Rev. Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
Last week, Jeff ended his sermon with a song. Now, I know I was supposed to be praying,
but my feet were tapping, my body was swaying, and I found myself just enjoying the music of Curtis Mayfield’s “People get Ready.”
I also found my mind wandering to other songs…Songs that give me joy, songs that have important meaning, songs that bring fulfillment, songs that express deep emotion, songs that just make me smile. Do you have a favorite song? Is there a song you like to sing along with
(even if it is only when no one is looking or when you are alone in the shower)? Anyone care to share their favorite song?
Today’s reading is in itself a song, in fact (though we don’t have the notes) you could say that what we just read is the musical version of the story from Exodus 14. Is is a song sung by Moses and the nation of Israel, a song whose refrain is picked up by Miriam, (Moses sister and the first female OT prophet) and all the women of Israel. It is a song that retells the story we heard shared with the children, and that some scholars say is one of the the oldest surviving examples of ancient Hebrew poetry and song.
It is not surprising that some of the oldest things remembered by human beings would be that which we capture and express in song. I don’t know about you, but I always find it easier to remember something that is set to music. I find it especially easy to recall related refrains (or choruses) from a song I like. Sometimes the tunes are simply “catchy” but sometimes they touch something deep and powerful within us.
That is the second thing that is true of today’s passage. The refrain that we hear repeated in Exodus 15 captures something that holds deep meaning for the people of Israel, both when it was first sung,and on into the present day.
Listen to the refrain — sung by Moses and the Israelites in the first instance and Miriam and the women of Israel in the second:
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
These words stand as shorthand for, and as a summary of Exodus 14. They introduce the themes of the complete song that is sung in Exodus 15. If you wanted to know what was really important in this story, you could do worse than focus on these two lines.
So lets remind ourselves of what happens to lead up to this song, in this story that is so familiar to many of us. The Israelites find themselves camped near a body of water in the wilderness after fleeing Pharaoh and his armies. After the final plague and the first Passover you would think they are in need of a bit of a rest.
But, as the story tells us, that was not to be. For pharaoh’s mind is changed—with heavy influence from the Lord. Realizing how much good slave labor he has lost, he decides to chase after the Israelites. And this time the Egyptians use their best, most modern weapon—the chariot.
Now a word about chariots here. The Israelites had no weapon like this, in fact they may have had very few if any weapons—after all they were an oppressed, impoverished, enslaved people.
Egypt here was going after the Israelites with the best technology of the day.The text tells us that Pharoah sent:
six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them.
Imagine a modern, militarized state up against a small tribe in a developing country (with no outside support) and you get a little bit of the idea of what they were up against. The Israelites find themselves caught between “a rock and a hard place” or more literally, between a modern brutal army and the chaos and danger of the sea. They were trapped with seemingly no way out.
So, much like you and I might do, the Israelites murmur in fear and doubt. They complain, and do it with sarcastic humor, “What’s the deal Moses, you couldn’t find us any graves in Egypt
so you brought us out here to die?” Yet Moses assures them, “The Lord will fight for you.”
God then speaks to Moses and commands him to be an agent for one of God’s mighty acts:
But you 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.
And then God points out who has the power and what is the purpose in this act:
…I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord…
God is in control here. Make no mistake about it. God will make God’s power known to BOTH the Egyptians and the Israelites!
You know the rest of the story. Moses stretches out his staff and Israel walks through the sea on the dry ground. The chariot army of Egypt stubbornly pursues the Israelites into the land
where the sea was.
When morning comes they are still there, horses, chariots, and drivers. They see the fire and cloud that represent the presence of God, and they are thrown into terror. They also discover, courtesy of the God of the Jews, that their chariot wheels are stuck in the mud. So they try to run, but is is to no avail their “weapons of mass destruction” are no match for the Lord.
God then commands Moses a second time:
“Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”
The waters return to where they once stood, covering the Pharoah’s army, all horses, all chariots. The passage tells us, “not one of them remained.” All are killed. I can only imagine the hushed silence that must have come upon the Israelites. In the face of such (destructive) power, even when it is on your side, one can only wonder in awe and fear. Scripture says it this way:
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
The Lord saved. Israel feared. Israel believed.
Though this is not in the text, I personally think the Israelites initially reacted to this event with stunned silence.Then fear. Maybe even grief at the human destruction. Perhaps relief. Nobody likes war.
But after the silence—then there is song. And that is what brings us to today’s reading. A song of joy. A song of relief. A song of deliverance. A song of victory over enemies.
If we read though this song, there is an overwhelming, unmistakable theme. It is obvious from the very first line until the end. Is it the Lord God who overcomes pharaoh and his chariots. It is no doing of the people themselves. All the people could do was run, it was their God who fought for them, it is their God who is the one called “warrior.”
God spoke to Moses three times in Chapter 14, asserting “I will gain glory” for myself. This is not a desire for fame on God’s part, but a reminder of reality of who had the power to give life and bring death. It was a constant reminder to the people of Israel whom they were called to celebrate and worship—not Pharaoh, not Moses, but only the “I AM” God. Almost all of the words of Exodus 15 are a celebration of the actions of this God Throughout history and to this day, the people of Israel celebrate this story.
So perhaps there is an important question for us in this.Who is the author of good things in my life? Who brings deliverance? Who brings hope? Who makes a difference? Could it be that it is this same God?
There is a second theme in this song as well. Imagine you are part of the Egyptian army and you hear this music. Imagine you are pharaoh and you recognize the reality of these lyrics in your life. How would you feel hearing these words?
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea
they went down into the depths like a stone.
