The story of the Exodus is one of salvation, God’s people being led into freedom out of Egyptian slavery. The stories which follow however are not as upbeat. Once Israel leaves Egypt, they are faced with the questions of not only “where” are they now but also “who” are they now. The people who had been slaves in Egypt were now freemen in a wilderness wasteland. Before they could form a nation, they had to learn what it meant to be God’s people. I believe there is a reason God leads Israel about in the wilderness for so many years. A people who try to form a nation and establish new norms for behavior without understanding its own identity will quickly regret it. While no one enjoys wondering in the wilderness, sometimes a little uncomfortable chaos is necessary to help us understand what is supposed to come next. The same is true for every congregation.
In the wilderness, we learn to tell our story. Immediately on the other side of the Red Sea, Moses and Miriam began teaching the people a song which retold their exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 15). It was essential for them to understand what had just happened and be prepared to retell that story for future generations. Likewise, a church needs to appreciate its history, its story. Where have we come from? How did we get here? Who made this possible? When we learn to tell the story of God at work in our lives, we will be prepared for what God will do next.
In the wilderness, we learn to depend on God. In a desert, you lose all illusions of being able to provide for yourself. When water is given to you from rocks, you realize that you are totally dependent on God (Exodus 17). This is the same moral Paul gave to the Corinthians. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Our church must also learn that the God who provided for our past will provide for our future.
In the wilderness, we learn to fail before we succeed. Most of the wilderness stories are sad: Miriam’s leprosy (Numbers 12), Nadab and Abihu’s death (Leviticus 10), Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16). It turns out we humans are stubborn folk, and it takes us a few attempts to really get on board with God’s will. The wilderness is a time for failure, but also a time to learn from those failures. “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 9:6-7a).” But the learning precedes the success God has in store, and God gives us opportunities to learn from our mistakes.
What awaits beyond the wilderness? If we take our time through difficult seasons, if we learn our story and tell it often, if we learn to depend on God, and if we learn from our mistakes, the promised future is prepared and worth all the wilderness waiting. “Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you … Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 9:1-3).