Once upon our time, there is a man named Joe.
Twenty-nine-year-old Joe, an only child, is going through his parents’ financial records. Or, more accurately, he’s trying to read what is left of those records. He’s a week into sifting through materials from the bank, documents from the lawyer, reports from the police and fire department.
Five years ago, Joe finished law school and got married. He started his job with the firm that represents nonprofit organizations, mostly those that advocate for environmental causes. Four years ago, Joe’s young marriage failed – infidelity on the part of both spouses. Joe cranked up the partying for a while. Booze carried him through the depression, but only so far. It stopped working. Then, booze made the depression worse.
Hitting what he thought was rock-bottom, Joe three years ago accepted a friend’s invitation to church and within a few months, accepted Christ. His life truly turned around. He was even awarded greater responsibility at the firm and nice pay raise. Life was looking up.
Then, one of the major clients went out of business. Less lawyers were needed and a few months ago, Joe was let go. The search for new employment has been fruitless.
Last week, Joe’s parents were killed in a house fire. It is still unclear what happened, but it is entirely possible that medication both parents were taken played a role in them being unable to escape before they died. Now Joe has made the startling discovery that his parents had a lot more debt than money. He’s dealing with investigators who want to determine what happened. He’s dealing with creditors. He’s had to work with the funeral home and the attorneys who handled his parents’ will.
Joe feels utterly lost and completely alone.
I thought about beginning this morning with some word association. I would say, “Wilderness.” And you’d maybe shout out the first thoughts that came to mind. The campers and lovers-of-all-things-outdoors among us hear “wilderness,” and get excited. When can we go?? Others despise bugs and itchy, hot weather, and frosty cold nights in a tent with a sleeping bag that just isn’t quite warm enough. I say, “Wilderness,” and they say, “Next question.”
Or, I thought about opening up by saying, “Now imagine, without any preparation, you were dropped into a wilderness that is far, far from the nearest home or road. It’s so far out there, you have no idea which direction is civilization. What would you do?” And we would each write down our answers and share with the person on our left or on our right.
The problem with that illustration is it isn’t going to happen to you or to me. No one is going to take us out to the middle of nowhere with zero warning and then just leave us there. We can imagine what we might do in such a circumstance, but that imagining is unrelated to anything that will happen in our lives this week. It’s unrealistic.
Joe is not unrealistic. You can imagine being Joe. Many here don’t have to imagine. Sudden losses hit us, drastic life change, change that is not for the good. If you live a charmed life and haven’t dealt with sudden job loss or sudden relationship loss or unexpected financial trouble, you might think I have exaggerated Joe’s circumstance. If you suspect me of overplaying it, ask people in our church about their life circumstances. We’re not one large collection of people down in the dumps, but many here have had to and are traversing the desert of pain, loss, disappointment, and crippling uncertainty.
If you haven’t been lost in the desert, it is something that is probably going to happen. Don’t seek out calamity. Just know that it hits everyone.
What do we do in the desert, with nowhere to turn?
Exodus reads, “The whole congregation complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (16:2).
I suggested in my hypothetical that we might imagine being taken so far into remote, wild barren lands that wouldn’t even know the direction of civilization. We wouldn’t know which way to walk for the nearest road. The Hebrews we meet in Exodus were in a wilderness where there were no roads in any direction. They had to make there way and they had no idea how to do that.
The wilderness was a place where they were lost. The wilderness was a place where they had no direction. And they had no provisions. And no ability to provide for themselves. They were powerless. They found themselves at the mercy of nature, and nature, as hurricanes and earthquakes and famines show us, is merciless. The desert wilderness was a place void of hope. In scripture, the ocean depths embody abyss – a bottomless, black chaos that threatens to completely swallow a small, insignificant speck that is the human being.
If the ocean fills the man or women with the dread, the ultimate fear of annihilation, the desert robs the person of hope. The desert is a wasteland where there is nothing, and the person is forgotten. Loss, abandonment, isolation, alienation from human touch and human society; in the ocean we are swallowed; in the desert forgotten. Either way, we become nothing, cutoff from humanity and worse, cutoff from God.
Instead of literally trying to imagine how to survive the harshness of the desert the way an explorer or army ranger might survive imagine powerlessness and hopelessness. When reading Exodus and trying to enter the story, we submit the story of our lives to this Biblical epic, and in doing so, through Exodus, God speaks into our journeys. To connect with Exodus, we don’t put ourselves in the desert. We call to mind our own experiences of powerlessness, abandonment, dependency, and frustrating loss; frustration that brings us to tears because we know we cannot do anything. That’s the wilderness.It clouds our vision. Why was Israel in the desert? Through Moses, God led them there. Why did God lead them there? In agony, they cried out to God. Why did they cry out to God? In Egypt, the monarch, Pharaoh was cruel. He killed the Hebrew boy babies. He made the people slaves. He made their labors impossible – making bricks without straw. He had his overseers drive the Hebrews with the whip. They fell into a less than human existence and cried out to God and God led them out from that horrid situation.
