After spending 27 years in a non-Christian cult, a woman was converted to Christ. She regretted all the year she had wasted following a false gospel, and one day she said to her pastor, “I don’t understand God.”
The minister feigned surprise, “Oh, really? What is it that you don’t understand?”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t understand why He left me in that cult for 27 years. Why didn’t He send someone along sooner who could tell me the way of salvation?”
“Oh, I know the answer to that,” said the minister.
“Please tell me what it is,” asked the woman.
“Well, it’s like this: God is very odd.”
I’ve never seen oddness listed as an attribute of God in any theology book. But when you think about it, that answer is very theological. It is just another way of saying what God says through the prophet Isaiah — “My thoughts are not your thoughts … neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). To our way of thinking, God is odd, because His ways are sometimes very perplexing.
Our study passage relates an example of the mystery of God’s ways. He had displayed His power by sending plagues upon Egypt to break the will of Pharaoh and persuade him to let the Israelites go free. He had manifested His grace by protecting the Israelites from the judgments He sent on Egypt, by instructing them to apply the blood of a lamb to the doorposts of their home. Israel’s dream of liberty had come true at last, and it was more wonderful, more glorious than they ever could have imagined.
Yet, even as they take their first steps toward freedom, they must have realized that they were headed in a strange direction. The easisest, most direct, and most scenic route to Canaan was to travel North to the Mediterranean, turn right and travel through Philistine country. But instead, Moses set out toward the Southeast, in the direction of the Red Sea, beyond which lies the Sinai desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Had it not been for the euphoria of the occasion, there would certainly have been objections to the odd route they were taking.
Very quickly their situation became even more perplexing. God led them to Succoth, and beyond, to Etham, and then, surprisingly, He told them to reverse direction (Exodus 14:1): “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon.” They were traveling in circles! And then, He told them to encamp near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon, near the Read Sea, and while they were encamped there, at the precise place where God put them, the Egyptian army caught up with them “by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon” (Exodus 14:9).
Realizing they were trapped between Pharaoh and the deep Red Sea, the people “were terrified and cried out to the Lord” (Exodus 14:10). Many of you know what they said to the Lord, don’t you? You know, because you’ve said it yourself: “Why? Why did You put us in this hopeless predicament? Where are You when we really need You? Is this the way You treat the people You love?”
Not only did they cry to the Lord, they did something else people often do when things appear to be going wrong; they played the silly blame game. Ignoring what God had done for them through the leadership of Moses, they turned against him and made him a scapegoat. They complained to him (Exodus 14:11), “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.” Incredible isn’t it? They’re not yet across the border, and already they are telling Moses off for liberating them: “You told us we were going to a good land, flowing with milk and honey, and instead we’re here between an uncrossable sea and an unbeatable enemy, with no way of escape. We’re going to die here. And it’s all your fault!”
Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is a striking picture of Christian experience. We were held by an evil oppressor — not Pharaoh, but sin and Satan. God sent a Deliverer to set us free — not Moses, but Jesus. Jesus defeated the enemy, not with plagues, but by dying on a cross and rising again. We are protected from the judgment of God by the blood of a lamb — not blood applied to the doorposts of our homes, but the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, applied to our heart by faith. And now that we have been set free, we have embarked on a pilgrimage — not to Canaan, but to Heaven.
Our pilgrim pathway is no less perplexing than Israel’s. When we first began to walk with the Lord, we may have imagined that He would spare us from the most serious problems and dangers of life. We soon discovered, however, that our path leads through a wilderness, and He does not always protect His people from harsh realities. There are cul-de-sacs and dead-ends, Red Seas and deserts, on our journey, too.
Our response to our perplexing pathway is sometimes no less unbelieving than theirs. Who among us has not responded to some Red Sea in our lives in just the same way they did. We are puzzled and confused. We can’t understand what has gone wrong. We instinctively want to assess blame. Someone must be responsible for this, we think. We complain to God, “Why have you allowed this to happen?” Haven’t you ever felt like that? Haven’t you ever prayed like that? I would be very surprised if you said you hadn’t.
Now, what I hope this sermon will do is to assure you that God is sufficient in all your wilderness experiences. You will find that to be true if you keep in mind four truths, which are illustrated in this narrative. Before I point out what those four truths are, I want to say that I am not talking about abstractions, but about things I have experienced in my own life. In August, 1995, my wife, Jane, and I spent ten days on vacation in Pennsylvania. While we were there, I was meditating on this passage from Exodus, little knowing that I would soon have opportunity to put these things into practice.
