“Glory in the Wilderness”
By The Rev. Dr. Scott Hoezee
Sunday, October 27, 2019
Reading: Exodus 16:1-16
In Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, Huxley imagined that in the future all of society will be massively engineered to avoid suffering. Hence, the people in this brave new world tend to be placid, unflappable, and seemingly happy. Yet they cannot survive physically without the adrenalin that gets pumped into our systems when we are afraid or in pain. So to make up for their lack of normally produced adrenalin, the people of Huxley's future receive monthly adrenaline injections. Huxley is saying that a suffering-free state of placidness is not just unhealthy but perhaps is even sub-human.
On the other hand we could ponder the character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens' classic, Great Expectations. Years before Miss Havisham had been jilted on her wedding day--the groom never showed up. Ever since, Miss Havisham has shut herself up in a dark house in the very room where the wedding reception was to have been held. She is now a very old lady but she still wears her wedding dress, now tattered and smelly and yellowed with age. Her wedding cake still sits on the buffet table, now desiccated, rotten, and rat-eaten. The clock on the wall is stopped at the precise hour and minute when the wedding was to have begun. Miss Havisham is a woman frozen in time, trapped by her suffering.
So here are two sets of literary images that detail two possible responses to suffering: we can try to avoid suffering altogether, pretend it's not real, and so lead a lifelong pursuit toward a pain-free existence of bliss. Or we can become so walloped by our pains and disappointments in life as to become trapped by them. Probably we all know people who fit one of these two categories.
If we thought about it, most of us could think of someone we know who has never shed a tear in our presence, who is always sunny-side-up, whose response to even a terrible event is always, "I'm fine! Don't worry about me!" Then again, we may also know someone who gnaws on an unhappy past event like a dog with a bone. If you spend more than three minutes talking to Robert, you will all-but certainly hear about how rotten life has been and about the way he got cheated out of something back in 1966 and he's never been the same since.
Denial and despair. But are those the only two possible reactions to the fact that life, each person's life, contains a fair share of hard knocks, letdowns, disappointments, and flat-out tragedies? Is there a third way to respond to suffering? Exodus 16 is an early biblical hint that there is such a third way: it is the way of growth, of maturity, of trusting in God even when (and maybe especially when) the bottom drops out. And it is the way of just possibly finding a deeper and stronger faith in God as a result.
If you back up a chapter in Exodus, you will see the people of Israel singing and dancing by the shores of the Red Sea. They then enjoy a mini-stretch of Paradise in a pretty place called Elim. But the march toward redemption could not stop there. A trek through the wilderness has to come first and no sooner does this journey begin and we find in Exodus 16 a nearly reverse portrait of the celebration and joy of the previous chapter. Sounds of timbrel, singing, and dancing have been replaced with sounds of muttering, grumbling, and the shuffling of sandaled feet through scorching sand. The result is some historical revisionism on the part of the people. Suddenly Egypt looms on the horizon of their imaginations. But Egypt is suddenly no longer the house of bondage, the place where taskmasters wielded cruel whips and where Hebrew babies floated dead in the Nile River. No, now Egypt transforms into a kind of deluxe resort, a veritable Club Med of a place. The hunger in their bellies tricks their minds into remembering nothing about Egypt except pate de foie gras, roast tenderloin of veal in a merlot reduction sauce, caramelized cauliflower, orange scented crème Brule.
So they complain to Moses, who tells the people that really they are complaining directly to Yahweh himself, and so they'd best watch their step. And indeed, Yahweh hears the people but curiously enough does not speak a harsh word here. True, God says that he will yet find a way to test the people. But at this early stage in Israel's desert wanderings God does not seem to blame the people for being hungry for some good food.
God knows the wilderness is a place of death. In the Bible the wilderness usually gets described through the very same Hebrew phrase used to describe the pre-creation chaos in Genesis 1:1 God shoved aside the chaos to create cosmos but then sin came and chaos made a comeback. Some of those good creation barriers that God set into place to protect and nurture human life eroded. Nowhere in the Old Testament (or the New Testament) can this return of chaos be more clearly seen than in the desert wastes. The wilderness was the place where the devil ran wild, where demons howled, where human life was threatened from every quarter.
