Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

October 14, 1979

St. Lucia Uniting Church, St. Lucia, Australia

The historical period in which we are now living is most similar to the wilderness wandering. Moses led the people miraculously, you will remember, out of Egypt. It was quite an escape after several confrontations with Pharaoh, then running from the soldiers and the water engulfing the soldiers protecting the Hebrews. It was an exciting escape. With what enthusiasm they must have entered into the wilderness! Egypt was no more. They were going to the promised land where there would be all kinds of food, all kinds of resources and riches, where there would be no Pharaohs and where they would no longer be slaves. With much enthusiasm and spirit, they must have begun the journey. 

We too have entered the wilderness in many ways. We too have left Egypt. First, we have embarked on a technological train. Science has promised us a utopia, a world in which there will be no disease, a world in which everyone will have all they need. There will be all kinds of luxuries and conveniences. We embarked and left Egypt behind. We left the agrarian society, the agriculture society, and we went full forward on the technological train. 

Secondly, we've had a vision of a world of justice where all people will be treated equally, a world in which democracy would be the form of government rather than totalitarianism, a world in which white people will not be superior. And all over the world, people will rise up and throw off their colonial yokes, demand and expect freedom, opportunities and equality. We've left Egypt. We’ve left aristocracy. We’ve left totalitarianism and we've embarked towards a vision of the Promised Land.  

Thirdly, we’ve had a vision of an ecumenical church where people of God will come together as one, where all barriers will be broken down, all divisions overcome, where people of God can be united into one strong, firm voice. Here in Australia, you have taken a gigantic step into the Uniting Church. Egypt is behind. 

Moses led his people with a spirit of enthusiasm and expectancy for the promised land. That great spirit and that great enthusiasm lasted three whole days—until they ran out of water, until they got thirsty. The mood changed when they got hungry. The food supplies ran out and their mood changed. They found themselves in a whole new land, a barren land, a wilderness. They found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They found themselves with not the promised land just around the corner, but so far in the future, they couldn't see it. And there they existed for forty years complaining and griping, longing for Egypt. They lost faith in their future. They lost faith in their leader. They lost faith in God. They even turned to worship other gods. 

Essentially that's the kind of period you and I are in the world today. We are in the wilderness wandering. We have left agrarian society behind, we've committed ourselves to technology and now we find ourselves in the wilderness. We find some ugly spin off of technology as we see our air polluted. We see our rivers turn into dirt and voices in the wilderness are trying to warn us that even the ocean is dying. We're out here in the wilderness. The past is gone and the present and the future is insecure. We have great visions of a world of equality and justice, a vision for everybody with equal opportunity. How we believe in that theoretically! How we believe in it idealistically until we discover that means competition for jobs. A television special just last week pointed out the growing unrest among people who have been in Australia for many years now resenting the refugees,  resenting those who come in and take jobs. All of a sudden, that vision isn't so glorious. 

We have embarked on the road to an ecumenical church where the people of God will be one. That's fine idealistically until we realize out here in the wilderness it means changes on the local level. That means that the past is done and things will be done with the property and buildings. We find ourselves with a vision that is now practical, but there is turmoil, unrest, confusion in the wilderness. 

There are many stances that we can take in the wilderness, many ways of facing these days in which we find ourselves. They're all in the Bible in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. First, we find that many of those people who left with Moses have the stance, the attitude, the spirit of longing and being homesick for Egypt. Oh, if we can only go back to the way it used to be. Oh, if only we could go back to Egypt. This is what they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? There at least we could sit down and eat and drink”— the good old days. I imagine there were many of the Hebrew slaves who never did leave Egypt. They didn’t have the courage. They didn't have the belief to even leave Egypt. They remained behind and no book in the Bible was ever written about them. We know nothing about them.

My first appointment out of seminary was to four churches in rural Minnesota. Three of those churches had memberships of under 25. We'd have anywhere from 10 to 15 in the worship services on Sunday morning. The two furthest churches were eight miles apart. They were in two little towns that consisted of a grocery store. In between those two churches was the third church—five miles from one town, three miles from the other in the open country. Three Methodist churches were that close together, that small. Do you think they would merge? Do you think they would unite? Each church was run by one woman. Have you ever been to a church like that? The woman in the middle church was cooperative but the other two would have nothing to do with anyone else. The  middle church for a while cooperated with one of the others. We got the two together in a very tenuous state. It didn't last. They all wanted to stay in Egypt. What eventually happened was the Conference closed them all, sold off the buildings, sold off the properties and they were lost. The witness of the Methodist Church, the ministry of the Methodist Church in that area was gone, was lost. They could not leave Egypt. 

