The Wilderness

Last year I published a book about the Exodus story, Exodus is Our Story, Too! I spent a good four years researching and writing the book and one major thing I have taken away from that experience is a huge appreciation for the wilderness and what that bleak landscape contributes to our journey in Christ. I think of is as a major character in the four books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy along with God, Moses and the Israelites. Sometimes we follow God into the wilderness, like the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt, but life sometimes throws us curveballs like the loss of a loved one or a hurricane which destroys our home or the loss of our job and we land in the wilderness suddenly.

Almost the first thing one notices about the wilderness in the Bible is that God is highly visible there. The book of Exodus describes Him as visible in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[1]  In some ways it is the bleakness of the landscape and our dis-ease at being in the wilderness that makes God so visible. It brings out our dependency on Him. Where else can we turn in this hostile environment? The Israelites could not have found water in the desert without God’s help. And food, without God’s provision of manna and quail for over 40 years, where would they have gotten their physical nourishment? His presence assured their spiritual nourishment, as well.

The wilderness is not a natural landscape for human beings. It is lonely and prickly and dangerous. It is not a place where we can relax and soak up the rays like at the beach. It is not a friendly place in the slightest. It has us on edge and grasping for safety. It highlights all our fears and angers. Its main purpose in the Exodus story is to keep the people off-guard so that God can communicate with them, so that they can adopt a new way of seeing life, so that they can find a new way of being in the world.

For most of the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert, the issue highlighted was their rebellion against God and His laws. They complained about everything. They hated being in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt: “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out in to this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”[2] Over and over again. Finally, God told Moses that the first generation that He brought out of Egypt would never see the Promised Land.[3] They would die off before He led the Israelites across the Jordan River.

Think of Moses as the part of us that can hear God which comes forward in us in the wilderness.

But with all the familiar aspects of life missing and with the Israelites’ own discomfort, God first hands down His Ten Commandments. Then He begins to organize their lives, naming their gifts and what purpose He has for them.  He does the same for the tribes, for example, naming the Levites as the ones to support the priests.

Interestingly, it is in the wilderness that we learn to own all our own stuff—especially, our rebellion. After the incident with the building and worship of Baal, God tells Moses to turn the statue into a liquid which the Israelites are to drink.[4] Later in Numbers after another siege of rebellion, God has sent snakes which bite and kill the Israelites. When the people complain, God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and to hang it up on a pole. Anyone who looks at the snake will be saved. And so the Israelites looked at the snake and saw it for what it was and lived.[5] Both of these incidences point to the importance of owning our own stuff, our rebellious nature, whatever stands between us and God.

As the first generation aged and died off, new leaders emerged, Joshua and Caleb who, unlike their brethren, had never rebelled and were fit to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Even Moses had rebelled at one point—he struck a rock for water, when God had only told him to speak to the rock.[6] Moses at an advanced age was to die on the near bank of the river just short of the Promised Land. Still, God called Moses a servant of God at the time of his death.[7]

The wilderness had done its work of taking a rebellious population and transforming it into an obedient one, ready to follow Joshua now and do whatever the Lord their God asked of them. Now, moving as one people, following God’s orders through Joshua, they had moved into a full partnership with God and were now ready to conquer Canaan, the land of milk and honey, promised to them by God as descendants of Abraham. Interestingly, in the whole book of Joshua there is only one rebellious act—Achen’s sin of keeping some of the sacred things of the Jericho people. For that he and his whole clan had to die, so as to not distract the Israelites from obeying God’s strategy for conquering each city-state.[8]

This is the work of the wilderness: defining who we really are in our depths, not as the world knows us. Beyond this goal is the letting go of the rebellious self. For it is only when we’ve given up our rebellion– our preferences, expectations and assumptions, that we are able to appreciate what has been given us, to live in gratitude for all that we do have and to follow God wherever He would take us.

Any transition in life throws us into the wilderness where we are to figure out how to respond to this latest change in our life. There we are to work out how we will adapt to the new reality in our lives whether it is the loss of a loved one or a job, whether it is a natural disaster or we’ve made some horrible mistake. The wilderness is where we work out our difficulties, where we leave the past to the past, where we adapt to the new reality. We can use the time in the wilderness to solve the immediate problem than sent us there or we can work on the lifelong challenge to love God with all of ourselves. With the first, and short-term goal, we return to the world and our place in it, somewhat changed. With the second choice, we are led to give up the world and to just focus on God and what He wants for us.

If we’re attuned to our deeper self, to our soul, we will go beyond the current crisis and will answer the deeper call of the wilderness to engage our lives into a true partnership with God. We will go beyond just the latest dilemma to a life-long commitment to follow God wherever He would lead us. And where does He lead us? To living a full life as we were created to be in this world and to fulfilling our purpose in this lifetime. We move beyond the world’s influence as our rebellious nature dies off and we can finally see the true benefits of living in God’s arms and following His direction for our lives.

In a similar way, after His baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness working out his relationship with God and how to listen to the devil who tempted Him with the world’s longings. Then He was ready to begin His ministry. Notice the 40 days and the 40 years—it takes a long time to come to terms with our human qualities which stand between us and God, which call us away from God.

See confession, owning our own stuff—next month’s topic.

[1] Exodus 13:21
[2] Exodus 16:3
[3] Numbers 14:20-23
[4] Exodus 32:20
[5] Numbers 21:8-9
[6] Numbers 20:7-12
[7] Joshua 1:2
[8] Joshua 7:1

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