When we returned from Philadelphia, we discovered that our 32-year old daughter, Amy, the wife of a Presbyterian pastor, and the mother of four beautiful young children, had been suffering from severe headaches. Within just a few days of our return she was admitted to the hospital, where an M.R.I, revealed a brain tumor, and further tests indicated that it was a glioblastoma multiforme, the worst kind of malignant brain tumor. Because of its location it was inoperable. The doctors were quite candid, that apart from what one of them called “the God-factor,” long-term survival was not to be expected. “Long-term” in that context, I later learned, meant two years. It was a perplexing and painful experience, but through it, we learned many lessons, among them the reality of the principles illustrated by this passage. The first thing to notice is this:
I. God’s Ways May Be Perplexing, and Sometimes Very Painful, But They Are, Nevertheless, His Ways.
That is to say, the pathway is laid out by Him. That is quite clear in Israel’s situation. We read in Exodus 13:17, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter.” Instead (Exodus 13:18), “God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea….” He did not lead them this way; He did lead them that way. The main point is plain: it was God who led them. He laid out every step of their route, every twist and turn of their journey.
And there was no possibility of misreading the map, or missing a turn, for they were guided by that pillar of cloud and fire. Dangerous as their situation was, they could not say, “We are here out of God’s hand!”
Neither can a Christian ever say that. We have no cloud to guide us, but we have something else. We have the assurance of the Word of God that “the steps of a righteous person are ordered by the Lord” We have the guarantee of Scripture that “He knows the end from the beginning” and that He is working all things together according to the counsel of His own will. We have Romans 8:28 which encourages us by saying, “He causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Wherever we find ourselves, we are there by His providence. Whatever we face, it is part of God’s plan.
We can take encouragement from the fact that God explains the reasons for the way He led them out of Egypt (Exodus 13:17): “God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine territory, though that was shorter, for God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” The Northern route, you see, was guarded by strong Egyptian border fortifications. If they had gone that way, they would have had to fight, and those recently-released slaves were not prepared for battle. So God intentionally avoided that route, and chose instead the longer and, to the human eye, far less sensible pathway between the desert and the upper reaches of the Red Sea. He knew their limitation, you see, and His guidance took it into account.
The same is true in the way He leads us. He knows exactly how much strain our faith can take, and though He may often push it to the very limit, in His providence He always guides us away from those situations where that critical limit will be exceeded. There are many ways that God could guide us that would break our faith. But He knows our limitations, and He guides us accordingly. So whenever your path takes an unexpected and unwanted turn, let this story reassure you of this: the route has been carefully assessed by Him; it has been moderated by His kindness and grace; it has been tempered to your limitations. The way He leads you may test your faith to the limit. But it won’t send you back to Egypt. He will make sure of that.
While God had a reason for leading them as He did, I want you to notice that He did not explain His reasons to the people. Notice that Exodus 13:17 does not say, “If you face war, you might change your minds and return to Egypt.” He speaks about them, in the third person; He does not speak to them. I take it that the explanation was given to Moses, just as in Exodus 14 He explains to Moses His purpose for leading them in circles. But there is no indication that the people were told His reasons. That’s the way it is with us. Seldom does He explain to us His ways. This allows them to remain mysterious. But we can be assured that He has His reasons, and they are always kind and loving, where His people are concerned.
A woman was driving home at night along a highway when she became aware that a large truck was tail-gating her. She slowed down to allow the driver to pass, but he slowed down to her speed. She sped up; so did the truck. Beginning to get nervous, she took the next exit. The trucker exited, too, and stayed right on her tail. She turned onto a main street, and the truck driver ran a red light to stay with her. Beginning to panic, she whipped into a service station, jumped out of her car and began running and screaming for help, the truck driver pulled in right behind her, jumped from the cab of his truck, ran to her car, jerked open the rear door, and pulled out a man who was crouching behind the front seat. From his high vantage point, the trucker had seen a would-be rapist hiding in the back of the woman’s car, unknown to her. What she perceived as a threat was really an act of kindness.
That’s the way God is. We need to remember that, especially in those times when we are tempted to become cynical about whether He really loves us or not. We may not see the reason for what He’s doing; it’s hidden from us. But in those times, we can know that God knows what He is about.
