BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
THE RED SEA
Last week, we used the Passover to talk about how the Church needs to prepare itself to follow God; how it needs, first, to prepare its people to move by feeding them good spiritual food. Second, it needs to equip its people by providing them the things that they need for ministry. And third, it needs to enable its people to leave behind those things that, no matter how old and familiar, no longer work effectively in ministry. That was a big topic.
Today, we move from the Passover to shores of the Red Sea. Pharaoh has finally decided to let the people go. They left Egypt with all of their families, their belonging, their herds and flocks and headed east toward the Red Sea. But Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides that he isn’t going to let them go so easily. And so, with army and chariots in tow, Pharaoh goes after them.
The people understandably begin having second thoughts. There behind them is the powerful Egyptian army ready to slaughter them at Pharaoh’s word. And before them is the Red Sea, a barrier to freedom. They are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Go forward and drown. Go backward and off with your head. The words of Exodus 14:11 (NIV) express rather well, what the people are thinking when they say to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done by bringing us out of Egypt.”
Why are the people of Israel reacting this way? Because they are scared. They are afraid of what is ahead of them and they are afraid of what is behind them. They don’t know whether to move ahead or go back from where they have come. Neither option seems very good right now. The Red Sea is before them and the armies of Pharaoh are behind. No wonder they’re afraid. No wonder they’re confused. No wonder they don’t know what to do.
MAKING A CHOICE
But what does this have to do with the church? Today we’re going to talk about how the church needs to enable its people to move forward in faith and without fear.
But let’s first ask a question. Why move forward? Answer: Because there really is no other choice. If our churches are to survive and prosper, they simply cannot go back to Egypt. Going back means certain death. There is no way to get though Pharaoh’s army. That past will cut them down and destroy them in short order. The past may be comfortable but it offers absolutely no hope. Churches that live in the past are doomed to die. It is as simple as that.
But does the Red Sea look much better? We’re not sure but at least it offers a chance. The Red Sea can be crossed. It can be crossed in boats. A strong swimmer can swim across it. If they had enough time, they could walk around it. The Red Sea may look just as scary as Pharaoh’s armies but at least there are some ways of moving through it if the people find the courage to step out in faith. As we will discover, the people are in for a surprise because God gets them past the Red Sea in the most amazing and unexpected way which, many of us have discovered, is often exactly how God works.
Clearly there are people who are standing on the shores of the Red Sea and seriously questioning whether going to the Promised Land is such a good idea after all. Pharaoh’s army is behind. The Red Sea is ahead. Maybe they should have just stayed in Egypt. That may not have been great but at least they know what to expect. Out here in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, nothing is certain. In that uncertainty there is fear and somehow they need to get past it.
So, how does the church move past its fear and into the future with hope? First of all, we have to acknowledge that not everyone will be on board when a congregation decides to move forward and make significant changes to its ministry. We’ve certainly experienced that here at CUC.
I remember back in 2006 when we came to Cottam of what happened when you called Ken Bauman to be your pastor in 1994. Can you believe that is twenty-six years ago now. I know that a lot of you never knew Ken but I’ve often said that the reason we have been able to move forward so well at CUC is because Ken Baumann, did such an amazing job of laying the foundation for this ministry. He led you through some difficult decisions. He engineered many of the changes that helped us to move forward. When he was called here, he came on the premise that this congregation wanted to be more than a typical staid United Church. You said that you wanted to have a biblically centred ministry that was able to encourage people to know Christ and make him known. Ken took you at your word and did some things that made him rather unpopular with some of the old faithfuls. I understand that when Ken presided over changes to music, Bible study and ministry, a large part of the congregation walked out the door. I’ve been told how painful that was but I also know that what was left at Cottam United Church was a smaller core of keen, faithful people who shared a common vision and purpose. Look where we are now.
In the past sixteen years, we’ve made lots of changes. Our worship has changed quite a few times. We renovated the sanctuary. We added new office space. There have been huge technological improvements. But more to the point, we changed the way we do things. Our structure has changed in a way that enables committees and groups to be more creative in their ministries. We entered into a shared ministry agreement with Wheatley which has benefited both congregations. And we’ve made an intentional decision to be that hub in our community that reaches out beyond our four walls to let the people of Cottam know that they are welcome here and that this is a place where they can feel safe and grow. Look at the results. The most obvious sign of the is the Prayer Garden which is becoming one of the most important pieces of property in town. We hired Linda whose job description mandates that she reach out to the community.
