Earlier in our married life, Daniela and I lived in the US state of Maine for several years. The thing Maine is most famous for is its lobsters, which we enjoyed on a few occasions. The cold water of the Atlantic Ocean along the rocky coast of Maine forms a perfect habitat for lobsters.
Lobsters, of course, have no inner skeleton. There is simply soft tissue on the inside, which is enclosed by its shell, or exoskeleton. That hard shell protects the lobster from its enemies. But the shell does not grow. Lobsters themselves, however, keep growing as long as they live. That means that throughout its life a lobster must every so often go through the molting process. When the outer shell becomes too small for the growing lobster, it sheds the shell and a new one forms.
It takes only about 30 minutes for the lobster to break free from its old shell. Then it remains hidden for several days in the rocks and crevices of the ocean floor as the coating on the outside of its tissues begins to harden into a new shell. Then the lobster emerges from hiding, but it still takes several months for the new shell to completely harden.
It’s not only human beings that like to dine on lobster; plenty of sea creatures do also. And by instinct lobsters know that they are very vulnerable to their enemies right after they shed their shell, and thus they go into hiding for a few days. If lobsters had the ability to think and reason – and I know you need to use your imaginations here – but if lobsters could think you can imagine a lobster thinking during those first few days after shedding its old shell, “Boy, I sure miss my old shell. Yeah, it was getting a little cramped inside. My growth was stifled, but at least I was safe and secure. Now any ol’ fish can come along and have me for lunch.”
I wonder if the ancient Israelites didn’t feel like a lobster that had just shed its shell. They were just beginning to experience an amazing process of growth and transformation as the people of God, but that meant breaking free from their old manner of living to embrace the new. At times during this process of transformation, they were quite vulnerable to their enemies. And Scripture portrays them as sometimes longing for the old way of life. They wished to go back to the safety and security of the shell they had left behind, even though that would have meant forfeiting the wonderful future God had for them.
It’s not only the ancient Israelites who struggled sometimes with embracing God’s future for them. At times we find ourselves in that same struggle. In fact, it’s a recurring theme in our lives. On the one hand, we want to move ahead with God’s plans for our lives, into the future God has for us, yet that path of growth may be a difficult one. We discover there are new challenges to face that we didn’t have to face before. And we may find ourselves desiring, maybe even flirting with the old ways we left behind.
So today we will look at a very familiar story from the Old Testament, but as we do, let’s also be considering how it relates to our lives today. It’s from the Book of Exodus, which we have been studying for some weeks now. As you recall, the word “Exodus” means “the way out.” God delivered the Israelites out of their slavery to the Egyptians and then led them out of Egypt and eventually into the Promised Land. In a similar way, God delivers us out of our bondage to sin and slavery to selfishness and into a life of freedom from what enslaved us before so we can experience the fullness of life in Christ.
Last week we saw the interaction between Moses and Pharaoh, or more to the point, between the God of Moses and the false and numerous gods of the Egyptians. Because Pharaoh’s heart was hard, he refused to let the Israelites go free. God sent the plagues but still Pharaoh would not budge. In fact, with each plague Pharaoh became more resistant.
The plagues were not simply random displays of God’s power. Exod. 7:4-5 says that through the plagues God was showing the Egyptians that He is the true God and therefore, they should trust in Him, as some of them did and they left with the Israelites when they fled Egypt. So each plague demonstrated God’s power over a particular Egyptian deity. For instance, the Egyptians worshiped the sun god, whom they called Ra. The ninth plague, in which darkness covered the land of Egypt for three days, was intended to demonstrate to Pharaoh and the Egyptians that Ra was powerless in the face of the true God, the God of the Israelites.
Even the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn of all in Egypt, must be seen in this context. On the one hand, the Egyptians were being judged by God, for they had unjustly made the Israelites their slaves for many years. Furthermore, when the Israelite population grew, causing the Egyptians to feel threatened by this large slave population, the Pharaoh ordered all the Israelite baby boys were to be killed. When Pharaoh refused, after the first nine plagues, to let the Israelites go, this final plague came as an act of judgment for enslaving the Israelites and killing their children. Today we don’t like to think about God being a judge, but a holy and loving God must judge what is evil, for evil destroys what is good.
But more was going on than God judging the Egyptians. For the truth is, God wanted to set the Egyptians free from their slavery to a false religions system that held them in bondage and prevented them from knowing the true God. In Exod. 12:12, in speaking of that act of judgment which was about to take place, God said, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.”
This final act of judgment against the Egyptians was really a judgment upon the false gods of Egypt. The way God judged them was by revealing them for what they truly were – false, empty, and powerless. For that night the people cried out to their gods to no avail. Even Pharaoh, who was considered divine, could not save his own son. God loves all the people of the world and wants all people to experience life that is found only in the true God. And so that night God judged the gods of Egypt, showing them to be nothing more than lifeless, powerless stones and idols that could not save the people. Thus, the Egyptians could see that the God of the Israelites is the true God and those who chose to had the opportunity to be set free from what was false. And some did just that as they left Egypt with the Israelites.
