Early in geometry we learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That means if I'm at point A and want to get to point B, the shortest distance between those two points is a straight line. Now that may be true in geometry, but when you and I think about what God is doing with our lives, we sometimes wonder if he doesn't think the shortest distance between two points is a zigzag. In other words, we start at point A and sense that God is taking us up to point B. That's the destiny. That's God's will for our lives. That's what the Spirit of God has affirmed in our hearts. That's the dream. That's the vision. Now as far as we're concerned, the shortest distance between where we are and where we believe God is taking us is a straight line. But if God is the one taking us there, he often works as if the shortest distance were a zigzag.
For example, maybe you just started work at a certain company. You have a certain position that you've begun. And as you think about your future with that company, you imagine what God may do. Somehow you sense that God may take you to that corner office on the second floor with windows and a gold plate with your name on the door. Somehow you sense, "that's what I'm going to end up doing with this company someday."
Now, the shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. That would mean you get assigned to something central to what the company does, and you do well. Then, you're put in charge of a certain task group that works on another project, and you come in under budget and on time. This brings you to the attention of the decision makers within the company. They tag you as an up-and-comer on the fast track, and they start moving you around to different positions within the company so that you gain experience with the whole operation. And when that corner office comes open, you're the natural choice for it. A nice straight line.
But if God is taking you there, it may seem like he's on a strange path because instead of getting assigned to something central to what the company does, you get assigned to something peripheral to what the company does. And instead of coming to the attention of the decision makers, you find yourself in some side cubicle where nobody even knows you work for the company.
Maybe you began a business and your business is at point A. As you think about your future, you feel like God has given you a mental picture of point B—a certain volume, or a certain size of your company. Since the shortest distance between where you are and point B is a straight line, you bid on a project and make a profit on it. Because of that profit, you bid on a larger project and somebody comes to work for you. Then, because the two of you do well, you're able to bid on even larger projects. And suddenly you're buying more trucks and you're having greater inventory, and now you've suddenly got a warehouse and you've got many trucks. And now you're bidding on government projects. And there you are at point B, a nice straight line.
But if God is taking you there, he seems to prefer an alternate route, because instead of making a profit on that first project you lose money. Instead of somebody coming to work with you, you have to let go of the part-time secretary and a machine is now answering your phone.
Or, for you point A may be single; point B, married. Somehow that's God's will. That's what the Spirit of God has given you as a goal for your life. So, one Sunday somebody new comes into the church. After the service, you and your friends are talking in the foyer and that somebody happens to join you, and you invite that somebody to go to lunch with you. At lunch you sit together and enjoy a nice conversation. And when you leave, you think, "that was fun." "Boy, that was great!" In fact, you kind of hope that the same thing will happen next week, and it does!
But this time in the lobby, as your friends decide where to go to lunch, the two of you decide to go off by yourselves. And before you split up after that second lunch you decide to see each other on Friday night. And then many Friday nights go by in a similar fashion. Pretty soon, you've made the obligatory visit to each other's parents to pass that test. And then one day you show up in front of one of the pastors and say, "this December the fourteenth at two o'clock we'd like to be on your calendar." Here comes the bride. A nice straight line.
But if God is taking you to someone at point B, he might use a very erratic path. On that path, it seems like those somebody's just keep coming and going and coming and going … but mostly going.
Finally, for you, point A may be something you want to do for the Lord. As you think about your life and about the wonders of God and what you can do to serve him, you see yourself doing a certain thing for the Lord somewhere in the future. Now the shortest distance between where you are and actually doing that certain thing for the Lord is a straight line, and so your church asks you to do something in an area you're good at. You do it well. You enjoy doing it, and God's people are blessed and they ask you to do it again. And pretty soon you're kind of put in charge of that ministry within the church. And maybe later you get some additional biblical training to help you. And then one-day maybe you're even full time and serving the wonderful Lord in that area.
But if God is taking you there, he doesn't seem to be moving in a straight-line path. Instead of getting asked to do something you enjoy, you are asked to do something that you aren't particularly interested in and are not very good at. You do it as best as you can, but it doesn't come out real well and they never ask you to do anything again.
