Faith -- and Its Alternative (Exodus 14:10-31)

Even before Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston got hold of it, the event we are about to read from Exodus 14 had impressed itself as one of the most astonishing in all of literature. Hundreds of thousands of Israelite slaves — perhaps as many as two million souls — were headed out of Egypt following the death of the firstborn among their captors. Then, when the shock of that terrible night began to fade, Pharaoh and his powerful army came after them. Now it would be their turn to cause death, mourning, and mayhem among the Jews.

"When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?' " (Ex. 14:5). So hundreds of his elite chariot corps began the pursuit. Following close behind, one presumes, were thousands of foot soldiers. They would destroy those miserable Israelites from the face of the earth!

Finally, the escaped slaves and their angry pursuers were in sight of one another. There appeared to be no way for the Israelites to escape. The army was close behind, and the Sea of Reeds lay in front of them. They must have been scared out of their wits. And it was Moses' task to reassure them that Yahweh had not brought them out of Egypt only to be destroyed.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still" (Ex. 14:10-14).
This is going to take a lot of faith on the part of the whole community of Israel. Don't panic? Don't start running? Don't wave a surrender flag? Don't commit suicide rather than be taken back?

Please bear with me while I read the account of the extraordinary faith Moses and the Israelites were called on to exhibit that day:

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers."

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 (Ex. 14:15-31).
What Is Faith?

On that day, the Israelites "believed in" Yahweh and Moses. But what happened on that day had its roots, of course, in what had been happening over several months. Just think of the things those people had been asked to believe during that time:

* That Moses was not a crazy man.

* That their children would die unless they went through a ceremony that involved killing a lamb, splashing its blood on their houses, and eating a special meal.

* That they should cut all ties with their Egyptian neighbors — but only after going and asking them to donate clothing and jewelry to them.

* That they were about to go to a Promised Land that not one among them had ever seen and the route to which they were to trust Moses to find.

* That they were supposed to march between two walls of water that could come crashing down on them at any minute.
But believe they did! And when we get to the part of the New Testament where the names of such great individuals of faith as Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and Joseph are ticked off as examples of faith "of whom the world was not worthy," this group of people gets listed too. "By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land," says the writer, "but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned" (Heb. 11:29; cf.11:38a).

We have our challenges too, don't we? We are asked to believe some pretty phenomenal things in our time, aren't we?

* We are asked to believe that our life, meaning, and salvation are defined by someone who lived and died 2,000 years ago — Jesus of Nazareth.

* We are further asked to believe that he was virgin-born and raised bodily from a grave three days after being put to death by Roman soldiers on a cross.

* We are asked to live by absolute moral standards at a time when the majority says nothing is right or wrong for all people at all times.

* We are told to cut ties with anybody or anything in this present world that compromises our faith in and discipleship to Jesus Christ.

* We are asked to accept persecution and death rather than turn back from following him.

* We are asked to live today knowing that many of the sacrifices we make can be proved worthwhile only after we have died.
So just what is faith? And what would it take for you and me to be called believers? Well, faith surely isn't having a lock on all the answers to life's hard questions. It isn't being smarter than other people. It isn't knowing how all the twists and turns of life are going to work out and serve an eternal and holy purpose. It isn't having a set of knock- down proofs about Jesus and every disputed reference in Scripture. And it certainly isn't being so arrogant and cocksure about your commitments that you never doubt, never waver, never mess up!

Do you remember John the Baptist sending people to Jesus for reassurance one last time — when he was in jail and about to die? He had already confessed Jesus to be the "Lamb of God" and the one "mightier than me" to whom everyone was supposed to give wholehearted allegiance. But arrested, slapped in a dungeon, and about to die, he needed some confirmation (Matt. 11:2ff). Do you remember Peter? He doubted even in the midst of his faith. Walking toward Jesus on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, he got scared and began to sink (Matt. 14:28-33). Perhaps even more important for us, notice the reaction of Jesus in both these cases. He didn't repudiate John for his struggle, and he didn't let Peter drown because of his fear.

