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Of Wilderness and Wonder


Exodus 3:1-6

All of us wish life were easier. Troubles afflict us at every turn. They are as abrasive as sandpaper and as relentless as a dripping tap. One day someone dear to us dies, and we are bereaved. Another day disappointment steamrollers us, and we are crushed. Another day the person we always trusted betrays us, and we are flattened. Another day the political climber decides to climb above us by climbing on us, and we feel we’ve been buried.

In addition to what befalls us from one day to another there is the chronic affliction whose pain is relentless every day. One of my friends has a son with cerebral palsy. The son is markedly affected and has never been able to join in children’s games and adolescents’ cavorting. One arm is of little use and one leg drags awkwardly. Recently my friend was waiting for his son, waiting and waiting until his patience curdled into annoyance. “Hurry up!”, he shouted in exasperation, not thinking that his son couldn’t hurry up, simply not thinking at all. To his surprise his son unravelled. “Dad, I am twenty years old; all my I life I have been slow; all my life I have been last; all my life other people have told me I keep them waiting; all my life I have felt I am an impediment, a nuisance, something others endure out of social politeness even as they secretly wish they didn’t have to.” My friend was crushed at what his impatience had unleashed in his son. The son’s affliction is his physical disability; the father’s affliction is his guilt over his thoughtless reaction to his son’s helplessness.

How much easier it would be to “believe in God”; how much easier it would be to “take time to be holy” or “sense God’s presence” if only we weren’t ceaselessly distracted by our troubles!

All of us are stressed in some measure, afflicted, set upon. And all of us tend to think we are more stressed, more afflicted, more set upon than most. Yes, we admit that the human condition extends over humankind. At the same time nobody quite “knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

All of us assume that our foreparents in faith had an easier time than we are having. Surely faith came more readily for our ancestors; surely they didn’t have to struggle for faith the way we seem to have to struggle. Just imagine how much less harried they were than we! They may have suffered more physically (painkillers being unknown), but their mental anguish could never have compared to the emotional torment we are stuck with today.

All of us assume one thing more (at least assume it for a while). We think that in the midst of our intensified suffering we do have one enormous advantage over our foreparents: we can leave the bleakness of our inner or outer wilderness. Or if not leave it, at least we can find relief from it in ways they could not. We have TA,TM, TV (transactional analysis, transcendental meditation, television). In addition we can “live better chemically”, thanks to pharmaceutical companies and their helpful researchers. Whether because of prescription drugs, self-help, psychotherapy or the latest in technological sophistication, we feel that a new era, with new human potential, is just around the corner. One quick turn and the wilderness (inner or outer) will be behind us for ever!

And then the truth dawns on us, as discernment is granted to us. The wilderness belongs to the human condition! The wilderness is inescapable! To attempt to flee it is to flee life. To try to escape it — and everything about it that chafes us — is to pursue unreality. Pursuing unreality leaves us falsifying our humanity, as we magically think we can transcend the human condition. To succeed in pursuing unreality tragically lands us in the world of unreality: mental illness, derangement, psychosis.

As if whatever wilderness we live in, cannot avoid living in, were not enough, the bleakness of the wilderness is intensified whenever we suspect, with chilled heart, that God has withdrawn himself from us, turned his back on us, rendered himself inaccessible to us. God, we feel, has become deaf or indifferent. At this point our isolation (part of what it means to live in the wilderness) has worsened into desolation.

The psalmist feels that this is what has happened to him. “I commune with my heart in the night”, he tells us in Psalm 77. (Everything seems worse at night!) “I meditate and search my spirit. Will the Lord spurn for ever, and never again be favourable? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? ” Here the psalmist is pouring out his doubts about God. Perhaps God’s heart has mysteriously calcified. Perhaps God is no longer favourably disposed toward us. Perhaps God’s steadfast love has ceased, God’s faithfulness to his people somehow having evaporated. Perhaps God’s promise — “I will never fail you or forsake you” — is never going to be fulfilled.

