The wilderness had not been kind to the Israelites. That’s probably an understatement or an over simplification, but things were not going well. I won’t make you sit through the entire backstory since if you were with us Wednesday nights during January and February you’ve heard most of it already, but if you’re curious feel free to go to here, you’ll find all the information you could want there. Had to get my plug in. But here are the basics. The people had been enslaved in Egypt and now they were free. God had heard them crying out in their slavery and had called Moses to be the instrument by which the people got released. The ten plagues happened, they crossed the sea, and then they found themselves free. Out of Egypt, away from slavery, they embarked on a new life as a people. The Exodus was a promise of a new existence, a new future that in their slavery they could only have imagined and wished for, a future of joy, of freedom, and of well-being. What the Exodus actually led to, however, was the wilderness. And the wilderness did not live up to the promise. There was no joy in traveling through the desert, no freedom when you were dependent on the larger group for survival, and no well-being when even getting the basic necessities of life was a struggle.
What’s interesting about this journey through desert and wilderness is its not one the people had to take. Get a picture of the Middle East in your mind, or maybe your Bible even has a map of the Exodus journey in the back, check that out. The shortest way to get from Egypt to what is now Israel is to hug the coast, right? Not only is that the shortest way, but it would be a much easier trip. The coastline is a lot more fertile, it has the resources they need to survive. And yet that’s not the path they take. They go down into the desert. They take the longer, harder, path, a path that, after they wander for forty years, is actually going to see them having gone up and around the promised land and enter through the backdoor. There’s a simple path in front of them but they take the harder. Why would they do that? What the text tells us is that it wasn’t their decision, God led them on the harder path.
In Exodus 13 the people leave Egypt and God directs them to this longer path because the shorter path that hugged the coast would have meant facing the Philistines who lived along the coast. And God knew the people weren’t ready for that. If you know your Old Testament you’ll know that even hundreds of years later the people are going to struggle with the Philistines, they definitely can’t handle a fight with them so soon after being freed. God knows the people might give up if they face that kind of threat so early so they are sent on the longer path, a path with its own dangers and struggles, but ultimately a path that is not as dangerous to them as the other option.
That’s a good sentiment, right? “Sometimes God sends us on the longer journey to save us from the danger on the short one.” That would make great artsy Facebook or Instagram post. It reminds me, have y’all seen the cartoon that shows a person gets hit with a rock and they’re like “God, why’d you let that happen,” and it pans out and God is like a giant wall getting pummeled with rocks and that one happened to get through and God apologizes. I don’t want to knock that sentiment, because I think there’s truth in it but that’s not all that’s happening here. This isn’t just a matter of God leading them through some hardship to protect them from something worse, there’s something bigger at play. You see God understands the mindset these people are in. Remember this, with the exception of Moses the entire community has only ever known slavery. They were slaves, their parents were slaves, grandparents, for four hundred years that’s all they were. Their mindset was one of slavery, slavery was their reality, and they were addicted to it.
How can you be addicted to slavery? Well all addictions have their good parts and bad parts. All addiction have their highs and their crashes, the thing that makes us want to quit and the thing that keeps us coming back for more. Whether it’s a substance or a relationship or an action all our addictions involve something we know is hurting us or is too big a risk or is going to blow up in our face and something that makes us ignore that and keep going. The low of slavery is obvious: no freedom, brutal work, danger of being beaten or killed, the high might not come to us as obviously but there’s one there: order. When the people were slaves they had order to their lives. They knew when and where their meals were coming from, they knew where and when they were going to go to sleep each night, they knew that if enemies appeared there were people there to defend them, their life was defined by order. And that order was a hard habit to break. And we see it in Exodus 17, every time they’re met with a challenge they demand to know why Moses took them out of Egypt. “Why did you do this to us, things might have been bad but we’d have never died of thirst.” They are addicted to their slavery.
