"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry spoke these words on March 23, 1775 at Saint John’s Church in Richmond, VA. He spoke these words before the Virginia House of Burgesses mobilize as they considered whether Virginia should mobilize for military action because of the movement toward independence and the growing threat of British military force.
“Give me liberty or give me death!” These words have been immortalized in American history because they encapsulate the spirit of the American Revolution. In a few succinct words they summarize why many Americans took up arms in order to fight against the greatest military power in the world at that time.
How very different is the reaction by the Israelites in our text tonight! They find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the onrushing chariots of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army. And so in this moment of crisis they say to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
The Israelites don’t come off very well in our text tonight. In fact they are rather pathetic. But that fact emphasizes to us that they don’t have anything to do with saving themselves. Instead it is all God’s doing as he brings them through the water of the Red Sea and gives them salvation. We find that he has also brought us through the water to salvation – he has brought us through the water of Holy Baptism. Though we could do nothing he has given us salvation because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And though we could do nothing for salvation, this does not mean that after baptism we have nothing to do.
I really wish that I could tell you that everything tonight was planned. This past Sunday I preached on Exodus chapter 8 which talks about the plagues God sent upon Egypt as he was in the process of bringing Israel out of slavery. Our Psalm for tonight, Psalm 136 begins by talking about creation and then in the second half it talks about the exodus and how God brought Israel through the Red Sea. And of course the text for the homily tonight is the account of God bringing the Israelites through Red Sea as he rescues them from the Egyptian army.
It all fits together perfectly … and none of it was planned. But I won’t complain, because if you were here on Sunday you have just heard about the background to our text. In ten awesome and powerful plagues God had acted in order to make Pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. The tenth and final plague was the Passover, as God killed the firstborn sons of Egypt – including that of Pharaoh – while sparing the Israelites who had put the blood of the Passover lamb around the door of their homes.
Eventually when the king of Egypt was told that the people of Israel had fled, Pharaoh and the Egyptians thought twice about things. They said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” And so Pharaoh had his army mount up on six hundred chariots as they set out after the Israelites.
In dry and dusty climates, the approach of an army can be seen from very far away because of the large dust cloud the army churns up as it advances. The Israelites had arrived at the shore of the Red Sea when they realized that the Egyptians were coming after them. And they were terrified. In spite of all that God had already done for them; in spite of the power that he had shown, they blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place. They said to him, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Moses responded, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you will be silent.” Moses told them that now they would see the salvation that God was going to work for them. He was going to fight for them, and they were going to do nothing. And then in the miracle that you know well he used Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through the midst of the Red Sea on dry ground. And then when the Egyptians entered in order to pursue them, the water returned into place and drowned the army.
The Israelites come off as being very pathetic in our text tonight. First of all it is true that they can do nothing to save themselves. They couldn’t get themselves out of Egypt in the first place. And now that the Egyptian army is coming after them, they don’t stand a chance. But beyond this the fact that at the moment of crisis they don’t believe and trust in God.
And so Moses tells them how it is going to be. God is going to fight for them, and they are going to do nothing. Salvation is going to be his work and not theirs, because there is nothing they can do. And then he uses the water of the Red Sea as the means to bring salvation.
During Lent we are returning to our baptism as the season leads us to the first service of the resurrection, the Vigil of Easter. And our text teaches us that God has done the same thing for us – for the exact same reasons.
Spiritually, we were just as helpless – just as pathetic as the Israelites. Conceived by sinful, fallen parents, we were born as sinful, fallen people. Flesh gives birth to flesh, as our Lord teaches us. We were conceived and born as people with no spiritual abilities. Worse than that, we were not just dead, but in factg were hostile to God. Like the statement by the Israelites in our text, we preferred to be in slavery to the devil.
And so, like Israel, God fought for us while we did nothing. He did this first by sending his Son into the world. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, lived in our place. During Lent we are following him as he makes his way to the cross of Good Friday. There he will receive the punishment that our sin deserves. He will be the ransom given for many. And by that death he will win for us the forgiveness of sins. Yet Jesus’ mission is about more than death. For on Easter Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection from the dead. And in that resurrection he gives us spiritual life through the work of the Spirit now, and resurrection life on the Last Day.
And in order to give the benefits of Jesus’ cross and resurrection God brought us through the water of Holy Baptism. St. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Through baptism we have been joined to Jesus’ saving death. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is now a work in us so that we can live in ways that reflect Christ. And as Paul goes on to say, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” He tells us that because we have shared in the death of Jesus Christ the crucified and risen One, we know that we will also share in his resurrection on the Last Day.
In our text Moses says about God’s rescue at the waters of the Red Sea, “The LORD will fight for you, and you will be silent.” That’s how it is when God saves us. He fights for us and we are silent, because there is nothing we can do. And in no place does this become more apparent thnt in the baptism of infants. There what is spiritually true is made even more apparent because it is also physically true. In our helplessness, God comes to us as he creates faith through the work of the Spirit in water and the Word. There we are joined to Christ’s saving death and resurrection as God gives us salvation by bringing us through the saving water.
God brings us through the water of baptism. He gives us forgiveness, life and salvation. But that’s not the end of the story for us. That’s not the end of what God’s saving action in Holy Baptism means for us. St. Paul once dealt with Christians who thought that way. In Corinth they thought that because they had been baptized and were receiving the Sacrament of the Altar they could do whatever they wanted. They thought that they could do what they wanted sexually and they could participate in rites tied to pagan religion.
Paul told them, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Paul said, that yes, God had rescued Israel through the waters of the Red Sea. But that didn’t mean Israel could do whatever they wanted. When they disobeyed God – when they rejected God’s instruction – he punished them. Paul went on to add: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
During Lent we take up a renewed struggle against sin – against all of the ways that the old Adam continues to afflict us. Our baptism commits us to this struggle – it doesn’t give us the right to ignore it all together. For as Paul said about baptism: ‘We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The work of the Spirit in our life because of baptism – the resurrection power of Christ that is already at work in us – provides the means by which we are able to engage in this struggle. There will be time when the old Adam gets the upper hand. And when that happens we repent. We return to the forgiveness that we have through baptism. We again drown the old Adam so that a new man daily can arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.