Fifteen years ago, when Rebecca Jordon and I came to Littleton, that was the title of my first sermon. (Not my “Call Sermon” but my first sermon after being called as your pastor.)
Today’s scripture reading is the reading from that Sunday. It was mid-October 2002.
“God Goes With Us,” that’s what I heard the Spirit saying then, and that’s what I hear the Spirit saying today. In one sense, it’s short and simple, not much. In another sense, it’s all that matters, it’s everything.
Our scripture reading records a conversation between God and Moses. Just prior to this conversation, the people had broken their covenant with God. Instead of worshiping God, they built and worshiped a golden calf. Because of that, God is not only angry; God is no longer willing to protect the people. No longer willing to lead them out of the wilderness. Without God’s presence, they’ll quickly perish. In today’s passage, Moses acts as their intercessor, he speaks to God on behalf of the people.
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
People deal with the future in different ways. Some worry about it, some don’t. Some plan for it, some procrastinate. However, most people in some form or another think about the future: What will the future bring? What will the future be like? Fifteen years ago, we were asking, “What will the future be like as we begin a new phase in our journey, as we go forward together?” Today we’re asking, “What will the future be like as we part? As our journeys go in different directions?” Our scripture offers some helpful insights.
What first struck me about this passage is Moses’ boldness before God! You could call it “audacity.” The Yiddish word would be “chutzpah.” In the Yiddish dictionary the definition being “nerve, impudence or gall.” Usually when scenes of people in the presence of God are described, there’s a sense of awe and reverence, and to some extent that’s true here. When Moses talks with God he goes out to a special tent, a tent set apart from the camp where the people are. Then God comes to the tent in what’s described as a pillar of cloud. The cloud comes down from Mount Sinai and stays at the entrance to the tent while God and Moses talk. When the people see the pillar of cloud at Moses’ tent off in the distance they all stand at the entrances of their own tents and worship God by kneeling and bowing. The sense of reverence is present and strong outside of Moses’ tent but the tone of Moses’ words inside his tent are very different.
Moses says to God “See you have said to me ‘bring up these people’ but you have not let me know who you will send with me.” The word “see” can also be translated as “look.” It’s like Moses is saying “Look God if you want me to do this then you have to give me more information.” Then he says, “Now if I’ve found favor in your sight then show me your ways.” Telling God to “show him,” that’s chutzpah. It sounds like Moses is making conditions in negotiating with God. Outside the tent people bow their heads in reverent worship, but inside Moses is wheeling and dealing.
It’s even more amazing when you remember the reason this conversation is taking place to begin with. The people had broken their covenant, they’d betrayed God. At the top of Mount Sinai God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments, the heart of the covenant. And, while God was at the top of the mountain making the covenant the people were down below breaking it. Rather than worshiping God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, they were bowing down to a golden calf. God was enraged, telling Moses “Leave me alone, you and your people are on your own.” But, Moses does not leave, instead he intercedes. He implores God not to abandon the people. And God agrees. God agrees to send an angel who will lead them to the Promised Land.
In light of the people’s betrayal and God’s anger, you would think Moses would have been glad to get this. That he would have run back to camp and told the people that they were lucky to be alive! However, he doesn’t do that and that’s where today’s reading picks up. At the base of Mount Sinai under the desert sun the pillar of cloud hovers outside of Moses’ tent, and he continues to press God. Moses says to God “If your presence will not go with us don’t carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that we have your favor unless you go with us?” “Unless you go with us,” that’s the key to understanding what’s going on here. Moses knows that their future is totally dependent upon Gods’ presence. Unless God goes with them the future is hopeless. Not even an angel will do, only God’s presence will get them to where they need to go.
It’s actually not that Moses is bold, there’s not really any chutzpah here. He knows that there are no other options. Since there are no other options, there’s nothing to lose. He’s not negotiating, he’s pleading. He looks out at the desert and thinks about the future. He knows that even if they have plenty of water, without God’s presence their spirits will dry up. Even if they have more than enough food, without God’s presence their souls will starve. Maybe they’d find their way out of the desert. Maybe they’d even make it to the Promised Land But without God’s presence, without God’s love, the promise would be empty.
The same is true today. We may be blessed with material abundance but without God’s presence, the satisfaction is empty. One can have a successful career but without God’s presence, it has no value. A church can develop new programs, attract new members, but without God’s love, it’s meaningless. Without the transforming love of Jesus Christ, the church is just another institution. But, if God is present, the future is wide open. If God is present, anything is possible.
God says to Moses, and God says to us “I will do what you ask. I will go with you.” Moses looks out at the horizon–the journey will take time, there will be issues and obstacles, details and challenges but he knows that as long as God goes with him he’ll make it to the Promised Land. For the people of Israel God went with them as a pillar of cloud. For us, God goes with us as Jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit.
I’m hopeful and confident about the future of my ministry and your ministry because I know that God goes with us. This morning I would add that I’m hopeful about the future of CCOL because of all the ways that I’ve experienced God’s love with you over the past 15 years. The following is a quote from that first sermon fifteen years ago. “My first experience of God’s love with you was before I had even met the search committee, it was in reading your church profile.” It was the most Christ centered profile I read (and I read close to one hundred.) Some profiles emphasized administration and programs, both very important, but when they got to faith issues it seemed like Jesus was an afterthought. When I read your profile Jesus was the central theme, the phrase “Being faithful to the call of Jesus Christ” is woven through it. One paragraph in particular really grabbed me. On page eleven at the top, a variety of important events in the life of the church are listed. Then in the middle there’s a section that says, “Although these are important events in the life of our church the most important are times when…and the following are listed.
- When we as a church, as individuals have been faithful to the calling of Jesus Christ in our lives.
- When we have lived the good news
- When lives have been touched
- When relationships have been healed
- And, most important are the times when we have shared the transforming love of Jesus Christ. The most important times are the times when we’ve shared the transforming love of Jesus Christ.
When I read that, I knew that this was the kind of church that I wanted to be a part of! That this was a church I was called to serve. That was confirmed during my “Call Weekend,” the weekend the search committee brought me to Littleton to meet you for the first time. There was the wonderful way that you welcomed Rebecca, Jordan and me. But what was most meaningful, what had the biggest impact, was the number of stories I heard about people helping each other in times of need. People visiting, making a phone call, sending a card, dropping off a meal. Sharing words of support and encouragement. I heard so many stories of kindness and compassion I couldn’t keep track. I tried to at first but I gave up! It was clear to me that you don’t just talk about the love of Christ, but you share it in ways that are real. It was clear to me that God’s presence here is active and strong.
Fifteen years ago, I heard those stories second hand. Today what I’m most thankful for are all the ways that I’ve experienced those stories first hand. I’m thankful for all the stories that we’ve written together. I’m thankful for all of the stories that I’ve been blessed to be a part of. For fifteen years, we’ve shared life and faith: highs and lows, success and failure, joy and sorrow. Thank you. Thank you for the blessing of sharing it with you. I will cherish all that we’ve shared together.
As Robert Raines writes in a Prayer for Good-bye:
“As we separate and the ties unbind and the threads of our lives disentangles and we make ready for new weaving, let us believe in our hearts that nothing we have shared together that is good will be lost, that all we were takes it’s honored place in our life’s journey. That nothing is canceled but some things are settled and concluded, that much we cannot say or communicate nonetheless abides and endures and that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ…”
God said to Moses “I will go with you…” And, in Jesus Christ God says the same to us, “I will go with you.” God goes with us. As we go forward, as our journeys continue, God goes with us. Amen.