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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is the senior pastor of a nondenominational congregation in Washington, DC.

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The Road Less Traveled (A Sermon on Exodus 13:17-18)

June 09, 2013

On God's behalf, just a few chapters earlier Moses directed some words to Pharaoh.[1] So it is through Moses that God told the royal tyrant of Egypt, "Let my people go...."[2] Some of you may hear echoes of Charlton Heston from the 1956 cinematic adaptation of the 10 Commandments, where he, playing the role of Moses, uttered these same words. Others of you are perhaps reminded of the Negro spiritual, "Go Down Moses" or "Oh! Let My People Go" based on this same Exodus story that has been recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Louis Armstrong among others through the years. The story goes, after a handful of attempts by Moses all which resulted in unrelenting plagues on Pharaoh and his Egyptian constituency, it is then and only then that Pharaoh yielded. He did indeed let the Israelites go on their merry way; at least for the time being. And this situates us at a statement of oral history, recounting how the Israelites should explain to their children in the future when asked about the meaning of all this liberation.

As the text says, upon their release from captivity, God led the Israelites on an odd route, the less traveled road that didn't make conventional sense then and still doesn't. But this is far from the first time for such an occurrence. The most unlikely candidate for kingly succession, David slew the Philistine giant Goliath with one rock fired from his slingshot. Joshua and his army merely paraded around outside of Jericho blowing their trumpets and then shouting loudly, and -- wouldn't you know it -- the walls fell down, thereby allowing them to take the city. With the coroner on the way to claim the body, with all hope seemingly dissipated, people like Lazarus, Tabitha, and the son of Zarephath's widow were brought back to life. Out of the blue a motley crew of fisherman left their boats to follow Jesus, a man they didn't know from a can of paint. The list goes on and on of people in the Old Testament and New Testament who were empowered by God to do great things in ways that defy logic. And we have seen snapshots of similar encounters since those times; the nonviolent social protests during the Civil Rights movement being a poignant example. These Christian women and men were led by God to fight hate with love, challenging the legal and moral state of American race relations. Through untold amounts of marching, sit-ins, protesting, and praying, our country was forced to rectify it having issued a check to African Americans that had been rejected for "insufficient funds." Countless citizens sacrificed and died following God more than strategy. This speaks to what you might call the irrationality or foolishness of Christianity, as Paul[3] put it, in that we believe in God who we cannot see, and because of that belief we conduct ourselves in ways not of this world. But alas, this is the life of faith.

What I find so fascinating about being led by God is that -- and this shouldn't surprise anyone -- God is much smarter than us, which makes sense, you know, since God is the creator and we the created. In studying Exodus 13:17-18, God has led me to a few observations, so bear with me as I walk us through them. First, verse 17 says God did not lead the Israelites on the most direct path after their emancipation. God could have taken them by way of the land of the Philistines, but God thought instead, "If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt." We today and the Israelites of old have so much in common. God protected them from their own fragility, as God protects us from the same. As impressionable, fair-weather devotees, the Israelites were, let's just say, easily persuaded. And God knew that. Under the circumstances of possible conflict with the Philistines, the Israelites, fresh from years of Egyptian captivity were prone to backsliding, forgetting all God had done for them and choosing to reenter slavery. So God providentially protected the Israelites from themselves. To personalize it, a contemporary Gospel artist put it this way: "God saved me from me."[4]

Secondly, in order to safeguard the Israelites from relapse, according to verse 18 God led them away from the Philistines, by the wilderness toward the Red Sea. Clearly this was not the straight path. It would have been easier and commonsensical for them to have taken the path that verse 17 says was nearer. But God knows best. The roundabout way that God led the Israelites by was of the wilderness. I recently chatted with a retired colleague of mine who lives in Montana. He mentioned that in the early morning just the other day a bear had broken into their trash can that was out-front awaiting pickup. For a bonafide city slicker like me, this was alarming, but for him it was yet another day around the wilderness. And such were God's intentions with the Israelites. In taking the road less traveled, the roundabout way, God led them through the wilderness, which in the Old Testament has connotations of exile and all that comes along with that experience: danger, unpredictability, difficulty, possible starvation. God was up to something. GPS doesn't always work in the wilderness, many of us have learned the hard way. But God is always active, always leading, always guiding us as only God can.

Having protected the Israelites from their own folly by leading them the roundabout way, on a longer route out of the land of their incarceration, the big question is why. Why would God go through all this effort to lead a sometimes unruly, spiritually duplicitous group of people in such a careful, specific manner? That leads to my third and final point. God wanted the Israelites to be prepared for battle, and God's executive wisdom said the best way to accomplish this was not through conventional, ordinary, predictable means -- surely not the path of least resistance. But the road less traveled. Verse 18 concludes with this statement: "The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle." Whether the immediate threat was external like Pharaoh's soon-to-come pursuit of them into the Red Sea or something a bit further off and internal like wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the Israelites' eventual splintering into tribes; God made it a point to prepare them for the mêlées they would inevitably endure. And, if we stop, study, and pay attention, we will see that God's message to the Israelites ages ago is God's same message to you and me today.

One of the failures of Christianity in America is its preoccupation with cookie-cutter pristine, safe faith that elevates efficiency over authenticity, which arguably renders it no longer faith at all. We are obsessed with trying to prove that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but the life of faith is much more than an amalgamation of Cartesian coordinates. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.[5] Theologically, historically at its core, Christian faith is crazy, wacky, and most times somewhat unconventional. That is a hard pill to swallow, however, when we ascribe our shortcomings to God, as if God was created in our image rather than the other way around. As both the wholly other and holy other, God doesn't think or behave like us and that's a very good thing. Therefore, we are called to follow God's lead at all times in all things, that God's will and not ours would be done.

Now, of course, I'm not advocating that we take selfish, harmful, or ill-advised detours just for the heck of it because that's sin -- but I do think that the life of faith requires us to embrace traveling down the road less traveled, as God leads us. The particulars of that journey will inevitably vary from person to person. God will lead some in ways that defy logic, but that's okay because, well, we are people of faith. God will lead some to put down a high-profile, well-paying career in order to begin completely different work that few people will know or care about, and whose compensatory potential is less than desirable. God will lead some to retire when everything and everyone says not to. God will lead some to major in all sorts of subjects in college only to then pursue passions in life that on the surface have nothing substantive to do with those majors. God will lead some to become urban missionaries and rural math teachers, others to take the risk of going back to school or starting a business, and others still to radically alter their lifestyle further.

According to a Swahili Proverb, "Life has meaning only in the struggle. Victory or defeat is in the hand of God, so let us celebrate the struggle." Taking the road less traveled as we are led by God is difficult. There likely won't be much fanfare when you make it to the other side. Only a few trusted friends or family may know how much you have had to pick up or put down in order to follow God. But that obedience is better than silver or gold. So this morning, I ask, "Where is God leading you?


[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on  June 9, 2013 at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Derwood, MD where the Rev. Andrew Plocher is pastor.
[2] Exodus 9:1.
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18.
[4] Lawrence Flowers & Intercession, "More: Disc 1 & 1," Lawrence Flowers Records, 2011.
[5] Hebrews 11:1.


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