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#5: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”

Isn’t it amazing how quickly situations can change? Things in our lives are going along so well, and then suddenly, without warning, something happens that turns our world upside down. And what seemed like a hopeful future is abruptly interrupted by difficulties – we’re cruising along through life one minute, and hit a brick wall the next.

And this is not just something we experience in our personal lives. Entire nations can have their optimistic hopes dashed by events, as well. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then the collapse of the communist government in Russia near the end of the last century, there was a real sense that the world was becoming a better place. For the most part, nations were at peace, and the world economy was dynamic and growing, creating wealth that was bringing people out of poverty and offering them a new hope for the future. In the blink of an eye, our world changed. Terrorists attacked our nation, and our economy stumbled. Our country became embroiled in wars – conflicts that seemed to spiral out of control, as daily we got reports of our service men and women being killed or maimed, not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians who have died in the unrelenting violence. We continue to hear saber-rattling from North Korea and China. And in the past few months, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine has caused animosity between the East and the West to spike in ways we haven’t seen since the end of the Cold War. When the new millennium dawned 22 years ago, there was such hope for a better world. How quickly our outlook can change! What went wrong?

Yes, we all know how quickly our lives can change – how, one minute, life is good and we are hopeful for our future, and then something happens that changes everything: we get bad news from our doctor, either about ourselves or for someone we love; our marriage of many years suddenly ends in divorce; our spouse or someone else in our family dies; the job we had counted on for the rest of our working lives ends abruptly and we must scramble to make a fresh start when we ought to be preparing for retirement. Yes, if you haven’t experienced a sudden roadblock in your life, you have been very blessed. But, rest assured – you will! They say that the only thing certain in life is change – and it isn’t always for the better. Every person, no matter how blessed, will sometime in their life find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

Well, I suspect that those Israelites who camped on the shores of the Red Sea would be able to identify with how we feel when life throws us a curve ball. They knew what it is like to be euphoric one moment, and despairing the next.

Everything was going so well. After God unleashed the 10 plagues on Egypt, the king finally relented and gave the order that the Israelites would be free to leave. More than that, the Egyptians encouraged them to leave and sent them out with gifts of clothing, and silver and gold jewelry, asking them to pray that God might stop the plague on their nation. So, with great rejoicing, the Hebrews set out for their promised land. God had delivered on his promise – after 400 years they were finally free!

The shortest route to the Promised Land would have been along the seacoast – but that route was reinforced with garrisons of Egyptian soldiers, and beyond them, the Philistine army. So the Hebrews traveled a southern route to make their escape. Unfortunately, there was a small obstacle in their path – a huge body of water that would be impossible to pass through! So they set up camp by the shore as they paused to consider their options.

Meanwhile, Pharaoh had reconsidered the wisdom of letting his entire slave labor force go. So he and his army set out to recapture the Hebrews. As the Israelites on the shore of the sea looked back, they saw the dust of the chariots racing toward them. Behind them was Pharaoh’s army – in front of them, an impassible body of water. There was no place to turn – it was either death by the sword, or death by drowning. They were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea (or maybe better – the deep Red Sea). And in that instant, their jubilation turned to terror – their hope to despair.

You and I know exactly how that feels. Even if we haven’t faced such a life and death situation, we all know what it feels like to have our hopes dashed, and our world turned upside down.

When that happens in our lives (or even in our world), most of us tend to react the same way the Hebrews did that day:

First, we PANIC.

The text tells us that the people “cried out to the Lord.” Now, that could mean that they calmly knelt down and prayed for God’s deliverance, but I don’t think so, based on what they do next. I think it means that they were thrown into a panic.

Do you remember the children’s story called “Chicken Little?” If you will recall, an acorn falls from a tree and hits Chicken Little on the head. Chicken Little says, “Oh my, the sky is falling, I must run and tell the King!” As she goes, she runs into Henny Penny, and tells her the bad news. Henny Penny gets just as worked up, and joins Chicken Little in going to tell the king. On their way they alert Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey, who all, together, run off in a tizzy to find the king.

Finally, they bump into Foxy Loxy. They all excitedly tell the fox that the sky is falling, and that they are off to tell the king. “I see.” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.” And the story ends with these sad words: “So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den – and they never saw the king to tell him that the sky is falling.”

This little children’s story is a powerful illustration of the danger of panic. Panic has a way of spreading like a virus, and can be just as deadly. Even when the danger is real, nothing is gained by panicking, and much is lost. So, first we panic…

Next, we begin to point the finger of BLAME.

The Hebrews immediately turned their anger on Moses: “When you came butting in on our lives, we told you to leave us alone! Now you’ve dragged us out here into the desert to die. At least back in Egypt we would be given a proper burial!”

Now, I suppose we could forgive the Israelites for reacting so harshly – we would have too, if we had been in their place. And of course, we do. Whenever we panic that our life has careened out of control, it is almost inevitable that we begin to look for someone to blame.

But blame doesn’t accomplish anything, any more than panic does. At the very moment they should have been rallying together, the Israelites were wasting time and energy in trying to cast blame. We’re no better. When we face reversals in life, don’t we immediately start accusing others: we blame our spouse for our failed marriage, or we blame our boss or our company for the loss of our job, or we blame our children for neglecting us in our old age, or we blame the teacher if our children are having trouble in school, or we sue our doctor for not preventing the death of a loved one. BLAME, BLAME, BLAME!

I suppose it makes us feel better somehow to try to affix blame, but it is entirely unproductive, and only makes our situation worse. Blame isn’t the answer.

The third reaction of the Hebrews was to PINE FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS, (even when they weren’t so “good”).

