Sermon by The Reverend Dr. Chalmers Coe April 7th, 2002
Exodus 14:21, "Then Moses held out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea away with a strong east wind all night long, and turned the seabed into dry land. The waters were divided asunder, and the Israelites went through the sea on the dry ground, while the waters formed a wall to right and left of them."
I want you to imagine a man we don't know that he's a man, I must admit, but it's fair to assume that he is sitting, probably at a rude table, and with two documents lying on it side by side. The time? At a guess, about 2,500 years ago. The place? Nobody can tell for certain, although we may reasonably suppose that it is a town or city in what was once called the land of Canaan but has come to be known as the Kingdom of Judah, for the Jews some time ago invaded the land and have become its rulers. His age? Who knows? You would not, however, be far off the mark if you were to think of him as a mature scholar; otherwise the two documents whether on parchment or on papyrus would not be there resting on the table. He may very well be frowning in consternation (you would be excused for imagining it) because the documents tell two very different stories about what was surely the most decisive event in the history of his people. And he feels duty bound to honor both of them as he tries to blend them into a unified tale; for he is not only a scholar, he is also an editor. And he believes that each of the documents contains a word from God.
The most decisive event, I have said, in the history of his people. And therefore I do not mean the creation of the world: that act concerned the entire human race. Nor do I mean the issuance of the Ten Commandments: vital though that occurrence may have been, it came a little later, and could not have happened without the staggering and dramatic incident which, in these two versions, lies before our nameless scholar. That incident, and that tale, we call the Exodus.
It is the classic story of deliverance. And, when all is said, and all is done, part of biblical faith is taking seriously the narrative of our deliverance. I'll tell you this flat out: that faith has nothing much to do with "seeking" God, no matter what some may tell you nowadays as though He were somehow lost, hidden behind a large piece of furniture, or tucked away somewhere beyond the stars. And, what's more, it isn't about trying to "respect" Him by reserving a place for Him in the courtroom or the classroom, inscribing those ten commands of His on the walls of the one or having some disgracefully watered-down prayer mumbled before a first-period class in the other. A few weeks ago a dispatch appeared in "The New York Times" to the effect that a judge in Tennessee had ruled a religious exercise in a school near Dayton, in that state, unconstitutional I was pleased that he had but that the lawyer for the losers had declared that his clients hadn't "had their day in court"! Which seemed to me to be absurd: they had it in principle, and in a related case,77 years ago, when their man William Jennings Bryan won over John Scopes. Technically, that is. In fact, poor old Byran was deservedly humiliated and in the same Dayton by Clarence Darrow, as everyone knows who has ever seen "Inherit the Wind," by that admirable Ohio State alumnus, Jerome Lawrence.
Biblical faith is not, I am contending, about our "recognizing" or "honoring" God by means of this pious exercise or that, tipping our hats to Him before going about our daily business. It's about God's own inveterate longing to deliver us. So turn to these two documents of which I speak, and which our ancient scholar happily combined into one almost, but not quite, seamless story.
The first document, much the older of the two, puts its stress on what Professor Brevard Childs calls the ordinary, the natural, acts of God. "The Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land." Strong east winds can blow anywhere, and at any time, and no one lifts an eyebrow. The poet William Cowper may have declared that
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform:"
But some times His ways are not mysterious: they are almost obvious. They don't so much stun us as lead us to say, "You might have guessed it," or "Isn't it just like God to have done that!"
I'm making a plea, for a moment, on behalf of what might be called God's unsensational activity. You could just as easily attribute it to somebody, or something, else. You might not even be aware of it. A man remarked to me once not many years ago that it is a fact, of which most of us are oblivious, that we have no nerves of feeling in the lining of our blood vessels; for, as he went on to say, if we did have them we would find life intolerable, would quickly be driven out of our minds by the sensation of our own blood rampaging through arteries and veins and capillaries. Whereas, as matters stand, there might, for all we know, be nothing whatever inside them: only a cut, or a gash, or some more serious injury reveals our blood's existence to us. And no mere pagan gabble ascribing these things to a benevolent matron called "Mother Nature" should be permitted to deafen us to the claim that God has ordained our lack of vascular feeling.
As often as not, in other words, He works in unobtrusive ways, without having recourse to dramatic interventions in, or reversals of, the natural course of events. It is His universe, after all, and its patterns of cause and effect are of His devising. He will use them for the accomplishment of whatever purposes he has in mind. I know: it would be ever so gratifying to us if, next Thursday afternoon at three o' clock, He were to have a jet land at Andrews Air Force Base and, when the door opened with the portable staircase outside it, Osama Bin Laden were to appear at the top wearing his Timex wristwatch and his languid smile with, quite possibly, his dialysis machine on a cart at his side ready for whatever fate we had in store for him. But that, as we now more than suspect, may very well not happen. Instead, God's involvement in our affairs is more likely to have us engaging in the irksome and untidy necessity of spending money to help the miserable Afghanis rehabilitate their country which we have assisted in laying waste in our understandably desperate search for the ghastly culprit.
