THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Text: Exodus 17:1-7
When I was 18, I got on a train, leaving Boise behind, headed for New York City. There was no question then or looking back from this perspective that I was on a journey to adventure. I was off to see the world, to find my way, to make my fortune. I was headed for one of the world’s great universities in the heart of one of the world’s great cities in a time of incredible social and cultural ferment. It was in many ways a journey of liberation. Certainly it was a journey of self-discovery. Perhaps it had parallels to the hero’s journey we’ve been discussing in adult forum in that it came as a kind of response to a call to “follow my bliss.” It was also a journey characterized by fear, anxiety and a longing for home. I probably wouldn’t have admitted that then, but it was true. Those things came right along with the excitement and challenge. I cannot say with any certainty that God was calling me to this adventure, definitely not as I have felt God’s call to other adventures in my life. However, in retrospect, I see God’s guiding hand leading me from my Idaho home to my own private wilderness of testing and growth. It is a journey that has shaped my life. I imagine that most of you have similar adventures to recount from your own life story. And still, the journey continues.
There are so many ways to approach this Lenten theme of journey. One way we have adopted is to have members of our community share something of their adventures in the spirit as part of our worship services. Each of us has journey stories, both individual stories and stories that arise from our shared life in this community of faith. Yes, we journey individually, but we also journey together. Learning to share our individual journeys and our common journey strengthens us individually and collective and keeps us on the road.
I mentioned that when I left Boise in 1965, I took the train. Of course it would have been quicker to fly, but someone had had the wisdom to suggest that the group of young men traveling from Idaho to Columbia travel by train so that we might see the country up close and might bond with one another in the process. It was a great suggestion. It didn’t take us 40 years and the train moved pretty directly from Boise to Chicago and then Chicago to New York. All our needs were met as we traveled, so we didn’t spend much, if any, time grumbling. And when the train pulled in to Grand Central Station, there was a group of upper classmen, also from Idaho, to meet us, take us uptown on the subway and settle us into our new surroundings. Whatever fears and anxieties we harbored were allayed by the good care we experienced as we launched our expedition with our families and friends wishing us well, traveled across the country in relative comfort and were warmly welcomed at our destination. We definitely had it better than the Hebrew people fleeing Egypt.
Mine is one journey story. Maybe it helped you recall one of your own with a similar shape. Another type of journey that came to mind when thinking about this text was family travel. Surely many of us can recount challenging road trips, cross-country in the family sedan. If nothing else we’ve seen Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” series. I’ve mentioned before the several times that we crammed all six of my family into the old, un-air-conditioned Buick and took off to drive from San Diego to Louisiana in heat of August. You can imagine that scenario comes closer to today’s text than the first adventure I shared. Yes, there was much grumbling and quarreling. Dad often played the Moses role. I’m sure he felt frustrated and desperate with his small tribe on many occasion. There’s no doubt that more than one prayer went up to God to see us through to the promised land of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
I can remember the heat and tension, the fussing and fighting of those family trips, but I can also remember the joy of discovery, the delight of singing in four part harmony, the love of family that was underneath our grumbling. There’s a lot I would give to be on that road with those folk again, but it’s not to be. Still, I journey with my mother and my sisters and their offspring. It continues as long as we are and it is a blessing, even when it’s difficult.
Remember Abraham and Sarah. What must it have been like to travel with their family? We talked last week about the faith and courage they showed in striking out for an unknown land based only on the promise of a bright future, a future which seemed improbable given their age and condition. Yet, when God called, they said, “yes.” Now centuries later, their journey continues. Their progeny have indeed become numerous and for a good long while they did inhabit the land to which God had led them. But, in a time of famine, they wandered off to Egypt, where they were treated first as the special guests of pharaoh’s chief advisor, their own brother, Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery. Eventually a pharaoh succeeds to the throne who did not know, nor does he remember, Joseph. This pharaoh becomes alarmed at the growing Hebrew population and tries to control them by enslaving them. Finally, the cry of the Hebrew people goes up to God to deliver them from bondage and God comes through. God sends Moses to confront pharaoh, demanding that God’s people be liberated. Eventually, after enduring a sequence of horrible plagues, the pharaoh gives the Hebrew people permission to leave Egypt to return to their home in Israel.
