I participated in a pulpit-exchange this past Sunday with the Rev. Paul Wu of the Taiwanese Robert Campell Presbyterian Church, which is just a few blocks over from us here in NDG. It was perhaps a first step toward a closer relationship, and greater cooperation, between our congregations. This is the sermon I preached there.
What is it that lies over the horizon? Do you have a sense of what is approaching over the horizon?
As my wife and I drove from Montreal all the way to Vancouver Island several years ago, we often had a pretty good idea what lay beyond that place where sky reached hill or field.
As we made our way through rugged Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario we couldn’t see much beyond those stone outcroppings. Yet we were confident that over the horizon, Prairie would soon enough open up before us. And sure enough – as we came through Kenora and sped on toward Winnipeg, the trees began to melt away and the landscape opened into the vastness of farmland.
Many of you will have experienced that transition into the Prairies where the horizon seems to stretch out forever. And as the fields of wheat and canola and sunflower plants extend out before you into an eternity of flatness, it’s difficult to believe that you are making your way toward the towering Rocky Mountains.
As we traveled we couldn’t see beyond the never-ending prairie – but we had it on good word that there were mountains over horizon, beyond where blue sky met golden farmland. And as promised, as expected, mountains appeared as we took that stretch of highway between Calgary and Banff – first foothills and then rugged, vast, glacier-covered mountains.
Human life is life lived on the move toward the horizon ahead of us. And one of the realizations we constantly face in life is that what lies beyond the horizon, what lies beyond that place where our line of sight ends is a mystery to us. The very idea of the horizon carries with it the idea of the unknown.
At the same time, however, while the horizon represents the unknown in the future, we often have a pretty good idea of what we might expect to find. In some ways life is routine. “I’ll finish high-school, probably head off to university, get a job, perhaps find a spouse, build a family, and work till I’m a bout sixty-five, retire, and then live out my final years until I die.”
My wife and I had it on good authority that beyond rugged northern Ontario there lay Prairie. And we had it on good authority that beyond the vastness of prairie there was a mountain range. On both counts we found it to be true. And in many ways life is like that.
Others have faced what we face, have been where we are going, and so we have it on good word what may appear over the horizon, what is likely to appear over the horizon.
And yet – and yet. As we made our trip out west there was always the unknown. Forest fires meant that roads we expected to take were closed. Moose warnings meant that we drove with particular wariness in the dusk of early evening – you know the damage a Moose could do to a car, and its occupants.
Over the horizon of the road might come a dangerous driver. Over the tree-line might come a sever thunderstorm or a tornado. There is some certainty in life as to what lies over the horizon, and yet, and yet. The future is a mystery – we cannot know for certain what it will bring.
But why are we beginning today with this discussion of the horizon. Well, I hope this will become clear as we make our way into our text for this morning from chapters five and six of the book of Exodus. We begin by setting the scene.
At this point in the narrative of Exodus we are in Egypt with Moses. Moses has made the journey from Midian back to Egypt. And Moses has come back to Egypt in confidence – in the confidence of God’s call – in the confidence that God goes with him.
As background to our text for today we also should know that Moses has just taken a stand before Pharaoh. Entering the Royal Court, Moses went before Pharaoh and declared: “Pharaoh, this is what God says to you, this is what Yahweh commands: ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”
“Pharaoh, you don’t have the authority to hold this people in bondage – and God commands you to let them go.” So Moses speaks to Pharaoh….. And you can imagine the silence which falls as Moses finish speaking to the Pharaoh. How will he respond?
Slowly a man smile came across the Pharaoh’s face. “Who is this God, Yahweh,” he laughs to the other members of the court – “I’ve never heard of this God. You can forget it – I’m not about to let the Israelites go – certainly not in the name of some God I’ve never heard of, whose power I have never seen.”
Moses perseveres: “Pharaoh, you must let us go into the wilderness to worship our God – and if you don’t he will fall upon this land with pestilence or sword.” Moses brings out the big warnings: “This is a serious matter Pharaoh. You’re not dealing with a God who is to be trifled with.”
But the mean smile will not be wiped from Pharaoh’s face – he will not give in to the commands of this unknown God. In fact, in the face of what he sees as Moses’ presumptuousness and arrogance, Pharaoh determines to increase the work-load of the Israelite slaves.
He orders the slave drivers: “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy.” So it is that their labours are multiplied. The taskmasters increased the misery of the Israelites – oppressed them beyond anything they had previously known.
Because of this, the leaders of the Israelites – the elders of the community – came to Moses and said: “The Lord look upon you and judge, Moses. You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials. You have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
Moses has come with the promise of God’s deliverance but the people see him as a source of the increased cruelty against them. Pharaoh has rejected Moses’ message. And the people have rejected Moses as prophet.
And so it is that we come to our passage for today – Exodus chapter five, verse twenty-two. “Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name he has only mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Moses brings his complaint in all honesty before God – it is a bitter complaint.
