for when you enter the darkness

And Moses entered into the deep darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:21, NLT)

In the few months before this moment, the Israelites had experienced the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the daily gifts of manna and quail, water pouring from a rock, and a miraculous defeat of the Amalekites. They were camped at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses was getting a workout, climbing the mountain to talk to God, going back down to tell the people what God said, taking what the people said back up the mountain to God, and then back down, etc.

It didn’t take much of this before God decided to speak to the people directly. He became present on the top of Mount Sinai in a thick cloud accompanied by thunder, lightning, earth shaking, and fire.

What was so important that God wanted to thunder it to the people directly? The Ten Commandments, with their four ways to love God and six ways to love people. The Israelites hadn’t been in charge of themselves for many, many generations, and they needed guidance at the most basic of levels, but they were too terrified to hear anything straight from the Lord Himself, so Moses went into the deep darkness where God was to listen to the rest of what God wanted to say.

Deep darkness. Where God already was.

Biblical darkness is usually a metaphor for the sin or death or evil that God’s light illuminates. Over and over, the Bible tells us that God is the light, that God brings light, that what God illuminates itself becomes a light. Later in Exodus, we learn that Moses’ face glowed so much from all the time he spent in God’s presence that he had to wear a veil so as not to freak the people out.

But here, God is in the deep darkness. And Moses joined Him there. God didn’t need to make the darkness light to be present there.

Sometimes we enter times and places of darkness, whether emotional or physical. And we feel like God can’t be there because we feel no light penetrating. But God can be present in the deepest darkness – already waiting for you. He may bring His light, or He may just be with you. But God is there.

For when being chosen isn’t enough

Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg.

“But Moses pleaded with the Lord, ‘Oh Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.’” (Exodus 4:10, NLT)

You’d think it would be amazing to hear directly from God that He’d chosen you to lead His people, that it’d instantly erase all your doubts about yourself — but it didn’t work that way for Moses.

This was his fourth objection to the job. God tried pointing out that, since He was the one who made mouths and made people so they could speak, He’d tell Moses what to say and help him say it, but Moses still begged God to send someone else. God was angry, but He caved. Moses’ big brother Aaron became the public speaker, with Moses feeding Aaron the words God fed him. It was a little convoluted, but it worked.

Until, after about six weeks in the desert, Moses didn’t need it anymore.

The Bible is silent about this transition. Did Moses just get used to public speaking? Did watching God come through with the unimaginable over and over get through to him?

Or did Moses maybe never really have a problem?

The Israelites weren’t shy about criticizing Moses and complaining about other things, but we have no record of the people jeering at Moses for how he talked or blaming his halting speech for their failures.

It’s at least possible that Moses believed something about himself that wasn’t true, and that kept him from accepting that he was the kind of person God would call – even as God was right there, calling him a leader. Even as God was right there, promising to help Moses lead.

Do you believe something about yourself that might not be true? Do you believe that something basic about yourself (shyness, hyperness, age, gender, poverty, physical or intellectual ability, etc.) disqualifies you from serving God? Do you ever think, “Someone like me could never…”?

God is always choosing you, and constantly offering His help. Sometimes, that’s enough to dissolve your insecurities. Sometimes, it isn’t, and, like Moses, you need time — but it’s time to learn while serving. Moses didn’t figure out his issue by practicing alone with his sheep. You don’t need to have yourself all straightened out first. Get moving, work some modifications … until, one day, you won’t need them anymore.

For When You’re Stuck

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving!'”
(Exodus 14:15, NLT)

The Israelites had no practice being hopeful.

They’d been slaves in Egypt for enough generations that nobody remembered being free. After the 80-year-old Moses showed up and told them God would save them, their slaveholders got even more brutal. Not to mention their anxiety during each of the ten plagues – Will Pharaoh let us go this time? What is he going to do when he figures out that we aren’t just praying in the desert for three days?

