On the Sundays we have read from the Old Testament, in the last few weeks, those passages have been from the Exodus story, which began with the Hebrew people in slavery in Egypt, in approximately the year 1250 BC. We heard about God’s call to Moses, through a burning bush, to lead the people out of slavery; of “God the Provider,” of food and water and safety and protection, on that journey. We heard God give the people the Ten Commandments and the other laws which would guide how they lived, at one of their stops on their journey across the wilderness.
And now . . . well we don’t want to just leave the Hebrew people sitting out there in the desert, do we? For one thing, being there isn’t the end of the story, isn’t their fate—and we need to remind ourselves just how the story did end, and how God kept the promises made to them.
Cecil B. DeMille left them out there, as I remember, in his film “The Ten Commandments.” After four hours of Moses and a made-up girlfriend, Moses and a made-up enemy, and so on, it’s not surprising that he ran out of time, and chopped off the story rather abruptly, after the Ten Commandments were given. That’s a shame, because there are many exiting and important parts of the Exodus story after that, which people who only know the movie never hear about.
We’ll summarize those parts now, completing the story of the Exodus, and then we’ll look at one way the story relates to the journey we’re all making, through our lives.
The Hebrew people, on their travels from slavery in Egypt across the wilderness, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, for several months, the book of Exodus tell us. Some time during this stay, they received the Ten Commandments, as we heard three weeks ago. Not long after that, they promptly broke the second of those commandments, by making a golden calf, a representation of God, and worshipping it. Moses prevailed upon God to forgive the people of this serious sin, and finally God agreed to continue to lead the people across the wilderness toward the Promised Land of Canaan.
Before they departed, however, they received many other laws, laws which would shape their practice of religion over the next several centuries, and ultimately shape ours as well. These included laws about how and where and when to worship God, and it is here the first regular worship begins, in a tent structure called a tabernacle—the first ever “church building,” in effect. 3200 years later, so far, the regular gathering of the people of God, to worship God, continues.
Finally the day came to move on from Mt. Sinai toward the Promised Land. And even though the people had left the Egyptians far behind, and had seen that God would provide the food and water they needed for their travels, their challenges were not over yet.
One problem was probably inevitable: when you’re dealing with thousands of people in difficult, uncomfortable circumstances, there are bound to be conflict and bitterness and occasional flare-ups between some of these people. For one thing, the complaining resumed: the people were tired of eating manna; they wanted variety , they wanted more meat, they wanted fruit, they wanted more water. For another, disputes would arise among the people, disputes which required a referee or judge to step in and settle. Moses could not be everywhere at once, so God had him appoint seventy elders to receive some of the spirit of leadership and strength and wisdom , and help govern the people. It is a story we sometimes read as we install our elders today: God’s spirit bestowed upon the leaders of God’s people.
Well finally the Hebrew people drew close to the borders of Canaan, the place they were to settle. But after twelve “spies” were appointed to go take a look at the proposed new homeland, and reported that the land was fertile and prosperous, but also contained inhabitants who looked pretty big and scary and resistant to new people moving in, the people balked!
Faced with a choice between fear, and trust in the Lord . . . in spite of all they had seen God do for them, they said “We can’t enter this land; let’s go back to Egypt!” In spite of all God’s miracles, they had no confidence in God’s taking care of them.
So God decided: If this group doesn’t trust me, we’ll just have them stay out here in the desert another forty years, until this faithless generation passes away. Then perhaps their sons and daughters will be faithful enough to enter their new home, not give in to their fear. And so began a period of forty more years of living in the wilderness, just outside the land of milk and honey.
During the forty years, the adventures continued. At one point there was a rebellion from within: a small group wished to take over from Moses and Aaron and the priests. This was the event where the earth quaked, the ground split, and swallowed the rebels; God made a very clear statement about who the chosen leaders were.
There were also challenges from outside. Local groups called the Amorites and Midianites attacked the people, and both times God assured the Israelites of victory, and provided it. A third group called the Moabites tried to do them in by having a famous prophet called Balaam curse them. But after a couple conversations with an angel and, as you may know, a talking donkey, Balaam blessed them instead, knowing God was with them.
Eventually the forty years passed, and the next generation proved to be faithful enough that they would finally enter their new home.
It was at this point that Moses gathered the people around and gave his final speech to guide them, a speech we have summarized in our book of Deuteronomy. It recapped much of the Law, exhorting the Hebrew people to be faithful to it, so that they would prosper in the land. It included the famous “Shema”: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And it presented this choice: “I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way, to follow other gods. Do what is good and right, in the sight of the Lord your God.”
Then Moses, directed by God, called Joshua to him and commissioned him to lead the people in the settling of the land. Moses’ job had been to get them to Canaan; Joshua’s would be to lead them in. And God spoke to Joshua: “Be strong and bold; I will be with you.” Then Moses climbed the mountain overlooking the land of Canaan, and saw that he had succeeded, that they had arrived. And Moses, died, the mightiest of the prophets of Israel.
Now the moment had come: Joshua led the people to the Jordan River, the eastern border of the Promised Land. And God spoke to Joshua as we heard in last week’s Old Testament Bible reading, saying “I will now give you a sign to prove to the people that I am with you as I was with Moses.” And upon Joshua’s command, the waters of the Jordan River stopped, piling up upstream, leaving dry land for the people to cross, just as the waters of the sea had done for Moses over forty years before. The end of the journey was marked by the same miracle with which it had begun. The Hebrew people entered the Promised Land.
