Sermon: Sunday, 18th June, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Exodus 14

This is one of the most dramatic and famous historical accounts in the Bible. Imagine being an Israelite family on that day. You’ve been slaves for the whole of your lives. It has been a living nightmare – you’ve been worked to the bone by a ruthless superpower who have been committing genocide against your people, drowning Israelite baby boys in the river Nile. Making bricks without straw in a country which despised you and who worshipped false gods. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. But in recent days, God has raised up a leader called Moses and performed supernatural acts of judgment against your Egyptian oppressors, bringing them to their knees through ten plagues. The last of the plagues resulted in the eldest male in every Egyptian household being killed. However, your house was safe, as the doorway was covered in the sacrificial blood of a lamb, just as the LORD has instructed. The only safe place was to be inside a home marked by this sacrificial blood. To your astonishment, the Egyptian rulers finally agree to let you go. Moses assures you that God will direct us to a country of our own. It’s been such an overwhelming time. Could it really be true? You’ve never felt this way before – brimming with excitement and best of all – free. God has brought you to Pi Hahiroth, with the sea in front and the desert behind. You head to sleep to dream of what our own country will be like.

However, the next day, after such an emotional high, your hopes come crashing down. Ominous sounds are heard and they’re getting closer and closer. That nauseous feeling returns to your stomach as you realise the Egyptian army is approaching. A country of our own? It was too good to be true. You’re trapped! The sea is ahead of you and our old enemies are behind you. It seems like you are going to be slaughtered. Your best hope is to be taken back to Egypt. There is no way of escape. That’s what’s happening here in Exodus 14. Pharaoh has changed his mind. In stubborn foolishness, he regrets letting his slave labour force go and pursues them with hundreds of chariots. Each one probably carried both an archer and a swordsman. These chariots were the weapons of mass destruction of the day – terrifying.

But what has this ancient battle got to do with us here in Kirkcaldy this morning? Before looking at some of the details, let’s just take a step back and try to see the big picture. This event teaching us of what it means to become a true Christian. The Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt is a crucial visual aid for us, teaching us what we must experience in our own hearts, if we ever want to make it to the promised land of Heaven.

In what ways are we like these Israelites? What is this visual aid teaching us? Where are we in the story? We’re like the Israelites because we too were slaves and under the power of an evil and merciless ruler. The Bible tells us that before we become Christians, we are slaves to sin. Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34) If you’re not a Christian yet, you might well find that offensive. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Just as the Israelites were in Pharaoh’s iron grip, so we were in the grip of Satan. We lived to just please ourselves and with barely any thought of pleasing God. Doing what you want might seem like freedom, but it’s actually spiritual slavery, because God has made us and designed us as human beings to live in a relationship with him, following his ways and not our own. That’s how true freedom is found, through a living relationship with God.

Just as drug addicts are addicted to their drugs, or alcoholics to the bottle, so all human beings without Jesus, are addicted to living selfish lives, breaking God’s rules on a daily basis and failing to love God. Before we become Jesus’ followers we are slaves to sin. When we put our trust in Jesus and his death on the cross, we are set free. The Bible says, ‘But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.’ (Romans 6:17-18)

There’s another way we’re like the Israelites here. They were completely trapped with no way of escape. They could not save themselves. They were helpless. The sea was in front of them and the enemy soldiers behind them. Left to themselves, they were doomed. They needed God to rescue them, to save them. In the Bible, that’s exactly how God describes the situation of all human beings. We are slaves to sin, but we have no way of setting ourselves free. We have no way of escape. Left to ourselves, we will eventually die, and then have to appear before God and give an account for our lives. ‘And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…’ (Hebrews 9:27) If you’re not yet a Christian here this morning, this is a visual aid just for you. You cannot rescue yourself spiritually any more than the Israelites could set themselves free. Your only hope is for God to open up a way of escape.

That brings us to the most beautiful part of the visual aid. When there was no way of escape, God made a way. He supernaturally sent a wind to gather up the waters of the Red Sea. He opens up a way for us to leave slavery behind once and for all, and to head towards the Promised Land. He deals with our enemies in a decisive blow, destroying them with his power. When there was no way, God makes a way, and leads his people to safety. This is the God who saves – the God of salvation. In the wonderful song of Moses in the next chapter we read: ‘The Lord is my strength and my defence; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea.’ Exodus 15:1-4) This is what lies at the heart of the Exodus. The LORD has become our salvation.

In this way, the Exodus story points us straight to Jesus dying on the cross. Because that’s when God sent his son Jesus to die on the cross that he opened up a way of escape for us. Before, there was no way for us to be forgiven by God and to enter Heaven when we die. We had no way of getting to Heaven, because we are just too dirty and sinful, and our huge debt of sin disqualifies us. But when we trust in Jesus, he pays off our spiritual debts completely, setting us free, and leading us to the Promised Land of Heaven. When there was no way of escaping God’s just judgment on our sins, God himself opened up a way, by coming to die for us. The cross is the real Exodus. Jesus death and resurrection is the definitive way God opened up a pathway back to himself.

