Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Time Factor

Life is a series of moments, and each is significant. Some, though, stand out. These are times that are truly transformational experiences, impacting absolutely everything from that point forward. It is true on a community level, too: in friendships, households, congregations, nations. The Israelites fleeing Egypt is one of those times. Exodus 12-14 describes one of the most influential events in all Israelite history.

Raised in Christian churches, I heard this story many times. There were the pictures, too, particularly of Moses standing at the edge of a large riverbed with his staff raised, and the people walking between walls of water. As I listened, I imagined what it may have been like. A few years ago, though, I read this account (Exodus 14) and saw it with new eyes.

In my imagination throughout my growing-up years, I saw the people walking in a big line toward a river. They saw their enemies coming and prayed. Moses raised his staff, the waters parted, the Israelites walked across, Moses put his staff down, the waters closed, the Egyptians drowned, and the Israelites cheered. Then they walked again. It seemed like a fast-moving story.

I read it more carefully now, and I imagine it differently. The “plot line” moves pretty much the same, but the timing reveals part of the reason this event is so significant. Imagine it:

After four hundred years as slaves in Egypt, the Israelites see God work through ten plagues. Finally, after the deaths of the firstborn throughout Egypt, Pharaoh sends them away and they quickly head into the desert. It was not simply a few people, or even a few thousand; the Exodus included over a half million men, plus women, children, and livestock. The noise and dust must have been incredible. And there would be no way to hide a crowd that large. They walked, following Moses’ direction. And then they saw the Egyptians coming after them. The Egyptians, with horses and chariots, horsemen and troops. They began to panic; Moses reassured them. Moses expressed his own anxiety to God; God told them to keep moving. The pillar of cloud they had been following now moved behind them; they knew the Egyptians were nearby, but could not see them. Following God’s instructions, Moses raised his staff over the sea. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. All night long they waited, with the unseen presence of the Egyptians behind them, the sea ahead of them, and such a strong wind that it drove the sea back.

Sometimes we find ourselves in places like this – calling out to God, desperate for Him to answer, surrounded by serious problems and concerned that maybe God won’t respond, or perhaps just won’t respond soon enough. It is all the more difficult when that which terrorizes us is unseen. Night, too, causes the imagination to be less easily checked by the distractions or hope of daylight.

Yet we see in this story that God’s timing and God’s plan were indeed perfect, for “when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31). They had a long ways to go yet. The journey would not be an easy one. But God had prepared them for it even – and especially – in these difficult times.

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