Summary: God took the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert. Why? So that he could mature them into the people He wanted them to be. Are we prepared for the desert in our own pilgrimage as Christians?
Those Grumblin’ Israelites:
Pilgrims in the desert
I am not sure what your day has been like so far, but it cannot be going worse than the experience of Mathieu Boya. Boya was practicing his golf swing in a pasture adjacent to Africa’s Benin Air Base. With one swing of the golf club, a shot he later described as "a glorious slice," Boya hit a bird, which in turn dropped onto the windshield of a trainer jet whose pilot was taxiing into position for takeoff. The pilot lost control of his trainer jet and ploughed into four shiny Mirage jets, totally demolishing the entire air force of Benin.
Boya was jailed immediately for "hooliganism," and his attorney said he had no chance of winning a trial. The country wanted Boya to pay £25 million to replace the jets. Since Boya made only £175 per year, he figured it would take 145,000 years to pay off his debt to society.
As you know if you have been in church the last few Sundays, we have been looking at the story of the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. The experiences of the Israelites are so common and well-known to us that we forget that if these sort of things happen to us, we immediately ask questions like Are we really God’s people? Are we not in God’s will? Hardship breeds swarms of Why is this happening? Why is this happening to me? Why us? Why her? Why now? Why so protracted? Does it have to be so savage? Where did I go wrong?
Our fellow Christians are often very quick to offer reasons for our troubles: it’s all down to the malevolence of Satan – he wants to go after those people who want to follow God. Or else we must be operating outside the boundaries of God’s will.
Yet these reasons don’t make sense to me as I read the story of Exodus. God took the Israelites to the desert. He made his guidance so unmissable that there is no explanation that holds water except that he wanted them there. Yet, they ran into crisis after crisis while they were there.
So if you wonder why God is treating you so badly or why your life is in the desert, then listen up. Today’s message is for you.
1. What is life like under divine leadership?
Over the past few Sundays, we have been looking at how the people of Israel are brought out of captivity in Egypt by God’s miraculous actions on their behalf. After Pharaoh reluctantly let them go, God led them on the road out of Egypt. They reach a fork in the road – turn left and you get to the Promised Land in a fortnight. So they turn right. Yes, you heard me. They turn right because God leads them there. He has put a pillar of cloud in the sky during the day and a pillar of fire at night to show them where to go. Yes, they know where God wants them to go because he is taking them there.
Almost immediately, they get very specific instructions to retreat, and they find themselves trapped with the Red Sea behind them and Pharaoh’s army in front. I for one would certainly forgive them asking a question or two of God right at this point, along the lines of “What on earth are you thinking?”
Instead of losing their lives, as Adrian pointed out last Sunday, God parts the Red Sea and they get through in a miraculous way while the Egyptian army is drowned.
That’s when they take the desert road again. It’s hot and they are walking for miles. And they are getting thirstier all the time. They continue to follow God’s leading and he brings them to an oasis. “Just in time, God, I don’t think I could have taken another step without a drink.” But the water is completely undrinkable. It is bitter. In their disappointment and frustration, they call the place Marah, which means bitter.
What’s it like being a pilgrim in the wilderness with only God’s divine guidance to lead you?
Don’t stop now, I hear you say to the Israelites. The next stop is Elim and there’s some great tasting water there. And that’s where the cloud is headed. Yes, but Elim is 10 miles away. And this is not a 20 degree English summer that we are talking about. It is more like the 45 degree heat I grew up with in Delhi where only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture into the mid-day sun.
Somehow they screw their courage to the sticking point and walk on. In verse 27, we read that they camped at Elim near the water. I’ll tell you what they did – they collapsed in a heap at Elim.