Braving the Wilderness
Braving the Wilderness
November 12, 2017
Last week, we watched as our ancestors in faith were set free from their life as slaves in Egypt. For generations, they had made bricks, day-in and day-out. For generations, they had adjusted to that life. There was food (not good food but enough food—after all, no one wanted their slaves to die!) There were homes and families (after all, families produce the next generation of slaves!) In all honesty, there was real security in life in Egypt. What was missing was any sense of purpose or meaning. What was missing was even a shred of freedom.
When the possibility of freedom arose, at first, they scoffed: “That will never happen!” When the plagues began, they paid a different kind of attention: “What the heck is happening here?” They began, over time, to entertain the possibility that things might change, that freedom was possible. When the Passover happened, they ran for their free lives, so fast that they didn’t even have time to let the bread rise. They passed through the Red Sea (again, “What the heck?”). They ran straight into the wilderness.
At some point, when they realized that the Egyptians were no longer following them, when it dawned on them that they were free, they had to have stopped and bent over and put their hands on their knees and gasped for air. And when they looked up and looked around, here’s what they were bound to see: they were in a desert with no water and no food in sight. They had no clue where they were. They had no clue where they were going. They had to have thought to themselves, “Oh, my God, we are free! Oh no…”
This is what’s happening in our text this morning. All of the people have made their way to what was known as, “The Wilderness of Sin.” (Can’t you just imagine the old-style, fire and brimstone preachers just waiting to preach that sermon?) They have been delivered from slavery straight into the most inhospitable place around. There is not even a “smidge” of gratitude to be found. There is just rage: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” Thanks a lot Aaron and Moses for bringing us all this way so that we can starve to death!
Now, although our text doesn’t go there, we should pause and connect to Aaron and Moses at this point. If you have children and you have even taken those children on a vacation, you have had this moment with your kids: “Dad, we drove forever just to get here? I want to go home!” As the whining crescendos, we think to ourselves, “Next year, I’m going on vacation by myself!”
I remember taking a group of teenagers on a canoe trip. (What was I thinking?) The whining started almost with the first stroke of a paddle: “This boat is too tippy; I don’t like my paddle; You don’t really know where we are going, do you?” Ultimately, I decided to just hand them the map. (Every paddler got their own map on the next trip!) When the whining started up again, “I don’t know how to read a map,” I just laid back in my seat and said, “I guess you’re about to learn!”
The less comfortable truth is that we also have to honestly express some empathy for the people, too. We have all been the whiners in our own time and in our own special whining tone. The adventures might have been as varied as we are. For one of us, it was the physical challenge that we always wanted to take on: a bike trip or a hike or a sport—whatever. For others of us, it was a new chapter in our lives: moving out of home; getting married, having our first child. For others, it might have been taking the risk to reach out and go for that new job. Those would all be things we willingly chose. Of course, there is a whole host of other “adventures” that aren’t welcome: we are in pain—physically or mentally or relationally and we become convinced that making a change would be worth it. Or, someone else changes and that forces us to change, too: we lose our job or someone ends a relationship with us or someone we love dies. One way or another, we have all found ourselves bent over with our hands on our knees, gasping for breath. And when we look up, what we see scares us to death—a big, vast sea of nothing but unknowns and insecurity.
There is not a person here this morning who has not been the leader who is getting blamed for this mess. We all have been a part of the mutiny when we realized that we were in over our heads. If we are the leader, all we want is a pair of noise cancelling headphones. If we are part of the mutiny, all we want is to go home, where things are familiar and predictable. We can’t remember how miserable we were in the home we now so fondly remember. All we know is that the present in hard and miserable and challenging. We want out.
To put the matter in the words of one New Wave Band from long ago: people say that want freedom of choice but what they really want is freedom from choice (Yes…I just quoted Devo in a sermon!) We want to be free but we don’t want to take the risks and face the challenges and the hardships that making our own choices almost always requires. We always have that inner teenager inside of us who wants everything to be provided by Mom and Dad and then would just like Mom and Dad to please leave us alone.
You go on a long bike ride and the first crank on the pedals hurts. You go on a long canoe trip and the first portage feels like it is three miles long. You have your first day of chemotherapy and think, “I have to do how many more of these?”. You are on your seventh sleep deprived night in a row as a parent and you think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to hire a sitter and just walk upstairs and go to bed.”
Here’s the truth. None of that actually gets easier. If you suddenly could look into the future, past those first few days to where you thought the hard work would be done, you would still be pedaling and paddling and heading to the hospital and walking the floor with your baby in your arms, pleading with them to please just quit torturing Daddy! However, if you looked long enough, what you would see is something else. You would see yourself being brave enough to face the wilderness in whatever form it was appearing. Then, what would unfold is a vision of a you who was tougher and wiser than you had ever been before.
Wilderness times are a giant invitation to clarify for ourselves what matters and what doesn’t matter. I may love an ice cold soda or beer or a nice glass of wine. That’s not happening if I’m in the woods. Instead, I’m going to learn to love the incredible good fortune of a lukewarm drink of water. At first glance in the chemo room, I may see a rag tag bunch of strangers. After a while though, I may be looking with love at my team. With that newborn baby in tow, I may dream of sleeping for three days straight but a solid two hour nap when the baby is napping may be the greatest gift that I’ve ever been given. The wilderness has a way of teaching us the value of “enough,” as opposed to the notion that somehow life is going to meet my every need.
The wilderness taught our ancestors how much they needed each other. In the earliest days of the Christian church, those ancestors didn’t argue quite so much about who was right and who was wrong or who was in and who was out because, mostly, they were glad to make it through the day without getting arrested for what the believed. Having other people to go through those hard times with was a gift. In the same way, our most ancient of ancestors had to rely on each other to make it through their wilderness, too. It was only later, in both cases, when the suffering ended and things felt more secure that people’s most petty instincts and drives could take over again.
If the wilderness has always taught people how much they need each other, then it has also always taught folks how much they need God, too. The only way they had a crack at freedom was because God cared. The only reason they had a leader like Moses was because God called him. The only reason they had food was because God provided for them. The only reason they had any sense of direction was because God led them, with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They were never going to make it on their own. The wilderness taught them their limits (which is a part of what everyone who has ever set off on that bike ride or canoe trip or chemotherapy or parenting adventure has learned: his or her limits in this life.)
Later in the story of our ancestors in faith, it is acknowledged that there was a shorter way to the Promised Land, that God took them the long way. Every adventurer can look back and see the missed turns and the moments when routes had to be recalculated. The implication for our ancestors was that had they arrived any earlier, they would not have been ready. They needed forty years to forget that they were slaves. They needed forty years to get tough enough to fight for that Promised Land. They needed forty years to learn that no matter where they went or how hard things got, God was with them. They needed to learn that things happen in God’s own time.
That’s the funny thing about wilderness days, though. When we are immersed in the challenges, all we can think about is getting to where we are going. However, when we look back, we cherish the places we traveled along the way. We realize that our favorite place we ever lived was that dump of an apartment that we thought was so great at the time! Instead of manna, we ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and the tuna we put in it if we happened to be living large. We remember what it was like to be in the wilderness and see a storm coming and know that there was nothing to do but ride out that storm together.
Wilderness time is hard. Wilderness time is challenging. Wilderness time is amazing. The wilderness teaches us that the going is home.