Wilderness Wisdom

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.  Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.  Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Exodus 16:1-16

45 days earlier… they had been so happy… Life had been so hard in Egypt. Their lives were bitter… hard work… slave work… brick and mortar… living basically in labor camps… The Egyptians had been ruthless in their treatment… (Think Assad in Syria or your favorite ruthless leader in our world…)

And God had noticed… and God had heard… and God devised a strategy… a plan to save his people… using Moses and Aaron… And he gave them a promise… that one day they would live in a land flowing with Milk and Honey… Puppies and Rainbows all the time… is what they may have heard…

The plan seemed to work… Moses finally accepts his call to lead these people… He did take some convincing… He did not want to live so God could use him at first (and he had some pretty good excuses… he is not a public speaker… too busy…but eventually he listened and God used him. God is persistent.

Together they saw God do some mighty things to shake them free from obstinate Pharaoh who did not want to give up power or let them go. It began with a series of plagues that let Pharaoh know God was serious about letting his people go… with the tipping point being the final plague: which is remembered every Passover… then there was that miraculous escape through the Red Sea… and those who pursued them to kill them were drowned… On the other side of the Red Sea there was dancing and singing and celebration… If they had had the words of Martin Luther King Jr, no doubt they would have been shouting, “Free at Last, Free at Last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

And now they were ready to make the trip to the land flowing with milk and honey… that promising promised land. On the way they had a few struggles, but the Lord provided an oasis in Elim … 12 springs of water… seventy palm trees… food and water… Not a bad rest stop. It looked like a good plan.

But no one had planned for what happened next… which we read about today. (No one packed for this kind of trip!) Today, no one is singing anything but the blues…or spirituals (Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen) for they are stuck… trapped in the wilderness. They begin to doubt the plan… they begin to wonder if it was the Lord at all that led them there… for the complaints begin… against Moses and Aaron…

“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; for you have brought us out in to this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Thank God this happened before the day of cable TV and MSNBC, FOX, CNN—can you see the reporters on the ground just second guessing the leadership of Moses and Aaron… “Didn’t they think through their strategy for getting through the wilderness? It would have been better if we had never left Egypt!”

Oh, how quickly they forget… they dream of those good old days… and if they weren’t good, they were better than this…  No one signed up for the wilderness trip… we signed up for Disneyworld… to the beach… the mountains… not this!

Keith Green sang about it this way years ago:

“So you wanna go back to Egypt where it’s warm and secure,

Are you sorry you bought the one-way ticket when you thought you were so sure?

You wanted to live in the Land of Promise, but now it’s getting so hard.

Are you sorry you’re out here in the desert, instead of your own backyard?

 Eating leeks and onions by the Nile

Ooh, what a breath, but dining out in style,

Ooh, my life’s on the skids.

Give me the pyramids.”

The story today speaks of the part of following the Lord that no one likes to talk about… that while we put on our travel brochures and websites… the journey of faith will take you to the promised land of God… In the small print, are the words… “Caution, the journey may involve periods of doubt, complaint, dismay, disillusionment as we wander in the wilderness…cross the desert…Some may not make it… some will remain lost…some will give up”

We may not put that in our brochures… but God does. The wilderness is a prominent theme in the Bible. The life of faith includes a wilderness… Here that again: Contrary to what some prosperity preachers will tell you… The Life of faith includes a wilderness… no one is exempt.

This theme will appear again and again in scripture. In the future Israel will face the wilderness of exile as they are removed from the promised land… and as the waters of baptism are still drying from the body of Jesus… he will be led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.

And here is the part we don’t like to hear: It seems that living in the wilderness is also a part of God’s plan for our lives. No one gets to the promised land without a trip through the desert.

What that tells me is that the wilderness is as much a part of the life of faith as the joyous moments when we sing and celebrate the joy of our salvation. I don’t know anyone who does not have a wilderness story to tell… for some it is the story of addiction and substance abuse… for others there is the lost job or being stuck in a job you hate… there are broken relationships… broken marriages…domestic violence…

for others, there are devastating journeys through the death of a child or grand child… there are all of those fights with cancer, ALS, Eboli… we are awash in a desert of illness that threatens us. Very few people are able to live the life of faith without an actual and spiritual wilderness experience… where you begin to doubt and wonder if God is real at all… and if God is real, why would God put you through what you are having to live through right now… If God is real why would God allow there to be so much suffering… so much pain… Does God not hear us crying and complaining as we are at the end of our ropes?  Reminds me of the name of that Syrian refugee ministry on the border; “Is anybody there?”