Well, we've left Egypt in many ways. We find ourselves in the wilderness and one popular stance is to be homesick for Egypt but it's not very viable. The past can never be brought back. We can wear the clothes of the 1930s and we can sing the songs of the 1930s but we'll never have the 1930s again. It’s gone, yesterday is gone, the clock can never be turned back. The Methodist Church of Australia is no more, it’s gone. The Presbyterian Church of Australia is no more. Oh, there's a few that wouldn't leave Egypt, but they've ended up not with that strong, tremendous denomination of the Presbyterians, they've ended up with a few skeletons of the past. St. Lucia Presbyterian Church is no more. St. Lucia Methodist Church is no more. They can never be brought back. We can be homesick but it's not very viable. 

A second stance we can take in the wilderness that many of the Hebrews did, is to complain and gripe about everything. They said to Moses, over and over, “You have brought us out to the desert to starve.” Hear some of their words from the 17th chapter of Exodus. (And if these don't sound modern!), “The whole Israelite community left the desert moving from one place to another at the command of the Lord. They made camp at Rephidim, but there was no water there to drink. They complained about it and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses answered,  ‘Why are you complaining? Why are you putting the Lord to the test?’ But, the people were very thirsty and continued to complain to Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ Moses prayed earnestly to the Lord and said, ‘What can I do with these people? They are  almost ready to stone me.’” That is a possible stance and I submit to you that being human beings, we all have that stance at times. 

The third stance many people had was a very comfortable stance and is a very popular stance In our world today— worship other gods and forsake the leaders. When Moses went up in the mountain to receive the word from the Lord, he was gone an awful long time and the people said to each other, “Whatever happened to that man? He's been gone too long. Make us a god.” So they made a golden calf. In times of transition, in times of unrest, there is great anxiety,  nervousness and apprehension. Because the past is gone, it can never be replaced. But the future is not here yet and it's not clear what that future is going to be. There's a lot of worrying, a lot of anxiety and in those times people lose faith in their leaders. Our government leaders have never been criticized or maligned as they are today. Jimmy Carter can't do anything right. Respect for the government leaders is at a low point and respect for church leaders and community leaders is low because in times of unrest and turmoil, we turn on the leaders. 

We lash out at leaders and these people even went so far as to make an idol—change religion, drop out, change churches, go somewhere else, join some popular movement, join this fad or that instead of sticking in there. One of the most popular idols is the Remember When Club. There are a lot of these clubs around. What do people do in this club?They all get together and tell each other, “Remember when? Remember when it was this way and remember when it was that way?” They all sit with their faces to the past and their backs facing tomorrow. The best days are behind, the best day are all done. They remember when. 

This fan of idol worship—turning to other religions, forsaking the leaders—made God very angry and made Moses very angry. When Moses came down from the mountain, he demolished, he pulverized the idol. He stood in front of the people and said, “Now, everybody who is on the Lord’s side, come over here.  Leave your violence, leave your anxieties, your insecurities, your apprehension. Come over here and let's build our community. Let’s make our new laws. Let's make our new rules. Let's organize the people of God here in this wilderness, so that we can be ready, we can be fit when the promised land comes, so when we get there, we will be ready.” Moses believed in the promised land. He knew he would never see it. He knew it would never come in his lifetime, but he believed and he committed himself to it and made the best of the present. 

And I suggest to you, the best stance we can take is to make the best of the present in the belief that the future is yet to come, to believe that the Promised Land will come. Forget what lies behind and press on, as Paul said, to the goal of God’s call to us in Christ Jesus, and commit our time, our energy and our money, to pledge ourselves to go to the meetings, speak up, put our ideas in and fight for what we think is right, because out of the fighting and struggling, out of squabbling the will of God comes. Believe in it that in spite of the doubts, in spite of the fears, in spite of the worries, commit ourselves to making the best of the present that the promised land may come. The Lord said to those people in the book of Exodus, “Leave this place and go to the land. I will go with you and I will give you victory.” And God met all their needs. Do you believe God meets all our needs? Maybe not in the way we like, but God meets all our needs. 

When they were hungry, they complained for food and God gave them food unlike any food they had ever tasted before—called manna. In the early morning dew, a white milky substance appeared. They would go around, gather it up and eat it. They found it satisfied them. They had never eaten anything like that before. It was all new, it was not like the food of Egypt. It was satisfying. God met their needs. When we commit ourselves to God, he calls us to go to that Promised Land. 

I believe these are exciting times in which to live for the best days are yet to come. The best days  of your life are yet to come. Do you  believe that the best days God has in store for you are in the future—not behind you? The best days of this congregation are yet to come? The best days of the parish of St. Lucia are yet to come? The best days of the world are yet to come? 

God will give us the victory. The best is yet to come. “No eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived  of what God has prepared for us who love him.” As we go through the wilderness, let us go with this attitude: “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand.”

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris