Leaving Home; Exodus 13:17-22; Psalm 121
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; July 11, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Once it finally happened, it happened quickly.
Each plague wore Pharaoh down. Each time, he would say the Israelites could be released from the captivity that had enslaved them for all those years, but then he’d change his mind. By the time the 10th and final disaster happened, we wouldn’t be all that surprised if Israel had given up hope that they would ever be released. But then, after the death of every firstborn male in every household in Egypt, all the way from Pharaoh’s palace to the servants of the land, along with the death of every firstborn animal, it did happen. Pharaoh set Israel free.
The people followed Moses’ direction and headed out from the familiarity of enslavement/captivity and into the wilderness where there were no highways, no road signs, no maps to lay out the path before them.
That’s hard for us to imagine. When Scott and I have set off on an adventure we know where we’re headed. We know our starting point and where we intend to end up. Scott plans our route, I make reservations at hotels along the way. We know about how long it’s going to take and that there will be food and rest stops when we need them.
Take these modern possibilities out of your head. Put your feet into the sandals of God’s people as they prepare to leave Egypt. They’ve known no other life but slavery. They’ve been taught their history, they’ve seen God work in amazing ways, they’ve heard God’s promises. And yet, Egypt is the only home they’ve ever known. It takes courage, it takes faith, it takes the willingness to be vulnerable to step out, to travel to a place they’ve never seen and a life they’ve never known.
We are going to spend some time “traveling” over the next 4 weeks in this series called Quest: Travel as a Spiritual Act. I’ve heard that this summer flights will be full, hotels and resorts filled and gas scarce as so many of us venture out for the first time in nearly a year and a half. Scott’s and my last traveling adventure brought us back home just as the pandemic was beginning. We’d spent a week on a cruise and a few days in New Orleans—two places that became high risk, though we weren’t aware of that at the time.
We’re not quite ready to travel anywhere yet, but whether you’re planning on staying close to home or heading back out into the world, I thought it would be worth thinking through what it means to travel—to step away from our homes and the places where we’re familiar into places that are unfamiliar where we meet people who we don’t know; where we are introduced to ideas and situations that are outside our comfort zone that cause us learn a little bit more about ourselves, about God, and about our faith.
I look forward to setting off on this journey with you.
Today we’re going to begin our journey in the simple act of stepping out.
As we read this first text of the series, I’m curious: how would you respond to Exodus 13, verses 17 and 18, if you were one of God’s people who left Egypt along with 600,000 or so of your closest friends and relatives to make your way to the promised land, but because it took 40 years to get there, you didn’t make it. Maybe you picked up and started reading the book of Exodus in heaven, and that’s when you learned what happened.
Verses 17 says this: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” Ok, that makes sense, doesn’t it? God’s alternate route makes sense. God was protecting the people and wanting them to have as safe a journey as possible. God doesn’t want them to have reason to turn around and go back to where they started.
An alternate route makes sense. If you and I are on a road trip and we learn there’s construction on the main highway to wherever it is we’re headed and that we’ll be delayed for a while, we might reasonably map out an alternate route. If construction will cause us to consider doing such a thing, surely we would identify and alternate route to avoid a group of people who would be more than happy to pull out their swords and chase us down and kill us.
Verse 18 basically restates the elongated, alternate route stating, “So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.”
But, 40 years? That’s a significant extension to the time line, isn’t it? I would hope that God’s alternate route would encompass a timeframe that sits within my lifespan, wouldn’t you?
When we look at a map of the route taken from Egypt to the land God promised, we see all kinds of circling and meandering about that resulted in many more miles and many more years than it “should” have taken—even walking—from Point A to Point B. I’ve heard that the trip “should” have taken something like 3 weeks. (I remember flying from Chicago to Tampa and spending some time in Dallas on a layover and thought, really? Does this make sense? Is this the best the airline can do? And all that did was add a couple of hours onto my trip, not 39 plus years, so maybe it’s not a reasonable comparison. But still, I can relate, kind of.)
It seems God knows that the people need to focus more on their inner battles—on what it means to be a free people—rather than on battling other nations. Their journey is more important than their destination. The idea is to move away from the “are we there yet?” question and being open to the learnings/the revelations that will come to them as they take each step along the way.
It’s the first step out the door that counts the most, because without it, the journey won’t happen.
Leaving home can be filled with anticipation and excitement, but there can’t help but be some fear, some anxiety and trepidation about the unknown.
