(Numbers 9:15-end; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24) “Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp. At the command of the Lord the Israelites would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp.”
Any number of times the Old Testament passage tells us this same thing. That it was at the command of the Lord, indicated by the movement of the cloudy presence, that the Israelites set out from Sinai on their journey to the promised land; and that it was at the command of the Lord, indicated by the resting of the cloud, that they ceased from their journey and waited.
Travelling and resting. Moving and remaining. And how to know when to do which?
That’s difficult. But what we do know is that life is a mixture of the changing and the unchanging. Of standing still and of moving forward. Of the need for stability and the need for newness.
Some people, of course, don’t cope well with change; they like regularity and routine, and for things to stay the same. Others find it hard to settle in one place, are easily bored and persistently seek after change and new things. But finding the right balance - a good balance - between change and leaving things the same, is probably a healthy thing for all of us to do.
When you read Genesis 1, or a psalm of creation like Psalm 33, it sounds like the works of God are a thing of the past. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made... he gathered the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap... For he spake and it was done, he commanded and it stood fast.” But we know that creation is not a one-off; it is an on-going work. And that the whole wonder of the universe depends upon the outworking of this amazing balance between fixity – the stuff of which the world is made and the fundamental laws of nature persisting through time – and fluidity - in the randomness built into the material and biological processes by which life is constantly coming into being in new ways.
And if this in some way reflects the character of God, just the same impression is given by the ways in which God reveals himself in his dealings with his people, as a God of faithfulness and constancy, and a God who is constantly calling forth new possibilities and making new beginnings.
And again we have something of a reflection of these two sides in the New Testament lesson. Where Paul talks about the call to faith and to ministry, which implies obedience and a willingness to get up and follow the path the Lord has assigned. But he also talks, at least in this context, of remaining in the condition of life – married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free – that you were when you were called.
Obedience to the Lord, and our own personal and spiritual heath, may therefore require us at times to simply bed down, buckle down, persevere in doing the things we’re doing, in the way we’re doing them. And at other times, individually and as a church, we may need to change and move ahead in a new way, by doing something different, trying something different, or trying a new approach.
But when to set out from the camp? And when to stay put? That’s hard to determine. All the same, if we believe that we have a God who knows us and cares for us, and even has a plan for us, then we should expect that in some way, or in various ways, he may be seeking to guide us in the right way. And what it will call for on our part is to look and listen for the leading of the Lord.
Sometimes, perhaps, God will send a sign. Or send a word through the words of another person. Or the voice of conscience will speak. Or it may be the Lord will address us through the coming together of circumstances. Or it may be that we simply recognise, through reflection and discernment (in which the spirit of God may be equally active) that the present situation or arrangement is no longer life-giving and productive. So we need to change. Or conversely we might apprehend in some way the need to lay down our restless spirit and just hold firm in the path that is set before us.
Obviously all this talk of staying and going, of keeping going and making new, has a particular resonance with me at this time. Not that that makes me an expert by any means. But as I alluded to this morning when Peter Lock was here, all the signs pointed towards St Mark’s being the place for me (not least having grown up and received the call to ordination at a St Mark’s church, and having been confirmed at this St Mark’s) and I knew it was so the instant I came to look around. And likewise, with a number of factors coming together, I knew within myself early last year that the time was right for me and for the church to leave and move on. In both cases what lies behind my coming and my going is the providence and prompting of God.
And I guess the challenge for you, collectively, when I’m gone, will be to determine how best to sustain the life of the church in the way we’ve been used to, and what things will need to be done differently. And how, going forward, you will honour and maintain the ethos and legacy of the past, while finding ways to express the mission and ministry of the church in a world and a community very different form how they were when I arrived here 20 years ago. Keeping that balance between faithfulness and change, between reliability and innovation. Very difficult. Just remember that there does need to be a balance. And in working that balance out your own preferences and personality types should not be the decisive factors. But the ways and will of God - the constancy of whose love is our stronghold and our rock, our message and our maxim through time – but who calls his people to live and work for his sake, and to be ourselves changed and transformed , that we might play a part in transforming the lives of others and building his kingdom, as we rest in him, and journey with him to the promised land.