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Awesome God (Exodus 14:19-31)


The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt." Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

EXODUS 14:19-31

Sermon (The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor)

So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

After all that the people had seen and experienced, they felt a sense of dread, a sense of fear. They had struggled under the oppression of the Egyptians and in response to their suffering, God sent plagues to convince the Egyptians to let them go…frogs fell from heaven, disease spread throughout the land, waters turned to blood, first born children died. And now they found themselves being led out of Egypt, Moses walking before them holding a staff that could transform into a snake, pillars of fire and smoke surrounding them. And when they reach the waters of a sea, it seems as if all is lost. Before them is endless water, behind them Pharaoh’s armies charge, chariots and riders at full speed. So Moses stretches out his hand and the winds begin to blow, the waters move, forming walls on the right and the left. The people cross through the sea, walking on the dry earth. And as they reach the shore, they look behind them only to see Egyptian chariots stuck in the mud, the waters coming down, covering them completely…thousands of men and horses drowned. And they felt a sense of dread, a sense of fear.

The fear of the LORD is a theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is found in the book of Proverbs, associated with wisdom. In the Psalms those who fear the LORD are considered blessed. Deuteronomy calls people to follow specific acts so they will learn to fear the LORD always.

In today’s first reading, we encounter one way of understanding what it means for people to fear the LORD. If we place ourselves into the Israelites’ shoes, experiencing all that they did…we can imagine the pure terror they must have felt as they watched people die at God’s hand, perhaps wondering, worrying, if God might kill them too if they messed up.

But this understanding of the fear of the LORD doesn’t fully capture what the book of Exodus and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures mean by the phrase. It isn’t to be understood as fear, such as being afraid that God is going to do something awful…it isn’t fear as we might fear a character, like Chucky or Jason in a horror movie. But the fear we read about in Scripture is that sense of deep trembling that pours over someone who encounters something so great and inexplicable…who encounters the true and amazing awesomeness of God.

To develop this concept, Rudolf Otto, a religious theorist, uses the term numinous, speaking of God as the mysterious and tremendous fascination. To truly have a numinous experience, to truly encounter the divine, would evoke in us a sense of “daunting awful [true majesty].” God, as Otto’s numinous, can best be described as an awesome mystery, beyond all human comprehension. And as tiny humans encounter this, they experience fear, a wonderful fear.

This sense of awesome mystery, tremendousness, wonderful fear, isn’t something we will ever fully explain or understand, because we don’t really experience it in our daily lives…and this was the case for the ancient people too. So to help them, and us, understand God’s grandeur, understand God awesomeness, Exodus and other passages in Scripture describe God using vivid images, violence, and terror to help the audience grasp who God is, to draw them into the story and remind them that God is great, God is to be feared because God has control over life and death, over nature, over the course of events. Scripture calls its readers to remember that God is not simple, God cannot be described using a couple of words, God is not warm and fuzzy, there only to make us feel good…but God is every colour, every sound, every force of nature, every power, all in one…God is the greatest mystery ever, and because of this, humans must recognize how tiny and insufficient we are, humans must live in fear and trembling at the majesty of God.

When I began studying theology and scripture, I realized that the more I studied the more questions I had about the Bible, God, and Jesus. I used to wonder: if I could get all the answers would I want them? After a lot of reflection I concluded that I don’t want the answers, I want the ineffable mystery. In our world so much is quickly explained away, science dispels myths, google provides answers to any question in a second…but there is something interesting about mystery. It can be discomforting, because there is no clarity, assurance, hard facts, but if we enter into that discomfort, if we embrace the vastness of all we don’t know, maybe we will come a little closer to touching the surface of who God is. Maybe we will realize that when we think we know God, we don’t actually know much at all, because God is God and God is too big for us to ever understand. Scripture and its depictions of God are calling us to put away our human arrogance and our need to know everything, to accept that God is beyond our comprehension and because of this we must stand in complete fear of God.

To conclude my sermon, I want to play a piece of music…it is Awesome God, which is an older worship song. Whenever I hear it I am always reminded of how big, majestic, and awesome God is. I hope that this song, along with this sermon might help you to embrace the fear of the LORD and the images of God that we find in passages like Exodus…these are all aimed at reminding us that we, as humans, are tiny and we don’t know much about God, because God is so great, so powerful, so majestic, the numinous, mysterious tremendous and fascinating, in control of every aspect of life and death and beyond our understanding…and all we can do is stand in fear of this. Amen.

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