"A strong east wind drove back the sea." When it happened the sands dried, and as the hymn we are going to be singing soon says God "led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters." Well, "unmoistened" may be a pardonable exaggeration; but at least they didn't sink up to their ankles, and their kneecaps, and could struggle on, with all their earthly goods on their backs, into the arid Sinai Peninsula where not surprisingly they at once began to gripe about the lack of food and water, and wish that they were back in inhospitable Egypt once again, with all of Pharaoh's loathsome crowd.
So much, then, for the first, and earlier, description of the Exodus as our scholar saw it lying on his table. It shows God's way of working through the ordinary.
Now wouldn't it be convenient if that were all? We could quickly hand in our offerings, and sing a final hymn, and listen to a glorious postlude which I have asked Mr. Barnard to play, partly because he introduced me to it and go home to an early lunch. I am sorry, then, to disappoint you, if that is what I am doing, by saying that we are only half done with the event of the Exodus and the story of our deliverance. And the second half, which seems so dramatically different from the first, is, to us modern sophisticates, the more troublesome of the two. It is one thing for God to send a powerful east wind to dry out the land and so assist in what one authority admits might seem at first blush to be "the accidental escape of some slaves across a treacherous marsh." It is quite another to believe that the waters of the Red Sea were literally split, and so "formed a wall for the Israelites on their right and on their left." Shades of Cecil B. DeMille! This is deliverance not as the ordinary, but as the spectacular, acts of God.
Suddenly, in this version, the walls of water are a hundred feet high two hundred, if you prefer and the biblical story appears to have been taken over by all that M-G-M's (or was it Paramount's?) camera trickery can foist upon us. My own copy of what is called "The Video Hound's Golden Movie Retriever," 1996 edition, says about DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" of 1956 which I confess I deliberately did not go to see that the "the parting of the Red Sea rivals any modern special effects." It goes on to say, mind you, that a "35th Anniversary Collector's Edition.... is available and 1,000 copies of an autographed Limited Edition that includes an engraved bronze plaque and imprinted card written and personally signed by Charlton Heston." Well! How can anybody resist that especially when the notice goes on to inform us that Mr. Heston's son Fraser plays the baby Moses? A bargain, if you please, at $35! And yet, in our more skeptical moments, once we have staggered out of the theater or switched off the video button, we go once more back to the real world our worldwhere tidal waves occur without a grown-up Moses to stretch out his hand over the waters and so rescue a band of terrified refugees, and where everything we do presupposes a universe of predictability and probability, in which Mr. Davis and Mr. Ganahl can reliably inform us what the morrow will bring forth by way of sleet or rain or sunshine, and where "acts of God" are events to be reserved for clauses in insurance policies to describe mere quirks of nature.
But wait. That train of thought may be legitimate as far as it goes. It may also, however, be misleading. For this second half of the story about Israel's flight to Sinai, whatever reservations we may have about Mr. DeMille and his flair for flamboyance, is still lying stubbornly on the biblical page page 57 in the Revised English Bible. "The waters formed a wall to right and left of them." As someone has wisely put it, you may not want to take those words literally, but you are under obligation to take them seriously. This author is putting his stress not on the ordinary, but on the spectacular, the wonderful. He knows, what Mr. Davis and Mr. Ganahl do not know - at least not in their professional capacity that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has a future in store for His people that most of them could never have expected with the help of the laws of physics or any other academic discipline. God acts in unanticipated ways, spectacularly, wonderfully. Call them, if you like, miraculous.
We live in a world of divine surprises, where God is always doing something we are inclined to call outrageous because it is so wildly improbable. For every appalling Robert Mugabe, the tyrant of Zimbabwe, he produces, unbelievably, a Nelson Mandela, who languishes in prison for almost three decades but then emerges to become, at last, the president of a new South Africa and a towering symbol of what a man of principle and integrity can be, against all the odds. For every Slobodan Milosevic He raises up an Aung San Suu Kyi, that splendid Burmese wife of an English scholar and teacher, who decides that she must go back to her native land to care for her dying mother and then to lead her people against a tyrannical dictatorship and who, when her husband is found to be fatally ill, and is not permitted to enter Burma for a last visit to her, steadfastly declines to visit him in Britain because she knows that, after he dies, she will be refused re-entry into her own country. Her reward of a Nobel Peace Prize, while richly deserved, pales beside the glory of her own heroism. The walls of water rise unbelievably high.
And, above all, consider this stunning event: a Roman governor authorizes, as only he may do, the death of a one-time provincial carpenter from a northern outpost of the country a region abutting Syria and He is accordingly escorted to Skull Hill (as it is called) by that governor's pagan troops. They nail Him to the instrument of His death, thus using the method of the Carthaginians from whom this technique of execution has been borrowed long before. They place the base of it upright in the ground; and the pious stand nearby jeering, as we would all have done had we been there. "He saved others," they sneer laughingly, "but cannot save himself." Poor, pitiful, self-deluded king! Next morning a handful of women carry out to his tomb the "spices and perfumes" they have prepared, only to encounter two men, who have startling news for them. They next go excitedly to His disciples to report what has happened.. "But," comments St. Luke laconically, "the story appeared to them to be nonsense, and they would not believe the women."
You can hardly blame them. It was, to say the least, an odd way for the new age to begin. It shattered all expectations, and it does so still.
Note: I am aware that Burma has for some time been called "Myanmar," but refuse to employ the named imposed on that country by a tyrannical regime with the hilariously ugly acronym, "The SLORC."
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