Getting Your Mind Right for Wilderness Wandering

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14A, Sunday, September 21, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many of you, when you became a Christian or when you first started to consider what being a Christian is all about, expected to receive some kind of benefit or reward for being one? I’m not talking about the reward of eternal life promised to those of us who are in Christ. I’m talking about an expectation that being a Christian would somehow make life go better or easier for you. Many of us do have that expectation, but as our readings this morning indicate, we may have to tweak those expectations, at least as they pertain to being rewarded in this world for being a Christian, and that is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In recent weeks our OT lessons have focused on God’s mighty deliverance of his people from their slavery in Egypt. Recall the great signs and wonders God performed in Egypt on behalf of his people, signs and wonders that culminated in the Passover and God’s dramatic rescue of his enslaved people through the Red Sea. As the psalmist rejoiced in our psalm reading, God brought his people out of Egypt with gold and silver, sure signs that God had plundered Israel’s former captors. We could almost sense the eager anticipation of the Israelites as they watched the Lord destroy their pursuers. After all, God had promised them a land filled with milk and honey. Life was going to be just fine, thank you very much.

And now in today’s OT lesson, we see the reality of their freedom finally starting to sink in for God’s people Israel and they are not too wild about it. Moses’ travel brochures apparently hadn’t mentioned a thing about having to wander through the wilderness before arriving in the promised land. And so the Israelites did exactly what most of us would do as red-blooded 21st century Americans. They started to grumble to and about their God. “You never told us we would have to spend time wandering around in the desert without food or water! Not fair!”

And as they grumbled, the strangest thing happened. God’s people started to look back on their days of enslavement and captivity with longing as if Egypt were some kind of exotic resort! Oh that we were slaves again in Egypt! At least we had enough food to eat and water to drink! Say what? Israel was learning an unhappy lesson about putting its faith in God. Being rescued from slavery and captivity does not necessarily mean that all difficulty evaporates. God did indeed rescue his people from their slavery, but even then his people still had to live in a broken world just like we do. Indeed, as Tom Wright observes, wandering in the wilderness is a regular NT metaphor for the life of the Christian family between Easter and God’s final victory. Like Israel, even though we have been rescued from sin and death in and through the cross of Jesus, we too must live in a world still badly corrupted. God’s rescue of us from our slavery does not make us immune to all that can go wrong in God’s world. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t because Scripture reminds us again and again that God never promised us a rose garden, despite the claims made by some today that God wants us to be prosperous and happy. That may be true, but it fails to address the fact that we all must live in a badly broken world where things often do not go as God wants or desires.

Instead, as our lessons remind us, the path to the promised land, whether it be Israel or the new creation, leads through the desert, whether literally as in the case of our OT lesson or metaphorically as in our case as Christians who must navigate through an often dangerous and hostile world. But this is exactly what we do not want! I suspect that deep down most of us who claim to submit to God’s rule or kingdom would like to live in a world not unlike some kind of Magic Kingdom where nothing ever goes wrong and there is nary a hint of ugliness or sadness or brokenness or violence. But life is not that way, even for those of us who live faithfully to Christ. Instead, as we walk with him, there can still be a wilderness of depression or the scorching heat of cancer to afflict us, among other things.

But we are bearers of Good News, not purveyors of doom and gloom. We must therefore pay careful attention to what our lessons are telling us and as usual, think through the implications of these stories so that we are equipped to live our time in the wilderness with courage, joy, and hope so that we too can proclaim the gospel boldly. As our OT lesson reminds us, God’s people looked at their hard times in the wilderness and found God. They saw the glory of the Lord as he appeared to them in a cloud. On one level this should not have surprised the Israelites. After all, God had been with them during their slavery in Egypt and had rescued them from that slavery in a very dramatic fashion. So why would God abandon them now? But this was their first time in the wilderness and as we all know, the things of this world can overwhelm us, and pretty rapidly too. And so they cried out and grumbled against God just like we do.

But notice God’s response. He did not get angry with them (at least this time). His glory appeared to his people so that they knew without a doubt that God was there with them in the wilderness to lead and guide and protect them, i.e., to be true to his word to deliver them to the land he promised to give Abraham hundreds of years earlier. God also gave them manna, the bread of angels (Psalm 78.25), to satisfy their basic needs. Manna means literally, “What is it?”, which indicates the highly unusual nature of this food that was God’s gift to his people. (My beloved regularly puts manna on our table, although I suspect this is not the same thing that the writer of Exodus was talking about, but that is a different topic for a different day.).

As we think through the implications of this story, surely one of the things it is telling us is to adjust our expectations for living in the wilderness (a world ravaged by sin and evil) so that we can see God’s presence with us clearly and take full advantage of it by drawing our strength from him. Our OT lesson powerfully reminds us that life after salvation, whether it be from Egypt or our own sin, is still going to have its share of hardships and heartaches. But the difference is that we do not have to face them alone. The glory of God is here among us in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us so that we learn to develop a profound hope that will carry us through all the trials and tribulations of life. The hope I am talking about is not the simple or naive hope that our faith guarantees us smooth sailing or a pie-in-the-sky optimism that asserts things will get better quickly. Neither is it a hope derived from a health and wealth theology that asserts successful living is the result of a robust faith. Instead, it is a hope that is at once realistic and deep: that God is with us, even (or especially) in places of danger and death.

