I recently preached on Exodus 13.17-14, "Prisons are Hidden Pathways." Please check out the video!
Prisons are Hidden Pathways
Question: How many of you have ever felt like Indiana Jones? You may not necessarily be fleeing the Nazis or frantically trying to find the Holy Grail to heal your dad’s bullet wound, or run up against the edge of a literal cliff, BUT, how many of you have been in impossible situations that seemingly have no way out? Situations that don’t seem to have a solution?
Do you know who else felt this way? The Israelites.
Exodus Narrative Overview:
As we launch into today’s topic, I want to give you a brief overview of the story we’re going to be looking at. In Exodus chapters 13 and 14, the plagues have ended and Pharaoh wants the Israelites gone.
So, the Israelites leave Egypt.
But, as they leave, Pharaoh freaks out. The Israelites were free labor, they helped support Egypt’s economy, but now Pharaoh is letting his subjects go to serve a different God, and he questions what he’s done (14:5). He wants the Israelites back, so he gathers all of his chariots, and all of the chariots in Egypt, and starts pursuing them.
Before the Israelites realize they’re being pursued, the text tells us they went out “boldly” (14:8). Initially, they were confident, and assured, though they really had no idea where they were going. They didn’t actually know they were headed to the Red Sea, and it’s only when they look back (14:10), and see Pharaoh, and literally all of Egypt pursuing them, that they experience and cry out in great fear (14:10). They freak out. They doubt. And in that moment, they blame Moses, “Why in the world did you bring us out here to die! We have no idea how God is going to get us out of this pinch, so just let us go back to Egypt. We prefer bondage. Prison is better.” (14.13).
Moses gives the Israelites a quick pep talk, and then God responds directly to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to go forward” (14.15).
The Israelites had no idea what this means. They’re sandwiched between a body of water and the advancing Egyptian army, which was the most powerful, dominant, well-trained army of the day. As the readers, most of us know what happens next, but the Israelites didn’t. From their perspective, it was pretty much drown in the Red Sea, be run over by chariots, or be captured and taken back into slavery. If this isn’t a giant pickle, I don’t know what is.
But in this very moment, the moment where Israel is driven to the brink, where they are boxed in all sides, where despair is the only response to the imprisonment they feel, God makes a way.
God drives back the water of the Red Sea (14:21). He creates a tunnel, a pathway, a way out.
However, the scene doesn’t end here. The drama continues. Even as God is delivering his people from bondage, the Egyptians are still pursuing them. The Egyptians follow them into the sea. The situation looks hopeless. The Israelites are crossing the sea floor on foot and the Egyptian army is advancing in state-of-the-art machinery.
But again, it’s in this very moment, the moment when the Israelites can’t see a way forward, that God again provides a way out.
God lays the smack down on the Egyptians. He throws them into a panic (14.24). He clogs their chariot wheels (14.25). And just like Israel experienced fear when seeing the Egyptians, the Egyptians now fear when they see God’s power. And once again, the Egyptians change their mind. They do an about face and flee. As they’re fleeing, God brings the sea crashing down, back to its normal state. Israel’s captors, are destroyed. And all of Israel is saved.
The Exodus, is the climactic moment in Israel’s history. This is God’s ultimate act of deliverance for his people from bondage to freedom. God frees Israel from a seemingly hopeless situation. He liberates them from their prison, but does so in a very unexpected way.
Today, we’re continuing in our series, “Fighting for Freedom.” And the tagline for today’s message is “Prisons are Hidden Pathways.” Essentially, when we feel trapped, God can do the impossible. But, as Brian said in his sermon last week, this often looks very different than we would expect. God’s freedom comes in unexpected ways.
Before we continue, I want to take a minute to break down the phrase, “Prisons are Hidden Pathways.” Or rather, look at it in our context, and what it means for us today.
