Becoming God’s People: The God Who Goes Before Us

Scripture: Exodus 40:33-38

Today we come to the end of the book of Exodus.  We’ve been journeying with the Israelites for a while now, from slavery to liberation to wilderness wandering.  As I’ve been saying from the beginning, Exodus is the story of how people who were no people became God’s people.  But becoming God’s people isn’t just an automatic thing that happens.  Yes, being loved and chosen and remembered by God is pretty much up to God – that’s what we call grace – but understanding what that means for our lives and our journey is at least somewhat up to us.

When we first met the Israelites at the beginning of Exodus, they weren’t even slaves yet.  They’re a flourishing minority in a country that is not their native land where the majority is beginning to fear what their growing numbers mean.  It is that fear, along with a leader all too willing to exploit it, that leads to slavery.  But God hears the Israelites’ cries, and God remembers the promises that God made to their ancestors, that they would become a great nation.  So one day God shows up in a burning bush in the desert to an ethnically Hebrew fugitive from the law who just so happened to grow up Egyptian, and God tells him to go back home and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go.  (That fugitive from the law’s name? Moses.)

Pharaoh does not, of course, let the people go, and his hardness of heart leads to a series of plagues that God sends against him and the Egyptian people: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock.  Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Over and over, Pharaoh relents and then un-relents, until God decides to show him once and for all who’s in charge here.  That night each Israelite family slaughters a lamb and smears the blood on their doorposts, and at the stroke of midnight, every firstborn child in the land of Egypt dies.  Every one, that is, except for in the houses of the Israelites.  They have been passed over.

That night the Israelites set out in the direction of the Red Sea, with God going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When they reach the sea they can hear the Egyptian army catching up to them in the distance, but Moses spreads his staff over the water and they split in half, and the Israelites walk across the sea on dry land.  When the Egyptians catch up, of course, they are not so lucky; on the far shore, the Israelites are free.

And that, in a sense, is where the real story of Exodus begins. Because there the Israelites are in the wilderness, following a God who they don’t really know yet.  Yes, this God has led them out of slavery and into freedom, but what happens next?  Now that they are chosen, now that they are safe, what does it mean to be God’s people for the long haul?

It turns out that maybe you don’t learn that in one big, cataclysmic event like a sea crossing.  You learn it in the wilderness, when you’re worrying about where your next meal and your next cup of water is coming from.  You learn it when you wake up one morning and there’s bread on the ground, and when you see water start gushing out of rocks.  You learn it when you commit to living in a certain way, by certain rules, that give you identity as a community and show the people around you who you are.  You learn it when you mess up and worship things that aren’t God and you fear that you’ve ruined everything and the journey is over, but it’s not over, God is still there offering you a second chance.

These are the lessons the Israelites have to learn in the wilderness as they are shaped and formed into a community of God’s people.

A few weeks ago, back in chapter 17, when the Israelites were thirsty and there was no water to be found, they asked a question that made Moses accuse them of testing God: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And of course that question has already been answered time and time again.  It’s been answered in the hail and the darkness and the splitting of the sea, it’s been answered in the manna that covers the ground and the bitter water made sweet, and yet it’s still a question the wandering people have to ask.  Apparently part of being God’s people is sometimes still having to ask.

It’s the end of Exodus, this very last part, when that question gets answered once and for all.

Last week we heard God giving Moses the instructions for building the tabernacle, the mobile proto-Temple that will be God’s dwelling in the midst of the people and travel with them from camp to camp in the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  Moses invites the people to bring their gifts to be used for building, and they do; they bring their gold and silver and yarn and leather and oil and wood until the workers complain and they have to be told to stop.  Then the tabernacle is built, exactly according to God’s instructions – the authors are very careful to let us know that it is built “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

As I said last week, this whole part about building the tabernacle is neither the most famous nor the most enthralling part of Exodus.  But it comprises almost half of the book.  It’s not an appendix to the story of crossing the Red Sea; it’s what the Israelites are crossing the Red Sea for, to be a community centered around God’s presence on earth. And in today’s text, finally, the cloud descends over the tabernacle and the Lord’s glorious presence fills it.  And with that, the curtains close on the book of Exodus.

And yet this is not the end of the story; it’s not even the end of the wilderness years.  The Israelites will continue to wander.  They will wander through Leviticus, through Numbers, through Deuteronomy.  They will wander for years, before they finally cross into the Promised Land.  They will go backward and forward and sideways and around in circles.

Rarely, I think, do we travel in a straight line through the wilderness, whatever our “wilderness” may be.

In a way it strikes me as kind of strange that Exodus ends right here, with so much wandering still to go.  Nothing is settled, nothing has come to a conclusion, promises remain unfulfilled.  But the story – this part of it – ends with this: God is with the people of Israel.

And it’s almost as if whatever happens after that is secondary, because if God is wandering with them, then that’s all God’s people need to know.

When I think about what I’m thankful for in the past year, there are plenty of things: the safe birth my daughter Lydia.  Two kids who are healthy, as far as we know.  A job I was glad to come back to after maternity leave.  But to tell the truth it’s been a pretty hard year, with my dad’s illness and death on the one hand, and this whole figuring out being the parents of two kids at one time thing on the other.  It’s been in many ways a wilderness-y kind of year.  Nothing feels like it’s hit equilibrium just yet.  And I know I’m not alone in that; we all have our own wilderness we have to wander.  But I admit that a lot of the time God has seemed distant.  Not angry, not unjust – just distant.  There have been times when that question the Israelites asked has come to mind: “Is the Lord really among us, or not?”

And yet I continue to believe that even when I haven’t felt it, God has been there anyway.  I say that thinking of all the people who reminded me of that over these months – friends who have prayed for me when I didn’t have the words, people who brought meals, who stepped in to help when I had to step back.  These people, these moments, have helped me remember what was actually true no matter what: that God has still been there in the wilderness, and that God is leading me still.

That was always the promise to be fulfilled.  Not the Promised Land, but God with us.  Because God is with us, I can be thankful in the wilderness too.

There’s this tension at this time of year, I think, as we close out the Christian year worshiping Jesus as king of all creation, looking forward to the day when all that is wrong is made right, when the kingdom of God is fully come on earth.  And then we go ahead and begin all over again in Advent, with promises yet to be fulfilled, asking Jesus to come into a world that is still in the wilderness, and there is grief, and there is pain, and there is hate, and injustice, and brokenness, and if we’re honest none of us really knows what to do about it all.  And Jesus does – in Jesus we know that God is with us in all of it.  Jesus is our tabernacle.

There’s a lot that seems uncertain about our world right now.  We don’t know how our country’s going to come out of the next election.  We don’t know how our church is going to come out of our next General Conference.  We don’t know what climate change is going to mean for our future.  We don’t know what building a new church and being out of our church building for three years is going to be like for our community of faith right here.  In each of these cases we get to figure out anew what it means to be God’s people: loving our least loveable neighbors, standing up for the vulnerable, witnessing to a vision that is bigger than our own.

But the good news is that being God’s people means we may wander as we figure it all out – but we will never wander alone.

And because of that, we can put one foot in front of the other, moving forward in faith.

When it is time for the Israelites to set out, the story goes, the cloud that symbolizes God’s presence rises up from the tabernacle.  The people pack up their camp and they gather their things and they hoist the covenant chest onto their shoulders with long poles, and following where the cloud takes them, they march.

And they are thankful, in the wilderness, because God is with them and goes before them.  And in the end, that’s all God’s people need to know.

 

 

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