Sermon Series: Wilderness & Pilgrimage

January 20th, 2012

3 Week Series

Week 1: God in Our Wilderness Wanderings

Numbers 9:1-14

Egypt is behind them, two years behind them. Can you imagine? Wandering in the wilderness for two years? Certainly there is relief from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and God has promised them a land flowing with milk and honey at the end of their pilgrimage, but will it really be good enough to match up to their wandering for two years? In this time, elderly loved ones have died, new babies have been born, new relationships have been forged, and all the while they walk and wander.

It is difficult for us to imagine a two-year span in the wilderness. For when we enter our times of pilgrimage or wilderness wandering, it is often at our own initiation. Life gets hectic and chaotic. Like the Israelites, we may feel we have become slaves to our daily routines, our wants and needs, our jobs, or any number of things that fill our lives with busyness. So to refocus and rejuvenate ourselves, we choose to spend time alone; we need our time with only us and God. Sometimes we are intentional about our wilderness time— we go to a retreat center or get away for a while so that there are fewer distractions. Other times, the need for time with God creeps up on us and there is no time for a getaway. We need to close a door, close our eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on the fact that we are a beloved child of God.

As I revisit the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, I see a great deal of myself in them. They have been wandering for two years, living in a chaotic, transient state, hoping and praying that the God of Moses is one who keeps promises. And I don’t know about you, but I need some routine in my life. I like to know when, how, and why things are going to happen. I work better in predictability and a controlled environment. But the wilderness is anything but controlled. It is desolate, lonely, and at times out of control. It is time for some routine and ritual.

Moses’ announcement of God’s command is met with immediate obedience. In fact, even those who are ritualistically denied the Passover rites come forward requesting the ability to celebrate the sacred ritual. They need to feel close to God. They are yearning for the familiar and the routine. They need to participate in a reminder of home.

While Passover is typically restricted to those who are ritualistically clean, God has compassion on those who are unable to join the others at the Passover table. Room is made for all at the table, for those who are unclean from the touching of a corpse, and those who are considered aliens or outsiders to the Israelite clan. Everyone is invited to participate in the Passover celebration. Everyone is given a place in the ritual, drawing them all closer to God.

The reinstatement of the Passover ritual is not a random event in the wandering of the Israelites. After surviving the wilderness for two years, the Israelites are bound to be tired and frustrated. The scriptures record them remembering Egypt in an unrealistic hindsight, wishing for what they left behind rather than facing the unknown lying before them. They do not remember how terrible their lives of bondage really were because they easily become paralyzed in their fear of what may come. They need to reconnect with the God who granted them their freedom and has promised them the land of plenty at the end of their journey.

Bringing the Passover ritual back to the routine of the Israelites serves to remind them that God continues to be with them, even when they feel they are lost in the wilderness. The ritual serves as a reminder that they are not forgotten, that God remains with them in the midst of their chaos and distress.

The text serves as a reminder to us that when our lives are chaotic and in distress and we choose to take some time alone—some time in the wilderness to get away—that God remains faithful to us as God did with the Israelites. So often we think of time away as time alone with our thoughts, or “me time.” But just as God supplies the routine of the Passover ritual to the Israelites as a means of drawing them closer in relationship, God seeks to draw close to us in our times of need.

Have you ever heard yourself use the phrase, “I just need to get away from it all”? This type of thinking may be what sends us into the need for our wilderness retreats. But we must be careful to not let the phrase mean that we need or want to get away from God. God seeks to be there with us when we need to get away from everything else. God wants to help us break the bonds of slavery when we have chained ourselves to our routines, our jobs, or our busyness. God wants to be with us without all the distractions so that we can be in communion with one another when we need God the most.

So next time the retreat center is calling or you suddenly feel the need to shut your office door to break the routine and be alone for a while, remember that running away from everything and everyone is not the answer. This is the time when God seeks intentional ways to be in relationship with us. It is a time when we can be most open to God’s love and faithfulness to us because we are tired and weary from everything else. Like the Israelites, when we clear away the clutter of two years of chaos, our hearts are ripe for the gentle and meaningful reminders that God remains by our side in all that we do, but most especially in our wilderness wanderings.

Week 2: Wilderness Community

Numbers 11:10-23

They are springing up in towns across the country. Carefully planned with zoning rules and in consultation with horticulture specialists, the buildings all look alike whether they are homes, movie theatres, or office buildings. They are selling out faster than they can be built. People are eager to move into these planned communities.