Those were all huge moves. And in the process, we lost some people who decided that this church was no longer where they wanted to be. And we mourn that become some of those people were good contributors and faithful members. But we had to say, “Good-bye,” to them if we were going to be able to move forward into the Promised Land where God wants us to travel. That is not easy. In fact, it’s probably one of the most difficult things to do. But all we can do is wish those brothers and sisters Godspeed.
But all is not doom and gloom because here’s something to think about. Some of us have done the stats and discovered that for every person we miss, we have welcomed two more. So the outreach that we are doing and the approach that we are taking is having a positive effect on our ministry and in our community as we seek to know Christ and make him known.
Like the people of Israel standing on the shores of the Red Sea, it can feel as though we are caught between a rock and a hard place. Behind us are the armies of Pharaoh ready to destroy us if we fail to move forward. But to move forward means venturing into the unknown and going into unfamiliar territory where we have not been before. And that can be even more scary.
A DISCERNING COMMUNITY
That’s the first thing this story reveals to the church, that not everyone will be willing to go to the Promised Land. And that’s okay. The second thing that we learn is that the will of God is discerned with the community of faith. Some of the people challenged Moses and said, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out here to die?” Do you know what those are? They are good questions. People need to be able to ask good question of the leadership of the church. They need to be enabled, even encouraged to share their concerns and require the leadership of any congregation to be accountable to its membership. That goes for the Church Board and the various committees in the church. And it certainly goes for me.
The church is not a dictatorship. Yes, there are some non-negotiables. They are called biblical principles and they are the core tenets of our faith. We do not need to debate the centrality and divinity of Christ. We do not need to debate supremacy of God. We do not need to debate the sinfulness of humanity and the need for the cross. Those basic tenets are set in stone, part of our faith. Without them, how do we even call ourselves Christians? But it is important to talk about how we live out those core beliefs and put them into practice. In fact, as the world around us continues to change, that is something that we very much have to keep on doing.
The will of God in those discussions is discerned within the community of God’s people. It is the church, not the individual, who decides what direction a congregation is going to go. We see that in a number of places in the New Testament. One of the best ones is in Acts 15. This is called the First Jerusalem Council. It happened because there was an issue, a disagreement within the church, that needed to be addressed. That issue was circumcision. The specific question to be answered was if male converts to Christianity had to endure circumcision. That may not seem like such a big issue to us but to them it was huge because most of the early Christians were from Jewish backgrounds and believed that it was necessary to follow Jewish customs to be faithful to God. And circumcision, of course, was one of those customs.
Paul and Barnabas, however, two of the early leaders in the church, did not quite see it that way. They believed that circumcision was a barrier to Greeks and Gentiles coming to Christ. So what did they do? They all got together in Jerusalem and talked about. One side make its case and the other side make its case. I imagine the conversations were quite heated because this was an important issue.
Once the discussions were done, they sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit who directed their decision. What they decided can be found in Acts 15:28-29 (NIV) which says: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” So, circumcision was not required but there were some requirements. Christians were to refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols, from ingesting blood, meat from animals that had been strangled and from sexual immorality.
But note this. That decision was not made by Paul or Barnabas. It was not made by Peter or James or John. It was made by the church under that guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
That is a model that we try to follow. I might be your pastor but I don’t dictate what happens. Neither does the Church Board or any other individual. That’s because all of are servant of God and the church. And the congregation, whose job it is to discern the will of God, is the one that sets policies and provides direction. That’s why we spend so much time at our Annual Meeting setting goals and objectives. That’s why we get the information out to people on a timely basis. That’s why we take time during worship before the Annual Meeting in what would normally be the sermon to talk about our annual goals and why we think they are important. It’s all because we want to make sure, as much as humanly possible, that everyone enters the Annual Meeting with full knowledge of what is being recommended. Ultimately, it is the community that must decide where we are going.
The community of Israel, as they stand on the shore with armies of Pharaoh behind them and the Red Sea before them must make a decision. What do they decide to do? They decide to move forward into the unknown. And when they make that decision, the waters of the Red Sea are parted and they are able to cross. God opens the door to make it happen. and begin their journey to the Promised Land. Israel has made the decision to more forward and so they do.
