A Path through the Wilderness

Scripture  |  Exodus 19:1-9  |  Exodus 20:1-21

Our story today takes place in the wilderness…
A place where life is hard, and chaotic, and unsure.
A desert that is dry and arid, with wildlife that is wild and untamed.
The wilderness is a dangerous place… Where no one’s survival is promised
Where you are always vulnerable and threats can come from all around.
The wilderness is where the Israelites have been for the past three months.
They fled the trauma, injustice, and oppression of slavery in Egypt
only to enter into the hardships and suffering that comes  as you push further into the desert
and even further on into the rugged unsure terrain of Egypt’s mountain ranges..

The wilderness is a hard place to exist… at best you can only hope to survive there.

And this is what the Israelites have been doing… surviving by the grace of God…
Existing day-to-day, skirting by, by the skin of their teeth, 
growing weaker, thinner and more and more exhausted…
They have been dehydrated, they have been starving…. 
Things got so bad that many wonder if it would have been better to just stay in slavery in Egypt,
and almost all of them are beginning to question Moses’ leadership:

“He did get us out of Egypt,” they think “but at what cost…”
He was able to find us some water and food in a desert, but it has barely been enough.”
He has been guiding us along their way but does he really know where we're going? How much longer could we be possibly stay out here?”"

It is safe to say that the Israelites weren’t just in the wilderness… The wilderness was in them…
the wilderness had seeped into them, into their bones, and into their souls. They had left Egypt beaten down and broken, scraping by and living on a prayer… and in the wilderness…  They only grew more exhausted, raw, and weary.. They were loosing hope, loosing faith, and were beginning to distrust each other, and distrust God. Despite their best efforts, and even despite God’s continually providing for them… their life together was descending further into chaos, and any semblance of order and structure had all but dissolved…

So how do you make your way out of a wilderness?
How do re-establish hope when your life has descended into struggle and despair?
How do you re-establish faith when your relationship with God has become rooted in doubt?


The writer and tech-blogger Seth Godin recently shared an anecdote in a blog post that on it surfaces may seem totally unrelated… but I think it may offer some guidance.

“Years ago,” He says. “I created a trivia game.”

“The first batch of 1,000 questions was 97% perfect. Which is fine, until you realize that this meant that 30 questions had an error. And that every error ruined the experience for the user. The second batch of questions, we tried extra hard. Really hard. Our backs were against the wall and we couldn’t afford any errors. Our effort paid off in a 50% decrease in errors.  We were down to a 1.5% error rate. But Alas, that’s still 15 game breakers.

But then, I got smart and I changed the system.
Instead of having trivia writers work really hard to avoid mistakes, we divided our team in half.
Half the team would use an encyclopedia to write the questions, and then they would make a copy of their question with the encyclopedia source and put it in a notebook.

The other half of the team got the notebook and was charged with answering the question based on the source. They got a bonus of $20 for every question they found where their answer was more correct than the original.

The result of the new system? Zero errors for the next 5,000 questions…”

Godin continues:
“It often seems as though the best way to avoid errors is to try harder, to put more care and effort into the work. And that so many of the mistakes that mess things up would go away if people just tried harder. And this is true. For a while. 

But then, it’s not effort but the systems that we put in place that matter.

Instead of reacting to our struggles with, “I need to be more careful,” or “we should try harder”
we should instead respond with, “we can build a better system.”

If it matters enough to be careful, it matters enough to build a system around it.”
[from https://seths.blog/2018/11/quality-and-effort/ with some slight paraphrasing to appropriate for preaching]

When you are in the wilderness… when you are struggling, when it feels like the world is falling apart around you… the effort you put in definitely matters, the care you take definitely matters,
but these alone are not enough.
You have to put a system in place… you have to develop new ways of working towards your goals … then, step by step, you can see your way out… but you have to have the discipline to stick to it.

And this is what God provides the Israelites in the thundering thick clouds of the Sinai mountain range…  This is what God brings this vulnerable people who are hurting after wandering aimlessly in three months of wilderness chaos… 

A new way forward… A better system carved into stone… for them to put into practice so that they might re-order their lives for the better. So that they might find their way out of their internal wilderness as they work together to find their way out of the actual wilderness. 

The only issue is… when we are in the wilderness, it can be hard to understand messages from God. When we are heavy with the weight of trauma, we struggle to recognize God in our midst and we to put God’s word into practice.

The Israelites hear this message from God and their first instinct is fear… they cower under the power of God and back away 

Moses, the person who is there leader in the wilderness who is tasked to be their representative in their talks with God is not immune to this fear either… He hears this message from God  and thinks… “God is testing us…” 

Even Moses in the wilderness, in the midst of his struggle, misses the deeper message of this new system God is putting in place for them… Even Moses get’s what God is us to wrong…

I have spent the majority of my week this week with people who entered into the wilderness suddenly.  For most of the week I felt like Moses… trying show up and be a presence. Trying to to help people find God in the midst of their trauma… trying to help people see some sort of way forward, and helping people think through the next steps of continuing to live their life. 

Every time I wondered… what do I say here?…
How could I possibly make anything in this situation better with my words?

I am sure I said the wrong things at times. I am sure in the midst of my own trauma and grief, I didn’t bring the right comfort or support… but here is what I do know after spending a week in the wilderness with people… In the end, no amount of effort, or struggle, or failure on my part mattered… God was always already there… God always showed up, and was already at work…

God is always meeting people in the midst of their wilderness. 
God meets us in our struggles and provides what we need there to survive and endure, and then God will always provide us with a path out. 
A new system… a way forward… a better way of living that surpasses even our best efforts. 

A repeated phrase for our sermons so far in exodus has been that “Egypts come in many sizes,” well the saying is true of the wilderness too.. the wilderness comes in many sizes, and in many places too… I don’t know what wilderness you are journeying through right now… But I do know that God is meeting you there. And I know that it is not God’s wish for you to remain there… 

Instead God is providing you a way forward… a new system to put in place… a better way of life… 

May it be so… Amen…