Hands are amazing. They can do so many things. They’re delicate enough to sew tiny stitches with a needle or wipe away a kid’s tears yet strong enough to hoist and hold and comfort. With our hands we can coax music out of guitar strings or piano keys and we can knead dough and we can scribble beautiful designs in our bulletins. We can build up and we can tear down with our hands.
Every cluster bomb and handgun, every chariot wheel and spear, every drone and submarine and missile, had somebody touch it – to make it, to use it. So on this Peace Sunday, I want us to ponder what it means for the hand of God to fight for God’s people, to fight for freedom, to bring about peace.
Last week in the book of Exodus we met the Israelites as they shared a Passover meal of flatbread and roasted meat, eaten in haste while escaping slavery, fueling them for freedom. But further along, in the text we heard this evening, the people are scared and pinned down. Led out of Egypt, there are pursued by Pharaoh’s army.
The Israelites’ calloused palms still stained with blood and dusty with flour from the Passover meal are now clammy and weak with fear. Pharaoh grips the reigns of his empire of his violence and won’t let go.
God has not led the people out of Egypt by the ordinary, highway route – but instead in a meandering path, towards water. The people are to be still and let God fight for them.
But what exactly this looks like is unclear. And in this moment of uncertainty and doubt about whether this freedom journey was worth it at all – God’s mysterious presence is their only weapon and hope.
God’s pillar of cloud and pillar of fire moves from guiding the people to now protecting them. It moves from in front of the people to behind them. It becomes a buffer bewildering the Egyptians, buying time for the Israelites.
Moses stretches his hand out over the sea and God’s fierce wind blows all through the dark night and a way opens up. Dry ground appears and the waters part on the right and the left.
And in this moment of gnawing uncertainty and perilous hope – these characters in this story do surprisingly little:
Moses stretches out one single hand.
The people walk step by step with their feet.
The rest of the work is God’s.
The God who works through fire and cloud, wind and water and earth brings about freedom, leads us to peace. We don’t always know the way to peace, but we trust that God is leading us there.
The violence that Pharaoh represents here promises clarity and control. It is obvious what his strategy is – he will pursue by horse and chariot and rider until he gets what he wants. Through force he will maintain ownership of people and property.
To follow God on the path to peace, to fight not for ourselves but to be still and let God fight for us, is to embrace uncertainty. Peace requires hope. Freedom needs faith.
Looking back on moments of history when we see active peacemaking at work, it can be easy to valorize peacemakers as heroes, as pillars, people who saw a clear vision of God’s peace and followed it all the way through. Yet this Exodus story of liberation through the sea is muddier and messier, more panicked and desperate and unclear than a simple story of a faithful people following a bold leader.
Who are those people in your lives or in your memories who have stood as of peace, not as giants but as mortals? Who has invited you into a holy imagination that can see a world beyond the terror of endless war? Who are those people who have like Moses, outstretched their hand in trust of what God might do?
We do not have to be pillars, larger than life ambassadors for God. We’re invited to be more like Moses, to be more like the people of Israel. The work of our hands and the steps of our feet will lead to peace as we trust God.
It is God who provides the pillar of cloud and fire, it is God who fights. I can’t get into the all the theological wrestlings the benefits and hazards of thinking about God as a divine warrior this Sunday. But one take away from a text like this one – is that whatever the people do or do not do, they are not the ones fighting their own battles.
They are not called to be pillars of cloud. It is God who protects them. It is God’s wind that blows open the sea. It is God’s light that makes the way through visible.
It is God’s mud that sticks and clings to and clogs up Pharaoh’s chariot wheels. And it is God’s stormy depths that swallow up the powers of death and military might. It is God’s very presence in fire and cloud that looks down on the oppressing army and sends it into panic. God, who hungers for peace, looks down onto a world transfixed by its own capacity for violence. God fights for freedom.
So for us, peacemaking isn’t about having all answers, all clarity, or all power. Peacemaking is about joining our hands and our feet to God’s mysterious hand at work bringing freedom and wholeness and liberation in the world. Peacemaking is finding new ways to play with our hands that brings life to the world.
Growing up, I loved playing Legos with my brother. We could play for hours building intricate space ships and castles and all sorts of make-believe worlds.
One day we had each built an epic fighter jet, each one equipped with cannons, machine guns, and detachable missiles. Far above the carpet we flew, dogfighting one another in battle.
Then my mom came in, my Mennonite pastor mom, who gave a not very fun but true speech about how in real life military airplanes kill people and hurt children and drop cluster bomblets that lie scattered in fields waiting to explode decades later.
Given this, we weren’t supposed to play with toy weapons in our house growing up. Real downer, mom!
She left the room and my brother and I reimagined our play. We reconfigured our ships, outfitting them with large tanker compartments that could hold liquified manure. We could still dogfight above our carpet, but now these planes sprayed out fertilizer for the carpeted fields growing down below. We could still play our game but now it nurtured a vision of life.
At the end of our text, the passage concludes by summarizing that the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel sees the marvelous work the Lord did. Literally in Hebrew, the Lord is described as having saved Israel from Egypts hand and it is God’s marvelous hand that Israel’s witnesses.
The people of Israel is plucked out of the hand of slavery by the hand of God.
Our hands can build bombs or they can play with Legos. Our hands can clench tight onto the chariot reigns of control or they open up in praise and awe to a God bigger than our fears.
May our hands, creased with callouses, lined with hopes, full of possibility, hands frail yet sturdy, may these very human hands stretch out like Moses’ hand… pointing to what God is doing in the world, pointing to a God who clogs the mechanizations of war, pointing to a God who makes a way through drowning depths of despair, pointing to a God who frees us from the temptation to turn back to violence.
Our hands have been made by our loving God. May we live as children of God, playfully building peace and faithfully pointing to freedom.