A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
Sept 14, 2014
I’m sure there are many interesting parts of this story, but I confess I had a hard time focusing on anything after this sentence:
“The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.”
The Hebrew people are on the move. They are fleeing their lives of slavery and bondage to Pharaoh. They are on the way to the Promised Land. And they have miles to go before they sleep. They’ve got a long journey ahead of them and a wide, wide river to cross.
But they aren’t alone. They are being led by the angel of God and by a pillar of cloud.
Now, being led by an angel and a cloud has its own issues, for sure.
How do you know who to trust?
Which cloud do you follow, exactly?
The Israelites had to decide if they were going to listen to Moses and follow God into this strange new future. Could they trust that God was providing the pillar of cloud?
Could they trust the angel of God, who had just passed over their doorposts, killing the first-born sons of Egypt, would keep them safe?
Apparently they made it through those questions and followed behind the angel and the pillar of cloud.
And then the angel and the pillar move to the back of the column and start leading from behind.
And that’s what got me thinking about the relationship between the leader and the led.
It is one thing to follow a leader. You trust the leader knows where they are going. The leader trusts that the people behind will follow. It requires an amount of trust on both sides.
Leading from behind seems a whole different venture to me. On one level, I’m sure it was reassuring to the people, especially to the ones in the back, to know that someone “had their back”, that someone was between them and the advancing Egyptian army.
I wonder how it felt to the people at the front of the line?
How many of them, who had been happy to follow behind the cloud and the angel, all of a sudden paused and said, “which way do we go now?”
How many of them offered to let the people behind them go ahead. “No, really, that’s okay. You can go first for a while. I insist. You first.”
And, while I’m sure the angel and the pillar of cloud had their hands full taking care of the Egyptians, I also wonder if they were wondering how things were going at the front of the line. “They didn’t turn left at that intersection, did they? They needed to turn right. I hope they go the right way!”
Because that’s the problem of leading from behind.
You have to let go.
You have to trust that the people at the front have learned from you and have what they need to find the path without your direct help. Leading from behind becomes an exercise in collaboration, with the leader and the led each playing an important role.
And I confess I haven’t thought much about the responsibility for their own journey the Israelites had to make. I tend to think of them as sheep, just following along where they are led, complaining about the conditions, forgetting about the promises.
But, if the pillar of cloud and the angel of God have gone back to take care of the situation at the back of the line, then the Israelites were more than sheep. Yes, they had Moses with them at the front. But they didn’t have to follow him either. They could easily have said, “yeah, thanks, but we’re going to wait for the cloud to come back, Moses.”
Apparently they heard Moses’ encouragement and decided to trust him: “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. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
A friend shared this quote this week, and it struck me as so profoundly true:
“Relationships are the currency of faith communities. Things get done at the speed of trust.”
I rarely think of the Exodus story in terms of relationship. Yet this quote reminds me how relationship frames this story, as scaffolding underneath the plaster and the walls. The Israelites knew each other—enough to join together on this journey to the Promised Land. They knew Moses—enough to trust he was speaking words of life and hope for them. They knew God—enough to trust the pillar of cloud and the angel sent to guide them.
How does the time you invest in your relationships help determine who you trust?
With their divine leaders at the back of the column, the Israelites reach the Red Sea.
And they wait for the morning.
Water on one side, approaching Egyptians on the other.
And they wait for the morning.
While they wait, in the darkness, Moses stretches out his hand to part the waters. And all night long, the Israelites must have heard—I don’t know what they heard—but there must have been a big sound that accompanied the parting of the water. Waves. Wind. Sea spray blowing toward them from the darkness.
And despite the fact that they are up against a large body of water and have no boats, life preservers, or inner tubes, the Israelites don’t turn themselves over to Pharaoh’s army. They stand their ground, faces turned away from Pharaoh and toward an impossibility, with hope.
All night long, on one side they hear the noise of the chariot wheels and the neighing of the horses, the sound of the Egyptians cooking their dinner, and singing around the fire as they anticipate the rout and destruction of the foolish Israelites in the morning.
On the other side they hear the wind. It is dark, so they can’t see what’s going on, but they can tell that something is happening on the Red Sea.
And in this part of the story, you see the trust that is often hard to see from the Israelites during the rest of the Exodus story.
They stay in place over night, trusting that the pillar of cloud and the angel of God will take care of what is behind them and that Moses has some sort of plan for what is ahead of them.