“God, you promised to save these people through me, but you are only causing them more grief. I have spoken to Pharaoh in your name and it has accomplished nothing – so much for the power of your name. God, I have conducted my ministry according to your command and you have done nothing at all to save your people.”
Moses seems to have a legitimate complaint, doesn’t he? The impression he had was that God would make his ministry successful – he would lead the people out in victory. That’s what he was expecting
What we discover in the complaint of Moses, however, is that Moses wasn’t looking to the horizon. He wasn’t thinking about what might lie just over the horizon. All Moses could see was the present moment and the failure of his ministry.
Things hadn’t unfolded as he had expected. He hadn’t anticipated that Pharoah would laugh him out of the court. He hadn’t anticipated that his own people would reject him as prophet of Yahweh. Things haven’t happened as he expected and so Moses is angry with God. Moses is probably angry with himself. Moses is hurting for his people.
But again, Moses could only see what was right around him. Moses is like a person driving through the prairies who refuses to believe that there are mountains just over the western horizon. They can’t be seen.
Moses was busy with his ministry – doing what God commanded him – but God wasn’t acting fast enough for Moses. Moses thinks it’s all over – thinks he’s failed.
But in verses 1 through 8 of chapter six God reminds Moses that something lies over the horizon. God is coming over the horizon. God says to Moses, “I may be out of sight, over the crest of the next hill, but I am coming.”
There is so much more to reality, so much more to his ministry, than Moses will allow. In chapter six, verses 1 – 8 we read God’s words to Moses: “You shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let my people go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land. Moses, I am the Lord. I have heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Moses, say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will be your God and you will be my people.’”
For Moses this must be a moment of faith, not of sight. This is a moment in which he must trust God. He must listen to the Psalmist, who wrote: “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” In the ministry to which he is called Moses must persevere.
But his perseverance is not some blind hopefulness. Moses must persevere in his ministry, Moses can persevere in his ministry, because he has it on good authority that something marvelous is going to appear on the horizon – he has it on the authority, the Word, of Yahweh.
As long as Moses let himself be determined by what was within his sight, it was impossible for him to press on in ministry with faithfulness. As long as he let himself be governed by what he could see around him, his life would be marked by dejection, and anger toward God, and a lack of confidence in the call of God.
Moses pressed on, as we see in verse 9, because God reminded Moses of the salvation that was soon to appear. On the basis God’s promise Moses was able to look hopefully to the future. And he could speak the Word with confidence.
So, he went to the people of Israel, even though they had just rejected his prophetic ministry. He declared to them, as we read in verse nine, all that God had promised.
But it turns out that Moses isn’t the only one who was having difficulty seeing beyond the present moment. The people of Israel are in a remarkably similar situation. We read difficult words in Exodus chapter six, verse nine: “Moses told the people everything God had said; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”
But they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery. The people of Israel are living under cruel oppression, their spirits are crushed. With their heads bowed low they will not look up and see that Moses is pointing to their coming God.
All they see is their pain, grief and sorrow. And they refuse to look beyond this reality and receive the Word of God, the Word of redemption. This Word is a wonderful Word, a hopeful Word, a life-shaping Word, but they will not pay heed. Cannot pay heed?
They live in their own closed-off existence, unable to look expectantly for the purposes of God to be fulfilled among them. The harshness of their experience combines with their hardness of heart to block their ears and their eyes. They will have none of it.
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. God is coming. Look to the horizon.”
We see this morning that the experiences of Moses and the Hebrew people often finds an echo in our lives. Too often we allow our lives to be governed by what we can see around us. We lack the imagination, we lack the vision, we lack the faith to live in the truth that our God is a coming God.
We see our failures. We see our grief. We see the problems in our family life. We see the violence of the world. We see our own inability to make a difference. And when we are governed by what we see this side of the horizon, we lose the richness of life that God desires for us in Jesus Christ.
When we fail to trust that God is coming to us, then we become dejected, we become angry, and we lose heart. When we are governed by what we see this side of the horizon we lose touch with the God who is an ever-coming God.
Fundamental to our Christian faith is the realization that God is often beyond our sight and beyond our grasp – but in Jesus Christ our God is a coming God – he has come, he is coming, he will come.
So it is that the Psalmist declares: “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
The sun will make its appearance on the eastern horizon – the watchmen will not be disappointed.
We have it on good authority that the sun will rise. We have it on good authority that beyond the craggy outcroppings of Canadian Shield is the flatness of Prairie. We have it on good authority that beyond the flatness of the prairie there are mountains.
We have it on good authority, the authority of Yahweh, the authority of God in Christ, that God will come with redemption and healing to his children.
The challenge and invitation to us this morning is that our lives as a congregation, and as individuals, be governed by this confidence, this trust in God. May our decisions, our actions, and our life be shaped by what often lies over the crest of the hill, just beyond our field of vision – God in Christ comes to his people.