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Today’s lesson is from the 15th chapter of the book of Exodus. It is the song of Moses and his sister Miriam, which the Israelites sang after God miraculously delivered them from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. It serves as an example to us of how to offer praise to God for God’s intervention in our lives and in the life of our church.
Our Sunday school and church is now open so that we can join to worship God, to learn about God’s word and to encourage each other in person. We are grateful to be back together, but we continue to pray for those who are not yet able to participate in person or who do not yet feel comfortable participating in person. We are glad that those who cannot be with us physically are able to learn and worship with us here online.
The following prayer was written by the Rev. Thom Shuman and posted on his website, Lectionary Liturgies. More of his prayers and liturgies can be found at Rev. Shuman’s site, Lectionary Liturgies. Let’s pray together.
When we look over our shoulders at fear shadowing us today, you go before us into tomorrow, making a path through the sea of yesterday's doubts. When our legs tremble from the effort of standing up for what you hope for all creation, you are at our side, offering your heart's strength. Cloud of Grace, we offer our love to you.
When we turn our hearts into deserts of stony bitterness, you transform them into oases of joy. When we come up with all sorts of rules for those who come to us seeking to find you, you tear up the list, stretching wide your arms in welcoming grace. Servant of all, we offer our lives to you.
When we would clasp old worries to our hearts, you open our eyes to that hope which paves the path ahead of us. When we spend each day consumed with doubts and fears, you remind us that this day is the time to honor God, by serving God's children.
Mist of Mercy, we offer our hearts to you. God in Community, Holy in One, as you are all to us, so we would offer all we are to you. Amen
We're now in September, and starting a new quarter called Celebrating God. This week's lesson is on Exodus 15:11-21.
Today's lesson is the first in a series this quarter that focuses on worshipping God and and giving God praise. Praise is a central part of Christian worship, and for that matter, it was an important part of every ancient religion. However, unlike some religions, the Judeo-Christian faith does not praise God in order to get what we want by way of flattery. Instead, our praise is an acknowledgement of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God promises to do.
The Bible records praise in two ways. The first is direct praise and is found in many of the psalms. There the author ascribes praise to God for how God has acted in history and in nature. The second example of biblical praise is found in narrative accounts of people offering praise for God’s intervention on behalf of the people. Sometimes these stories also depict praise to God following events that do not necessarily show God’s direct intervention.
Our lesson for today is an ascription of praise that was offered after God unequivocally intervened on behalf of the Israelites. When the Israelites were freed from bondage in Egypt, Moses led them into a cliffhanger situation. Despite being free, they were now trapped between the pursuing Egyptian army and the Red Sea. They seemed doomed — except for the fact that God was with them.
Today’s lesson is the last half of a song about that event. It is sometimes called the Song of Moses or the Song of the Sea, although it is often called the Song of Miriam because that title avoids confusion with another passage that is also labeled “The Song of Moses.” Deuteronomy 32 ascribes another song to Moses, which he sang upon completion of the writing of the Torah.
However, this song was sung by Moses, Miriam and probably all of the Israelites. It actually begins in verse 1 and ends at verse 21. Even though we live some 35 centuries later, it still teaches us important lessons.
Long before the exodus, God had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The fulfillment of that promise seemed to be in jeopardy when Jacob and his family moved to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. But God worked through Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, so that the family could have all it needed during the years of famine.
While there, Joseph rose to power by helping to protect the nation from the ravages of seven years of severe famine. In gratitude, the pharaoh at that time welcomed the Israelites into the land.
Because of their favored status, the Israelites remained in Egypt for more than 400 years. Over the course of time, of course, many different men ruled in Egypt. Eventually, a pharaoh arose who cared nothing about Joseph or what he had done for the nation. Joseph’s descendants were seen as a threat and were subjected to servitude and oppression and cruel attempts to limit their population growth.
God was now ready to act, and Moses was born. As an infant, he was adopted by a princess of Egypt, but when he was 40 he had to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. While tending sheep in the wilderness 40 years later, Moses encountered God at Sinai, and God called him to go back to Egypt and to lead his enslaved people out.
Moses obeyed God and, with his brother Aaron, he returned to Egypt and tried to get Pharaoh to let his people go. When Pharaoh refused, God sent 10 devastating plagues, the last of which took the lives of all the firstborn in the land except for the Israelites.
Finally, Pharaoh relented and the Israelites quickly exited Egypt for Canaan. Pharaoh, however, changed his mind and decided to get them back. He sent his army in pursuit of the people, who were blocked from escape by the Red Sea. It seemed that the Israelites would either die there or have to return to Egypt as slaves. But God had other plans.
Miraculously, God parted the sea in front of them, and the people crossed over on dry land. After they had crossed safely, the LORD re-established the water in its course, drowning the pursuing Egyptian army in the process. The crossing of the Red Sea became a pivotal moment in the history of ancient Israel. Not only did it mean they were free from slavery and beyond the reach of Pharaoh. It also proved that the God of Israel was superior to the so-called gods of Egypt.
Moses and the people responded by bursting forth with joyous singing. The lesson text for today is the words of their song, the first song in the history of this new nation, a song of joy for the victory the Lord obtained for the people.