Prison: when we hear the term prison, most of us probably think of Corcoran or Chowchilla. While it can very much mean physical enslavement—as we just saw, this was the case for Israel. They were physically enslaved in Egypt, and when they were sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Egyptians, they were blockaded on all sides. It’s the same with Indiana Jones. He was sandwiched between the Nazis and a giant cavern. He was also physically stuck. For us though, I think it makes more sense to think of prisons, not as a literal prisons or as physical entrapment, but rather as impossible situations; or seemingly impossible situations, in which we feel stuck without a clear exit.. You may feel stuck at a job you hate, with coworkers that drive you crazy. You might feel like a prisoner in your marriage, who’s doomed to live out a sentence, rather than a joyful union. You might be struggling with depression or anxiety, the anguish of which feels like a mental jail. You might be stuck in an addiction, whether drugs, pornography, smoking, or alcohol, and feel like you can’t break free. You might be a stay-at-home parent who feels captive in your own house. Or a teenager, who feels trapped between what the world wants you to do and what God wants you to do. You might be so far in financial debt, you may as well be in Corcoran, because it feels that oppressive. Or, you might be facing a decision, but are so paralyzed by fear of the unknown, that you’re stuck and can’t move forward.
This is what I mean by prisons.
Hidden: I think it’s best to define hidden as unexpected; surprising; something we couldn’t have seen or predicted.
Pathway: this unexpectedness describes the pathway. And the pathway is simply God’s act of deliverance, God’s rescue, God’s salvation. It’s his way of moving us from our prisons to freedom.
We see this unexpected pathway play out with the Israelites. They had no idea where they were headed. God had promised freedom from Egyptian slavery, deliverance was assured, however, he didn’t lay out his evacuation plan. He didn’t provide the Israelites a blue print of their exit strategy. His plan wasn’t revealed to them. I highly doubt that when the Israelites approached the Red Sea, that they thought, “Oh yes, this is how God is going to deliver us. Clearly, he’s going to part this, which will allow us to walk right through.”
Even Indiana Jones didn’t quite know how he was going to make it across the cavern. We saw in the clip that he had some proof that this pathway existed, but it was supposed to be there already, it should’ve been clearly laid out. But when he gets there, it’s not. He couldn’t see it. His path to the Holy Grail was obscured.
This should make us ask the question, why does God’s deliverance come in ways we least expect? Why are they hidden or unknown to us? Personally speaking, I would much prefer a detailed exit strategy from my prisons. I’d like to know exactly how God is going to spring me out of a situation. However, I think there are several reasons why God keeps us in the dark.
First, I think God wants to build our trust. If the Israelites knew ahead of time how it was all going to play out; if they could control the situation, there would be no need to trust God. It’s the same with us. There’s a direct correlation between trust and control. If we know everything in advance, we can control the situation. There’s no reason to wait on God. Little faith and little trust is required.
Second, and related to what I just said, we’re very self-reliant people, and we like to take credit for our achievements. If we tried to bust out of our own prisons, which we frequently do, we would want the credit for it. However, it’s very clear in the Exodus story, that God wants the glory, he wants the credit. The text mentions this word glory 3x (4, 17, 18). And it’s not about stroking God’s divine ego or appealing to his narcissistic personality,but rather, he wants the Israelites to know that he did this for them. Freeing them was his grace to them. It’s nothing they could’ve done, earned or accomplished. Likewise, God wants to show the Egyptians, that he is a God more powerful than Pharaoh; that he is a God of liberation, rather than oppression; that he frees his people, rather than enslaves them.
Lastly, if we knew God’s plan of deliverance in advance, I’m not convinced we would act on it. If we knew God’s exit strategy, especially considering how different it is from our own, I don’t think we’d sign up. I believe the Israelites genuinely wanted their freedom. I think they genuinely wanted to leave Egypt, but, it’s pretty clear from the text, that they were very easily intimidated and filled with fear. I have a feeling, that had God relayed all of his plans to the Israelites up front, they probably would’ve responded something like this, “You know Lord, we’re not really looking forward to roaming in the wilderness or being chased by the Egyptian army, or wanting to play chicken between the Sea and Pharaoh. And we’re not really into risking our lives crossing a body of water that you’re supposedly going to part, though we’ve never witnessed this before, and that you’re supposedly going to keep parted until we make it all the way through. Honestly, slavery’s easier. We’ll stay in Egypt.” I think God’s plan would’ve only increased Israel’s fear. It would’ve overwhelmed them even more. I think this is why God reveals it a step at a time. Otherwise, Israel may not have followed through. Perhaps, neither would we.
Before moving on, I want to share a story from my own life during a time where I felt stuck and somewhat imprisoned.
In 2011, I accepted an Office Management position at a technology firm here in town, while I was finishing up my MA in Theology. I graduated in May 2013 and really had no desire or plan to use my degree. However, by January 2014, I had numerous people tell me, “Hey, you should really try teaching. I think this is an area you’re gifted in.” To which I responded, “No! Not interested. It’s way too hard.”