My friend, this morning what I want you to see is this: sometimes with God the shortest distance between two points is a zigzag. Also, I want you to see that God deliberately leads us on that zigzag path. There are times when he intentionally, knowingly, and purposefully takes our lives on an alternate route. Next, I want you to see why he does it—what's his reason, what's his purpose, what's gained, and what's accomplished. And finally, I want you to see how he keeps us encouraged. In other words, in the midst of the zigs and the zags, when we don't see any progress, how does God keep us sustained? What good promises does he have that keep us moving in the right direction?
God deliberately leads us on a zigzag path.
First of all, in order to see that God deliberately avoids the straight-line, we're going to turn to a time in Israel's history when God takes them on a zigzag path. Point A for the Israelites is the land of Goshen, in Egypt, where they have been slaves for 400 years. The ten plagues have ruined Egypt, and Pharaoh has just capitulated. There is wailing and crying because of the death of the firstborn. "Get out! Leave! Go!" Pharaoh says to Moses, and Israel rendezvous in the land of Goshen. That's point A.
Point B is the Promised Land in Canaan. For the Israelites, there is no question about that. That's their destiny. That's where God's going to take them. That's the goal. Now the shortest distance between point A, Goshen, and point B, Canaan, is a relatively straight line. There was actually an international highway that went from Goshen, along the Mediterranean seacoast, into Canaan. They called it the Way of the Philistines, because it went through the Philistine territory, or the Way of the Sea, because it hugged the Mediterranean seacoast. If you look on one of the maps in the back of your Bible, you'll see a little line that goes right across that whole region. So, Israel can get from point A, Goshen, to point B, Canaan, in eight to ten days following that international highway, which is a straight line.
However, when we open our Bibles we read that God takes them in the opposite direction. Exodus 13:17-18 says:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road to the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, 'If they face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.' So God led the people around by the desert, south toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt in that direction in battle formation.
God deliberately takes them on a zigzag path. In the same way, sometimes God knowingly, purposefully takes our lives on a zigzag path. Now, why does he do that? What is his reason? What is his purpose? The answer is that God knows if he takes us on the straight-line path, we'll never make it. There is something in that straight-line path that God knows would stop us from getting to point B. In Israel's case, there was some kind of situation involving war. There was some fighting that would have prevented them from making it to Canaan.
Notice what verse 17 says: "When Pharaoh let the people go God did not lead them on the road to the Philistine country, though that was shorter, for God said, 'If they face war, they will change their minds.'" In other words, they'll head right back to Egypt. There was some kind of war on that straight-line path because that highway was not only an international trade route, it was also an invasion route. All of the countries to the north—Syria, Babylon, Nineveh, any of them that wanted to invade Egypt—came right down that highway if they wanted to mess with Egypt. So, Egypt had built its defenses along that highway. And if the Israelites had gotten past warring with Egypt's battlements, they would have encountered the Philistines—because the highway went through the Philistine territory—and the Philistines were the most warlike people on the Earth at that time.
So God said, "my people are not ready for that." "My people have no military skills. They've been slaves for 400 years. They have no social cohesion. They have no political organization. In fact, their organizational chart is Moses and then three-and-a-half million others. If I were to take them on that path they would encounter something that they are not yet prepared for and they would never make it to the goal. Instead, they would go back to point A. I need to take them south, out into an isolated area, a desert area.
"I need to get them to a spot where they've exhausted all of their food that they brought with them and have no crops that they're harvesting and no herds that they're taking care of. And all of a sudden they begin to realize, unless this God who brought us out here is with us, we will die. And then I will show them that I am with them. And I will rain down some chip, some flake, some wafer-like substance. It will be something they've never seen before. They will pick it up and they will call it Man-na, which means what's it? And they will realize that I have provided for them in a way that they never expected. And they will see that I will do it again and again and again, and they will realize that I'm going to show up always.
"I'm going to be a big God. I'm going to be a part of their life. I have made a commitment to them and I'll never stop on that commitment. I need to take my people down there. I need to take them to Mount Sinai in the southern part. And out of the cloud on top of that mountain I'll speak to them. They will realize that they are the most favored nation that has ever existed. No other people have had their God speak such wisdom. They will be the most envied nation on Earth, the one who holds the oracles of truth. And then I will teach them the art of warfare. I will begin to develop their military skills, but I will do it through skirmishes with the Amalekites, which are Bedouin tribes. And then when my people are ready, I will take them into Canaan."
