3rd Sunday of Epiphany January 23, 2022


Stand Still, Go Forward

Exodus 14:10-15

Scripture Readings

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28


44, 457, 459:1-4, 459:6

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

+ In the Name of Jesus Christ +

Prayer of the Day: O Lord, let Your ears be attentive to the voice of our cry, for there is forgiveness with You that You may be feared. By Your unfailing love deliver us from all our sin that our hope may be in You and in Your full redemption; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.

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. Amen. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

Dear Fellow Recipients of the Lord’s goodness:

Character,” as the saying goes, “is what you do when no one is looking.” True in part, but there is more to it than that. Character is not measured according to how human beings react in good times (whether seen or not), it is measured in how an individual reacts in bad times. Character is determined by how you deal with adversity, dissention, failure, and stress. Life will always present problems. How you deal with those problems renders a much more accurate picture of the sort of person you are.

The fact that there are problems in life—and always will be—means that every single human being has to learn how to confront problems, to deal with them, solve them, adapt and improvise. This is just another immutable fact of life in an imperfect world. For this reason our study this morning ought to be of particular interest to every single Christian. Each of us will be faced with problems in our lives—some minor, some anything but minor. How will we face them, confront them, work through them, deal with them?

Our text for this morning offers some fascinating insights and divine truths that each of us should highly treasure. The text that will guide our study this morning is found in the second book of the Bible, the Book of Exodus, the 14th Chapter:

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work 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 be silent.” The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.

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, and therefore profitable to us in every way, we pray, Sanctify us by 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. Their enemies had just lost their firstborn sons in the Passover, 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 slaughter and exact revenge upon the worshippers of the God that had taken their sons.

This was the grim situation that confronted the Children of Israel—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. Again, our true character is often only seen when everything is going wrong.

The character of the Children of Israel was certainly revealed in our text. While they celebrated with wild elation as they departed Egypt, when the people saw the chariots of Egypt, they turned on Moses with a vengeance:Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:10-12)

Huh? 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? The situation revealed who they really were.

It is easy to sing the praise of God when God blesses us with times of joy and prosperity. But how will God’s children react when he tests them? 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 that Pharaoh would follow with his army, for he spoke of that fact even before it happened. Clearly then this was a test, for the Lord could just as easily have parted the waters of the Sea before the threat from the Egyptian army presented itself. He could have solved their dilemma even before it materialized. He chose not to. 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. Obviously, 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. However, they responded with the most faithless, pessimistic option. They turned on their God and his appointed leader. 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 miraculous disaster after miraculous disaster upon their enemies. It didn’t matter that they were free for the first time in their lives. Their eyes told them that they were threatened, trapped, and their minds told them that there was no way out. The result was that they acted very poorly indeed. They allowed their fear and pessimism to dictate their words and actions.

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. And with a second wave of the hand, not only was their escape complete, the destruction of their enemy was absolute. The impossible was made possible. They escaped the inescapable. The undefeatable was defeated. The verses after our text say simply, And Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

How foolish, how sheepish those Jews must have felt—after the fact. To have behaved so badly, to have complained to 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 that he intended to part the waters of the Red Sea, and yet Moses lived in confidence that God would act—powerfully, miraculously, decisively. So also he said to his people: Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work 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 be silent. (Exodus 14:13-14) Again, 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 while the events of our text were done to preserve the race that would bear the Savior, they were recorded and preserved for our growth and instruction. 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 robs you of your sleep? 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 financial problems 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? Do you believe the media accounts that foreshadow gloom and doom and the end of the American way of life?

There just is no solution to any of your problems, is there? Just like there was no solution to Israel’s Egyptian problem. Nor was there a solution to Abraham’s problem when he and his wife were both far too old to produce an heir, nor Daniel’s problem of choosing between idolatry and the lion’s den. The fact is God tests his children. He has told us this in so many words. How are you and I reacting to his tests in light of his promises? Are we passing God’s tests in steadfast faith and trust, or failing them with recriminations and complaints?

What exactly is God here telling us here? What are we to take away from this Bible account? Are we to leave church this morning with sort of a fuzzy glow that God will soon enough work a miracle in our lives and “part the sea” of all of our most desperate problems?

Consider these fascinating and routinely overlooked words that appear in verse 15 of our text: The LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.’ It is certainly not uncommon for Christians to sit and wait for God’s solution, when his solution is actually for us to go forward, blindly trusting what we know to be right. I have never seen a troubled marriage that cannot be both saved and rejuvenated by both parties moving forward God’s prescribed roles. The problem is not the lack of a solution; it is that God’s solution requires that virtues like faith, humility, and forgiveness be put into action. What financial crises wouldn’t be solved by God’s simple, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and by living the fact that Godliness with contentment is great gain? Who among us has faced starvation? Who here has even missed a meal? Who no longer has adequate clothing or shelter? Why then do we buy into the gloom and doom pronouncement of the godless? When did God’s promises to his children expire? Most of our “miracle solutions" involve simply walking the path that God has laid out for us in his Word. So also our God is speaking to each of us in this very text: “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—real, viable solutions? Absolutely. We know this 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 Christ. As was the case with the children of Israel, such a solution could only come from our God. Again, as with them, so also with us. The very One who opened the door to heaven for us also thereby destroyed our enemies. The power of those enemies and the damning effect of our sins have been shattered. Our sins have been drowned in the depths of the sea. Our sin-debt has been paid in full. We are forgiven, redeemed, justified.

Often we complain; often we doubt; often we fail to appreciate both the power and the love of our God. How then ought we go about dealing with our impossible problems? First, stand quietly and take the time to look to our Savior and the impossible victory that he won and the incredible gift of eternal life that he has given us. Stand still long enough to examine the promises of your God and the history of his love. Stand still and identify the path that he has laid out for his children. Then go forward along that path. Ask your God for the humility, wisdom, and trust to follow his direction, and then be amazed at the impossible solutions that he brings daily into your life. Your God solved your greatest problem. He can be trusted to solve all others. Amen.

—Pastor Michael Roehl

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Bismarck, ND

Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.