Constants in a rambling water
Ephesians 1:3-14

They are two.  Always there.  The two. 
And it’s interesting that, as you consider the bigger picture you know that they are there, but you don’t consciously think about them all the time—there’s so much else happening.  But they are there.  Everything that happens during every day—there.  At night, all night—there.  Sometimes guiding, showing the way; sometimes protecting, at the rear, warding off danger, so that your focus is on the going forward, not being trapped and threatened by what lies behind.
For a lifelong journey, they are there.  And there’s not a lot of detail about them—no words, no particular action—just their constant presence.  From the first moment of crisis, from the start of the journey, to the end, they are there.
I was reminded of them several weeks ago when they were referred to briefly in a children’s address taking up the Old Testament reading for the day with all the excitement and drama and danger of the Israelites escape from Egypt and heading off towards Canaan on what turned out to be such a long trip through the Sinai Wilderness.  The kids’ address focussed on God’s dramatic rescue of his people; I got sidetracked by the ‘pillar of cloud’ and ‘pillar of fire’. 
In Exodus the writer reminds us that “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.  Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”  (Except where, in the next chapter it says that the pillar of cloud, when the Israelites were being chased and harassed by Pharaoh’s army, “moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel”.)  Other than that it’s not a particularly dramatic part for these two pillars—neither words nor actions—just constant presence.  They are referred to briefly here and there, but without any grand theological analysis; perhaps with the exception of the book of the prophet Nehemiah, where we read a rather long prayer of God’s people who, as part of a confession of their own mistakes and their own need for God’s forgiveness and grace, remind God of his faithfulness (and notice the pillar of cloud and fire rate a mention!):  “God, you are merciful and quick to forgive; you are loving, kind, and very patient.  So you never turned away from them—not even when they made an idol shaped like a calf and insulted you by claiming, ‘This is the god who rescued us from Egypt.’  Because of your great mercy, you never abandoned them in the desert.  And you always guided them with a cloud by day and a fire at night.  Your gentle Spirit instructed them, and you gave them manna to eat and water to drink.  You took good care of them, and for forty years they never lacked a thing.”
I remember listening to the story of the great Exodus from Egypt, Moses’ dramatic actions and speeches, the Egyptians chasing, the miracle at the Red Sea...and then, of course, it kind of slowed down to the day-in and day-out drag of wandering, and wondering, and complaining, and heading off on a tangent, and getting lost, and tears, and restoration, and promises, and new starts and—you know the story—around in circles, in the desert, for forty years.
God’s great act of salvation was in the drama, the power, the miracles!  God’s constant assurance of constant presence was in the quiet pillars....
These two pillars are one example of the symbols which are somehow always there for every generation of God’s people—symbols that effectively bring into memory and, therefore, into present reality, a consciousness of God’s faithfulness, God’s compassion, God’s forgiveness, God’s salvation.  They stand—though they don’t always stand out!—in their constancy and simplicity, as sure signs of God’s saving presence—right in the middle of all the busyness and anxiety and the frantic and the chaotic of the activity and opportunity and challenge and celebration that fills the foreground of our vision of each day.  They are always there!—but you and I hardly notice.  (Take them away and we might well feel the loss....)
Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians, in a rather powerful way, of the true nature of God’s grace.  He reminds us that we have been chosen by God to be, in Christ, his children, since before the creation of the world.  And, in God’s time, God has put into effect his plan—God has made it happen, God makes it happen, in God’s time, in God’s grace—it’s God’s plan.  God puts God’s plan into effect.  This is not something we have to worry about; it’s not something we have to ‘get right’ so that God is able to carry on with things.  This is simply to be trusted, and celebrated, and ‘lived in’, on our part.  [It took Israel 40 years of wilderness wanderings to begin to learn that lesson.]  One translation puts verse 11 in this way:  “God always does what he plans, and that's why he appointed Christ to choose us.”  It was God’s plan.  God’s grace for us, in Christ, was God’s plan—always was.  We grow up learning of God’s creation with those opening words of Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Paul reminds us that even before the “in the beginning” you and I were already chosen, already ‘in Christ’ in God’s plan.  That’s how God works—in grace—faithful.
