SERMON BY THE REVEREND AMOS MCCARTHY
1ST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
DECEMBER 27, 2020.
Title: “God’s Grace for a New year”
Text: “And the angel of the God which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face and stood behind them: and it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:19-20).
Scripture Reading: Exodus 14:10-20.
As we meet to worship in this final service of the year 2020, I am not as concerned with an appraisal of the year past or with predictions about the year to come as I am with our attitudes as we look both ways. So much depends on the way we view things. How shall we come by truths that will fashion right attitudes within us?
This Exodus record will help us. The Israelites had reached the Red Sea, which blocked their path, when suddenly, as if to make a bad situation worse, they saw the Egyptians in hot pursuit. They were literally between the devil and the deep Red Sea.
Friday of this week will be the last day of this year. The year’s last day reminds us that we too are on a journey “hastening stormfully across the astonished earth,” as Carlyle once put it. Like the Israelites, we too often are caught between the Red Sea before us, blocking our advance, and the army of the Egyptians behind. What happened in this emergency reveals three great truths shining through this vivid record.
First, in our text, we see that some of our greatest enemies are not those that confront us, but those that pursue us. It was not so much the Red Sea in front of the Israelites as the Egyptian army behind them that created panic in the camp. This is a parable of our situation tonight. We think we have escaped these ghosts of yesteryear, when suddenly we hear the clatter of their horses’ hooves and see the dust of their chariot wheels. Think of the realms which this truth applies to.
Some of us are pursued by fears, complexes, frustrations, and phobias that psychologists solemnly tell us are the fruition of the seeds sown in childhood experiences. We leave our childhood days behind, but these ghosts out of our past pursue us.
Some of us are pursued by grief. It may be that during the past year sorrow has laid a heavy hand on us and our families. It is not some possible future grief we fear, but a past one that pursues us.
Still others are pursued by some old sin, some old temptation to which we once gave in. Like the Israelites, we have thrown off the yoke and started toward the Promised Land, but now that old temptation follows us on and on.
This is our first truth here. The Israelites left Egypt but not the Egyptians. The hindrance to our progress toward maturity of Christian character in 2021 may spring not from something out in the future, but from some carryover from 2020.
The second truth in our text is that God not only goes before us, he is also our rear guard. God’s angel, who had been out in front as their guide, now came behind them as their defense and stood between them and their pursuers.
As we begin a new year, we think of God out there behind the veil of the future. In faith and praise we sing, “He Leadeth me! O Blessed Tho’t!” This thought is true.
But it also is true that we need a God who is not only before us but behinds us as well. How profound was the insight of the psalmist as he said, “Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me” (Psalms 139:5). It is almost certain that the prophet had the Exodus in mind as he wrote, “For the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12 RSV). These words would also apply to the return from exile.
F. W. Borchman tells of a man in his congregation who was always poised and serene, wasting no time on the fruitless exercise of worry. When asked how he could do this, he replied, “I have always made it a rule of my life that when I’ve shut the door, I have shut the door.” He had set the Lord not only before him but also behind . Since he is our rear guard, let us close the door on 2020. Let us trust in God, who can shut the door on the hosts who pursue us.
Finally, the third truth in our text is that every experience of life has a double meaning depending on to whom the experience comes. The pillar of cloud that stood between the Israelites and the Egyptians caused darkness upon the Egyptians and gave light by night to the Hebrews. With faith our experiences mean one thing, without faith another. The same fire that melts wax hardens clay. The Egyptians saw only a dark cloud, but to the Israelites it gave light.
Consider this truth as it applies to the world situation. Surely it is dark enough. To take it at face value, Egyptian-like, is to see nothing but darkness, confusion, danger, and chaos-a black cloud. But to people of faith, the cloud is not all darkness, because we see the reason for the darkness, and that releases a flood of light. The presence of God in history means darkness to some but light to others. People of faith know that God is at work in history. The revolutionary periods have always been the most creative. God often does more when the waters are stirred.
Again consider the afflictions, disappointments, and tragedies that come to us. They mean darkness to the Egyptians who cry out, as did Job’s wife, “Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). But to people of faith, there is light shining in these dark experiences.
Or consider the cross. Unbelievers cannot understand it: “Unto the Jews [the cross is] a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). “But,” Paul said, “unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). The light of the Resurrection streams across the darkness of the cross.
On this last Sunday of the year worship service, let us close the door on 2020, on all the Egyptians of temptations and evil habits and old grudges and sins. God can shut that door if we trust him. Let us take courage and go on. The past is God’s, the future is God’s, and his power is greater than all. Stay safe. God bless you all!