"I believe; help my unbelief!" is the honest cry of many a disciple's heart (cf. Mark 9:24b). Faith is seldom a once-for-all certainty. It is more often, I suspect, a waxing- and-waning conviction and resolve. As we grow over time and have our faith vindicated, it gets stronger. As we stumble with doubt and failure, it gets weak. Israel's history certain seems to follow this path. Here is a bold moment of faith in walking between the walls of water. There will shortly be a sorry episode of grumbling against Yahweh and even a disgusting reversion to faithless immorality at Mount Sinai.

The Alternative to Faith

For an Israelite at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, having faith in Yahweh was not the result of philosophical reasoning — although philosophy can make a strong case that supports faith. Neither was it a matter of scientific discovery — although modern science is producing more passionate apologists for faith these days than theology is generating. For some of them, it was a presumption they had never questioned. For others, it may have been more of a hope generated by the strange events of the past few months than a certainty. And, to be perfectly honest, it may have been simply the last resort for some of them. The text says it was "in great fear" that the Israelites "cried out" for God to help them. And he did!

For those Israelites, for John the Baptist, and for Peter, the decision — and it will always be a decision and not an inevitable or no-other-possibility posture — to believe does not liberate us from our humanity and its accompanying foibles. We will still be imperfect. We will still have unanswered questions. We will still be unable to justify our faith to the satisfaction of everyone who questions it. Should that surprise us?

Faith plays a pivotal role in many situations other than religion. It takes faith to invest money in a business, to get on an airplane, to let a surgeon open your chest, or to eat in a restaurant. I don't know of anything that requires so much faith as getting married. Two people date for a while, form an impression of each other, and read the reactions of their best friends to this other person. Then they decide to get married, make vows to one another, and take on the future together. Believing in someone and acting on faith is certainly not unique to religious experience. It is the matrix in which all of life is lived.

And faith in God doesn't even make you good. In its earliest and most anemic form, it probably exists as a commitment to be a little less bad. It is a direction, however, and something of a compass for traveling in that new direction. It pledges you to something larger than yourself and provides you a framework within which to define yourself. It helps you make decisions about what really matters, focuses your attention on things more substantive than the latest fad or whim of your generation, and presents an ideal code of conduct by which you can measure your life.

Most important of all, perhaps, faith sets you down in a community of other fellow- travelers who will encourage you. Some of them may trust you enough to tell you of their lingering doubts or let you see scars they have from their past life of unbelief. But they will also tell you how faith rescued them. It found them confused, floundering, and horribly sinful. It offered them the hope of pardon. It held out the prospect of a better way of life. Confessing that they alone are responsible for their past sinfulness, they somehow do not feel condemned by or bound to those behaviors. They smile. They walk with a light step. They even pray, "I believe; help my unbelief!" And they sing the praises not of themselves or their huddled-together community but of the One who called them, challenged them to follow him, and whose face they long to see.


"Faith is not belief without proof," the late D. Elton Trueblood used to say, "but trust without reservation." I think he was right. The essence of faith is ultimately neither a philosopher's proof nor a scientist's discovery. It is a relationship in which one's trust in another — a man in his wife, a child in her father, or a Christian in Jesus — anchors and clarifies that person.

I am of the opinion that the alternative to faith is not so much "doubt" or "unbelief" as we classically define those terms but simply self. That is, to believe in Someone is to accept a limit for myself. It means that I must admit I am not in charge, not in control. It means that I am not the center of the universe and that the world does not revolve around me and the things I want. After all, hasn't unbelief had the practical effect in the Post-Enlightenment world of creating a worldview in which all that matters is humanity? Humanism makes man the measure of his own world, identifies sensual pleasure as the ultimate good, and refuses anything that impinges on personal self- esteem and self-realization.

Faith says that God — not humankind — belongs at the center. He is perfect; we are not. He is holy; we are sinful. He leads; we follow. We confess; he forgives. We trust him in the wilderness; he vindicates our faith when we reach the Promised Land.

The great mystery of faith is not that we should have it and live by it but that God would invite us to trust him, give us adequate grounding for making such a choice, and so richly reward a faith that is incomplete and flawed at its best. If you are at the edge of the sea and know your enemy is in hot pursuit, what better alternative do you have than to take the step of faith that commits you to follow Jesus today? 


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