Now, the reality was, I was not satisfied at my Office Management job. It was sometimes mindless and boring, I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with my boss, and it didn’t challenge me in ways I wanted to be challenged. I really desired something more fulfilling, rewarding, meaningful, and engaging.
Now, if you’re tracking with the story so far, you’ll hopefully see the irony here. God was opening the door for me to consider teaching—a job that had the potential to be fulfilling, rewarding, and meaningful. However, for me teaching felt like the Red Sea, and my Office Management job felt like the Egyptian army. Neither looked very good, and because teaching seemed so daunting and something I had no interest in, I couldn’t even really comprehend how I would find it rewarding or fulfilling. I even remember going to watch a friend teach, and I was so terrified after observing her, I went home later that night, threw myself on the floor (drama queen-style), and cried to my best friend, “I just can’t do it. I can’t stand up there for 4 hours and pretend to know what I’m saying!”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when I looked at the application process for Fresno Pacific, I was like, “No. Don’t want to do it. Too many documents to put together.” Now, for most people, this probably wouldn’t have been that overwhelming, but for me, it felt like the Red Sea.
And I told God, “I can’t do it Lord! I just don’t know how this is going to work out, so I’ll just stay at my Office Management position.” But in that moment, God said the same thing to me as he did to Moses and the Israelites, “Why are you crying out to me? Go forward.”
So I did.
In asking me to move forward, God brought people to help with the application process. I got everything submitted on time. But, like the Israelites, I didn’t go forward with much hope or belief of actually getting the teaching position. Even though God had made it abundantly clear that this is what he wanted for my life, and that he was going to make it happen, I was thinking, “This probably isn’t going to happen, but I’ve been obedient.” Thus, I was extremely surprised when 3 weeks later I received an email from the Biblical Studies Department setting up a time to meet with the Program Manager. I went in for what I thought was an interview, but which was actually a “When can you start—we need someone to teach in September—we can get your books today” meeting.
God parted the Sea for me. He made a way. I walked through. And have been teaching ever since.
3 weeks ago, when my best friend was talking with my old boss from my Office Management job, he was asking about how my teaching was going, and if I’d ever come back to Office Management. She told him I was loving teaching and that no, I’d never return. He then relayed the following story to her:
He said, “When Jess initially requested an adjusted schedule to finish up classes for her MA, my immediate gut response was absolutely, no way. I’m not going to invest or put time into training her, if she’s not going to be here from the standard 8-5 every day, or if she’s just going to leave in a couple of years when she finishes her MA. So I went home that night determined to tell her the next day that I couldn’t accommodate her schedule or the classes she was needing to take. However, when I woke up the next morning and was driving to work, God spoke to me and said, ‘You will grant her what she’s asked. You will give her an adjusted schedule, because teaching is my call for her life. She needs to finish her MA before she can teach.’ So, I went into work, and told her ‘absolutely, do whatever you need.’”
Now, if God had told me in 2011 that he was going to use a job I didn’t like (aka Office Management), but a job that would make every accommodation to bring me through my MA program, and to bring about God’s will for my life (aka Teaching), I think I would’ve laughed a little.
If God had told me in 2011, that I would love teaching, something that seemed so overwhelming, something that I feared tremendously, I wouldn’t have believed him.
In 2011, I couldn’t have predicted what a privilege it would be to read Scripture with my students, to see their “ah ha!” moments, and to rejoice with them when they encountered the Gospel for the first time. I couldn’t have foreseen how alive I would feel when I teach, how something inside of me awakens when I teach my students about Jesus. I couldn’t have predicted the freedom I would feel when I’m up in front of a class, rather than behind a desk.
And I couldn’t have foreseen that my initial “stuckness” between Office Management and teaching was in fact God’s hidden pathway.
Call to Action: Go Forward
Prisons are hidden pathways. This was true for Indiana Jones, the Israelites, me, and for us.
When the Israelites approached the Red Sea, they were at the end of their rope. When they looked back, all they saw was Pharaoh, the Egyptian army, and potential death. They couldn’t possibly have fought off Pharaoh and his entourage. And all they saw in front of them was an endless body of water. They approached the Red Sea with fear and despair, rather than hope and belief. They didn’t know God’s plan. They didn’t trust in what was next. They didn’t see a way forward. They were imprisoned.