The wilderness was a place of death. It was also the path the Israelites needed to take toward life in the Promised Land. But as commentator Terrence Fretheim has written, in the heat of the desert there would be many occasions when the very hope of the Promised Land would shimmer like no more than a desert mirage. People's faith would erode like the shifting sands while their dreams tattered along with their tents in the scorching desert winds.
Not surprisingly, the people complain. This was not what they signed on for. This did not look like the "Promised Land" travel brochure that Moses and Aaron had shown to the people back in Egypt. They were tired, hot, thirsty, and hungry. They needed to know if it was possible that God was with them in this dreadful place, and on this occasion God seems only-too-happy to comply by showering the people with provisions.
But in the midst of all that, in Exodus 16:10, we encounter what may well be one of the most startling and vivid verses in the whole Bible. It is a verse that should be written in large letters upon each one of our hearts. Because the people of Israel are hurting, they are hungry, they are no doubt afraid. Their suffering is getting bad enough that many have swiveled around and turned back toward the west, back toward Egypt, back toward what had been, for better or worse, their home.
So what happens in verse 10? The Lord God himself gently takes the people by the shoulders and turns them around, away from the west, away from Egypt, and eastward toward the harsh and terrible wilderness. But what do the people see when they look toward this place of death? They see "the glory of the Lord!"
Just let this image sink in a moment. They looked into the hard times of life and that is where they saw God! They were not to look for God back in Egypt. Yet when peering toward the place of death, they saw glory. They would see this glory in the wilderness new every morning through the manna. God would feed his people bread from heaven even though they themselves were not in heaven but in a kind of living hell on earth. For some reason the wilderness would be the cradle in which God would nourish and nurture his people toward a greater maturity.
But why? Why bring the people here? Why did God show his glory in the wilderness? Perhaps to foster dependence and trust. In the hard times of life, all our normal supports get knocked out from underneath us. If the people were going to go on, it would be only and ever because the Lord was with them. That's why they couldn't stockpile the manna. Think of it this way: if your retirement portfolio is fat and rich and full and in fine fiscal shape, how much time do you devote to praying about such a thing? If your pantry, cupboards, fridge, and freezer are well-stocked, you may not know just what you will have for dinner tonight but you will not spend any time in prayer to God asking that you will eat at all.
In the wilderness God showed his glory to Israel morning by morning so that there would ideally never be a day when anyone had cause to doubt why he or she was alive. We tend to think of the manna as only a gift. But you should have noticed that when manna is first introduced in this chapter, God at least sees it mostly as also a test. Will they, can they, rely on God?
Nobody wants to suffer. Only sick masochists actively pursue hurts and pains. All things being equal, the Lord God did not create us to suffer, either. God did not launch Adam and Eve into Eden with the promise of hunger and want. But in the post-Eden world, sickness, want, hunger, loss, and death are realities. That is not good news but there is some good news, some comfort to be found in the thought that those things do not force God to abandon anyone.
None of us purposely moves out into the wilderness. But sometimes we get cast out into it anyway and the question then becomes, "Now what? Will I just deny this pain and act like it is no big deal? Will I get trapped in this pain and so curdle into a lifelong deep bitterness? Or in and through my understandable laments and weeping will I nonetheless look for the glory of the Lord that may just be revealed to me even here, in this hellish place of death and sorrow?"
I am not trying to be simplistic in setting the matter in these terms. I myself am no stoic, no saintly hero who finds it easy to look for God when I'm hurting, and I'm not above thinking dark and grim and very unspiritual thoughts when in scorching places. When someone says something to me along the lines of, "God is building more character in you through this," my first response may well be, "Well then, O Lord, I'll be content with less character, thank you very much!"
And let me be honest enough to admit that I've not been through the kind of deep wilderness valleys through which some of you have passed in your lives (and in which some of you may be even right this very moment). Sooner or later sorrow finds us all. Sooner or later something happens that we never saw coming. We were just sure we were entering the right career path 20 years ago but it has just never really worked out. We wanted our kids to be as happy and settled and stable as the children of so many other people we know. But somehow or another two of our three kids ended up getting divorces, and every time we look into the eyes of our grandkids, we see that pain all over again and it about kills us. You thought you could trust Cindy at work but the first chance she got she destroyed your reputation with the boss and then took over your job once you got fired.