How do we know this is true? How do we know this opening of the Red Sea is a picture pointing forward to a greater salvation to come when Jesus would die and rise again? In Luke’s Gospel, there’s the wonderful account of Jesus’ transfiguration. This is when Jesus was soon to die on the cross. But for a short time, his inner glory comes bursting out, and his face shines like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear from Heaven to talk with Jesus. And what are they talking about? ‘They spoke about his exodus, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’ (Luke 9:31) Jesus’ death was the real Exodus. The opening up of the Red Sea was just a ‘trailer’ about God saving his people, to whet our appetites. The main saving event in all of history was Jesus’ death.

What, then, does God want from us this morning? He wants us to stop relying on ourselves, and trust completely in him for forgiveness and salvation. In a word, he wants our faith. He wants us to believe that only he can open up a way to Heaven. Let’s think back to the Israelites on that day. In order to be saved, they would have had to step onto the seabed, in faith, believing that the Lord would keep holding back the waters on either side of them. Imagine taking that first step. Maybe your faith is weak, but you trust that God has done this, and you begin to walk across the sea. It’s God who has saved you. It is 100% God. He has opened up the path, and he just wants you to walk through.

What does God want from you this morning? He wants your faith. He wants you to trust that Jesus is the only hope you have for your sins to be taken away and blotted out. ‘By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.’ (Hebrews 11:9) God doesn’t have a sea he wants you to pass through. But he still wants your faith, your belief in his way to be saved. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

The Israelites had to put their trust in God that day. The question is, will you do the same? Will you say in your heart right now, ‘Yes I know I don’t deserve to go to Heaven, but Jesus died on the cross in my place, and that’s the path I’m stepping out onto.’ If you do that, you will be set free. Believe today that only God can rescue you, and trust the way of escape he has made for us.

What else can we learn form this passage? There are three short lessons.

1. We see how hard the human heart is even in the face of evidence.

Here, we are thinking of Pharaoh in particular. He’s not just seen one outstanding miracle from God but ten. Time and time again, God revealed his power and authority to Pharaoh. God is the true King. And how does Pharaoh respond? He keeps on rebelling. He has all the evidence, but persists in rebelling against God. It seemed like the Israelites were the slaves and Pharaoh was free, but actually it was the other way round; Pharaoh’s heart is a slave to rebellion and sin against the true God. Many people are like that today. They have evidence of Jesus’ life, miracles, death and the greatest sign of all – his resurrection from death. Yet, it makes no difference. ‘The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 2:14) Were it not for God’s Spirit, we’d be just like Pharaoh. We’d see the evidence of his power, and continue rebelling. How hard the human heart is. We cannot save ourselves.

2. We see how Christians, at times, can wish they weren’t Christians any more.

Perhaps that sounds a shocking thing to say. God had shown his faithfulness to Israel by bringing them of Egypt with signs and wonders and by protecting them from the angel of death. God redeemed them, with lambs dying instead of them, so the angel of death would pass over their homes. But now there’s a new challenge, and it’s like they have spiritual amnesia. It’s as if they think, ‘God can’t handle this situation’. We’re trapped. How do they respond to this new threat? ‘They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’ (Exodus 14:11-12) They respond with biting sarcasm, fear, and unbelief. They turn on Moses and do not trust in the Lord. They wish they were slaves once again in Egypt.

Yet, we all can be like that. God has brought situations into my life and I’ve doubted whether God can handle this new situation, even though he’s been faithful to me for my entire life. I might even think, it’d be easier if I wasn’t a Christian and then I could have an easy life, blend in, and not have to tell people about all this serious stuff of sin and salvation. Then I wouldn’t have to come to church and be committed with my time and money and resources. I could just chill out and enjoy life. I could indulge my pet sins. For a time, our old lives seem preferable. Israel’s desire to go back to Egypt is something we might face too. We need to pray that God would keep us in a place of faith, rather than a place of fear. God’s grace here is also astounding. Even when his people wobble so much, he remains faithful to us.

3. We see how God brings us to a place of weakness so that we fully rely on him.

‘Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon.’ (Exodus 14:1-2) Notice that it is God who deliberately leads the Israelites to a place where they are hemmed in by the sea and the desert, knowing full well that the Egyptians will trap them on the other side. Why does God do this? Because it’s when we understand our own helplessness that we begin to trust in God and his salvation, and he alone gets the credit and the glory he deserves.

Impossible situations in our lives are occasions for God to show his grace and love and power in our lives. We think we can’t go on, but he provides for us. This is exactly what Paul speaks about in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8-9) Are there situations in your life just now which seem to be hopeless? Are you beyond your own resources? Don’t be surprised if God breaks in and reveals his glory in that situation, perhaps not right now, but in the future. God specialises in bringing us to a place where we have to rely on him. When things seem impossible and beyond us, keep on trusting. Remember what Jesus said to Jairus when his daughter had already died. Could Jesus handle this impossible situation? He says to Jairus: ‘Keep on believing.’

As a church, we must not rely on ourselves. That’s why the prayer meeting is so important. And if we lack Sunday School teachers, crèche helpers, finance, conversions, and face all kinds of pressures from the apathetic world we live in, we must fully rely on God’s power. We want to see a church planted in Leven, but we want God to get all the glory, and that will only happen if we rely on him at each step. And in our lives at home and in work, take your impossible situations and bring them to God in prayer, knowing that he loves to display his glory in our lives. ‘The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.’ (Exodus 14:18)

We don’t face troubles on our own. ‘The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’ (Exodus 14:14)