by Joy Eva Bohol*
10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.”—Exod. 14:10-18, NRSV
Photo: Claus Grue/WCC
Standing on the beachfront, trapped between the Egyptian pharaoh with his soldiers behind them and the Red Sea in front, the Israelites feared imminent death. They cried out in despair, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” they asked Moses.
In the context of COVID-19, have there been times when you can identify with the Israelites? We cannot go back to the “old normal,” but we more and more realize how the uncertainties raised by the coronavirus have clouded our future. Even as we flee the viral enemy, at this point, we can only see the Red Sea in front of us and do not know what awaits us. COVID-19 has shut down the world and brought us to our knees, fearing what we don’t know.
The Text in Its Context
This passage is a key moment in the great saga of liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It captures the drama and suspense of the people’s being chased by a mighty army and in desperate straits.
Moses’ words of assurance to the Israelites were comforting. But those words would be empty if the Hebrews ended up dead either in the Red Sea or at the hands of the Egyptian soldiers.
The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground” (v. 15).
Moses, despite his long years journeying with God, perhaps forgot that he holds the staff that God gave him on their first encounter. Often, as church, we forget our prophetic voice, and we cry in desperation back to God. Like Moses, we are reminded by God of the “staff” that we possess. These are the gifts and resources that God, through the Holy Spirit, has given us. God is telling us, once again, to tell God’s people, not to be paralyzed by fear but to go forward.
The Text in Our Context
Fear, isolation, panic, anger, anxiety, doubts, impatience… These are a few of the emotions that some of my friends and I experience in this time of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In several video calls with family, friends, and colleagues from around the world since the lockdown, I hear the common thread of how we’re dealing with the sentiments mentioned above, as individuals and as a community.
Fear, isolation, panic, anger, anxiety, doubts, impatience… I believe that these were the same emotions that the Israelites felt when facing the Red Sea. Nothing seemed right in their situation. There was no turning back to Egypt, yet there was nothing in front of them that promised deliverance. They were desperate for answers.
Listening to the desperate cries and seeing the difficult situation of God’s people, Moses said to the Israelites, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today…The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Moses’ response reminds me of a phrase in the Philippines that says, “Let us leave it all to God. There is nothing else we can do about it.” This is often misused in situations where, in fact, there is something we can do about it. For example, a group of people from a slum in the capital region were arrested and put into jail, where all they did was demand food and financial support from the government due to the lockdown.
Many people in the Philippines are desperate. They rely on the informal economy. They survive on a daily basis. At the start of the implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), all public transportation stopped operating, all non-essential shops where closed, and people were required to stay home. This resulted in many hungry Filipinos, day laborers in the city were forced to walk for more than seven days to return to their provinces, essential workers walking to and from their workplaces. Meanwhile, more healthcare frontline workers died and were infected every day, due to lack of proper protective equipment.
In the Letter of James 2:14-17 it says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the disparities of our world today more obvious: disparities in income and wealth, access to healthcare, along with disparate outcomes based on race or gender. But it has also created more opportunities for the church to live out its prophetic calling. It is our opportune time to be awake and be proactive in the issues of inequalities and injustices around us. During this time of the pandemic, we have seen many solidarity movements arise, now that people recognize the need for change. They mobilize, they draw inspiration from the strength of the people, they take initiative to move us toward a “new normal.”
Though Moses’ advice reminds us that the initiative is God’s, still we must also “go forward” (v.15). Our faith as Christians should inform our actions for peace and justice. The text in James reminds us that our faith should lead us to act. Prayer should be more than spoken words—it should be a living testimony of our call to mission as disciples of Christ.
I know of many stories of hope that are happening around the world—specifically involving young people or youth organizations from WCC member churches and ecumenical partners. For example, a group of young people in the Philippines raised funds to provide protective personal equipment for healthcare frontline workers in six district hospitals. A young pastor and his youth group in India distribute fruits, vegetables, and hygiene kits to more than 80 families in their communities. A young woman from Brazil provides Pilates class online for physical and mental well-being. A regional youth organization in Europe calls their members to volunteer to run errands and buy essential items for people in high-risk and vulnerable categories. Young women ambassadors of the Thursdays in Black campaign continue to raise awareness and demand for change for a world without sexual and gender-based violence.
This pandemic may have brought about fear, isolation, panic, anger, anxiety, doubts, and impatience. But God has provided us the gifts of courage, community, calmness, joy, confidence, trust, and patience within our faith communities to confront the current global crisis. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, together we will safely cross to the other side of the Red Sea—and a better “new normal” for all of God’s creation.
- What hinders you from seeing the gifts that God has provided you? What are gifts with which you could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic more proactively?
- Where do you see the church’s prophetic voice resonate in your community, in your country, and in the world?
1. Within your community: community mapping
- Are there people in high-risk and vulnerable groups, living in your neighborhood who need assistance to buy their essential items?
- Are there daily wage workers in your community that no longer have food supplies to survive due to the lockdown?
- Are there people in your community who are still unaware of the detailed information of COVID-19?
Identify some needs in your community that need immediate action due to the effects of COVID-19 pandemic. Once you do so, ask your church if you have programmes that respond to these needs. If not, identify local organizations in your area that deal with these specific needs and that have ongoing programmes to support the community. Once you identified them, you may link the church and the organization for a joint programme or partnership in the community—this could mean volunteering or fundraising. Find ways to help locally!
2. Go global: technology at its best
- Use the online platform to connect people within and beyond the ecumenical fellowship! Host an ecumenical solidarity conversation via video to encourage one another in this time of crisis.
- Share your gift with a global audience. For example, there are young clinical psychologists, offering their professional counseling to people across the globe who are going through mental health crisis now. Distance is not a hindrance to offer your gifts or expertise to other people around the world. What’s your gift that you could share with others?
- Support a cause—if you are living away from home but still would want to create an impact, contact your home church or organization and offer help (financial or in-kind) that you could contribute. You may also explore supporting initiatives across the globe—ask WCC how.
Lord, you led your people out of slavery and through the many uncertainties and fears that stood in the way of their liberation. Help us to heed your word and discern the gifts that we might lend to others in this time of great need. Finding our prophetic voice and calling, may we become agents of your justice and find our own true liberation in your work, through Christ our Lord, Amen.
* Joy Eva Bohol is the WCC programme executive for Youth in the Ecumenical Movement. Originally from the Philippines, she served in various positions in the area of mission before being seconded to the WCC in 2017 by the United Methodist Church.
 See Cameron B. R. Howard, “Commentary on Exodus,” Narrative Lectionary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2206