Exodus 13: 17- 22
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.”
After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
As a priest of the Mar Thoma Church, Northeast of India was my first assignment. I was really excited and was also anxious as I had no clue how to get there or what to do. Guwahati is the destination became clear. Now I found out that there were no direct trains from Pune to Guwahati. So on 30st July 2011 along with my anxious parents, I set out first to Kolkata. The journey was for 32 hours. Now I felt the tough part was over as from Kolkata to Guwahati the journey was just 19 hours. On 1st August we again left for the station. The previous day there was a train derailment which meant the train had to reroute so instead of the route from West Bengal to Assam, the train had to go through Bihar and Orissa to Enter Assam. The train to begin with was 7 hours late. Instead of reaching on 2nd August at 6 am we were still very far from destination. And I tried sleeping and when I got up I kept asking “Are we there yet?” And the answer was obviously no. And the journey dragged on and on. We reached Guwahati on 3rd August at 9 am. A 19 hours journey took 47 hours. A 19 hours train was 28 hours late? Wow. And the day we reached we had rain with ferocity that I have never witnessed in my life. And the electricity took leave for another 22 hours. The nightmare seemed to be never ending.
We all have stories of awful journeys and frustrating experiences. So the people of Israel who were Hebrew slaves, all excited about being free were ready for a shock. God who was to lead them, instead of hurrying up through Philistine, decides to take a roundabout through the desert toward the Red Sea. And the Bible tells us they were there for next 40 years. Why? What good did it do? In one night God took Israel out of Egypt; but it would take the next 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel. Honestly a journey through the desert is not done out of choice. It is something we would love to avoid. I am sure the Israelites would have jumped to the option of skipping it. But to begin with the initiative to free the Israelites was not an internal decision. And most likely in the rule of Pharaoh they did not realize that they were slaves. It was God who took the initiative through Moses to liberate them. So God was interested in reaching the Promised Land. But more importantly he was interested in the people the slaves would become. It was a journey ‘from being slaves’ to becoming ‘People of God’. But we are sure they too kept asking Moses “Are we there yet?” So my dear friends if you feel awfully frustrated and completely lost, you have every right to feel so. I have gone through times when I felt God does not answer my prayers. I have had times where I had no sense of direction or reason for going ahead. You may too have a frustrating job or a dead end task. There were dreams that you had set out to fulfil but now all looks like a concentric circle of repetitive failures. The question that you will be asking is “Will you ever get out of this desert?” Will you ever see the sunshine. The Bible says yes. Where exactly does it say so?
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (Exodus 13: 19). Why did Moses have to carry these old bones of Joseph? What significance did it have? Well we are well versed with the story of Joseph. A dreamer who set out with hopes was one day sold into slavery by his own brothers. When things looked good in the house of Potiphar, he was sent to Jail for being righteous. The dream he saw won freedom for the cupbearer who after the release forgot Joseph. There were series of setbacks after setbacks that Joseph endured. But in the end he survived to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. The message of “Joseph’s bones” was simple. It communicated to the Israelites through the witness of Joseph that “You will definitely get through this”
Let me leave you with a parable about a man thought of quitting and went to argue with God.
“I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality… I wanted to quit my life.
I went to the woods to have one last talk with God
“God”, I asked,
“Can you give me one good reason not to quit?”.
His answer surprised me…
“Look around”, He said. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?
“Yes”, I replied.
“When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them.
I gave them light. I gave them water. The fern quickly grew from the earth.
Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. In the second year the Fern grew more vibrant and plentiful.
And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. He said.
“In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed. But I would not quit.
In year four, again, there was nothing from the bamboo seed. I would not quit.” He said.
“Then in the fifth year a tiny sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern it was seemingly small and insignificant…But just 6 months later the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall.
It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle.”
He asked me. “Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots”.
“I would not quit on the bamboo. I will never quit on you.”
“Don’t compare yourself to others.” He said. “The bamboo had a different Purpose than the fern.
Yet they both make the forest beautiful. ”Your time will come”, God said to me.
“You will rise high”.
“I left the forest and brought back this story.”
My dear friends, it is my witness that when I felt I had hit the rock bottom, God led me on. He will lead you too.
Exodus 13: 22 says – “Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” This symbolizes the presence and guidance of God that leads us forward. Even in the darkest night and when we feel abandoned and lost, the Scripture assures us that God is in control and he is leading us on. He is not in a hurry to reach the destination. He is interested about the person you turn out to be. So in times of uncertainty and frustration let us pray the prayer of the Catholic Monk Thomas Merton who prayed like this.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot
know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am
following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to
please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope
that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead
me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with
me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church