Scripture: Deuteronomy 31:7-8
Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to leave a gathering of family or friends than it is to be the host and stay behind? There’s something about being “left behind” that feels lonely to me. As the guest, when the party or gathering comes to a close, even after saying good bye, the event still isn’t done because there’s still the trip home. But when you’re the host, after everybody leaves the event is done and you find yourself suddenly alone. A few minutes earlier you were busy saying your good byes and giving hugs and well-wishes. And as everyone else is driving away and getting themselves situated in the car, the house suddenly seems quiet and empty. That’s why I’ve always thought it’s emotionally easier to be the one leaving than it is to be the one left behind.
A personal example of this comes to mind from when I was young. Dad was on the music faculty in the Ann Arbor schools for forty-four years, and for the first half of his career, in the fall our family would the Ann Arbor Huron High School band up at Interlochen for band camp, during which time my parents would be cabin counselors. For a number of reasons, throughout my childhood and early youth, the week of band camp was truly one of the highlights of my year.
Until I was in junior high, I bunked in the forward part of the cabin with my dad. But around eighth grade or so he allowed to bunk with the high school students in the main part of the cabin – where the fun happens! And at some point they even strapped a snare drum on me and allowed me to participate in all the marching drills. Those weeks of band camp at Interlochen were simply rich with positive experiences for me. Which is why it was so emotionally crushing for me when the buses full of students pulled away at the end of the week. For them, the adventure wasn’t over; they still had a fun four-hour trip home with their friends. But not me. Our family would stay behind for a couple of hours as my parents finished packing us up and checked the cabins for any items accidentally left behind. What’s most vivid, though, us how eerily quiet the camp was at that point, and how lonely I felt being the one left behind.
I’m fully aware of the fact that in just a few short weeks, my family and I will be the one’s leaving, and you’ll remain here in Adrian. I know that the very next day we’ll be neck deep in a new adventure, so to speak, and that once we get there there’ll hardly be time to process all that’s happening. But that for some of you back here, it could feel like you’ve been left behind.
I have to imagine this was how the disciples felt in the days following his crucifixion. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve focused on the fear Jesus’ disciples were probably feeling as they hid behind locked doors following his death. But I’m not so sure fear was the only thing they felt. I have to think they were also incredibly sad. The truth was, they were grieving. They were grieving the death of their beloved teacher and friend.
And so as I picture them in my mind, I mostly see a group of men who were forlorn, feeling abandoned. If you think about it, they’d thrown their whole lot in with him. They gave up almost everything to follow him. And as they got to know him, they came to believe he was who he said he was – the Messiah, the one sent from God who would save his people from their captivity which, in their eyes, meant being saved from their Roman captors. And everyone knew that when this happened, it would be a glorious event which would turn the known world upside down on its head. But of course, that’s not what happened. The one who said he was Messiah was crucified. So not only was their friend and teacher killed, but so were their hopes and dreams and expectations. Gone. Dead. Crucified along with the man himself.
Fortunately, by God’s grace, they didn’t have to wait but a few days before God broke in upon their mourning and hopelessness and gave them a brand new perspective. With a word it changed. He is risen. The angels announced it to Mary, and Mary announced it to the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb and found it empty, just like Mary had. And before the day was over, the risen Jesus Christ was standing in their midst, breathing his peace upon them and into them. They quickly realized that he hadn’t left them!
To say that I know from the perspective of a congregant how challenging it is when a pastor leaves is a true statement. My experience of “losing” a pastor doesn’t come from my childhood or youth but, somewhat ironically, from an experience I had during seminary. During my second year we attended a United Methodist Church right there in Evanston, IL. I remember being particularly drawn to the pastor’s strong preaching. As a result, we decided to make it our church home. However, things took a turn for the worse. Not too long after we settled in there, it was announced that the pastor was being appointed elsewhere. I recall feeling extremely disappointed, even asking myself, “How can this be? How can they do this to me? He’s the reason we came here.” I don’t recall how long he’d been there. It could have been fifteen years for all I know. But for me it was only a matter of months. And his leaving was a bitter pill to swallow.