When change happens in our lives that isn’t to our advantage, we long for the past. Of course, that is certainly understandable, because it is important to remember and cherish the memories of days gone by when life was good. But sometimes, like the Israelites, we can prefer the bad old days to the unknown future days of promise that lie before us. That is why a woman in an abusive relationship will choose to remain in that relationship rather than risk getting out and creating a new life on her own. Its why people will spend their whole life in a job they hate, instead of pursuing their dream vocation. It’s the reason a widow or widower, or a parent who has lost a child, will become a hermit in their own house giving up on life, rather than bringing honor to the memory of their loved one by living their own life to the fullest. When life became hard, the Hebrews wanted to turn back the clock. And, so do we.

Yes, we are just like those Israelites who were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. We tend to panic, to cast blame, and to pine for the past – all unhealthy reactions to unexpected change in our lives.

So, how ought we to react? In our text, God offers the Hebrews (and us) three words of advice to help us cope when we find ourselves pinned between a rock and a hard place:

First God says, “Do not be afraid.”

In the Bible, more than 88 times, God tells us not to be afraid! Instead of panicking, we should not fear.

Why does God insist that we banish fear? Because fear blinds us to a healthy perspective on life. In the midst of fear, we forget everything that God has done. That’s what happened to the Hebrews. They had forgotten the plagues. They had forgotten how they had miraculously been delivered from death. They had forgotten how God was guiding them even at that very moment. And so it is with us. Fear gives us amnesia causing us to forget what God has done for us, and blinds us to what God is seeking to do. Therefore, fear causes us to panic and keeps us from putting our trust in God.

A father stood in the middle of a pool securely holding onto his 3-year old son. Just for fun, Dad began walking slowly toward the deep end, gently chanting, “Deeper and deeper and deeper,” as the water rose higher and higher on the child. The boy’s face registered increasing degrees of panic, as he held on with all his might to his father, who, of course, could easily touch the bottom. Had the little boy been able to analyze his situation, he’d have realized that there was no reason for his increased fear. The water’s depth in ANY part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, if he had not been held up by his Dad, he’d have drowned. Wherever he was in the pool, his safety depended on his father.

At various points in our lives, all of us feel we’re getting “out of our depth.” Our temptation is to panic, for we feel we’ve lost control. Yet, as with the child in the pool, the truth is we’ve never been in control over the most important things of life. We’ve always been upheld by the grace of God, our “Father,” and that does not change. God is never out of his depth, and therefore we’re safe, even when we feel like we’re “in over our heads.” There is really no need to panic. So, God says, “Do not be afraid.”

The second direction God gave to the Israelites through Moses was to “stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”

Another translation of this phrase is to “stand still.” By standing firm, we demonstrate our faith by holding our ground. By standing still, we demonstrate our faith by waiting for God to act. Both meanings are included in what Moses is trying to communicate here.

When we are in a fix, we need to do both; we need to stand firm, and we need to stand still. When we face life’s challenges, there comes a time when we simply need to stand firm and wait confidently for “the deliverance” of the Lord.

Let me give you an illustration of what it means to stand still and wait confidently for the deliverance of the Lord: I’m not much of a sports fan, and seldom watch games on TV. But I always like watching the Olympic Games. I remember very vividly way back in 1980 watching the hockey match in the Gold Metal round, in which the underdog US team beat the USSR in an upset. I remember that I was very anxious and nervous as I watched that live broadcast. But later, as the networks replayed the game, I watched the match, this time very calmly, relaxed. Why? What was the difference? Because, the second time, I knew the outcome. I could be still, because I knew victory was assured.

When we face troubled times, we can stand still and wait on the Lord – because we can trust that God will act to deliver us – our victory is assured! So, do not fear, and stand firm.

3) Finally, God tells us that we must be prepared to GO FORWARD.

One of the outstanding Methodists of the 20th century, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, wrote this in his autobiography, “We can assume only two positions in the presence of God. One is on our knees, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’; the other is on our feet, saying, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”

That’s what the Hebrews learned that day by the sea. When difficulties come in life, we must spend time on our knees, being still, holding our peace before God in order to gain perspective and strength. But then we must be ready to move forward at his command. Keeping still is essential. But the ultimate command of God is that we move forward.

Can you put yourself into the place of those Israelites? If you will notice, the text shows that God told Moses to tell the people to move forward BEFORE he told Moses that he would part the sea. Fear had paralyzed them. They could not move. Can you imagine how ludicrous Moses’ instructions must have sounded to them? “Move forward – into the sea????”

And yet, they did. And as they pressed to the water’s edge, Moses raised his staff, and before them was a road to freedom through the waters.

You see: in order for the people to be rescued from danger, they had to move forward – to leave their past behind and cross over into a new and unknown future. They had to set aside their fear, and put their whole trust in God. They had to take a step of faith.

Forty years later, Joshua would lead a whole new generation of the Hebrews through another watery barrier, crossing the Jordan River as they finally entered the Promised Land. And just like in our text today, the people had to move forward BEFORE the waters of the Jordon River parted. Only when they were faithful and obedient to God were they able to witness God’s miracle of salvation. We must also be ready to move forward when God says, “Go.”

You see the point, don’t you? If you are at one of those “trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea” places in your life, you must make a fateful decision. Will you panic in fear and desperation, and give up hope; or will you do what the Israelites finally did… set aside your fear as you put your trust in God, believing that he will make a way for you? Will you stand still and wait on the Lord to deliver you? And then, will you step forward in faith, crossing through whatever that barrier is in your life, to freedom and a bright and hopeful future?

God will make a way. All we have to do is trust Him.

Don Moen wrote a song that expresses this truth, a portion of which goes like this:

God will make a way Where there seems to be no way
He works in ways we cannot see He will make a way for me
He will be my guide Hold me closely to His side
With love and strength For each new day
He will make a way.

Friends, when you feel trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, God will make a way.

You can count on it!

© 2022 John B. Gill, III