Exodus 15: Sing Salvation - 29th June 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Revelation 19:1-9

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What do you do when a victory happens to you? When all of a sudden you’ve won? A great victory, and you find yourself on the winning side. What do you do?

You sing, don’t you? Think about football. If you’re English you’ll have to think beyond the World Cup at this point because winning is something we’ve not done much of. The goal goes in, or the final whistle blows and there’s an almighty cheer, but then that cheer turns into singing, doesn’t it? And it’s the fans who sing. The supporters. The players who’ve actually won the victory are generally too tired and out of breath to sing, they just stagger round, hug each other, wave to the crowd and so on. The fans haven’t been there on the pitch, the victory has sort of happened to them. But they’re victorious nonetheless. So they sing. Out of sheer joy. They sing to praise their team. And as they sing together their unity is strengthened, they’re reminded who they are, they are the fans of this winning team.

All that happens when a football team wins. But it’s not just football. One of my favourite poems is one by Siegfried Sassoon called “everyone sang” which describes people spontaneously bursting into song when they heard that the Armistice was signed and the First World War was over. Or the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago last summer. All the people standing on the crumbling wall, singing. It’s not the singing that wins the victory, is it? It would be strange for a football fan to say “that was me that put the ball in the back of the net. We did it when we sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”” Just like when David Hasselhoff the star of Knight Rider and Baywatch and purveyor of leathery power-ballads claims that his singing led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, everyone thinks it’s pretty funny. The singing doesn’t win the victory. But it is important. The joy of victory and the singing are all tied up together, aren’t they? The singing in many ways becomes the joy. The singing captures that moment of victory and joy, so that its power can still be felt many years later.

We’ve reached the great moment of victory in the book of Exodus; the victory of God over Pharoah and his armies, releasing the people of God from slavery as the enemy was swept away in the Red Sea. In today’s reading we’re standing with the people of God on the sea shore. The victory has just happened to them. So they sing. Of course they do.

Exodus 15:1-21  Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: "I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.  2 The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.  3 The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.  4 Pharaoh's chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh's officers are drowned in the Red Sea.  5 The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone.  6 "Your right hand, O LORD, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.  7 In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you. You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.  8 By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.  9 "The enemy boasted,`I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.'  10 But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.  11 "Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you-- majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?  12 You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them.  13 "In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.  14 The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia.  15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away;  16 terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone--until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by.  17 You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance--the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.  18 The LORD will reign for ever and ever."  19 When Pharaoh's horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.  20 Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.  21 Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea."

So the people sing a wonderful song. In fact, they sing two. In verse 21 we see the women singing, dancing with tambourines as Miriam leads them. Which of course has a direct application, doesn’t it – tambourines and dancing in church are fine, but only for women. What Miriam and the women sing is the same as what Moses and the men have just sung – it starts in the same way as the men’s song in verse 1. We don’t know if Miriam is repeating the whole song and this is shorthand for that, or if she’s turning the first bit into a shorter chorus. But either way here is a song that does all of the things those football songs do and more. Just cast your eye over it again for a minute and let’s have a look at that.

Who are they singing to? Well that’s pretty clear isn’t it? Look at verse 1 “Moses and the Israelites sang a song to the LORD: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted.” It’s a song to the LORD, it’s praise to him. Like the football fans cheering for their heroes, the focus is not on the singers themselves. It’s worship; it’s all about honouring the LORD.

Why? Well because the LORD is the one who has been in action; he’s the one who has done the saving. The singers have been brought to share in his victory, like the fans of a winning team. This is a totally God-centred song. It’s all about him; it’s about what he has done and what that shows about who he is. And what has he done? Well again, pretty clear. Verse 1: “The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” Verse 4: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea.” God has utterly swept away the terrifying and powerful enemy. The LORD has triumphed.