So when they stood on the edge of the Red Sea, stuck between the deep water and Pharaoh’s fast-approaching army, they panicked. Even knowing that God kept them safe while the Egyptians’ food supply disappeared via disease, insect swarm, and hail, while the Egyptians were tormented by frogs, gnats, flies, boils, darkness, and death – even knowing all that, they had a crisis of imagination. They couldn’t see how God might get them out of this, so they turned on Moses, blaming him for getting them in worse trouble than they’d been in as slaves.

What does God do in response? He tells them to get moving.

God tells them to get moving before He tells Moses the plan.

Who among them could’ve imagined that God would move the pillar of cloud to hide them from the Egyptians, shift the Red Sea to form a path they could walk through to freedom, and then collapse the water to drown the Egyptian army? Nobody. But God wanted them to take a step in faith, in hope, in trust before they knew how He’d save them.

Sometimes you are stuck. Anxious. Panicky. In a crisis of imagination. Crying out to God and blaming everyone you can think of.

Instead of waiting until you know exactly how it’s all going to play out or which path is clear, try taking a step. You don’t have to feel hopeful. You don’t have to know how God is going to work it out. You don’t even have to be less afraid. But whatever situation you feel stuck about, there’s always a small step you can take, a way to get moving. Take it. And watch God run with it.


Wait a minute, who’s on trial?

 

The muttering started as soon as they broke camp. No. Moses had to admit that it started as soon as the pillar of cloud moved and he gave the official word that the Lord was moving them out of the Wilderness of Sin.

It was always about the same thing. Where is there water? Are there water holes where we’re going? How much water should we put in the skins? Will there be water in two days, because that’s all the donkeys can carry?

His answer was always the same: “The Lord is leading us. He took us out of Egypt, across the sea on dry land, and he’s promised us a new life. He will not let us die of thirst on the way.”

The answer he wanted to give? We were slaves for 400 years, people. None of you left Egypt unless you were part of a work detail, and then you were more likely to be trying to avoid the whip than noticing your surroundings. Any of you who knew these lands and how to recognize the signs of water died generations ago. This is only possible with the Lord! So trust Him.”

But the people were too anxious. No argument, either rational, sarcastic, or faith-filled could get through, so he just let them grumble.

They were a slow-moving column, slow enough that runners with donkeys could go back to previous campsites to fetch just enough water to get by. But the Lord kept moving them further and further from known water. Days away. Mountains hemmed them in on every side. Cruel rocks with no vegetation, which meant no shepherds who might tell them where there was a spring. Now and then they’d see a smoothed section of rock that looked like it was made by flowing water, but it was too late in the season; all the runoff from winter rains had dried.

Moses could hear a whine of disbelief roll through the people when the pillar of cloud stopped after only a half a day’s walk. They wouldn’t reach water again today. It was true that the people only had strength to journey that far, but he could feel the weight of their panic like one of those mountains, pressing in on him.

And then something worse happened: silence. All the chatter of the people stopped as they surrounded him.

A lone voice cried, desperation in every word, “Give us water to drink!”

Everyone spoke at once, each accusation like a rock thrown at his head. “My mother is dying.” “My children will not live through the night.” “I’ve already lost livestock. I’d better not lose more.” “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Quiet!” Moses tried his best to calm them down. “Why are you bringing this up to me? I don’t control the water any more than I control you.”

But they weren’t listening. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?” “Are you trying to kill us?” “We were better off as slaves.” “At least we knew where water was.” “At least our masters gave us enough food and water to keep our strength up.” “We’re going to die out here.” “The Lord brought us out here to die.”

A sandstorm swirled through Moses’s insides. “No! No. Don’t say that. Those are serious charges.”

“You looked so tough in Egypt, but you don’t know what you’re doing.” “We’re cursed.” “We’re doomed to fail.” “Why is the Lord leading us to our death?”

Their complaints took an even darker turn. “How can Lord be with us anymore?” “It was all a trick.” “The Lord doesn’t care about us.”

Moses clenched his fists and cried out to the Lord, “What can I do with these people? They’re ready to stone me!”

