“Always with you, it cannot be done.” – Yoda
I have always wondered why the Israelites “wandered in the wilderness.” I mean specifically “wandered in the wilderness.” Haven’t you ever wondered that? I have heard this story so many times I can’t remember when I first heard it. I have heard it taught, preached, read, even sung about. No one ever says that the Israelites were lost in the desert. No one ever says God’s people were misguided in the outlands. I’ve never heard a sermon entitled Misplaced in the Wasteland or sung a song around a campfire called Meandering in the Boonies. It is always “wandering in the wilderness.” I’m not sure but as I reread it I’m starting to get an idea.
Wandering has that tone to it that you are moving (slowly) but you don’t really have a direction… a destination. It also can be used to picture a child absent-mindedly being distracted and straying from their guardian. It doesn’t sound like the person that is wandering has a purpose, an urgent or pressing vision and honestly they don’t sound too bright. Maybe that is the most clear adjective to describe God’s people when they come out of slavery. They are like children wandering from their parent.
If you have kids you know how quickly you can lose them in a crowd because they see something they want: candy in a display, a puppy at the park, or a toy in a different isle. They just wander away looking at all the things they can look at and half the time you find them and they didn’t even know they were lost! They are just doing a slow zombie walk looking up at the sky with their mouths open gaping at God knows what.
The stories of the Israelites in this period sound like taking trips with my children. I’m hungry. I don’t want to eat that. I’m thirsty. It’s not fair. Do you know where you’re going? When will we get there? And like Moses I say to God, “The burden is too much! I can’t take all this whining!”
But the wilderness is a real place. Or rather, it can feel real. The wilderness is a wild place, outside of civilization and civilized rule. It is the law of the jungle and a place of outcasts. The land is wild and it has a way of weaving that wild into the hearts of the people who stay there for too long. It doesn’t matter if it is desert, savanna, tundra or dense jungle. The wilderness is not a place you want to linger… or wander if you are weak of heart or weak of will. If you are left in the wilderness it is because you are not fit for civilization. And the wilderness will sift the brave survivors from the weak cattle.
I get it. These people had everything taken from them: their freedom, dignity, family, education. And that was just in Egypt. Now even the routine of abuse and certainty of slavery was taken from them. It was replaced by crazy things. A cloud and a pillar of fire that demanded their allegiance. Bread that appeared on the ground like dew. There was miracles, plagues, snakes and the most crazy of all, hope. And they didn’t say “thank you” or “what an incredible miracle” and pursue obedience. They talked about how great it used to be as slaves. “We were abandoned and abused but we had free food.” I read this story and I despise these people.
They were in visible sight of God at all times, were magically delivered food everyday, freed from Egypt with all the plunder they could carry and on their way to a land that God said he would just give to them. What more could these people ask for? But they fell to complaining about details, greed, idolatry, bickering about who was more important, and longing to return to the life they were just freed from. It makes me sick! What a stupid, short-sighted, ungrateful, persnickety, vain, mongrel people.
I get aggravated by the same things that happen in our family. Our foster girls came from a home of physical abuse. They did not own one toy that wasn’t broken, dirty and disgusting. Their clothes were filthy. Their meals mostly consisted of eating things like candy, uncooked hotdogs and beer salt. I remember using the word “feral” to describe one of our daughters when she came to live with us. They couldn’t read, write, count, or tell a coherent story. They cried in closets, wet the bed and were terrified I would hit them if they did anything wrong. But most weeks we get to hear how much they miss “home.” They go on a visit and their mother gives them a cloth bag that looks and smells like it was stored by a family of rats, but all of a sudden it is their prize possession. There are even days when I’m sure that if given the choice they would return to a life that has no purpose, direction or hope because they remember how they used to have candy whenever they wanted.
I can only hope that Christ-followers… the church can overcome these diseases of “wandering” and “wilderness.” We want to help people break addictions, leave abusive relationships, heal from inflicted wounds and escape the shackles of a half-life of sin. But even if their escape is saturated in miracles we have led them away from their old life and into the wilderness of uncertainty. We have replaced their routine of savagery with a mysterious, unpredictable God (after all he’s not a tame lion). And there will be days when they look back on their time before they were rescued and long for the familiar feelings, vices and they will wonder if it might be worth returning to slavery because the food is better.
It is our responsibility as Christ-followers and churches to provide the only things that can combat “wandering in the wilderness.” Direction, purpose, community… faith in the promises God made to us. It was faith and hope that Joshua and Caleb returned with when they went to spy on Canaan. Our people don’t need more entertainment, fuller bellies or more variety. They need faith.