Sadly, most of God’s people who wandered in the wilderness did not seem to learn this lesson because later on they continued to grumble against God. Despite God’s continued visible presence among them and the fact that God continued to provide for the material needs of his people, they still grumbled against him and still wanted to return to their former slavery. God eventually punished his people for their unbelief, not because God is an ogre who desires to spank us every time we misbehave, but because the people’s grumbling in effect called God a liar in terms of his ability to rescue them from their slavery and make good on his promise to deliver them to their desired destination. Instead of embracing God’s promises and learning to develop a real hope that was based on God’s presence and ability to deliver his people from both their slavery and the dangers of the wilderness in which they wandered, God’s people rebelled and focused on temporary things like food and water that would inevitably disappoint. How then could they be God’s people who were called to bring his blessings to a hurting world?

And many of us do the same thing today in our wilderness wanderings. We don’t grumble about food and water because none of us here lack those basic provisions. But neither do we focus on developing our relationship with God to help us weather the storms of life. Instead as we wander through the wilderness of our lives we tend to dismiss God as being absent or not caring about us. We consequently put our hope and trust in things that must ultimately fail us: money, health, power, sex, security, fame, privilege, et al. But when these things are taken away from us we panic or become afraid or rage against God, just like the Israelites did in the wilderness.

But notice what happens if we learn the lesson from our story from Exodus. As the things that we desire and put our hope and trust in are stripped away in the wilderness of life, we have the opportunity to learn to put our hope and trust in God who is eternal and who cannot be taken away from us under any circumstance, not even in death. God is the one and only constant we have in this world and only God has the strength, wisdom, and grace to help us navigate through our own deserts, no matter how terrible they are. That’s part of the point of Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel lesson.

This is the secret of Paul’s hope and joy that comes through so clearly in our epistle lesson. Remember that Paul wrote this letter while in prison, probably in Rome. But even in that awful condition he had praised God that his imprisonment would help him spread the gospel because it gave him a chance to witness to his captors, a chance Paul otherwise would not have had (Philippians 1.12ff). And let’s make sure as we read what Paul says here about suffering and his almost cheerful manner in regard to it, that we read 2 Corinthians 1.8-11 along with it. There Paul tells us that he suffered so badly he despaired of even life itself! Reading both passages will remind us that in suffering, our belief that Jesus is Lord, i.e., that Jesus is with us in all circumstances, especially those in which we suffer, may or may not correspond to our feelings about our suffering. Learning to distinguish the difference between the two is a sure sign that we are becoming mature Christians.

So what should we take from our lessons today? We are first and foremost reminded that God is always present with us, especially in our suffering, and has the capacity to really help us so that we have the basis to develop a real hope that will sustain us. As Christians, we do not believe God is with us in the pillars of cloud and fire but in the presence of his Holy Spirit who lives in us individually and together. As Paul reminds us, we are to stand firm in the Spirit and strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel. In other words, we are to encourage each other to remain true to our hope of being rescued from evil, sin, and death in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus so that when we are required to wander in the wilderness, we do not develop unChristian or even anti-Christian thoughts and beliefs. And if you don’t think this can happen, consider how many denominations have abandoned a saving theology of the cross and a belief in bodily resurrection and the new creation, and how this has ruined them as a result. Without a firm belief in the saving work of Jesus on the cross that has rescued us from our sins and allowed us to be reconciled to God the Father, without a firm belief in our hope and future of living as resurrection people in God’s new creation with all of its hope and promise, and without the firm belief that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in his people to shape and guide us, we will quickly lose hope just like God’s people did as they wandered through the wilderness.

So as we think about the implications of Jesus’ saving death on the cross and how without it God would have to destroy us if he were to destroy evil entirely, we are reminded that our grumbling about God being indifferent to our suffering is without basis. A God who acts on our behalf like that and who suffers more than we ever could to rescue us from sin and death is hardly indifferent to our needs and suffering. And as we think about God with us in the power of the Spirit and the fellowship of his people, we are reminded that our grumbling about God being an absent God is also without basis. God often uses human agency to minister to us in our suffering if we have the faith to see it. Without this knowledge and faith, we will never see or experience the radical and deep love God has for each of us and how he can use our suffering to draw us closer to him, and for our good, as we wander through the wilderness of life.

But when we do have the knowledge and faith to see the glory of God in our midst, we are equipped to see life in this world for what it is: a mixture of joy and sorrow, life and death, peace and suffering, brokenness and healing. We will also realize that the God whom we worship is bigger than all our hurts and is actively inviting us to give ourselves to him so that he can show us he has the character and the ability to rescue us from all that besets us. When by the grace of God we are able to rejoice even in our suffering because we understand that this is one of the primary ways God draws us to him, we will have the needed power and perspective to help us navigate safely through the wilderness of this life. And we will also know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.