|Walking around the Feather River: Live Oak, CA|
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Faith's Underbelly - Expectations Versus Surprises
Preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017
Scripture readings: Exodus 14:10-15:3; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
You could say that Moses and the Israelites were caught between a rock and a hard place; but in this part of the story they were caught between a superpower and a wet place. Each of us, in our own way, has been caught like that, over and over again. After that, we never struggle with faith, ever again! Or not?
Well, the word of God gives us a pattern of getting caught and getting faith. In our reading, it says: “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (Exodus 14:31) This is said at the end of chapter fourteen and it will remain absolutely true all the way until chapter sixteen.
The scriptures are inspired to tell us who God is and what he does. They are also inspired to tell us who we are and what we do. I believe what it says, because it certainly fits me.
About God: what we’ve read this morning tells us that God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3) and that he will fight for us (Exodus 14:14). About us: this is the first place that I know of, in the Bible, where Israel is called an army (Exodus 14:20); and what applies to them, applies to us.
This is pretty impressive, until you take a real look and see how they acted. When they saw the Egyptian army coming for them, in the distance, the Israelites basically told Moses, “We told you so!”
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (14:11) This is an old, old joke, because of the pyramids. You know: the pyramids were graves. No one could miss them. Everyone could see that there were graves in Egypt. It’s a four-thousand-year-old joke.
The Bible has a sense of humor, because God does. God has to have a sense of humor just to handle his own people.
The Bible shows us that there is a running battle between our expectations and God’s calling for us to trust and obey. But what does it mean, in our readings today, to trust and obey? We are to obey…but how? The guy with the faith is Moses, and even Moses doesn’t know quite what to do next.
The Lord seems to scold Moses for not guessing the improbable (or seemingly impossible) surprise that the Lord has planned. “The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” (14:15) It’s almost as if, by telling his people what to do, Moses is telling God what to do. Moses had a running battle with his own expectations.
Moses gave the people these commands: “Do not be afraid.” “Stand firm.” “You need only be still.” (14:13-14) In some way these all say the same thing. There’s a line from Psalm forty-six, where God says: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) This doesn’t mean, “Do absolutely nothing, and you will know that I am God.”
“Being still” is an inward determination to trust. It’s a kind of peace that enables you to do something: whatever it might be that God is calling you to do. It might be a calling to stop doing something. It might be a calling to come to attention and get ready to go.
Whatever it may be, it’s a way of standing firm. Years ago, during World War II, a British poster carried the motto: “Stay Calm and Carry On.” Those are slightly different words, but they carry the same meaning as “be still.”
The Israelites were in a mood to be still by putting their hands up in surrender. That seemed, to them, to be the best thing to do, if they were smart. I’ve always had the feeling that Moses thought that something entirely different would be smart. It’s as if Moses was saying: “Face the Egyptians, get in battle formation, prepare arms, and see how God will fight for you (meaning: see how God will fight through you, and on your behalf, as you do your part).”
For Moses, as the guy with the faith, knowing God just a little bit, this seemed, to him, to be the best thing for them to do, if they were smart.
It can seem smart to trust God, and stand your ground, and do what you must. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. Sometimes I’ve been smart enough to do just that.
Apparently, God’s idea of a really smart thing to do was for them to cross the Red Sea on dry land. But who could have had enough faith and trust to have thought of that? It’s as if the growth and survival of God’s people depended on God giving them options that their faith could never hope to have imagined, or foreseen, or held onto.
Another part of the pattern is that, in order to live as people of faith, we seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we are without God (or without faith). We seem to need to be confronted by the truth of what we may become with God (or with faith).
God’s people, Israel, needed to know that. Even Moses needed to know that. And so do we.
Looking at it another way, even Moses needed to be confronted with the limitations of his own faith. In this sense, faith is not enough. Our faith, or our lack of it, can be so much about us, and not about God.
Moses was showing real faith, but the limitation of that faith was that he was prepared to use faith to make something happen, and faith is something that rests in the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God often comes to us in surprising ways.
Surprise is at the core of knowing God and having a relationship with the Lord.
We see this, all the way through the Bible. Moses asked God for his name. God told him that he would be known by a name that wasn’t a name at all, but a verb and a state of being. God was “I Am Who I Am”, or “I Will Be Who I Will Be”. This verb of God is a state of complete independence and self-being (uncreated and unconditioned being, if you can imagine that).
This absolutely independent God needs nothing, and, so, (obviously) he creates everything. God wants to change the world through a nation of people who know him, and so he, obviously, called an old, barren couple named Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of that nation.
The real core of the God who is known through his surprises, is the gospel. This uncreated and unconditioned being, beyond time and space, became a human being, bound by time and space, born as a regular baby, and taught and raised like any normal child, and trained by his father to work as a carpenter. This perfect, uncreated, and unconditioned being got himself killed on a cross by everything that was wrong with this world in order to set us free from everything that was wrong with this world. Even set us free from sin and death. What better way could there be, to beat sin and death, than being killed by sinful humans?
This is what Paul claims to be the foolishness of God and the weakness of God. And Paul claims this foolishness and weakness to be the source of God’s his victory and the source of our new life in God. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
Who would have guessed it? It’s a surprise. How strange it is for God to love surprises. His word tells us that this is his way.
We want to have faith in proven techniques for dealing with God. We want the Bible to provide us with such techniques.
It’s true that there are disciplines for a life with God, and the Bible tells us these disciplines: prayer, servanthood, worship, study, generosity, the love of our enemies, and so on. There are principles of life: laws, wisdom, and so much more; and these are to be found in the Bible. But these are not the core of the message.
The core of the message of the Bible is this completely surprising God. This God is absolutely beyond us, and beyond our control, and this God has a purpose and something he is aiming at. It’s something that he wants to share with us. God wants to take us along with him, and it’s all too big for us. It’s beyond our expectations, and we wouldn’t understand it if we knew what it was beforehand.
The Bible tells us that this God comes to us in our need and our abject slavery; like the slavery of Israel in Egypt. This God gets really close and takes us with him to freedom and life. You can call it an exodus. You can call it the way of the cross and the resurrection. You can call it Jesus: God in Christ; Christ with us. Christ in us. What a surprise!
And so, there we find ourselves, caught between a rock and a hard place, or caught between a superpower and a wet place, and there is some impassible barrier between us and the goal. God makes our own limitations clear, and that makes the impossible all too clear. God says, “Go forward through the impassible, impossible barrier. That is the road to my plan for you.”
Perhaps you have passed through the impossible with God, in Christ. I have. But it’s always something new. I never know what’s next. The Bible tells me so. I have no idea what those surprises will be. I pray to know them when I come to them. Don’t you?
I hope that the church can always be this place where we make it through the impossible barriers and find the road to God’s promises together. The barrier, and the road that takes us through it, will be God’s surprise. Let’s trade in all our smartness, and all our expectations, for God’s surprises.
We should know our exodus. Most of all, we should know our Jesus. In Jesus, we meet the God who is the master of surprise.