Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire
21 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.
22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Salmon is the common name for several species of fish that live in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Great Lakes and other land locked lakes. Typically, salmon are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to reproduce. Research shows that at least 90% of the fish spawning in a stream were born there. And all Pacific salmon after spawning, die within a few weeks. How does this happen? How can a salmon leave a certain stream as a minnow go out into the ocean, and eventually return as a adult to the same stream to spawn and die? We do not exactly know how this happens. It has been suggested that the salmon uses its keen sense of smell to detect chemical differences in various streams.
However it does it, the salmon has an amazing sense of direction. It senses its own stream and swims back to its original spawning grounds. It knows where to go.
As human beings, we are often in need of directions. Men have been the target of jokes about a lack of a sense of direction. Why do we need female astronauts? Because when the crew gets lost, someone will have to ask for directions. Why did Moses wander for 40 years in the wilderness? Because he was a man and would not ask directions.. Men suffer from what one woman called “directile dysfunction.” I hope I said that right.
But all jokes aside, when it comes to spiritual direction, we all need guidance and help. Let’s think about the Exodus.
The Exodus was the central event of the Old Testament. You know the story, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God rained down such destruction and chaos upon Egypt that the Israelites were able to escape. Moses led them out of Egypt, a whole people. We imagine babies in the arms of their mothers, elderly folks being helped along the way. They had young people. They had adults. They carried all their worldly goods—their water, which is always the most important thing in the desert, their food, which would have been mostly in the form of sheep and goats and cattle, their valuables, their arms. They were a mixed crowd of folks, some probably not Israelites at all, just slaves that saw a chance to make a break for it.
We are told that when they left the Egyptian city of Rameses they went to Succoth. We are not sure where either Rameses or Succoth was. You can find maps of the Exodus with these cities carefully marked. In fact, these maps are just our best guess. From Succoth, they moved to Etham, which, we are told, was on the edge of the wilderness of Sinai. That had to be a scary moment. They had lived all their lives as slaves in Egypt. Now, they were on their own, about to wander out into the desert. There were no signs, no roads, no maps. They must have felt desperately in need of direction.
God gave them directions. God went before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The cloud and the fire told the Israelites one thing. God was with them.
This leads us to say some things about the nature of God. God is present in every event. More than that, God influences every event. This means that every moment of our lives is touched by the divine. God surrounds our moments and embraces our lives with his loving presence—which is a way of saying that God is faithful. God is always faithful. God is always with us.
The Psalmist cried out in awareness of God surrounding presence: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust." (Psalm 91:1-2). The Israelites again and again voiced the revelation of God as a guiding presence—like the pillar of cloud, like the pillar of fire. The very name of God bespoke his presence. The Name of God is generally translated as “Lord” in our Old Testament, but in Hebrew the name is “Yahweh,” which is sometimes translated as “I am”, but is more appropriately rendered “I am with you.” God’s name tells us his nature. God is a presence, an actuality, a reality, in our lives.
For Christians, Christ is the ultimate presence of God in human history. The Prophet Isaiah said, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14). “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Christ shows us that the nature of God is expressed through a presence of faithfulness and love. God is always faithful in every situation. God acts to move every situation toward a loving result.
You might ask, If that is true why don’t we more love and less evil? How can every moment be led by God toward a loving result, and as we look around us, we sometimes see such a lack of love in the world? Because some situations are so bad that no love or not much love is possible
Erich Maria Remarque’s great book, All Quiet on the Western Front, (1929), was based partly on the author’s own experience in the trenches of World War I. In one incident, the German soldier, young Paul Bauer, is out on patrol and gets separated from his friends in the dark.,
A battle begins, and Paul jumps into a shell crater for protection. Almost immediately, a French soldier jumps in on top of him. Paul stabs the Frenchman and then spends the rest of the night and the whole next day watching him die slowly and in great pain. It is the first time Paul has killed a person face to face, and the man's dying is difficult for him to watch. He tries to help his victim, but to no avail. He realizes that the man had a wife and a home. He is filled with remorse for what he has done, but eventually he has no choice but to go back to the trenches until he himself is killed.
Now, you might say that the most loving thing for Paul to do was not to volunteer for the army in the first place, but he was caught up in the war fever that engulfed Europe in 1914, and like most other young Germans and Frenchmen and Englishmen and eventually even young Americans, he really did not have much choice. There was a whole generation of young men in Europe who went gallantly to the trenches to defend the motherland or the fatherland. Given that situation, when Paul confronts the Frenchman in the crater, there is no loving solution possible. They are going to attack each other and one of them is going to die. Perhaps the only love that is possible is that Paul feels remorse afterwards. You might say, that is not much; well, not much was possible.
I have one criticism of Remarque’s great book. Having mortally wounded the Frenchman, why did Paul sit there for a night and a day, and watch him die in excruciating pain. I guess Paul gave him what comfort he could, but it seems to me, it would have been more merciful for him to end it. Perhaps having done so much violence to the man, he could not bring himself to do more.
The point is that some situations are so bad that there is no loving solution possible. God is still there and God is still love, but even God cannot suddenly change a long history of human folly and perversity into something good.
God works for good in every situation. That does not mean every situation is good. In the Bible, sometimes the situation in Israel was so bad, that the only thing God’s prophets could do was to denounce the situation. They called down judgment, because that was the most loving thing that they could do.
God’s direction, the direction of the pillars of cloud and fire, is always toward love. If we are God’s people, we follow God’s direction, in every situation.
Perhaps the most important thing about these verses from Exodus is to reassure us that we have a direction. Life is not a chance conglomeration of events. Life is not a bubble of cells that exists for a moment and then bursts and collapses. Life is going somewhere. Life is going toward the New Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God.
We are reassured also because of who our guide is. God is faithful. God loves us. God will never betray us.
I suppose then the question for us is how do we react to God’s leadership and guidance? We can complain or we can trust. During the Exodus, the Israelites mostly complained and sometimes even rebelled.
The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?"
But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"
So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."
Later, when Moses went up on Mount Sinai, the people down below were making a golden calf to worship. Still later when Moses finally led them across the Sinai for the assault on Canaan, they panicked and fled when their spies brought back a discouraging report.
They did not trust the pillars of cloud and fire at all, and then they wondered why they were in such a mess. Well, we do not do much better. Some of our lives may be in a mess today because we have failed to trust God. We made selfish decisions, we acted like God was not a reality, and then we wonder how things got so screwed up.
For the generation of the Exodus things finally got so messed up that the only solution was to default to the next generation. In Numbers 14: 20-23, the lord is talking to Moses about the people. God said:
20 "I do forgive, just as you have asked;
21 nevertheless--as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD--
22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,
23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.
God still loves them. He forgives them. He is faithful to them, but the only solution to their murmuring and complaining and refusal to follow God is to defer to the next generation.
There is a lesson here. God calls. If we do not respond to God’s call, God will call somebody else. God’s will is done through those who follow God. The only question for us is are we going to follow the pillars of cloud and fire?
Ultimately the first generation of the Exodus, did not follow God. They failed. God did not fail them. God was faithful and loving to them all the way, even after their failure. God will not fail us. Will we fail God? God calls us in the way of love, follow in that way. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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