In the Wilderness

“Wilderness” by bopacasi on

Tri-Saints Lutheran Parish Dwelling in the Word: October 4, 2020

Reading: Nehemiah 9:6, 9-15 (NRSV)

And Ezra said: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you. 

9And you saw the distress of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. 10 You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted insolently against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. 11 And you divided the sea before them, so that they passed through the sea on dry land, but you threw their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters.  12Moreover, you led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go. 13 You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known your holy sabbath to them and gave them commandments and statutes and a law through your servant Moses. 15 For their hunger you gave them bread from heaven, and for their thirst you brought water for them out of the rock, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you swore to give them.


Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.      

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to make sense of this pandemic time that we are living in.  I have talked with many of you, and the questions that I hear sound like “Why this?  Why now?  Why still?  How long?”

At the beginning of the pandemic, a friend sent me to an article describing the stages of a global event like this as a blizzard, a long winter, and a little ice age1.  At first, we prepped as if for a blizzard.  Then, as things got worse, we settled in for the long winter.  Now, as we pass the sixth month mark, it is more like a little ice age, where our patterns of behavior and social interactions are indelibly changed.  This article was helpful to me, but it didn’t necessarily have room for a perspective of faith.  Where was God in all of this?  How is God showing up?  What is God up to?

The text from Nehemiah gives us at least one framework.  The story of the Exodus is pivotal to the Jewish people, and the place where they return to, time and time again, to remember who they are, whose they are, and what God has done for them.  We, as Christians, share this story, and I wonder if it might help us as we navigate this in between time, this wilderness time, together.

Exodus begins as the Israelites cry out to the Lord because they are enslaved.  God raises up Moses, who confronts Pharaoh, and the ten plagues are the result.  When the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, is imminent, God instructs the people to pack up and get ready to go.  They are to eat unleavened bread, and eat roast lamb, and paint the tops of their door frames with the blood of the lamb.  On that night, the angel of death passed over the Israelites.

This sounds a bit like us, doesn’t it?  At the beginning of the pandemic, we prepared in a hurry, and it seems like the world ran out of toilet paper.  We hunkered down, and banded together, apart.  And God was with us.  In telephone conversations and online worship, in mailings and check ins, in everyone doing the same thing for the same purpose, albeit a dangerous one.  And the first crisis passed.

After the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh decides to let the people go, but later changes his mind and sends his army to chase them, all the way down to the shores of the Red Sea.  It seems to the Israelites as if there is no way, but God makes a way.  The Sea is parted, the people walk through on dry land, and the waters swallow up the army.  They are safe! And free! And they celebrate!

The journey through the Sea reminds me of this past summer.  It became clear that this pandemic was here to stay, that it would take longer than two weeks, or a month, or six weeks to clear up.  And God was with us.  Some of us had to remain locked down.  Some of us were able to cautious venture out. Some of us returned to a simpler life, learning to appreciate talking on the phone, or taking a drive, or precious time with family.  Some of us learned new ways, reconnecting to old friends and family members through the computer, or the simple joy of taking a walk, or planting a garden for the first time.  And we passed through the second crisis.

The celebration of the Israelites quickly turned to complaining as they realized that they were not directly in the Promised Land, but rather in the Wilderness.  The Wilderness is a difficult place to be.  There is no food.  There is no water.  There is nothing to do, or to see.  There is no permanent place to lay your head, but instead just a long journey of travel and rest, travel and rest. 

Pastor and writer Daniel Erlander calls this time in the life of the Israelites “Wilderness School.”  They learned to rely on God for food and water and wayfinding.  The received God’s laws for living with God and one another in the Ten Commandments.  They learned about sabbath, and God’s loving kindness, and not to hoard the gifts that they had been given.  And it took forty long years.

God willing, our time in the Wilderness will not be forty years, but I believe that the Wilderness is exactly where we find ourselves right now.  We are in a time when everyone is trying to make the best decisions, and no decision is completely right.  We are in a time when we fear for the lives of those who are the most vulnerable, while chafing under the restrictions that are necessary for us to live in community.  We are in a time where it might feel easier to complain, or give up, or hurl arrows into the abyss, because it makes us feel better to blame someone or something beyond ourselves.  We are in a time that feels a lot like despair.  But I am here to tell you that God is still with us.  God hears our complaining.  God walks with us as we try to choose a path, or a way, or even the next step.  God gives us what we need, moment by moment, because God holds us tight in the Wilderness times of our lives most of all.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a shut-in member of the church.  She asked me to name the actual date when this pandemic would be over.  I said, “I wish I knew.”  And she continued to press.  All of us would like to know, wouldn’t we?  All of us want to cross the river and make it to the Promised Land.  And it is coming.  But not yet.  I urge you, in Wilderness time, to take this opportunity to draw closer to God, instead of pushing God away.  To spend more time in prayer, and scripture, and reaching out to help and having a care for the last and the least and the lost.  To recognize the working of God in your life, even now.  To rest.  What do we have left to learn?  Perhaps that God is with us, all along the way.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

In Christ, Pastor Breen

1 Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup, by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard

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