by Daniel Harrell
After Israel came up out of Egypt (this morning’s passage) and famously crossed through the Red Sea on dry land (you’ve seen the movie), Moses hiked up Mt. Sinai not only to bring down the Ten Commandments (twice), but also to retrieve a set of blueprints for a kind of camper to accompany Israel on their long cross country trip to the Promised Land. Called the Tabernacle, this camper was modeled after creation itself, the heavens and the earth, and served as the symbolic presence of God among his people. Once across the Jordan River and into Jerusalem proper, the mobile Tabernacle gave way to a more permanent Temple, but the cosmic design remained the same so that the people would remember, as the prophets declare, “Heaven is the throne of the Lord and earth is his footstool.”
God himself would make a perceptible appearance at times, at both the Tabernacle and Temple, in spectacularly tangible and unambiguous fashion. It must have been something to see—not unlike the Pentecost whirlwind and fire descended from heaven we read about last Sunday. These days we marvel at glorious sunsets, are moved by inspiring worship, experience the God’s presence through baptism or ordination or a retreat or mission trip to Colombia. We sense the Lord in our midst when we gather with others to pray for healing, and even, on occasion, encounter God more personally, in a mystical or Pentecostal fashion that deeply transforms us. Sometimes even a sermon makes an impression.
Skeptics write off such experiences as purely subjective and explicable by natural causes. A sunset is nothing but the remaining long wavelengths of red light that reach our eyes, especially when reflected by dust particles or water, after the short wavelength blues and greens scatter at dusk. Worship and music stimulate the hippocampus at the lateral ventricles of our brains where long-term memory resides, resourcing all kinds of erstwhile associations to fuel current emotion. Mystical encounters are neuropsychological anomalies likely resulting from stress, sleep deprivation or some excited physiological state. MPR’s Krista Tippett, scheduled to be here at Colonial next May, interviewed renown physicist Brian Green who concludes that whatever sensation we feel of the divine is a function of physics. Not that the sensations aren’t real, only that they’re nothing more than math.
Not so with whenever the Lord showed up at the Tabernacle. A great pillar of cloud would descend and envelop the camper as a welcome home sign of God in the house. And the cloud followed wherever the Tabernacle went. It turned into fire at night to serve as headlights so that Israel could see the road. Spectacular but not necessarily unnatural, skeptics say. Throw together some wind and dry heat in a desert, and fiery pillars are as natural as rainbows after a flood. Further proof of God’s nonexistence. Nature does it all by itself. But for Christians, natural explanations are not godless. As believers in the God the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, we believe clouds and fire, stimulated hippocampuses and physical reality discernible by math, these all display God’s magnificent handiwork. In Exodus, the ingredients of the pillar are indeed all-natural, but not so their function. The supernatural part is not that the pillar of fire happened, but that it worked like an ancient GPS, mapping out the right road for the Israelites to travel.
Now I know this may be a bad analogy given the troubles people have using GPS on their phones. The word on the street (from people lost on the street) is that neither Apple nor Google always get us where we want to go. The first time I used Apple maps after moving to Minneapolis, the downtown destination I punched in took me to South Dakota—a mistake I failed to realize until I crossed the state line. Just last week I was biking cross town and ended up in a creek that was supposed to be 49th street. Needless to say, they’ve got to get this fixed before I buy a driverless car.
Here Exodus 13, Pharaoh finally let God’s people go after centuries of enslavement, but the Lord didn’t lead them home using the fastest route. God’s Positioning System took the long way. The Lord had his reasons, we read. The direct road ran through Philistine territory, a bad side of town, where lived a belligerent bunch always itching for a fight. God worried, we read, that “If the people face a fight, they may change their minds and drive back to Egypt.” The Philistines would scare Israel scurrying back to their Egyptian taskmasters. Though enslaved and oppressed some 430 years, they’d kinda grown used to it. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. It’s a reason so many longtime prisoners recidivate and abuse victims go back to their abusers.
You may think attitudes quickly emboldened since the next verse has Israel suddenly “prepared for battle.” But that’s a dubious translation. The Hebrew simply reads something like they “walked in groups of fifties,” which could just as mean Moses had them well-organized. They also had Joseph’s bones in tow, Joseph being the reason that Israel was in Egypt to begin with, if you remember that story (ask your kids if you don’t). Suffice to say here, Joseph’s deathbed wish was to return to the land of his ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—aka Israel. Thus this desert sojourn to the Promised Land was a funeral procession too—a road of redemption and path to sure glory. God takes the roundabout road to the Red Sea, because he plans to put on a show so awesome that they’ll never want to go back to Egypt. He’d lead them by the hand the whole way, by day and by night, a pillar of fiery cloud as their guide, so they would never get lost as long as they followed.