On the day of Amy’s diagnosis, I sat on the edge of her bed at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and with tears in my eyes, I said, “Sweetheart, I would do anything if I could trade places with you.” I shall never forget her response. She smiled and said, “Oh, I wouldn’t want that, Dad. God has entrusted this to me, and He will use it somehow.” On the one hand, her response was gratifying. It showed she had been listening to my sermons over the years, because if one truth has surfaced more than others in my preaching, it is the reassuring truth that above all the perplexing chaos of life, God sits sovereign, unfailingly working out His wise purpose. She had often heard me say that nothing touches a child of God that does not come through the perfect will of a wise and loving God — absolutely nothing.
It was a gratifying response, yet at the same time, it was a humbling rebuke. Amy was preaching my sermons back to me, and not just preaching, but living out her confidence in the sovereignty of God. And she never wavered about that. Her faith made familiar truths more existentially real to me.
Maybe you are hurting today. Perhaps you are facing a situation before which you feel helpless, and you are tempted to ask, “Why? Why are you allowing this to happen?” It’s not wrong to ask that. It’s a very natural question. Even Jesus asked it: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” But while it isn’t wrong to ask, you will be disappointed if you expect an answer. One day, in heaven, the scroll will be unrolled, and we will see the reasons behind His providence. But God is under no obligation to explain or to defend Himself to us. His ways are often perplexing, and sometimes very painful, but be sure of this: it is God Himself who has brought you to that difficult spot, and He makes no mistakes. We must rest in the assurance that He knows what He is doing, even when we do not, and that He does all things well.
II. The ways of God — His often perplexing, sometimes painful, ways — are designed to magnify His glory.
We see that truth expressed in the words God speaks to Moses at the beginning of Exodus 14, to explain why He is leading the Israelites in that round-about way: “Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” The same rationale is expressed again in Exodus 14:18: “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
You know how He glorified Himself there at the Red Sea. Moses lifted his rod, and God sent a strong east wind which blew all night, driving back the waters and drying up the muddy sea bottom, so that the Israelites walked to freedom on dry ground. But when the Egyptians tried to follow, He released the pent-up waters and the entire Egyptian army was drowned. Thus the Israelites saw the glory of His redeeming power, the Egyptians experienced the glory of His just judgment, and they all learned that Yahweh alone is God.
In our experience, sometimes God glorifies Himself by delivering us from our problems just as miraculously as He did those Israelites. Many of us remember times in our life when we seemed to be up against a dead-end, and miraculously the wall dissolved and a way opened up. So, when you feel yourself trapped, don’t grumble too quickly. God loves to open up Red Seas for His people. He delights to turn hopelessness into victory. Didn’t He turn Joseph from a prisoner to Prime Minister? Didn’t He turn David from a shepherd into a king? Didn’t He turn the high walls of Jericho into a pile of rubble? And most glorious of all, didn’t He turn a cross into a throne? Listen, no situation in which God is active is hopeless. We need to remember that we’re going to get across this wilderness in one piece.
Yet I would be less than candid if I did not add that sometimes the sea does not part. Sometimes the problem doesn’t disappear. Sometimes the outcome is apparent defeat, with no release. Yet even then, God is at work to glorify Himself. He does it by being with us and sustaining us in such a way that even in apparent defeat our spirit remains victorious. He did not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh, remember, despite the apostle’s repeated and earnest prayer. But He taught him that His grace is sufficient in every circumstance, and that His power is displayed through human weakness. Sometimes God gets greater glory by enabling us to endure difficulty than by removing it.
That’s what he did in Amy’s case. Shortly after her brain tumor was diagnosed, I became involved in an internet “community” called simply Braintmr, a mailing list with over 900 subscribers from some 35 countries, all of whom had some special interest in brain tumors. Some were patients, some were caregivers, some were doctors or nurses or researchers. For several years I received 80 or more email messages a day, some focused on medical concerns, some on emotional support, some on spiritual matters, all having something to do with brain tumors. During most of the year of Amy’s illness, I kept the list informed of every new development in her condition.
One night I received a telephone call from a woman who identified herself as Debbie from West Virginia, a fellow-subscriber to the Braintmr List. She apologized for phoning, but explained that she had been trying for an hour to compose a message and finally decided that the best way to tell me what she had to say was to phone. “I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that your daughter has changed my life.” I asked how that was possible, since she had never met Amy. She reminded me that I had posted a message to the List telling about Amy’s confidence that God had “entrusted” her with her tumor and that he would use it for His purpose somehow. “It occurred to me,” my caller explained, “that if there is a purpose in a brain tumor, there must be a purpose for my life.” As a result, she had renewed her commitment to Christ and had joined a church.
