This time next week is the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape – made famous by the film. On the night of 24 March 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of war escaped from the German camp Stalag Luft 3. They'd dug a tunnel 8 metres underground and 100 metres long, under the fence and out into the forest. And one of them, Paul Royle, was interviewed in 2014, on his 100th birthday. And they asked him what he remembered about that moment when he climbed out of the tunnel – 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 like that, haven't you? Because for me that moment would have been instantly eclipsed by the terrifying reality that just behind me were watchtowers and machine guns, and that I could easily be recaptured – or even killed.
Well tonight we rejoin the story of Exodus at a moment like that. Because God's people are finally out of Egypt, finally free of Pharaoh and of slavery to him and of fear of what he could do to them. And they've just made camp on the first night in a place called Succoth. And if Paul Royle had been there, and he'd been interviewed by the Sinai Chronicle, he'd have said, 'It was very pleasant sitting there round the camp fires.' But, as we'll see tonight, that moment was about to be eclipsed by the terrifying reality of Pharoah changing his mind and coming after them.
But like everything recorded in the Old Testament, God allowed that – in fact you can say '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 mentions that victory and then says:
"These things took place as a model for us" (1 Corinthians 10.6)
In other words, these things we're reading about in Exodus took place as a model to help us understand what God has done for us through Jesus.
So another World War II illustration is 'The Dambusters' raid – also made famous by a film – where British bombers destroyed some crucial German dams using bouncing bombs which skimmed across the water. And Barnes Wallace was the man who planned it. And beforehand, he built a giant model of the 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 Paul is saying God engineered the exodus as a giant model of what he'd one day do for us through Jesus and his death and resurrection. So as we look at Exodus tonight, we need to be thinking, 'How is this a model of what God has done for us through Jesus? How does this early part of God's saving plan help us understand the final part we're now living in?'
So would you turn in the Bible to Exodus 13.17. And here's my first heading:
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. And the satnav would have said: the obvious, shortest route was the M1 through Philistine country. But God knew: the Philistines wouldn't let them through without a fight – in which case Israel might well decide to turn back to Egypt. So verse 18:
"But God led the people round by the way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. [Some translations say 'Reed Sea'. The truth is: we don't know which sea it was – we'll find out in heaven (if we're still interested in that sort of thing).]"
And that route would have seemed completely unexpected and puzzling and unwelcome, because although the Bible lets us know what was going through God's mind, they at the time didn't.
And we often don't know what's in God's mind: God often leads us and engineers our circumstances in ways that seem unexpected and puzzling and unwelcome – but which are actually for our good. For example, I have a Christian friend called Barney. He's a doctor. And he applied for what seemed a dream job. And he seemed to fit it. But it went to someone else he knew, which was a real blow. But a bit later Barney bumped into that someone else who said to him,'The job's a nightmare, most of what they said at interview was untrue, and I'm getting out as soon as I can.' And Barney realised that what had seemed so unexpected and puzzling and unwelcome had in fact been the Lord working for his good.
And we could share our stories of how the Lord has done that for us – how many a closed door, many a disappointment or failure, many a broken relationship has in fact been for our good.
Well look on to verse 20:
"And they moved on from Succoth [where they camped on day 1] and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness [so that's: end of day 2 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, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea'"
And that's even more unexpected and puzzling and unwelcome, because why would he get them to turn back towards Egpyt? And why would he get them to camp in the most tactically dangerous place – where your escape is cut off by water? I mean, that's basic officer training – that's week three at Sandhurst. But what goes on in God's mind is completely different to what goes on in ours – because look at verse 3 where God says:
"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, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD."
In other words, the Lord was deliberately 'baiting' Pharaoh to come after his people – so he could show them and us more of what he's like, through a final, absolute victory. 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. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon."
Which is why my first heading is: God leads his redeemed people into a fight. Now, granted, it's a fight where he'll work for them, and which he'll ultimately win for them. But it's still true that, for Israel, being redeemed meant being led 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, as we saw earlier in this series, Pharaoh stands for all opposition to God. And he ultimately stands for Satan – the spiritual power behind everything that's anti-God and anti-God's people in this world. And in the book of Revelation, Satan is pictured as a dragon who tries to stop the Lord Jesus doing what he's come to do. But he can't, and he's defeated, but… he's still at large. So Satan has lost the war… but he's still fighting. And Revelation then says:
"Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12.7-9)"
And that's picture language for how, through Jesus' death and resurrection, Satan has been defeated: he has lost the war to keep us on his side, unforgiven and unable to turn from our sin. But Revelation then says:
"'But woe to you, O earth… for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!' And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman [who here in Revelation stands for the church]… Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus [in other words, on those of us trusting in Jesus]." (Revelation 12.12-17)
And Pharoah pursuing the Israelites was a model of that.
Now if we're redeemed by Jesus, Satan can't recapture us – can't repossess us, if you like. But he can and does come after us and get at us and attack us.