If they didn’t trust, I suspect we’d read about them deciding to quietly slip off up one side of the waterfront or down the other.
But they wait through the night.
And in the morning, a miracle happened.
I can’t explain this miracle, and it doesn’t seem to be worth our time to do that today, no matter how many “great” explanations we might find on the interwebs.
Notice WHEN this miracle occurs in this story.
It doesn’t happen in the first few miles of the journey. The Israelites follow the pillar of cloud and angel for a while. The miracle doesn’t happen when the darkness at the end of the day arrives either.
The Israelites sit through a dark night, not knowing what would happen in the morning.
The miracle happens with the new day, after a night of trust, weird sounds, and anxiety. The miracle is a byproduct of relationships that led to trust—trust in who you follow, trust that the journey is heading where it is supposed to be going, trust that you will make it through the darkness of night.
So, here’s the question.
In whom do you trust?
And don’t just say “God” because you know that’s the right answer.
Because it is easy to say we trust in God.
But often times, it seems we say that, but then we trust only in ourselves.
And I suspect there were a few Hebrew people who were like us. I’m sure some of them were thinking, “I’m sure God has it under control, even though it is dark and I don’t swim and the Egyptians hate us and did I mention it is dark….but I’ll let God take care of the rest of the Hebrew crowd. It’s nice of God to offer, really, but I’ll just take care of myself, maybe move a little further away from both the water and the Egyptians and find a nice quiet spot to rest a bit and then I’ll catch up with everyone later.”
Because when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to have to rely on anyone else. Not even a Divine anyone else.
And in much of our lives, we can get away with that illusion of control. We are very self-reliant people, which is fine, to a point.
God doesn’t want us to just lie down and wait for the bus to come to carry us out of slavery and into the promised land. The Hebrew people had to walk, and we have things to do as well. We need to not confuse our participation in the exodus with being in charge and setting the course.
And we need to remember God sometimes doesn’t lead from the front of the line, but is protecting us at our backs. When the path forward isn’t clear, it doesn’t mean we are alone.
Who do you trust to lead you?
As you do your part in the work of deliverance, who are you following?
The Exodus, the deliverance from slavery to freedom, isn’t about the impressiveness of the Hebrew people.
At every turn of the 40 year journey, it is about the power of God.
Even though —as Americans privileged with health, comfort, safety, and opportunity—we can maintain the illusion that we direct our own paths, the story of the Exodus is a reminder to us not to do that.
In whom do you trust?
We live in a world where the news can terrify us.
–There’s an Ebola epidemic in Africa and other viruses here in the US.
–The prospect of war (again) in the Middle East.
–Violence in our streets and violence in our homes, as if violence could be “domesticated”.
–This week we marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11
And as we try to get our minds around what the Israelites must have felt as they waited for the water to part, perhaps 9/11 isn’t the worst connection to make. Everything we thought we knew, changed in a moment, as modern day pharaohs decided their reign of terror wasn’t over, upending people’s lives, our sense of safety and security.
Pharaoh, and all of the pharaohs after him, force people to accept terror as the “new normal” by trusting in systems of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty. God calls us to turn our backs on Pharaoh’s terrorism and face the future on the other side of the water.
On the anniversary of 9/11, a friend shared this poem from Steven Garnaas-Holmes, called “The Red Sea”:
You’ve been wronged:
hurt, betrayed, accused,
robbed of something, someone.
The wound still bleeds,
smoke still rises in twin columns.
You can pretend,
and your ruse will imprison you.
You can rage,
and your rage will enslave you.
You can believe you’re deserving,
and your shame will bury you.
Or you can walk to the sea,
the sea at the end of the world,
the dark, chaotic waters of Creation,
the Red Sea bounding your Egypt,
the ocean of forgiveness.
A bitter Pharaoh will follow you,
but don’t turn back.
You will walk into the pain, up to your ankles,
the grief, up to your waist,
the powerlessness, up to your chest
before the waters part
and you walk free.
So, in whom will we trust?
We can trust ourselves. We can trust the political realms. We can trust the free market or the almighty dollar. We can even trust Pharaoh.
At the end of the day, I pray that we will remember to wait on the Lord. I pray that when we find ourselves in the dark night, with enemies encamped behind us and no clear path before us, that we trust our deliverance is not in our own hands. We will not create our own miracles. God is our refuge, our very present help in times of trouble. Trust in that.