They are not all that different from the layout of a traditional small town. Everything is in walking distance. Your bank is down the street from your hair salon, your church, and your drug store. Ideally you get to know your neighbors just as you get to know the entrepreneurs in the business establishments because of your close proximity and your affinity for the luxury of the new neighborhood. I am sure they are quite convenient and nonetheless fashionable to live in, but because they are not exactly a new concept, I don’t really understand the draw to them. But then I began to think about the name “planned community” and what that might mean to those who live in it. I wonder if the name “planned community” has anything to do with attractiveness of these new developments.

The name insinuates that the work of getting to know people and places is already done for you. Everything is planned out for you. You don’t have to spend the first few weeks after moving in looking for the best route to the grocery store or the post office. There is no wondering what your neighbors might be like or fear of late night wild parties on the weekends, as many of these communities have rules about the kind of people who can live in them. There will always be someone around if you lock your keys in your car or need a cup of sugar for a last-minute recipe. Without the modern conveniences, Moses is living in a comparable situation. He has been traveling throughout the wilderness with the entire camp of Israelites fleeing from Egypt and heading for the promised land. He is likely surrounded by artisans of every kind, and men and women abounding with talents and gifts. Of course he is the God-appointed leader of the group, but it seems he has forgotten where he is, who it is that surrounds him, and who is providing him his true strength.

The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for years at this point in the text. They are tired and frustrated. God has promised, through their leader Moses, that they are bound for a land beyond their wildest dreams. Yet they are surviving day by day on bread and meager rations, carrying only the possessions they can fit in their caravans. They are being tested and pushed beyond their limits. They, like any of us, grumble and complain because at least it is something to do to pass the time. And as small children prove to us almost daily, sometimes grumbling to whomever is in charge will get us what we want.

Moses is bound to experience feelings similar to that of the Israelites. He too is wandering in the wilderness. He too, gets tired, hungry, and frustrated. Granted, Moses has the added entertainment, honor, and responsibility of being in conversation with God on a regular basis, but he is still wandering, sometimes aimlessly it seems, in the wilderness.

At this point in the text, the Israelites are extremely frustrated. They are crying among themselves in frustration, hunger, and exasperation. Moses takes their cries personally. He internalizes their pain and anger, and Moses, in turn, cries out to God.

Moses has lost his focus. In his own experience of the wilderness, he has forgotten that behind him walk thousands of people loyal to him, most of the time, and to God, when they are thinking straight. Instead of sharing the burden of his leadership with those around him, Moses tries to bear the entire burden of the Israelites’ unhappiness himself. It is a weight far too heavy for any one person to bear, but nonetheless he tries. The result is disastrous. Moses cries out to God for release from the burdens through death.

God listens to the cries of the Israelites and of Moses. God asks Moses to gather seventy men who are leaders among the people to help bear the travelers’ burdens. It is a seemingly simple solution to their cries. In battle language, it is divide and conquer; it is as easy as delegating authority or assigning responsibilities. Sharing burdens should have been part of the leadership structure of the Israelite camp from the beginning. It is part of what it means to be in community.

God’s command points out what Moses should have seen all along. Moses is in the midst of a planned community, albeit different from the ones with which we are familiar. Everything the Israelites need to survive and thrive is right there among them. What things they may lack, God has been faithful in providing.

In this case, their irrationality and “why me?” syndrome got the best of them, something with which those of us who have experienced our own wilderness wanderings can sympathize. We forget that we are the only ones experiencing hurt, loneliness, frustration, and hunger for any number of things. We forget, like Moses, to turn around and see that we are not alone; we are never alone.

As the children of God, there is a planned community all around us. God does not expect us to bear our burdens alone. We don’t have to look for the seventy leaders among us to find help. Among the children of God, there are helping hands in every direction. We simply have to use our voices and cry out for help as Moses did.

It is to be hoped that we can learn from Moses’ experience and not wait until our burdens are so great we are crying out for death if we don’t get help soon enough. The family of God is a planned community waiting to help one another and bear one another’s burdens. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week 3: Looking Forward in Faith

Numbers 14:1-10

Are they sounding like a broken record to you yet? We have heard this story before at several different places along the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness. You will recall that each time we hear this story, God remains faithful despite their whining and complaining. God is faithful, even when the Israelites are not.

