Lenten Sermon Series 3 of 6 ~ “Letting Go…Letting God: The Roundabout Wilderness Way” Exodus 13: 17-22 & Mark 1: 12-13 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 7, 2020
My youngest has now received his learner’s driver’s license. So…please pray for me as I sit in the passenger’s seat with this young driver at the wheel! All kidding aside, he’s doing very well. But what I’ve been reminded of, is how truly difficult it is to drive. All of the many, many, many things that we do as a habit need to be learned by a new driver: shoulder checks, signaling for the turn, being aware of driving in another's blind spot, driving not going too fast or too slow, stopping at the right spot, not too quickly, and not too slowly, and the list goes on. And...to make matters worse there is the small matter of learning how to navigate this new traffic intersection that city engineers have placed in our neighborhoods: ‘the traffic roundabout’. Unless we grew up in parts of Europe with roundabouts, few learned how to use it properly. The roundabout is something that we have all needed to learn to use properly. Many will recall the funny point in the movie ‘European Vacation’ when Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, is driving his family in the rental car through a double-laned roundabout in England. Stuck on the inside lane, he cannot successfully get to the outside in order to exit and he finds himself going around, and around, and around. Not wanting to admit his error, he finds says “look kids, it’s Big Ben and the Parliament buildings”…making his way around again, he says: “look kids, it’s Big Ben and the Parliament buildings.” And he goes around and around and around! Such is…the roundabout way.
The Israelite’s Next Challenge: The Wilderness Roundabout And so, this morning, we discuss the mounting challenges that accompanied the Israelites, as they left home…and the challenges encountered in ‘the roundabout way’ in the wilderness ahead. These varied challenges, of course, cannot be separated. They are all interrelated. God meets Moses and shakes up his life plans, which causes him to return to Egypt and shift his identity for sheep herder to Israelite liberator. The avoidant tendencies and excuses are weighed…and even amidst the Red Sea of challenges ahead…a leap of faith is taken by Moses and all of the Israelites. The home which they knew, for generations ~ Egypt ~ they now leave. They leave and take the leap of faith. What the story now shifts to teach is what accompanies their leave-taking…the roundabout way of the wilderness ahead. The text puts it this way: “So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea.” I worry that people often misunderstand the purpose of the roundabout wilderness way. To be clear…the wilderness was not an accident; it was not a sign that a mistake was made; it was not a sign of God’s abandon. The exodus story, in fact, gives us a deep insight into God’s presence in the wilderness roundabout way. A reality which the Israelites experienced in their history and continue to remember every year….and one which we experience in the seasons of our lives as well.
Who Loves the Wilderness? Wilderness is, of course, something we that we don’t immediately take a liking to, is it? Few of us, ever, enjoy it, do we? The wilderness is a time of testing…as we heard in both of the passages: the testing of Jesus and the testing of the Israelites. Few of us wake up on ‘test day’ and say “wonderful! It’s exam day!” Wilderness is also something that tempts us. With us being in the year focusing on Mark ~ the earliest gospel, it is interesting to note how Mark does not specify the temptations that Jesus will face. Matthew and Luke give specifics: temptations of hunger, and power, and authority. This early gospel version is quiet on the specifics, and causes us to fill in the blanks about temptation, as we wonder how the humanity of Jesus will be tempted. Reading ahead, we learn that the Israelites will be tempted in their journey as well. Many of us deal with temptation in our lives. Isn’t that the nature of what we do when we adopt a Lenten discipline of giving up something for 40 days? We don’t like temptations; we don’t like testing; and we don’t like the uncertainty of this time. Yet many practice some form of Lenten observance as we try to grow in our faith. This is not easy because our world has increasingly become like a petulant child in the backseat asking: ‘are we there yet?’ We don’t like to wait, and we don’t like delays. Google maps tells us a precise arrival time and we would prefer the world on these terms. Patience continues to be a virtue that we strive for and fewer and fewer possess. Given all these drawbacks to the roundabout way of the wilderness, one might ask: why would we ever venture into it? Well…I believe there is a purpose for venturing out.