Oh, we don’t choose the wilderness path but so many of our lives end up trekking right straight through it. This is a hard world. So please don't read me as being trite. There are no pat answers, no easy solutions, no quick escape routes out of the desert wastes where we sometimes find ourselves.
All I can say is that to those who are willing to look hard and long into the wilderness places, there is that possibility of seeing the glory of the Lord even so. Because do you remember what happened, first thing, to the one called Jesus? If crossing through the Red Sea was Israel's "baptism," then we can remember the baptism of also Jesus in the Jordan River.
Do you recall the vivid and utterly startling way the Gospel of Mark presents the scene to us? Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, comes up out of the river only to have the Holy Spirit descend on him like a dove. But then that dove suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of raptor bird with sharp and strong talons. Immediately, Mark tells us, instantly upon being baptized, the Holy Spirit of God hurled Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and danger. Immediately, just like for Israel. Very often after baptism come wilderness trials.
The great preacher Fred Craddock once noted that the disciples turned apostles performed what Craddock calls a majestic flip-flop. You see, all along the Jews who were waiting for the Messiah summed up their anticipation with the phrase, “When the Messiah comes, no suffering.” “See that person over there all shriveled up with arthritis and in constant pain? Well, when the Messiah comes you won’t see that anymore. When the Messiah comes, no suffering. See that blind man? See that crippled woman? See that broken family? Well, when the Messiah comes, you won’t see that again. When the Messiah comes, no suffering.” But for the disciples turned apostles who ended up meeting the real Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, they ended up doing a flip-flop, a reversal as they ended up proclaiming that for now and until he comes again, wherever there is suffering, that’s where you will find the Messiah! Where there is suffering, Messiah!
My daughter Julianna is 27 now. But twenty-three years ago she got suddenly sick across a couple of days, dragging her foot a bit at first, then limping, then having serious pain in her ankle. Two trips to medical clinics yielded no answers and the pain was getting worse. Finally our own pediatrician diagnosed a life-threatening osteomyelitis of the ankle joint—an infection that needed swift treatment. And so began a week-long stay at the hospital replete with horrible needle aspirations of her little ankle and IV antibiotics.
Four or so days into her hospitalization was a Sunday and though my elders probably offered to give me the day off, I preached the morning service. But my heart and mind were elsewhere. And I was so tired. After the service, though, I was greeted by a gaggle of three- and four-year-olds in the narthex. They were members of my daughter’s Children in Worship class and with the teacher’s help had made a big get-well card. They had all put their little hands into paint and pressed them onto this big piece of cardboard and over it all were the words “Julianna, You Are In God’s Hands.” And suddenly in all those little patty prints I saw the glory of the Lord.
We were still in a hard place. She would stay at DeVos Children’s Hospital another 4 days or so and then had to have surgery to install an IV port into which we infused antibiotics every six hours for three weeks. But through those little kids I saw the care and the glory of the Lord after all. And so many of you have the same story to tell: the card that came in the mail at the right moment, the out-of-the-blue Facebook message that gave you a boost in a bad season of your life, the caring person who dropped off a potato-chip-crusted tuna casserole just to say she cared. It’s all the glory of the Lord in the wilderness.
Jesus has been to the wilderness and so he is still there, in that terrible place, when we arrive there, too. It is still a disorienting place. The demons still howl into our ears there and we may well discover all kinds of reasons to question our faith, wish for a change, or just generally to turn back westward, back toward "Egypt," whatever "Egypt" may be for you.
But the Spirit of God turns us eastward, toward the suffering, and may in the end somehow and against all odds reveal to us the glory of the Lord. We don't need to deny the reality of hurts in life. We don't need to let suffering have the last word on everything, either. But if by the grace of God we can discover the love of Jesus made the more vivid to us even in the wilderness, then we may yet find a reason to give glory to God as he leads us along to that better country that is the kingdom of God. Amen.