David A. Davis
October 13, 2019
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Wilderness. A desert place. Wilderness. Desert. In that ancient part of the world, not lush but arid. Windswept. A desert place. A deserted desert place. An isolated, isolating, lonely place. Wilderness. Not inhabited. Not easily inhabited. A desert place then. A desert place now. Desert. Wilderness.
When God called to Moses from the burning bush, it was in the wilderness. Aaron and Moses got together in the wilderness. They asked Pharaoh to let the people go out into the wilderness to worship. When God led the people of Israel to the Red Sea crossing, it was through the wilderness. After Pharaoh let the people of Israel go, they camped on the edge of the wilderness. After God saved the people from the hand of Pharaoh, Moses and the people sang a song to the Lord. The prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, led all the women in dance. And right after those moments of praise, Moses led the people back to the wilderness. After three days the people were thirsty and the water was bitter. The people complained. The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood. Moses tosses the wood in the water to sweeten it up. God gave the people a statute, an ordinance, and told them to do what is right. To keep God’s statutes. They come to an oasis of twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees and they camped there. But then it was back to the wilderness. To the desert place. The desert. The wilderness.
The whole congregation of the Israelites, two months and 15 days since they left Israel are back in the wilderness somewhere between Mt. Sinai and that oasis they just left. “The whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” They told Moses and Aaron it would have been better to die in Egypt with a full belly rather than come out into this wilderness, this desert place, this desert. It would have been better to die in Egypt rather than have this whole congregation, this whole assembly, this entire people killed by hunger.
They complained. They murmured. They grumbled. When the water was bitter in the wilderness, they complained. When they were hungry in the wilderness, they complained. Whey they were thirsty, they complained. Whey they thought they were going to die, they complained. They grumbled. They murmured. They complained when they were hungry; when they were thirsty. The whole congregation of the Israelites. They weren’t being whiney. They weren’t nagging. They weren’t just being nasty. They weren’t being sticks in the mud about change. They weren’t just mouthing off because it was supposed to be all about them, about what they want, about what they like. They weren’t acting entitled, or copping an attitude or even being ungrateful for their new freedom. No. They were hungry. They were thirsty. And they thought they were going to die. Because they were in the wilderness, they were in the wilderness for a long time. Over and over again, they kept finding themselves in the wilderness and the wilderness can be really, really hard.
Here in the wilderness chapters of Exodus, Amalek shows up to fight with the people of Israel. Joshua led the battle for Israel. Moses sat at the top of the hill with the staff of God in his hand. Whenever Moses held up the staff, things went well in battle for Joshua and the people. When Moses was tired and couldn’t hold up the staff, things quickly changed for the worse. So they brought a stone for Moses to sit down and Aaron and Hur helped hold up Moses’ hand with the staff until the sunset. Until Amalek was defeated. Until Joshua and the people of Israel claimed victory. The old Sunday School lesson tells of that scene, that staff, Aaron and Hur helping to hold up Moses’ arm. But the takeaway is that in the wilderness there is hunger and thirst and there are enemies too.
The wilderness is a place of struggle. A place where the most ordinary and basics of necessities can’t be assumed. A place that eats away at humanity. Where enemies lurk. Where spirits abound. Yes, the wilderness can come with connotations of a pilgrimage. It can be one of those spiritual “thin places” unlike any other. It can offer profound encounters with creation and with the Creator. But here for the people of Israel, the wilderness is more like the one Jesus experience. For Jesus, it was the place to be tempted, to be tormented, to be turned away from God. A place of the devil. A desert place. The desert. The wilderness.
In the witness of scripture, the wilderness is all of that. All of the above. But it is not a God-forsaken place. Moses didn’t let God have it when the water was bitter and the people complained about being thirsty. No, the Lord showed Moses that sweetening branch. When they were hungry, God sent manna from heaven before Moses came to give voice to the complaint. Yes, Moses finally lashes out at God when the people were thirsty again with no water because the people were ready to kill him. The Lord told Moses to strike the rock and the water came. And there was that staff of God hovering over Joshua in battle. Water from a rock. Bread from heaven. And the people spared in battle.
