I continue today with my sermon series “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” Today’s lesson is a reassurance of the Lord’s provision during the wilderness time. Just as the Lord provided everything the Israelites needed during their time in the Sinai, the Lord will provide everything you need as a church during this interim time for you.
Let me begin with a story.
One summer, long before marriage and children, I decided to go with a friend to visit Glacier National Park in Montana. We drove east from Seattle, where we were both living at the time. We stopped for lunch on the way and got out our map and noticed for the first time that there was a shortcut to Glacier through the Flathead Indian Reservation, so, wanting to save miles, time and gas, we took it. We were both talking to one another intently about something and not paying attention to much of anything else. When we got somewhere around the geographical center of the reservation, all of a sudden the engine in the back of my Volkswagen beetle went silent, and we coasted for a little while and then pulled over by the side of the road and parked it.
As I prepared to go through my mechanic’s checklist of possible causes of engine failure, the first thing I looked at was the gas gauge, and sure enough the needle was on empty. I completely lost track of our gas situation and ran out. My first thought was, “Lord, why did you let this happen?” And I imagined the Lord saying back to me, “Don’t look at me. You did this to yourself.”
We sat there and debated what to do, but there really weren't many options. It was the time before cell phones and GPS, so it was not as if we could call anyone for help or know exactly where we were. We were miles and miles from anything, so it was pointless to start walking. Neither of us could remember how far back the last gas station was. The only thing we knew to do was to pray to God for rescue and wait by the side of the road, holding up a white sheet of paper that said, "Out of gas."
The problem was that there was no one around, no one coming by, no traffic through the Indian reservation. Not one other person that day, apparently, had gotten the bright idea of taking the shortcut through the reservation. I had such a terrible feeling of powerlessness. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't help myself. I was totally dependent on God and on the kindness of a stranger who might stop by. A whole hour went by without us seeing even one car or one person. I remember during that hour of silent waiting conjuring up a rescue fantasy involving a Presbyterian truck driver coming through the Indian reservation in a big rig, a long gleaming silver gasoline tanker truck with a handy little nozzle in the back to fill me up, but no big rig came.
What came instead was a faded red, beat-up old pick-up. A lone Flathead Indian man got out and sized us up warily from a distance. Since he wasn’t coming over to us, I went to him and tried to chat him up a bit, but he wasn't very chatty. I did manage to tell him that we had run out of gas and needed help.
After a long uncomfortable silence, he told us that the only thing he had in the back of his truck was a gallon gas can full of chainsaw gas, a mixture of gas and oil, but, if we were willing to give it a try, he would sell us a cup of it for a dollar.
I didn’t jump at it. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Inside I was saying, “Lord, a cup of chain saw gas for a dollar? Is this really the best you can do?” Then I was suddenly alarmed at what a mixture of gas and oil in my gas tank might do to my engine. Never tried that before. I thought the oil might foul my spark plugs and then I’d have a second problem on my hands.
But then I had one of those moments when I realized God's salvation sometimes appears in unusual forms, and that day God's salvation may well have come in the form of a Flathead Indian man offering to sell me a cup of chainsaw gas, and that maybe no other help was coming that day. So, after taking one last look in vain down the road to see if that gasoline tanker truck was coming, I coughed up the dollar. The man then reached down into the bed of his truck and produced a green plastic measuring cup and measured out exactly 8 ounces of chainsaw gas, which I very carefully took from him and poured into my gas tank, preserving every drop.
Then, I got into the car, pumped the accelerator a few times and cranked the engine, and the engine roared back to life, with the chainsaw gas causing a cloud of blue smoke to pour out of the back of the car, and we were once again on our way. I learned again just how far you can go in a VW beetle on a little bit of gas! We went for several miles until the engine went silent again. But luckily the man in the truck had followed us and offered to sell us a second cup of chainsaw gas, and I handed over a second dollar and we were on our way again. This time we made it off the reservation and ended up coasting into a gas station, where we could fill up completely.
When I think back to our rescue that day, I am sure that the Lord was there helping, but not in ways that I had expected. The rescue wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was what we needed. It got us to where we were going that day.
The Israelites’ time in the Sinai, which was their interim or transition time in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, was like that. God rescued them in so many different ways. But it wasn’t always what they wanted, and they complained bitterly and repeatedly about that, but it was what they needed, and by the end Moses reminded them that in their entire 40 years in the wilderness God made sure that they had lacked nothing of what they needed.