The LORD has done the saving, but the people have been through the experience of being saved haven’t they? This is where the analogy of the football fans starts to break down a bit. Because although it’s true that sports fans go through the highs and lows with their team, even the agony of watching England or Andy Murray pales away when set aside what these people have been through. That mention of chariots we tend to skip over. But back then a chariot army was the most fearsome military force available. They would literally roll over nations, sweeping away all in their path. Bringing in the chariots was the equivalent of calling in an air strike. When we try to imagine our way into this song and this story we might imagine facing something that worries us. But a chariot army was not just a bit of a worry. It was the end of all hope. When the people in chapter 14 screamed about dying in the desert they weren’t just exaggerating for comic effect. They had been saved from total destruction. When we grasp that we might better understand the intensity of emotion here.

But it’s so striking isn’t it how in this song even the terrifying army are just miniscule set alongside the LORD. Look at the picture language that gets used. End of verse 5: “they sank to the depths of the sea like a stone.” You know when you played skimming stones as a child? And the stone hops along the water a few times, gradually slowing down before all of a sudden “plip” and it’s gone without trace. Verse 6 “your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.” Like a wine glass might shatter when you drop it on a hard floor. End of verse 7 “You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.” Like a few pieces of straw before a raging fire. Such is the power of the LORD. The most terrifying enemies out there are just kindling, just pebbles, just glassware before him.

The evil rantings of Pharaoh have come to nothing. Verse 9: “The enemy boasted, “I will pursue, I will overtake them, I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them.” You can see the naked evil desire, can’t you? Literally hell-bent on rape and pillage and murder. I will, I will, I will “but you blew with your breath and the sea covered them.” This God who can blow the sea along with a sniff of his nostrils. The sea which was a symbol for the Israelites of furious power that no man could control. If you’ve stood on the shore or been on a boat in a force nine gale you’ll have an idea of what that means. All of that raw power is just a tool in the right hand, the strong arm, of the LORD. And he put that tool to use, to devastating effect.

Do you see what the song is doing? It’s kind of gathering up all of the intensity and violence and glory of that amazing rescue through the sea in this intense, violent, glorious language. The song is almost bottling the emotions, the triumph, the joy, the relief of that great salvation. It bottles it in a form that can be opened up and enjoyed again and again. And this song is meant to be sung again and again. It became for the Israelites almost something of a national anthem. It is perhaps the bit of the Old Testament which is most often quoted in other bits of the Old Testament. It’s a song to be sung and sung and sung again.

And whenever this song is sung, whether the first time on the shores of the sea or by the Israelites down through the years, it does the same thing. It brings the glorious events of the past into the present, in a way that the people can feel.

That’s what great songs do, isn’t it? They bring the past into the present in a way you can feel. Have you ever had that experience, when a piece of music comes on that you haven’t heard for years and all of a sudden it’s like you’re transported back in time? Or more accurately, it’s like a piece of the past just comes smashing into the present. With all the emotional force that that can bring. You might find yourself caught off guard, holding back the tears even, as the pains or joys of years before just wash over you again. Do you know what I mean? Music has this powerful ability to bring the past into the present. That is explicitly what God has put this song here for. It’s there to help his people look back at that great rescue and feel it all over again.

Our greatest songs, the ones that stand the test of time, they’re redemption songs, aren’t they? They speak of the great saving acts of God through Jesus, and as we sing them the songs help us to feel how wonderful he is. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. When I survey the wondrous cross… My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness… My chains fell off my heart was free… As we sing these songs they bring these great events of the past into our present, so we can appreciate just how wonderful our God is now.

Because that’s the effect this song is meant to have on us; it’s meant to make us gaze upon the glory of the LORD, our God. Look at that verse 2 which stands over it all: “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.  3 The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.”

Do you remember how a few weeks ago we saw back in chapter 3 as God spoke from the burning bush he revealed himself to be the LORD, the everlasting God who has bound himself to his people. The song is about how this God, the LORD is so precious to his people. He is my strength, my song, he has become my salvation. This is the football fans again, isn’t it? If you’re singing in the crowd it’s not just because you appreciate the good standard of play, you’re singing for your team, because they are yours, and you’re so proud of them. This God, the LORD, is my God.