Yet there is something more. In addition to his doubts about God the psalmist is stricken by his doubts about himself. “Has God in his anger shut up his compassion?” Everywhere in scripture there is one thing, and one thing only, that arouses God’s anger: sin. There is one thing only that perpetuates God’s anger: impenitence in the face of sin. No wonder the psalmist moans, “I commune with my heart in the night;…I search my spirit.” Plainly he would repent instantly if he knew what he had to repent of. Just as plainly he doesn’t know. He can only speculate, in his wretchedness, whether, or where, or how, or how often he has sinned so grievously as to anger God and for how long he has unwittingly remained unrepentant so as to perpetuate God’s anger. So confused is he that he isn’t even sure if he has sinned at all. Hence the question, “Has God in anger shut up his compassion?” How can the psalmist be expected to defuse God’s anger when he doesn’t even know whether sin-awakened anger is behind God’s apparent disappearance?

The wilderness intensifies, doesn’t it. First there is the human condition which can be described accurately as a wilderness. Then there is the chilling feeling that God has fallen silent, disappeared on us. Finally there is the erosion of self-confidence. As the psalmist’s self-confidence erodes (“Is God inaccessible because he has failed me or because I have failed him? How am I ever going to find out?”) he begins to spiral down; down into that mess of doubt, self-accusation, depression, short-lived protestation of innocence, longer-lived suspicion of guilt. Left alone he is going to go all the way down to despair.

Just before the psalmist crashes in despair a surge of faith short-circuits his doubt. He cries out, calling up God’s deeds of old. “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yea, I will remember thy deeds of old….Thou art the God who workest wonders.” His simple recollection of God’s deeds of old halts the spiral as he particularly recalls the foundational item in his people’s consciousness: deliverance through the Red Sea. The Israelite people had always believed that they had been released from slavery in Egypt only because God had taken note of their suffering, their helplessness, their isolation, their desolation; in a word, God had taken note of their horrible wilderness in the midst of Egypt’s luxuriance. The angel of death had passed over them, sparing them annihilation on their way out of Egypt. Spared annihilation then, were they going to be slaughtered when they arrived at the seaside with no way through? But a way they could never have imagined opened before them. “Thy way was holy”, the psalmist exclaims with gratitude and wonder as he recalls the last-minute deliverance, “Thy way was through the sea, thy path through the great waters.”

“Great waters”, “seas”, “floods” — all these terms in Hebrew symbolize one thing: chaos. Chaos is impenetrable confusion; confusion which is formless, fathomless, exitless. While there was no way out, and no way around, under God there was a way through. “Thy way was through the sea, thy path through the great waters.” From that moment Israel exulted ceaselessly in its deliverance.

Then the psalmist adds a line that all we wilderness-wanderers must hang on to: “Yet God’s footprints were unseen.” Israel always knew its deliverance to be real, even though God’s hand in it remained invisible to others. There was nothing about Israel’s deliverance that would dispel unbelievers’ unbelief and impel them to cry out, “Truly God is!” The literature of the nations that surrounded Israel at this point in history (particularly the literature of Egypt) contains no reference to the Red Sea event. A rag-tag bunch of social misfits managed somehow to avoid slavery in Egypt? So what! This was nothing to the nations; but to Israel, everything. As far as the nations were concerned God’s footprints were invisible (which is to say, God himself is unreal). But as far as Israel was concerned, “Thou art the God who workest wonders.”

God’s footsteps have always been unseen to all except the Spirit-attuned. When the baby was born in the cowshed, who bothered to note one more baby, born out of wedlock, whose arrival could only worsen the poverty of parents who were already poor enough? A few shepherds (and fewer wisemen), however, were overtaken by the wonder of the Incarnate Son who had been appointed Sovereign and Judge of the entire cosmos.

Years later passers-by in Jerusalem saw three crosses on a road leading out of the city. There was nothing noteworthy about the crosses, since Rome had never boasted of either patience or clemency, always preferring to crucify first and ask questions later. Nevertheless, on one cross there hung a young man whose death has ever since found the Spirit-attuned startled at the wonder of their own forgiveness.

City-life continued without interruption in the days after the unexceptional execution. To be sure, members of a small, Jewish messianic sect behaved as if something momentous had occurred. But Palestine was riddled with small, messianic sects that behaved oddly; all one had to do was wait for the sect to sputter out. The story was that some women had taken perfume to the cemetery in order to deodorize a corpse. They were met by him who was the same one they had known for months even as he was now indescribably different.

God’s footprints are unseen. Yet those in whom the Spirit has surged know that the God “who workest wonders” has come upon them.

