“Stand Firm & Keep Still”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Reading: Exodus 14:5-14
We’re backing-and-forthing our way through Exodus during these weeks leading up to Easter, and at this point, in chapter 14, the Israelites had left Egypt, they were on their way into the wilderness, headed to God-knows-where (literally – God does know where, but they have no clue). The plagues had worn down Pharaoh to the point of exasperation and he finally gave in and allowed Moses to lead the Israelites away from Egypt into freedom.
But now the plagues were gone. There were no more flies or frogs or blood in the river. The storms had settled, and everything was calming down. Pharaoh has forgotten that the one he’s dealing with is not Moses, but Yahweh.
I try to imagine Pharaoh in his palace with his advisers: “What kind of fools were we to let our free labour force go? Who will finish building our grand cities now? Who will keep production going so that we can continue to grow my wealth? Will we have to force Egyptian citizens into the brickyards to work like the slaves we had before? That means we’ll have to actually pay them for their work!” He was afraid of how this would affect his power in the land, and that fear made him want to fight to regain control.
So, Pharaoh gathers his army – 600 chariots and officers, it says – and he himself mounts his royal chariot and leads the charge as they head out after the Israelites to overtake them, recapture them, and bring them back to Egypt. The Egyptian army has no doubt in their power to overtake them – it says, rightly, that the Israelites, having never been outside of Egypt in 400 years and weakened by the hard life of Egyptian slavery, would become lost and discombobulated in the desert, while the Egyptian army is familiar with the surrounding area, and they are strong, powerful and well armed. They don’t realize that it’s not an army of Israelites they’re dealing with – it’s the one-person army of Yahweh.
As Pharaoh is mounting his offensive, and as the Israelites are journeying through the wilderness, Moses receives an instruction from God, and acting on that instruction he tells the Israelites to turn back – turn back from where, we don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter. What we know is that they’re turning back toward danger. And Moses tells them to stop and set up camp – a place to rest – on the edge of the sea. It’s debated among scholars what sea they encamped on – maybe Lake Sirbonis or Lake Timsah – but it doesn’t matter. It’s a significant body of water and they are not fast swimmers.
It definitely feels strange that they stop and rest here, because in the next breath (v. 4) God tells Moses that he is going to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” and Pharaoh’s army will begin to pursue them. So, this doesn’t seem like a propitious time to stop and rest. But this isn’t about how skillfully the Israelites can fight, or how swiftly they can run. This is about what God is going to do for His beloved children.
In verse 9, it says, Pharaoh’s army is right on the heels of the Israelite encampment! The sea is in front of them, Pharaoh’s army is behind them. Now if they wanted to flee, they simply couldn’t; and so the Israelites become terrified. Rightfully so! Who wouldn’t be? The Israelites see the massive Egyptian army bearing down on them, and they think they are about to all die and be buried in the desert sand. From their fear they rise up and become angry and blame their leader, Moses. They feel that he has led them out of their life in Egypt – less than ideal though it may be – and straight into a death trap.
What would you have done in their situation? How would you have felt? Would you have lashed out at Moses too? Or headed for the sea and started swimming and hoped for the best? Or would you have sunk down into the sand in despair? Would you have gone Rambo and run toward the Egyptians, fists flying in a futile attempt to defend your life, and the lives of your family? How do you tend to react when you’re faced with fear?
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. For some, when we panic, our natural tendency is to flee or avoid the thing we are afraid of. For others, when we feel threatened our tendency may be to become aggressive and try to take control of the situation. Or we might lash out at others, and point fingers. We’ve all heard the natural human fear responses called “fight or flight,” right? There is actually another F-word that is a common human reaction to panic (we’re keeping it clean here…) and that is to freeze. Fight, flight, or freeze. These are very natural, human reactions to overwhelming fear. We resort to these reactions without even thinking. They’re part of our evolved biology, and these responses to threat or danger have been necessary to the continuation of the human species.
And even though we are rational beings, these responses still affect our behaviour and choices. So, someone who is afraid of flying might freeze and choose to stay close to home their whole life and miss out on the joy of adventure and the enrichment of experiencing different places and cultures. Someone who fears commitment might start silly fights and push away all potential relationships and thus never experience the deep, loving intimacy of marriage. If someone is scared of confrontation then instead of speaking up to someone who has hurt or offended them, they might avoid the conflict and withdraw, or walk away altogether from an otherwise loving relationship. And so on.
