Freed at First, Free at Last

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

We’ve been working our way through the Exodus story this past month, and today we are finally going to reach that story of victory I’ve been promising this whole time. Last week, we read about Moses in Pharoah’s court, trying to trick Pharoah into letting the Hebrews go, and, when Pharoah refused, getting mad at God for not doing anything. Well, between that chapter and this one, God has been busy. We’re skipping over all those famous plagues, but suffice it to say, the Egyptians were ready to kick the Hebrews out. And so the Hebrews run, but then Pharaoh changes his mind, and sends the armies after them again, and that’s where we meet them today, in the wilderness, terrified, and having to rely entirely on a God who’s still pretty new to them. So, with all that in mind, listen for the word of the Lord, from Exodus chapter 14:

Exodus 14:19-31

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

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.

***

I honestly don’t remember the first time someone asked me if I was saved. Growing up in the Virginia Bible Belt, it was a question that came along from time to time. Sometimes from a stranger handing out fliers at the mall, sometimes from a well-intentioned and concerned friend. I do know that I was fairly young when I learned to answer yes, not because I had any real idea what was meant by “saved,” and not because I had any evidence to support my answer, but because it was the fastest way to shut down what was always an awkward conversation.

Are you saved? Yes. Now can we please go back to playing tag?

I was older when the word salvation started to actually mean something to me. Something vague, but Jesus-y. Something about the cross and Easter and eternal life. I still wasn’t sure what people meant when they asked, “are you saved?” but I knew I went to church a whole lot and it was probably roughly the same thing.

A few years later and I’d learned more about this salvation word that we threw around (mostly on Easter, and mostly not anytime else, to distinguish us Presbyterians from all those uncouth mall-dwellers with their pamphlets). I’d learned it was about heaven, and whether or not you were getting there, and that some people seemed to be more concerned about figuring that out for yourself than others. I learned that Presbyterians believe we are saved by Jesus’ grace, not by our actions, so I didn’t really have to worry. And so my answer never really changed, when someone inevitably brought up The Question: Are you saved?

Yeah. Sure. Probably. Or I will be. Or have been. Something like that.

It was difficult for me to care, if I’m going to be completely honest with you. While one of my best friends spent her summers knocking door to door, like some kind of salvation census taker, it was hard for me to get worked up about eternal life when I was just getting into the swing of my temporal one. I mean, at 13, eternity is just one day of middle school. Sometimes just one class.

Even as I grew up, and grew into my faith, and started to realize the magnitude of what salvation means, I still didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Again, Presbyterian here, and I believe that God will do what God will do. Worrying about my salvation (or anyone else’s) seemed a lot like worrying about whether it’s going to rain next Tuesday—sure, you can grab an umbrella or cancel your picnic but at the end of the day, if it’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain, and nothing you can do is gonna change that. And so while I knew—while I know—that our eternal salvation is important, I also know that it doesn’t take up much space in my brainscape. Eternal salvation is not mine to accomplish. I trust in God’s promises, I trust in Jesus’ act of love on the cross, and—if I weren’t a preacher—I’m not sure I’d have much more to say about it.

Salvation may seem like a misplaced topic for a September sermon. Easter was months ago; I’m starting to hear Christmas ads on the radio. But the thing is, the Easter story—the crucifixion and resurrection—is not the only salvation story in our Bible.

Did you hear it? Right at the end? Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians.

It’s not salvation like we usually think of it, all heaven and eternity and sweetness and light. This is running for your life, this is your children in your arms and everything you own on your back, this is lost in the dead of night. This is mud between your toes and the sound of rushing water in your ears and wondering if the miracle will hold long enough to get away. This is messy and real and physical and earthy and frightening.

And it’s salvation.

For the Jewish people, this story is their Easter story, their salvation story. This is the one they look back on when they want to remember the most powerful, most important, most amazing thing God has done for them. And so it should be ours too—we can remember the story of the cross and also the story of this midnight crossing, when a tired and frightened people were ushered out of slavery for good.

There’s a reason I’ve chosen to focus on Exodus for the last month. Christians have a bad tendency to read the New Testament like a retcon of the Old—just replacing anything we don’t like or have grown bored with out of the Old Testament with a dollop of Jesus. But the New Testament is not a replacement gospel—if it were, our Bibles would be much slimmer, and I wouldn’t have had to spend two years learning Hebrew. No, our New Testament is an addition, a second revelation in the person of Jesus—an and to the Old Testament, not a but.

