Exodus 14.5-8, 10-16, 19-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him; he took six hundred elite chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “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.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.
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. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
For the word of God in Scripture
For the word of God among us
For the word of God within us
Thanks be to God.
Sometimes I think we don’t give the Israelites enough credit for setting out on this journey in the first place. It had been a wild ride, being enslaved for generations, knowing their neighbours wanted to throw their male children into the Nile, living through the plagues…and every time Moses, their leader, tried something new to improve the situation, it actually just made everything worse. Yet when the moment came, in the middle of the night no less, they just did it, leaving behind their homes and walking into the unknown.
That can be a really hard thing to do, to make that first step into something new. Especially when trying the little tweaks along the way had not helped at all, because it starts to feel like nothing will ever work, and it’s really demoralising to have more things go wrong, or to have to let go of another thing we used to enjoy because we can’t sustain it anymore and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn this around and recapture the good days we remember. And when we’re demoralised, it's even more difficult to step out the door on something huge and unknown and scary.
But they did it. They opened those doors and walked out.
At first they were probably a bit giddy. They did it, they really did it! They could hardly believe their eyes, as the whole community surged forward in an unstoppable march to new life.
And then…they looked back.
It’s a natural thing to do. Remember Lot’s wife, who looked back as they fled her hometown, the place she’d grown up, the family and friends she’d left behind, the streets she played in as a child…of course she would look back, it was her whole life up to that moment. But when she looked back she was turned into a pillar of salt. There are other stories in scripture, and in novels and films and other myths, about people looking back, too. It’s no surprise they looked back.
There’s that great meme that goes around every so often that says “don’t look back, you’re not going that way.” It can be sound advice! The Israelites looked back and saw challenges chasing them down, and they were immediately filled with fear and a desire to GO back, not just look there. Their fear made them wish for the good old days, and forget all the things that made those days not actually good at all, and soon they were shouting at Moses that he shouldn’t have brought them to this new place, they didn’t like all this change, and they’d much rather just live the way they always had even if it meant there would be no future generations of their community.
Looking back can be fun occasionally (like looking at family photos), and instructive sometimes (as we hopefully learn from history so as not to repeat it), but often it is dangerous for individuals and organisations. We get caught up in nostalgia and it weakens our resolve to step out into God’s future with hope.
Moses did what many leaders have done down through the ages when the people are anxious: he slowed right down, stopped to try to allow them to be calm and feel back to normal, told them just to hold still and wait and see. But God actually had other ideas: God said “why are you standing around? Get moving! Go forward! You did the hard part, taking the first step out, now keep putting one foot in front of the other.” And the only way to go forward is to turn your eyes forward, to stop looking back with either fear or longing, and move on.
And right in front of them, as always, was the pillar of cloud and fire, the visible presence of God, going before them to show them the way. The pillar was a signpost, a guide they could follow, a light for the path, but more than that it was God’s presence and protection.
That night as the Israelites battled their temptation to look back and their fear of going forward, the pillar of cloud and fire did something new — it moved. God moved from in front of them to behind them, blocking their view. They could no longer look back, because God was standing there like a wall they couldn’t see around. And as Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters were pushed back and a path appeared, I suspect that pillar inched closer and closer….and pretty soon the only option was to turn around and go forward. There was nothing to see behind them, and the pillar was pushing them right into a situation they never wanted to find themselves in and certainly would not have been able to manage on their own. But God knew they could do it, they just needed a nudge from behind.
When they finally got to the other side and this particular challenge was defeated, there was singing and dancing and a return of that giddy feeling of “we did it…now what?” It wasn’t the end, there were still challenges ahead on their way as they followed God into a new land. But the entire time, God went before them to show them the way, and behind them to push them into places they might not go alone.
There are probably dozens of resonances between this story and our lives today…the challenges and the opportunities are both immense. I could make connections to the things we need to do — and the backward-looking we need to let go of — if we are going to deal with climate change, or the pandemic and what sort of world we want to live in after covid, or the political and economic dramas that will require much of us as we try to sort out new systems that lead to a better life for everyone rather than just a few. Indeed, I hope you are making those connections and asking both yourself and God what being pushed forward might look like!
It probably won’t surprise you, though, that one connection I want to make today is to the situation with presbytery mission planning in the church of Scotland. There’s change coming, we all know that. And I want to take a moment to recognise that here in St John’s, and in many places across the church, we have made the first steps toward change! We sometimes get so caught up in how far there is to go that don’t give ourselves enough credit either, just as we forget how hard that first step was for the Israelites. A lot has changed in our church life in the past few years, and we are making those steps, often with at least a bit of grace. There have been changes in worship, and in our study, and in our Kirk session meetings, and in creating the Fuzzy Parish and growing those partnerships as we became Connect. There have been changes in technology, enabling collaboration we couldn’t have done before, and enabling accessibility for those who previously were excluded from our fellowship for various reasons. There have been changes in our practices of inclusion and hospitality and welcome and love. We still have more of this journey to make, and there are still challenges ahead, but I just want to pause and notice together that we have started on the journey toward God’s new future, and the first steps can be the hardest!
We don’t know where God will lead us, or push us, or both. We do know it will be different, it will feel uncharted and like we are wandering, and sometimes the challenges will seem daunting. And change is hard, and like the Israelites we will probably complain along the way, and we may lose some people who don’t like the direction God pushes us. Sometimes we might shout at the leaders and demand to be taken back to the old familiar ways, and other times the leaders might get so frustrated they throw down the tablets of the ten commandments and smash them into pieces. Sometimes we’ll remember that the old ways guaranteed the death of the community we love as they sacrificed the next generation and left people out, and sometimes we’ll be tempted to only care about how good it is for us without thought for those who come after. No one said the journey to the promised land would be easy.
But God knows we can do it! So God goes before us to show us the way, and behind us to push us into places we might not go alone….and maybe behind us to block our view when we try to look back, too. Don’t look back, we’re not going that way. God’s way is always forward.
We may find the Spirit leading us into new ways of gathering as a community, or new ways of working across old parish boundaries.
Jesus will reveal himself outside our church buildings, and call us to new ways of connecting with the people who would never walk through this door.
God’s mission will be for all of us to work together to fulfil, ministers and elders and members and friends —
and the Holy Spirit will give each of us exactly the gifts we need to do that mission, if only we will work together.
The Body of Christ is about to get a workout, and sometimes we’ll be like “we hurt in muscles we didn’t know we had” as we learn new things and try new moves and walk farther than we have before. That’s how we get stronger, and how we mature into who God created us to be: a Church that loves and serves and cares for the world we live in now and the world God is still bringing into being — the world God loves so much that he sent his Son to change everything, the world God loves so much that he sends us out to be his Body.
May it be so. Amen.