Monday, August 30, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Forwardness

Preached on Sunday, August 22

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 13:21-15:3; 1 Corinthians 10:1-22

One of my favorite parts of the Book of Exodus is chapter fourteen verse fifteen: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” For me, a shorter way to say this would be like this: “Stop talking; just go!”

I like this partly because it’s funny. It is as if God expected Moses to know, without being told, that he was supposed to lead his people through the sea. It is as if God expected Moses to know he was supposed to think of the unthinkable and to know how to do the impossible.

This sounds funny to me, but it has its serious side. I can’t help thinking that we are supposed to be able to think of the unthinkable. We are supposed to be able to know how to do the impossible.

Although the word faith is not used here, faith is the key. In fact, if we understand the story of the exodus it will help us to understand what faith is all about. The story of the exodus will correct some of our wrong notions about what faith is.

Moses had a good idea of what faith was. He knew enough about faith so that, when he looked at his people, he could see (and hear) that they didn’t have much of it. Moses said, “Be still.” “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14)

In Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”, Peterson takes the phrase “be still” and makes it say “Shut up!” The minds and mouths of the people of God were running a hundred miles an hour.

They were desperate. They were under attack. They were going to be captured, punished, maimed, raped, and made slaves again. It was questionable whether those who lived would be the lucky ones. Their slavery would be much worse than it had ever been before they had ever dared to hope to be free.

So they were “crying out”. It sounded like blame. It sounded like complaining. But it was much more than that. They were crying, “Help!” And they needed it.

But Moses said “be still”; or “shut up”! Faith is the gift of being quiet. When we are worried, or afraid, or angry, or full of regret there are too many voices jabbering on and on inside us; so many voices that we cannot hear God. We cannot receive the peace of God. We cannot receive the direction of God.

We listen to too many voices, and so we are commanded to silence. We are commanded to “be still” and to “shut up.”

The people of God were in survival mode, but they were not survivalists. A survivalist at least knows how to be quiet and still, and how to keep on going forward.

The people of God would have run off screaming, if there had been anywhere to run off to. There was no place to run.

There was the Egyptian army on one side, and the sea on the other. God’s people couldn’t see anything but unbeatable enemies and impossible obstacles. So the people stood where they were, and yelled, and complained, and blamed others, and they could not hear God speak to them. If they couldn’t be quiet there was nothing else for them to do.

Of course we don’t scream and shout because we are quiet people. It would be impolite. And we would never complain, because we were raised not to do that either; or blame others, or make excuses. Our parents would never let us get away with that.

And yet it is surprising how easy it is for us to live, practically speaking, in a different way than we were raised to do. As grown ups we often feel we have earned the right to do many things our parents would never let us get away with as children. So we do complain, and place blame, and make excuses. But however much right we have to do such things, it is no way to hear the voice of God. It is no way to be able to go forward in the peace of God, and to think of the unthinkable, and to know how to do the impossible.

This is why Paul said that so few of God’s people made it home after passing under the cloud and through the sea. He warned his Christian friends to watch out, because this failure was not as unusual as they thought. It was the common experience. It could happen to them. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Part of faith is the will to be quiet and still, so that God can tell you what you haven’t been able to think of, and to see what you haven’t been able to see, and to do what you think is impossible.

In this life there are possibly times and places where it is the smart thing to scream and shout, or run with all your might. But not on God’s road; not on the road that leads home. Home, and the road home, means connection with God and with other people; being part of what God is doing, building a kingdom, moving toward a new world, a new heaven and earth; and bringing other people along with us to join us and God on the road.

There are ways we need to grow to be people of faith, and hope, and love. There are ways we need to grow to find the life that God has created us for. Part of how we do this is through the art of being still and being quiet.

When we take time to be still and quiet, God can show us the way. There is that verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This is an essential part of faith.

But, when the Lord says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” he is talking to Moses who is counseling stillness and quietness. Was Moses being just as noisy on the inside as his people were on the outside? Did Moses only appear to be faithful, when he was actually boiling and trembling on the inside? We do that, don’t we?

Was Moses busy making speeches about being still, and was he in the wrong because he was so busy talking? Churches take such a long time to get around to many things because they talk, and talk, and talk. I do this. And I let my churches do it too. I try to make sure that everyone has their say, and I think this is part of my job.

And it is so much easier to talk than to actually do something. But it is part of faith to know when to stop talking and when to do something.

But there is more to that in God’s message to Moses. “Tell the Israelites to move on.” “Tell them to go forward.” (NIV and RSV) Sometimes we have to go beyond being still and quiet. And we have to do more than just do something. Something is not enough. We have to move on. We have to go forward.