Among the qualities of Minneapolis I appreciate is the Scandinavian orderliness of the streets. As long as I can count and say my ABCs, I should be able to find my way just about anywhere. Still, after so many years living in Boston, a city without a single straight road, where urban design follows colonial cow paths and street signs are either fictional or totally absent mostly to tick off tourists, you get accustomed to roadmap mayhem and not trusting directions. You learn to navigate by trial and error, which adds hours to every trip. Needless to say, I get lost a lot in Minneapolis, even seven years in, despite the logical alphanumerical grid and my GPS, because I don’t trust the directions. They’re just too simple and straightforward.
It’s an apropos analogy to my own spiritual life. The commandments of God for a good life are likewise straightforward—Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount: Love the Lord and your neighbor. Don’t hate or steal or covet or commit adultery. Forgive your enemies and help the poor. Don’t worry. Don’t judge. Pray and follow the Lord. It can’t get any simpler. Except I don’t trust the directions.
What I need is a fiery cloud now and then. A Pentecost on demand. The miracle I want when I want it. A decent sermon on Sunday. A sure sign from above to wow me into being a better Christian. Or better yet, a God who shows up in person, calms a storm, walks on water, rises from the dead. Israel got both: the pillar and the person, shook to their core but still shaky as to whether God could be trusted. The problem is not that God isn’t present. It’s that he disappoints us. So we try to do the math for ourselves. Map out our own directions. Sunsets and emotion, science and beauty, these all showcase God’s handiwork. But I need something more reliable.
Not that God doesn’t do more. Miracles, if rare, can certainly happen. For Christians, we have a book we believe to be Word of God, the testimony of His work in history, ultimately in Jesus, who breaks into present history through the Holy Spirit. Scripture testifies to a future history too, a new creation already started by way of the cross and resurrection; an ultimate, glorious reality of which the church itself is proof. Though Tabernacle and Temple are gone, God has built a new house in our collective hearts, a house made of “living stones”, we read, which the Bible also describes as “shining like the stars” for the whole world to see. We Congregationalists are especially mindful of this. The gathered community of faith tangibly displays the glory of God—when we worship, when we pray and care for each other, when we serve others. Jesus said that we are light for the world.
And as with all light, the proof of its existence is in its brightness. “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus said. that they may see your good work and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Good work is not merely good behavior, but the way we conduct our relationships and our jobs and our parenting and everything we do. Our deeds may not seem very bright or redeeming in and of themselves, but when done for the Lord, we participate in the creativity of God and shine his light that others do see. But even with our Bibles, our churches, our faithful work and good deeds, we still wonder. How do we know God is in it? The Bible can be a pretty weird read. Churches are chock full of hypocrites and sinners. What looks like good work can be the fruit of bad motivation. We all know about pride and envy and passive aggression.
But here’s the thing: Just as the Lord is present in his creation—in both glorious sunsets but also thunderstorms and earthquakes—so is the Lord present in the obscurities of Scripture, in gloomy congregations and in shady good deeds. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. The Lord appears as fire and cloud, as light and as darkness. He brightly shows himself yet remains hidden and concealed. You can’t see the starry wonder of the cosmos without the darkness of night. In the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle and Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was not light and radiance, but dimness and mystery. Turn to the New Testament: the pinnacle expression of divine love occurs on a deathly cross in the middle of the day, “and darkness came over the whole land.”
We gathered to pray for our brother Stan Stanek in a beautiful and powerful service of healing on Tuesday, but the test results on Wednesday showed no improvement as far as his cancer’s concerned. And yet he will tell you this terrible ordeal has made his marriage amazing, his faith stronger than imaginable, his fears for the future diminish. And not just for him: others testified to relationships reconciled, a capacity for empathy and compassion grown, truth understood and life embraced in incredibly meaningful ways, so much other healing that never would have happened had Stan not gotten sick. You heard Adam’s story this morning. It happens all the time. Fire and cloud. Light and darkness.
Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware explains: “Light is an apt description of the Lord because, among all the constituents of the physical world, it is the least material. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, conveying the impression of being everywhere at once. It holds the universe together, It is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. More important, it is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing on us a sense of warmth, hope and beauty.
“As for darkness, it expresses the awe and numinous wonder instilled by the divine, the sense of living mystery—not mystery in the sense of an unsolved problem or a baffling enigma, but something revealed to our understanding, yet something, at the same time, that is never totally revealed, for it reaches out into the depths of God. God’s presence is experienced in darkness, yet he remains concealed.” As in a cloud.
“We see through a glass, darkly,” St. Paul famously realized, “but one day, face to face. Now I know only in part; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In the meantime we walk more by faith than by sight; but that’s not to say we stumble around in the dark. For St. Paul, walking by faith gave him all the confidence in the world, because his faith was in Jesus whom he followed. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will never get lost.” In Exodus, “The LORD went in front as a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, and neither left its place before the people.” At Pentecost the Lord, who never leaves us alone, deposited that same fire and cloud in our very souls, uniting us as his people and making it so we might have light to see and shine and faith by which to walk. Trust the directions. And when you feel like you’re getting nowhere, remember: as with any GPS, sometimes the only way you’ll know where you’re supposed to be—is once you finally get there.