a very long time, which is what “forty years” signifies. During that time some of the people died and babies were born into the people. Some things changed. Some things stayed the same. And the people plodded on to a promised home that seemed to be elusive and very far away.
On one occasion, the people camped at a place where there was no water to drink. What do we do when we are frustrated by something we can’t control? Often we look for someone to blame it on, the leader being a convenient target. As if with one pair of eyes and voice, the people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink”, they demanded. Moses was perplexed. Why did the people pick on him? And why did they test the Lord by their complaining? Moses knew that this people, who once had danced and sung in praise of God, now felt abandoned and threatened. So Moses, in all his humanness, complained to God about the people. Once again, the Lord provides. God tells Moses to take his staff and a group of elders to witness the event. Moses strikes a rock with the staff and out gushes a stream of water. Once again, the Lord has delivered his people. To their cry of “I thirst,” the Lord has provided water so they might live.
The wanderings in the wilderness are filled with many turning points. Over and over, the people get frustrated. At times, they desperately want to go back to what they remember they had in Egypt. Even slavery didn’t seem so bad to them compared to their aimless wandering in such a barren place. In the wilderness, they are not in charge of their lives and they cannot provide for themselves very well. There are times when they have to ask God for deliveranceagain. In all of this drama, it becomes clear that God will not abandon the people, that God is leading them on with a purpose. In so many ways, God signals his message: “Do not be afraid; I am always with you.” Providing water to quench their thirst and manna to stave off their hunger, God shows his love and care for the people. God directs Moses to go to a high mountain for an encounter with the divine. During their conversation, Moses is given the Ten Commandments. It is a great gift to the people who will know, through the commandments, how to respect and love God and how to respect and love each other. To follow these commandments is the way to the fullest kind of life. They are, in a way, like water given to thirsty people that they might live.
While today we may regard the Commandments as something to which we pay little attention or which seem only to keep us from doing what we think we really want to do, the Israelites regarded them as a great joy. God made it known very plainly just how people should live. Every day you and I see the effects of people who could care less about abiding by any commandments other than one’s own desires. The freedom of “what I want I do” is the worst kind of slavery because it promises us fullness of life but can’t deliver on that promise. The events of this past week bear testimony to how deluded we can become by our insisting on our own way, especially in a culture that exalts extreme behavior. So we recited the Ten Commandments today and asked God to have mercy on us, helping us to choose to live by them, and, thereby, to choose God’s life.
I tell you this story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from the land of Egypt because
it is the backdrop for what we will walk through as a religious and spiritual people in the next three weeks. In the final weeks of Lent, we move toward the moment of Jesus’ passion, when he is high and lifted up on the cross, when he cries out “I thirst”, and when he dies after being betrayed by his friends and followers, by his own people, their religious authorities and those in governmental authority. Jesus takes upon himself all that enslaves us. As Jesus dies on the cross, it appears that the powers and principalities of the world have truly won, illustrating their ability to enslave one another with no thought that God will truly intervene. But Easter Day brings a different message! And like Miriam, those who hear and receive it, shout out with joy,
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation.