Tonight is the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape – made famous by the film – when 76 Allied prisoners of war escaped from the German camp Stalag Luft 3. They'd dug a tunnel eight metres underground and 100 metres long, under the fence and out into the forest. And one of them, Paul Royle, was asked what he remembered about that moment when he climbed out into freedom. And he said, 'It was very pleasant as all we saw was great heaps of snow and pine trees.' And you've got to be pretty cool-headed to think that, haven't you? Because for me that thought would have been instantly eclipsed by the terrifying reality that just behind me were watchtowers and machine guns, and that I could be recaptured – or even killed.
Well today we rejoin the story of Exodus at a moment like that. Because God's people are finally out of Egypt, free of Pharaoh and of slavery to him. And they've just made camp on the first night in a place called Succoth. But, as we'll see, that moment was about to be eclipsed by the terrifying reality of Pharoah changing his mind and coming after them.
But God allowed that – in fact he engineered that – to show us more of what he's like – through a final victory over Pharoah at the Red Sea. And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says:
"These things took place as a model for us…" (1 Corinthians 10.6)
In other words, the exodus took place as a giant model to help us understand what God's done for us through Jesus. So let me use another World War II illustration – the 'Dambusters' raid, where British bombers destroyed some German dams using bombs which skimmed across the water to their target. And Barnes Wallace was the man who planned it. And before the raid, he built these giant model dams, and skimmed model bombs across them, so that when it came to the real thing, everyone involved would understand what was going on.
And God engineered the exodus as a giant model to help us understand what he's done for us through Jesus. So would you turn in the Bibles to Exodus chapter 13.17. And my first heading is:
1. God leads his redeemed people into a fight (Exodus 13.17-14.9)
Look down to Exodus 13, verse 17:
"When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, 'Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.'"
So God's destination for them was the promised land of Canaan. Stick that in the satnav, and the obvious, shortest route is the M1 through Philistine country. But God knew the Philistines wouldn't let Israel through without a fight – in which case they might decide to turn back to Egypt. So verse 18:
"But God led the people round by the way of the wilderness [serious desert] towards the Red Sea."
Which would have been completely unexpected and puzzling, because although the Bible lets us know what was in God's mind, they at the time didn't. And we often don't. God often leads us and engineers circumstances in ways that seem unexpected and puzzling – but which are actually for our good. For example, I remember a Christian friend applying for what he saw as his dream job. But someone else he knew got it, and he was gutted. But a bit later he bumped into that someone else who said, 'The job's a nightmare, what they said at interview was untrue, and I'm getting out as soon as I can.' Which made my friend realise that what had seemed so unexpected and puzzling and unwelcome had in fact been the Lord working for his good. And we could multiply stories like that – of how many closed doors, disappointments, failures, health problems, broken relationships and so on have in fact been for our good.
Well look on to verse 20:
"And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness [so that's: end of day two out of Egypt. Skip to chapter 14, verse 1:]. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth [however you say it], between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.'"
Which is even more unexpected and puzzling. Because why would God get them to turn back towards Egpyt? And why get them to camp in the most tactically stupid place – where your escape is cut off by water? Well, verse 3 says what was in God's mind:
"For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, 'They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.' And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host…"
In other words, the Lord was 'baiting' Pharaoh to come after Israel – so that he could show them and us more of what he's like, through a final, absolute victory. Read on, verse 5:
"When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed towards the people, and they said, 'What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?' So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, and took six hundred chosen chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the people of Israel while the people of Israel were going out defiantly."
And that's why my first heading is: God leads his redeemed people into a fight. And that's a model to help us understand where we are in God's saving plan today, if we're trusting in Jesus. Because Pharaoh stands for all opposition to God. Above all, he stands for Satan, the devil – who's the spiritual power behind everything that's against God and God's people. And in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Satan is pictured as a dragon trying to stop the Lord Jesus doing what he's come to do. But he couldn't stop Jesus dying for our forgiveness, and rising again. So Revelation says:
"the dragon… was defeated… and thrown down…" (Revelation 12.7-8)
… like a judo throw where you put your opponent down on the mat, and win. And that's picture language for how, through Jesus' dying and rising again, Satan has been defeated: he's lost the war to keep us on his side, unforgiven and unable to turn back to God. But he's still fighting, because here's what Revelation says next:
"But woe to you… earth… for the devil has come down to you in great anger, because he knows that his time is short!" And… the dragon… pursued the woman [who in this vision stands for the church] and… went off to make war on the rest of her offspring… [in other words, on anyone trusting in Jesus]." (Revelation 12.12-17)
And Pharoah pursuing Israel was a model of that.
Now if we're redeemed by Jesus, Satan can't recapture us, re-possess us. But he can come after us and get at us and attack us. And so new Christians often say to me they're taken aback by the spiritual fight they've got into, by that experience of realising how much is actually sinful in your life; and of joining the battle to resist temptation where you didn't before; and of standing out from the world around, where you didn't before; and of sometimes feeling you're getting worse, not better. And people say, 'Is that normal? Is there something wrong?' And the answer is: it's totally normal.
So imagine interviewing a salmon battling its way back upstream and up waterfalls to its spawning ground. And you ask it, 'Doesn't the battle ever make you think something's wrong – that you're going the wrong way?' And the head-screwed-on salmon would say, 'No, so long as it's a battle, I know I'm going the right way.' And the head-screwed-on Christian says the same.
So that's the first thing: God leads his redeemed people into a fight. So don't be surprised you're in one – you will be, this side of heaven. And if there's no fight in your life, you're not following Jesus as you should.