Well, you can imagine that many of the Hebrews were eager to be free of slavery and living once again in the “land of milk and honey.” But remember now that they had not lived in that land for many, many years. They had really only heard about it. They carried an image of it in their hearts but none were still living that from the original immigrants who had lived there. The land of milk and honey was a dream; Egypt was a reality, albeit a harsh one. In their eagerness to be free, there is no clear indication that adequate planning was done for the journey ahead. In fact, pharaoh, in the end, reneged on his promise. The Hebrew people had to flee for their lives with pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. There was little time to consider what lay ahead until they found themselves encamped on the other side of the Sea of Reeds, in the Sinai desert, without adequate provisions for the trip before them. There was a crisis about bitter water and then one about food, before we even get to today’s text.
Whether the difficulties were matters of spirit or body or both, this was a people unprepared for the journey they faced. Not only were there obvious, concrete problems with the provisions at hand, there were also crises of faith and trust. “Is God among us or not?” They’re not sure. Like Jesus’ followers, and, yes, perhaps even like us, they want some proof that God is along for the hike. “Provide for us.” “Show us a sign.” “Meet our needs, now.” “What have you done for us lately?” becomes the mantra of an impatient, self-absorbed people. Here it’s actually Moses who gets the blame. God simply provides in a gracious and loving manner.
In my imagination, the scene really goes something like this. The people, initially grateful and delighted to be liberated, begin to have second thoughts when they see what lies ahead. With freedom comes the responsibility to care for themselves and one another in new and important ways. Fear is a powerful motivator and their fear of the pursuing army of pharaoh moves them across the Sea of Reeds, into the relative safety of the Sinai Peninsula. Their safety quotient improves greatly when pharaoh’s army is drowned in that same sea. Suddenly, they wake up, free men and women, yes, but with the harsh reality of the desert before them. Suddenly, they’re not so sure about their safety, about this journey and about this man, Moses, who had led them thus far on their way.
There is a combination of things at play in this passage. There is the reality of people who expect instant gratification. (Of course, that is never us.) These are people who are drawn to the familiar, as, indeed, humans often are, even when it means slavery, rather than face the dangers and anxiety of the unknown. How many times have you or someone you’ve known been lured back into a familiar, but addictive or obsessive or destructive pattern of life because it is a known quantity and does not offer the insecurity of the facing the unknown? It’s only a few verses before today’s text that these same people are longing for the full meals and sweet water of their captivity in Egypt. Of course, not only were they slaves in Egypt, the food and water were very unlikely to have been as good as they remembered in their new, fearful state.
Still, it is important not to mock their anxiety and lack of faith and trust. They may very well have had legitimate concerns, wandering in a desert. Every time they stopped to set up camp, they had to be concerned with water and food for the people. One commentator, writing of his own trip to the Sinai Peninsula, says he gained a deep appreciation for what the Hebrew people faced when he himself became dehydrated and ill climbing Mt. Sinai. For the most part he was traveling on an air-conditioned bus with plenty of water available. He believes these folk, traveling on foot, from oasis to oasis, had a legitimate concern. Perhaps they also had a fair complaint against Moses, whom they believed, as their leader, might have been better prepared for such an arduous trip. They have a reason to be upset and angry, given their circumstances.
Neither the people nor Moses show much faith here. No one shows sufficient trust that God will provide. But, in a significant sense, that is the point of the story, when you journey with God, God does provide. That’s what they (and we) had to learn on their journey. “Take the stick, Moses. Strike the rock, Moses.” “What?” “…gushing from the rock before me, lo! a spring of joy I see.” God does not get caught up in quarreling and testing; God simply provides what is needed. For these people, the journey would continue for another 40 years. And you can bet they went anxiously grumbling and fearfully stumbling much of the way. Many who started the journey would never see the Promised Land. But you may imagine that they were strengthened as they journeyed – individually and collectively. Not only was theirs a journey of liberation it was also a journey of self-discovery. They learned some things about faith and trust and they discovered the importance of pulling together. For them, as for us today, the journey itself became home. For them, as for us, there’s a growing understanding that, for the time being,“The journey matters as much as or more than the destination.” As Heather Entrekin reminds us, “None of us knows whether we will get to the Promised Land,” or at least we don’t know when or how we’ll get there. We live always, journey always, with a dimension of unknowing that leads either to anxiety or trust in God (or perhaps a mixture of both.) “…but,” as Heather concludes, “we have today and one another with whom to make choices for mercy, kindness, generosity and all the other fruits of the spirit along the way.” We can be waving one another off at one train station and welcoming one another at the other end of the trek. We can devise games, sing songs, engage one another in sharing as we travel the highway.
The journey continues and we are not alone. We have one another with all that we have to offer and we have God who goes with us all the way. Amen.
1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”