Now, 2½ into their desert sojourn, they follow God’s Moses, and they feel the massive wilderness engulf them, and their anxieties and their aching bellies create a fiction of where they came from. They forget the Egyptian whip. They forget the murderous evil of Pharaoh. They only remember that Pharaoh wanted his slaves fed, so they could work. “In Egypt, we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger” (16:3). They are shouting at Moses and Aaron. They have completely forgotten God and are instead turning full force against God’s representatives, and they shout words that are absolute idiocy. They wilderness does that. It makes us go mad.
The same happens in life when stress builds. It becomes all we can see. We feel totally trapped – maybe it is financial stress. The treadmill is (1) go to work; (2) pay bills and expenses that exceed what came in on the paycheck; (3) dig into savings and watch that number decline; (4) repeat. This trap is a hopeless cycle and we lose the ability to see anything else in life. We cannot think creatively about ways to altar life so we aren’t caught in this rut. We cannot see the blessings that are in life and are obvious to those who look into our lives on the outside. We just feel lost, we then lose sight of God, and then we say and believe the absurd.
What did Jesus think of the wilderness? “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Oh? Is the desert as awful as we’ve made it sound? Jesus proactively sought out the desert, the deserted place. Why would he do that? “Now when Jesus heard this [the news of the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew … in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). In the instance from Mark, Jesus tried to slip away in the pre-dawn darkness. He fled the company of others and sought the solitary isolation of the desert. In the example from Matthew 14, grieving for the loss of his friend John, He got in a boat and sailed away so others couldn’t follow him. Jesus wanted to be alone, so he went to desert places.
We’ve cited the dangers and the potential for spiritual evil in the desert, but throughout the Old and New Testaments, the desert is also where we meet God. In fact, sometimes God leads his people out to the wastelands because they aren’t really wastelands at all. The barrenness and the deathly quiet and the isolation – only there will God be heard.
In fact, Moses says to the complaining people, “You shall know that it was God who brought you out of Egypt.” That is repeated twice in the passage. In the desert, the people would know the power of God.
God tells Moses, “I have heard the complaining” (16:12). God hears Joe as Joe wallows in all his misery. When marriages die, God hears us. When our loved ones are faced with cancer, God hears. In times of job loss, financial uncertainty, depression, and unexpected calamity. God hears. It’s not wrong to cry out to him. There’s an entire Old Testament book called Lamentations. The prayer of complaint to God is sanctioned by scripture. In dire straits, what else should we do? We cry out, and God hears.
“You shall know.” “I have heard.” Moses also tells the people, “You shall see the glory of the Lord.” There’s something about God we cannot see until we are in the spiritual wandering places where it seems despair, hunger, solitude, and pain are in abundance, and hope and sustenance and safety cannot be found. There are aspects of God we need and we can only see God in that saving way when we journey into the desert. That’s where God shows up.
He said to Moses, “I will text Israel.” God provides quail meat and manna bread, and God imposes some rules on how these gifts of his grace are to be used. Only use what you need for today. The day before Sabbath, gather extra, and bake the manna and boil the meat so you can rest on Sabbath as God rests. God tests to see if his people will embrace a life of dependence on Him.
He didn’t save them from Egypt for the sake of freedom. He saved them so they would be a holy people, called out by God to be a nation of priests. Israel was saved to be in service to God that God’s holiness and love and grace and salvation would be known throughout the world.
As Christians, we aren’t saved so we’ll get to Heaven. We aren’t saved so we’ll be happy. We aren’t saved so we will have financial and material success and prosperity and perfect health. We are saved to be God’s people sharing the gospel of salvation in the world. We experience the desert in order we understand our absolute need for God. With that understanding, we receive Jesus and the forgiveness he offers, and then we live as dependent people. We depend on God every day for spiritual truth and for spiritual feeding. In the desert, God tests to see if we will truly depend on Him, or as soon as we feel confident, will we depend on our own strength instead of his grace?
What happened to Jesus? He went into the desert and ate nothing for 40 days. For forty days, he lived off prayer and nothing else – no shelter, no food. Then he was tested by the temptations of Satan.
Obviously the wilderness is many things. It is where we are lost and without hope. It is where God hears us and we know God and see God’s glory. And it is a place where God tests those who would be his people. Disciples are tested in desert times of life.
The hungry Israelites gathered before Moses and Aaron and the blinding glory of God look at the flaky white substance and ask and simple and logical question. Man hu in the Hebrew. “What is it?” That Hebrew phrase Man hu, that natural question from hungry people, “what is it,” is translated into English ‘Manna.’ What is this blessing God has given to satisfy our hunger and help us know we can live in complete dependence on him?
They had never seen this ‘bread from Heaven.’ Upon eating it, they discovered it tasted like honey-soaked wafers, a creamy, sweet taste. Where was God leading them? The land of milk and honey? Ah in there more desperate wilderness time, God gives a foretaste of all his promises of abundant blessing – blessing given to those who live in complete dependence on him.
What’s the path to hope, the path that leads us out of the desert wilderness of fear and despair and into salvation? Jesus. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). In Jesus God, hears us as we cry out from the pain of our sin. In Jesus, we know God. In Jesus, we see God’s glory. He is our salvation in the wilderness, our manna. What is it? It is Jesus.