Pharaoh

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Advertisements

Freedom from Fear

If God is for us, who can be against us?

The line is from Romans 8:31, but it also serves well as the lesson from today’s story in Exodus 14:10-31.

In revealing his true power to both his chosen people, the Israelites, and to the greatest power on earth, Egypt, God arranged for the Israelites to find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and an advancing Egyptian army.

Yes, Pharaoh had already suffered under the mighty hand of Yahweh in the form of plagues, including the death of all the firstborn males in Egypt, human and animal—Israelites exempted, of course. Yes, God was visibly present with the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But still, the Israelites found Pharaoh’s approaching army terrifying.

Pharaoh led his pursuit with 600 chariots, wheeled terrors capable of defeating even well-trained, fully equipped phalanxes of soldiers. Drawn by massive horses, each chariot typically carried a driver and an archer with an arsenal of arrows and spears. In battle, they functioned the way tanks might be used today. The 600 carried Pharaoh’s elite charioteers, what we would call Special Forces; the rest of the Egyptian army was close behind.

But remember: If God is for us, who can be against us?

The Israelites cried out to Moses in terror, saying he had brought them into the desert to die. Despite the evidence of God they had seen, were seeing, and were about to see, they would continue to complain like this for years; it’s astonishing God put up with them. Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

If we’ve spent much time in church, hearing basic Bible stories in Sunday school, we know what happened next. God’s visible presence moved to separate the army from the Israelites, and then God told Moses what to do as a prelude to God showing his power in parting the Red Sea. “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.”

I’ve wondered what Moses felt as he did this. Could he feel God’s Spirit rush through him? Did he sense the power it took to drive billions of gallons of water apart?

The Israelites crossed safely. Pharaoh and his army pursued but died, the water crashing down on them, destroying the mightiest military force humanity had to offer.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, it’s a lesson from an Old Testament story. But it’s also a New Testament Bible verse for a reason. As people who believe God is for us, we are called to let go of fear, the same lesson the Israelites were supposed to learn.

We know that most of all, God has been for us by living and working in Jesus to eliminate all our reasons for fear. Jesus picked up on the Old Testament theme by saying repeatedly in his teachings, “Fear not. Fear not.”

I’m like most people in that I’ve carried a lot of fear around in my life. I’ve had childhood fears. I’ve had adult fears. For me, both have seemed to aggravate me the most in the middle of the night, when worry seems to be at its strongest.

I’m probably typical that most of my fear is of the future, of what might be. But that doesn’t make sense, not if we think about it. Through Jesus Christ, God already has captured the future. God is in the future, ahead of us, waiting on us.

We may have to go through some rough patches to get there, but because we believe in Christ, we know our future ultimately is holy and eternal. A good word to describe it might be “blissful.”

When we learn to live into this belief, wonderful things begin to happen. Fear is replaced not only by courage, but by a kind of joyous courage, a willingness to abandon this world’s worries and pursue God in full. We not only stop fearing the future, we begin living in its bliss now.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist movement, had great expectations regarding what freedom from fear means for the world.

“Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

That is what we seek, isn’t it? The end of fear forever, and eternal union with God.

***

Next week, I’ll detail how we’re freed from death, and we’ll explore further what it means to live as a people who already have eternity.

Freedom from Bondage

July in the United States is a time when we think about the value of liberty. I’m going to spend the month in a sermon series where we look at the freedom God offers us.

Specifically, I’m going to use texts from Exodus, an Old Testament book where we hear the story of God’s special relationship with the Israelites and the miracles God performed to free them from oppression in Egypt.

Today’s text, Exodus 6:1-11, has a couple of key points I want to highlight. First, God is revealing himself to the people of Israel in a new way. Through Moses, God is offering a deeper relationship with his chosen people by telling them a more intimate name by which they can know their God. In English translations, we usually use the word “Lord.” One transliteration of the name in Hebrew is “Yahweh.”

I also take particular note of how God continues to plan and pursue the Israelites’ freedom from Pharaoh despite their unwillingness to listen to Moses, a disbelief brought on by prolonged bondage and abuse.

It’s a powerful story, one that has inspired people enslaved in one way or another for centuries. But what does it mean to us today?

Well, first of all, we see how God desires freedom for his creation, in particular the people made for a relationship with God. God’s actions in Exodus are a precursor to God’s efforts to free the world from the bondage of sin, returning us to a state of holiness so we can be in his presence. Working as Jesus Christ on the cross, God breaks the power of sin and death, freeing us for eternal life.

Secondly, even as people freed from sin, we sometimes continue to wrestle with bondage in different forms. We can fall back into sin and find it difficult to escape despite the power we’re given; we can suffer in other ways, too, as we await Christ’s return and the final destruction of the evil that remains.

I’ve experienced my own form of bondage in recent years, something I’ve kept to myself for too long. It’s a spiritually crushing problem that’s hard to talk about, especially if you’re a pastor trying to live out the stereotype of never looking weak.

I get depressed, sometimes to the point where it’s difficult for me to focus on Scripture, prayer or other activities that keep me connected to God. This depression hits me particularly hard in winter, making me think it’s probably a seasonal, light-related thing.

I thought I had it licked this winter, taking precautions that are supposed to help. In late winter and early spring, however, it hit hard, swallowing me up like a soggy blanket.

My wife, Connie, noted dryly I had mastered the art of Lent, that somber season when we share in Christ’s passion and the walk toward the cross. It’s an important season to pass through, but the joy of the resurrection is supposed to snap you out of it! It didn’t this year, at least not right away.

I bring this up because I am reminded in Exodus how God worked in community with the Israelites, just as God works in community through the Holy Spirit now. God willing, I’ll experience another winter late this year and early next year, but I pray that this time I’ll remember I’m surrounded by people I can trust, people who can pull me up when I find myself sinking low.

Depression is just one form of bondage. There are so many others. Ongoing sins and various addictions come to mind. None of us should be afraid to admit we find ourselves bound from time to time. After all, church, that gathering of God’s people, is where we go to have the hateful knots untied.