The Purpose of Wilderness What we find in the text, and in life, is that the roundabout way of the wilderness has a significant purpose. Before God can do something new with us, God has to do something new in us. The Israelites’ 40 year wilderness, Jesus’ 40 day wilderness, even Paul’s 3 years spent in the wilderness (see Galatians 1) were times that God was alive, active, and doing something in them. On the few occasions that I have accompanied people to a 12 step recovery meeting, the stories I heard were all about people’s struggles in the wilderness when God was helping prepare them for recovery. Our wilderness is the time that God is doing something new in us. It is a time of becoming a new people, of learning to be God’s people. The wilderness has purpose and it cannot, and should not, be avoided
Wilderness: A Time for Growth We are just a few weeks away from spring’s arrival on March 20th. (not that I’m counting) And, on the West Coast, we are spoiled with the signs of spring arriving over these past few weeks. Crocuses making their glorious return; daffodil and tulip stems beginning to burst through the soil; the gift of more and more daylight; these are among a few of the many signs of spring that touch our souls. Yet, we know that these precious gifts, not one of them, would arrive without the cold, rainy, icy (and sometimes even snowy) wilderness of winter. There must be a time that Creation lays (seemingly) dormant: a time when plants store up energy, when fruit trees do not blossom….yet God’s spirit is able to work in them behind the scenes. The wilderness time was a time when God ‘worked on’ God’s people. It was a ‘training ground’ for them to grow into their identity as God’s children. It might seem like they were going around in circles; however, that was anything but the case. For the Israelites, they were training, growing to be God’s children who once were lost; God’s people who were preparing to inhabit God’s Promised Land; God’s Chosen People.
Wilderness: A Time for Trust In many ways, it was a time of trust. As the story progresses, they will find in the wilderness that there is a lack of food and water. And they will need to trust God’s provision for their very survival. They will fashion ‘Golden calves’ ~ gods that will serve their own needs. And in the wilderness, they will learn the compassionate love and power of their God. They will discover the depth of this sacred relationship with this God whose way is justice and whose very essence is peace. As we know, trust is built within a relationship. And relationships take patience, effort and…time. In this case, their relationship with God developed through the 40 year wilderness that they walked. The roundabout way of the wilderness was not a mistake; it was not a punishment; it was time of growth and nurturing; it was a time of trusting and forging a new relationship with their God who yearned to bring them into the Promised Land
Where is your wilderness? Most who are listening are not walking in a literal wilderness. Few are refugees leaving their homeland. Few of us are starving for food, needing clean water, and supplies at home; however, we do find ourselves navigating roundabout wilderness periods throughout our lives. What have your wilderness periods been? Wilderness periods can be found during periods of grief: the loss of a spouse or of a significant relationship. The loss of a child, the loss of job. Like the Israelites, this is not a time of judgement or a mistake that we have made. It is a journey from here to there, where God is to be found. Where are your wilderness periods? Wilderness might be found in shifting from a full-time career to retirement, in shifting from independent living into a new reality. Wilderness might be found in the changing of one’s physical health, in the changing in one’s mental health, in all the shifts from journeying from here towards there in the unfolding of your life. Again…not a punishment sent by God, or a wasted season of one’s life. Rather, a time to grow…a time to learn…a time to ~ even more deeply ~ live into your baptismal identity as one of God’s sacred children, where God is with us through the roundabout wilderness time. What are the wilderness times in your life?
God is Present in the Wilderness I don’t know about you, but as I ponder the wilderness times in my own life, I have found them to be the moments when God really shows up…If, and this is always the big if, if we show up too! In our times of uncertainty, in our fears and hungers, in our times of need, this is where our faith gets tested; this is where it gets stronger, and we find that God has been present. Maybe not present the way we would like Him to be, but never absent. There is a faith story of Jesus and the disciples, told about Jesus walking on the water. The story occurs with the disciples in the boat who see a mysterious figure walking on the water. After Jesus identifies himself to his disciples, he instructs them to get out of the boat, into the water, and to walk towards him. When they take their first steps into the water towards him, they begin to sink. When the seas get rough, they become afraid and, as you know in the story, they quickly return to the safety of the boat. Yet…in the story…we find that Jesus is not found in the safety and security of the boat. Jesus is found in the uncertain seas. Jesus is found in the struggles and the pain, Jesus is there offering his hand that they might walk through those stormy season. They just need the faith to get out of the boat, and then begin to walk through the wilderness and know that God will provide along the way. I opened with our mutual distaste of the wilderness. No one likes the wilderness training ground. Everyone like spring’s growth and is delighted when winter is over. Yet, this wilderness time of growth is an important one, for in order to get to Promised Land, we must walk the roundabout wilderness way to get there. Let us go with faith and trust, knowing that God will guide; God will provide; and all will be well. Amen.