The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany January 28, 2007
276 (alt. 723), 114 (alt. 777), 433 (alt. 784), 453 (alt. 785)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Dear fellow recipients of the Lord’s goodness:
Not even Google could help me get a handle on the history of the word, but an educated guess will probably get us close. The word in question is also the title of this morning’s sermon: sheepish. Obviously, it has something to do with sheep. Since sheep are not the brightest of God’s creatures the word undoubtedly developed into what it means today. Sheepish is generally how we feel when we do or say something profoundly silly, or grossly unfair, or inappropriate—like saying something critical or degrading about your dear departed Aunt Gertrude just before you learn that she left you $2,000,000 in her will.
Today we will examine this human emotion in a little different light. The text that will guide our meditation is found in the second book of the Bible, the Book of Exodus, the 14th chapter:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. Then the waters returned and covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them. Not so much as one of them remained. But the children of Israel had walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. So the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD and His servant Moses.
These are the inspired words of our God, passed down to us through the prophet Moses. In full confidence that these are the very words of our God, rather than the words of man, we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
It was a problem without a solution of any kind. They had been led into a trap with the Red Sea to the east and the mighty Egyptian army to the west. Even worse, they knew the rage and hatred that must have burned in the hearts of Pharaoh and his soldiers. After enduring months of plague-induced hardships on an unimaginable scale, their enemies had just lost their firstborn sons according to the word of the God of the Hebrews. There was, therefore, little hope for mercy from Pharaoh’s army. These men of war had not come to negotiate or capture. They had come to kill—to exact revenge upon the worshippers of the God that had taken their sons.
This was the grim situation that confronted the Children of Israel. It was an impossible position as far as they were concerned. It is at such times that the true character of individuals becomes apparent. It is a simple, natural thing to be bright, cheerful, and optimistic when things are going well. The true character is often only seen when everything seems to be going wrong.
The character of the Children of Israel was certainly made known to Moses when his people saw the chariots of Egypt. In the verses just prior to our text we read: “And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians marched after them. So they were very afraid, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD. Then they said to Moses, ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, “Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?” For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:10-12).
What? Aren’t these the same miserable souls who had been languishing in the abject misery of slavery for several hundred years? Hadn’t they been cruelly oppressed and tormented for many generations? And they wanted to go back? What kind of a fantasy world were they living in?
The point is that it is easy to sing the praise of God when God blesses us with times of joy and prosperity. Not so when God tests His children. The Jews failed the test, and it most certainly was a test wasn’t it? Moses didn’t lead the people into that apparent trap, God did. He told Moses exactly where He wanted the people to camp. God obviously also knew what Pharaoh would do, for He told Moses even before it happened. Clearly this was a test for the Lord could just as easily have parted the waters of the Sea before the Hebrews arrived. He could have solved their dilemma even before it materialized. He chose not to do so. Why?
The answer goes to the very definition of a test. God presented the Jews with a certain set of circumstances and allowed them to react. They had several options open to them. They could have asked Moses what they should do. They could have attempted some sort of an organized defense. They could have brought to mind the dramatic events of the last few months (the Ten Plagues) and simply trusted that the God who performed such incredible miracles could easily now defend them from Pharaoh’s army. They responded with the most pessimistic option: assume the worst, panic, and complain. Again, why?
The natural, human inclination is to judge all circumstances according to the evidence of the moment and the eyes. Therefore it didn’t matter that these same human beings had just seen their God visit disaster after disaster upon their enemies. Their eyes told them that they were in a tight spot and threatened, and their minds told them that there was no way out. The result was that they acted very poorly indeed.
At that darkest hour—just when everything looked hopeless and the fear of the people spawned nonsensical accusations and ridiculous complaints—at that very moment the Lord himself solved their unsolvable problem with the lifting of a wooden staff and the wave of an old man’s hand. With a second wave of the hand, not only was their escape complete, the destruction of their enemy was absolute. The inescapable was escaped. The undefeatable was defeated.
Our text says simply, “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” [v.30] Sheepish? It would certainly have been an absolutely fitting sentiment, wouldn’t it? To have behaved so badly, to have reckoned so faithlessly, to have complained so ridiculously, only to have their God solve their unsolvable problem so powerfully and so simply, certainly an embarrassed sheepishness should have washed over the Hebrews like the Red Sea over those doomed soldiers.
Are we being too hard on the children of Israel here? Could anyone have borne up under such a test? Moses did. We have no record that God revealed to Moses what he intended to do, and yet Moses lived in confidence that God would act. So also he said to his people: “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever” (Exodus 14:13). We have no record that God told Moses of his plans to part the Sea, but Moses nonetheless trusted his God and his God’s ability to deliver His people. The rest, of course, is history.
But history in the Holy Scriptures is never recorded for entertainment, is it? In fact we are assured in the New Testament that these things were recorded for our growth and instruction (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11). What is it then that you and I are supposed to learn from this account?
We would do well, first of all, to ask ourselves what in our lives, right at this moment, is our Red Sea and Egyptian army? What is it that terrifies you? What is it that has you so boxed in and perplexed that you despair of any possible solution? Are you feeling trapped in a marriage, knowing that divorce is not an option for God’s children? Are your finances crushing you? Do you look at your children and fear for their future? Are you convinced that you have been sentenced to live out the rest of your days on earth with failing health and chronic pain?
There just is no solution to any of your problems, is there? Just like there was no solution to Israel’s problem. God tests his children. He has told us this in so many words. How are you and I reacting to His tests? Are we reacting like Moses or like the Children of Israel? Are we passing God’s tests in steadfast faith and trust, or failing them with recriminations and complaints?
Yet what are we saying here? What are these truths supposed to do for us? What are we to take away from this Bible account? Am I to leave with sort of a fuzzy glow that God will soon enough work a miracle in my life and “part the sea” of all of my most desperate problems?
Consider these fascinating and routinely overlooked words that appear just prior to our text: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward’” (Exodus 14:15). It is certainly not uncommon for Christians to sit and wait for God’s solution, when His solution is for us to “go forward” in what we know to be right. I have never seen a troubled marriage that cannot be not only saved but rejuvenated by both parties following God’s prescribed roles. What financial crises wouldn’t be solved by God’s simple, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33) and through learning to be content? Most of our “miracle solutions” involve simply walking the path that God has laid out for us in His Word. God speaks to us as to the Jews: “Enough with the complaining, the self-pity, and the terrified resentment. Go forward.”
Can we have any confidence that God will always bring solutions to our impossible problems? Not always the quick fixes we usually envision, but solutions? Absolutely! We know this, first of all, because He miraculously solved what clearly was our most terrible and impossible debacle. Here we were truly helpless, for in this conundrum there was absolutely no “go forward.” There was nothing that we could possibly do to rescue ourselves. We were crushed up against the very doors of Hell. A legion of demons, together with our sins, rushed down upon us, and we were absolutely powerless to resist. Yet at the very moment of darkest despair, God miraculously opened the path to heaven by the life and death of his Son, Jesus. As was the case with the children of Israel, such a solution could only come from our God. As with Israel, so also with us, the very One who opened the door to Heaven for us also destroyed our enemies. The power of those enemies and the damning effect of our sins have been shattered. Our sins have been drowned. Our enemies have been crushed by the sea that is our Father’s love.
Often we complain, often we doubt, often we fail to appreciate both the power and the love of our God. Then it is that we look to our Savior and the impossible victory that He won and the incredible gift of eternal life that He has given to each of us.
How do I feel when I consider my God in relation to my own actions? Sheepish, but then that is what I am—His little lamb. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.