We are at the halfway point in our 40-day journey through Lent – 40 days (excluding Sundays) that mirror the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. Traditionally, Lent has been a time of reflection and introspection, and a time, too, of repentance, simple living, self-denial (often in the form of fasting). During Lent we take intentional time to draw nearer to God, through prayer or spiritual ritual. All of these have parallels in the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness.
The experience of a pandemic has taught us all what the wilderness feels like. In a sense, we have been in a wilderness time of sorts for the past three years: a time of unclarity, of unknown direction, of lack, of feeling deeply our finitude and vulnerability and the absolute fragility of life. At this time back in 2020, I remember feeling that, for myself at least, Easter never came. Lent just went on and on. There was no burst of new life, no new energy, just a continuing time in the wilderness.
A journey through the wilderness is a time of transition, when we, like the Hebrew people, have left one comfortable and well-known reality and are heading towards something different and as yet unknown.
In church circles, we’ve been saying for decades now that we’re in a transition stage: a transition from being at the centre of a community to being a voice from the margins, a transition from Christianity as the “state religion”, so to speak, to being one of many spiritual and religious voices heard in our community and province and country.
The past 3 years have hit us in the face with a broader transition: a transition, through the experience of covid, from a feeling of relative calm and security, at least here in the western world, to pervasive and underlying feelings of stress and angst.
We are also experiencing in this wilderness a transition from a situation of plenty, of abundance, to a situation of scarcity. Not only are the goods we’re used to accessing whenever we want or need them not always readily available on store shelves but when they are there, they stretch our financial abilities more and more. We’re finding ourselves having to think more about what we buy and make choices around that. We are, in essence, being forced to live as most of the world has always lived, focussing on our needs and sometimes having to put our wants aside.
The Hebrew people, as we meet them today in the Book of Exodus, are likewise in the wilderness and in a state of transition, symbolized all too clearly by the desert in which they find themselves. The passage that was read this morning is only one part of a larger saga, so let’s put it into its context.
When the Moses-followers left Egypt, they were venturing into unknown territory, flying on a wing and prayer, so to speak. We’re told that God had misgivings from the very start (Ch. 13) about their ability to face the unknown challenges that lay ahead. For that very reason, God led them on a more circuitous route because of the feeling that if they were faced with the war-loving Philistines, they would high-tail it right back to Egypt. So they took a roundabout route that led them to the Red Sea.
This morning’s part of the story is not the first time that the people have been grumbling and complaining. At the beginning of the journey, as they approached the Red Sea and saw Pharaoh following, they started to doubt their decision to leave Egypt. “We might as well have died in Egypt as in this god-forsaken place!” They pressed onward, not without misgivings, and it wasn’t long until they faced their next challenge… and their next… until, just before today’s story, they were without food.
Egypt may not have been perfect, but we all know that once we’ve left a place, it becomes in our memory much more wonderful than it probably ever was. The Hebrew people were definitely indentured servants to Pharaoh, but they were also used to being well-fed and feeling assured that they would be well fed tomorrow and the day after that as well. So when they felt the pangs of hunger and didn’t know where their next crumb was coming from, the cry was, “Why did you bring us out here, away from all the comforts we had.”
And now, in today’s passage, they are grumbling again – same refrain: “Why have you brought us here?… to die of thirst?” Now remember, Moses did not want this job in the first place. He told God he wasn’t up for the task, and at this point, he may have been wishing that he had stuck to his guns and not taken it on. It was turning out to be a thankless task. Every time something went wrong, every time the people felt vulnerable or afraid, hungry or thirsty, they rose with one voice to complain. And who did they blame, him.
It happened then; it happens now. When the going gets tough, our world shrinks from a wide embrace to succession of threats and challenges we are inclined to withdraw and form a small, protective circle around ourselves.
As covid took hold, we saw the best in people lived out in a feeling of community (“we’re all in this together”), a feeling here in Canada and elsewhere of pride and a determination to go through this wilderness and reach the other side – together. For the first time in my life, I bought a Canadian flag and displayed it proudly outside our house.
But then things got difficult. The new limits on our lives didn’t go away when we thought they should. The inconveniences dragged on… and continue to drag on. We continue to live in a sort of wilderness place. As time went on, we lost confidence in the people who were giving us the direction needed to protect the common good. We went from “we” to “me” and the grumbling started. We, like the Hebrew people, looked to our leaders and said, “It’s all your fault!” The Canadian flag was hijacked to a completely different agenda and mine is in the basement, much to my grief and dismay… not that I’m a flag waver, but I grieve the changed message. I grieve the change from compassion to self-centredness, from a sense of community and the common good to a reluctance to trusting each other.
Throughout the biblical writings, responsibility and compassion for one another is a recurring and central theme. From the very beginning, in the Book of Genesis, Cain is confronted by God. “Where’s your brother?” God asks, and Cain tries to get out from under God’s gaze with the answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From that biblical beginning on, the answer to that question is underlined in story after story: YES! We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers – when it’s smooth sledding and when the going is tough. Jesus voiced that in so many ways. In Matthew 25, he reminds us that whatever we do to one another we do to him. How we treat one another reflects our trust in the founder of our faith.
When the going gets tough, we need the support of one another, we need to be aware and self-aware. We need a trust and faith that God walks with us, strengthening when we need more strength, comforting when we need comfort… and urging us not only to receive strength and comfort but to pass it on, as a compassionate, supportive community. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. This is one of the most compassionate and supportive communities that I’ve been privileged to be part of – compassionate towards all whom we cross paths with. May this compassion, given by God and taught by Jesus, be our way to bring our little corner of the world closer to God’s dream. As the Celtic blessing says, “May we see the face of Christ in everyone we meet and may everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us.”
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