Go Forward!

Exodus 14:5-31

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / May 30, 2004


            Many of us know that to always conduct ourselves in a manner that honours God is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it is even more difficult when our circumstances are unfavourable.


            Well, as we turn our attention to Exodus 14, we find Moses and the Israelites in the most unfavourable of circumstances. Pharaoh had no sooner allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt, when we learn that he had a “change of heart” (14:5). Pharaoh summoned all of his choice officers and chariots to pursue, and presumably capture, the Israelites.


            It wasn’t long before the Israelites found themselves hemmed in on every side. The Red Sea before them, impassible terrain beside them, Pharaoh’s officers about to overtake them. The faith of the Israelites had altogether waned when they asked Moses cynically, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (14:11).


            The situation for Moses and the Israelites was dire. Unfortunately, the desperate nature of their predicament did not spur them on to trust the Lord, but drove them instead to complain against Moses.


            This response of the Israelites raises a question for us. When adversity strikes us, when we are faced with formidable opposition, what is our response? Does adversity and tribulation drive us to God? Or, does adversity and tribulation cause us to lash out against God, and against others?


            I’d like to be able to say that adversity drives me to God, but I can’t always say that. I know that I should trust in the Lord with all my heart, and at all times, but that is easier said than done.


            For this reason, I am particularly interested in what Moses has to say to the Israelites. First, we have Moses declaring that there is something to be done, and secondly, he says that there is something to been seen. And finally, there is a response to what is seen.


            First, what is to be done? Responding to the desperate cries of his people, Moses says to them, “Do not fear! Stand by” (14:13). Another translation reads, “Do not fear! Stand still”.


            So often, in adversity, we feel compelled to do something. Some of us, when we are pushed, our natural inclination is to push back. For others, when our opposition overwhelms us, our tendency is to run away. But what does Moses implore the people of God to do? He says, “Stand by”.


            What is meant by this simple phrase? It means we are to keep an upright posture; we are to wait, but we are ready for action; we wait expecting further orders to direct us (Spurgeon).


            Clearly, Moses is telling us something that is simple, but nonetheless very difficult, to practice. Anyone who has served, in any capacity, in the military understands the important discipline of standing still. When I attended Ridley College, we regularly engaged in parade drills. During my years of participating in these drills, not once did I ever witness a person faint while marching. I did witness, however, countless young men and women faint while standing at attention.


            The temptation, I think, for God’s soldiers is to always be marching. There certainly is a time for marching, just as our hymn this morning calls us, Onward Christian Soldiers. But before the day of march comes, Moses tells us that we must first stand still.


            Why must we stand by? Why must we wait? Because there is something to be seen. Moses says, “Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord which He will accomplish for you today” (14:13).


            So often, the approach taken by Christians under duress is to try and force our way out of adversity. And we do this without stopping to look and see the way of escape provided by our Lord (1Corinthians 10:13). Isn’t it true that our natural inclination is to lean on our own understanding of things, rather than trusting in the Lord for help?


            Moses tells the people of Israel to stand by in order that they might see, in order that they might witness, God’s power exercised on their behalf.


            And what did they see? They saw the waters of the Red Sea stand upright, contrary to nature. They saw the effects of a strong east wind blowing all night, sustaining the waters like a wall on either side of them. More importantly, they saw that no human power—not theirs, not the Egyptians—could stand against the Divine will.


            What can you expect to see if you stand by and wait upon the Lord? Specifically, I have no idea what you will see. Yet, at the same time, I trust you shall see what the Israelites saw. If you wait upon the Lord, and if you look for His invisible hand of providence in your life, what you will see is that God has everything under control. What you will see is a glimpse of God sitting on His throne causing all things to work for His glory and for the benefit of His chosen people.


            It is safe to say that while God’s people are standing by, they should be praying—they should be seeking to discern His will. And, out of our standing by, out of our praying, we look for God’s answer. We stand watching for God to exercise His power on our behalf.


            An interesting thing happens in this text while the Israelites stand by and wait. In verse 15, we have one of those rare occasions where God tells His people to stop praying; the Lord says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me?


            We infer from this that there may come a time when our crying to God becomes unseasonable. If that sounds strange to your ears, think about our Lord’s command to His disciples. His command to them is “Ask” (Mt. 7:7)—but what follows that command? What follows is the promise: “you shall receive”. You see then, there must be a time for asking and a time for receiving. But, if I, instead of stretching out my hand to gratefully receive what God is wanting to give, and I continue to ask, then I put prayer out of its proper place and I dishonour God.


            This principle is not unlike the foolish thing I used to do when Allie brought me dinner. After bringing me a dish with chicken and green beans, instead of thanking her for this carefully prepared meal, I would continue to ask, “Where are the potatoes?” And compounding my sin further I would ask, “Where is the dessert?”


            Beloved when we ask for something, when we stand by and wait, and when we are finally presented with a gift, we dishonour the giver if we continue asking for it.


            What we learn from this text is firstly, there is a time to stand by and wait. Secondly, there is a time to be watchful and to look for the fulfillment of our petitions. And finally, there is a time to respond to what we have seen—there is a time to move forward. When we have waited upon the Lord, and when we have seen Him respond to our request, it is time to move forward in faith.


            This is what God commissions Moses with: “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward” (14:15).


            The people of Israel have cried out to the Lord, and God has responded to their prayers by promising to deliver them from the Egyptians. There is no need for them to keep praying for deliverance. Even though the Red Sea has yet to part, God has promised them freedom and so it is time to move forward.


            Finally, the Israelites move forward. The sea is parted and they pass through on dry land. The Egyptians give pursuit, but Moses waves his arm causing the sea to return to normal, overthrowing the Egyptians in the midst of the sea (14:27).


            Now, what about us? How shall we go forward? Because, for us, there is no literal Red Sea to cross. Once we have stood still, once we have witnessed God’s power, where shall we go?


            First of all, we must go forward to the cross. Before we can succeed in any good thing, we must be in favour with God. Before the designs of providence work for our benefit, we must be called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). This begins at the cross of Calvary.          


Secondly, we must move forward into godliness. As marvelous as it is to receive forgiveness for sin at the cross, Christ intends for His people to grow in godliness.


If we have been a Christian for many years, we should reflect back on the years behind us to help us to determine whether we have made any progress in the Christian life. For instance, can we say that we know our Bible better than we did 10 years ago? Can we say that our character is markedly different than it was 10 years ago? Are we more frequently engaged in prayer than we were 10 years ago? If we cannot say these things, there is something wrong. If we cannot say these things then it is likely that we have neglected to heed the command to go forward.


And finally, having gained forgiveness at the cross, having pursued godliness, Christ also calls us forward into the world. Of all the calls to go forward, this call is the most corporate in character. As individuals, we can go forward to the cross; as individuals, we can make progress in godliness, but if we are to effectively move forward in this world it will happen as a group—it will happen when the church functions as an organized body.


If there were any dissenters that day when Moses called the Israelites across the Red Sea, we do not hear about them. It appears that all went forward; it appears that the Israelites were united as they trusted in the Lord and ceased to lean on their own understanding. As a result, all were delivered.


Will we share in the blessings that come from moving forward together as a congregation? Admittedly, there are seemingly impassible obstacles before us: Financial hindrances before us, personal struggles beside us, and professional pressures ready to overtake us. How shall we go forward?


We must go forward as a group. Like a mighty army moves the Church of God; brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope, in doctrine, one in charity.


Beloved, we must go forward into this world as a united group with the cross of Jesus going on before. Amen.