DO NOT BE AFRAID
First, not everyone will be willing to go to the Promised Land. Second, the will of God is discerned within the community where people need to be encouraged to ask questions and raise concerns. My final point today is this and it is a very simple one. We need to trust God to guide is through the troubled waters. There are people who ask Moses what is going on. Were there not enough graves in Egypt that he had to bring them out into the desert to die? Here, again, is Moses’ answer found in Exodus 14:13 (NIV): “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.” Do not be afraid. Stand firm and see the Lord’s deliverance.
Those are powerful words. They are powerful because they point back to the very foundation of what we believe. We always have to remember that God is sovereign. His will will be done. His purpose will be accomplished. What he wants to happen will happen whether we follow God or not. Why? Because God is soveriegn.
The challenge for us is to choose to follow. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, when faced with the decision to go back to the familiar things of Egypt or move forward in faith to the Promised Land, we must choose to go forward. God will not always tell us what he wants of us. We may not always know why God is taking us in the direction we are going. But we have to trust that God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t.
The people of Israel have no idea where they are going. They have no idea what awaits them in the Promised Land but when push comes to shove and they make up their minds and they find the faith to follow God.
Don’t be afraid to move forward. Trust in God for deliverance when all things seem hopeless because God has a bigger and better plan than you could ever understand or expect. When people are seeking to discern what God wants them to do, I often say this to them: If a door opens, walk through it. If that leads to another door, walk through that one too. Keep walking through the doors until the doors close. When the doors close don’t try to force them open and don’t look for a window that might bypass the door. Because once all of the doors have closed, you’ve probably discovered where God wants you to be.
The same holds true for the Church. The same holds true for this congregation. As the people of God, there are many doors before us. Some of them lead to places we might expect but some will lead to unexpected surprises. But if a door opens to a new ministry or a new way of doing things, we should be willing to walk through it to see where it leads. If that leads to another door, we should walk through it too. And so on with the third door and all those that follow. But if a door closes to us, we should not try to force it open or look for a window around it. If it is closed for the time being, then God has probably closed it for a reason. Always remember that doors are just that. They are doors and they will open and close according to God’s purpose.
There is a little verse tucked away in today’s reading that often gets missed but is crucial to understanding this entire journey for Israel. It is found in Exodus 14:17-18 (NIV) and it says this: “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
The events of the Red Sea crossing, like the Passover and the other plagues of Egypt were done not to punish Pharaoh or seek revenge or justice. All of these were done so that Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world at this point in history, would come to understand that God is God and there is no other. Not only does Pharaoh need to learn this, so do the people of Israel and, as we will discover, their education is only just beginning. They will learn a great deal about God and his sovereignty over the next forty years.
There comes a time when people are called to decide. Will they go back to Egypt or will they stick their toes into the troubled waters of the Red Sea to discover where it leads? God in his glory and grace, opened the doors that led Israel to the Promised Land. The very first one was rather dramatic; it was the crossing of the Red Sea. They were to discover that it was their first step into the Promised Land. May we as the people of God walk with as much faith as did those people so long ago.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Life, you led our ancestors across the Red Sea, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. We thank you for the stories of faith that have come to us through your Holy Scriptures. We thank you for the words and songs that remind us of the faithfulness of others who walked difficult paths.
God of Peace, you brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, of new life and new dreams. Help us to offer the milk of your blessings to others in a world where so many need to be set free. Our minds go memories of 9/11 nineteen years ago and we give thanks that we can still live in relative safety in a world that seems to be increasingly dangerous. There are many who are putting themselves in harms way in order to keep the terrorism at bay. Help us to appreciate all they have done for us.
You, O God, are our Heavenly Father. You sent Jesus to us to be our Saviour and Friend. You sent your Spirit to be our Comforter and Guide. Enable us to find you when we need you the most, that we may be strengthened and our hearts filled with joy.
We thank you for education, for children, teachers, parents and all of the other people who do their jobs and follow their callings. We also think about our Sunday School and how it is not possible to have it right now. But help us to be discerning and wise so that we can still share the stories of Jesus with young minds and hearts
Our prayers are lifted up to you for those who are sick or recovering. We pray especially for Bob, Richard and Gary. Grant your healing and Holy Spirit to each of them.
Help each of us, O God, to find you whenever we seek you. Strengthen our hearts that we may be lifted up, for only in you are we truly set free. Amen.