July 14, 2010

Exodus People

by Chris ObergcapIt’s a well-known story. It is familiar to our Jewish friends, to our Muslim sisters and brothers, to people of little or no faith, even to people hostile toward God. It seems everyone has heard about the night God came to claim a tired and worn group of slaves.

We read Exodus 14:10-12, picking up the story after the Israelites had packed up and left under the cover of night—with children and family and animals and clothes and food and blankets. The decision was to take the long road around, by way of the wilderness. They are on the move, the Bible says, finding themselves enclosed by mountains and the sea without a way forward.

Moaning and Groaning
2010 1521 page14By way of the wilderness the slaves (having been captives for more than 400 years) are terrified. They were used to abuse, crushed by their Egyp-?tian overlords. But this is an entirely different level of fear. They are terrified. Terrified people behave in specific ways. Terrified people in the wilderness with no options behave as one might expect. They cry out; they scream; they get angry; they accuse; they blame; they do damage.

Why didn’t you let us die in Egypt? Now we’ll die in the desert! The slaves find themselves, as one author says, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” They can’t go back and they can’t go forward. They will die. As they are running from Pharaoh they do not know just how long the desert will be home and all they will experience there. They have no way of knowing that by way of the wilderness they will wander. They will cry out again and again. They will disobey and accuse and become ugly toward one another. They will steal and murder and bow down to pieces of rock and precious metal. By way of the wilderness is just the beginning of the story. But I suggest to you that the wilderness is not the guiding theme for exodus people—for their story or ours. Because we find ourselves in the wilderness does not make the wilderness our home. The Israelites were not children of the wilderness; they (like us) were children of Eden and the New Jerusalem—the first and last dwelling places of Scripture. What a challenge not to allow today’s environment, today’s culture, today’s surroundings dictate our disposition and identity.

We Are in God’s Story
The Israelites did not remember what happened before the wilderness. They came to the wilderness with a history. Prior to their journey God had spared their lives and, as an entire community, they had celebrated Passover and God’s protection (Ex. 12). Their parents and grandparents spoke about God’s deliverance. Joseph was so sure of it he asked that his bones be taken along when God would deliver His people. They had forgotten one of the key divine statements, found so often in Exodus 12–15: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. It’s a statement of who God is, and what God promises, and is part of the important preamble to the Ten Commandments. Preambles are vital. Without this understanding of a committed and good God who comes first, the Ten Commandments make no sense. Just the same, without this understanding of a committed and good God who comes first, Egypt and freedom from Egypt, and the wilderness, and whatever comes after the wilderness, make no sense. Israel is not remembering their God right now while they are busy crying out.

Reading again this story I recognize that this is God’s story. I confess, as a fourth-generation Adventist growing up in this faith community, there are times it is clear we ignore the evidence that this is God’s story. At times, we are humans forgetting we are caught up in God’s story. In our crying out and acting out, what we need most is Moses to stand up and remind us of this preamble: The Lord our God is bringing us out of the land of Egypt. This is not our story, our church, and our priorities. God is not in our story. We are in God’s story.

Listen to God’s Story
At this crucial point, Moses reminds Israel in Exodus 14:13-18 of the God who will fight on their behalf. I admit I’m a bit startled at the clear, specific steps Moses lays out for this group in the wilderness. I’m startled at how these clear and specific steps are so applicable for us now, gathered as ?remnant brothers and sisters of the children of Israel. Seventh-day Advent-?ist Church, did we hear Moses?

1. Do not be afraid. God’s people throughout history often needed this reminder: before crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land; when sitting in exile in Babylon; when the good news of a Savior is announced to Mary and Joseph; when the gospel moves into new territory. Do not be afraid—because fear and terror and worry cause us to lose our way. Fear and terror and worry destroy our community. Fear and terror and worry are not on the agenda today, nor this week. Whatever we see before us as a worldwide church family, it cannot be driven and overtaken by fear, terror, and worry. Grace does not invite us into a life of terror.

2010 1521 page142. The Lord will bring deliverance. The Lord will fight. This is not your battle, Moses said.  Stand still. This is one of the most telling statements of the story—giving exodus people another opportunity to back up and allow God to be God. God is not caught in our story. We are pulled into God’s story.

3. Now move. God says, Why do you cry to Me? Go forward—move. After remembering who God is and what God does, we are asked to respond. This is how grace is and how grace works. Grace comes first—God comes first. Humans are always in a position of receiving and then responding—never the other way around. A friend in ministry said it this way: “The remnant is always about what God is doing; not what we are doing.” And then, when we see what God is doing, we move! We join in. This is not a passive relationship, to be in covenant with the God of the universe. There is a time to move and do our part. Note Ellen White’s comment: “The great lesson here taught is for all time. . . . The voice of God speaks clearly, ‘Go forward.’”*

4. God delivers. And Israel cries out—again—only this time it is worship—pure worship. When you see God being God, you sing a new song. Exodus 15 records the worship offered by Israel: Surely You are our deliverer! The Lord triumphs gloriously, the Lord is my strength and song, this is my God. I will praise God! We cannot forget this step. How quickly we move on when the threat is silenced and the way forward seems clear. Moses and all of Israel remind us today that being a worshipping church is vital to our experience of being humans in God’s story.

Do not be afraid; the battle is not ours; go forward; worship! This is the counsel from Scripture for this day. It is worthwhile to pause in the desert occasionally, as a church family. It is worthwhile to remember what it means to be enslaved to competing powers in our world. It is worthwhile to remember that the great controversy is not our battle, but God’s. It is worthwhile to remember we will not passively watch for God to make all things new. We will go forward, becoming the partial answers to the prayers we pray for deliverance. It is worthwhile, every day, to worship the God who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. We may accomplish much for God in this place—but our first priority is to be a worshipping people, who remember God.

* Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, ? p. 290. 

Chris Oberg is the senior pastor of the La Sierra ?University Church, Riverside, California, U.S.A.