And the Lord was with Joshua and the people as they settled the land, as promised. There were times they did have to fight their way in, fight off attacks from people who feared or hated these newcomers. The famous fall of Jericho—“the walls came a tumblin’ down”—was Joshua’s first triumph, and was followed by many other victories, until finally the Hebrew people had carved out a place for themselves in the land of milk and honey, and were safe and sound.
And then Joshua called the people around and gave his final speech to his people, a speech which again recapped all that God had done for them from Egypt onward, and which culminated with these words: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and in faithfulness. Choose this day whom you will serve, the gods of the people of this land, or the Lord. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And the people responded “We will also serve the Lord, who is our God.”
So the story of the exodus comes to a close, with the people safely settled into their new land, stating their commitment to the God who has brought them there. The promise has been fulfilled: leave this land of Egypt and brave the wilderness, and I will bring you to your own prosperous land, and make of you a holy nation.
Now there are many themes in the Exodus story we could apply to the journey of our lives. We could consider how God calls us to particular tasks and journeys too, or how God wants to liberate us too, or how God provides for us too. We also find many themes from the stories, we have just heard today, that apply to our journeys too: the question of faith vs. fear—do we trust in all the great things we have seen God do and move with confidence into the future, or do we turn back, afraid, saying “I don’t trust God to see me through this”? Are we among the people who complain and cause conflicts and disputes; or those who trust the leaders carrying God’s spirit, and who are the leaders accepting God’s spirit? When we are faced with the choice posed first by Moses, and then by Joshua—will we follow God’s commandments, God’s word, or will we depart from it when we feel like it—what is our answer?
Presbyterian minister Rev. Garrett Dawson picks up one of those themes for us today, as he considers Moses’ final speech to the people: “Why is it so difficult for us to live as people whose lives are shaped by the words of Scripture? Church people readily agree that the Bible is an essential book. Yet we struggle to make the time to read it. We’d hate to be tested on how many verses we know by heart. And while we like to be comforted by reading the Bible, we have difficulty making connections between its words and how we make decisions about everyday life.
“What are we to do? We say we know that Scripture is critical to our growth as Christians, and that we are fascinated by this book. But we also say things like ‘the words are too difficult’ and ‘I’m too tired right now’ and ‘that story’s too hard to understand.’ We don’t try to learn verses by heart. We don’t observe ‘quiet times’ to meditate on these holy words. We aren’t motivated to make the time. We need a way to work with the Bible that takes account of these contradictory impulses within us.
“Maybe the very old story from Deuteronomy can help us: Moses called the people together and gave them the commandments he received from the Lord. Moses told the people of God’s wishes for them: ‘Oh that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and their children always!’ God’s purpose in giving the commands was to enable the people to enjoy their lives in many years of prosperity. We can conclude from this that the Bible, as God’s word to us, has also been given that it ‘might go well with us.’ These words come from God to give us abundant life.
“The Lord knows, however, that our tendency is to forget to keep our buckets filled from this well, especially when life is going smoothly. This is why Moses warned the people ‘when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord.’ Learning the Bible is hard work; relating it to daily life is difficult. As long as things are going well, we put off doing the tough tasks. And then when the inevitable downturn in our circumstances occurs, our resources are shallow and we are far from the source of renewal.
“So Moses told the people, to learn the words of life first, before the bad times roll around—and he put them on a program for how to keep the commandments in the forefront of their daily activities. It was in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: Keep the commandments in your hearts. Recite them to your children. Talk about them, when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down at night and when you get up in the morning. Keep reminders of them all around you, like rings on your fingers or signs on the doorframes of your houses.
“In other words keep the words of the Lord running through your minds frequently, Be in constant conversation about them. In that way, God’s words will be on your hearts, and ‘heart’ in the Bible means the source of will and thought, from which our decisions and actions arise.
“C.S. Lewis echoed the words of Moses in his Narnia book ‘The Silver Chair.” A young girl named Jill finds herself on the edge of the magical land of Narnia, and the great lion Aslan appears to give her an important quest. To accomplish it, she will have to watch for signs along the way, and then perform the tasks associated with each sign. Her life and the life of all Narnia depend on her. And just before sending her off, Aslan says, ‘But first remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning, and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. Whatever strange thing may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from the signs. And second I give you a warning: Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. The signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart, and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.’
“Isn’t that the way the words of Scripture too often work for us? The signs do not look the same in daily life as they do on the pages of Scripture. In the Bible, God often talks to people directly. We seldom hear such a voice. People in the gospels are healed instantly; our healing may take years. Right and wrong seem clear in the Bible stories; we muddle along. If only the air of daily life were as clear as on the mountain of the Bible! But it never is.
“So, Lewis writes through Aslan, we need to know the signs, in our hearts, so we will recognize them in different forms. We need to keep the words of Scripture constantly active in our minds, so that we will see the connections with daily life, when they arise.” End of quote.
If we know our Bibles, and keep reviewing our Bibles, will we always easily see the connections between our faith and our daily decisions and struggles, so that all will always “go well with us?” NO. As Dawson says, no one ever promised it would be easy. But if we don’t keep in touch with these essential words of our faith, what chance will we ever have of making the connections, and keeping our vows to serve the Lord?
As we each wind up the journeys we have made, to this point in our lives, like the Hebrew people, and as we face our futures as the people of God, Moses’ words hold for us as surely as the people of Israel: Having seen how much God has done for us, we need to trust in God; and we must begin by knowing the Word of God.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for seeing us through the journeys of our lives to this point—for calling us to be among your people, for liberating us, for providing for us. Help us now to trust in your presence with us in the future, and to be guided as your people by your Word. Amen.