Some of us understand that mindset a whole lot better than we’d ever admit. Some of us know addiction all too well. Some of know exactly what its like to cling to a relationship we know is wrong and dangerous but at least its there. God sees that addiction in the people, God recognizes that danger that exists in them and leads them into the wilderness to help them detox, to break the addiction. Moses asks God what to do and God says “hit this rock with this your staff, I’ll give them water.” When they thirst God gives them water. When they are starving God sends manna and quail. When they face enemies, God aids them in battle. God takes them on the long journey to show them that they don’t need to go back to Egypt. That they don’t have to rely on Pharaoh to stay alive. That they don’t have to trade survival for slavery. The moments of difficulty in the wilderness teach them what it means to trust and rely on God. This water from a rock is a little taste, a free sample, of the overwhelming grace of God that can become apparent in the midst of trials, a grace that will eventually become fully apparent in the gift of salvation and reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
I hope you hear in that a connection to Paul’s words in Romans. “We glory in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.” This isn’t a call to seek out suffering or ignore it in others because “they’re learning a lesson,” but it is a reminder that good can come from the moments where we struggle, doubt, and suffer. God is present in those moments and during and after we can see God more clearly. We can also receive those free samples of grace that call us to a better understanding and greater faith in God and reveal to us a little bit of what the full measure of God’s grace, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus looks and feels like.
There’s another parallel lesson in grace I hope we see in these passages. For all this talk of addiction and breaking mindsets, the Israelites in the wilderness really are the worst. Every time something goes wrong they go crazy threatening Moses and demanding to go back to Egypt. By this point they should have seen enough to trust what’s happening. They’ve seen plagues hit Egypt and spare them, they’ve seen a sea part for them to be able to get through and the crash down on their enemies, they’ve gotten food and water from miraculous sources already and yet they still have no faith. More than that, every time they receive something they practically immediately move on to the next complaint, there’s no gratitude. They don’t even try to solve their own problems, to figure out solutions, they just complain and hope someone will come bail them out. And God gives them water anyway. When they have no faith, God still shows grace. When they’ve done nothing to earn it, God gives in abundance. For Paul what’s true in that free sample of grace is even more true in the main course “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners, a few verses later he says while we were “enemies” of God, Christ died for us. God grants grace to the undeserving. God’s behavior goes against every cultural norm that existed then or exists now. Both the Jewish and Roman attitude in Paul’s day was to be careful who you granted benefits to, to watch out who you helped in anyway, make sure they’re worthy of any gift you give. In Greek and Roman culture having enemies was a sign of class, if you had people who were working against you it meant you had made it in society and the expectation was that you would work to destroy them to continue to improve your lot and increase your status. God’s behavior runs counter to the cultural norm. Pharaoh gave the Israelites water in exchange for their work, God gives them water freely. The expectation was to cut down and destroy your enemies, Christ dies for the enemies of God. The death of a son should be what escalates a conflict, Jesus’ death ends the conflict, and offers the gift of reconciliation with God. Human nature is to step on the weak, to disdain those who fail, and to destroy our enemies. But God is not like humans. God raises up the weak, forgives those who fail, and reconciles God’s enemies. The free samples of grace that we find in our lives are just tastes, just a little snack to tide us over and remind of the free gift that waits in the main course. God’s love and grace is so great that in the moments when we are most undeserving grace comes through even clearer.
That is good news for us to hear, but it should be challenging news to us as well. How often do we focus on whether a group or organization or person is worthy of our gifts before we give them? How often do we focus on what people deserve instead of what we have the capacity to give? How often do we focus on finding new and better ways to destroy our enemies instead of being willing to make a sacrifice that might bring us together and transform them from enemies to friends? How often are we quick to forgive ourselves or those like us while rallying around the guilt of the other? How often do we keep grace tucked away in a corner, something we can trust in and rely on but that isn’t available for those whose actions or attitudes we deem don’t warrant it? If God grants grace to the unworthy, if God reconciles enemies, if Christ truly died for the ungodly, how can we not do the same?