The scripture today from Exodus provides powerful imagery of God’s guidance and presence in our lives. It comes from when, in the book of Exodus, the Israelites – who have been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years - are fleeing captivity. God, having first persuaded the Egyptians to release them from bondage through increasingly harsh means, then provides cover for the escaping Israelites: a pillar of clouds during the day and a pillar of fire at night. This allows the fleeing Israelites to travel 24 hours a day, both guiding their way and protecting them from danger.
This is not the first time in Exodus that God shows up to God’s people as cloud and in fire. When Moses travels up to the mountain to receive God’s word, he encounters God in the form of a thick cloud. The people looking up at the mountain see God covering the mountain. And we are all familiar with the story of Moses and the bush that burned yet was not consumed. But this imagery of God appears to all God’s people, not just Moses. God appears to guides them out of danger and appears them in forms that were comforting and visible and practical. It feels so intimate and tender.
What I find especially compelling about this story is that not only is God guiding them away from danger from others – the pursuing Egyptians, who have quickly changed their minds about releasing their captives – but God is also guiding them away from endangering themselves. When we read the scripture we see a wavering quality within the fleeing Israelites.
They’re getting freed from bondage, yes, but they’re also being asked to abandon a known life. A life of structure. A life with known access to food and water. A life where they understand how they fit into society. God is asking them to leave all they know and launch into the unknown. To trust God fully. To find their way back to their ancestral land by launching out into the wilderness.
That sounds terrifying. It is why God guides them around the more direct route, where they might experience conflict with the local population. God fears this difficulty would be enough to turn the Israelites back to Egypt. And it is perhaps why God shows up in this magnificent, ever present way to them as they journey through the wilderness. Coming to them as a pillar of cloud in the day shielding them from the sun’s fierce rays. A pillar of fire at night providing warmth and light. Always showing them the way.
This story made me wonder how God has been present in my life as I have wandered through my versions of wilderness. It makes me wonder how God lights our way forward in times where we cannot see how to get there. In times where we are tempted to return to a situation that God is trying to free us from.
There have been times that I have wanted to quit something that was harmful to me: a toxic job; a bad habit; a hurtful relationship. There is something about complacency, about fear of the unknown, about the comfort of the familiar even when the familiar is not what God calls us to for our flourishing that can trap us in harmful dynamics. It makes it hard to leave those detrimental situations…keeps us from launching out into the unknown. But often in those situations, there has been this sense of burning…this unrelenting press that pushes me forward, shoves me out into the wilderness. Gets me over the inertia and gets me moving forward.
That feels like the flame of God’s fire to me.
There have been times as a parent, or in a relationship, where I have felt completely in the dark as to what to do, how to best support my child or loved one, how to guide us both forward. It has felt dark all around us. And the only thing that I’ve been able to cling to, to keep my feet moving forward, has been the belief that healing is possible. That God holds my child or loved one in the deepest, most loving embrace, that I am held by the deepest, most loving embrace, that even though I cannot see it, there is hope yet.
That feels like the warmth of God’s fire to me.
I think when we are uncertain or scared, when we want change but don’t know how to get there or which way to go, we long for a brilliant pillar of fire from God to illuminate our path forward. We imagine that God’s pillar of fire will shine so brightly we’ll see the entire way, see all the way to our new destination.
But if you’ve ever walked with a flame, or a torch of some kind, even a flashlight, you know you can’t see your entire surroundings. You can really only see right around you. You can only see enough to take the steps you need to take to get you to the next spot. And then the next spot. And the next.
For me at least, I want to know where I’m heading, get a glimpse of the destination before I feel prepared to launch into something new. But that’s not what the Israelites had, and often, it’s not what we have. Sometimes God provides just enough light for us to take one step. Our trust, like the trust of the Israelites, is required to make the entire journey. To travel all the way with God.
There have been times where I have not known what the right way is to go. Where I am ready to move, ready to make changes, ready to respond, but don’t know exactly the direction to head. But I can see enough, know enough to take one step forward. Author Glennon Melton calls this, “The next right thing”. In times of paralysis, or overwhelm, or fear, she says, “Just do the next right thing, one at a time. That’ll take you home.”
That feels like the light of God’s fire to me, lighting the way forward.
May we have the trust to take the step that we can see, and the trust that God will light up the next one, walking in partnership all the way to our new destination.