I remember when Scott and I left Indiana to move to Denver, Colorado where Scott went to seminary. I was a week or two short of my 22nd birthday and Scott had just turned 24. We left in 2 vehicles, a ’72 yellow Toyota Corolla and a brand spanking new ’77 Chevy Chevette (“is gonna drive you happy!”). We were looking forward to it all—Scott had been informed that his first semester was all paid for, and I had my brand new Colorado nursing license. We were set!
Scott pulled the smallest U-Haul trailer available behind our Toyota, carrying all our worldly possessions. I remember white-knuckling it around Chicago, trying to follow that trailer. I’d never driven in that kind of traffic before. I remember crying when we were no further than Iowa, when I discovered that the birthday cake my mom had made me for me had fallen into the ice water of our cooler and was no longer edible. I wanted my mom. I remember a few days later, after we unloaded and began settling in, how we set off looking for a Sears because that was a store that was familiar to us in a sea of unfamiliar stores, and we needed some household items. It took us forever to find our way there and then to get back home again. When we finally got back into our apartment, we both slid down the back of our front door, and cried homesick tears. Scott’s tears of course, were manly tears. We felt so alone. A piece of us wanted to go back home.
When things got rough in the desert, the Israelites began to pine for Egypt, even though it was a place where they had been enslaved. At least there was food in Egypt! At least we had water! Sometimes, leaving the familiar, even when we know it needs to happen can seem overwhelming. Beginning a new adventure can make us wonder, “Why did I think this would be a good idea?” Later, we can see the advantages, we can see that we’ve learned and that we’ve grown in ways that we couldn’t have if we wouldn’t have left the familiar.
But we need to take that first step.
Think about your life journey. Where has God worked? What has God taught you, and how is God continuing to teach you? How has God been preparing you? What have you learned from the experiences, the detours, and the unexpected moments? How have these moments helped you to be better? What are you continuing to learn?
Rob Seewald is pastor serving at Bourbon UMC. He resources a connection of several smaller churches called “Front Porch” whose purpose is to strengthen and support each of the congregations through their shared relationship. On World Down Syndrome Day back in March, Rob posted a picture on Facebook of he and his wife’s youngest child whose name is Anna. She is about 10 years old now. Rob wrote how he is blessed beyond reason to be the daddy of this amazing little girl. He then went on to say that “this is the greatest journey I never knew I needed to take.”
It’s the journey that’s important. The people we meet. The relationships we share. The things we learn. About ourselves. About God.
There are two other pieces of this text in Exodus that I want to lift up this morning. I think it’s important to note that Moses takes the bones of Joseph with him as the people leave Egypt (verse 19). You’ll remember how Joseph’s life in Egypt, separated from his family of origin came about as an act of jealousy and betrayal when his brothers sold him off into slavery to get him out of their hair. And yet, many years later, due to Joseph’s wise planning and position of power in Egypt, he was literally able to save the people of both Egypt and Israel during long years of famine. His family and their people ultimately settled in Egypt under Joseph’s care. But upon the death of their father, Joseph’s brothers are convinced that he’ll bear a grudge and pay them back for what they did to him. Joseph responds instead, saying, “Though you planned something bad, God made something good out of it in order to save the lives of many.” Joseph was convinced that God would bring them all out of the land of Egypt as God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and made them promise to take his bones out of Egypt and into the land that God had promised.
Moses fulfills that commitment, honoring his ancestor in the faith and modeling to the people of his day and reminding us today that our faith is built on the foundation of men and women who courageously listened for God’s voice, and stepped out in faith following where God led. We are empowered by our history and are surrounded, even today, by a great cloud of witnesses. We are not alone, we can remain strong, even during trying and troubling times.
Our legacy is strong, our future secure.
And finally, as we read in verse 21 how the Lord went in front of the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them, and in a pillar of fire by night to light their way, so does God continue to stand before us today, leading us and lighting our way. It seems that we’re in a bit of a wilderness now, doesn’t it? We’re here worshipping in the United Church of Christ, in a land that is not our own, and yet in contrast to the Philistines of the wilderness the Israelites walked, these are a gracious and welcoming people. We’ve done some meandering over the past couple of years, we’ve taken detours and alternate routes and are not always sure exactly what’s ahead, and yet God is with us, leading us and lighting our path: guiding us, teaching us, molding us into the people God wants us to be.
As we do this, it’s important to remember that it’s the journey that’s important: the people, the relationships. May we continue to step forward with confidence, no matter our present circumstances, lifting our eyes unto the hills, and knowing that this time is important. We are not alone. God is with us. And we’ve got each other. Thanks be to God. Amen.