The text answers the question for us… Yes, God is there…God hears… The Lord hears our fears expressed in our grumbling and complaining… The text wants to lift that up clearly for us. Moses instructs Aaron to tell the Israelites to draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining… As Aaron speaks… they look into the wilderness—the place of their pain… and they see the cloud… a sign of God’s presence… the cloud that had led them out of Egypt… that cloud is with them… the Lord speaks to Moses and says,

“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites, say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning  you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord.”

For many, faith is challenged in the wilderness—and some are lost along the way… They had expected the life of faith to be all easy and filled with joy… and a sort of movie ending of we live happily ever after… They thought they had made a deal with God… “I will believe in you and follow you… I’ll go to church… volunteer… do what you ask, and all that I ask in return is that you bless my life and reward me for my sacrifice.”

But faith does not work that way and many are lost in the wilderness.

Other wilderness wanderers would offer you a different story:… they would say… Looking back… they did not like the wilderness… but they thank God for the wilderness for it was in the wilderness they found God… they discovered a deeper faith… that they moved beyond Loving God for what God could do for us… (help my team win… create a happy family… protect our nation… give me health and wealth… they moved from that)  to loving God who is able to sustain them and help them through the wilderness.

They discovered the God who walks with us in the valley of the shadow… They know that God never promised an easy life with no trials… But God did promise a life where faith can mature.

I’ve quoted to some of you my theology professor John Leith. One day in seminary I was struggling to understand what they call “Theodicy”… a fancy way of saying, “Why does God allow there to be so much suffering?” The book of Job is a book about theodicy—why bad things happen to good people. Talk about a wilderness story. So I was asking Dr.Leith about that and he said,

“Jody, if God intended to create a world that was a hedonistic paradise where people were happy all the time and every dream was filled and there were no problems to be faced…then God did a bad job. But if God intended to create a world where we could grow to trust God… where we could mature in our faith… where our peace and joy were grounded not in outward circumstances… but in learning to trust the God who loves us… then this is the kind of world where that was possible.”

This is the kind of faith I hear coming from Steve Hayner. Steve is dying of cancer without hope of a cure…except for a “hail Mary” of treatment. Steve is the President of Columbia Seminary and a pastor. I’ve been following his story on Caringbridge which really a story of how his faith is seeking understanding and comfort as he travels through this very difficult wilderness…What I have read from him is something I would call, “Wilderness wisdom”… the kind of wisdom that only comes from those people of faith who have lived or are living through a wilderness experience… I read his comments almost as one reads a guidebook on survival… trying to learn lessons to help us all as we make this inevitable journey.

Recently Steve was reflecting on depression.“Are you depressed?” people ask. “I don’t know. Maybe. Depression is hard to measure… I do know this is a “darker” time for me as the accumulative side effects of chemo extends farther into every week, as the fatigue confines me for longer periods to my bed or the couch… It’s definitely not a “happy time”…So what is there to do in the dark times?

The first thing is not to be afraid or embarrassed to identify it. Unfortunately in our culture, there is still a kind of shame connected with depression, as if we should never experience it. And after all, I’m the guy who signs every letter with ‘joyfully’. But joy is dependent on who I am and how I am loved more than on my circumstances. It is happiness that takes the hit when circumstances go bad. Not joy. Our circumstances are just too variable to be the foundation of our daily feelings about life. It’s way too easy to equate ‘blessing’ with circumstances instead of God’s loving embrace.

The fact is, I am blessed because I belong to God-in life, in death and everything in between—not because my circumstances are always the way I want them to be. Identifying that this is a dark time simply acknowledges the truth of my life, but says little about the condition of my heart. But truth always opens the door to new life, so I would rather face darkness full on than try to put on another happy mask.

The second thing that I’m doing in the darkness is to let God and God’s people minister to me with the gifts that remind me of who I am and of God’s forever presence. (Sounds like Manna in the wilderness to me)These are the gifts that range from music in the background, to the sight of carefree birds fluttering at the feeder outside our window, from the gentle words of a friends’ favorite poet presented as an encouragement, to the faces of our faculty in a cherished group portrait that I just received, from the laughter of the grandchildren, to the touch of the hand of my wife, or a dear friend. There are so many gifts that are meant to be included in the darkness as well as the light, and which bring special meaning in each space.”

I don’t know of anyone who wants to wander in the wilderness… who wants to sign up for that trip and face the fear and uncertainty that comes along with it. I also don’t know anyone who will avoid making that trip… But the witness of the Scriptures… and of people like Steve is this: there is much wisdom  and growth that God offers us during those days… a place where faith is born… and there are  many lessons to be learned… the most important being this: that it is there… especially there… we  learn to trust God… our rock and our redeemer… a lesson to be learned again and again as we continue our journey through the wilderness on our way to the promised land.  Amen.