So good to see each one of you on this National Back to Church Sunday. This is a good place to be. I can give you several reasons why it’s a good place. Allow me to give you ten!
10. It’s a way to get a healthy glow without makeup.
9. There is nothing good on Sunday morning TV.
8. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the rest of your life–which are better than the IRS or FBI.
7. In this economy, it might be good to be hooked up with Someone who can feed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes.
6. You can walk down an aisle and approach an altar without having to gain a mother-in-law.
5. The Biblical admonition to “greet one another with a holy kiss” boosts your social life.
4. Hard Times? Kids getting on your nerves? Free coffee and child care at church!
3. The sound of money dropping is the offering, not your stocks.
2. Candles and music…and it’s less expensive than a spa.
1. It’s just possible that you could meet God here and it could change your life forever!
I want to talk to you this morning about how God led His people in the Old Testament. In Exodus chapter 13, He had just made a way for His people to become free from slavery in Egypt. Through miraculous signs and wonders and through the representation and negotiating practices of Moses, God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to be momentarily convinced that the Israelites should be freed from slavery in Egypt. He established a sign of His ongoing presence with them in order that He could show them the way out of slavery and the way to the Promised Land. We pick up the story in verse 17:
Exodus 13:17-18 and 21-22 17 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.” 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.
21 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.22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
As I contemplated what to preach on “Back to Church Sunday,” I tried to discern what is it that we need to get back to? Why is coming to church so important? What are we really seeking when we come to this building on Sunday morning? What are the “basics” when it comes to pursuing God? I want to suggest that we need to get back to two basic things:
- Letting God Guide Your Life.
- Letting God Guard Your Life.
I believe if we do those two things, we will have clarity of our purpose in life, we will have contentment and peace in this life and we will have the blessing of God on our lives.
LETTING GOD GUIDE
Notice in Exodus 13:21 and 22 that the pillar of cloud and fire, or the presence of God, went AHEAD of the Israelites as they traveled. Why is it important that God was ahead of them? That He was out in front?
God was their Guide. They were not randomly selected to be His people. He had a plan for their lives. He had an intended purpose for being in relationship with them, and as we study Scripture we see that it was to bless all people through the Jewish nation. They were to be a light to all people to point them to God. They were only going to discover that purpose by following God as He guided them on their way.
You are not here by random chance. God has a specific reason for creating you. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) The only way to find out what those plans are is to look to God for guidance.
God desires to be in a relationship with you, but it’s not the kind of relationship you experience with a spouse or friend in this life. In our earthly relationships there is a give and take. Sometimes we lead. Sometimes we follow. We give our opinions. We make suggestions. Sometimes we get our own way. Sometimes we give in.
But in our relationship with God, it is established from the outset that He is the only qualified Leader. He is perfect in His knowledge and wisdom and He alone knows the future. Therefore, He always gets to be the leader.
Too many people try to relate to God like they relate to their spouse, friends and neighbors. They want to take turns in the driver’s seat, in the leadership role. When it seems reasonable or logical or desirable, they take God’s way. But if it goes against a person’s natural inclination, if it doesn’t seem like it could lead to the desired place, if it looks like it might be the “hard way,” people often revert to their own wisdom and do what seems best in their own eyes.
Human wisdom tells us to establish our goals, to dream our dreams, to develop our one-year, five-year and ten-year plans. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with planning or dreaming, but all too often, God is left out of those plans and those dreams. All too often, we wind up telling God what the story should look like rather than asking God to inspire our dreams and plans with His will.
You start thinking in high school about future plans. You decide by a certain age you will buy your first car, get married, have children, succeed in business, or whatever. It is easy to plan your whole life and forget that God is the one who already has the blueprints.
God will guide you. That’s His job, and I know some of you. Directing your path is a full-time job! J Why should you follow Him?
“I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way you should go.” (Isaiah 48:17)
You won’t get lost when God is leading. He knows the right way for your life, and He won’t steer you wrong. He won’t send you on a wild goose chase. That doesn’t mean life will always be easy or look like what you would have chosen for yourself in the natural, but it will always take you to a place of spiritual security and peace rather than brokenness and regret.
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” (Psalm 32:8)
God promises that as He guides you He will never, not once, take His eyes off of you! (He’s watching you!)
“For this is God, our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death.” (Psalm 48:14)
God will show you not only how to live, but He will walk with you through the doorway of death and usher you into His unveiled presence in Heaven.
“The Lord will guide you continually …” (Isaiah 58:11)
Continual guidance. Always. Forever. Without interruption. Who doesn’t want to sign up to follow the One Who can’t get it wrong and Who promises to never leave your side?
“I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23) It is exceedingly clear that we aren’t to direct our own lives. It’s God’s job. Yet we continue to try to do it ourselves.
Think about where you currently find yourself. Can you honestly say God has led you where you are, or have you been leading yourself or been following something or someone else? If you have been leading your own life or following someone else, how is that working for you? Do you have confidence you are headed in the right direction? Do you believe you will end up at the right destination?
Or how about this question: In trying to get ahead are you getting ahead of God?
If God isn’t ahead of you, you’d better turn around and switch places. Another great reason for making sure God is guiding your life is because with Him in front of you, you will have the motivation to continue on the right track.
When God led His people through the pillar of cloud and fire, when the pillar stopped, they stopped. When the pillar moved, they moved. The pillar became the motivator for forward progress and times of rest. When the road ahead looks tough it is natural to want to quit. It is normal to want to take another route or to want to even retreat and go back the way you came. But if you will keep God out in front of you, if you keep Him as your Guide, you will continue to make forward progress as He signals for you to move on and you will stay on His path.
