To catch us up to speed, because this saga is long and winding: One day, in the distant past, God had come to the camp of Abraham and Sarah and promised them a great lineage and lush, green lands. And this promise, for kin and for country to call their own, this promise fed the spirits of Abraham and Sarah’s children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, and on and on. Down the generations, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah survived on this hope – that though the days be unkind, though troubles should buffet, God would bear them through every hardship, would bring them out beyond all woe to a better life. This hope had rooted itself in their psyche. This hope had taken hold deep, deep down, so that this hope, this yearning – more even than their blood or their family name – this hope, this yearning told them who they were: to be a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah was to be a child of the promise.
Skip ahead some. Abraham and Sarah had gone the way of their ancestors, as had Isaac and Rebecca, as had Jacob and Leah and Rachel, as had Joseph. Their descendants, the great-great-great-grandchildren of the promise, were waiting still and were hoping upon hope that God would make good on the word sworn in ages past. They were hoping upon hope; they were hoping hard now, for they had gone through hell and lost everything. For, you see, famine had struck and left their cupboards bare and their children to starve. And so the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah fled in search of food. Their desperate flight ended in Egypt but where an only grimmer fate awaited. The Pharaoh there enslaved the people, put them under a yoke of bitter toil. The Pharaoh broke their backs; the Pharaoh broke their spirits. And the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah wept. The children of the promise groaned and they grieved what their life had become.
Again, skip ahead, skip ahead to today’s story. God had broken the bonds of the people, had cast off the chains of the children of the promise. God had freed them from the cruel Pharaoh, had sped them away from their captors and across the Red Sea. God had delivered them! – and at last, at long last, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah could see all their dreams about to come true. God would settle them in a land all their own. God would establish them, would prosper their cities and their fields and their flocks. God would make them into a mighty nation, would build up round about them a great civilization, would mold its laws, would set justice and mercy as guiding stars. Everything God had promised to Abraham and Sarah, everything Abraham and Sarah’s posterity had hoped in and had ever known to pray for, everything they had ever wanted was in sight. The deepest desires of their hearts were ripe for realizing. The people stood at the far edge of the Promised Land and God said to them, Go forth! Go! There are flowing rivers for you, flashing seas for you, lovely meadows, looming mountains, forests and farmland for you, for your family to grow in, to grow old in! This is the good life. It is what you wished for. It is what you, what your forebears have always wanted. Go – a brighter future is about to unfurl before you!
And one from among the great-great-great-grandchildren of the promise – Moses was his name – said, Yes! Let’s go, God; you lead the way! … But God would not go. And Moses said, God, what are you waiting for? This is it! This is the time! Onward and upward! … But God would not go. And Moses said, God, we cannot go without you! We will not go without you! … But, still, God would not go, saying only, I’ll send a guardian angel out ahead of you to guide you, to blaze a way through the brush. And Moses said, God, how could we go without you? Who would we be without you? Moses said, If you yourself will not come with us, do not carry us up from here. Moses said, We would sooner die here, die in the desert than have it all but not have you, for the children of the promise were not willing to gain the world if it meant losing God. The sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah would sooner give up their birthright hope in a homeland than give up God. They would deny themselves their dream – and not only their dream, but their parents’ dream, and their parents’ parents’ dream, and their parents’ parents’ parents’ dream.
They were willing to walk away from all they had ever wanted — and it should be said that what they wanted was not evil. On the contrary: the dream of a great lineage and lush, green lands, of kin and of country to call their own, the dream came from God. It was God who promised them this! It was God who put the idea in their head! It was God who planted the desire in their heart! God was the source and the fount of their yearnings. So, I do not think God was punishing them, playing take-backsies, or playing tricks; I think God was confronting them with the truth that God and the good gifts God gives are not one and the same. It is possible to have one without the other, it is possible to be poor and bereft but to be rich because God is with you, and it is possible to have everything but to have nothing because God has gone. It is possible for the good gifts God gives to so captivate us that God is crowded out. And so, just as the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah were to inherit the blessings, the blessings generation after generation after generation had begged for, God takes a step back and says, Be sure not to confuse me for the gifts that come from me. What means more to you? Me? Or the stuff you get from me?
This is a hard and haunting, convicting truth – that our lives, no less than theirs, that our lives could be filled to over-brimming with blessings, that our cups could runneth over, and that yet we might be empty. This is a hard, haunting, and convicting truth that stops me dead in my tracks the way it stopped Moses – that I could know every gift of God, but not know God: that I might have life, and then go to heaven and have life after I die, that I might have my health, and if not health, then wholeness of soul, that I might have family and friends and if not family and friends, then some measure of contentment with my solitude, that I might have even a church like Old South and all that comes with it – the stunning, soaring music, the grandeur and beauty of this sacred space, the warmth of community, the familiarity and comfort of ritual, the satisfaction that comes from service and duty, the joy of helping others, tranquility. Everything which happens in this very room and which feeds my spirit, and brings me hope and brings me joy and brings me consolation and brings me delight, that I might have it all, all this, have everything I could ever think to ask for or to imagine, that I might have all I hope for, and have a hole inside even still … And if all of it were stripped away and God stood before me in sheer poverty, with nothing to show for God’s self, with empty hands and nothing to offer me, and if I had to choose between all I had ever dreamed for and God, would I say what Moses and what the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah said, would I say it, would I believe it – that the good God promises and gives, that this pales before the good of God’s own presence?
This is a hard, haunting, and convicting truth – that beneath and beyond every good gift God would give us is God, waiting, offering the gift of God’s own self. Beneath and beyond every good gift God gives us is God, who would be worshipped and be loved by us not because we think that is what we should do or must do, not because we think that is what God deserves from us, not because we think we might get something as a result, certainly not because we think we’ll be burned to smithereens if we do not. Rather, beneath and beyond every good gift God gives us is God, who would be worshipped and be loved by us unconditionally, because that is just what it is to be loved by somebody – to share in feeling something warm and sweet, to share in feeling something which makes you act awkward and strange, to share in feeling something which you fumble to put words to, which is indescribable. That is just what it is to be loved by somebody – to share in feeling something which is its own reward, which is an end in itself, which serves no purpose, which does not do anything or accomplish anything, which just is, which is just there to be enjoyed. God would be cherished for God’s own sake, for no other reason than that God is God and even God, even God every once in awhile likes to hear the words, I choose you. I love you.