But this must be seen in an even wider context. The whole world had a stake in what happened back in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. For this was the first encounter between the monotheistic, non-idolatrous faith of the Israelites with the polytheistic, idol-infested religions of most of the rest of the world. This was the beginning of God setting the world free from false beliefs, enslaving spirits, and worthless idols. That night as God judged the false gods of Egypt was a key moment for the human race in terms or our relationship with God.
You probably know the story of how God commanded the Israelites to kill a lamb and spread some of the blood from the lamb around the doorframes of their houses. Thus, they would be spared that night; no one in their houses would die. Of course, this foreshadowed a much greater deliverance when Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, would shed his blood on the cross to deliver us from sin and spare us from death – eternal death, that is.
That night, after the death of his firstborn son, Pharaoh finally yielded and told Moses he could take the Israelites and leave. And so 430 years after they entered Egypt, the Israelites were set free from their slavery and began their journey out of Egypt. We probably can’t even imagine the relief, joy, and gratitude they felt that night.
But if the Israelites thought their problems were over, they were in for a rude surprise. As they left Egypt, they had the assurance that God Himself was leading them. Exod. 13:21 states, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” We may sometimes wish we had such clear, unmistakable guidance from God as we journey into our future. But we must remember the Israelites at this time did not have the resources we have. They had no Scripture to teach them about God and His will for His people. The Holy Spirit had not been given to guide them. They had very little by way of spiritual development and formation. They hardly knew who God was, so how could they discern His leading? Thus God gave them a clear sign of His presence in the cloud and fire to guide them.
And where did God guide them on their journey? To their surprise, God led them to the banks of the Red Sea. That in itself was probably confusing to the Israelites. If you are trying to escape, why march right toward this natural barrier? But to make matters worse, the Egyptians were in hot pursuit of them. Exod. 14:5-7 states:
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.
The power of God had convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. But now the reality set in that they had just lost the driving force of their economy. All their free labor had just left town. So Pharaoh gathered up his army went out after the Israelites.
So there the Israelites were: the Red Sea in front of them and the charging chariots of Pharaoh and his army closing in fast behind them. Now what could they do? They could march into the sea and drown – not an attractive option – or stay put, with certainly some being slaughtered by the Egyptians, and the others forced to return to their slavery in Egypt. They were like that lobster without its shell. They had moved ahead toward a new stage of growth, but now they were completely vulnerable to their enemies.
And as I just said, God was guiding them. They weren’t in this mess because they strayed from the will of God and now were facing the consequences of that. No, they had followed the cloud by day and the fire by night. They were right in the center of God’s will for them, and it seemed like only disaster awaited them. That’s a good reminder for us. Just because we are following God’s leading doesn’t automatically mean we will not have to face some trials and challenges. And just because we are in the midst of difficulties, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are outside of God’s will. Sometimes, to accomplish a greater purpose, God will lead us into difficult circumstances – but again, it’s to accomplish a greater purpose.
And so how did the Israelites respond to this predicament? Did they conclude, “Well, if God accomplished mighty acts through Moses to get us out of Egypt, God will continue to work through Moses to save us from the Egyptians”? No, they responded probably like we would have. In 14:10-12 we read:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
The Israelites looked at the situation and concluded the worst. They were terrified, fearing they were about to die, for which they blamed Moses. And they longed for the old way of life, even their life of slavery. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” God was moving them on to something new: to freedom, to a new understanding of who God is and how God had called them to be His people, to a deeper experience of God’s faithfulness, to a land flowing with milk and honey.
But growth demands change. It insists that you leave behind your former way of living and all the security that went with that. It calls for a deeper level of trust. It requires obediently stepping into uncharted territory. It involves facing challenges that you would not have to face if you decided to remain where you were. And in this moment, as well as in other instances that were to come, the Israelites decided they preferred life in the old shell of slavery. They didn’t want to grow as the people of God – not if it meant facing dangerous and impossible circumstances like this. They preferred to remain as they were – as slaves. It wasn’t much of a life, but at least they were safe.
Of course, in this case no matter how much the Israelites wanted to go back to their old way of life, it just wasn’t an option. The Egyptian chariots were bearing down on them. So Moses answered the people (vs. 13-15):
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.”
God was about to show the Israelites yet another display of His power. More than that, He was going to show the Israelites His care for them and His faithfulness to them. He wanted the Israelites to know that they were His children and He would always be there for them. God wanted the Israelites to learn that they could always depend on Him. But the only way they could learn that lesson, and thus be able to relax and rejoice in the certainty of God’s care, was by being in a situation that looked absolutely hopeless. That’s why God let them to the Red Sea and why God allowed Pharaoh and his army to pursue them. They had to face a predicament for which they had no resources on their own to handle. Then in light of God’s dramatic intervention in parting the sea, they would see without question that they could trust in God in any situation, for God is trustworthy. God would not let them down.
