Lenten Sermon Series 4 of 6 ~ “Letting Go…Letting God: When the Going Gets Worse”
Exodus 19: 1-9 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 14, 2020
Most improved player…employee of the month…valedictorian…and the list of accolades for one’s life improvements continue. Our world, somewhere along the line, adopted the belief that we should expect our lives to consistently improve. Our lives should follow some form of trajectory that is improving, refining, and growing. As children, our scholastic abilities should improve; our skill at sport should progress; our capacities at being creative and imaginative…all these things (and more) should consistently improve. If we were to chart our growth throughout life, there is an expectation that it ought to be one of steady growth. And, over our lifetimes, as we buy into this belief; when we adopt this expectation of progressive growth, we will ~ one day ~ be let down. When life seems to go backwards instead of ahead, we will be touched by the injustice of this shift. When we are touched by life’s decline, we feel angry, let down, and frustrated. Because…that’s not how life is ‘supposed’ to go! Haven’t we all said that before?
The reality that life sometimes gets worse, before it gets better
While we might imagine, and hope, for a life that is one of slow and steady improvement…always getting a little bit better, a little nicer a little more hopeful. (And let’s be honest…who doesn’t?) This morning, as we have now moved into the wilderness with the Israelites. And in the wilderness, we are touched with the reality of those times when life does not unfold as we want or imagined it to. We are touched by the reality of those times when life doesn’t follow the neat, steady, hopeful trajectory we forecasted. This morning, we are confronted by the reality that sometimes life gets worse. Life gets worse, before it gets better. And we examine this section of our faith story, and ponder how their story might give us a deeper understanding into our story….as the going gets worse for us as well. The Israelites held these type of life expectations. They expected their journey to be one of blessing. Not a stretch. They had received liberation from slavery, they had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, they had receiving food and drink in the wilderness. And so, they expected a life that would continue to get better as they ventured on towards the Promised Land. However, this morning’s passage is not one of progression. It is not one of improvement. In fact, it is the very opposite. Sinai is the place where everything changes for the Israelites. It was their lowest point in the journey. And…it was their turning point as well.
If you look at the map showing Mount Sinai’s location, you will see that this is the furthest away that the Israelites could get from the Promised Land. The red dotted lines trace the likely route out of Egypt, located to the East (on the left-hand side), crossing the Red Sea, and progressing south to Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb (the two names that given in the Bible). If you look ahead on the dotted red lines, you can see how they will eventually progress in a haphazard pattern to the north, then turn back in a south-westerly direction, before going back north again. The golden circle at the bottom-middle of the map shows the lowest point of the Israelite’s journey. This is the furthest away that they will come from the Promised Land. Even Egypt was closer! This is the geographical low-point that they reach in their wilderness pilgrimage. The text records that they reach this spot three months into their pilgrimage. They had traveled from Rephidim; they had come into the Sinai desert, and set up camp here, in front of the mountain and they had travelled away from their goal. The lowest geographical point they could reach. The travel guide would have been long since fired! They were going backwards! Geographically they were far off! Spiritually…emotionally…geographically…on every level, they were going in the wrong direction.
The importance of Sinai
This morning we meet the Israelites at their rock-bottom. The lowest-point on their journey. And as we do, we discover, and affirm, a wonderful truth: Your low point does not have to be your last point. And while we never choose these moments, we discover the spiritual truth that God can use them to transform and shape us in profound ways. We began considering the expectation we are given of this progressive improvement in life. And as we find ourselves at Mt. Sinai base-camp, we discover the hope-filled truth: that life does not work that way. Life has never consisted of a gentle set of progressions. Setbacks are to be expected. ‘Mt. Sinai’ will inevitably be the base-camp for each of us, at parts of our journey, as we navigate through the various wilderness points of our lives. And, so, we discover the importance of Sinai. Sinai is where everything changes for the Israelites. Sinai was there turning point. And Sinai, our low points, can become our turning point as well. The importance of Sinai cannot be overrated. It stands as the centre-point of the book of Exodus and becomes the pivotal point for the three Mosaic faiths ~ Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Sinai was not a mistake; the low-point of Sinai becomes an essential part of their trek. For us, this normalizes those times in our lives when it might ‘seem’ like we are taking one step forward and two steps back, those times when it might ‘seem’ like we are moving further away from where we want to be heading. For the Israelites, they had to go to Sinai in order, on day, to arrive at the Promised Land. Sinai was not the geographically direct route to the Promised Land. It was, however, the only route that allowed them to get there. For us, our experience of God’s transformation at our low points can be the critical steps that allow us to move in the future. We cannot, and should not, avoid them…as challenging and as painful, and as frustrating as they inevitably are.
Your Sinai? I wonder where the Sinai experiences have been for you? Where were those essential ‘low point moments’ that allowed your life to unfold? Perhaps you might be finding yourself in a Sinai moment right now? Low point struggles with health…and relationships…with employment…with retirement…and finances…this Pandemic experience…and the list goes on and on. Psychologists know the value of Sinai. And those of us, like myself, who have worked with therapists in their low points, know the value of addressing them. Because, left repressed, they will hold us back from ever reaching the promise of the future, the hope of tomorrow, our own personal…‘Promised Land’. I would suggest that it is critical for us to unpack the necessity of this step of the journey. This stop along the journey, lest we ever forget…was a critical low point…a turning point…and a critical time for God’s transformation. And it is A step, it is NOT where the story ended. Sinai is now remembered, not only as a low point, but as a mountaintop experience. For Sinai was also the mountaintop upon which Moses climbed and received the law. And it was through trying to live by that law over the ensuing centuries that they came to understand that God had chosen them as the people through whom the wider world would come to know God.
The problem with: ‘everything happens for a reason’ There is a caveat that, I think, should be made as we ponder low points in life. There is a ‘modern-day’ axiom that might seem to be informed with this theology of God meeting us at the low points in our lives. That is the belief that: “everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps it is one which you have tried to gain some comfort through. I would suggest that this is NOT what was occurring at Sinai. We may try to tell ourselves that there is something to be learned in our suffering. We may say that there is some purpose to our struggles, as we remember that God can ultimately do something good even amidst a bad situation. There are two big problems with this type of thinking. Firstly, it makes God responsible for everything that happens in our life and in our world. If everything happens for a reason, it means that somehow God has caused these things to happen. Secondly, the problem with this ‘everything happens for a reason’ thinking is that it leads to our human indifference. If there is a master plan, with everything happening according to that plan, then it doesn't leave much room for our choice, our personal responsibility, and our action. Instead, in the face of injustice or hardship or tragedy, it can lead to inaction. The Bible makes it clear that we have real choices. We have a real responsibility to follow God's guidance and our call to live that out. What I think scripture teaches us is that God does not cause our pain. Rather, God is present in our pain. God can work, even in the rubble of our broken lives, to bring about good
Finding strength in our weakness Paul knew of the nature of God’s transformation in our low points. Writing to the community of Corinth amidst their persecutions, he boldly proclaimed: “therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor: 12: 7-10) Paul’s faith is one that believes God has enough power…enough might…enough creativity. Paul proclaims how, even at the lowest point, God can take our weakness and transform them into strength. Ultimately, our journey to the promised land is more likely to resemble the performance of the stock market than a simple, gentle progression where things continue to improve. Sinai was a turn-around moment for the Israelites. Your times of ‘Sinai’ provide an opportunity for turn-around moments as well….if….and here is the if: If, as Paul proclaims: “if we can delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when we are weak, then we are strong.” Let us go to Sinai…let us take up camp there…and let us know that God will transform our journey…even there. Amen.