Wonder is not a sigh of relief as the wilderness is finally left behind. Wonder is our gasp of amazement at God’s drawing near to us in the midst of that wilderness that cannot be left behind. While it is true that God’s footprints are not visible to anyone at all, it is also true that those who do not harden their heart against God come to know that the wilderness is the venue of God’s visitation. In this wilderness we are surprised and startled, made to understand and moved to give thanks. Wonder seizes us in the midst of a wilderness we had thought to be as bitter as it is barren. Now we are found exclaiming with the psalmist, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who alone does wondrous things.” (Psalm 72:18)

It is plain that as the psalmist reflected on the wondrous deliverance at the Red Sea he knew he could not merely survive in the wilderness, but even thrive in it. We shall be persuaded that we too can thrive in it as we look to the psalmist and other foreparents in faith. After all, the varied wildernesses which overtook our foreparents were no less bleak or unpromising than ours.

Think of the prophet Hosea. His wife became a prostitute and bore three children whose father could have been anyone except her husband. When she was thoroughly used up, as discardable now as she had long been degraded, she was deemed to have a market value of fifteen shekels: half the price of a slave! Absorbing blotter-like the obscene jokes which downtown loungers had long snickered over but which Hosea was only now hearing, he made his way to the marketplace and brought his wife home. Why? Just because his love for her was greater than his outrage, sorrow and agony on account of her. Thereafter Hosea spoke the warmest word of any Hebrew prophet, steeping his people in God’s tenderest love for them. It’s not that Hosea’s life-story had a Cinderella-ending: his threw herself remorsefully at her husband’s feet and lived ever after as his dutiful, affectionate and faithful wife. There is no evidence that anything like this happened. In other words, the wilderness was not escaped. Nevertheless, through his wilderness-experience, and only through this experience, Hosea was granted the profoundest insight into the wounded heart of God. More than granted an insight into the wounded heart of God, Hosea was entrusted with the tenderest word of God. Through this one man God was able to say to all the people of Israel, “It was I who knew you in the wilderness…”. (Hosea 13:5) Hosea speaks to all who cringe self-consciously in that wilderness of public humiliation and private shame. They must know that they are uniquely qualified to speak gently of a tender love ceaselessly issuing from the God whose people embarrass him but never deflect him.

Elijah spoke God’s truth to political power; spoke God’s truth to the evil tyranny of King Ahab and his cruel wife, Jezebel. Jezebel swore she would kill Elijah. Feeling that faithfulness to God was tantamount to suicide; feeling that his life had boiled dry and might just as well blow away in the desert aridity of it all, Elijah “went a day’s journey into the wilderness…and asked that he might die.” (I Kings 19:4) To his surprise he was fed by a messenger of God. Strengthened now, he made his way to a cave where neither the earthquake nor the fire nor the hurricane (all of which were publicly verifiable) bespoke God. On the other hand, the “still, small voice” (undoubtedly heard by Elijah alone) most certainly did. Told to return home by another wilderness (the wilderness of Damascus: there really is no escape!) Elijah anoints the kings of Syria and Israel, as well as the prophet Elisha, his successor. The wilderness of fear and self-pity is yet the place where we shall know ourselves met, cherished, moved beyond our complaining self-indulgence, and reclaimed for a glad obedience which furthers God’s work in the world.

Moses knew his vocation to be that of leader. He knew too that hardship in the wilderness was vastly preferable to the security of slavery in Egypt. Through this leader God thundered to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Eventually Pharaoh did just that. Pharaoh would have laughed, however, if he could have overheard the people railing against Moses for forty years. Life in the wilderness was certainly hard; so hard, in fact, that they clamoured for the “meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they had had in Egypt (forgetting, of course, the wretchedness of the captivity that had reduced them to well-fed domestic animals.) Now they were left with nothing better than — nothing better than manna! Manna? The Hebrew word means “What is it?” It’s undefinable! The resources of God are unique! They do not fit any of our ready-to-hand categories. “What is it?” “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:15)

Leadership anywhere in life entails loneliness. To be summoned to lead in business, industry, government, church, university, hospital, community organization; to be summoned to lead is to be thrust into a wilderness of loneliness where few others (if any) understand or care.

