So today we continue our 4 week series called For, With, One of, In. In the incarnation of Jesus, we see the way that God and Jesus interact with all of humanity. First of all, God is for us. Secondly, God is with us. Thirdly, Jesus became one of us. And lastly when we receive him, Jesus comes to live in us. When we follow this model of incarnational living we become for people, we are with people, we become one of them, so that Jesus then comes to live in them.
Last week Matt did a great job of kicking off the series by looking at the fact that God is for people. He did a great job of unpacking John 3:16-17 especially verse 17 (which sits right beside probably one of the most well known scripture of all time, and verse 17 which isn’t even that well known). Verse 17 says it best regarding the fact that God is for us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” And Matt helped us understand that if God is for people (and not just those of us who follow him, but for ALL people) than we need to be for people. We need to become a people more known for what we are for than what we are against. The Church in our world today is seen as being against people and not for people. Jesus, if he is our model for life, which he should be, was sent into the world to love people, not condemn people and to be for people. So if he is our model for life then we should be the most loving, least condemning people on the planet and we should be for people.
Today we are going to look at the second part of our series, the with part. Now when we talk about the fact that God is with us, we should immediately think of Emmanuel, which means God with us. Jesus, taking on flesh and blood, and moving into the neighborhood as the Message translates John 1:14. That is the ultimate picture of God with us. That is the quintessential example of God with us. But there are other examples, other accounts, within the Scriptures that speak of God with us. God entering into the world of humans, and engaging with us. Yes they aren’t as revolutionary, as important, as central to the idea of God with us, as Jesus, the incarnate one is. But they are still examples of God being with humanity, guiding, directing, leading, and engaging in relationship with his creation. One of these stories of God being with humanity is found in Exodus 13:17-22, in which the people of God, the Israelites are leaving slavery in Egypt and heading towards Canaan, the promised land.
Let’s look at Exodus 13:17-22 and see what it says about God being with us, and what it looks like then for us to be with people.
Exodus 13:17-22 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
Now as I said this is the part of the story that is telling us what happened once Pharaoh let God’s people, the Israelites, leave slavery and Egypt. This is the account of the beginning of their 40 year journey in the wilderness. The first thing we read in verse 17-18 is God leading the people out from Egypt. Verse 17 and 18 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.” Here we see God leading them in which way to go. He is with them and helping them make a crucial decision on what route to take from Egypt to the promised land. You see, just like today, when there isn’t just one way to get somewhere, there were possibly three various routes that people took throughout history. There are only two possibilities mentioned here. The first being the way of the Philistines, which would have been the shorter route, but the Israelites would have faced the most opposition. First they would have probably come across many Egyptian army outposts on their way out of Egypt, and then when they got out of Egypt they would have ran into Philistine armies. The second mentioned here, in which God led them, was into the wilderness. They went on the desert road towards the Red Sea. This was by far a longer trip, but it was probably just as dangerous in other ways.
But God led them to the desert road, and the wilderness, and he would be with them throughout their journey. When they had a decision to make, or needed wisdom or direction for the next steps, God was with them. They knew that, without a doubt, that God was with them. They knew this because they had something to look at. God was faithful to provide the Israelites with a visible manifestation of His presence, protection and guidance. We find what that visible manifestation of his presence was in verse 21-22 which says, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” The pillar, we are told, was constantly with them and never left (or failed) them. God continually gave his people evidence of His presence with them. What is interesting about the Pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night is that the Persians and the Greeks used fire and smoke as signals in their marches and in a well known Papyrus, the Commander of an Egyptian expedition is called “A flame in the darkness at the head of his soldiers”. By this sign then of the pillar of cloud, basically what is being said is that the Lord himself is the leader or the head of the people of God, the Israelites. He was going before them and he was leading them. He was with them and he was never going to leave them nor forsake them. Deuteronomy 31 verse 6 sums up pretty well the Israelites journey out of Egypt, “ Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
So no matter whether it was day or night, there was a tangible presence of God. Whether it was the pillar of cloud by day or pillar of fire by night, the Israelites knew that God was with them and was leading them. That God was protecting them. And with that protection came their allegiance to their King. Not a king in the fleshy, human sense (that would come later) but God as their King. With the presence of the cloud during the day and pillar of fire at night, the Israelite people knew that their King, God (Yahweh) wasn’t some distant ruler, who ruled from a far. Who demanded allegiance without being for his people and with his people. No. This King Yahweh was for his people. This King Yahweh was present with his people. And because he was for and with his people, they followed him and gave allegiance to him (in this part of the story at least)
I believe there are a few things that we can draw from this passage and apply to our lives today in the 21st century.
First, let’s take another look at the beginning of the text. Look at where God took them. He took them, not by the easiest, quickest route, but into the wilderness. That his presence, symbolized by the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, was with them in the wilderness and the desert. Now, I’m not saying that if you find yourself in a desert place, a wilderness place, a dark place that God led you there. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Maybe you are in a place where God seems distant. Where you haven’t felt God in a long time. That you haven’t sensed his leading. And it might feel like when you pray that you are screaming to the sky and no one is listening. You need to know, that if that is you today, you aren’t alone. You aren’t alone in a number of ways. Many people, even people who are renown for their faith in Jesus have felt that way. There is a book/poem by mystic St. John of the Cross called Dark Night of the Soul. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. Also Mother Teresa, known for her deep love and service also struggled with not feeling God. In her journal she once wrote, “In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Others have gone through the desert as well. So you aren’t alone in that. But you are also not alone. Even though it doesn’t feel like God is present with you in the wilderness, he is. If we believe this text, and others like it (especially in relation to Emmanuel..God with us) God enters into our wilderness, our suffering, our pain. Sure you might not feel him. And you most definitely won’t see a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night. But that doesn’t escape the fact that God, through Jesus, has entered into our world, and is with us in a very real and profound way. Especially those who are suffering and going through wilderness experiences. So if that is you today, know that God is with you, walking with you through this experience, and that those of us who are followers of Jesus are also with you, and want to walk with you through your wilderness experience.
Secondly, when we look at the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire we see a tangible reality, that God was and is with people. He didn’t wait for people to come be with him. He didn’t sit in heaven and just wait for people to climb a ladder (so to speak) and be with him. And so this story of God coming down in a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire shows us that God is with us. But we see this best in Jesus. In Jesus we see that he came to be with us, that is what we celebrate at Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us. And so, logically, if we, who call ourselves Followers of Jesus, follow after Jesus in the way he lived his life, than we need to wrestle with the idea and fact that Jesus was with people, and that we then need to be with people. We don’t sit inside our “sanctified buildings” and wait for people to be with us. No. We take a cue from this text and from Jesus, and go out into the world to be with people. One great way that I can think of to be with people is to help out with Circles. God is calling us to go out and be with people. He might not lead us by a cloud and by fire, but he is leading us nevertheless. To get out of the bubble, and engage with people who are all around us. To love our neighbor. To learn their names if we don’t know them. To serve people. To bless them. To spend time over a dining room table eating with people. Let’s not only be for people, but let’s take another step on this incarnational journey and be with people.
So what does this look like for you? What does this look like for us? What does it mean to you that God is with us? Are you experiencing a time in your life where that reality needs to sink in to your life? How can you and I be with people? Let’s spend some time wrestling together with these questions and applying them to our individual and corporate lives.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, applications do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What does it mean to you that God is with us? How do you need this reality to sink into your life? Are you in a time where you need to know that God is with you?
3. How can you and I be with people? What does it look like for you to be with people? What does it look like for us as Veritas to be with people?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?