Like the Israelites, many of us today feel imprisoned. We feel stuck in jobs, marriages, addictions, self-deprecating thoughts, physical ailments, memories from the past, and fears of the future.
And just like the Israelites, we face the same pickle—how do we move forward when there is no way out? When it doesn’t look like rescue is on the horizon, but only a dead end? How do we move out of our prisons when we don’t know God’s plan, when we don’t know the ending?
The answer is simple. Go forward (14:15). Take a step of faith like Indiana Jones. Walk in obedience like the Israelites.
In Exodus 14:13, Moses gives this pep talk to the Israelites, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
This is the same pep talk Moses gives us today. The Israelites were in a desperate situation, they were being pursued by their enemies and were also facing a vast unknown. Yet, God promised deliverance. Deliverance was assured. God was going to fight on behalf of his people.
Many of us are in the same desperate situations; however, in these moments when we’re pacing in our prisons, God reminds us that deliverance is assured. Whether it’s the Red Sea or the cross at Calvary, God is in the business of freeing captives. He is a God that saves. He knows the ending.
Yet, his promise of deliverance is also paired with our action. Directly following Moses’ pep talk, God says, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (14:15).
When Indiana Jones went forward, the hidden pathway was revealed. When the Israelites went forward, the hidden pathway was made known. When I said yes to teaching, God provided a way. Merely sitting in our prisons isn’t going to do us any good. Throwing pity parties, giving excuses, sitting in paralyzed fear, will only keep us enslaved. It’s only in the act of going forward, of setting out, of moving from our prison, that God meets us; that he reveals his hidden pathway to freedom; that he fights for and delivers us.
I’ll be the first to admit that moving forward into the unknown isn’t easy. Sometimes, it feels downright debilitating, like it did when I made the decision to teach. And, if you notice in the text, the Israelites don’t go forward in hope or belief. They move forward in despair and fear. But they move forward nonetheless. They’ve been promised freedom, and though they have no idea how that’s going to happen, they are obedient. It’s only on the other side of the Red Sea that they experience hope, belief, and joy.
In just a moment, I’m going to ask us to take a step forward today. But before we do that, we’re going to do a Q&A time. So, I’d like to open it up now for any questions, comments, or thoughts you may have.
Prayer Time: Deliver Me
Right now, we’re going to enter into a time of prayer.
Many of us today have already experienced God’s deliverance and salvation, and like the Israelites, we rejoice in trust and belief, recognizing God’s great work.
However, many of us feel trapped like Indiana Jones or the Israelites. We’re up against a giant cavern or giant sea. We feel trapped, imprisoned, and can’t see the way forward.
If you’re up against an impossible situation, whether in your job, your marriage, with your family, children, school, or addiction, and if you’re unsure of how this is going to get resolved, but are wanting to go forward, to take a step out of your prison, I’m going to ask you in just a moment to raise your hand so people can gather around and pray for you.
I know this might be really uncomfortable and awkward for a lot of us. Receiving prayer from others we may not necessarily know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s really vulnerable. But, as followers of Jesus, this is a way we can support, encourage, and bear one another’s burdens. We often need other people to help us go forward. We’re not called to do it alone. The Israelites had Moses and one other, and we too have one another.
You may not know the way forward right now, but perhaps prayer is the initial step towards God revealing his way forward to you, his unexpected pathway to release you from your prison.
So right now, if you’re needing prayer, if you’re wanting to go forward from your prison, even though the way isn’t clear, please raise your hand.
If you’re sitting next to someone who’s raising their hand, please go over to them right now.
Before asking them what they need prayer for, and praying for them, I’m going to pray for us.
Lord, I pray you would move mightily right now. Just as you worked miraculously through Moses’ extended hands, I pray you also would work mightily through ours, as we pray for one another right now. May we remember that you’re a God that saves; a God that fights for us. But may we also remember that you require us to join in, to act, to go forward. I pray that this time of prayer would be a first step in going forward. And in going forward, I pray for our willingness to surrender our own way, our own plans, because if we had it our way, we would most likely end up exactly where we started—in our prisons. Instead, may we embrace your unexpected pathways, recognizing that the very things that plague us right now, are the very things you use to liberate us. In going forward, may we experience your freedom. And may we give you the glory. Amen.