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Crossing the Red Sea—A Symbol of Holy Baptism
1 Corinthians 10:1-2


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday in Lent—March 7, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In a few weeks the famous movie “The Ten Commandments” will be shown on television again, as it is each year at Easter.  Most of us are familiar with that movie and its dramatic depiction of the great salvation event of the Old Testament, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the crossing of the children of Israel, and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians.  Although we are familiar with these events, and especially Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic depiction of them, we may not be familiar with the interpretation the Apostle Paul applies to these Old Testament events in today’s Epistle Reading, from his New Testament book of 1st Corinthians: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”  The miraculous salvation of the Israelites by passing through the Red Sea is a type, a symbol, foreshadowing your miraculous salvation through Holy Baptism.

The story begins with the Lord specifically commanding Moses to put the Israelites in a position which makes them trapped between the sea behind them and the advancing Egyptian army bearing down upon them.  Exodus says, “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them! They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.  They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?  What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’”

What a crazy scheme, to back up against the sea with the powerful Egyptian army and their mighty chariots coming right at them!  But, it only seems like a crazy scheme because the Israelites do not trust in the Lord.

In the same way, Holy Baptism may seem like a crazy scheme.  As Martin Luther asks rhetorically in the Small Catechism: “How can water do such great things?”  We too have enemies all around us, coming right at us, spiritual enemies: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  Behind us is the great sea of death and damnation, which Revelation describes as “the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”  Just like the Israelites, our enemies threaten to destroy us, to push us into “the lake of fire.”  In the face of these powerful spiritual enemies, in the face of our own sins, in the face of hell itself, what weapon does the Lord give us?  “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  “How can water do such great things?”

“Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’”

Why did the Lord save the Israelites in such an unusual way, unexpected way?  Marching them through the Red Sea with a wall of water on either side?  He did it that way to drive home a truth they should never forget.  The Lord puts it this way in Zechariah: “’Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.”  The Lord could have saved the Israelites from their enemies the Egyptians in so many other ways.  But, he chose to save them in this unusual, unexpected way to drive home the point that God gets all the glory, that they did nothing to save themselves.

Jesus says, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  The Lord could save us from our sins, from our spiritual enemies in so many other ways, for “all power” has been given to him.  But, he chooses to save us in this unusual, unexpected way—“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—in order to drive home the point that God gets all the glory, that WE do nothing to save ourselves.  Paul puts it this way in Titus: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

“How can water do such great things?  It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost.”

The Lord saves us through the power of his Word, through reading and hearing and studying his Word, and also through the Word visualized in the Sacraments he instituted.  As Luther says in the Small Catechism: “Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.”

Paul says in Romans, “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.”  By his death on the cross Jesus paid for all your sins, and on account of his sacrifice you are forgiven.  Holy Baptism is one of the means, along with the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion, that the Lord uses to bring you to saving faith in Christ.  Through Baptism you receive the forgiveness Christ earned for you by his death on the cross.  For through Baptism he washes away your sins and makes you born again as his own child. 

Paul puts it this way in Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”; and in Acts, “Be baptized and wash away your sins.”  Peter says in Acts, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children”; and he sums it all up in 1st Peter, “Baptism now saves us.”

But, despite the precious Scriptural promises attached to Holy Baptism, like the Israelites who complained to Moses and grumbled against the Lord, there are those who complain that Baptism and also Communion are nothing more than empty rituals, and grumble that it wouldn’t make sense for the Lord to actually save us through such hocus-pocus.  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.’”  Was it an empty ritual when Moses stretched out his staff over the sea?  Was it hocus-pocus for the Lord to save them that way?

The Israelites learned a lesson that day they would long remember.  As the Psalms say: “It was you who split open the sea by your power”; “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!  He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot”;  “He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand firm like a wall”;  “With a mighty hand and outstretched arm . . . [he] divided the Red Sea asunder . . . and brought Israel through the midst of it . . . but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea.”

The Israelites learned a lesson that day they would long remember.  In the same way, Luther explains in the Large Catechism why the Lord would use the visible means of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion for our salvation: “It must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart.”  Like the walls of water on either side of the Israelites, in the Sacraments the Lord works through visible means to save us: water, bread, wine.

“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”  The miraculous salvation of the Israelites by passing through the Red Sea is a type, a symbol, foreshadowing your miraculous salvation through Holy Baptism.

Amen.

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