How do you remember your past?  Are there important stories from your past that have played a role in who you are today?  Are there pictures, objects, even artifacts that you display prominently in you home or office that help you remember where you came from, who you are and what is important?  Perhaps as you begin the lesson, you can bring in a picture, an object, or a story from you past to share with the class.  You might decide to encourage the class to share some of their “stories of origin.”  Doing so builds community and trust. It also sets the stage nicely for this Sunday’s lesson!

Covenants (legal and binding promises) aren’t about the past, however.  Making commitments to one another (marriages come to mind as an example) are about the future.  Such a promise, from one person to another, is a forward-looking agreement in which both sides make commitments of action on behalf of the other.

So, why start the lesson talking about the past?  In Exodus 19, God has taken most of the action in the Hebrew people’s story.  They have escaped slavery and are out of the Egyptian’s clutch.   For them, the future seems hard to imagine in the wilderness of Sinai.  Israel has never been in charge of themselves while in captivity.  Slavery doesn’t afford much forward-looking responsibility.  So after three months of travel, God pauses for a little history lesson before allowing the Israelites to move toward taking hold of their future.

Exodus 19: 1-9 is part history lesson part vision for the future.  And it is the beginning of a really long pause: Israel doesn’t resume its travel until a year and two months later, spanning the rest of Exodus, the whole of Leviticus and on through Numbers 10:10.  Suffice it to say, this time of looking back and looking forward is critical for the Hebrew people’s ability to honor its part of the covenant.

This pause, and really all of the 40 years spent between Egypt and the promised land of Canaan, is a liminal time for the fledgling nation of Israel.  Liminal is a term that means “in between.”  Liminality is a state that is, oddly enough, desired for human growth and an ideal state for the deepening of faith.  But its a state most of us don’t naturally seek out.

The Hebrew people find themselves between two stasis points in its history.  They have left the “comforts” of what they’ve always known: slavery.  And they haven’t yet reached what God has promised them: a land flowing with milk and honey and a chance to be a nation themselves, to set the rules instead of having the rules enforced on them.  But in Exodus 19, the newly freed slaves find themselves in a place much like their ancestor Abraham, not knowing what lay around each bend in the road.

In response to this way outside its comfort zone reality, biblical characters sometimes freak out.  On his journey from what was to what will be, Abraham tried to take control from God to insure his own safety (see referring to his wife as his sister to preserve his life).  And sometimes the Hebrew people grumbled that Moses had lead them into the desert to die.  They had it better as slaves.  Typical responses to life lived in the liminal zone.

Liminal time can be uncomfortable.  So why is it so beneficial, then?  Because once we acknowledge that things have changed, that things aren’t what they used to be, that we aren’t in control of everything around us, then we can begin to move into the future, looking for the next thing.  We can morn the past or celebrate the past but we can also leave the past and move into new opportunities of the future.  Its time for something new.  The liminal time changes us.

For Israel and God, moving forward requires remembering and acknowledging the following about the past:

  • God called and lead their ancestors to Egypt
  • they grew from a family into a large people
  • Out of fear, Egypt enslaved the Hebrew people
  • God honored his covenant with Abraham and, due to nothing the Hebrew people did, he delivered them into freedom – and into the wilderness
  • God promised Abraham and he promises the Hebrew people to make them into a great nation and lead them to their own land

The irony at Sinai is as soon as Israel is rescued from slavery, God requests their complete allegiance.  God’s vision for them is to be his most treasured possession out of all that he possesses.  Its as if God is saying: “You once belonged to Egypt, now you belong to me.”  But belonging to God will look much different than belonging to another nation.  Again, God says: “Your purpose used to be serving Egypt and building its fame.  Now it will be serving Yahweh, the creator of the world, and building my fame.”

“You once belonged to Egypt, now you belong to me.  Your purpose used to be serving Egypt and building its fame.  Now it will be serving Yahweh, the creator of the world, and building my fame.”

In liminal time, we are forced to reckon with our direction, our allegiances, and our purpose.  God has the Israelite’s attention – they are in a place they’ve never experienced before with a freedom that is unknown and frightening.  Will they make their next step out of fear or selfishness or control?  If God’s purpose is to make them a priestly kingdom (speaking for God) and a holy nation (set a part, clear differences between them and the world) God better offer these former slaves some clear instruction.

While studying this scripture, I can’t help but think of Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway.  Chuck Noland is obsessed with being on time.  He works for FedEx, insuring that packages are delivered on time.  One Christmas evening, he leaves his fiance for his next assignment somewhere on the other side of the Pacific.  During the flight, the airplane crashes.  Chuck survives, finding himself on a deserted island with a bunch of FedEx packages.  Desiring to be reunited with his fiance, he survives years of anguish alone on the island.  When he is finally rescued, he returns to learn that time had not stood still at home.  Believing he was dead, his fiance had mourned his passing and had moved on.  As heart breaking as it was for them both to learn, her liminal moment was behind her and his was just beginning.  (The Island was not a liminal time for Chuck!)

In the ending scene of the movie, Chuck is seen delivering a package that had helped him hang on during his time alone on the island.  After delivery, he comes to a cross-roads in the very different landscape of west Texas.  Chuck, along with the viewer, is left wandering, what comes next?  Which way should he go?  For Chuck, a symbol on the back of a friendly stranger’s pickup may hold an answer.  But, for Christians, this scene may help stimulate questions of how we move forward when we experience disruptions in life, both big and small.

Castaway Ending Scene


  • What was Chuck’s purpose on the island?  What is it now?
  • How do you think Chuck will decide what his purpose is now?
  • If Israel only remembered their history as slaves, what might their decision making in the desert look like?
  • If Israel remembered their escape from Egypt as an heroic act of their own doing, how might their decision making look different?
  • As Christians, what is our purpose?
  • When we stand at a crossroad, what in our past helps guide our choices about the future?
  • How does God’s redeeming work in Jesus, on our behalf, help us make decisions about the future?


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