Wandering September 14, 2014
Scripture: Numbers 10: 11-12, Numbers 13: 26-33 and 14: 1-9
Last week when we left the Story, we were on the mountain with God, learning how to live again. And the mountain is a great place to be. It’s where we would rather live out our days, the “mountain-top” experiences we find difficult to release. In the Scriptures, mountains are places where God’s presence is almost tangible, like a Spirit-filled worship service. Mountains are places where people go to meet with God and experience transformation. But in the narrative of Scripture, most of the Biblical story, as it is with most of our lives, is not spent on top of the mountain, but rather a wandering and a meandering through places that are best described as wilderness or desert. And more often than not, these are the places where faith is truly hammered out.
My mountaintop morphed into a wilderness on a Friday evening during the fall of my senior year when my parents called my brothers and me into the living room. My whole life was ahead of me. I had just started my final year of soccer, was preparing for my second boxing match with the SAT, and was asking well-respected adults to craft letters of recommendation that I would send to several colleges. But none of that seemed to matter when my parents gently informed us that dad was diagnosed with cancer, a type of cancer that could be treated, but never cured. And I knew my life would never again be the same.
For the next few days, my mind was flooded with memories from the “good old days,” glimpses of how things used to be in the Dinger household, stories that often began with the question Remember when? But now took on a whole new meaning as our family prepared to move forward into an unpredictable future. Remember when? That’s the question we often ask when we’re no longer on the mountain.
For the group of people known as the Israelites, they had a history filled with stories that began with the question Remember when? But their pen-ultimate “Remember When” story is the story of the Exodus, punctuated by the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. This was a history-changing moment for Israel, a defining moment that helped shape their identity and stamp them as the people of God. It was a moment when everyone, both friend and foe, knew that God was in control. The story of the Exodus became deeply embedded in the lives of the Israelites. It became part of their self-understanding. Generation after generation would retell this story: Remember when our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt. Remember when our ancestors cried out for help and God heard them. Remember when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush and said “Go set my people free.” And remember when God parted the waters and we walked through on dry ground but the Egyptians did not? Remember when?
Sometimes we share our “remember when” stories during times of nostalgia and quiet moments of reflection. Dad and I would walk the woods pretending to hunt, but in reality, those were times he simply shared stories about his childhood, his joys, his fears and his challenges. But most of the time, our “remember when” stories are triggered when we find ourselves in the wilderness. The wilderness is a season of uncertainty, a place where we experience despair and pain, fear and change, trouble and difficulty. The wilderness is a place where the outcome is unpredictable and our safety can never be guaranteed. And it’s oftentimes an uncomfortable place to live.
We hear a lot of “remember when” stories these days, because in many ways, we have found ourselves on a journey through an ever-changing, unpredictable world that is probably best described as a wilderness. And I think we’re seeing more and more of it every day. The face of evil is no longer an oppressive Egyptian pharaoh, but the rise of global terrorism and radicals who think nothing of taking the life of another human being. It is no longer the plagues that strike fear into us, but widespread health concerns of cancer and talk of nuclear war and sexual exploitation. And it is not a Red Sea that stands in front of us, but growing political and racial divides, a certain lack of trust and morality, and even the ever-increasing inability to have a decent conversation with someone on the opposite side of your viewpoint. And our reaction to these realities is to remember when. Remember when young people respected their elders? Remember when America was on top of the world? Remember when you could buy a gallon of gasoline for $1.00? Remember when our churches were filled to overflowing? Remember when our students could pray in school? Remember when things were different?
That’s how the people of God viewed the Exodus story. It was their “go-to” when they were uprooted from their homeland. It was their “go-to” story when they faced yet again the uprising of an opposing nation. It was their “go-to” story when they were faced with imposing difficulties. It was their “go-to” story when they needed a reminder that God could pull them through, that God could make a way, that God would renew their strength and give them just enough faith to take one more step forward. That’s the beauty and power of Remember when stories. They help us move forward. But the danger is that they can also hold us back.
Just two months into their newfound freedom, the Israelites found themselves in the wilderness. God had led them out Egypt, but had taken them on an unusual route. God doesn’t typically take us through the usual ways. He takes ways where we must learn to follow, where we must learn to trust. And the unpredictable nature of following and trusting God finally got the best of them. So they started complaining. And they began to grumble. They began to say things like, “If only we had died in Egypt.” Remember when we were back there.? At least our needs were met. At least we knew where our next meal was coming from. At least we knew we had work and would not go hungry…Two months of following God and they wanted to go back. Two months of experiencing unpredictable and uncertain freedom as God’s people and they preferred the familiar chains and miseries of Egyptian oppression. As my seminary professor used to say, “We prefer the misery of what we know to the mystery of what we do not…” But God would not let Israel go back. Nor does he allow us.
For those who have taken God’s hand and said, “Lead me,” going back is never an option. We always have the option of staying put and dying right where we are- and many of the Israelites chose that very path. They never made it out of the wilderness. God had a vision for them, a promised land flowing with milk and honey, where he would be their God and they would be his people, but since they couldn’t go back, they opted to stay put, and God’s dream for them never materialized. They remembered what life was like in Egypt, and though it was far from acceptable, they couldn’t see how the future would get any better.
I remember the day our family changed our approach to dealing with dad’s cancer. It was just before a surgery, a few years into dad’s battle. We gathered in my parent’s bedroom, we held hands, and we prayed. We really hadn’t prayed much as a family prior to that moment. We had our mealtime prayers and church prayers, but never that intentional time of seeking God together. That time of prayer solidified in us the understanding that we were never going back, but we were going to move forward…and God would lead us.
Like many of you, I know that our wilderness seasons are scary. And the places we’ve come from, the histories that have shaped us, the communities that have formed us, will never look like they once did. Our world is changing, for better or for worse, and the world my daughters will know will be a world far different than anything I’ve ever experienced. Our country is changing, our communities are changing, our world is changing and we lament that it’s not what we’re accustomed to. And the temptation will be to remember when and to hold on to our past with the tightest grip possible.
Or… we can do what generations of Israelites learned to do. We can recall the past for the purpose of moving forward. We can celebrate when it’s time to celebrate. And we can confess the mistakes we’ve made. The Exodus is not simply the retelling of a miracle story. It’s the retelling of the power of God. It’s a retelling and a reminding of truths that are easy to forget. The truth that God sees, God hears, God knows, and God cares. And in the end, no matter how intimidating the foe or formidable the obstacle, or how rapid the changes occur, God prevails. This is why we actually need the wilderness. We need the wilderness to remember that God doesn’t just prevail on the mountains, but also on the cross; that God’s grace isn’t just evident when things are good; but also when the diagnosis comes; that God isn’t just the God of the mountains, but the God of the valleys also. This is why God leads us there, to those places we’d rather avoid. Because those places help us remember who God is and they strengthen our faith. Remember when? Yeah, the same God who did it back then is the same God who is doing it today. And that’s enough to shake the dust off our past and move us another step into an uncertain future. Amen.