Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

September 30, 2018
Exodus 13:17-18a, 21, 14:5-9, 15-16, 19-29
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

“I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of of the house of bondage…”  

When God meets Moses on the top of Mount Sinai to deliver the Ten Commandments and forge a covenant with this ragged group of weary former slaves, God begins with these words that establish God’s character:

“I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of of the house of bondage…”

It is as if a mother were to say to her college bound son:  “I am the woman who carried you in my womb for nine months, and gave birth to you, who cared for you when you were sick and kept you safe from harm so listen to what I have to say before you go.”

“I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of of the house of bondage…”

The God, who before this moment was for the Hebrews just some nebulous god of their ancestors, mysterious in intent, unknown in character, without even a name to call God by, has now revealed God’s self to the people.  

“I am Yahweh, the one who heard your suffering and acted on your behalf.  I am the God who freed you from the powers that enslaved you.  I am the God who will remake you into a nation and will lead you to a place of peace.”  God may ultimately be beyond full human comprehension but the one thing we can know for sure about God, the one thing we can count on without question, is that our God is a God who speaks up for the oppressed and works for their liberation.  That refrain was sounded throughout the history of the Jews and in our own history as Christians.  In First Peter 2:9, the author echos the redemption of the Exodus when he says to the new church,:  

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”

Wherever people have struggled against oppressive rulers, attitudes, or laws, God has been there.  Whenever people have striven for justice, worked to bring relief to the suffering, and demanded right ways of living together in peace with one another, God has been there.  And God will continue to be right in the midst of the upheaval bringing to life a new creation out of the chaos because our God is a God of liberation who frees the people from their bondage.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his last speech before his death, directed people’s eyes to this liberating character of God.

“Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt,” King said, “he had a favorite formula for doing it. . . . He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery…. We need to go round to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right.’

These are God’s people, God’s children who suffer, and God is a God who frees the people from bondage. Whether it was a Pharaoh oppressing slaves or Romans crucifying a Galilean teacher and his followers, the Bible declares that the powers that try to keep us in captivity are no match for our God.  Our God is not just a mystical warm feeling that washes over us at sunset, or a philosophical proposition to explain the origin of first causes; our God is a God who cares deeply about every person, who wants us to be free to live at peace with one another, and will work with us to get us from bondage to freedom, from oppression to justice, from death to life again. 

“I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of of the house of bondage….” God heard the cries of the Hebrews in their suffering and sent Moses to bring them out of their slavery, and as they left their chains behind them, God went before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead the way to freedom.

But something happened on the road from slavery to freedom.  The Bible says, “God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.”  Instead of taking the freeway to freedom, God decided take the Israelites on the scenic route: the pillar of cloud and fire led them south toward the Red Sea, and then along the tortuous desert paths of the Sinai Peninsula.  The people didn’t know it when they fled Egypt that first Passover night, but they had 40 years of walking ahead of them to get to the Promised Land, a journey that Google maps says you can do in three weeks if you walk in a direct line along the coast. 1   The Bible says that God chose the southern route so that the newly freed and still timid people wouldn’t have to tangle with the Philistines who lived up there by the Mediterranean, but God also understands that this detour will give Pharaoh time to rethink what has happened.  God warns Moses, “Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them,” and think that they are weak.  So God tells Moses to prepare for round two in the fight for freedom.

The Exodus story proclaims the character of the God who loves us and leads us — our God is a God who will liberate us from the chains that bind us, who desires freedom for us from the powers that hold us down, and who we can trust to lead us to the peace and blessing of the Promised Land — but if we close our Bibles right after Pharaoh lets the people go, we will be left with false expectations about the nature of that path to freedom.  The Israelites didn’t go directly from Egypt to the land of milk and honey; they wandered and struggled and they made a lot of stupid choices; they encountered obstacles, they went in circles or back-tracked, and most of them didn’t even live long enough to see more than the seeds of the promise.  God is a powerful God, the Bible says, but God is not a magical God.  God can’t instantly sweep away the greed, bigotry, cruelty, and tyranny that is entrenched in human hearts and institutions, and so we must be prepared to sometimes have our backs against a wall and six hundred chariots thundering toward us, but still trust in the promise.  The journey to our freedom is not going to be a straight line from point A to point B but God promises that God will be present with us, will guide us through the mess, and will move us ever gradually forward even if some of us won’t live long enough to see more than the seeds of the promise.

