It was so hot in the day. It was so cold in the night. Sand everywhere – nothing but sand for miles. No food. Precious little water. Scorpions and snakes hiding around every corner. Enemies lurking in their path. Is it any wonder Israel grumbled and complained as they made their way through the wilderness? They started, truth be told, before they'd even fully escaped Egypt. As they stood against the sea and saw the Egyptian army dashing in their direction, they were terrified. They cried out to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you've taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). But when they stood on the other side, “the people feared the LORD, and they had faith in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
That lasted a few days, at least. “They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they couldn't drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter; that's why they called it Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?'” (Exodus 15:22-24). Leaving the Bitter Place once the water was made sweet for them, they camped at an oasis called Elim, but then they left there, too, and came to a new wilderness place (Exodus 16:1). And soon they were hungry, saying to Moses, “If only we'd died by the hand of the LORD in Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). So God began feeding them with manna from heaven.
By the time they came to Rephidim, “there was no water for the people to drink, so the people quarreled with Moses … The people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and out children and our livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:1-3). And so that place was named Testing and Quarreling (Exodus 17:7). Soon after they had water, they had to fight the armies of Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13). All this before they ever made it to Sinai and pledged God their full trust and obedience (Exodus 23:7).
But just as they broke the Law at Sinai (Exodus 32), they didn't do much better after they left it. They continued to suffer; they continued to have hard times. “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes” (Numbers 11:1). They got hungry and nostalgic for slavery (Numbers 11:4), saying things like, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost us nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there's nothing at all but manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6). Soon after they got some meat from the windfall of quail, they tangled with disease (Numbers 11:33).
As they drew near to their destination, they were filled with fear-mongering and backsliding (Numbers 13:32-33), and the people again cried out, “If only we'd died in the land of Egypt! If only we'd died in this wilderness! … Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt? … Let's choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:2-4). They didn't go back, but they got their wish (Numbers 14:21-23).
And soon some were disobedient and picked a fight with locals which they badly lost (Numbers 14:44-45). They kept disobeying (Numbers 15:32), and finally there was a great rebellion by hundreds of leaders (Numbers 16:1-2), people who said that Moses had “brought [them] up out of a land of milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness” (Numbers 16:13). More died in the plague that followed (Numbers 16:49).
In time, they came to a place without water, and so the people “assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron” (Numbers 20:2), and they said, “If only we'd perished when our brothers perished against the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It's no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there's no water to drink” (Numbers 20:3-5). So that place, too, got named Quarreling (Numbers 20:13).
And their trials went on. Opposition from Edomites, Amorites, Moabites, Midianites. It wasn't long before the people got impatient again (Numbers 21:4), and they said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there's no food and no water, and we hate this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5). And then the snakes came, full of venom (Numbers 21:6). And after being tempted by the delights of the Midianite women and surrendering to them (Numbers 25:1-2), there was a greater plague than either of the first two (Numbers 25:9).
And so they lived forty years in the wilderness – a hot place with no food, no water, plenty of opposition, disease, and danger. It was, they said, “an evil place.” But it wasn't Moses who led them there. The whole way, from before they'd even left Egypt, it was the presence of God going before them: “The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). Wherever they went, “the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38). “And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped” (Numbers 9:17). In other words, both into and through the wilderness, it wasn't Moses leading them or dictating their path; it was God. They were being led by the Spirit.
That was the life of Israel in the wilderness. It's where, as Paul said, Israel was “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:2-3). Reflecting on that trip years later, God remarked, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Because that's where God takes his children: to the wilderness. That's where the child of God faces the test, in the desert of temptation. In their case, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5).
More centuries passed, and that's how the Gospels open. Just as Israel was baptized in the sea as God's son, Jesus left Galilee and went to the Jordan River to be baptized (Matthew 3:13). And when Jesus emerged from the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Israel was called the son of God, and so God led them through baptism and into the wilderness. And Jesus was called the Son of God, so where else would he go next? You can guess the next line yourself: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The goal here is pretty obvious, isn't it? I mean, that's what Jesus meant when he said it was “necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus passed from baptism to the wilderness, the desert of temptation, so that he could be what Israel had failed to be there: a faithful Son of God in the face of temptation. That was Israel's job during the days of Moses, and they blew it repeatedly. They fell in the face of temptation, and so they tumbled to destruction. Even Moses never set foot in the Promised Land. But Jesus would be pushed to his limits and yet live according to who he was: God's Child.
And note that he didn't just get up one day and decide he was going out to the wilderness, to a harsh and lonely place. He, as a human being, was not steering this ship. When he went into the wilderness, he was “led up by the Spirit” (Matthew 4:1), just like Israel was led by the Spirit as they followed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
That might strike you as odd. If you're like most people, it should. Isn't following the Spirit supposed to lead you to a better life? Isn't the Spirit supposed to take you to nice places, where you can be happy and tell everyone you're fine? Isn't the Spirit supposed to steer you away from trouble and keep you safe? Don't things go well when you're following the Spirit?
That's what we're so prone to think – and yet the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness. And if following the Spirit will take Jesus to the wilderness, why would it be different for any of God's adopted kids, whom Jesus isn't ashamed to call his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11)?
Because we're on a journey, too, between the waters of baptism and the place God is taking us. And as we wander along on that journey, we might find ourselves in some awfully difficult places – places we're prone to call 'Bitter' or 'Quarreling.' Places where we don't have enough to get by. Places where it seems like whole armies are standing in our path. Places where we're infected by disease, afflicted by hardship, bitten by things that won't let go. Places where death invades our households and steals those we love. Places where our prayers seem to echo and fade in a vast expanse. Places where everything just disgusts us, and we look at our lives and we say, “I don't have any of this, and I don't have any of that, and what I do have, I loathe as worthless.” Places where we're all dried out and feel lost forever. Places where we lose control and say we hate ourselves. Places where our feet quiver like jelly and there are miles left to go. Places where we can't hear anything but the sounds of the brokenness and yearning within. Places where we just don't know how to cope.
