Pharaoh will think, “The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.” (Exodus 14:3)
When the Hebrews left Egypt there was a way out of town that involved a road. Roads are a good thing when you’re traveling; they are usually flat and fairly easy to see. When you’re on a road, you can look up ahead and get a sense of what’s happening, where the turns might be, where it forks, where it slopes downhill or presents you with a climb. Roads help you get a feel for where you are. However, the road that could have taken the Hebrews out of Egypt led them through the land of the Philistines – a very unfriendly people. God knew that a battle too early in the journey would discourage the people. They’d change their minds and go back to Egypt. So God ignored the road, and took his people through the wilderness (Exodus 13:17-18).
Traveling in a desert is disorienting. It’s hard. You can’t tell where you are or what kind of progress you’re making. The journey is far less clear. Sure, the road that God ignored was dangerous, but the wilderness wasn’t much better. Maybe God chooses to lead us to the wilderness because when we’re on the road we tend to trust the road or our map or our own sense of direction. In the wilderness we have to trust God to guide us.
In the desert it seemed to Pharaoh as if the Hebrews were confused, wandering about aimlessly. The Hebrews themselves felt misled. Once Pharaoh’s army came after them and they could see the dust clouds in the distance, they knew the desert would be a place of death. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” For centuries the dirt of Egypt had soaked up their sweat in slavery; now as freed enemies of the empire, the wilderness would soak up their blood. The desert was a desperate and deadly place to be.
Many years after the Exodus story, the story of Jesus would be told in such a way that the wilderness journey was remembered and re-imagined. Mark would evoke the memory of the Exodus by his frequent use of the Greek word “eremoi,” translated desert or wilderness. Mark has a special fondness for this word. Jesus’ arrival was anticipated and announced by a voice calling out in the wilderness (eremou). Like the forty year journey that tested and gave shape to the Israelite community, Jesus entered the desert (eremou) for forty days of testing and identity formation. Early in the morning when Jesus needed time to pray he left the house and found a “solitary place” (eremon). Jesus’ healing ministry was so popular that he couldn’t enter the towns but stayed out in the lonely places (eremois). As seen in the Jesus story, the wilderness isn’t a place of death; it’s a place of life. The wilderness is where we find God.
It’s easy to complain about the wilderness places God leads us to; we much prefer a road or at least a well worn path that shows us where we’re going. But the wilderness is the arena of God’s shaping and saving work. God does things in our lives that couldn’t be done apart from a desert experience. In the desert we learn who we are, we find the space to hear God, we discover healing. God may have you in such a place today. Be ready to travel off-road.
Gracious God, we resist leaving the clearly marked road for the unknowns of the desert; the wilderness frightens us, inconveniences us, deprives us of the props that we build our lives upon. But we know that you meet us in those hard and desolate places in a special way. Meet us today in our desert places. Make us willing to leave the seemingly safe and easy path so that we might know you better and become the people you have created us to be. Amen.