J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote The Lord of the Rings was a faithful Catholic who wove a lot of theological themes into his books.  In the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the wizard Gandalf tells Frodo that he can trust the man Strider to help him in his battle against the Dark Lord.  Gandalf knows that Frodo will be doubtful because Strider appears to be a vagabond, but the truth is that Strider is a king in exile, working and waiting to be restored to his land.  Gandalf says to Frodo, “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those that wander are lost.”

The Pharaoh made the mistake of seeing the Israelites’ detour as weakness but not all those who wander are lost.  Set backs, circuitous routes, false starts, and changes of direction may be part of the journey from bondage to the Promised Land as people struggle to understand the nature of justice and as we argue about how to effect right ways of living together.  The pain of past slavery may cause some to cry out loudly in tearful anger; the fear of change and uncertainty may cause others to hold more tightly to the familiar and to resist new ways of thinking.  The path to freedom will often be more confusing than hopeful, more messy than peaceful, and sometimes so chaotic that we are tempted to throw up our hands in despair over ever getting anything right.  With the Hebrews, we are tempted to cry out to God, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”  We should never make the mistake, however, of believing that all who wander are lost.  To get from Egypt to the Promised Land, the people had to wander for more than a generation in a brutal chaotic wilderness, but God was with them the entire journey an in that wilderness, God shaped them, strengthened them, and forged them into a new people so that when they finally stepped out of the desert, they would become a light to all of the people. 

Jane Addams, sometimes called the mother of social work, fought for the rights of the working poor in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, an often thankless discouraging job, but she said, “In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.” 2   In other words, keep digging the channels.

When the Israelites were trapped between the Red Sea and the charging chariots of an angry King, God created a channel to carry them forward on their continuing road to freedom.  The pillar of cloud and fire in which God had led the people from Egypt moved around behind them to stand between them and the thundering Egyptian army giving them time to walk across the Red Sea.  An ancient Jewish commentary compares the movement of the pillar of fire to a man walking with his young son on a narrow path through a forest at night.  At first, worried that there may be thieves on the path ahead, the man walks in front of his son to protect him.  After a time, however, he hears a noise and afraid that a wolf may be stalking them, he reverses position, dropping behind his son to shield him from the wolf’s attack.  Soon, however, the man realizes the worst — there is a thief on the path before them and a wolf coming up behind them — and so the man lifts his small son onto his shoulders to carry him through the dangerous attacks.

Though the road to freedom may be convoluted and confusing and we may argue among ourselves about the best way forward, and cry and yell at each other and even fall into despair worrying that everything is unraveling around us, God promises that if we stick with God, God will lead us to liberation, and that if we keep working for liberation, God will stick with us.  God will remain with us, sometimes leading us, sometimes holding back the forces of injustice, and sometimes carrying us when we are too frightened and weak to walk ourselves.  A traditional prayer called, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” expresses in Christian terms the promise embodied in the Hebrew experience by the waters of the Red Sea:

“I arise today through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise…

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.”

Our God is a God of liberation who will lead us to freedom from all that enslaves us, to justice for the oppressed, and to new life for all the people.  The way may be long and the path hard, but God’s promise endures and God’s presence remains.  Let us take heart as we stand at the edge of the Red Sea and say with confidence, 

“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.”

Footnotes:
1. For those who care about such things, I estimated that a direct route from Cairo to Jericho would be about 300 miles and then assumed 15 miles of walking a day. Google maps wouldn’t give me driving or walking times, only flight distances so all of this is pretty sketchy and I wouldn’t plan a hiking trip based on my calculations.

2. Twenty Years at Hull House, from an internet quotation site