My friend, God in his wisdom knows that there is something in our straight-line path, something that would stop us from getting to where we want to go. In the company that you've joined it may be that there is some person who would sandbag your promotional level, some person who would be envious of your rapid promotion and who would undercut it, and then you'd never get to point B. Or, it could be some skills that are needed which you aren't even aware of yet, and God will take you onto an alternate path to develop those skills, and maybe make some networking connections. Then, when everything's ready, he'll move you back and move you into the straight-line path.
In that business you started, it may be that God knows if you take your company that fast to point B in a straight-line way, it will require so many extra hours from you that, at this stage of your family's life, your kids would suffer. Somehow keeping you on this other path enables you to have the hours at home you need in order to be involved in the activities there, and to cement that lifetime of influence and care with your kids. God knows that there's something on that path that would stop us from getting there.
If you're single, it may be that God knows the person he's bringing to you needs some time to work out a few things, to resolve some issues that have stayed with that person since he or she left home, so that when the marriage comes together it's secure and joyful instead of troubled and tentative. God in his wisdom knows that there's a straight—line, but he also knows that there's something bad in it, and in his love he leads us to an alternate path because that's the only way, the sure way, the safe way to get there.
God encourages us along the zigzag path.
But sometimes that alternate path leads us to be discouraged. We're in the midst of the zigs and the zags and we're not making any progress, and we kind of become discouraged. In fact—if the progress is so slow, or sometimes we seem to be going in the opposite direction—not only do we become discouraged, we begin to doubt whether there actually is a point B. We begin to think, maybe that's not God's goal. Maybe I just wanted it so badly that I psyched myself into it. Maybe that's my pipe dream and not God's destiny.
And so, my friend, in the midst of the zigs and the zags if God is lovingly leading us toward his intended goal, how does he keep us encouraged? How does he keep our stamina along the way? How does he keep us knowing the goodness of our God and the direction he's taking us?
The Scripture goes on to say that there are two things he does for us, two promises, two ways that God comes to us to keep us encouraged along the way. The first, the Scripture says, is that if the dream is of God, then God will give continual reminders of his good intentions. If the goal, point B, is of God, he will find ways of coming to you and letting you know that's where he's taking you. Someone who doesn't know what the dream is will say something, and those words will remind you of the dream, and it will be God's way of telling you that he's still coming. Or someone will describe something, or tell about you doing something, and without knowing what God has put on your heart they will use the words of the Spirit of God that will say, "Ah, yes, the dream is alive."
It may be in the company you work for over in that side cubicle, where nobody knows you work for the company, and somebody who has to phone into the company to do the business that you do finds you at the desk and says, "Are you still at that desk? I would think by now with all the abilities you have you would be—." And out of the blue they'll pick point B, of all of the positions in the company, and you've never breathed a word to anyone, and your heart will hear God saying I am reminding you.
It could be in the business you started. You'll come home one day and hit the Play button on the answering machine and somebody will say, "Is this phone still taking your messages? With the ability you have and the quality work you do, I would think by now you'd be—" And out of the entire world of business they'll describe exactly what you think point B is.
Or if you're single and somebody, some dear lady from Oceanside Christian Fellowship, comes up to you after a service and says, "You know who I think would make a good couple? You and___" And you say, "Lord, I think so too!"
My friend, God's first promise is that he will give you reminders of his good intentions. In Israel's history the reminder is described in verse 19. It's a coffin. A very strange note appears in the Scripture. We read in verse 19 that as they went up out of Egypt, "Moses took the bones of Joseph with them." That is because four hundred years earlier when he died, Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. Joseph had said to them on his deathbed, "God will surely come to you." You can read this at the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph said, "God's going to come to our people. This is not our home. God's going to take us out of Egypt. He's going to take us back to the land of promise. He's going to put us where our ancestors are. And when he takes you, don't leave me here in Egypt. Swear to me that you will take my bones with you."
