August 16, 2010

Passing through the Sea

The lectionary reading for the thirteen Sunday after Pentecost, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, begins with these words: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…” The story of exodus from the grip of Egypt is the paradigmatic story of liberation in the Hebrew Bible. Other narratives make sense in light of this great saga of redemption and creation. In the beginning, God lifts creation out of watery chaos; Noah’s family and other creatures of God are preserved through the flood; God heals Naaman the Syrian of leprosy because he is willing to pass through the waters of the Jordan; Jesus submits to the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism of suffering love, requiring death; and, finally, our baptism, which plunges us into his death and resurrection—for this life and the next. The common theme of these stories is the life that comes on the other side of trusting God as one passes through life-threatening circumstances. As the hymnic adaptation of Isaiah 43:1-5 intones:

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,

and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Each of these biblical examples (and this stanza of “How Firm a Foundation”) suggests that God intentionally beckons humans to pass through certain exigencies in pursuit of a maturing faith. But what about those chaotic disasters that cannot fit the arc of these narratives of redemption as inscribed in Scripture? Not too long after eruption of the devastating tsunami of the Indian Ocean, David Hart wrote The Doors of the Sea, asking the ancient question: “where was God?” in this tragic event. Boldly refuting those Christian attempts that try to rationalize evil, Hart rejects any neat teleology that finds purpose in every event of human suffering. In a fallen world where the “powers” make finitude defectible (to borrow from Walter Wink’s thinking), the struggle for divine victory is ongoing.

The concluding verses of Hebrews 11 detail the extremities through which the people of God passed, “of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38). Although remaining faithful, they greeted the promise from afar and did not receive the full realization of God’s redemption. Such a frank testimony to life’s inequities, i.e., the faithful are not always “blessed,” requires us to “look to Jesus” whose endurance perfected his faith. So it will be with all who follow him.

Molly T. Marshall

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