Stories From the Wilderness: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Scripture: Numbers 11:4-6, 18-20

We’re spending this Easter season journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites as we plod through this collective wilderness period of our own caused by coronavirus and the fear, uncertainty, and isolation it has created.  Last week, we heard the story of the Israelites’ very first wilderness experience, right after they make it across the Red Sea, and they realize they don’t have any water to drink, and all of a sudden the Promised Land feels a lot farther away than it once did.  But God shows Moses how to make bitter water safe to drink, and this sets the tone for the whole rest of the wilderness journey, where the people fear not having enough but God always provides.

I told you that in Exodus, this is how the wilderness period is remembered above everything: as a time of God’s grace and provision – and we talked about ways we are seeing that even now.

The book of Numbers, which tells the story of the wilderness journey starting on the other side of Mount Sinai, has a slightly different memory of the wilderness. Numbers is full of stories of people complaining. They don’t like what they have to eat, the people they’re going to have to face in the Promised Land are scary, and the leadership of this whole endeavor leaves something to be desired.  And God is always getting mad at the people for their complaining. In fact if you go back and read the rest of chapter 11 you’ll see that I left a bunch of parts out about God’s response to all the complaining, including fire and plague. Go back and read it; it’s kind of fun and will leave you with all sorts of theological questions.

I should be clear that I don’t think that anything that is happening now is the direct result of God’s wrath – nor do I think that fire and plague is the way God normally operates, even though it can be really easy sometimes to look at natural and human disaster and feel like God is telling us something.  I believe in a God who is continually working for good in the midst of the bad, a God from whose love in Christ Jesus nothing can separate us, as we read in Romans 8.  I do think it’s worth thinking about what it is that seems to make God angry, and in Numbers, entitlement and lack of gratitude are big ones.   Sometimes I think I would have been in trouble.

In Exodus, when the people got hungry, God sent manna from heaven for them to eat. It appeared in the morning like dew, and each day the people collected only enough for that day, because it would be there again tomorrow. We’re told that the Israelites ate manna for forty years, right up until they entered the Promised Land.

I suppose it’s understandable that the taste of manna started to get old after a while.  I think Jon and I are to that point already as we try to keep meals simple and not make too many trips to the store – we both agreed this week that we were a little over oatmeal. There starts to be a murmur in the camp. “We’re tired of bread,” the people say – the “rabble” or “riffraff,” as Numbers calls them – “we want meat.”

And then, the kicker: “In Egypt, we had meat.”

It snowballs from there: Remember all the good food we used to eat in Egypt? Those were the days! Of course, they were slaves in Egypt, but that small fact seems to be forgotten now.

God’s response, for God’s part, is: Fine! You want meat? I’ll give you meat!  Eat meat until it comes out of your nose! And sure enough, a wind blows from the sea and brings quails with it.  And also the complainers are beset by plague.

Again, let me reiterate that  if complaining brings divine wrath, I’m in trouble too.  But I can see the problem: all the people can do is look back, but God is trying to lead them forward.

These days, in our own wilderness, we’re just beginning to hear some conversation about going “back.”  Some states are just starting to take measures to open back up their economies. Protesters are gathering at state capitals to demand that we all get back to business as usual.  And even though here in Virginia we’re still under this stay-at-home order until June 10, I admit that my mind has begun to turn to what things will look like when all of this is over – or at least when this first part of things is over.

And meanwhile, I’ve seen and heard lots of people asking the question: Do we really want to just go back? Or are we, perhaps, misremembering what now seems like the good old days?

I don’t mean that there isn’t plenty to miss: visits with extended family and friends; working and making money, for some of us; exploring new places; worshiping together in person of course, and being able to physically welcome people into our church building – but then what about all the other stuff, the long and painful commutes that make us wonder if all of this is really worth it, the constant busyness and pressure to produce, even the way we pack our calendars with social events and never make space for silence and stillness, to listen to God or care for ourselves or to pay attention to the needs of our neighbors?

What about the lack of access to healthcare that so many in our country have, and the fact that so many people in minimum wage jobs can’t even afford to take a day of sick leave, and the gap between rich and poor that has only been magnified by the disproportionate extent to which poor people and people of color have been affected by Covid-19?  Do we really just want to go back?

I’ve heard this period of social distancing called the Great Pause.  As someone who is now more exhausted than ever, I take some issue with that – and I know there are those of you who are still heading out into the world for work as usual – but for all of us, I think, life has changed.  For all of us, something has shifted. And I don’t care if you come out of this with a new skill or hobby or an impressively clean house or watched literally everything on Netflix or any of those things you might use this time for if you have it, but I do think it’s a chance to reflect on where we’re going next, because I think there are lessons to be learned here in the wilderness that might have the potential to make us new people on the other side.

These days, I’m grateful for the chance to watch my kids grow up minute by minute, even if the loss of our usual rhythm has been hard for us all.  I’m grateful for the chance to enjoy the beauty of spring from my own neighborhood each day instead of just driving past on my way to and from work. I’m grateful for the way worshiping on Zoom has been able to include people that in-person worship can’t.  These are things I might consider how to hold onto, in some form. Maybe God is working in and through things like this, wanting to lead me somewhere new. There may be new life in this yet.

What about you?

What have you realized you don’t need to go back to?

What’s something from this wilderness time that you hope to hold on to?

What new place might God be leading us toward?


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