Wandering in the Wilderness
“The only thing that we did wrong
was staying in the wilderness too long.”
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
At NEYM this year we spent a lot of time in extended worship waiting to hear God's call. The minute of exercise rising out of one of those sessions was titled “Meeting for wandering in the desert.” This got me thinking about this image of wandering in the wilderness because it seems to be one often used by Friends. In fact, it seems to me that for New England Yearly Meeting, and perhaps unprogrammed Friends in general, wandering in the wilderness falls pretty close to the center of our comfort zone. Actually entering the Promised Land scares the bejeebus out of us. I know that there have been times in my life when the image of wandering in the wilderness spoke to my condition. I was reassured by it that, no matter how far short I had fallen, God would not abandon me. My unfaithfulness was no greater than the Israelites, and God still sent them manna every day. Most Quakers know that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt and before entering the land that had been promised them. Far fewer, I suspect, know why this happened.
The story is told in chapters 13 and 14 of the book of Numbers. God told Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan to find out what the land is like, is it good or bad, and the people who live there, are they few or many, are they strong or weak? So Moses selected 12 men, one from each tribe, to go into Canaan and report back. They stayed in Canaan 40 days. It was the time of the new grapes and they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and it was so large that they had to carry it on a pole between two men.
When they returned, they showed the people the fruit and said that is was a land flowing with milk and honey. They also said that the people are strong, the towns are fortified and there are even giants living in the land. The people were afraid and did not want to go into the land because they were afraid of who lived there. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb said, we should go up directly. God is with us and it is a good land. Everyone else was afraid and they threatened to stone Joshua and Caleb.
God was angry at this disobedience and threatened to destroy Israel and make Moses the father of a new and mightier nation. Moses interceded with God, reminding God that if he destroyed the Israelites, the Egyptians would say that God could not bring the Israelites into the land that he had promised and so killed them all in the wilderness. God relented and did not destroy the Israelites. But God did say that no one who was over the age of 12 at that time would enter into the promised land, except for Joshua and Caleb, because those two alone had been faithful. The Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, one year for each day that the spies had spent in Canaan. They wandered until all of those who had refused to enter had died.
For me now, the message of this story is that, while we may be led through the desert for a time, when we receive the call to enter the promised land, we need to answer the call. Me may be called in at first as spies, to have a glimpse of the land and to see the fruit that is available but not to live there yet. But once we have seen it or heard the report of the spies sent in on our behalf, we need to be ready to enter it ourselves, not as visitors but as residents.
What are we afraid of that keeps us from entering the promised land. We are not promised a physical geography but we have been promised the Kingdom of God. This is not a place we go after our physical death, we are called to live in the Kingdom of God, right now, in whatever physical place we are. We have been told what we need to do to enter the Kingdom. The sacrifice we are called to make is a broken and contrite heart. We are told to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” We are told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. God promised to write the law on our hearts so we don't need to teach each other because we will all know God. We need to know what God has written on our hearts and follow it. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to us as a Comforter and Guide. But we don't follow. We are reluctant to give over our lives to God and to give up the idea that we can achieve security with our efforts and our possessions. We try to create the Kingdom of God instead of living in the Kingdom that is already among us. We are afraid because the powers and principalities of this world are strong. There might be giants there. So we continue to wander in the wilderness, forgetting that the fate of those who wander in the wilderness is to die and never enter into the promised land.