This time it is not about wanting something different to eat or wondering how much longer their journey will be. This time the Israelites are scared. They are on the outskirts of all that God has promised them. They are almost there. Soon, it will all be worth it. They had to have wondered, as I am sure we would have, if it would be worth it. They have been through so much. They have wandered in the wilderness for years and years under the leadership of Moses, who didn’t even consider himself fit for the job. They have lost loved ones. They have spent a generation feeling tired, exasperated, and lost. But here they are on the verge of entering God’s promised land.

They are so close; they could feel the anticipation building. They sent spies ahead to see and report back what was in store for them. We imagine what they were hoping for, what they dreamt, for this new land. Coming from a land of slavery and oppression, they may have hoped for a place where they would be kings and queens of the land and that others would work for them. Having been hungry and exhausted for years in the wilderness, they may have hoped for food growing plentifully and homes already built for them. They probably hoped for easily accessible water sources and high hills on which they could sleep. They may have dreamt of herds of animals wandering from plains to valleys, looking for a new shepherd. Their promised land was within reach.

But news of a land of plenty did not come from the spies without the crushing report of giants in the land. Yes, the land is the land of their hopes and dreams, it flows with milk and honey, the spies say, but it is also inhabited by giants.

At this point, we have the luxury of knowing the entire story. We know how God has delivered them in the past, and we know what the future holds for the Israelites. We know that God has been faithful to them all along and will continue to do so. We can see that if the Israelites will put their faith in God rather than focusing on their fear of giants, that their dreams will be their reality. God’s faithfulness does not and will not leave them. God wants what is best for them and thus keeps the divine promises to them.

But they are scared. They are weak from wandering in the wilderness and the news of giants in their path is their breaking point. They lose sight of how close they are to the promised land and lapse into irrationally. Instead of trusting in God’s faithfulness, they want to turn around and return to the slavery and bondage of Egypt. They are willing to accept the treachery and oppression of a life that is familiar rather than risk what is unknown in the light of God’s love and faithfulness to them. They are that scared.

Thankfully, two leaders among them have a moment of clarity. Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies who have seen the giants, but have also seen the land of milk and honey, speak in the chaos. They remind their people of where they have been. They remind them of their power and abilities when God is on their side. They urge them not to turn their backs on God but to press forward in God’s promises. Joshua and Caleb have seen the prize, they have seen the land that lies before them. They too are tired and weary from their years in the wilderness, but they are renewed by their hope of what is so close to their grasp.

We have all been where the Israelites are in this story. We can come so far in our journeys being grateful for the ways God delivers us and then we so easily and quickly forget. We think irrationally. We believe our lives would be so much easier if we had never filled in the blank with any number of things. We forget that God has been with us throughout our journeys in ways we could and could not see. We forget that God is faithful to deliver us until our journeys are complete. We forget and want to turn our backs on all that we have accomplished and learned because there are giants in our future.

What or who are the giants in your future? Who or what do you fear? Who or what do you know you cannot conquer or master or pass by alone? Is it debt? Is it something that may reappear from your past? Is it someone you think is smarter, quicker, funnier, or more successful than you? These may be scary thoughts or visions as you picture the giants in your path.

But now think of who in your life are the Calebs and Joshuas. Who are your champions? Who reminds you of where you have been and what they know is in your future because of the potential they know you have and the hope God holds for you? These people are the ones to keep in mind as you face your giants. They know you can conquer whatever giants lay ahead because they have seen you do it before. They want and desire a bright future for you.

We know, as Caleb and Joshua know, that God is with us in the wilderness. God provides rituals and opportunities for us to draw closer in our relationship with God. And we know that God does not expect us to bear our wilderness burdens alone. God provides community for us to journey alongside. And in that community, God provides leaders like Joshua and Caleb along the way to remind us that all our wilderness wanderings will be worth it when we maintain our faith in God.

Where are you in your wilderness journey? Where do you see God at work in your pilgrimage of faith? How are you being a Caleb or a Joshua to someone else? May we learn from the Israelites’ story. May our eyes be fixed ahead and not behind. May our minds be fixed on God’s faithfulness to us along the way. And may our hearts be open to new ways God is working in our lives. So may it be. Amen.

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008, © 2007 Abingdon Press

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