And that's why, for example, new Christians often say to me they're taken aback by the spiritual fight they've got into since turning to Jesus: that experience of realising how much is actually sinful in your life; and of joining the battle of resisting temptation where you didn't before; and of that sense, sometimes, that you're getting worse, not better. And people have said to me, 'Is that normal? Is there something wrong?' And the answer is: it's totally normal – because God leads his redeemed people into a fight.
So imagine interviewing a salmon that's battling its way back upstream to its spawning ground, through rapids and salmon-leaps and waterfalls. 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 – upstream.' And the head-screwed-on Christian says the same.
And Satan doesn't just come after us by playing on our particular weaknesses (which he knows all too well). He also does it by seducing us to conform to what people around us are doing, and by using pressure and persecution when we don't – whether that's just personal, or coming from government and law (as is now happening here under the Equality Act).
So that's the first point: God leads his redeemed people into a fight. So don't be surprised you're in one – you will be, this side of heaven.
So, second heading:
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? 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.'"
Which is a model of how not to face our fears in the fight. But before we judge them, it's also a model of how big our reasons for fear can be – because Pharoah bearing down on you with the ancient equivalent of state-of-the-art tanks is a tall order for anyone's faith to deal with.
So what are you afraid of in the spiritual fight right now – in your personal life? Or in this country's life?
Personally, I'm afraid of the fact that in September next year, it looks like LGBT sex education will be pumped into primary schools, with my right as a parent to withdraw my children abolished. And I'm afraid of what might happen when I challenge that. I'm also afraid of the Islamification of Britain, and of the fact that it could be a Muslim country in my or my children's lifetime – and of the question, 'Will my faith withstand that?'
What do you fear? Maybe you fear for your job as the Equality Act is used to coerce you to affirm the LGBT agenda – or lose your job. Or maybe you fear being overcome by a particular area of sin – maybe something you've just got out of or are getting out of. Or maybe you fear your marriage failing because of your failings. Or as a single person, maybe you fear just not coping with singleness anymore, or giving up on God's will that we only marry a fellow-believer. Or maybe you fear your doubts and whether they could drag you back inot unbelief. 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.' [Literally, that last bit is, 'You just need to be quiet.' It's 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 is calling 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 says to us too, 'Don't fear the fight, but trust that I'm working for you'
So this time last week, we had those baptisms. And after each one we said together, "Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the devil…" And those three are still very real enemies, aren't they? So there's our ongoing sin – like the old hymn says,
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the Lord I love.
Do you realte to that? Do you feel your weakness? And then there's the world and everything it's doing to make being a Christian harder and 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's defenceless civilians were a match for Pharaoh's tanks. But the New Testament is full of assurances, for which the assurances of Exodus 14 were a model. So if our root fear is that we'll give up and turn away from the Lord, here are some of God's assurances in the New Testament:
The Lord Jesus 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)"
So sin, the world and the devil may be strong – but not as strong as Jesus' grip on us by his Spirit.
And then Paul says:
"And 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)"
So God is like the presenter on Mastermind – he says, 'I've started so I'll finish and nothing and no-one can interrupt me. I will keep my redeemed people trusting in Jesus, through thick and thin, to the end.'
And then Jude signs off his letter like this:
"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy… (Jude 24)"
So, God tells us, 'Don't fear the fight, but trust that I'm working for you'.
Then last heading:
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 the Israelites are standing before the open sea. And the caption has Moses saying, "What do you mean, 'It's a bit muddy'?" And that captures the spirit of Israel – 'I'm not going through there – I don't want to get my new 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."
Which is an extraordinary, eye-witness recollection of that moment, isn't it? "Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore" It's like Paul Royle climbing out of the tunnel that night of The Great Escape, and looking back… to see Stalag Luft 3 razed to the ground and not a German in sight. Which is why, as we'll see in chapter 15, Israel bursts into song – because what completely fills their horizon at this moment is the saving event they've just witnessed.
And that's another way that this is a model for us. Because we need to live with the saving event of Jesus' death and resurrection filling our horizons, 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 today.
Because the point is: God doesn't show his power like this every day. He doesn't knock out the 'Pharaohs' in our lives and open the 'Red Seas' in our lives every day – any more than he did for Israel, if you read on. And if we think the application of this passage is that he will, we're in for big disappointment.
Instead, we need to say to ourselves, '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 has been fully paid for,
- and that the judgement we deserve from God has been removed forever,
- and that we now stand secure in God's love and acceptance, 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 to wrap up his victory absolutely.
So as one preacher I heard memorably put it, 'I've read to the end of the Bible. And do you know what? We win!' Do we believe that? And do we live like people who are on the eternally winning side – people who, ultimately, cannot lose?
So, to use one last World War II 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 (which there certainly were) 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 for us. Yes, right now, 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 in the form of Jesus' return. And beyond that, sin and the anti-God world and Satan will be no more in evidence 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, in model form, is what God is telling us to do through the exodus.