The voice of the Lord came into Moses’s mind, as unhurried as usual. “Walk out in front of the people. Take your staff, the one you used when you struck the water of the Nile, and call the elders of Israel to join you.”

Now they were going to get it. They’d pressed the Lord too far. The Lord was calling a judgment council and putting the people on trial for daring to challenge Him. And people would die. Because there would have to be deaths. What else could the result be for calling the Lord’s power and wisdom into question?

He sent Miriam and Aaron to gather the tribal elders, and then stalked through the crowd, pushing through with his staff in front of him, no longer even trying to answer the people.

The Lord told him to go the rock at Mount Sinai, so that’s where he headed with the judgment council. They each assured him that they’d been trying to keep their tribe in line. What could he say to that except, “It’s too late. They’ve pushed the Lord too far. He told me that he’d stand on the rock at Mount Sinai. I don’t know what He’s going to do to them from up there.”

“Not quite.” It was the Lord. “I said that I will stand before you on the rock at Mount Sinai.”

Moses stumbled. “But it’s the accused who stands before the judgment council.”

The Lord was silent.

“You–” Moses could hardly get out the words. “You will stand before the council and let the people make their charge against you?”

The tribal elders gasped when they heard his side of the conversation.

Moses panted at the effort to keep his fear in check. “My brothers, the Lord will allow Himself to stand before the judgment council, under the accusation of abandoning his people.”

This was getting worse and worse. The people were not supposed to put the Lord on trial. And the Lord wasn’t supposed to agree to it. They had all watched as the Lord moved the waters of the sea for them and then swamped the Egyptian army. What would He do for this offense? Would He pull down the mountains on top of them? Strike them down with a sickness?

Finally, Moses and the elders were there. They sat between the rock and the people, unsure of how to proceed, afraid to look at each other or at the people.

“Strike the rock with your staff,” the Lord said.

Moses pushed himself up and thought about bargaining with the Lord, begging for mercy for His people, but dread pooled in his gut. The people were beyond his help.

“Moses.” The Lord’s voice was so … gentle. “When you strike the rock, water will come out. The people will get their drink.”

This was even more confusing, but if Moses had learned nothing else, it was to do what God told him to. He grabbed his staff with both hands and swung it behind him. In the heartbeat when the staff was poised in the air, right before he brought it against the rock, he heard the people scream in panic. He put all his power behind his swing and almost broke the staff against the rock.

Water gushed out and drenched Moses. He stood under its stream and cried — whether it was in gratitude, in relief, in shock, in awe, he didn’t know. When the tension washed away, he stepped to the side and watched the people. Many of them had turned away from the rock and tried to run, but the crowd was too thick. In the confusion and arguing, few people noticed what happened. The elders had to wade out and tell them, “Turn around. The Lord has given us water.” “Come and drink your fill.” “Bring your jugs and water skins.”

Some people dipped their fingertips in the water and tentatively licked them as if it might be poison. As the water filled the dry river bed that had been their path, others knelt in the middle and stuck their faces in while they drank. Some people danced and others wept. But there was more than enough water to revive everyone. Even the livestock.

When everyone was satisfied, Moses raised his staff one more time. The people quieted.

“Whatever this place used to be called, I am renaming it Massah and Meribah, because here is where we brought our complaint against the Lord. Against our charge, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” the Lord did not put us on trial for daring to accuse Him, nor did He crush us. He agreed to stand trial and his evidence is all around us. Here is the verdict of the council: He is with us! Glory be the name of the Lord!”

*****

This story found its germ in a sermon I heard this summer that unpacked the ancient legalese that I hadn’t recognized in the biblical record. Thinking about how radical a shift it was for God to agree to stand before the tribal judgment council fired up my imagination, and I wanted to play with unpacking the story, and taking more time to tell it than we get in the Bible. Also, I apologize that I do not have a credit for that amazing artwork — I’ve looked. If you know about the original, please drop me a line.