When the Pharaoh let the people go,
God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines,
although that was nearer; for God thought,
“If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.
So God led the people by the roundabout way of the
wilderness toward the Red Sea.”
As I engage church leaders in our presbytery and beyond, I am struck by the reality that in one way or another, we are all on a wilderness journey. By wilderness I mean those places and chapters in our lives that are marked by great uncertainty and the lack of clarity of direction. For some of us, our wilderness journeys are very personal and focused on our growth and direction as individual disciples. For some of us, our wilderness journeys are corporate – seeking answers for our growth and movement as churches, presbyteries, synods, and denominations.
For many years I thought of the wilderness as a place of desolation – a place where I would find myself struggling and wrestling – in a negative kind of way. But then I paid more attention to the Biblical narrative and realized the wilderness was a place of preparation and re-creation, making us a new creation. This hope-filled understanding of the wilderness was confirmed by a trip to Israel years ago. I learned the wilderness was a place where modern-day Israelites took their families to “re-create.” I will never forget walking through the Judean wilderness and simply being in awe of its vastness and its barrenness. However, its barrenness was not lifeless; the barrenness demanded my attention and took my breath away. It called me into deep thought and examination. It challenged me to consider a new way of looking at myself and my life.
That challenge made me aware of three Biblical truths about the journey of God’s children through the wilderness. The first truth is God initiates the journey. Recall, God’s voice to Abraham to leave his land and venture forth into a new one. Recall God calling Moses to lead the people into and through the wilderness for 40 years. Recall if you will, Jesus’ venture into the wilderness, as he was tempted and prepared himself to embark on his journey to the cross.
A second truth I have come to embrace about wilderness journeys is God leads. We may not often like where we’re going. We may not be confident of the path before us – but God faithfully leads. Recall if you will the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day that led the Israelites through the wilderness. I’m confident there were times they wanted to get ahead of the fire and the cloud – so they could see what was before them. I know I have often been tempted to run ahead of God in order to feel more secure about the direction and clarity of my journey.
A third truth is the reminder that even while on the most complex of wilderness journeys, God sustains us. Throughout the 40-year wilderness experience, God was with God’s people. God provided quail, manna, and water. God will continue to sustain his children as we faithfully make the trek through the unknown, the unclear, and the apparently unwanted. The festival of Pentecost is before us. This is a profound reminder of God’s faithful promise and presence in our lives today through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I find these essential truths to offer courage and hope for us as we walk together in our faith at this time. It is clear that these are critical times for the world in which we live as we are called as witnesses to respond to hate, violence, and polarization with love. It is clear these are challenging times for the Church of Jesus Christ – as we explore how to be a vibrant and relevant presence at this time and place. It is easy to become exhausted and discouraged amidst much of the reality of 24/7 newsfeeds. The good news is God invites us to use these challenging or wilderness times to reflect on where we are, reaffirm whose we are, and recommit ourselves to the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what that looks like in a world in need of hope and reconciliation.
May we be encouraged – for like our ancestors of so long ago, out of the wilderness will rise a new people – a people who have lived through the challenges faced in the uncertainty and unknown; a people who have died to a way of life defined by bondage; a people birthing new possibilities in a new land.