And what these ancient stories out of an old testament tell us is important. They tell us about salvation that happens here on earth. Salvation that happens because of midwives and shepherds and angels all. Salvation that involves heading to the pharoah’s court to get involved in politics and the economy. Salvation that is as messy as it is miraculous.

God’s people are saved, not just in theory, not just for a promised hereafter, but in the here and now. Saved from slavery, from oppression, from life without dignity or self-determination.

And it happens at the start of their relationship with God. Not at the end. Not as a prize for their endurance or a reward for their humility. No, God saves them first, before they learn how to worship, before they learn God’s laws, before they learn what God expects of them.

The Hebrews don’t earn their freedom. They are saved simply because God sees their suffering and wants it to end.

What’s interesting to me, though, and why I have been referring to this Exodus story as an origin story for the people of God, is that everything that comes after this—the way God asks the Hebrews to set up their culture once they are free—is dependent on this very story. They are to treat each other well not in hope of salvation, but in memory of it.

When God gives Moses the ten commandments, God reminds them that God brought them out of Egypt.

When God tells them to treat foreigners with open compassion, God reminds them that they were foreigners in Egypt.

When God tells them to make sure the widow and orphan are treated justly, God reminds them that they were treated unjustly in Egypt.

All through the laws of the Old Testament, and through the Psalms and the prophets too, we hear this refrain: you have been saved, and so it is your work now to help with saving others.

It’s an earthy kind of salvation. A “food in your stomach, roof over your head, freedom to make your own choices, safety in your own home” kind of salvation. But according to our Bible that is part of God’s salvation, and it’s the part we too often ignore, or ignore for others. We forget that this salvation, this earthy salvation, God makes happen through our hands. Our giving. Our compassion. Our donations. Our policies. Our priorities. Our lives.

We are to love our neighbors, because we know what God’s love has already done for us.

We live between two salvations—looking back with gratitude, looking forward with hope. I don’t know what my faith would look like if I thought this earth and the salvation available here was all we had—I believe that there is more for us in our life with God, more love and peace than any of us will ever get here. But I also don’t know what my faith would look like if I thought that the only salvation that mattered was the eternal one. I do know it’s a faith that wouldn’t be much good to anyone but myself.

I still get that question from time to time, though not as often here in Kentucky as I did back home—are you saved? And my answer is still yes—but I am thoroughly bored with that question. I want a follow-up. Since you’re saved, what are you going to do about it? Who are you going to help bring through that Red Sea with you? Who are you going to pull safely across to a safer shore?

God told Moses to stretch out his hand, and God calls us still, to stretch out our hands, to be part of God’s salvation, to make sure that no one has to run in terror in the middle of the night, because the bombs are falling, or because it’s not safe at home, or because the rent just can’t be met. Our job is to stretch out our hands, not to earn our salvation, but to share it with others.

I’ve been saying this whole month that we are working up to a victory story. And the parting of the Red Sea is certainly that. But it is a victory, a battle won, not the war. That day is still coming, and we are invited to be part of it.

There is a hymn in our hymnal, fairly new, whose lyrics have been in my head all week. I admit I find it a difficult hymn to sing, not because the tune is hard, but because the lyrics demand so much of me. Participating in God’s earthy salvation campaign is not for the faint of heart. But still, I want to read you these lyrics today, with gratitude for bold words that I myself might shy away from. It is a song that trusts in God’s salvation, that which we have known, and that which we long for.

When all is ended, time and troubles past, shall all be mended, sin and death out-cast? In hope we sing, and hope to sing at last: Alleluia!

As in the night, when lightning flickers free, and gives a glimpse of distant hill and tree, each flash of good discloses what will be: Alleluia!

Against all hope, our weary times have known wars ended, peace declared, compassion shown, great days of freedom, tyrants overthrown: Alleluia!

Then do not cheat the poor, who long for bread, with dream-worlds in the sky or in the head, but sing of slaves set free, and children fed: Alleluia!

With earthy faith we sing a song of heaven: all life fulfilled, all loved, all wrong forgiven. Christ is our sign of hope, for Christ is risen: Alleluia!

With all creation, pain and anger past, evil exhausted, love supreme at last, alive in God, we’ll sing an unsurpassed Alleluia!

For salvation remembered and salvation to come, I give thanks. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Freed at First, Free at Last

  1. Impressed with the thought that we don’t earn salvation and should share this free gift with those we encounter along the way. Thank you, Carol for a lovely message.

    Like

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