Exodus 15:22-27 “God’s Promise”
When we think about the Exodus story, we often think about wilderness. Moses, answering an unexpected and unwanted call from God, led the Israelite people out into the desert, wandering for 40 years until they could find freedom from their slavery in Egypt. The Exodus story is full of important, foundational stories for all Judeo-Christians. There we encounter burning bushes, mountaintops, parting seas, the 10 commandments, golden calves, manna from heaven, and miracles upon miracles. We see God’s perseverance and presence in the midst of difficulty. We see the power of faith. And we also encounter wilderness and humanity in its most raw form.
Throughout the Exodus story, the people Moses was trying to lead towards freedom are recorded as complaining about anything and everything. Which is not surprising. They may have left slavery, but they were by no means free. They had no place to call home, wandering for a couple of generations, always wondering where their next meal would come from. On more than one occasion, the people said it would be better to return to Egypt and slavery, better than living a life on the edge. Moses, who was a reluctant leader in the first place, frequently loses his temper, complaining to God, questioning God, yelling at the people. You can see in the wilderness story of Exodus humanity in it most raw and honest form.
In the story we heard this morning, the people actually have a lot to celebrate. The Red Sea had been parted so they could cross safely, and their pursuers drowned. They were, for a time, safe. Moses has just sung a glorious song of faith and devotion to God, extolling God’s love for these chosen people. Miriam has danced and cried aloud: “Sing to the lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” This is a joyous moment. But, just three days later, the people were complaining. They had entered the wilderness but could find no water to drink. The joy of their crossing the Red Sea and being free from their pursuers was quickly shoved aside as they looked out into the wilderness Moses had led them to and saw nothing but death.
The problem was though, for the Israelites, the wilderness was the only place of safety. It was the only place where they would not be systematically killed or place in slavery. While not fully free, as they had no place to call their own, they were at least able to set their own course in life. But, all they could see in front of them was bitter water and death. They complained, as I am sure any of us would. They complained – how is this any better than slavery? Thirst and hunger were closing in on them and undoubtedly some thought they should turn back. But Moses, confident that God would provide, called out to God. And God, just as Moses knew God would do, showed Moses how to turn the bitter water sweet. And God said to the people, something God has been saying to all of humanity for the entirety of our creation, if we listen to what God is calling us to do, if we trust and believe in God, if we follow the simple but all-encompassing commandments of God, then we will be fine. God has provided enough, we simply have to trust in that. God says, if the people can follow that statutes, God will provide. And God leads the people to a place where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees – a place of rest, abundance, and nourishment.
When the people crossed the Red Sea they saw nothing but desolate wilderness and believed that nothing could survive there. They forgot that God’s creation is more intricate, complex, more life-giving than anything we can imagine. They looked out and saw nothing but death, but instead God showed them life. God showed them, promised them, that in this world we have what we need – that even in what appears to be the emptiest places of our planet, life exists and even thrives. We simply need to open our eyes and trust. It is the promise that God made with all of Creation at the birth of our existence, and a promise that is being made over and over again. But, it is a promise we far too often forget, or worse, don’t trust.
That is one of the reasons I wanted us to spend this month thinking about our National Parks. Not only are they places of beauty and national pride, they are places where God’s promise is in full display. This promise that God made with humanity is also why I wanted to end our road trip in the Badlands. In places like Denali, Hawai’i Volcanoes, and Yellowstone – the parks we have previously traveled to – God’s promise of abundance and life is obvious. Those are places of drama and majesty. But, here is the thing: Badlands National Park is equally rich with life, drama, and majesty – but for those who have not visited, they may think of only wilderness, only death.
Driving west on Interstate 90 from Minnesota, as you get closer to the Badlands, you see hundreds of billboards for Wall Drug, but not much mention of the approaching National Park. And, if you choose not to turn off the Interstate, looking over at the Badlands, which can be glimpsed in the distance, you don’t see much. Many probably think, there is nothing there worth looking at. But, for those of us who have been there, we know that the Badlands are not desolate – they are in fact teeming with life. Indeed, the wonders of God are on full display.
The dramatic landscape includes peaks and spires, multi-colored stone walls, fascinating plants, and abundant wildlife. When the sun hits the Badlands just right – every color imaginable is on display. And each of those colors represent time – they are visible layers of time, mapping out the incredible history of that region. The Badlands – named that way by the Lakota Sioux because of their limited water supply – are anything but desolate or dead. There is life there that has thrived in that environment, even if we humans would struggle to survive.
God’s creation is not random or haphazard. There is a pattern, an intractably woven web of life that provides everything we need to survive. That is the promise of creation – abundance. We live in the abundant creation of God, but far too many of us look out and see nothing but scarcity. We fear there is not enough, so we take more than we need. We assume that because a place looks harsh or bare on the surface that nothing could survive there, but in fact that is not true at all. This creation we are a part of has everything we need to survive. So, when God said to the Israelites that we must all listen carefully to the voice of God and we will be alright, part of what it means to listen is to trust in the promise that God has made to us from the beginning – the promise of creation.
When the Israelites looked out at the wilderness they chose to see only death, but instead God showed them life. When people drive past the Badlands and choose to see only death, God wants to show them life. And when our lives feel bare and desolate, and we fear that there is only death, God promises life. When we look out at a world that feels so broken that we fear nothing good can exist – God promises life. And life means hope.
My Beloved Community, I have loved traveling through our National Parks with you this month. Exploring them through the lens of scripture has been a fun challenge for me. And I hope you have enjoyed thinking about our world, our country in a new way. John Muir, the earliest evangelist for the National Parks, said that God was most easily experienced in nature. There have been times in my life when I have agreed with that, and times in my life when I didn’t. However you may feel, I think it is clear that God is found in nature. And, what I have come to realize this month is by exploring nature, in particular our National Parks, we explore facets of God that sometimes are over-looked, or taken for granted. The scripture of nature is ripe for study and exploration. Let us all commit to that exploration. Let us all commit to remembering the promise God made to all of Creation in the very moment of our existence – that we can find around us life. And where there is life there is hope.