Forwardness is indispensable to faith and to the road home. If home is the family of God, then families are blessed by the ability to go forward, and forwardness is a kind of faith that families nurture in their children and their grandchildren.

God’s people had turned their back to the sea and their faces toward the Egyptians. Moses told them, very wisely, that faith meant facing the Egyptians and seeing what God would do. Faith is facing our fears and seeing what God will do.

But sometimes there must be a forwardness about our faith. Looking at what we fear may not be the same as facing it.

The people of God had a choice of what to face: their enemies and fears, or their impossibilities and obstacles. Moses was very wisely counseling one kind of faith, when God required a very different kind of faith. God had to tell Moses to shut up and just go forward.

I should understand this better than I do, because it is an important part of the story of my life. You know that, by nature, I am impossibly shy, and slow, and awkward, and backward. By nature I can’t do anything in front of other people. I know there must be a lot of other things wrong with me too, but let’s not go into those right now.

I was twelve years old when God first started pressuring me into the ministry. I didn’t give in until I was nineteen, when I realized that the only way I could be happy was to move forward in what I knew God wanted me to do.

I started doing what I needed to do in order to go forward. The problem was that, in so many ways, I was a hopeless case, even as a human being.

Nobody who knew anything about the ministry and anything about me gave me any encouragement at all. They all encouraged me to do something else with my life.
Some people thought that I had a subconscious need for acceptance by others, and that was the real reason for wanting to go into the ministry. But those people neglected to see that my church experience was basically in a church full of conflict, where half the people were in conflict with the other half, and where ministers were usually only accepted by half of the people in the church. For me, church was the very place where I would be asking for trouble and not be happy at all.

Some of the most discerning people recommended that I go and get a life first, and only then should I think about the ministry. I tried that for just a little while (about a year and a half after college) and it was a big relief, believe me. And yet I knew what I had to do. I had to go forward; not the forward that other people recommended, in all their wisdom, but the forward that God kept showing me, in all its impossibility and foolishness (like thinking you could walk through the sea as if on dry land).

Did it work? I don’t know. I have no proof. I still have an awful lot wrong with me. I can’t say that I have changed a bit.

But I would humbly submit that I have grown. I may not have the life that others think I should have, but I am very engaged in life; in my own life, and in the lives of others. I do this because of God; who gave himself to me and for me in Christ.

God has a forward for you and for all his people. God has a forward for the church. When the Lord said that he would gain glory through Pharaoh, and the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, the Lord meant that the people of God would see God’s glory, and know him better, by letting themselves be pushed forward according to the will of God.

We will never really know God or his purpose for us, unless we are willing to think the unthinkable, and do the impossible, and go forward.

The truth is that you may very well not become a different person as a result of this, but you will become your real self. You will become the person you were meant to be all along. And you will not know a different God, but you will know the God who was there, all along, calling and pushing you forward. And this church may never become a different church, but it will truly become the church as it was meant to be; the church as God sees it.

Paul says that Israel went through a kind of baptism under the pillar of cloud and fire that led them through the wilderness, and through the impassible sea. And Paul says that Christ was with them in the food and drink they had in the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:1-3)

The baptism was about Christ as well. Baptism, for us, is a symbol of a spiritual reality, because the new life we have through Jesus comes through his dying for us on the cross and his rising from the dead to give us a new life and life everlasting.

When we come to Christ it is a move forward. And when we keep on living in Christ it means continuing to move forward. In Christ and his cross we die to our self centered life. In Christ and his cross we die to our enslavement to ourselves, and to our sins, and to our past. We die to the barriers we raise between us and God, the barriers between ourselves and others, and the barriers between ourselves and the people God wants us to be.

We die and we rise to that new life because, in Christ, God moves us forward. This is a process that never stops working.

The same thing happened to God’s people at the Red Sea. To think the unthinkable, and do the impossible, they had to die to themselves, and rise, and go forward. It was a baptism.

There is always the chance that we can forget all about the faith involved in going forward, and stop the process. The people of Israel did this many times. It was a lesson they had to learn over and over, and many of them never learned it.

Going forward is a kind of baptism. It is the heart of faith. Forwardness is what faith requires because it is at the heart of being a child of God. It is at the heart of really coming home.

Forwardness is at the heart of God himself, and his plan for us, and his love for us. When we accept and receive his forwardness we have what we need for the road home; the road to life and life everlasting.


  1. Dear Dennis,

    God works in mysterious ways - I saw a comment you left on Betty's blog and when I saw you were a pastor, decided to check out your blog too! I am really looking forward to reading your sermons - I have signed up as your latest follower!


  2. Ramona, I am honored and thankful for your interest.