2. God tells his redeemed people, 'Don't fear the fight, but trust that I'm working for you' (Exodus 14.10-20)
Look down to chaper 14, verse 10:
"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?'"
And that's a model of how not to face our fears in the spiritual fight. But let's not leap to judgement, because it's also a model of how big our reasons for fear can be. After all, Pharoah bearing down on you with the ancient equivalent of state-of-the-art tanks is frightening for the strongest believer.
So let me ask you: What are you afraid of in the spiritual fight right now?
One thing I'm afraid of is that from September next year, LGBT sex education could be pushed into my childrens' primary schools, with my right to withdraw them removed. And I share that fear with many – along with the fear of what'll happen when I challenge that.
What about you? Some of our Iranian brothers and sisters fear not getting permission to remain here – and fear how they'd be treated back in Iran. Maybe you fear being overcome by an area of sin that you've struggled to get out of and keep out of. Or maybe you fear your sinfulness causing your marriage to fail. Or as a parent, maybe you fear not being able to protect your children against harmful influences. Or as a single person, maybe you fear just not being able to cope with singleness anymore, or giving up on God's will that we only marry a fellow-believer. Or maybe you fear your doubts – that they could drag you back into not believing. Or maybe you're afraid of becoming a Christian in the first place because you rightly know that you don't have the strength to change yourself and to keep it up. Well look on to verse 13:
"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.' [That's actually a rebuke – 'Stop voicing your worst-case scenarios and trust the Lord.']
The LORD said to Moses, 'Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.'"
But at this point, that final, absolute victory hasn't yet happened. So Pharaoh is still a very real enemy. But the Lord wants his people to trust that Pharaoh cannot de-rail their future with him. And that's also a model to help us understand where we are if we're trusting in Jesus. Because he also says to us, 'Don't fear the fight, but trust that I'm working for you'
So think back to the baptisms you've just had here. And after each one you all said, 'Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against… what? '…sin, the world and the devil…' And those three are still very real enemies, aren't they? So there's our ongoing sin – which reminds of that hymn which says, 'Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the Lord I love.' Do you relate to that? And then there's the world doing everything it can to make being a Christian harder. And behind all that, there's the devil. And in our own strength, we're no match for that threesome – any more than Israel was a match for Pharaoh's tanks. But the New Testament gives us assurances even better than the ones in Exodus 14. So if our bottom line fear is that we'll stop believing and turn away from the Lord, here are a couple of New Testament assurances for us. One is from the Lord Jesus, who says:
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10.27-28)
So sin, the world and the devil are strong – but not as strong as Jesus' grip on us, by his Spirit. And the other assurance is from Paul, who says:
"I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1.6)
So God is like the presenter on Mastermind – he says, 'I've started so I'll finish, and nothing can interrupt me. I will keep my redeemed people trusting in me, through thick and thin, to the end.'
So, God says, 'Don't fear the fight, but trust that I'm working for you'.
3. God shows his redeemed people his absolute victory over their enemies (Exodus 14.21-31)
Look on to verse 21:
"Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided."
Which reminded me of that Bestie cartoon, where they're standing before the open sea. And the caption has Moses saying, 'What do you mean, 'It's a bit muddy'?' Which really gets the spirit of Israel – 'I'm not going through there – I might get my trainers dirty.'
But the rest of the story is deadly serious. There's no time to read it again, but you know it. So skip to verse 30:
"Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses."
What an eye-witness memory of that moment: "Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore." It's like Paul Royle climbing out of The Great Escape tunnel, and looking back to see Stalag Luft 3 flattened to the ground and not a German in sight. Which is why, as you'll see next week, Israel bursts into song – because what fills their horizon is the saving event they've just witnessed.
And that's another way this is a model for us. Because we need to live with the saving event of Jesus' death and resurrection filling our horizon, so that day by day we read what God is like off what he did for us there, rather than trying to read what God is like off our circumstances. Because the point is: God doesn't show his power like this every day. He doesn't knock out all the 'Pharaohs' and open all the 'Red Seas' in our lives – any more than he did for Israel, if you read on. And if we think this is saying he will, we're in for big disappointment.
Instead, we should be saying, 'God has shown his absolute victory over sin and Satan through Jesus' death and resurrection.' And we need to read off from there that:
- the forgiveness of all our sins (past and future) has been fully paid for,
- and that we're now secure in God's love, and nothing – not even our ongoing sin – can de-rail our future with him,
- and most of all… that the clock is ticking towards the day when Jesus – having died and risen victorious – will return and wrap up his victory absolutely.
So as one preacher I heard memorably said, 'I've read to the end of the Bible. And do you know what? We win!' Do we believe that?
So, to use one last world war two illustration, D-day and V-day are a great picture of this – because on D-day, when the Allies landed in Normandy, although the war wasn't over, it was won. And all the remaining battles until V-day were just the inevitable outworking of D-day – and nothing could stop final victory coming. And so D-day is a picture of Jesus' death and resurrection – because that's where the decisive victory was won, where sin and Satan were defeated. And yes, as we've seen modelled in Pharaoh, Satan is still fighting, still playing on our sinfulness, still getting at us through the world. But V-day is coming when Jesus returns. And beyond that, sin and the anti-God world and Satan will be no more seen than Pharaoh and the Egyptians were, that day when Israel looked back across the Red Sea.
Martin Luther used to say, 'Live as if Jesus died for you yesterday, rose again today, and is coming for you again tomorrow.' And that's what God is saying to us, through this giant model of the exodus.