Can you say that, too? Can you say that this God, the LORD, the God of his Son Jesus, he is your God? Because you won’t begin to understand Christian singing until you do. This God who we sing about, who we sing to, it’s not just a general appreciation of someone who we feel does their job rather well. It’s passionate, possessive love. He is my God. He is therefore everything else to me. He’s my strength. He’s not just extra strength to me, he is my strength. I have no other. He is my song, he is what causes me to rejoice and sing, he himself is my happiness. He is my salvation. My rescue, my security, my victory is totally and utterly bound up in him. He’s not just my back up plan. He is plan A, and there is no other. Verse 11: “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?” In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light my strength my song. Do you ever stop and think about that? Do you feel that truth? The singing is there, the songs are there, to help us feel it. To help us love the LORD.

It’s an obvious point isn’t it, but we learn our theology through our songs. That is to say, the songs we sing are enormously important in teaching us about who God is. More than the sermons we’ve heard or the Bible passages we’ve read the songs we have sung stay with us, don’t they? That’s one of those things that is underlined when you see someone with serious memory loss such as Alzheimer’s. Those of you who remember Muriel Smith will recall that even when almost everything else had slipped her mind, she would still join in with the hymns. The songs we sing go really deep. When we find ourselves in trouble or stress, and everything else flies out the window, it’s often the songs that we can still remember. That’s why it really matters what we sing. The good stuff lodges deep in here; so does the bad stuff. This song in Exodus 15 is wonderful precisely because it’s so God-centred. It just speaks to us of God and his faithfulness. That’s what you need in trouble and danger. You don’t need to reminded of what you do or how you feel. You need to be reminded of who God is. You need to be reminded that he is your God right now. Good songs, God-centred ones, do that, don’t they? “Faithful One, so unchanging… You are my rock in times of trouble.” “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father… thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been you forever wilt be.” That’s who we need, isn’t it? These songs are wonderful because they take the words of the Bible itself and they work them in deep.

Because the purpose of that, the practical outworking that results from all of this singing of who God is and what he has done should be confidence in him; trust in him for what lies ahead. This song in Exodus 15 brings the past into the present in order to prepare God’s people for the future.

Do you see that in verse 13 onwards? All of a sudden the focus of the song changes; instead of looking back at what God has done, the song is a confident declaration of what God will do. If this is what the LORD is like, if he is this warrior who throws down the enemies of his people, well then we can confidence as we face the enemies on the horizon. The people, don’t forget are facing a hazardous journey here. There are plenty of battles ahead. They don’t know what will happen. But they do know their God and they know that he will be with them. That’s why they can be so confident. Verse 13: “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble.”

The hardest lesson to learn in the Christian life is trust, don’t you think? Our faith, our trust; that’s what is essential to our relationship with God, that’s what will be tested every step of the way. That’s where the spiritual battle is. Our trust. Our faith. We will not learn to trust God unless we dwell long and deep on who he is because of what he’s done. We need to sing our salvation story. We need to sing the victory of our God.

What are you terrified of? I don’t mean the little stuff, I mean the big stuff. The chariot army stuff. Are you terrified of death? Or of its companions, illness and loss? Our God has thrown down death, when Jesus burst out of the grave. He’s smashed a hole right through it. Death has no hold on him, or on his people. Do you not think he can do that for you? Are you terrified of evil and sin, either the evil that you fear someone might do to you, or the after effects of the evil someone has already done to you, or else the evil that you fear you might do? Our God has thrown down the evil one. Jesus paid every last penny for our sin when he died; he emerged clean and free from the devil’s grasp at his resurrection. Evil has no hold on him or on his people. Do you not think that applies to you, if you trust in him?

We need to sing of the victory of God, don’t we? God has given us song for precisely that reason, so that we can feel the victory of God now, so that we can see what sort of God we have, so that we will trust him for the future. Because a greater day of singing is coming, isn’t it? The final whistle comes when Jesus returns. On that day every last shred of evil, and every last enemy of God will be washed away, just like every last soldier of Pharaoh’s army. On that day, if we’re with Jesus, we will sing like nobody has ever sung before.