I. God’s preeminence and power (verses 11-13)
This portion of the song begins with two rhetorical questions that point out the uniqueness and superiority of God. The Egyptians had hundreds of gods and goddesses. Although some of the plagues might have been directed mainly at a particular Egyptian god — such as the plague of darkness being directed at the Egyptian sun god Ra — overall the plagues were a judgment of all the gods of Egypt.
The second question is about God’s holiness, God’s glory and God’s power to work wonders. God is set apart from creation and the world system. God is worthy of our devotion and praise. God is able to marvelous things.
Those marvelous things include protecting God’s people from their enemies. By God’s power, when necessary the earth can even open up and swallow them, just as the sea swallowed the Egyptian army. Numbers 16:32 records how, not long after the deliverance at the Red Sea, Korah and 250 like-minded rebels died when “the earth opened its mouth.” (Exodus 16:1-31)
Next, the Song of Miriam speaks of God’s unfailing love and how, because of it, our redemption is sure and God’s guidance can be trusted to take us to the place God intends for us. Although we almost always speak of redemption as our spiritual redemption from sin, the story of God bringing God’s people back to the promised land shows that it holds true on a physical level as well. As we trust in God and God’s love, God guides us and makes are way clear to go where God wants us to go.
II. The Nation’s Fear (verses 14-16)
The song now turns from praise for God’s deliverance to thoughts about how the news of that deliverance will strike fear into the people of Canaan. The verses imagine how the people of Philistia — known elsewhere as the Philistines, who lived in what is modern-day Palestine — will be in anguish. The word translated “anguish” is actually used to describe the pain of childbirth, pointing to the acuteness and magnitude of the pain they will feel as the Israelites approach. Next the song describes the terror and fear that will seize the Edomites (the people who lived south and southeast of the Dead Sea) and the Moabites (who lived east of the Dead Sea).
The people of Canaan will melt away, the song says. And 40 years later, these words proved true when the walls of the fortified city of Jericho, located in Canaan, fell without the Israelites having to attack. Rahab, who protected Israelite spies before the fall of Jericho, reported how her people were terrified of Israel. One reason for their terror, she said, was that they had heard of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea.
Other nations would resist the Israelites when they came into the land, but their efforts would as ineffective as if they had stood still and done nothing.
III. Promises for Israel (verses 17-19)
The song now turns from considering the nations that will hear of God’s power and fall before God’s people to a vision of how God will establish them in Jerusalem on Mt. Zion and one day build his temple there. And God’s reign will last forever.
In recounting the the disparate outcomes for the Egyptian army and the people of Israel as they passed through the Red Sea, the song makes it clear that their deliverance was only because of God’s power and the fact that was on their side. The powerful Egyptians lost about 600 chariots that day, while the Israelites, former slaves, passed through on dry ground.
Chariots were the vehicles of military power during the time, but God had wiped them out. The Israelites had gone through the depths of the sea, but for them it was only dry ground. For the Egyptians, it became their final resting place.
IV. Miriam’s example (verse 20)
Miriam was the older sister to both Moses and Aaron, with Moses being the youngest of the three. Miriam is probably best known as the sister who watched over Moses’ basket as it floated on the Nile and into the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. This verse says that Miriam was Aaron’s sister, but it does not mention Moses. That is probably because Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household and had limited access to his birth family.
Miriam was also a prophetess because the Lord spoke through her. It may be that it was in that role that Miriam and all the women of Israel took timbrels (small drums) and began dancing to the song. In some more conservative Jewish traditions women only sing within earshot of other women. This is a rabbinic rule that was added to ensure that men were not distracted by unclean thoughts when listening to women’s voices. However, there is no indication in this passage that only women could hear Miriam and the other women sing and see them dance.
Question: What are some occasions that would be appropriate to label as “a time to dance”? (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Why did you, or why did you not, include a church worship service as one of your responses?
V. The exaltation of God (verse 21)
The refrain that Miriam and the women sang is similar to how the song begins in verse 1. This may imply that this is how Miriam led the women in an antiphonal response. The words are a final reminder about how the world’s most powerful nation at the time was no match for the God of Israel.
WHOLE WORSHIP: A college professor offered a course at a Christian college to help freshmen get “plugged into” a local church. One assignment was for students to visit three churches unlike their home churches. Then each student was to write a report about their experiences.
One student had attended only churches with contemporary worship services. The church services she reported on were more traditional. When she wrote her report, she found an interesting difference between the two. Traditional services, she wrote, primarily extolled who God is and what God has done; contemporary services, on the other hand, focused on expressions of adoration for God.
Miriam and those who sang with her exulted in both expressing their feelings about God and proclaiming what God had done for them. What blessings might you experience if your worship embraced both types?
Our songs always come with context. For instance, the story behind “Amazing Grace” adds depth to the lyrics of the song itself. Its long history in England and especially in North America has shaped how we hear or sing it today. The situations in which we have heard it played or sung change how we process the lyrics. Different arrangements let us hear the song afresh.
Like the song that Moses, Miriam and the people sang, our songs come from specific situations: situations of deliverance, of healing, of crossing from death into life. When we sing, with whom we sing — these things matter! Therefore, let us do as the psalmist challenged us and “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” (Psalm 98:1) What song will you sing as a result of God’s character and work in your life — in your family, church and community?
Almighty God, as we face trials this week, we commit ourselves to remember that in you we have victory. In Jesus’ victorious name we thank you. Amen.
Our benediction is from the New International Version.
Next week's lesson will be on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-19.
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We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.