And when we get to those places, we feel the question burning on our lips and smoldering in our soul: “Why have you brought us out to this evil place? Why have you taken me to this desert, through this dark valley? What am I doing here?” That's the wilderness – a harsh and lonely place, devoid of all the things we're accustomed to falling back on. And when we get to the harsher spots of the wilderness and find ourselves panting and aching, lost and afraid, we have a lot of questions how and why we got there.
Truth is, sometimes we take ourselves there, to misfortunes we don't need. Sometimes the blame falls squarely on our own mismanagement of our life, when we've ignored wisdom and dug our own ditch. We're good at getting ourselves into trouble. But then sometimes it isn't anything you've done wrong. Sometimes you're living your life, you're trying to follow God, and then you look around and it's just sand for miles, too hot by day, too cold by night. And you wonder how you could possibly have gotten there if you were following God! Isn't he supposed to make you lie down in green pastures and lead you beside still waters (Psalm 23:2)?
Well, sometimes, yes. But then sometimes, the valley of the shadow of death really does enter into the picture (Psalm 23:4). Sometimes, the wilderness is exactly where following God will put you. Just like Israel, just like Jesus, sometimes it's the Spirit himself who leads you there. Sometimes it's the Spirit of God who'll lead you deeper into the desert, far from the cucumbers and leeks of Egypt behind you (Numbers 11:5) but still far from the milk and honey of the Promised Land yet to be seen (Exodus 33:3; Numbers 13:27).
Deeper into the desert – that really is where the Holy Spirit will take you. Let me tell you, if you're following a spirit who never leads you to the wilderness, you may be overestimating that spirit's holiness! “Don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they're from God” (1 John 4:1). Because the Spirit of God will teach you the truth – and sometimes that'll be a comfort, but sometimes that'll be an affliction. Sometimes he'll take you to an oasis and give you what you need, but there are certainly times he'll lead you deeper into the desert, to the desolate wastelands of the wilderness.
Because we need to go there. That's what it means to be a child of God. If you call God 'Father,' expect to camp in the wilderness with him. Don't expect the camping trips to be empty of hardships or even the presence of death and danger. Certainly don't expect them to be free from temptation. We can't grow otherwise: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees...” (Hebrews 12:6-12).
We need that time in the desert. We need to be deprived. We need to be disciplined. We need to be tested. For it's by being tested beyond your limits that you're made pure and strong and healthy on the inside. The desert, the wilderness, is where God always sends his children – whether that child is Israel, or Jesus, or those newest of newcomers to his family, us.
So yes, the wilderness is, perhaps more often than we'd like, where the Spirit of God leads. There's no way around it. Following the Spirit will lead you deeper into the desert. Following the Spirit will take you to harsh places. Following the Spirit may steer you away from the food and water you've known. Following the Spirit may lead you to the midst of death and danger. Following the Spirit may take you somewhere you'd call a bitter and evil place, a place that's no good for what you long for and doesn't have what you most want or crave. Following the Spirit will take you past your limits to a place where you can't cope.
And when that happens, you'll be tempted. You'll be tempted to turn back. You'll be tempted to despair and grieve and lament. You'll be tempted to grasp for any fleeting pleasure within your reach, anything to numb the pain or console yourself, anything to appease the hunger and thirst growing inside you. You'll be tempted to just give up all hope and cry out for all things to meet their final end. You'll be tempted to question God's wisdom, doubt his goodness, raise your fist toward heaven and call him your enemy. You'll be tempted to lash out against the nearest scapegoat, like the Israelites did with Moses.
But remember, Paul writes, that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:9-11). Keep following the Spirit. Follow the Spirit even when that path through life swerves deeper into the desert. Don't be surprised to find yourself there, there in the desert of temptation. But don't give in. In the wilderness, where the Spirit leads, is precisely where God calls us to come and seek him.
Our position isn't so unlike theirs. Like them, we're called children of God. Like them, we've passed through a baptism in the sea. Like them, we have the offering of spiritual food and drink from the Lord – both at the Lord's Table, as we shared on Ash Wednesday just four days ago, and also in the nourishment of his word: “Your words were found, and I ate them,” said the prophet (Jeremiah 15:16). Not just that, but we have spiritual food and drink in the pursuit of the Father's will: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Like them, we're led into the wilderness – sometimes finding an oasis, but sometimes wandering over endless dunes to a cracked and dry place where nothing grows. And like them, there we face tests that will make or break us.
And in that day, there's only one question. As children of God, whom do we resemble more: Israel, who failed their test in the days of Moses, or Jesus, who used the arsenal of God's word to stay true to who he was and who endured his temptations without being caught by them? When the Spirit leads you to the wilderness – and I'm sure he has before, and I'm sure he will again – which example will you follow?
In this season of Lent, for these forty days, we remember the forty days that ensued when Jesus was led into the wilderness to fast and face temptation; and those forty days remembered the forty years when Israel was led into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). During the course of our forty days and for all the times in life when the Spirit takes us deeper into the desert, keep doing what Israel began but stopped short: Having seen the great power that the Lord used in your great deliverance, believe in the Father and in his Son Jesus (cf. Exodus 14:31), and in their Spirit who leads you – one God, world without end.
May we as a church follow the Spirit as Jesus did and endure our trials as Jesus did, without sin. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1), for“if we confess our sins” and turn away from them and follow him, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thanks be to God. Amen.