Towering Inferno

Towering Inferno

Exodus 13:17-22

by Daniel Harrell

As you know by now we’re seeing the light in the Bible this fall, in part to coincide with our Guelich Lecture Series this coming October 19-21. We’ll welcome Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, who will share and show some of her findings with implications for our faith. During her visit, Dr. Wiseman also will be presenting at the University of Minnesota, mostly for physics and astronomy geeks (though all are welcome), hosted by Colonial Church, the MacLaurin Institute and the Science and Theology Network. She’ll be talking on the topic of “Exoplanets and Human Significance”—which is another way of asking whether life exists on other planets what might that might say about us here. Much of Dr. Wiseman’s research has involved the analysis of distant solar systems and the search for exo-planetary civilizations. Fortunately there’s plenty of civilization at the U. After her talk she’ll join the “Women in Physics and Astronomy” group for afternoon tea.

On Saturday the University returns the favor by bringing to Colonial Church their Exploradome, a mobile planetarium we’ll set up in the gym so that kids, their friends and parents can witness firsthand the universe Dr. Wiseman will describe. The Exploradome experience will run consecutively with her lectures so that the whole family can have an out-of-this-world weekend.

The Exploradome fits well with the book of Exodus. Not that Exodus has anything to say about astronomy, per se; but it does have its own version of a mobile planetarium. 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 mobile planetarium that accompanied Israel their entire desert journey. Called the Tabernacle, it was modeled after creation itself, the heavens and the earth, and served as the dwelling place of the Lord among his people. Eventually 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 prophet Isaiah declared, “Heaven is the throne of the Lord and earth is his footstool.”

God himself would put in an appearance at times at both the Tabernacle and Temple, in spectacularly tangible and unambiguous fashion. These days we may marvel at a glorious sunset, or be moved by inspiring worship, or even have a mystical encounter with God that deeply affects our souls. But skeptics will write off such experiences as subjective and explicable by natural causes. A sunset is 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. Music in worship stimulates the hippocampus which handles long-term memory, 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.

With the Tabernacle, however, God’s visible presence was not so subjective. A pillar of cloud would descend onto the mobile planetarium, which was how people knew that God was in the house. It was the same kind of divine cloud that descended on Mt Sinai and that shows up in our passage this morning to lead the Israelites up out of Egypt. It was a pillar of both cloud and fire—the fire serving as headlights at night so that Israel could see the road.

Unusual to be sure, but skeptics might say a pillar of fire is not necessarily unnatural. Throw together some wind and a dry heat in a desert, and fiery pillars are as natural as rainbows after a flood. Why here’s a news report of one that appeared recently in Australia.

Skeptics insist that once any religious phenomenon gets a natural explanation, it’s further evidence of God’s nonexistence. But this is only true if you buy the premise that a natural explanation is a godless explanation. For those who believe in the Lord as Maker of Heaven and Earth, then clouds and fire and stimulated hippocampuses are his material to work with. The psalmist declares, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That God would employ forces of nature to display his own nature is exactly what you’d expect from the Author of Nature. In Exodus, the ingredients of the pillar are indeed all-natural, but not their function. The supernatural part is not that the pillar of fire happened, but that it operated like an ancient iPhone, mapping out the right road for the Israelites to travel.

Now I know this may be a bad analogy given the reports of the new iPhone mapping app out this past week. The word on the street (from people lost on the street) is that Apple’s breakup with Google maps hasn’t worked out so well. Apple’s homegrown mapping app is supposed to offer beautiful cartography, turn-by-turn navigation, the ability to fly over an area and more. Instead it’s being called frustrating, inconsistent and downright inaccurate, with missing public transit stops, absent buildings and roads that wave like curly pasta. I downloaded Apple’s new operating system for my phone and when I punched in a downtown address, the directions sent me to South Dakota.

So maybe the analogy between an iPhone and the pillar of fire isn’t that bad after all. Here Exodus 13 we heard how Pharaoh finally let God’s people go, but the Lord didn’t lead them on the road running through Philistine territory, even though that was the best route. God’s Positioning System took them the long way around. The Lord had his reasons. He worried that “If the people face war, they may change their minds and drive back to Egypt.” The Philistines, though not yet the military power they would become by the time we get to David and Goliath, were still a belligerent bunch always itching for a fight. Apparently their bullying would be enough to send Israel scurrying back to their Egyptian taskmasters. Having been enslaved some 430 years, they’d grown accustomed to Egyptian oppression. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. It’s why longtime prisoners recidivate and abuse victims go back to their abusers.