Four hundred years before the exodus Joseph was the first Israelite into that land. He was sold by his brothers and put in prison, but he eventually rose to second in the nation, and lived to see his father and his brothers and their families come to Egypt. The Scripture says that seventy people total came and joined him in Egypt. By the time he died, those seventy had grown into two or three hundred. And with those two or three hundred gathered around him, Joseph said, "You swear to me that when the day comes that God takes us out of Egypt, you take my bones with you. I want to be buried in Canaan with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Now, four hundred years later, those two or three hundred have grown into three-and-a-half million. And as they are now leaving Egypt, they lift the coffin of Joseph, and as they head out southward toward the Red Sea the coffin leads the way. And I can just hear some little kid. He turns to his mother and says, "Why are those men carrying that box?"
"Well, honey, it's not a box. It's a coffin."
"What's a coffin?"
"Well, it has the bones of a dead man in it."
"Oh, gross. Why are we taking it with us?"
"Well, honey, we're taking it to Canaan."
"We're not headed to Canaan."
"Yes we are. Yes we are. That coffin is going to Canaan."
So every day as they started the march, no matter where the zigs or the zags went, there was a continual reminder that God was taking them to point B. That coffin is going to Canaan.
My friend, in the midst of the zigs and the zags, if the dream is of God, then every so often out of the blue—by someone who doesn't know what they're saying or by something you read or by thoughts that come in the night—God will give you a reminder of his good intention. That's the first thing he says he'll do.
The second thing he says he'll do is give you a tangible sense of his presence. You will have a palpable, feel-able sense of God's nearness, God's protection, and God's guidance. You will hear God talking, leading, and being a part of your family. You will feel and sense the closeness of God like you have never felt it before.
In Israel's journey it was something that came into their national existence as they left Egypt, and it stayed with them as a palpable, tangible sense of God's presence until they stepped into point B, Canaan, and then it was gone. What came into their national existence was something they described as a pillar, or a column, of cloud. It was some opaque, swirling, dense mass of shimmering whiteness. And they called it a pillar of cloud that stretched into the sky. At nighttime it looked like there was a fire inside of it. It glowed. It became luminous, so that in the nighttime it was as visible as it was in the day. It was the presence of their God, and it stayed with them on the zigs and the zags until they crossed the Jordan River and entered Canaan, and then it was gone.
We read in verse 20: "After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham." Where was Etham? It was on the edge of the desert. What does that mean? It means that Etham wasn't the end of world, but you could see the end of the world from Etham. In other words, when they left Etham, they were leaving civilization. They were going out into who knows what, the desert. There were no maps. There were no Thomas Brother guides out there. They were going where people didn't go. And at that moment, as they stepped into nothingness, the tangible, visible, palpable sense of their God's presence came into their life.
Look at verse 21: "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light; so that they could travel." They would know the way. They would be able to follow their God by day or by night because he was visibly, tangibly present to them. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left its place in front of the people. That cloud was their God guiding them. The Scripture says that when the cloud moved, they said, "roll up the sleeping bags, roll up the tents. We're on our way." And they moved farther into the desert. Their God was guiding them by day or by night.
That cloud not only guided them, God was not only guiding them, but they also sensed the presence of God protecting them. The Bible says that in a few days when Pharaoh decided he wanted to chase after them anyway and bring them back, as Israel saw the chariots coming and the soldiers and they looked at the other direction and there was a sea that they could not pass, the cloud inserted itself between the chariots of Egypt and the people of Israel. The horses could not penetrate that dense opaqueness. And then all of a sudden the sea split open and Israel walked through. And when Israel got on dry land on the other side, the cloud lifted, the horses and chariots ran into the water and the sea covered them. God was protecting them. They saw their God protecting them.
The Scripture says that that cloud also protected them when they got out into the heat of the desert, because that cloud inverted itself and became a shade canopy against the heat of the sun. In the midst of the zigs and the zags, that pillar was the presence of their God telling them which way to go, protecting them, and also speaking to them. When they got to Sinai, that cloud shrouded Mount Sinai and out of it they sensed immediately and directly what their God wanted to say to them.
My friend, in the midst of the zigs and the zags of life there is a tangible, palpable sense of God's presence, a nearness of God that carries a sense of, You are guiding me, you are protecting me, and your Spirit is telling me what you want me to know about you. My friend, God in his goodness sometimes leads us on an alternate path to get to the promised destination. The shortest distance between two points is a zigzag, because that's the only way to get there. Along the way God gives us reminders of his good intentions, and he gives us the tangible sense of his presence. Follow him without fear. You will never be harmed by God.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
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Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.