In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Have you ever noticed how often clouds pop up in the Bible? Or where? Our Lord ascends to the right hand of the Father and He is hidden by a cloud. (Acts 1:9) That’s not just because of weather. He’s speaking on a mountain to Moses and Elijah – two prophets who spoke to Him in the past (Exod. 3:4-7ff; 1 Kings 19:9ff) and prepared His way – and as He is transformed, transfigured, glows bright with light, a cloud covers Him. (Matt. 17:2-5) Why? Because Jesus, the Son of God in our flesh, was the One in the pillar of cloud. Before He took on flesh He was the One at the Red Sea saving the children of Israel in the pillar of cloud.
You heard the story – how the Lord did not lead them straight out into the wilderness beyond the borders of Egypt, but rather down, further into Egypt towards the Red Sea. (Exod. 14:1-3) The Lord led them so that they would be trapped. He did this intentionally. For the Lord often traps us and lets our captors seem like they are about to pounce on us so that He might show His great might to save us, so that He might strengthen our faith by His wondrous works, and give us opportunity to praise His name and display our faith by the confession of our mouths. (Exod. 14:4; 15:1-21) He does this over and over again in our lives, and throughout the Scriptures. When He seems to be ignoring your prayers, when He ignored the Canaanite woman’s pleas on behalf of her child (Matt. 15:21-27) why did He do it? So that her faith might be revealed. (Matt. 15:28) So that His great mercy might be displayed even unto Gentile “dogs”. (Matt. 15:26-27)
So He leads them down to the Sea. He traps them within the land of Egypt. (Exod. 14:3) Then He stands in between them and the Egyptians. (Exod. 14:19-20) He intercedes on His people’s behalf. He tells His prophet, “Hold up your staff over the sea, before their eyes, hold up your staff of My might.” (Exod. 14:15-16) And He Himself blows a wind on the water. (Exod. 14:21) To save them the Lord summons a scorching east wind, from the desert on the other side of the Red Sea. He blows waters back until the sea opens at their feet, and the ground is dry. (Exod. 14:22) So they go down in to the sea, for the Lord made the way forward for them – an impossible, miraculous way forward – a way of salvation down through the waters of sea, into the depths and out again. Slaves on one side. Free people on the other side.
Have you ever watched a horror movie and said, “Don’t do it? Don’t open that door!” I don’t know if I’m just smarter, or stupider, than folks in movies and pharaoh, but if I was Pharaoh, I’d cut my losses. This Lord in this pillar of cloud had warned him. “Israel is my first born son. Let my people go. If you don’t I will kill your first born son.” (Exod. 4:22-23) Well, the Lord gave Pharaoh that 1st warning and then nine chances to do as He said while He showed His might over the god’s of Egypt by the first nine plagues (Exod. 12:12) until finally God made good on his threat. Why? Because sin made Pharaoh stupid. Unbelieving. Sure, the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 7:13; 9:12; 10:20; 11:10, etc.) for the Lord is in control of all, but Pharaoh didn’t really need any help. It was already in his heart to not listen to Moses (Exod. 7:22) For sin is slavery. (John 8:34) It is a bondage that you cannot free yourself from. Just as the Israelites couldn’t free selves from the yoke of the Egyptians.
So hardhearted, unbelieving Pharaoh doesn’t do the wise thing. He opens the door in his own personal horror movie. He goes down into the water canyon. He follows the desire of His unbelieving heart and leads his whole army in there to pursue the Israelites. Once He is in there He realizes where He is. He is in the place of the Lord’s salvation. The problem with the Lord’s salvation is that it puts to death what you were. And it gives new life. Eternal Life. The Life of faith. Faith grasps onto the Lord’s gift of new life. Faith is this thing we don’t really understand. It is a fear, love, and trust in God that His Holy Spirit works in you. It is not by your own reason or strength that you have faith. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens you. Pharaoh had resisted the Holy Spirit. (Exod. 7:22; Eph. 6:17) He resisted the call to faith at every turn. (Matt. 23:37) He had rejected and spurned the Word of the Lord whenever it was preached to him. He had blasphemed the Holy Spirit. (Mark 3:28-29; Acts 7:51) There was no faith in him. So when He goes down into the place of the Lord’s salvation all that was found there for him was death. Death for him and for all whom he led astray. (Exod. 14:30-31)
But while Moses is up on the mountain what do they do? Well, sin still has a hold of them—as it does all of us—for on this side of heaven we are simultaneously both free the people of God who are perfect and desire only what is good and right (1 Cor. 2:15), AND damnable sinners who desire nothing but what is evil and wrong (Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:1; 1 Cor. 2:14). Both living in the same flesh, in the same person at the same time. (Rom. 7:17-25) Both fighting over your body to control it. That’s why graves used to say R.I.P.—rest in peace—for when the Christian dies, you die to that struggle. For when your sinful flesh dies, the old sinner in you dies eternally, and only the saint in you remains, so that on the Last Day when your body is raised eternal and imperishable, there is no more struggle, there only what is good, right and god-pleasing left in you. (1 Cor. 15:51-53) You won’t wrestle with your sin, with your weakness, with a decrepit, falling apart body. It’ll all be gone. (Rev. 21:4) Only the saint in you will remain.
So what do they do at the foot of the mountain? They who were baptized in the sea, baptized by the Lord in the cloud (1 Cor. 10:1-2), baptized by the hand of Moses holding up the staff of the Lord’s power (Exod. 14:16)—which reminds us of Christ’s cross, lifted up for our salvation. (John 3:14-15) They who were once slaves, and now free people, at the foot of the mountain forgot to act like the free people of God. While the Lord is sealing the deal up on the mountain below they are falling back into their old slave ways: doubting, wishing to worship the way Egyptians do, wanting an idol, having a sex, drugs and rock and roll worship service down at foot of the mountain. (Exod. 32:6 ; 1 Cor. 10:7-8) It was so bad that the Lord says He’s going to destroy them (Exod. 32:9-10), giving Moses an opportunity to intercede proclaim his faith in the Lord’s gracious goodness, His own promise to save this people. (Exod. 32:11-13) For the Lord resists us to give us an opportunity to trust in Him, and act in His ways. So the Lord forgives. For this is who the Lord is. But Moses goes down. He sees what the Lord saw and it’s bad. It’s worse than he imagined. He’s so angry he throws down the stone tables of God’s written covenant whereby God bound Himself to this people to save them. (Exod. 32:16) Moses breaks them. And in His wrath He takes their “god” burns it, grinds it up, mixes it into water, and says, “You want this so badly? Here, drink deeply of it.” (Exod. 32:15-20) The next day he calms down. His wrath is spent. The Holy Spirit works in him what it had worked in him on the mountain, and he says, “I don’t want you to be destroyed. The Lord promised to save you. I’ll go back up the mountain and see if we can’t have a do-over, a second chance, forgiveness.” For this is who our Lord is. He grants gifts to the undeserving. He gives His grace and mercy. He buries your sin in Holy Baptism and raises up a saint from your watery grave. Again and again and again and again. Until He gets to His promised land. Sin will make you stupid over and over. But the Holy Spirit will have His way with you. He will work faith in you. He will work good works in you. Whether you know it or not. And He will get you to the beautiful shores of God’s eternal kingdom.
In +Jesus’ name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON