The presence of God is a major theme in the book of Exodus: God heard Israel’s cry in Egypt. God was with His people at the Red Sea. God journeyed with them in the wilderness. God’s presence appeared majestically at Sinai. God’s presence was manifested in the Tabernacle. Moses knew that what made Israel distinct was God’s presence among them.
Moses proclaimed that they could not move one step without God. What distinguished Israel wasn’t their land (they didn’t have it yet). It wasn’t their wealth (they had been slaves). It wasn’t their culture (it wasn’t fully developed yet). What distinguished them? It was that God was with them. Once again, God’s presence was manifested to the people in a remarkable way. Look at how God solved this particular water problem.
The Lord answered Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go. I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb; when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites complained, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex.17:5-7)
This story, we see how Israel doubted God’s presence. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they asked (v. 7). They doubted God was with them. But after Moses prayed, God provided water from a rock (Ex. 17:4-6). I tried to keep track of how often the Israelites grumbled against God, broke His commands, worshiped false idols, etc.—but I quickly lost count. Time and again they turned away from God, did whatever they wanted, lost God’s protection, suffered great consequences, returned to God, and begged Him to rescue them. Over and over and over again! Sometimes there were lasting onsequences for their poor decisions, but God showed more grace than was deserved (over and over and over again).
Sin as missing the mark: One aspect of sin is missing the mark of God’s standards set for humanity. Missing the mark isn’t simply making a mistake, but consciously choosing to sin and falling short of God’s glory as a result. We may refer to sin as a failure on the part of humans to live according to God’s standards, but we must recognize this failure is intentional. We miss the mark when we deliberately choose to cast aside God’s purpose for us
And, we might add, He will certainly lead us into the unknown, into uncharted territory, for “the wilderness is a place betwixt and between.” The Wilderness is that place, is life situation, between sickness and health; between grief and comfort; between rejection and acceptance; between doubt and faith.
How, then, shall we transverse our own particular “wilderness,” indeed the many barren times and places of our lives? Not being surprised by the Wilderness is a good place to start. Some Christians are, you know—surprised, that is. Televangelists, among others, would have us believe that, for the “true” Christian, the “born again” Christian (is there any other kind?), all the hardships of this life disappear—financial insecurity, marital discord, poor health and the like. Do not believe it. The Wilderness is real and it awaits us (if indeed we are not already in it).
If we are not surprised by the Wilderness, then we are much better prepared to accept it as a time for deepening our trust in God. The Wilderness remains a time of testing; but that is not in itself a bad thing. The Wilderness affords us the opportunity to allow God to lead us through it and to provide us with the spiritual stamina that we need along the way. It is not hard to trust God when all goes well. It is in the Wilderness that we come to depend upon God for our daily bread, and to learn that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4.4; Deut. 8.3).
Finally, the Wilderness is the proper setting for both reflection and anticipation. At each stage of our journey we can look back and “remember”—one of Moses’ favorite words in Deuteronomy. We can raise our own “Ebenezer” and gladly say, with Samuel, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam 7.12). At the same time, we can look ahead to the Promised Land that awaits us, knowing that the Wilderness does not last forever even if it sometimes seems that way.
The wilderness seems permanent. Forty years is a long time in the old sandbox. Even that grand mountaintop experience at Sinai looks like a one-time thing; it is out of the wilderness only to be led right back in. The wilderness is beginning to look a lot like home. But the Wilderness is not home.
“Home” is that place Christ Jesus has gone to prepare for us (John 14.1–3). Meanwhile, we continue on our journey, living a “life beyond redemption but short of consummation.” And when the time comes for us to pass through the valley of the shadow of death, the God of the Wilderness will see us safely home.