The term “fear” has two important connotations: it expresses a reverential respect for God in matters both moral and spiritual, and it also implies cowardice and timidity. On this period of Lent, as we ponder the significance of the Exodus event, we encounter an interesting dynamic between fear (in both senses of the word) and deliverance. The Exodus event is ultimately a prominent story about Israel’s deliverance from captivity and oppression, but it is also a story about our enslavement and eventual deliverance from sin. In the midst of this narrative is the life destroying and life renewing power of the waters. For the Jews water was a barrier to freedom; but in our stories water is the gateway to freedom.
The Jews who had entered the land of Egypt under hospitable conditions had by the time of Moses become slaves. Theirs was the harsh reality of cruel labor, hard taskmasters, and the crushing force of hopelessness. But God was not negligent of their cries and unaware of their plight. He sends a prophet to deliver them from the chains of oppression and anomie. As Moses takes them out of captivity, they come to the realization that they must wander in the wilderness. This causes them to lament: “It is better to die in Egypt than to die in the wilderness. Theirs was a fear of the unknown motivated by comfort and timidity. They were fearful because they were comfortable in their lives as slaves, however harsh the circumstances. In Egypt they had a purpose, they had security and they had a comfortable routine. They did not need to fear the unknown. They did not have to care for anyone but themselves.
Moses wanted them to learn to fear or trust in the Lord. He wanted to take them out of their comfort zone. Moses presented them with the harsh realization that in order to arrive at the Promised Land they had to go through the terrifying waters of the Red Sea and wander into the wilderness. They could not arrive at the Promised Land unless they gave themselves up in body, heart, and mind. They could not reach the Promised Land unless they trusted in God. In effect they had to give up their fear of the unknown and give in to the love of what is known; the Living God of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Only after they learned to fear and trust in the Lord were they able to reach the Promised Land. It is also worth noting that a life lived in freedom meant that they were now subject to the needs and well being of their neighbors. They now had the added burden of caring for others.
As we ponder the significance of Lent we come to the harsh realization that we are not unlike the Israelites. We are slaves. We are not indentured in a physical sense as the Jews were; as human beings we are enslaved to sin. We are comfortable in the dark recesses of sin. We are comfortable in the routine life engaged in the pursuit of pleasure and superficial happiness. We are comfortable looking out only for ourselves. But we are called to walk through the life destroying and life renewing power of baptism. The waters of baptism kill the old self and usher in a new self. The waters of baptism destroy the paralyzing power of fear, but the waters of baptism also allow us to live in the fear of the Lord.
As we die to sin and learn to live for God we are engaged in the life altering imitation of Christ.
We die to ourselves and live for others. We cease to endorse the life crushing attitudes of the status quo that close our minds to empathy, and close our hearts to justice. Christ teaches us in the Gospels that our mission is to the oppressed and marginalized. Christ teaches us that we are to live in the mindset of justice for the sake of the disenfranchised.
The theologian Gale Ramshaw challenges us to answer the following question: Are we Israel or are we Egypt in the ancient narrative? She responds: “The church too easily responds, ‘Oh, we are Israel, for the sea is baptism.’ That the sea is indeed baptism makes this facile answer unfaithful, for our baptism calls us to lead others out of bondage. Baptism does not anoint the status quo. In baptism we get washed ashore one with all the other drowning folk. What we have after crossing the baptismal sea is a flood of refugees, of the unemployed, [the undocumented, the domestically abused, the tormented by patterns of addiction, the victims of war], the disenfranchised, those who are [feared], despised and rejected.”
The narrative of the deliverance calls us to exhibit not a spirit of timidity but a spirit of courage; not a spirit of despair but a spirit of hope; not a spirit of delusion but a spiritual of enlightenment. The Exodus story is a metaphor for Easter: a dying of the enslaved self and the resurrection of a liberated self.