Entering the Wilderness
Someone once complained to French Film Director Jean-Luc Godard that “movies should have a beginning, a middle and an end.” “Certainly,” Godard replied, “but not necessarily in that order.” Last week I talked about beginnings and endings and the beginning of the end in the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew as he made his first prediction of his coming passion. Today we hear a different kind of ending and beginning from much earlier in the story of our ancestors in faith that muddies the waters and might help us wonder about our own endings and beginnings and middles… but not necessarily in that order.
We are in the middle of the story of Moses leading the people of God out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses early years and early troubles in Egypt have passed, as has his dramatic call from God out of a bush that was burning but did not burned up. Moses has returned to Egypt and begun negotiations with the Pharaoh to “let my people go!” Several plagues have already struck the Egyptians and today we hear the story of the first Passover – God’s plan for one more plague that will finally convince the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. It is a story of preparation and hope and yet it is a new beginning that comes from a terrible ending. It is a beginning of an in-between time of wilderness wandering.
In his book, Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler suggests that instead of moving from one settled state to another – from being settled in Egypt to being settled in the Promised Land, “God interrupts the linear flow of evolution, reversing the Israelites’ seemingly inexorable rise to nationhood…” The interruption comes, of course, in the wilderness experience. Wilderness times… times of uncertainty, change, even chaos in the middle of a journey require a certain amount of stick-to-itiveness but they are not simply about waiting. The Israelites were hardly waiting in the desert… they were actively struggling, growing together and learning to live with God in a new way. Indeed, Feiler describes the desert as “a cauldron where the Israelites must coalesce. The desert not only cleanses, it constructs.” (347)
The desert experience for the Israelites is one that continues the oldest cycle in the bible – one of creation, destruction and re-creation… and God is part of each phase of the cycle that first played out with creation, the flood and God’s promise and the re-growth after the flood. The desert experience following the exodus from Egypt is another key place this pattern repeats. It happens again with the political independence and flourishing of the Israelite nation under King David and other kings, until the temple is destroyed and people are exiled to Babylon, followed by the restoration to Jerusalem and Judea and the re-building of the temple. As Christians, our core story is of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection… and the pattern goes on in both our personal and corporate lives.
This pattern is the point of the desert, as Feiler writes: “Because the place is demanding, it builds character; because it is destructive, it builds interdependence; because it’s isolating, it builds community. Because it’s the desert, it builds nations.” (348) Put another way, Feiler describes the ways in which God transforms the Israelites’ identity – from one of an oppressed people to one of a nation, through the wilderness journey. This transformation is not about simple change, but rather it’s about something much deeper. It is not an easy journey, nor is it one for the faint of heart… the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness was fraught with trouble. This is true of any journey of transformation, for transformation does not happen without a sojourn in the desert. Getting through a desert time means persevering through the uncertainty and danger and grief we find there, trusting that God will lead us on to our Promised Land.
Today we hear about the hopeful beginning of such a journey, when the promise of something more, a better life of freedom from the oppression of slavery, is in the forefront and the challenges to come cannot yet be contemplated. Today we hear the instructions about how to begin: Together with your neighbours, you will have a special final meal. “… You shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” We need to be prepared to eat and run, for a big adventure is about to begin, and we need to be ready: shoes on, staff in hand… Are you ready? Are you prepared for whatever adventure God is leading you into? Are we ready, as a congregation, for God to lead us to a new place of freedom and life? Next year is our 60th anniversary as a parish and as we look to celebrate who we have been and what we have done… our journey so far, what new journey might God take us on? “Eat fast,” God says, because you need to be ready to go.
Wherever we happen to be in our personal journeys of life and faith… experiencing a beginning, a middle or an end… but not necessarily in that order… we can be assured that God has been with us throughout; that God is with us today; and that God will be with us through to the end. In our story today, the Israelites were instructed to mark their doorposts with the blood of the dinner lamb, “a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you…” The Passover was the assurance of God’s care and direction even as God called them into an unknown future… with all the hope and possibility and uncertainty and trouble that comes with it.
Like the ancient Israelites, we can also be assured that when God calls to a journey of transformation – a journey that will surely pass through the wilderness – God is doing so because God wants more for us: more joy, more peace, more love, more life in all its fullness. God pushes us to reach for more such that we might come to God wanting comfort, and God offers us salvation. We might come wanting protection, and instead God makes us strong. We might want security, and God gives grace. We want stability, ease, settledness, and instead God transforms us… through difficulty and struggle, through the wilderness… and gives us new life. The difference is the time spent in the wilderness… because that is where through heat and sand and thirst, through doubt and fear, through struggle and rebellion, we discover that God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s patience and God’s grace endures through it all.