As I read through the story of the Sinai experience, I am reminded that the interim time, then and now, though a challenging time for the people of God, is a time for receiving God’s grace. God does so many things for us during the interim time that we cannot do for ourselves. It’s pure grace and gift on God’s part. The best thing we can do during the interim is to be alert for God’s grace, actively looking for all the ways God is meeting us at our point of need, and to witness to it when it comes.
The challenge for us during the interim time is that God’s grace often comes in forms different than the ones we want or expect, and, if we are not careful, we can miss God’s grace when it comes, or we can assume that God is not active at all in our lives, not even present.
What we want and what we need in this life are often two different things, and God knows us and is far more interested in what we really need rather than in what we want, and is actively giving the things we really need. God, I perceive, is not in the business of fulfilling our fantasies but in meeting us at the point of our real need. The source of much human unhappiness in life is focusing on what we don’t have instead of on those things we have already been given. Our trouble begins when we focus on fantasies not fulfilled instead of on needs consistently met.
In the Sinai story, God was working astounding daily miracles in the life of the Israelites during their interim time, in the midst of a seemingly lifeless, godforsaken desert, rescuing them from 400 years of slavery, protecting them from harm when Pharaoh had second thoughts and sent his army to kill them, guiding them through Moses and a moving cloud by day, and at night by a pillar of fire, keeping 600,000 of them alive every day in the desert with carbohydrates in the form of manna, hydration in the form of fresh water, and protein in the form of the bird known as quail, giving them clothes that never wore out, providing for them spiritually and practically with worship, a tabernacle, and the ten commandments and the rest of the law, so that they would never have to live again by the whim of a Pharaoh and live instead by an established law that everyone knew and could apply. Over 40 years in the Sinai, Moses, said, God made sure that the Israelites had lacked for nothing.
Jesus in his own earthly ministry revealed this same God at work through him, the God who is able to care for us and provide for us no matter what we are going through. Jesus, just like God in the Sinai, responded to human need in an astonishing variety of ways. Jesus fed the 5,000 and the 4,000, healed the sick, forgave sinners, preached good news, taught about the Kingdom of God, ate with outcasts, sought out the lost. As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, we recall how Jesus presided as host at the table on the night before he died, caring for the 12 disciples at the table both physically and spiritually in the ways they needed.
Jesus is the good shepherd of Psalm 23, providing the sheep, that is the people, with everything they need, just like God did for Israel during 40 years in the Sinai wilderness.
I am here as an interim pastor to reassure you that God is just as active with you now in your wilderness time between installed senior pastors. Just as God cared for the Israelites in the Sinai in the ways they needed, so God will care for you in the ways that you need during this interim time. God is shepherding you through this time in ways you may not even by aware.
Churches have varying degrees of anxiety during the interim time. One of the main fears of churches is that the time without an installed senior pastor in the church will necessarily be a time of declining attendance, membership and giving, and that the longer a church goes without an installed senior pastor, the more decline there will be in members and funding.
My actual experience with churches in transition suggests otherwise. In the many churches in transition I have pastored, there has not been decline at all. There is not typically much growth in a church during the interim time, either, since people new to the church are reluctant to join the church until they have met the new installed senior pastor and are reassured that they can enter into a relationship with that new pastor. In my experience during the interim time churches typically do not realize their greatest fears nor achieve their greatest hopes. Rather, churches mostly maintain their position numerically throughout the interim.
What is harder to calculate, but just as real, is how God strengthens a congregation and bonds it together during these interim times. Spiritually speaking, the interim time ends up being unexpectedly one of the best things that can happen to a congregation. When the new pastor finally comes, it’s a big sign of the Lord’s ongoing faithfulness to a congregation. During the interim time the congregation often learns a lot about itself and its community. There is some good listening and communicating going on. The church sometimes ventures out in new directions, or deals with old issues that are overdue in being addressed. There is a new voice coming from the pulpit that the congregation is able to hear in a new way.
Churches at the end of my time with them will often say to me, “Well, that wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it was actually a pretty good time that I think we’ll all look back on with fondness.” One person said to me, “You kept calling the interim time our time in the wilderness, but in truth it felt more like being in an oasis in the wilderness.”
Congregation, believe with all of your heart what the Sinai story says and what my own past experience confirms: the Lord is here at Central even during this interim time and providing what you need right now. You may not get everything you want during this time, and you may not enjoy everything you had with David Bailey here, but it will be everything the Lord thinks you need right now. I am confident that you, too, will look back at this interim time and come to the same good news conclusion as Moses did after the Sinai time and say together: we lacked for nothing.