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
Now you really don’t want to be the enemy of this God! We can and should debate about the role of violence in the Old Testament. But we need to take this story on its own terms. What is clear here is that God brings destruction on those who oppose God. And, make no mistake, the surest way to oppose this God is to be an oppressor. To be one who enslaves others. To be one who makes a whole nation into a sub human class. To be one who uses people for no other purpose than one’s own need and pleasure.
There is a question in this theme for us as well. Maybe I am not a pharoah, but do I ever stand in the role of an oppressor? Do I use my power to take advantage of others? Do I accept social norms that characterize some people as unimportant and disposable? Am I riding my own chariot that takes out everyone in its path?
Finally, there is a least one last theme implied here. This song is about God being in control.
This song is about God’s judgement on oppressors. But this song is also about God’s desire to “lift up the lowly.” A slave people are singing about the deliverance they received from God. There was nothing special about this people. In the eyes of the world, this tribe of slaves was at the bottom of the social ladder. Yet God chose them. God wanted them. For no reason other than the fact that they could not fight for themselves. They had no alternative for victory but to depend on the God who self revealed to them. I can’t help but believe that God chose these people precisely because they could do nothing for themselves. Listen to these lyrics from verses 13 and 16 and 17:
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed
by the might of your arm,
[those who would fight us] became as still as a stone
until your people, O Lord, passed by,
until the people whom you acquired passed by.
You brought them in and planted them
on the mountain of your own possession
The Israelites, the ones without any resources or power to call their own, were loved and redeemed by God, were given a home.
Salvation here is about freedom from an earthly oppressor. Redemption here is about being delivered out of literal slavery. God is made known in the concrete and historical, not just in the “secret places of our hearts.” God is not simply drawing individuals here, but is showing grace and love to a whole nation.
So there is one last question. Have I ever been the oppressed and enslaved? Has my life ever seemed like it was without hope? Do I know anyone in this situation? If God cared about the slavery of the Hebrew people thousands of years ago, maybe God cares about human trafficking in the world today, If God cared about those fleeing their homes in Egypt, maybe God cares about refugees in Lebanon in 2014. If God cared about providing for Jews in their wilderness wanderings, maybe God also cares about hunger wherever it hits in our world.
A few weeks ago I saw the movie “12 Years a Slave.” If you saw it you know it is a gripping and moving portrayal of the experience of slavery in the American South I want to share with you a particular scene from that movie. In this scene the slaves bury one of their own, and standing over his grave they begin to sing a song. Although not a song about the Exodus (as so many spirituals were) it is a song about freedom called “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” As you watch, enjoy the power of the music, and watch for the subtle but powerful change that happens on the face of the main character, Solomon Northrup, as at first he listens to, then sings, the song.
[PLAY SCENE FROM 12 YEARS A SLAVE]
Solomon finds his voice in this song, as did many who experienced the brutality of American slavery in singing about the stories of the Exodus. So many times they sang about water, about pharaoh and the sea, about John and the Jordan, about crossing the Mississippi to freedom. Like the people of Israel, they knew that they were powerless, yet they were not hopeless. Like the people of Israel, they too knew that God was active when they sang “Let my people go.” They communicated an sense of unlikely victory in the song, “Roll, Jordan, Roll!”
Too often, in our own faith, we think of Jesus as a world away from these concerns. We think he came to give us a ticket to heaven…or to help us think nice thoughts…or solely to die for our sins.
Yet near the very beginning of his ministry, just after his own baptism by John in the Jordan, just after “passing through the waters” of baptism, Jesus offers us a corrective to narrow views of his work. Listen to this passage from the Gospel of Luke:
[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Like the God of the Exodus—Jesus cares about our freedom—in many more ways than we know. For he is the same God—the God of the Exodus—who will ultimately triumph and be the author of our freedom. He is the same God—the God of the Exodus—who calls judgment on oppressors and comes to free us from our own abuse of power. He is the same God—the God of the Exodus—who comes to lift up the lowly and frees us to live abundant life on the earth and beyond.
Let us sing praise to this God who brings us freedom.
Next Step 4-6-2014
Do you have a favorite song? What about it do you find meaningful? How does it touch you emotionally?
Read Exodus 15:1-21 (You could also read Exodus 14 if you like.) What stands out to you in this passage? What puzzles you?
The people of Israel found themselves helpless, caught between Pharoah’s army and the sea. They were trapped. Have you ever found yourself between a “rock and a hard place” (or the sea and an army)? What got you out?
The Israelites complained on the shores of the sea and seemingly wanted to return to slavery. Have you ever found yourself wanting to choose an old way of life rather than a new way of life that promises to be better but is uncertain?
Have you ever experienced God “making a way where there is no way” in your life?
Have you ever found yourself in the role of “oppressor,” where you thought you abused your power or treated someone unfairly? If so, how has your life changed since then?
Have you ever been in the role of one who was in the “lowest position” in your world? What was that like for you? What (if anything) changed that situation?
Is there some “mighty act of God” in your life that persuaded you of God’s power and love?
Read Luke 4: 16-19. In what way does this mirror the work of God in the Exodus reading for today? In what way is it different?
 Harper’s Bible Commentary, p 146.
 Exodus 15:1, NRSV
 Exodus 14:7, NRSV.
 I am indebted to Laura Anderson for this insight.
 Exodus 14:11
 Exodus 14:16, NRSV.
 Exodus 14:17-18, NRSV.
 Exodus 14:26, NRSV.
 Exodus 14:28, NRSV.
 Exodus 14:30-31, NRSV.
 Exodus 15:2,4,5,7
 Exodus 15:13, NRSV.
 Exodus 15:16-17, NRSV.
 Luke 4:18-19. NRSV.