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 may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (NRSV)
From a human perspective, God makes a lot of nonsensical decisions in the Bible. Telling Noah to build a big boat in a place with no water; Abraham to leave everything, and later, to sacrifice his son; Moses to stroll into Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the people go; and, the people to walk through a body of water without getting wet. Indeed, its as if God has an odd predilection for making weird requests of people.
Although today’s Old Testament story gives us a glimpse into God’s thinking, the people were not privy to that information. Yes, God’s people were experiencing an unbelievable exodus out of Egypt. Their wildest dreams could not have imagined such a reality as strolling out of slavery having seen not one but a string of miraculous wonders. Yet, God was not done with the miracle thing.
Although many people would really like to see a miracle happen in their lives, rarely do we think about the circumstances we might need face for that miracle to occur. God typically asks folks to do some outrageous-sounding things to set up the miracle.
An entire nation left Egypt with celebration only to be told to go in a misdirection toward the Promised Land, as if God were somehow geographically challenged. I can imagine that decision had Moses raising a Spock-like eyebrow and the Israelites wondering if God was off his celestial rocker. There is, however, a reason why folks like Noah, Abraham, and Moses obeyed instructions that didn’t make sense to them at the time: The Presence of God.
It is the personal Presence and power of God which makes all the difference.
For God has not promised to create an existence with a zero factor of hardship. God, instead, has created a world that is full, vibrant, and alive with Presence – and a zero tolerance for bullies like Egypt. The uncertainty, doubt, and mystery of the future is thoroughly mitigated with the effusive Presence.
When sitting with patients in the hospital who struggle with the unknown of why they are there and what will become of them (and their families) the last thing I do is try to fabricate reasons so that it makes sense. It doesn’t, and I’m not going pretend that it does. Rather, I remind them of what I do know: The Presence of God is here. God does not go out of his way to give us an easy life. God does, however, go far out his way to communicate his glorious Presence with us.
God kept constant vigil over the ancient Israelites, powerfully seen with the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Nothing was going to happen to the Jewish people without first passing through the mighty hands of God. Not only do I know God is with us, I also know he neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). When God keeps vigil, God keeps vigil! No smoke or bathroom breaks with God. God’s vigilance is relentless and wondrous, giving assurance to the godly and terrifying the ungodly.
Once we are out in the wilderness of uncertainty, there is no turning back.
That’s okay. The Presence of God patrols the area and divinely guards our every move. For the Christian, the Presence has found its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Although Christians everywhere serve a risen and ascended Christ, the Divine Presence remains with glorious constancy through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the One who is consistently alongside us, empowering us and advocating on our behalf. The beautiful theological truth here is that God is both transcendent (far above us) and immanent (intimately close to us) at the same time, all the time.
Armed with such a robust theological understanding, trust and confidence come to us without having to resort to ginning up positive thoughts. Instructions and commands which seem like nonsense? No problem. The Transcendent and Immanent One has the Presence all over it. In between a rock-and-hard-place (or an Egyptian army and a Red Sea)? Not an issue. I willingly place myself there knowing that with the Presence, the miraculous is about to happen. We need not buck the difficult circumstances. The Presence has got this.
So, then, let us pray for the Church and for the world, and let us thank God for the great Presence: In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, we pray to you, Almighty God, and Father. From the rising of the sun to its setting, we pray to you, ever-vigilant Lord, on behalf of those in despair and darkness, that they may find the hope and light of Christ; those in fear of death, that they may find faith through the resurrection of Jesus; prisoners and captives, widows and orphans, and all those who today need a blessed assurance of the Presence; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.
Click God With Us written and sung by Terrian Woods as we contemplate The Presence among us.