As many of you know, we Methodist’s are not known for long pastorates, which means that we have history of moving pastors more often than other denominations. In fact, a quick Google search will reveal the perception that a lot of people have about the frequency of pastoral moves in the UMC. A common search query is, “Why do Methodist pastor’s move so often?” Well, I’m going to talk a bit more about this in the weeks ahead, but for today, let’s just say that our polity has historically accounted for shorter rather than longer appointments.
Not too long after we settled in there, it was announced that the pastor was being appointed elsewhere. I recall feeling extremely disappointed, even asking myself, “How can this be? How can they do this to me? He’s the reason we came here.”
If you’re someone who come from a tradition where you call your pastor, then you’re more likely than us born-and-bred Methodist’s to have experienced a long pastorate, maybe even 30+ years. Of course, for all the good things that come with having a strong pastor in place for 30 years, the biggest challenge is saying good-bye to someone who’s been there that long. I’ve only half-jokingly said that should Jesus himself follow a beloved pastor who founded the church, the people would say of him, “Well, he’s no Pastor Steve, that’s for sure!” The point is, in every church, whether they follow a call system or an appointive system, the pastor eventually leaves. And for many people, letting go of that pastoral relationship can be really hard.
Consider Moses’ end-of-life situation. According to Acts 7:23, he was around 40 when he fled Egypt. Exodus 7:7 says he was 80 when he returned and first spoke with Pharaoh. And Deuteronomy 34:7 indicates he was 120 when he died. This means he led the Hebrew people for forty years, between the ages of 80 and 120. That’s a long time.
As you can imagine, after forty years his impending death would have been very challenging for all those who’d been relying on him for their safety and well-being. So, just before his death he gathered the people together and encouraged them with two important promises of God’s. First, he told them that they would soon cross over into the promised land and that God would go before them, preparing the way. Second, he told them that God has provided another leader to take his place, which was Joshua. Then he turns to Joshua and tells him this:
“Be strong and fearless because you are the one who will lead this people to the land the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them; you are the one who will divide up the land for them. But the LORD is the one who is marching before you! He is the one who will be with you! He won’t let you down. He won’t abandon you. So don’t be afraid or scared!” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)
As my time with you quickly draws to a close, I think it’s important for us both to keep this promise we just read in mind. In fact, I think we can even say it’s God’s promise for us as well. My role as your pastor will soon come to a conclusion. But just as he’s done for the past 190 years, God’s provided a new leader for you, who will faithfully serve you as your pastor. But more importantly, God will never leave you. Pastor’s come and go, but God never leaves!
Going back to Jesus showing up alive, we know that eventually he did leave them – but only in the physical sense. Acts 1 describes what happened. In short, he told them that shortly thereafter the Holy Spirit would come upon them and fill them with power to tell others about him. At that point the Bible says he was “lifted up” and disappeared into the clouds overhead. (This is called the Ascension, when the risen Christ returned to his eternal glory from whence he came in the first place.) Nine days later the promise he’d made came to pass. The Holy Spirit came upon them while they were gathered for the festival of Pentecost, and filled them. And ever since then, Christians have professed the belief that the Holy Spirit is in part the Spirit of Christ himself.
We’ve come to this important belief after considerable debate, discussions, and probably votes. There’s a very important line in the Nicene Creed which was a was a source of theological debate for generations. The line reads, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” It’s the phrase ‘and the Son’ that was source of so much debate. That the Holy Spirit was part of the Godhead was not debated; just his origin. Did the Holy Spirit emanate from the Father only or from both the Father and the Son. Long story short, the Western Church came down on the side of the Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son.
Here’s the point: the Holy Spirit is God’s real presence in our world today. The Holy Spirit is the risen Christ present in our world today.When God promised to never leave us, he meant that literally.He is with us, not just in thought, but in the person of his Holy Spirit.
This really is good news for us right now – both you and me. I know it helps me personally whenever I consciously remind myself of this truth. God is faithful to his promises. And one of the most important is his promises to never leave us, or forsake us.