Lenten Thoughts: Wilderness and Stars

 

I want you to imagine with me you were one of the Israelites as the people left Egypt for the wilderness.

Before the Exodus, you and your family were enslaved in Egypt for generations – working under the hot sun building another nation’s empire. Through a miraculous series of events God raised up Moses to deliver you and your people from the Egyptians. You never thought it was possible to escape the Egyptians grip but God made a way.

As is often the case, there were some issues in the way of your freedom. One of these major issues was that the only way out of slavery was walking into the wilderness – the unknown wilderness.

What would you eat?

Where would you sleep?

What would you drink?

Who would keep you safe?

While these questions about the wilderness were pressing, they were not as pressing as your desire to get out from under the abusive hand of the Egyptians.

You didn’t know where you were going, but you knew that you, your family, and your people were about to embark on a journey with little more than the tattered shirts on your backs.

So you escaped.

Leaving Egypt the scene was dramatic – vast amounts of Israelites leaving Egypt as the plagues devastated the nation. Going as fast as you could, you turned back to realize that Pharaoh and his armies were in hot pursuit. After some time with Pharaoh’s armies chasing after you, you turned a rocky bend only to realize there is a giant body of water in front of you. What do you do? There was no way around the water. Your heart was pounding. You began to panic. (Isn’t it interesting that even though you have seen God do miraculous things to get you to this point, when faced with a giant sea and no way around, you begin to wonder if God will save you?)

In the last possible moment, God parted the waters of the sea so you could cross to the other side and closes them when the last Israelite has stepped on the far shore.

You and your people had been saved.

As you can imagine, it took a few days for the adrenaline to subside but once it did, life began to slow down and the realization that you were in the wilderness with no real plan began to set in. Even though you were no longer under the oppressive hand of the Egyptians, you wondered if you made the right choice. You started saying things like,

“At least we had food in Egypt…”

“Are we going to die out here?”

“I don’t like the direction we are moving in”

One night, you and your family are sitting around the fire before bed. The firelight was flickering off your faces and there is a canopy of stars filling the night sky. Sensing the frustration with current situation, one of the elders in your family began to tell a story about God creating the world.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…”

The elder shared the story of God speaking the good world into being and breathing life into the humans that God formed from the dust of the earth.

Everyone is captivated by the story.

The elder continued to shared about the garden God had created for humanity. The elder shared about how there was a special tree in the middle of the garden. God had one rule in this garden – Adam and Even could enjoy the fruit of every tree in the garden but NOT of the tree in the middle of the garden – for this tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree would give them more knowledge, and more understanding.

Why would Adam and Eve need to eat of that tree? They had everything they wanted. They would walk with God in the cool of the day, they would play and explore, and they would lie on their backs at night and look up at the flickering stars.

What more could they want? What more did they need?

However, the idea of more knowledge and understanding was so attractive.

God had invited humanity into a relationship of trust but the thought of full understanding and certainty seemed so tantalizing. They felt like the had to understand more. So they choose not to trust and they ate from the tree. However, once they ate, they realized the idea was better than the reality – they were now cursed.

The elder shared this story with the Israelite family to remind them of their past. To remind them their faith in God is not a journey into certainty, rather it is a journey of trust.

God was not going to give the Israelites a timeline of when they will leave the desert.

God was not going to provide a map with directions.

God was not going to tell them about tomorrow.

And God was not going to tell them every “why?”

In that wilderness, God wanted their trust. He brought them into that wilderness so they would learn to trust him. He wanted them to have faith – not certainty.

 

If we continue to read the story of the wilderness years for the people of Israel, we learn that the people continually demanded certainty from God. When they didn’t get from God what they wanted and when they wanted it, they created another god. When their schedule was disrupted they complained about it and said that in Egypt they at least knew their daily schedule.

Like the Israelites, there is something in us that seems to run from trust. We’d rather look out for ourselves and know what is going to happen – we long for certainty. Unfortunately, instead of living in the tension of the unknown, we often create a god in our imagine that seems rather black and white – a god that does not need to be trusted.

 

Let’s fast-forward to New Testament story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

The gospel writer Matthew says that after his baptism Jesus was “led up” into the wilderness by the Spirit. Matthew uses the same language of being “led up” that is used in the Exodus story of the people of Israel. The people of Israel were in the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew is clearly connecting the two stories for his readers. He is telling us that in the person of Jesus, God is incarnating the story of the Israelites – Jesus is literally becoming their story.

When Jesus entered the wilderness there is nothing to suggest that Jesus knew how long he would be there. He was simply following the Spirit. Jesus traveled in the hot sun by day and the bright stars by night. We learn in the story that while in the wilderness Jesus was tempted by the devil three times.

He was tempted to turn stones into bread – to provide provisions for himself.

He was tempted to throw himself to the ground – so that God would come to his rescue.

And he was tempted by the devil to receive all the power in the world if he would only worship Him.

All three times Jesus rebukes the devil and replied with scripture from Deuteronomy 6-8. And I don’t think it is any coincidence that in Deuteronomy 6-8 Moses is inviting the people of Israel to remember that God was the one who brought them out of Egypt.

However, don’t think that Jesus simply responded to the devil like a bible answer man quoting the scriptures. These temptations were brutal – 40 days of non-stop temptation to break trust with God. These scriptures came from a place of brokenness and struggle. They came form the depths of his soul, like his last defense.

But, in the midst of this intense temptation, Jesus trusted the Spirit in the wilderness. He did not succumb to the pressure. Although the temptation was strong and nothing sounded better that a freshly baked loaf of warm bread, Jesus knew that was an appetite that would never be filled.

Instead of breaking trust with God the Father, Jesus shows us a different way.

Jesus shows us that faith and trust is what will make us whole. The road will most definitely not be easy but it will be good. Jesus barely made it out of the wilderness alive. In fact, the scripture tells us that after the 40 days, angels needed to come and minister to him. However, from that point on Jesus was prepared for his ministry because he trusted – he did not need all the answers, he simply needed trust.

The serpent in the garden tempted Adam and Eve by saying “If you eat this … then you will know more”

The people of Israel said, “If we only had X Y Z… then will be happy and satisfied”

When Jesus was in the wilderness the devil said, “If you do as I say, you will be full and powerful”

But Jesus knew the lie and didn’t fall for it. Instead of looking to fill the void within Jesus embraced it; he embraced the lack, and embraced the Spirit – by faith. By trust.

 

The lie that we are all tempted to believe is, “If only I have X Y Z, then I will be better, whole, or complete”

This Lenten season is a time to be reminded of our humanity – to be reminded of our lack. It is also a season to trust God in the midst of our lack, in the midst of the void. We recognize in this season that we are all tempted to leave the wilderness of unknowing for a land of certainty and understanding. Unfortunately, we learn that such a place doesn’t ever satisfy.

 

So the next time you find yourself falling for the temptation to live by certainty instead of trust, look up at the stars.

Look at the same stars Jesus viewed through teary eyes as he struggled in the wilderness void.

Look at the same stars that the Israelites gazed at while firelight danced on their faces.

Look to the same stars Adam and Eve slept under in the garden,

And remember the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…”

And know that throughout the generations God has and can be trusted.

May we be a people who cling to trust instead of a false sense of certainty.

May we learn to find God in the wildernesses of our lives.

And may we learn from those before us so others yet to come might learn this great faith from us.

Amen.

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