Traveling the Road to Freedom
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
The hurricane was less than 24 hours away, and all over the radio, all over the internet, all over the TV news, city officials were begging people to evacuate, or at the very least, to make their way to designated shelters where they would be safe from dangerous flood waters. The warnings were everywhere, they had been for days. But the woman was stubborn and she didn’t want to leave her home. After all, she had lived in that house for over 40 years. She had weathered plenty of storms in that house before. Why should she leave now? Besides, she thought to herself, she was a devout woman— a praying woman— and she knew that God would deliver her from any danger. And so she stayed.
As expected, the hurricane hit, and at first it seemed like it might not be so bad. The winds passed through relatively quickly, with relatively little damage to her home or property. But then the flood waters began to rise. Pretty soon the woman had to move to the second floor of her house in order to be safe from the rising tide. After a while, the woman looked out the window and saw a man in a small motor boat making his way through the neighborhood, looking for people who needed help. He saw her and called out to her, offering to take her to the nearest shelter. But to get to down to the boat from her place on the second floor seemed rather perilous, and the woman imagined that with even the smallest slip or misstep, she might get swept away into the waters. And so she declined the invitation, deciding to wait for a safer, less risky mode of rescue. “Please God,” she prayed, “deliver me into safety.”
But still the flood waters did not recede, and in fact, they continued to rise. Pretty soon the woman had no choice but to climb out onto the roof for safety. Fortunately, however, it wasn’t long before a helicopter flew overhead, and one of the rescuers spotted the woman, perched vulnerably on the roof of her home. He called down to her over the loud speaker of the helicopter— “We’re sending someone down to rescue you,” he cried. But the woman was terrified of flying, and the basket they sent down seemed rickety and unsteady. She imagined herself tumbling out the basket and being carried away by the rushing current below. And so she declined their help as well. “The waters will start receding soon,” she thought to herself, “it’s only a matter of time. Besides, I have faith that God will deliver me.”
Unfortunately, the waters did not recede, and the current was indeed very strong. And so the woman found herself, all of a sudden, in a place she did not expect. She was dry, surprisingly, and pleasantly warm. She looked around and realized she was standing before the gates of heaven. And there was God, waiting for her. But instead of being happy to meet her Lord, the woman was angry. “I trusted you!” the woman said, accusingly, to her creator. “I prayed for deliverance, and yet I ended up here?! You were supposed to help me!”
God smiled at the woman with great compassion. “Oh but my dear one,” God said, “I did help you. I sent prophets to warn you, and angels to rescue you, but you did not listen, and you would not trust them.” All of a sudden the woman felt quite foolish, and worried that she might be punished for her lack of faith. But God was not angry. “Do not be anxious or afraid, dear one,” God said to her, “all is now well. Come with me now, and find deliverance from the storm.”
We all long for deliverance, don’t we? We all long for liberation from the various storms of life— all those things that hold us back from fully living the lives we imagine for ourselves and for those whom we love. Maybe we’re not standing on a literal rooftop, surrounded by actual flood waters, but perhaps we are standing on somewhat uncertain ground, surrounded by all kinds of forces that threaten to overwhelm us and knock us off our feet at any given moment.
The list of storms we desire to be delivered from is long, is it not? The list of perils that we long to be liberated from could go on and on. Anxiety, worry, fear, stress. Debt, insecurity, self-doubt, mental illness. Addiction and poverty, violence and abuse. War and oppression, terrorism and human trafficking. Patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia and xenophobia. Fire, famine, and flood, illness and disease. Climate change and the devastation of our earth. These are only a few of the storms we wish to be delivered from in our world today. We long for this deliverance. Indeed, the whole of creation longs for this deliverance. The whole of creation longs to be free.
