October 18, 2020
Sermon - Reverend Bob Phelps
If You’re Not Going, I Don’t Want to Go!
The intimacy that characterizes the relationship between God and Moses is something that both baffles and mystifies most of us. Each of us has our own relationship with God, but few of us can imagine the conversations that God and Moses shared. We can all learn important things from examining these conversations and moving beyond our fear.
Some of you may remember reading the L’il Abner comic in the paper years ago. That strip told stories about a family who lived far back in the hills in a place called Dogpatch. The family was dominated by their matriarch, Mammy Yokum. Mammy was a lot like family leaders, both male and female, that some of us know. She was prone to pronouncements, and when she said something, she not only meant it, she expected to be heard. Her classic line after she had declared something was, “I has spoken!” (I know her grammar is off, but I’m not going to correct her! You would do well not to, either!) Her statement meant, of course, that that was the end of the conversation. When Mammy spoke, that was it. You know folks like that. I do, too.
I suspect that most of us think about the times when God speaks to us in much the same way. When God says something, that usually settles it. We’ve learned enough about our Hebrew ancestors to know that they’re pretty much the same people we are, so when you put our kind of thinking in their heads and put it all in the context of the story we’re experiencing with them, we think we understand what’s going on. The story we pick up today comes right after God had given the people what we call the Ten Commandments, the model for the life God expected them to live in response to all God had done for them. We saw how that turned out last week. No sooner had Moses turned his back than the people decided to chase off after something else, something that made more sense. Something they could see. Moses tried to patch things up, but that didn’t last long.
Today, we hear God speak in terms that are altogether understandable, but which we hope we never hear in our own relationship. Just before we picked up reading today, God and Moses have a conversation that seems to indicate that God is willing to give these stiff-necked people another chance. “Let’s pick up from here and set out on this journey again,” God tells Moses. “We’ll leave all this unpleasantness with the golden calf behind us. And we’ll move forward toward that Land that I promised you when I called you out of Egypt.” That must have felt pretty good.
There was one rub. God told Moses that Moses would lead the people, but that God would not be going with them. They would not be completely on their own. God would send an angel to guide them along the way, but God had had enough. “I will keep my promise,” God told Moses, “but I won’t be with you. I have seen all I want to see from these thankless and disobedient people.”
Remember this is God speaking. So there is that, “I has spoken!” quality to these words. I’m sure Moses was already thinking about how he would tell this news to the people when he got back down the mountain this time. “Now, look what you’ve gone and done! Now you’ve crossed God one too many times. He won’t even go with us. Just look at what you’ve done now!”
But remember, this is Moses talking, not just some member of that huge crowd of people who can’t seem to behave. Moses has pleaded with God before. And, although I don’t remember Abner or Daisy Mae or anyone else in Dogpatch ever trying to reason with Mammy Yokum, Moses and God seem to have something going on that makes Moses believe he might be able to turn things around.
So, again, Moses pleads with God not to abandon these stubborn, disobedient people. “If you’re not going with us,” Moses convinces God, “then you might as well just leave us here and let us do the best we can. If you’re not going with us, then we’re not going.”
There was something about Moses’ persistence, something about his compassion for these people, that God chose not to overlook. So God relents yet again and promises to journey with these people he has bound himself to whether they are worthy of his presence or not.
All of us have had and will have again times in our lives when we have to move forward on the best information we have and set out on faith toward whatever the goal is before us. Sometimes we take our support system with us, and sometimes we launch out on our own. Every time I do a wedding, as I did for Kennon and Heidi not long ago, there is that awkward moment when the bride and her father or whoever her escort is and the groom and I are standing there waiting to get things started. There are obviously too many of us there. We’ve got to get it down to the bride, the groom, and me in order to move forward. We’ve pretty much stopped asking who gives this woman in marriage, but there stands her dad who has, hopefully, loved and cared for and provided for this girl all her life, and there stands a man who thinks he has a better plan. You’ll be pleased to know that Heidi’s dad stepped aside when I asked him to, gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek and shook Kennon’s hand and went to his seat, just like we had rehearsed it the day before. That was as far as he could go. The life that the bride and groom are building together is their life, and that’s as it should be, whether dad likes it or not. Some of you have seen the beautiful antique pump organ in our living room. That was Deanna’s dad’s project for about six months after I married his daughter. We have before and after pictures to show how hard he worked on refinishing and refurbishing that thing for months after I took his daughter a hundred miles away. Thankfully, we do not have a transcript of all the things he said while he was out in the garage doing that work.
Like many of you, we dropped both our boys off at college. Blake started at UAB in downtown Birmingham, and Kyle started out at Western Kentucky in Bowling Green. We moved them in, helped them get settled, probably took them somewhere to eat, and then there came that awkward time when it was time for us to go. Blake had a roommate we knew. We didn’t meet Kyle’s roommate that first trip. But the time came when they had to be a student without our hovering over them. Neither of those departures were easy—for us. I suspect both of them were glad to see our taillights. But the time came when we couldn’t and shouldn’t go with them.
On one level, I guess, it might make sense for God to say, “Here’s a map to the place you’re going. Here’s an angel to guide you along the way, but I’ve seen enough. I’m not going with you!” But that’s not the deal God had struck with these people. God had promised to be with them and to protect them. There was no highway with exit numbers to let them know when their wandering would be over and they would arrive at the Land that God had promised them. The desert was a treacherous place, and these people didn’t know the way to where they were going. To leave them, even with an angel escort, would be to abandon them to sure destruction.
