Good morning, Friends!
I hope you all enjoy the time we spend with the Bible every Sunday. We make a real effort to try to cover different parts of the Bible every year, so that we get the full, complete picture.
These stories are amazing – the miracles, the faith people had, the power of God, God’s mercy and love and presence. The Bible is such an incredible book – all those different voices, all those different spiritual and physical journeys.
And then, every week, we try to find ourselves in the story. What experiences are similar to ours? What do some of these things mean to us today?
For the last month, we’ve been spending some time in the book of Exodus, the story of the Jewish people’s long journey to freedom. It’s one of the greatest stories of the entire Bible. We could spend months going through it. But today, let’s look at the very end of the book.
After God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, God also gave a whole bunch of other commands, about all kinds of other subjects.
Everything from how to treat your servants, to what to do about an ox that injures people. How to handle things if a field accidentally catches fire. How to make things right when people get to fighting. It’s all there, in detail.
And then, there’s elaborate instructions for putting together what they called the tent of meeting. This was a portable shrine, where God would come down and visit his people, while they were on their long journey. The tent of meeting was where they kept the ark of the covenant, in a kind of tent-within-a-tent.
Exodus goes into great detail about the materials and construction of the tent, its dimensions and decoration. You could probably build an exact replica today, just by following the directions.
This tent went with them, every place they traveled, for 40 years. And it wasn’t just that they toted the tent of meeting with them. God showed Moses and them where to take it. And wherever the tent of meeting went, that’s where the people went, too.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Even Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out – until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.Exodus 40:34-38
This is a really interesting way to finish up the book of Exodus. Because it says that the journey doesn’t end. God keeps moving on. Wherever God goes, God’s people need to follow.
We often wonder, why it took them 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land. The standard answer is that the men were too proud to stop and ask for directions.
The practical answer, is that you can’t move a couple of hundred thousand people that quickly. An army could do it quickly. Or a camel train. But thousands of men, women and children, with all their backpacks and tents and cooking gear and animals – that takes time.
By the time they reached Israel, they had a lot of animals with them – sheep and goats and cattle. So they camped in one spot, and sent the herds out to all the surrounding countryside. When the pasture was all eaten out, they moved on, probably not too far to the next place.
Another consideration was water. They needed water to drink, and the desert wasn’t a place you found much of that. Many of the stories of Exodus are about how God provided water, by opening up springs, or by making mineral water sweet and drinkable.
But the basic thing wasn’t that God followed them around from place to place. Exodus is really clear. They followed God around, wherever God led them. You see the difference? Who’s leading who – that’s the question.
And that has always been the question, ever since. It’s still the question for us today. Who’s leading who? Are we following God? Or do we expect God to follow us?
Who’s the tail, and who’s the dog? Who’s the cart and who’s the horse? Forgive me for making these comparisons, but who’s leading, and who’s following?
Back in Exodus, it says that God led people, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud during the daytime. Pretty big, unmistakeable signs, you might say.
And wherever they went, they carried the tent with them. The tent of meeting, half the size of a football field.
Of course, the people of Israel had other ways to know what to do. They had Moses himself, for a long time. When in doubt, ask Moses.
The job got too big for just one person. So Moses asked God for advice. God told Moses to pick out 70 leaders, people with wisdom and experience. For easy, everyday problems, people could ask one of the seventy. If the problem was too hard for one of them, they could ask Moses. And if the problem was too hard for Moses, well, he could ask God.
They also had a very special way to make decisions. The priest had a couple of special stones, called Umim and Thumim.
We don’t know what Umim and Thumim looked like, but they functioned kind of like flipping a coin. Umim and Thumim were good for big questions where they needed a yes-or-no answer.
Should we go here, or not? Should we go in to battle, or not? It was kind of a holy heads or tails kind of thing.
So, they had the Ten Commandments for the big picture about what to do. They had lots of detailed commandments, or written instructions, for everyday situations.
They had Moses, and the 70 leaders, to settle disputes. They had Umim and Thumim, for questions that had a yes-or-no answer, that affected the whole nation.
But most of all, they had the presence of God, the tent of meeting, where the pillar of cloud rested. And when the pillar of cloud moved, it was time for them to move on.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “That’s fine. They did all that back in Bible times. But what do we do today? How is any of this relevant?”
And like I said before, I think that today, we’ve switched the game. We’ve reversed the order of things. We decide what we want to do, and we expect God to follow us. We do it backwards from the way people did it in Bible times.
One thing that’s definitely changed, is that back then, God didn’t take a survey poll. God didn’t say, “Tell me where you think you ought to go.” God said, “This is where I’m going. It’s up to you to come along!”