Now maybe it’s presumptuous of me, but I tend to believe that this is what God longs for as well. I believe that God desires for Her creation to be free. I believe that the whole trajectory of sacred scripture— from Genesis to Revelation—is about God’s desire to liberate creation from all that holds it captive to sin and death, fear and despair. Consider the final commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples— that they love one another as he loved them. I would suggest that the product of that kind of love—the radical love of Christ—is in fact nothing less than full liberation and deliverance from all that separates us from God and one another, from all that holds us back from life that truly is free. I believe that freedom and liberation is our sacred destiny as beings created in the image of a liberating God.
And yet…it’s easy to become disillusioned, isn’t it? When we look around at our world and find that the deliverance we so long for—the liberation we believe has in fact been promised to us—does not appear to have arrived. So, lest we give ourselves over to cynicism and despair after years of waiting for this kind of deliverance, there are two important details from this morning’s scripture passage that I think might help us understand how exactly this liberation takes place.
First— God doesn’t do this work all on God’s own. Sure, God is involved, and we certainly can’t expect do it without God’s help, but when it comes to where the rubber meets the road, God empowers human beings to do the work of liberation. God may have instigated things back at the burning bush, but at the end of the day, it was Moses who risked his life and stood up to the powers of an oppressive empire. It was Moses who prepared the Israelites for their journey out of slavery. It was Moses who held his hands up before the waters, and it was Moses who guided his people to safety on the other side of the sea. Throughout this story, and indeed, time and time again throughout all of scripture, God calls ordinary human beings—often deeply flawed human beings— to do the work of liberation and deliverance. Remember what we learned from the story of Jacob? God does not call the qualified to do this work— God qualifies those who have been called.
So that’s the first detail to notice about this story. We can’t wait around for God to do everything for us, because God actually wants to do this work in partnership with us. But that’s not all. There is a second crucial detail in this story— one that I would suggest ultimately makes the difference between deliverance from oppression and a life of continued enslavement. This detail being, that even with God’s all powerful hand involved, even with the divinely ordained leadership of Moses to guide them, liberation and freedom would never have been possible if the Israelites themselves hadn’t had the courage to take those first uncertain steps forward onto the path to freedom. Make no mistake, it took courage for them to leave everything behind in Egypt. It took courage to follow a man they barely knew into an uncertain future. For all they knew, Moses was leading them into a total disaster. Indeed, in the passage immediately before the one we heard this morning, total disaster seems to be pretty much inevitable. The Israelites are surrounded by Pharaoh’s army on one side and an impenetrable sea on the other. Facing what must have seemed like certain doom, the Israelites lose their faith and turn on Moses, saying to him, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Truly it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians and live than to die here in the wilderness.”
But of course, God did not abandon them to such a fate. God worked through Moses to part the waters, making a way where before there was none— because that’s what God does. Even then, however, it was the Israelites themselves who ultimately had to step out onto the path. They had no idea what would await them in the wilderness across the sea, but as one commentator put it, “sometimes, belief must inch it’s way forward before one can see all that God is doing.” Or, as one my favorite prophets of liberation once said, “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
We long for deliverance from that which holds us captive. We long for freedom and liberation for ourselves and for our whole weary and hurting world. This is our dream, and I believe that this is God’s dream as well. I also believe, however, that it’s up to us not to be passive bystanders— like the woman in the midst of the flood— waiting for the perfect, most risk-free moment, letting opportunity after opportunity pass us by. Rather, we are called to be active participants— partners, in fact—in God’s ongoing work of liberating and reconciling all of creation. At times, we will be the ones called to lead. We may not want to. We, like Moses, may protest. We are called nonetheless. Other times, we will be the ones called to follow— called to be the ones willing to risk those first uncertain steps, even if we can’t see the whole staircase. At all times, however, whether leaders or followers, we are called to listen, to open our hearts to God’s still speaking and still moving Spirit, and to hold onto our faith that God is our refuge and our salvation, who delivers us from evil and shelters us from all the storms of life. That God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies, and that even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us always from now until the end of time— from now, until the day we, and every living thing in all creation, are free.
God in your mercy, may it ever be so.