Sometimes God will lead us into difficult situations, impossible circumstances. But it’s not because God doesn’t love us. It’s not that God is playing games with us. It’s just that God wants us to learn to trust Him completely, to discover that He is utterly faithful. Growing into that level of awareness and trust requires us to be in situations where we have no answers, where we can come up with no solutions. All we can do is depend on God. That’s when we discover that God is faithful and we can always trust Him completely.
And so the instructions to the Israelites were to first of all stand firm, free from fear, for as Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” How often, when confronted with a difficult and seemingly impossible situation, our first response is to wilt in fear, to be overcome by fear. That’s how the Israelites responded. Yet God didn’t bring them partway on their journey only to abandon them when the going got tough. So first God, through Moses, told them to stand firm and be still. As God, in Ps. 46:10 encourages us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” In other words, “There’s no need to panic. Just settle down, and focus on God. As you do, you will be reminded of God’s strength and faithfulness to see you through. God brought you here, so you can be sure that God will fight for you. And fear will dissipate.”
And then God said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water.” There is a time to be still, waiting on God in prayer. And there is a time to move on, trusting in God’s power and provision. As someone has said, “There are only two positions we can assume in the presence of God. One is on our knees, as we cry out, ‘God, I need You.’ And the second is on our feet, as we declare, ‘Here am I. Send me.” There is a time to pray, and there is a time to move ahead, trusting in God. And as the Israelites did that, they left Egypt as well as the old life behind as God made a way for them through the sea, through the impossible circumstances they faced.
As I mentioned, the Exodus of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt to a new life as the people of God in the Promised Land portrays for us our spiritual journey out of spiritual bondage into a life of freedom in the kingdom of God. As was true for the Israelites, so we sometimes face new challenges as we embark on the new life God offers us. And maybe we find ourselves overwhelmed by these challenges, to the point where we question if it all is worth it. We are tempted to return to the old ways.
Perhaps following Jesus has meant for you leaving behind certain sins that used to dominate your life, like greed, pride or sexual sin. On the one hand, you are glad to be done with them. But sometimes those old ways look attractive, especially if everyone else is doing it. And the temptation can be strong to go back to the old patterns.
There are character issues that need to be dealt with once we surrender to Jesus. Kindness needs to replace callousness, generosity needs to replace selfishness, humility needs to replace pride, other-centeredness needs to replace self-centeredness, forgiveness needs to replace resentment. This is all part of our growth into the likeness of Christ. We would all probably agree that the qualities of Christian character are far better than their counterparts, but in particular situations we may find ourselves going back to the old ways, for they are a lot easier.
One thing we can be sure God will call us to leave behind is our comfort zone. That can relate to lots of different things. Perhaps we’ve enjoyed simply coming to church. We’ve appreciated learning and getting to know others, but we’ve never stepped out to serve. You can be sure that the time will come when God will impress upon you that the time has come to leave the security of your comfort zone and contribute in some way. It may be teaching Sunday School, working with the youth, participating in a local mission outreach, or opening your home to a Bible study. You may feel inadequate or uncomfortable because you’ve never done it before. You’d really prefer to stay as you are. But God is calling you to move ahead in your own growth and in service to others.
Or leaving your comfort zone could involve something more substantial and all encompassing. Maybe you have lived a very comfortable lifestyle. But then God calls you to make a career change, or go back to school, or open up your home to a wayward teenager who has nowhere else to go. God may completely redirect your life. That may be frightening, and you’re not sure you want to move ahead with God. At those times, we need to learn from the experience of the Israelites.
God was leading the Israelites out of their old life as slaves in Egypt. And God was taking them not only to the Promised Land, but He was also leading them into a new way of living as the children of God. For God had a purpose for them. God wanted the Israelites to know Him deeply, to experience His care and faithfulness as they lived with Him at the center of their lives. And as His chosen people, they were to live as representatives of the true God to all the other surrounding nations.
And so God leads us into a new way of living. At times it is challenging. It may call for sacrifice. The habits, behaviors, desires, and lifestyle of our past may keep trying to creep back into our lives, and we may find them tempting because life seemed so much easier then. But we must remember God is taking us somewhere. God is developing us into His people, people of Christ-like character, people of deep faith, and people of lasting purpose. In this process of growth and development God wants us to be confident in His care, assured of His faithfulness, and filled with His joy. And as with the Israelites, when the way is difficult, we can be confident that God will fight our battles. He will sustain us.
So let’s not turn back, for that old shell won’t fit us anymore, and we would never be satisfied there again. Growing in Christ is at times difficult and challenging. It may even make us vulnerable in some ways. But God is faithful, and He will see us through. So let’s not flirt with the old ways. Let’s not be content with the old shell we have left behind. Rather let us move ahead, so that we can become all God created us to be, so we can accomplish all God created us to do, and so we can experience the fullness of life only God can supply.