There in the wilderness, God hears God’s people’s cry. God never judges the people’s complaints. With ever-growing patience, God hears their cry and God works to mold them into God’s people. God strives to establish the people as a whole congregation, a people with an identity. A people related to creation itself. A people grateful just for bread and water. God mold’s God’s people with statutes, and a means of honoring the sabbath. God shapes the sacred memory in the people. A memory of all that God has done. A people, a relationship, and a God; all shaped, molded, bound together in the wilderness. Wilderness formation.
I was in Minneapolis this week with my peer group of pastors. One of the powerful experiences came in a meeting with some Native American leaders. We learned more of a tragic history we had never been taught. We listened as representatives of three different generations told us their story and their intimate connection to the stories of their ancestors. Then we went to the Fort Snelling state park which sits at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers and the sacred land of the Dakota people. A storyteller told us of the Dakota War of 1862. The pastor told us how in the Native American oral tradition, the valley was considered a Garden of Eden, a place where creation, and life itself, was divinely created. And how with that War of 1862, the valley became also a sacred place of death, where hundreds of indigenous men, women, and children were rounded up, encamped, died, and were buried along the riverbank. The pastor/preacher/storyteller wanted us to know that for indigenous people in every generation one story never replaces another. The stories are not time-bound and that the current generation, and their identity, is shaped as they are drawn into, relive, hear and then experience for themselves a sacred place of life and of death.
I’ve told you before that when I was very young, after my brother’s death at the age of 21 in a car accident, I heard my mother tell one of her good friends from church “don’t you ever tell me that this was God’s will.” And I’ve told you before that a long, long time ago, a woman in the congregation sat in my office almost a year after her husband died and she said “if you tell me to just take it one day at time I am going to punch you in the nose.” After his son Alex died in his twenties, William Sloane Coffin said this in his first sermon back in the pulpit he talked about all the reverends in his life who tried to shower him with scripture and bad theology and that the comfort came from those who just wanted to hold hands, bring food, and sit quietly rather than quote anything. “Scripture” he said, “is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support”. Scripture and its witness to God’s presence in the God-forsaken places of our lives. And as for the comfort, it came from those who had the strength and the faith and the theology to hear a people’s cry. I’ve told many, many people and I have probably told you from here that when you murmur and grumble to God, when you complain when you find yourself in the wilderness, you are in very good, biblical company. Few experiences in ministry have moved me more, touched my heart more deeply, shaped my faith more profoundly than coming alongside one of the saints of God who is courageous enough to let God hear their cry.
This wilderness story. To hear again of the whole congregation of Israel in the wilderness. To hear again of the sacred place of wilderness, complaint, and a God who hears the cry of God’s people, is to be drawn in once again to the holy presence of a God whose promise never ends. It offers the assurance that God is present to you in the most God-forsaken places of life. It comes with the proclamation that when life is really, really hard, and the suffering is real, and when you have absolutely every reason to grumble, murmur, and complain, that God hears your cry with no judgment at all. To be taken again into the wilderness of the sacred story is to be reminded again of how in life and death, you and I are being molded, shaped by the God who created every part of this earth, this blessed, groaning, murmuring, complaining earth. And that the God of the covenant, the God of our salvation is still working on the formation of God’s people, on the mountaintops and in the wilderness, to be the people God has called us to be; for once we were no people, and now we are God’s people. A servant people called to a kingdom life of love and care for one another, for the others, for the stranger, and yes, for creation itself. Hear again of God, God’s people, and their shared wilderness formation and dare to believe that absolutely every place, every corner, the most ordinary place and the most extraordinary place, every joy, every sorrow or your life is sacred. It is sacred because God is there. God is here. God is with you. And God loves you.