There are many stories like that of people who claimed their lives were changed in some way because of Amy’s consistently joyful optimism in the face of an illness she knew would probably take her life. One night several months after Amy’s death, Jane and I attended a meeting of a local brain tumor support group. We arrived a few minutes late and the meeting was already in progress. The session was being led by Danielle, an oncology nurse who worked for Amy’s neuro-oncologist. As we walked into the room, Danielle was saying to the group, “If you are not saved, you really should get saved, because it is so wonderful.” I was startled, and if I had not known Danielle and several other people in the room, I might have thought we had strayed into an evangelistic meeting rather than a brain tumor support group.
I couldn’t wait for the meeting to end so I could ask Danielle what she had been talking about. She was eager to tell me that she had recently given her heart to Christ and had joined a church for the first time in her life, and that one of the things God used to bring her to that point was Amy, conversations they had at the doctor’s office, and especially the attitude with which Amy faced death.
On another occasion a man in Minnesota posted to the Mailing List a description of the memorial service for his eight-year old daughter who recently died of a brain tumor. It was a beautifully moving description, and I wept as I read it. I immediately sent him an email message to thank him. He replied and in his message told me something of his spiritual pilgrimage. He had been raised Lutheran, he said, but years ago had given up his faith and considered himself to be an atheist. But one day he visited the memorial web site my older daughter’s husband had created in honor of Amy and had read all the things posted there — a description of her memorial service, a couple of sermons in which I had mentioned her and so on — and as a result, he had asked Christ to come into his heart and be his Savior. “That experience,” he said, “gave me the courage to face my daughter’s death. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”
I think of Amy — upbeat, cheerful, believing that God had entrusted her with something she knew would take her life, and believing that He wanted to use it for His glory, and I say, “Only God could have sustained a person like that.” Oh, I would have been thrilled if the Red Sea had parted and her last M.R.I, had come up clean. But even though the sea did not part, I knew that I had seen the gleam of the glory of God in the face of my daughter. The third truth I see in our study passage is this:
III. The Ways of God, Though Perplexing and Painful, Will Always Bring Us to a Place of Singing and Praise
In Exodus 15 the Israelites pause on the other side of the sea to sing the praises of God for their deliverance. I will not comment on the hymn they sang, except to point out that it didn’t last. It was merely a rest on the way to continued hardship and difficulty. In Exodus 15:22, with scarcely a pause for breath, the story continues: “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they want into the wilderness of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.” From the amazing experience of deliverance from the impossible situation at the Red Sea, they move right back into another crisis situation. For the next forty years that would be the pattern. God would lead them from one difficulty into another, each time demonstrating what He is able to do for those who will trust in Him.
That’s the way the Christian life is, too. When we get through the trial that faces us today, there will be another tomorrow. We will see God’s hand at work again and again, delivering, strengthening, guiding and blessing, as the path of our pilgrimage unfolds. And each time we experience victory and deliverance, we will sing out our gratitude, only to be plunged before long into still another test.
But praise God, there is coming a day when He will bring us to a place where the singing never stops! As later generations of poets and prophets reflected on this Exodus story, they saw in the rout of Pharaoh’s army a picture of the final conquest by God over every form of evil in the universe. And that song which the Israelites sang became the source of much of their poetic imagery in depicting that final victory.
Thus, in Revelation 15 the apostle John draws on Exodus 15 to describe the Church in heaven. He sees them standing by a sea, not the Red Sea but a crystal sea. He describes them as having been victorious, not over Pharaoh but over Antichrist. And he hears them singing (Revelation 15:3) “…the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb!” They are singing about God’s great victory for His people, a victory pictured in the deliverance led by Moses, and accomplished in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.
Until that day when we join with the unending chorus of the redeemed in heaven, let us remember that we have something worth singing about here and now, a God who, through Jesus Christ, has delivered us from sin and guilt and judgment, a God who is in control of every detail of our lives and is able to intervene in our lives, if it will glorify Him to do so, a God who is leading us to a place of eternal praise, a God whose ways may sometimes be perplexing and very painful, but whose sustaining grace is always sufficient, a God whom we can trust, no matter what.

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