I know a lot of sad stories. Good people went wrong. Bad choices led them to bad places. People got caught up in stuff they would never have put down on paper that they would have chosen for their lives. How did that happen? It happened because they didn’t let God lead. They didn’t stay on the right track because they took the lead.
A final reason for our discussion this morning about why we need to get back to letting God guide is that He can keep us moving forward in both good times and bad times. Did you catch the nuance in Exodus 13? He led them in the day, and He led them in the night. When conditions were favorable for them to travel, He was leading. When conditions weren’t favorable for them to travel (at night) God was still guiding. Perhaps when things are going well with us, we falsely assume we can “handle” our lives, that we can see clearly enough to make good decisions.
As scary as that is, the thought of walking for any length of time in the darkness is even more terrifying. There is no way a person will make it successfully through the dark times in life without Jesus, without God leading the way. If God isn’t leading, pain and trials will destroy you rather than develop you. You will become bitter instead of better. You will look to anything that will change your circumstances rather than look to God to grow your character. You will begin to look out for yourself and in doing so you will live a life of compromise, guilt, shame, and remorse.
How can I say that? Why is that true? It’s true because pain causes us to draw inward and become self-absorbed. It limits our sights. It seizes our attention. The pain rather than getting through it becomes our focus. But in the hands of God, pain has a purpose. Trials become a blessing. Difficulties make us stronger. You cannot succeed in the dark moments of life without God being in the lead.
Thom and I went zip lining last November. We spent several hours, high above the ground, on cables that took us up to about 50 mph. We had never done anything like that before. I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do had it not been for our guides. I hung on every word they said (literally!). I did everything just like they told me and following their instruction gave me the opportunity to have one of the thrills of a lifetime. I was able to make the most out of the journey because I had guides who knew what to do. They knew what was ahead, and they knew what I needed to know in order to be successful. I wouldn’t have succeeded had I not listened to the guides and put faith and trust in the words of the guide and implemented the instructions of the guide.
Trusting God to guide you means trusting His timing! Listen to Numbers 9:17-23:
17 Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. 18 At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19 When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the LORD’s order and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the LORD’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. 21 Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. 22 Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. 23 At the LORD’s command they encamped, and at the LORD’s command they set out. They obeyed the LORD’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.
When God guides you have to be ready to move when He wants to move and be willing to wait when He wants you to stay put! I can just hear some of the Israelites after they got their camps set up and in just 24 short hours God moved them on and it was time to pack up! Listen, God has a reason for moving you on and challenging you to go forward, and He also has a reason for asking you to stay put. We have to trust His timing if we are going to let Him be our Guide.
Israel camped for nearly a year at Mt. Sinai. Can you imagine the frustration of the “type A’s”! I am sure you are all shocked to hear that I am a type “A” personality. When I go on a trip, I am not into the scenic route and there are minimal bathroom stops!! I just want to get there! I am sure it was frustrating for some when the Israelites were to stay put in one place for a long time. Remember, during the seemingly “quiet” year at Mt. Sinai God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, the Law, the priesthood, the tabernacle, and more. So when the cloud of God is not “moving”, that doesn’t mean God is not working! It is just as important that we obey God in the times of waiting as it is that we obey Him in the times of moving forward. You can often learn more and receive more from God in times of waiting than in times of “forward progress.”
Not only do we need to get back to letting God be our Guide, but we also need to get back to LETTING GOD BE OUR GUARD. Let me show you what I mean:
Exodus 14:19-25 (NIV) 19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go, and he sent his armies after them to re-capture them. There was no way they could outrun Pharaoh’s army! I can just see them carrying their children, trying to hurry their livestock along and helping the elderly move as fast as possible while they were looking over their shoulder and shouting, “We’re doomed!” As they were fleeing, the Israelites learned that God “had their back!” The Scripture we just read said that the presence of God moved from in front of them to behind them. God got in between them and the enemy and put a barrier there.
Listen, you don’t have to live in fear of anything or anyone if God is your Guard. God is not only in front of you leading the way, but He is also behind you, protecting you from anything that would seek to harm you! God is madly in love with you. You are His precious possession. You are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8). He has an invested interest in keeping you safe. He sent Jesus, His only Son, to die in exchange for your life. He has paid a huge ransom for your soul. He is going to protect that investment! He is with you to ensure your victory!
Quit looking over your shoulder. Live in peace and safety! Psalm 139:5 says, “You hem me in behind and before.” “But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Is. 52:12). God has you covered! God has your back!
One of the coolest verses in the Bible is Exodus 14:20. “Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.”
God had their back in such an awesome way. When His presence went behind them His presence created light for His people and darkness for the oncoming enemy. Look what happened again. “During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion” (Exodus 14:24). You want God to be your Guard because He is the One who can confuse your enemy. He is the One who can put a barrier between you and your enemy that can’t be penetrated.
Because His eye is always on you, not only are you always been led, but you are always being protected! Listen to Psalm 121:
1 I Will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From whence shall my help come?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
8 The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.
When you read about the Armor of God in Ephesians 6 that we are told to wear, you read about things like, a shield of faith, a belt of truth, a helmet of salvation, a sword of the Spirit, and shoes of peace, but there is no army listed for a person’s back. Why? Because God has your back. You never have to turn and fight! You can always make forward progress and be on the offensive because God is behind us!
Are you anxious and worried? Are you living a defensive or angry life? Are you always stressed and under pressure? Do you fear what is coming after you next? Is your past chasing you? Are old habits pursuing you? Is the devil always nipping at your heels? If God is your rear Guard, He will take care of you. He knows how to confuse your enemy and because of that, you can live in peace ALL OF THE TIME.
Isn’t it time to get back to the basics? Back to letting God be our Leader and Protector? Back to letting God be in the front of our lives and walking securely knowing that He also has our backs? Do you need to trade places with Him this morning? Let’s get back to letting God be God every day in each of our lives.