Yet while Moses alone of all the people of Israel knows the loneliness of leadership, it is to Moses alone that God speaks as God’s fiery presence sets the bush aflame and God’s scorching truth brands itself upon him indelibly: “Take off your shoes, for the ground on which you stand is holy!” Moses speaks to all who are called to lead, and who know the loneliness that leadership entails. Moses also tells them that faithfulness to their vocation will render their wilderness holy ground. As often as their spirits sag God’s fiery presence and word will remind them.

Whenever a leader appears courage appears as well. John the Baptist exemplified courage. His clothing of animal skins gave him an earthy appearance, reflecting the untameability of the wilderness and his aversion to soft compromises. His diet was as stark as his speech: grasshoppers (noted for their protein) and wild honey. (How many bee stings had he incurred in gathering the honey?) John’s courage could come only from someone who was unimpressed by the cute games and politically correct conventions of those who had long since jettisoned transparency. John’s fearless truthfulness had found him telling Herod, the puppet-ruler of Judaea, that not even the king had a right to his brother’s wife; kingly philandering, after all, was still low-life adultery. Herod’s sister-in-law (mistress too) seethed. Luke tells us that John was in the wilderness until his public ministry began. Where was John, then, after his public ministry began? Merely in a wilderness of a different sort. Thirty years (more or less) in the wilderness for a ministry of only a few months? But what a ministry! The world will never forget the man whom Jesus pointed to as the greatest prophet to arise in Israel. John speaks to courageous people, all of whom discover, sooner or later, that courage brings on isolation and as surely as courage calls forth hostility. Just because John didn’t flee the wilderness by surrendering courage he continues to embolden all who, like him, will not compromise.

We must not forget John’s namesake, the seer of the book of Revelation. This man had been sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in exile on the island of Patmos. His faithfulness to his Lord in the face of political pressure had landed him on a wind-swept rock-pile as desolate without as John himself was within. Except that he wasn’t desolate within! Just because John was stuck on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” the Spirit surged over him, leaving him exclaiming, “I was on the island called Patmos, and I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” So far from excluding the Spirit, the wilderness is the condition of the Spirit’s visitation. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ in the face of persecution is wilderness to be sure, but also a wilderness where the Spirit unfailing finds us.

The wilderness surrounds us. The wilderness of shameful humiliation, the wilderness of long-term hardship, the wilderness of isolation enforced because of one’s courage, the wilderness of punishment handed out by the politically powerful; it’s all wilderness. What are we to do when we realize that this is where we live and there is no escape? We must look to our foreparents in faith, and especially to him who was most at home in the wilderness, Jesus himself.

Never attempting to flee the wilderness, our Lord deliberately sought the wilderness time and again as a place of spiritual refreshment. On the one hand he knew that life there was lean, spare, hard, even harsh. On the other hand he knew that there there were fewer distractions, fewer illusions, less likelihood of that spiritual folly which always attends affluence and its life of ease. Never naive, Jesus knew the wilderness to be the place of temptation and trial and testing. (The Greek word, PEIRASMOS, has all three English meanings.) At the inception of his public ministry Jesus was even driven into the wilderness, say the gospel-writers in deploying the word which they also use of the violent driving out of demons. (Who says that God is always and everywhere gentle?) Yet it was in the wilderness, the gospel-writers tell us, that Jesus was refreshed. Paradoxically, the place of spiritual assault is also the place of spiritual invigoration. We are sustained most profoundly precisely where we are most threatened! The resources of God abound precisely where we assume they are wanting!

So unusual is this truth that even the most intimate followers of Jesus are slow to grasp it. Jesus draws a huge crowd around himself as he teaches for days on end. Matter-of-factly he tells the disciples that the crowds, on whom he has stomach-wrenching compassion, need to be fed. “How can we feed these people in the desert?”, the disciples ask, perplexed. They will see shortly that wherever Jesus Christ is present, anything that is offered to him, however slight, is multiplied so as to provide enough for everyone.

We fear the desert or wilderness largely because we assume that whatever we desert we are in, for whatever reason, will only become even more arid and barren as there is added to it the spectre of spiritual annihilation. In fact the opposite is the case. Because Jesus Christ is present the desert becomes the reservoir of riches as indescribable as they are inexhaustible. The prophet Isaiah knew whereof he spoke when he wrote, “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 36:6)

                                                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd
April 1994