Cloud and Fire



Sermon Title “Cloud and Fire” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  This morning we have another text from the book of Exodus.  Last week in Exodus chapter 12 we heard God’s directions to Aaron and Moses about how to prepare for the last of the plagues which God sent to Egypt and Egypt’s ruler, Pharoah, in order to get him to release the Hebrews from forced labor.  The final plague was the angel of death which would take the firstborn of every animal and human family — except those families who had put the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorframes and lintels of their homes.  The angel would pass over these homes, sparing its residents.  God gave directions about how to slaughter the lamb, how to prepare it to be eaten, what to serve with it, and the manner in which it was to be eaten — in a hurry.  This occasion of Passover was to be a day of remembrance — kept as a perpetual ordinance.  Jews, including Jesus, have celebrated Passover for the past 7,000 years.

Today’s text from Exodus chapter 14 is a continuation of the Passover story.  It describes a big, dramatic event — a cinema graphic event, before there was Charlton Heston and the blockbuster production of The Ten Commandments.  We get a lot in this passage about the character of God: trustworthy, powerful, on the side of the Hebrew people.  It’s no wonder this is an event which becomes immortalized in song and story and Jewish tradition.  But if we back up just a bit, and pull out the focus toward the beginning of Chapter 14, we get a bit more sense of the character of the Hebrew people, and frankly, it is not that great.  This will be a theme of Exodus, running parallel to God’s faithfulness and power and guidance, throughout the account of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness to get to the promised land.

You’ll remember at the time of Passover, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  God directed them to eat the Passover meal in a hurry, because they were going to be leaving on short notice.  As soon as the angel of death visited the homes of the Egyptians, including Pharoh’s palace, a collective wail of grief arose, and Pharoah would tell Moses, “Take your people and get out of my country.”  The people gathered and left as soon as they could, and God led them: as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night, so they could travel even in darkness.  God even directs them where to camp in order to act as decoy to the Egyptians, who will assume the Israelites are lost and have gotten themselves into a corner.  Predictably and fatally, Pharoah once again changes his mind — hardens his heart — about the people of Israel.  What was I thinking, letting them all go?  Who’s going to do all that work now?  And Pharoah hitches up his chariot, gathers his army, and rides out to get those people back.

And the Israelites, who are hemmed in at the edge of the Red Sea watch the Egyptian army approach and say to Moses, “What, there were no graves in Egypt?  You had to bring us out in the wilderness to die?  Didn’t we always tell you how much we wanted to stay in Egypt?  We liked serving the Egyptians; we were learning lots of good construction skills.  We’d rather be slaves in Egypt than die out here.”  To which Moses said, “The Lord will fight for you; all you have to do is stay still.”

I admit I am inclined to be hard on the Hebrew people: how could they not trust that God was going to come through for them?  God had just liberated them from Egypt and led them to this place.  How could they not get that?  But I have to remember two things: Number 1, I do not have a mounted army pounding after me, and Number 2, I know the next part of this story.  I also know that fear can affect our judgement and make us say or do things that are not entirely rational.  Still, I have to wonder what God thought when the people he liberated almost immediately turned around and said, “We want to go back to Egypt — we liked it better there!”

You know the rest of the story — or I thought I did.  Here is a detail I had missed.  In Exodus chapter 14 verses 19-20, the pillar of cloud which was going before the people to guide them — it comes back between them and the Egyptian army, and does not let the army get near to the people.  This means where God is giving guidance, God also provides protection.  Moses stretches his hand out and God parts the waters of the Red Sea so the people can walk through on dry land.  The chariots of Pharoah’s army pursue.  Before they can reach the Israelites, those pillars of cloud and fire throw the chariot drivers into a panic.  Their wheels stick in the mud, they decide to turn around, Moses stretches out his hand again, the sea closes; the entire army is drowned and all the people are saved.  Verses 30 and 31 give the benediction: The Lord saved Israel from the Egyptians and Israel saw the great work the Lord had done and they feared the Lord and believed the Lord and his servant Moses.  And they all lived happily ever after.

I added that last sentence, but it is not true.  This chapter has a happy ending — unless you’re Egyptian — but there is a lot more to the story of Exodus, and the dynamic which plays out again and again is that God is faithful but the people are fearful and complain and murmur and occasionally are outright disobedient.  As tempting as it is to shake our heads in disgust at those ungrateful, rebellious Israelites, I must confess that I have a lot in common with them.  Not their specific experience of being chased by an army and walking through a body of water on dry land, but I am here by the grace of God, I have been saved by God’s goodness and by the work of Christ, and yet I can still operate from a place of anxiety and scarcity: what if there isn’t enough for this? What if there isn’t enough for me?  What if I am not enough for this job, this family, this relationship?  There is no question that God has done and can do miraculous things — the question is whether I can trust God’s promises and God’s power when I am afraid because I cannot see the path ahead.

There was a tag line which went around churches and I assume other places during the first year or so of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It almost certainly meant something different to some people than it did to me: for me, “Faith not Fear” was not anti-public health sentiment.  I was and I am in support of things to mitigate the spread of disease — wearing masks to protect vulnerable folks, getting vaccinated when a vaccine was available, being respectful of rules at hospitals and schools and residential care facilities.  Like nearly everyone else I talked to at the time, I had some bewilderment in the early weeks of shut-down about what was the safest and most responsible way to support this community of faith when we weren’t able to meet in person.  I don’t know if the options we chose were the best ones, but I am deeply grateful that so many of you chose to stay a part of this congregation through that time.  It’s hard to see clearly in hindsight, but I know now that I was sustained by faith: not faith in my own abilities, because I didn’t know what to offer besides a willingness to stay the course, but a faith that whatever we had to go through, God would be with us during and after.  Faith is not magic: it doesn’t give us special immunity or superpowers.  People of faith, including some we knew, died of COVID. But what faith has given me is the conviction that God is at work, even when that work is happening in ways that I cannot see, and do not understand.  God is invites me into that work, despite the fact that I do not understand and may not be able to see where the path is leading.

I think it is interesting that the feast of remembrance for the Jewish people is Passover, and not Parting the Red Sea Day, or Defeating the Egyptians Day or whatever.  Passover is a day of remembrance that God claimed the Hebrew people as His own — it is a continuing invitation for the Jewish people to participate in their own liberation by following God.  Whatever they thought of the detailed instructions they received from God via Moses, if they followed them, their oldest child lived.  This is the beginning of their identity as God’s chosen people.  Moses parting the Red Sea was a demonstration of God’s guidance and power, and possibly vengeance, but it is just one dramatic episode in a whole series of mis-adventures where God saves people (at least some of the people) who are complaining and mis-behaving.  What Passover celebrates is that when they followed God’s instructions, they became a people: a people whose identity is shaped be remembering what God has done for them.  What defines us as God’s people is not our good behavior, it is the faith that God will act on our behalf and for our good.We are people, individually and collectively, who have been rescued by God again and again.  That salvation came in the human form of Jesus Christ, in the assurance that faith can triumph over fear, because grace has covered our sin.  There is no greater good we can receive than the assurance of eternal life with Christ.  God is with us, Christ is for us — and if Christ is for us, who can stand against us?  Be not afraid.  Amen.