Whether we react to fear with fight, flight, or freeze what we are lacking is a fourth F-word: Faith. As rational beings, we can choose to not give in to our impulses to fight, flee or freeze, and instead to live by faith. Now, I’m not saying this is easy! It’s incredibly difficult and takes a lifetime of practice. Moses himself had reacted out of fear several times by this point in the biblical narrative – using all three fear responses just by himself! But he had come to see that when we allow our fear to control us and determine our actions instead of faith, we’re living into death instead of the abundant life we have been given in Christ. If we face our fears with faith, it can be the catalyst for our growth as a person and as a Christian, and it leads to freedom.
Taking into account all that Moses had done for the Israelites up to this point, all he had gone through, and the courage and integrity he had shown, what the people say to him now is downright mean. Fear can do that to people. It can make us be the worst version of ourselves.
By this point in time, though, Moses himself had grown in his faith by leaps and bounds as he had learned to put his faith in God. This isn’t the same Moses who was whining, “I can’t do it…send someone else!” He has seen with his own eyes the power of the Lord – how God protected the Israelites on the night of the Passover; how God made Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery. Moses has seen that God is trustworthy and that God is capable and powerful.
So, Moses didn’t respond to the people’s personal attack on him with indignation, but with even greater faith. He looked at them with compassion and thought, “That is the way people are. They are scared, poor folk. What they need right now is a little encouragement.”
His experience of God had shown him that the solution to their dilemma was not to flee, or to fight, or to freeze in despair, but to stand firm and keep still and trust God. Listen to these verses again and think about whatever fear or challenge you are facing, and let the words settle deep into your heart: “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today... The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’”
Here, the firm faith of Moses is contrasted with the vacillation of the people. They are the people of God, and he was raised as an Egyptian, but he has seen with his own eyes the faithfulness of God, and so he assures them: stand firm, stand your ground, don’t be overwhelmed by your fear; just watch what God is going to do! You’re going to be amazed! This is a big shift from the Moses who not long ago was saying “Oh, Lord, send someone else!” Again and again, because he experienced the fear and did what he was called to do anyway, he had the blessing of seeing that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that God is worthy of our faith.
Exodus 14:14 is one of my favourite verses in the whole Bible. “The Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still.” It’s a verse that I now bring to mind whenever I am confused, frustrated, anxious or overwhelmed. I was in a situation one time when I was leading a church through a difficult decision, a decision that elicited a highly emotional response for many people. I knew what had to be done; I knew what the right decision was for the community, but I knew there would be a lot of emotion, anger and pushback. Often in situations like this, I will ask myself, “is this a hill I want to die on?” Most often the answer is no, but in this case it was a clear yes. This decision was important to the life and well-being of the congregation.
As I thought and prayed about how to lead through this challenging situation, this verse came up in my morning prayer app. It was a verse I had never really noticed before, and it spoke right into my heart and my situation: “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be still.” What a relief it was to know that I could leave this challenge in God’s hands, that it wasn’t all up to me!
To this day, it is still the verse I carry in my heart whenever I am faced with challenges, frustrations, or whenever I feel under personal threat, whenever I feel discouraged. All of these things can prevent us from living into our divine calling, but they crumble when it is the Lord who is fighting on our behalf.
When we really learn to trust in God’s power to save us, it’s often when we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place – or between a raging army and a dark, deep ocean. We can use our fear in these circumstances to grow. Actor Jeremy Renner, who plays Hawkeye in the popular Marvel movies, knows fear. He recently suffered life threatening and life-altering injuries when he had a run in with a snowplow as he tried to save his nephew from being struck. His fear for his nephew’s life overrode his concern for his own safety. In an interview one time, Renner said that when he was young, he recognized fear was the most powerful of all his emotions, and he made a decision that he didn’t want to let fear run his life. So from ages 22-32, he tried to do one thing each day that he was afraid of.
Carl Jung: “Find out what a person fears most, and that is where he will develop next.” As Christians, we can take a similar intentional approach to dealing with our fears, using these times as a way to learn to lean into our faith and trust God, knowing that God loves us and God wants us to come to him for everything we need.
What are you afraid of right now in your own life? What might happen if you took a breath and gave it to God? God often uses our points of fear to show his power and grow our faith. This is when we learn and really see that faith is stronger than fear because faith tells us that God is able to care for us in all circumstances and that God wants to care for us in all circumstances. Thanks be to God. Amen.