Scriptures: Exodus 13:17-22; John 12:35-36
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Wednesday evening I needed to drop my car off at the Honda garage. Britt was going to follow me in his van to give me a ride home from the garage. I started driving down 52. And then, I stopped dead in my tracks. The lane was abruptly closed. I pulled into a parking lot to turn around. Britt wound down his window and said, “Do you know where you’re going?” Well, obviously not. This summer, it’s anyone’s guess, isn’t it? Not even Google can keep up with the ever-changing terrain that is Lafayette, IN. And clearly, my being in the lead did not turn out to be a very wise choice.
Perhaps you’ve seen the commercial for Athene Holding, an annuity investment company. As the commercial begins, we have a binocular view of a dry, barren terrain with these things kind of sticking out of the sand. As the camera zooms in we can see: these are men in business suits, kneeling on all fours with their heads stuck down up to their necks in the sand. Our narrator speaks: “There are those who become complacent when the market is in status quo mode.” Heads begin to pop out of the sand and look around nervously like meerkats … “And those who panic when it isn’t.” Now the men are racing frantically across the sand, jostling one another for position, pushing to get ahead. Once again the voice of the announcer: “But if you’re like us, you know that focus, commitment and higher expectations will get you to places you’ve only dreamt of.” On the word “focus,” we are viewing through the binoculars once again. Taking in the broader landscape, we see these men are running pell-mell toward a steep cliff; a drop off into a giant abyss. Now, we see the person behind the binoculars on the summit observing dispassionately from a distance. He’s standing in front of a beautiful home. Obviously, he’s succeeded in getting to the place he dreamt of.
Whether you’re driving down Sagamore, moving toward retirement, or just on the journey of life, it matters who is in the lead.
And so, this morning, I’d ask you “Who is leading you on your journey through life? Do you feel like there’s a clear purpose to your life’s trajectory?” Now, maybe you’re thinking, “All that pursuit of life’s purpose stuff is great for younger people; but I’ve moved beyond that.” Well, I hope that’s not what you’re thinking because here’s the thing: scripture reveals that God has a purpose for our lives no matter our age. Just consider that the patriarch Abraham was 75 years old when God first called him to pull up his tent pegs and set out on the journey to Canaan.[i] Life is a journey. God beckons us to follow him on that journey. God wants to be our leader.
And the trustworthy leadership of God is the focus of this morning’s Old Testament story of the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt. They are on a journey; but it is far more than a physical trek. It is about a spiritual journey, a spiritual transformation as they discover what it means to surrender their lives to the faithful, reliable leadership of God. And often, like it did for those ancient Israelites, yielding to the leadership of God means our life’s circumstances may change dramatically.
I was reading an article several months back that made a comment about change. It stated that, despite what people tell you, the only people who really like change are the people who are instituting the change. Therapists who work with clients suffering addiction or co-dependency can tell you that, as human creatures, we will often choose a known evil over an unknown good. We resist change; even positive change.
Perhaps there is no better illustration of this human predilection to avoid change than this story of the Israelites on their exodus from the slavery of Egypt to the liberation of the promised land of Canaan. Old Testament bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann notes that, for those ancient Israelites, Egypt was a bit like an addiction. It wasn’t a good place for them to be at all. But it was what they knew. And, as they strike out into the unknown wilderness terrain, they begin to romanticize the Egypt that enslaved them. The biblical book of Exodus tells the story of the journey of those Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. It is a geographical journey for sure. But it is, more importantly, a story of their spiritual journey; their spiritual formation, an awakening self-awareness of who they are and whose they are; a gradual, and often reluctant, surrendering to God as their leader. They have spent a long time under the leadership of Pharaohs. Now, it will take them more than a generation to relearn how to live under the leadership of God.
Their journey springs from the promise God made long ago to that old and shriveled up man named Abraham. And it is their promise as well. In truth, the story does not begin with them. It begins with Abraham, with Jacob, with Joseph whose bones they carry with them on the way out of town.
As the Book of Exodus opens, our author reminds us that Jacob and his twelve sons had arrived in Egypt long, long ago. Forced to flee there to secure food during a famine, for whatever reason, they chose to remain long after the threat had passed. Exodus 1:7 says, “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” Generations have passed and it seems these people have forgotten who they once were and where they came from. They belong to a God who made them a promise and gave them a place. And yet, generation after generation remained in that foreign land until an evil Pharaoh perceived them to be a threat and set about the work of subjugation, enslavement and ethnic cleansing. This is leadership designed to destroy them; leadership that leads to suffering and death.
The Israelites cry out; they give voice to their suffering. But something is curiously missing from the story because we’re not told they cry out to God; simply that they cry out. They are miserable in this foreign place. And their cry, the book of Exodus tells us, activates the memory of God.[ii] Perhaps the people have forgotten God’s promises to them; but God remembers. God remembers the covenant he made with their forefathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God recognizes these people as his people; the people he shall lead out of slavery. God seeks to deliver them, to liberate them, and to return them to their rightful place: to the land of Canaan from whence they’d come so long ago.