Now 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 that they “walked in groups of fifties,” which could just as probably mean that 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 don’t remember that story, ask your kids or grandkids since our children’s ministry covered that one recently. Suffice to say here, Joseph’s deathbed wish was to return to the land of his ancestors. Israel’s desert sojourn turned out to be a funeral procession too. But it was not a death march. Their destination was glory and a Promised Land. The Lord takes the long road to the Red Sea, because he’s got a big show for them there, after which they’ll never want to go back to Egypt. And he’ll lead them by the hand the whole way, by day and by night, a pillar of fiery cloud as their guide, so they will never get lost. All Israel has to do is follow.

Among the qualities of Minneapolis that I’ve come to appreciate is the orderly way the streets are laid out. As long as I can count and say my ABCs, I should be able to find my way just about anywhere. But after 25 years 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 paying attention. You learn to navigate by trial and error, which adds hours to every trip. So I get lost a lot in Minneapolis, despite the logical numerical grid and an iPhone running Google Maps, because I won’t follow. I don’t trust the directions. They’re just too simple and straightforward.

It’s an apropos analogy for my own spiritual life. The directions of the Lord are likewise straightforward: love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor. Don’t kill or steal or covet or commit adultery. Don’t hate or take revenge. Forgive your enemies and help the poor. Don’t worry and don’t judge. Ask, seek and knock and build your house on a rock. Do this and you will live, Jesus says. It really can’t get much simpler than that.

If only I had a fiery cloud now and then. A sure sign to wow me into being a better Christian. Or better yet, a God who shows up in person, calms a storm and walks on water. Israel got both the pillar and the person, but ended up impressed by neither, at least not enough to trust their directions. My problem’s not that God isn’t present. I just don’t pay attention. I don’t trust the directions.

Part of the trouble does have to do with our expecting miracles. If nothing supernatural happens then we figure God’s not around. But we’ve got to get over the idea that Mother Nature is divorced from our Heavenly Father. The Creator shows himself in his creation. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” God reveals himself in natural ways.

And he reveals himself in special ways too. For Christians, the Bible is among the most special of these ways. We believe Scripture to be the Word of God, the testimony of His work in ancient 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 through the cross and resurrection; a new reality of which the church itself is evidence. Though the Tabernacle and Temple are gone, God has built a new house in the hearts of his people, a house made of “living stones”, St Peter calls us, a planetarium where St Paul says we “shine like stars” for the world to see. We Congregationalists are especially mindful of this. The gathered community of faith tangibly displays the presence of God. Jesus said that we are light for the world.

And as with all light, the evidence of its existence is the way that it shines. “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus said. that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Last Sunday I tied good works to the good work we do at our jobs, whether for pay or for free. Our work may not seem very bright or redeeming in and of itself, but when done for the Lord as the Scriptures encourage, we participate in the creativity of God and preview his kingdom to come. We shine like stars.

And yet still we wonder. Even with our Bibles, our churches, our faithful work and good deeds, how do we know God is in it? The Bible can be a pretty weird read. Churches are chock full of hypocrites and sinners. Our good deeds can have bad motivations. And as for our work done unto the Lord, well, let’s just say that I used to like to pop in on church members at their jobs unannounced until I was politely asked to stop doing that. Secular workplaces are no place for pastors. Clearly these people had never popped in on me.

But here’s the thing: Just as the Lord is deeply present in his creation, so is he deeply present in the obscurities of Scripture, in gloomy congregations, in shady good deeds and in dimly lit workplaces. The Lord appears as fire and cloud, as light and darkness. He brightly shows himself and he remains hidden and concealed. In Eastern Orthodox theology, the dark cloud of God’s presence is as significant as the brilliant light. You can’t see the wonder of the cosmos in mobile planetariums without darkness. In the mobile Tabernacle and Temple, modeled after the cosmos, its inner sanctum or Holy of Holies was a place not of light and radiance, but of dimness and mystery. In 1 Kings, Israel’s priests come out of the newly built Temple, and “a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said he would dwell in thick darkness.’” It was the same with Moses. The people stood at a distance in Exodus 20 as Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” In the New Testament, the pinnacle expression of divine love occurs on a cross in the middle of the day, “and darkness came over the whole land.”

Greek Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware puts it like this: “Light is an apt description of the divine 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; which is not to say that 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 Christ. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will never get lost.” “The LORD led them in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, and neither left their place before the people.” So let’s pay attention. Trust the directions. And when you feel like you’re getting nowhere, remember: as with an iPhone, with the Lord you don’t always know if you’re where you’re supposed to be—until you finally get there.