God never said, “Let’s put these commandments to a vote.” God said, “These are the things you need to do, to live as free people. Do them and live. If you don’t do these things, I’m telling you right now, you’re not going to make it.”
Today, we forget the Ten Commandments a lot of the time. But when we remember them, and pray about them, we know that whenever we go in for idolatry and false gods, when we work ourselves to death, when we neglect our elders, when we build our lives around murder, adultery, theft, lying, and greed, it’s just not going to end well for us.
As God said a long time ago, “Do what I tell you, and live. Don’t do what I tell you, and die.”
What I want you to notice today, and think about, is how in Bible times, they had what I’m going to call a multi-layered system of ways to know what God wanted them to do.
The Ten Commandments were the big picture. But they also had leaders with experience. They had detailed instructions for everyday life. They had a way to handle big yes-or-no questions. And above all, they had the presence of God, to lead them, when it was time to move on.
I don’t expect us to duplicate that same system today. But I think we can learn from the way they did things. We can do much better than we’re doing now.
The Ten Commandments are still good. There’s also the simplified version. Somebody came up to Jesus once and said, “What are the greatest commandments? Can you please make it easier for us?”
Jesus said, “OK, here’s just two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do these, and you’ll live.”
The apostle Paul made it even simpler. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself; whoever loves another has fulfilled the entire law.” (Romans 13)
We still have many good leaders. We have ministers, and teachers, and people of prayer, and administrators, and counselors, and people who are experienced in giving and helping and mercy. There’s no shortage of people we can ask for advice and guidance.
We don’t flip a coin today. We don’t use Umim and Thumim to make decisions.
We do have a lot of solid guidance in our Quaker book of Faith and Practice. It not only talks about how to organize our meeting, but it also has what they call queries or spiritual questions.
Instead of saying, “Do this, do that”, the Quaker way is to ask questions. “Have you thought about this? Have you prayed about that?”
Some examples of Quaker queries are:
• Do you come with heart and mind prepared for communion with God and fellowship with one another?
• Do you take your rightful share in the responsibility of the work and worship of the meeting?
• Does your attitude toward people of other races indicate your belief in their right to equal opportunity?
• When differences arise, do you make earnest effort to end them speedily?
Instead of telling each other what to do, Quakers ask, “What do you think about this? What are you actually doing about that?”
The Jewish people in the book of Exodus had the tent of meeting, where God was present. They had the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire during those early years.
We don’t have those things now. God’s people are spread out, all over the entire earth. But we still have the same problem – we need to know where God is going. We need to know what God wants us to do.
So, besides the commandments, and besides our leaders – besides our tradition and our years of experience – we also have the guidance of God.
Jesus himself said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world. . .“
He promised us the Holy Spirit, to be with us when we’re up against it in difficult situations.
He said we could pray for anything, and it would be given to us – and that means not just our daily bread, but direction and guidance.
We mostly follow local, state and federal laws – Quakers are remarkably law-abiding people. But every once in a while, we recognize that God has a higher law, and every now and then we follow God rather than human law.
One of the things which is interesting about Quakers is that, in matters of church business, we don’t take a vote. We believe that God knows what’s best and right for the church. Our job is to figure out what God wants, and voting won’t decide that. Our goal isn’t a majority, but unity. Sometimes it takes a while. But our experience is that the majority is sometimes wrong.
I have been at large gatherings of Quakers, where maybe 700 people all thought that the decision should go one way, and there were literally two or three people who said, “Friends, I just don’t feel easy about going forward. I love you and I respect you, but I don’t think this is the way.”
And those 700 people, all listened, and agreed to wait and study the matter, until everyone was in unity. They came back later, and agreed that the minority was right, and they united on a new direction together.
Sometimes a few people who are listening to God can hear what the majority has missed. And sometimes the minority are wrong, but the church will be stronger if we take time to agree in unity together.
In a way, a Quaker meeting is like the “tent of meeting” that it talks about in today’s reading from Exodus. There have been times when a whole meeting got up and moved, because they felt God was telling them to go.
In fact, we are here – Springfield Friends Meeting is here in this very place – because a group of Quakers in Bush River, South Carolina, decided that God was calling them to leave their homes.
They listened and prayed, and the entire meeting got up and left the homes they had built, and the farms they had bought and plowed and paid for, because they felt that they could no longer live in a community that was built around slavery. They left South Carolina, and they came here.
They felt it was God’s decision, and not theirs. These were our ancestors, the people who started this meeting. And many times, in the years since then, we have followed – not a pillar of fire or a pillar of cloud, but we have followed the Inner Light and the Holy Spirit, to new places we could never have imagined.
So you see, this Bible stuff is pretty relevant, after all.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our month with Exodus. These are our people, and this is our faith.
Let’s close with a few minutes of quiet prayer, before we leave this morning.