Sermon for 31 August ’08
I thought I’d talk a little about two things today—something from the presbytery retreat Jenny T and I went to last week; and Moses.
One of the things we talked about on the retreat was transitions. That is, going through transitions, or through ‘in-between’ times and spaces.
Ancient explorers knew about in-between spaces. They’d have a map, and at its edge, the place in-between the known and the unknown, would be the words, Here be Dragons. Or the hero would have to cross a bridge—a clear in-between space—but guarding the bridge would be a guard to fight, or a wizard who would ask three riddles. You know, If you would pass by me, first you must answer these riddles three. If the hero were lucky, there’d merely be a three-headed dog or a fire-breathing dragon to slay.
Once you’ve stepped into this in-between space, the normal ways of operating no longer work; in fact, they are counter-productive. But you haven’t got to the new place yet. You don’t know what the house rules are in the new place, you only know you’ve left the old behind. And it can be scary.
The Scriptures present people in clear in-between spaces: the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, or wandering in the wilderness for forty years; Job sitting in the rubbish heap, scratching his sores; Jesus in the desert for forty days, or in the Garden of Gethsemane for what seemed like forty years.
Before he took the Hebrews out of Egypt, Moses was in his own in-between space. Even as a prince of Egypt with all the advantages that brought he was in-between; he was aware of his Hebrew heritage, and he had murdered an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew people. More than that, there was no refuge with the Hebrew people, who didn’t trust him.
He had fled into the wilderness, and was in a kind of no man’s land, neither one thing nor the other. Not Egyptian, not Hebrew. In the wilderness, those labels neither mattered nor helped. Behaving like a prince of Egypt got him nowhere. Taking on the identity of a Hebrew got him nowhere.
Moses couldn’t predict what would become of him. Would the wilderness become his permanent state? Should he treat it like a new home? Should he try for something more, something ‘beyond the wilderness’? In the event, he married. And now he was droving sheep. And he was somehow in a place the NRSV pew Bible describes as beyond the wilderness.
It sounds like a strange place, ‘beyond the wilderness’. It was an extraordinary place in which Moses did ordinary things (droving sheep—ordinary for him, not for me!).
Sometimes we find ourselves in this same mixture of the strange and the unfamiliar. We may be doing ordinary things day by day, going to work, raising children, shopping, making tea, making love—but the doctor has diagnosed cancer, someone we’re close to is dying, we’re in a job that sucks the life out of us, the mortgage is biting, our prayers bounce off the ceiling, the Bible bores us, the things that used to encourage us in faith no longer do—and our faith is feeling very fragile and brittle. And things just really aren’t ‘normal’ any more.
These may be our in-between places. The old ways of managing just won’t do any more. But we haven’t yet found what the new ways are yet.
Question: What can we do when we’re in-between?
Answer: Let go. And let God be God.
Have you ever been in the wilderness? Have you been in an in-between kind of place? For me, moving to Australia was a wilderness experience, an in-between time.
Even my idea of what ‘wilderness’ was looked different to the Aussie wilderness we’ve been viewing. My wilderness was moorland. When I felt this in-between time and place was a wilderness, that’s what I thought of.
In our in-between time, our family looked back to England for our sense of what is normal. Wooden houses on stilts were ugly. It was too hot. In September. People talked funny. In the shops, or at bus stops, they didn’t form a queue like civilised people. We wanted to go home. It was a long in-between time. It wouldn’t have helped if we’d dived into being Aussies too quickly—I mean, we had no idea of what you did to be an Aussie. (And what about now?—I’m starting to get the idea!)
The thing about in-between times and places is we’re not in control. And we hate that. Moses wasn’t in control. He’d gone through the wilderness to this mysterious place beyond, to the mountain of God, here called Horeb, also known as Mt Sinai. And just to show how not in control he is, Moses sees a bush ablaze, yet not being destroyed; and he hears a voice from the bush speaking his name. What was it? Some kind of sprite or imp that belonged to this bush? Moses was curious.
But it’s not a minor spirit speaking from the bush. God speaks to Moses that day. Not any old god, not a god, not an Egyptian god, but God, the only God—the God of the fathers and mothers, the God who comes because of the distress of the people of the Hebrews, who comes to set Moses and the people free. Moses must let go of his normal ways of managing, and let God be.
Moses learns this God’s name. It’s a name that says to Moses, it’s ok to be in the wilderness. I’ll be there with you, and I’ll lead you further. The name of God is I am who I am. Possibly. Or I will be what I will be. Or possibly, I am present is what I am. Or maybe, I will be with you. It’s a mysterious name. It’s not not a name that takes us out of the wilderness straight away. To make matters worse, the name God gives in the very next verse is written in this different, rather mysterious form: יהןה, or YHWH. Or, He is, or He will be. We think. But there’s some doubt about that.
YHWH was pronounced Yahweh. Maybe. Probably not quite Yahweh really. We just don’t know what God’s name truly is. It’s certainly not ‘Jehovah’, which is a mixed up, made up hybrid name that dates only from mediaeval times and was popularised by the King James Bible.
Are you getting the point? Let’s face it: if getting out of the wilderness depends on our pinning God down, getting our ideas of God straight, addressing God by God’s ‘true name’, then we’re doomed to be in the wilderness forever.
No, what happened to Moses was this: he was overwhelmed by the sheer grace of the God who reveals himself to us, and who promises to be with us whether we’re at home where we are or in the wilderness. Moses could let go of being in anxious control of his destiny, and let God guide. Wherever that was to take him.
It’s just that we are such perverse creatures that we need to be in the wilderness before God can get through to us. I was still in an in-between place, almost three years after arriving in Australia, when I became a Christian. I suspect that many of us have grown in faith through in-between experiences. So thank God for in-between places, and thank God for the grace to go through them trusting in God.
If you’re in an in-between place right now, if you’re in the wilderness, there is good news:
There is one God, and you’re not it! So stop trying to control things. Let God be God for you, and let God lead. Trust that God is with you. If we had time, we’d look at the Gospel reading. We’d explore how that on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus as in an in-between place. If being in-between feels like you’re carrying a cross, it may be because you’re more conscious of the cross at those times.
In-between times and spaces, wilderness experiences, come to everyone. It’s not a sign that there’s something wrong with us, simply that we’re human. God is with us through these times. They are times to trust.