By the time we left the boys at college, we had connections to them that I certainly never had with the home and family I left behind when I went. Email. Cell phones. Today’s students have even more. Both of our boys decided pretty early that it wasn’t a bad thing to have a dad who had taught English on the line when then enrolled in 101. We sent papers back and forth more times than their professors needed to know before they ever turned them in. And they eventually learned to write them without dad’s help.
That’s not the kind of plan God originally had in mind for the Hebrews. This was not a temporary weaning away from God’s care so they would learn to do better. God had had it with them, and fully intended to let them sink or swim on their own. Until Moses stood in the gap. And God kept his promise yet again and led the people on toward the promise God had made and intends to keep.
When we confront our deepest fears, for most of us, one of those is the fear of being all alone. Not just at home on a weekend with nowhere to go, but left alone to make good decisions or bad ones without anyone to be on that journey with us. Those of you who have been widowed know the pain of that kind of loneliness. Those of you who have had relationships end in other ways know it, too. Those of you who have moved to new communities only to have them not be the place you thought they might, but you were stuck there anyway—you know about being alone, too. Loneliness has become a growing issue for many of us during this ongoing situation in which we find ourselves as a community and a nation, times when we can’t do the things we usually do and often can’t see the people we depend on seeing. As devastating as that kind of fear can be, many of us live with an even deeper fear: that sooner or later we will arrive at a place where we need to call out to God for help and God won’t be there. Whether it is because of our lack of faith or some failing that we can’t seem to move on from, we can get to a place where we think we are beyond God’s reach.
The Hebrews learned to be thankful for the way Moses advocated with God on their behalf. Time and time again, the people would fail to meet God’s standards, and God would get angry and threaten to leave them on their own, and time and time again, Moses would intervene and call both of them back to the Covenant which bound them together. Still today, Jews give thanks for the leadership of Moses in their community’s life. As Christians, we have taken their story as our own and have learned from it, too, even though we still have our days when we wonder if God’s promise can be depended on.
And then there is Jesus. A sign of God’s faithfulness and of God’s intention to be faithful that is even clearer and more dependable than Moses. Any time we decide that God’s promise is just too good to be true, we remember that Jesus came to assure us that the promise of life and hope is secure and dependable. Moses overstepped his place just a bit before this story ends. While he was on a roll, he took one last shot at asking God for assurance. Once Moses had secured assurance of God’s presence and the promise that came with it, he took one more step. “While we’re at it,” Moses said to God, “why don’t you go ahead and reveal your glory to me so I can know for sure what I’m dealing with here.” You heard how that story played out. God knew that Moses didn’t know what he was asking for. The glory of God is something we all hope to see when all of God’s promises to us are fulfilled and we live in God’s kingdom forever. For now, we catch glimpses of it from time to time, and we learn to be content with them. Moses wanted more, as we all do sometimes. But God knew that those glimpses were all we could handle, and that they would sustain us.
I get glimpses of that glory in all kinds of ways as you do. Even though we don’t get many of those calendar pages full of fall color that come from New England and other places, the clarity of the sky this time of year is a glimpse of what God has in store for us that will help us get through the gloom that’s coming. Music, all different kinds, gives me peeks into that glory. I look forward to experiencing those together again someday. You get the glimpses into that glory that you need. Don’t overlook them. Let them sustain you until we experience its fullness one day.
Today will conclude our journey with the Hebrews. Most of us know the story. God does not abandon them, this time or any of the others they deserve. They wander, and this is not the last mistake they make. But God’s promise is secure, and God is faithful. They arrive in the Land and they continue to be the same mixture of faithfulness and faithlessness that we all are. But God is with them. And God is with us. His promise never to leave them or us or to forsake them or us is secure. We will never go anywhere where God will not be with us. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Prayers of the People:
God of love and promise, it is hard for us not worry if all that is going on around and among us is a way of testing us. Each day seems to bring a crisis. We are weary of storms and fires and other disasters. We are weary of injustice and of not even being able to agree on what it is. We are not of one mind about the health crisis that has killed too many and which seems to show little sign of easing. We need some assurance that you didn’t do all this to us to see what we’re made of. We don’t believe at our core that that’s how you operate, but we can’t help but fall off into that kind of nonproductive thinking sometimes. We want to remain faithful, but we find ourselves lagging in confidence and energy. We need to catch at least a glimpse of your presence with us. That’s a part of why we come here. Hear our prayers for help, we pray. Remind us that today’s problems are enough for today and that we can entrust to you the things that are just too heavy for us to carry. Take our anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us, the grief over all we have lost, the fear for our own well-being and the well-being of those we love. Help us to give up our doubt that you will give us strength to move forward. Help us to hand all these things and whatever else plagues us in these days over to you and to believe that you will carry them away. Help us remember as we heard from your Word this morning that you will never abandon us even when we deserve it or when you might feel inclined to leave us. We give you thanks for your unwavering faithfulness to the Covenant you have made with us, the Covenant in which you invite us to live securely forever. You walk with us, you go before us; you cover us with goodness and grace. Help us to find your gracious presence in every breath and each beat of our heart so that we can be at peace in the midst of a world and a culture bent on turmoil. Then help us, from that place of peace, to do justice, to love kindness, and to continue walking humbly with you, our God, whatever our circumstance. Make us into grateful, joy-filled people. Help us to be the light to which others find themselves drawn. We lift to you all we know to be in need of any kind today. Some need healing. Some need assurance. Some need peace. Some need guidance. Some of us are honest enough to say we need all those things and then more. Keep us reminded that you refuse to give up on us and that we need never give up on you. Help us to dream your dreams and search for your will until the day comes when all will be well. We pray all these things in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus, who taught us all to pray together when he said: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189