The circumstances under which the Israelites had been living must certainly have impacted how they thought of themselves. It appeared that Pharaoh was their leader. Yet, it was never really Pharaoh in control, despite how things may have appeared. God is the one active in the lives of these people and God will teach them through this wilderness journey what it means to be led by God. They’ve not merely been cut loose to fend for themselves – good luck and God bless ya. No; God is going to lead and guide them through this wilderness journey.
During this past Lent some of us read and discussed the book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by William Bridges.[iii] In that book, Bridges writes, “To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old one you have now. Even though it sounds backwards, endings always come first.” I’m guessing that many of those Israelites had been conditioned to assume Pharaoh was their leader, Pharaoh controlled them. But Pharaoh was never really the one in charge of them. God is the one who leads these people. Yet, to physically abandon Egypt will be much easier than abandoning that way of thinking. They will frequently romanticize the land of their captors when they cry out to God about the flesh pots of food back in Egypt. They fear the wilderness. It will be a 40-year long lesson in trusting God and in learning to surrender to his leadership over their lives.
So into the wilderness they go, led by God who makes his presence visible, appearing as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God will lead them on this journey. Even in the darkness, God will light their path. God will even make accommodations for their fear and trepidation. In this morning’s scripture we read that God would lead the people on an alternate route out of Egypt. It’ll be a roundabout way, but it will allow them to avoid the Philistines because God knows, doing battle against the Philistines at the start of this journey will be more than those Israelites can bear. God leads them by an alternate path yet it, too, will present its own unique challenges bringing them to the shores of the Red Sea: a body of water in front of them and the army of Pharaoh nipping at their heels. They travel by day and by night with God leading them each step of the way.
The journey, you know, was intended to be much shorter than forty years.[iv] But when they first reached the Promised Land and scouts were sent in to scope it out, they weren’t ready. They feared the people who lived there more than they trusted God. They’d not yet learned that they belonged to a God who would bless and preserve them. They’d not yet learned that it was safe to follow God’s lead. Their bodies have been liberated, but apparently their minds and hearts hadn’t kept pace. It was a mighty big change to place themselves under the leadership of God.
It is a struggle for them as it often is for us. We let other forces high-jack our journey and take the lead. We succumb to fear. Our life’s journey becomes aimless, a frustrating journey through the wilderness. Sometimes we feel oppressed and exploited by people or situations that try to control us and convince us we belong to them.
It was decades ago, yet I remember it like it was yesterday: a young lady in my youth group at my church in Dayton. We always started youth group with a meal. That evening was small group. But she arrived late so she was still finishing up eating as the other youth headed out to meet with their small group leaders. I could tell she wasn’t her usual cheerful self so I asked her how her week had been. It didn’t take long before she got around to the source of her sadness. Her parents had high power jobs and they’d recently purchased an enormous new home which meant even more hours on the job, even more clients, to make those big mortgage payments. She said to me, “I feel like I hardly get to spend any time with them anymore. When I was younger, sometimes dad would take me out to Dogs and Suds and we’d get cheese burgers and just sit there and eat and talk for as long as we wanted to. Now, he’s too busy. I really miss that.” And I thought to myself that – for all the outward appearance of success – there was family held captive by a Pharaoh.
Friends: God is the one who wants to lead us; to lead us out of places of captivity and fear and into places of security and peace. God wants to light our path as God lit the path of those ancient Israelites. Jesus said to his followers: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[v] Jesus made clear to his followers that he was God’s guiding presence. He promised his followers that after his death and resurrection, his Spirit, the Helper, the Advocate would live within them to guide and direct them.[vi] And that same Spirit is available to us today; to live within us, to lead us; to direct us on our life’s journey.
But since it isn’t a visible cloud or a pillar of fire or an in-the-flesh, first century Palestinian rabbi, you might be thinking, “How will I see it? How will I discern it so I can follow?” Well, there are things you can do – things all of us can do – spiritual practices that we can engage in to fine tune our hearts and minds, our ears and eyes to the leading of God: practices like prayer and the study of scripture. Psalm 119 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”[vii] The bible is a way in which God leads us. There are other practices as well: Christian meditation and solitude; discerning our spiritual gifts and putting them into practice; making time periodically to reflect on our spiritual journey to date and where God has brought us from; prayerfully reflecting on the past so we become more sensitive to God’s guidance in the future.
There is a six-week study I’ll be leading later this summer called Companions on the Journey that focuses on our walk with Christ and discerning God’s leading in our lives. If you’re interested in being a part of that, let me know. But I can tell you, it takes a commitment of your time and thoughtfulness because, for all of us, the spiritual journey can often feel like a trek through the wilderness and it takes intentional practice if we’re to learn to trust in the faithful, reliable leadership of God who is a lamp to our feet, a light to our path, who leads us by day and by night, whose presence never leaves us. Amen.
[i] See Genesis 12:1-9
[ii] See Exodus 2:23-25
[iii] Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges; Life Long Books, 2004.
[iv] See the Book of Numbers, chapter 14.
[v] John 8:12
[vi] See John, chapter 14
[vii] Psalm 119:105
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