Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Lent Reflections #2- What the Wilderness Is All About

Friday, March 25, 2011

(This is the second installment in my Lent Reflections series. Weekly (or perhaps, more frequently), we will be looking at one or more of the weekly lectionary readings and reflect upon what they have to say to us, as we take this spiritual journey towards the cross.. Please bookmark this page and check back often for future reflections. You can use the 'email' function in the side bar, as well as sign up to follow the feed. I would love to dialog with you in the comments as to how these passages speak to you during your experience this year!)


This story in Exodus carries on the wilderness theme; this is where we started on the first Sunday of Lent (Jesus temptation-Mt 4) and where we often return during this season. The wilderness is characteristic of many things. Those that come to mind at the moment are: solitude, sacrifice, temptation, hardship, suffering... Obviously, its not the most illustrious or comfortable place to be; but, it can also be a place of spiritual learning and spiritual growth. For this to happen, however, we have to learn to cooperate. It really is a place that can make us or break us. 

Such is the case with the children of Israel. After a dramatic display of divine intervention during their departure from Egypt, they were plunged right into the heart of the wilderness (much like Jesus, right after baptism and the declaration of sonship, was driven immediately into the wilderness). And, while they had no way of knowing this at the time, they would spend much of the next 40 years there. Their experience would be indicative of all the characteristics of this place. Many would die there, they would suffer, endure isolation from the rest of the world, hardships would abound, and they would be tempted over and over again to either grumble about their circumstances or trust in God. Unfortunately, they chose the former all too often. 

The scripture before us is one of those times. A time-line of these events would probably shock you. In the relatively short time they've spent in the wilderness, they've experienced three major crisis/provision events. And, all of these involved a crisis of necessity; that is, they were needing things that they simply could not live without. There was a crisis of food, and two involving water (once, there was water but it was bitter, and then, in our text, they had no water). Obviously, you can not exist very long without the basic essentials of food and water. So, the need was certainly legitimate. 

What really does surprise me, however, is that these three events are each preceded by one thing: the people grumbled. Each and every time, the people complained and questioned the motives of both God and Moses. Over and over again, this would play out, to the point that the Psalmist said that God himself began to loathe this generation [Ps 95:10]. They exasperated God that much! 

No matter what God did, no matter how many times God displayed his power and provision, these people would still complain at the first sign of hardship. This is where the rub is, if you will. In our Psalms reading, the writer makes a very important statement in verse 9. He says they "put me to the test ​​​​​​​and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work." [ESV] This is the third time, in a short period, that the people have needed divine intervention. Including the deliverance at the Red Sea, they had seen the hand of God displayed in undeniable terms: being recipients of divine and sovereign intervention, protection, and provision. Yet, here they are again, grumbling and complaining against Moses, Aaron, God, and anyone else they could think of. I might can see it when their back is against the Red Sea and they're hearing the pounding of hoof-beats and feeling the vibration of Pharaoh's massive army, rapidly approaching. Sure, I can understand the propensity to panic in that situation. But, once they've seen the hand of God displayed in such powerful ways: being miraculously delivered from their enemy; drinking sweet water that was once too bitter to drink; and eating bread that was created and distributed by the very hand of God; you would think that at some point, they would learn to trust him. You would expect there to come a time when their experience of God would sustain them in difficulty. But, unfortunately, with them, this never happens.

The wilderness is where we live at times. During Lent, it is where we choose to go in our minds and spirits, pondering the lessons learned, or yet to be learned there. We mentioned some of the characteristics of the wilderness above: a place of solitude, sacrifice, temptation, hardship, suffering. Additionally, however, the wilderness should be a place of learning. It is a place where we experience suffering, testing, and hardship; but ultimately, it is where we also experience the provision and power of God to intervene on our behalf and thereby learn to trust that He has our best interest at heart. We learn patience and build character there (see the Romans 5:1-11 reading for this week as well). It is in the wilderness that we come to know who God is and who we are as well. We become acquainted with our limitations, but we also learn of God's power and provision. In the wilderness, our vulnerabilities are exposed, but God's protection and providence is displayed. 

In the wilderness, we learn to look beyond the present. This is where the Israelites of that ancient generation failed so miserably. We don't have to die there, but if we allow the things of this world, our needs, passions, etc, to overwhelm us, then we certainly will. However, it is not our destiny to be buried there. Consequently, the wilderness is never meant to be a continual habitation; but rather, it is always meant to be somewhere that we pass through on our way to promise. We learn there; we hear the voice of God there; we gain confidence there by seeing God's providence over our lives; but, we are not meant to remain there. 

With this said, we have to understand that wilderness experiences will always be a part of our spiritual lives. I would love to be able to say otherwise. But, there are some things that we simply can not learn anywhere else. Never, however, be mistaken about the fact that the God we meet and experience there, is the very same God who will continue to provide for and take care of us. All that we learn there will help us believe that He will remain the very same God tomorrow, when we face tragedy or need, as he was last year, or last month. He will provide and take care of us as he always has. This is the beauty of the wilderness. Sure, we face our humanity, needs, and inabilities there; but, we are also introduced to a God who is able to take care of us--even there. In our weakness, he becomes strong; in our need, he becomes our provision. 

Let's not exasperate God as the children of Israel did. But rather, let's learn to trust, to believe, that the very same God who turned their bitter waters sweet, fed them with manna when they were hungry, causing water to flow from a rock, is the very same God who will meet us there and take care of us as well.



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