And that is why, for example, when Nehemiah is helping the Israelites to rebuild and re-begin their identity as God’s children (returned from exile in Babylon) he leads them to confess their fault, and God’s favour in the one act; he encourages them to ‘see’ the symbols in their history and in their community, in their own lives and experience—the symbols of the faithfulness of God, of the constancy of the compassion and love and mercy and grace of God.  In their current time it would be the written Scriptures, and the rebuilt Temple that would be the visible symbols of God’s presence in their community, but in their confession of faith these are simply another form, a new form of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire—God always there with them to lead, to guide, to protect, to encourage, to lift up, to rescue, to forgive. 
In a similar way Paul points his readers to the symbols of the presence of God’s Spirit in their context—in baptism, in the proclamation and hearing of the Gospel, in their own experience of giving and receiving forgiveness, and sharing life in the community that lives in and shares the Gospel each day.
There are constants in our lives, too, in our faith community, that are visible symbols of God’s gracious presence—enduring reminders of God’s faithfulness, that God gets on with his plan.
The song I invited you to sing a few minutes ago was one I wrote quite a few years ago, shortly after my grandmother died.  The song doesn’t actually have anything to do directly with her; it entirely celebrates God’s promise to us drawing on the words of the reading we’ve had today from Ephesians. 
But I found it interesting at the time, when reflecting on the death of the last of my grandparents, and celebrating her life in Christ, that I kept returning to thinking about all those people in my own growing and living who had been, in their own quiet, non-dramatic, uncelebrated way, significant and constant signs of God’s presence—of God’s blessing, protection, guidance, nurturing, warning, encouragement; of God’s grace.  My grandmother was one, but by no means the most noteworthy, who had always been part of my living assured of my place as God’s loved child.
You consider the Exodus:   forty years we’re told, each of three hundred and sixty five days.  Take every dramatic story you can remember from that incredible journey, and give a day to each of those stories, and that leaves you with about fourteen thousand five hundred and seventy days without high drama, and yet each day always knowing God’s presence—two constant symbols of God’s presence:  the pillar of cloud in the day, and the pillar of fire in the night.
Last Sunday we noted an anniversary in our congregation:  30 years of the use of our little ‘log cabin’ church at Lilydale (the Immanuel congregation is a few years older).  Later this year we celebrate our primary school’s 30th.  I think this year is about the 45th for the college.  Open Door turns 30 in three years.  And, in reflecting on the history of each of these, and all together, in our part of Melbourne over these years, there are certainly individual and particular highlights and stories and incidents worth noting.
But for the thousands of people who have been part of the ministry of all of these over those years, in an exponentially more numerous collection of complex relationships and activities and events, the significant contribution to the lives of those who have gained and grown in an appreciation of the grace of God has been through constancy, through repetition, through the faithful, persistent presence and participation of those whose own lives and confession and care—here in ‘the church’, or elsewhere in ‘the school’, or in ‘the home’, or in ‘the car’ or at the local shops or at work or wherever—whose own lives and confession and care have shown or shared in some way the constancy of the presence of God’s grace, the availability of God’s grace, the living presence of God’s grace—people who through actions, through proclamation, and sometimes just through faithfully living out their God-given vocation in the everyday activities of every day—have shown the love of God, the compassionate care of God, the presence of God to those around them.
Unwittingly, today, little Tristan experiences the most momentous event in his life as God has publicly committed himself in all his love and all his power to Tristan for every event and every eventuality in all eternity!  That’s God’s plan!  That’s what God will do—there is no doubt about it!  (And little Tristan simply burps at the moment!)
In a further act of his commitment and love, God provides Tristan with those symbols of his presence that will walk alongside in each step of each day....  For a lifelong journey—their constant presence.
God give to each and to all of us the love to be such lifelong companions—symbols of the presence and availability of God’s grace, constantly.

  1. Before the earth knew birth, or stars began to shine,
    already you I knew forever would be mine.
    Before the mountains greened or oceans found their blue,
    the one I longed to love, the one I loved was you.
  1. My child you’d be, and free to take me by the hand.
    All that was there we’d share — that’s how my world was planned.
    The finest jewels I made with sunlight on the dew
    could never match the riches of my love for you.
  1. You were my friend, and then you turned and walked away.
    But I would die to try and bring you back to stay.
    In all my secret plans I knew what I would do:
    my Son would give his life to show I still loved you.
  1. So when you fall, and call, afraid that I won’t hear,
    know through my Son we’re one  —  I always will be near.
    No matter what you’ve done, or life has done to you,
    I haven’t changed my love, I always will love you.

Words and Music: Mark Greenthaner © Mark Greenthaner, 53-57 Plymouth Road, Croydon Vic 3136