Rev. Carrie Mook Bridgman
July 28, 2019
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Into the Wilderness
Exodus 14: 5-14, 21-30
Mark 1: 9-14
Before I can get into the sermon, I need to talk with you about one thing. Why does the writer of Exodus tell us that the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”? What’s going on with God “throwing the Egyptians into the sea”? This image of God is disturbing.
The people who told the Exodus story were thinking about God’s reputation, but not in the same way we do. They were telling about a contest between the God of Israel and the king of Egypt, who literally thought he was a god. Our storytellers mocked his delusions of grandeur. They also demonstrated that their own people could be stupidly stubborn. The Israelites had seen God do some fantastic things. They even had a visible sign of God’s presence: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night–and yet when they saw the Egyptian army chasing them, they said to Moses, “We told you so! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to get us killed in the desert?” Mind you, they were saying this while the pillar of cloud stood over their camp. Then the Israelites walked across the sea, and saw the Egyptians drowned. The writer says, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord.” He doesn’t mean reverent respect; he means terror. He thinks God scared the living daylights out of the Israelites on purpose, hoping that they would listen to God afterwards. I don’t believe Pharaoh’s stubbornness was God’s fault any more than the Israelites’ stubbornness was.
Now, on to the sermon. A dramatic encounter with God is not the end of the story but the beginning. After such an encounter, we move into the wilderness. God goes with us into the wilderness, teaching us what we will need to know when we come out.
A dramatic encounter with God is not the end of the story but the beginning. The Israelites had a dramatic encounter with God at the Red Sea. The storyteller says the sea was divided, and they walked across with walls of water on either side and then saw their enemies overwhelmed. This encounter was not the end of the story. They didn’t cross the sea and travel a few days and get to the Promised Land and settle down. They went into the wilderness and stayed there for forty years before they were ready to move on.
When Jesus was baptized, the waters did not divide for him. Instead, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” Mark’s Gospel does not have any birth stories about Jesus. As far as Mark knows, this is the first time Jesus realized he had a special mission. Jesus might have been as terrified as the Israelites were. And what happened? “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days.”
Have you ever had a dramatic encounter with God? Sometimes those moments are expected: a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child. Sometimes they are unexpected: the day you realize you have an addiction, or that your marriage is over; or that you have cancer–or the day you fall in love, or a line from a hymn suddenly becomes real to you and you connect with God in a way you never had before, or the day you first give everything you’ve got to a good cause and learn how joyful life can be when it’s not all about you. Whether the encounter is good news or bad, expected or not, it’s a crisis point that shapes what happens afterward. A dramatic encounter with God is not the end of the story but the beginning.
After such an encounter, we move into the wilderness. We cannot just go on with our lives as usual. We need to process what has happened and figure out what difference it makes. Some of us have the blessing of time to withdraw from our daily distractions and focus on dealing with our new reality. Some of us find that time forced on us whether we want it or not–losing a job or sitting in a chemo chair or moving to a nursing home. Others need that time but don’t get it–their wilderness consists of everything they already had to do plus the new crisis, and their main problem is sheer exhaustion. Part of our job as the church is to keep our eyes open for people who are scrambling lost in the wilderness, and to be part of God’s day-to-day provision for them, handling some of the routine things so that their energy can go toward their wilderness work.
What is our work during a wilderness time? One thing we often neglect is prayer. When we feel overwhelmed, it seems we cannot take the time. When we are confused and grieving, we may feel that we are not on speaking terms with God, or wonder whether God even exists. But these wilderness times have been the most important times in the history of our faith for people to draw closer to God, to learn to follow God’s leading, to argue and rage and to risk and grow. In the wilderness, Israel received the Law that has guided them (and us) ever since. Jesus went to the wilderness to figure out what kind of messiah he would be. Even Mark’s short version of the story tells us he was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him. Part of our wilderness work is to seek God intentionally in prayer, knowing we may have to wait for God’s response, or that it may come in ways we do not immediately recognize. Something big has happened; we are lost and wandering, and it will take time to get our bearings again. After a dramatic encounter with God, we move into the wilderness.
God goes with us into the wilderness, teaching us what we will need to know when we come out. This is the good news of such stories; we do not wander lost and alone. God goes with us. The Israelites continued to follow the pillar of cloud through the desert. They learned, very slowly, to begin to trust that God would provide for their daily needs. They learned, too, that God had expectations of them. They came out of the wilderness as a people with a culture and a faith. When Jesus went into the wilderness, it was the Holy Spirit who sent him there–the same Spirit who had announced, “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He was tempted by Satan. He was also cared for by angels. God was in the wilderness with him, helping him shape his ministry.
God goes with us into our wilderness as well. We don’t have the visual signs the storytellers use to cue us in to what’s going on, but there are signs for us anyway. We don’t see a pillar of cloud guiding our steps, or angels coming to help us–or do we? Anyone who has ever called an Alcoholics Anonymous mentor in a moment of crisis and gotten the support they needed to stay sober, or to try again, has seen an angel. Anyone whose soul has been lifted by an incredible worship service, or an incredible waterfall, has seen the pillar of cloud and fire. Anyone who has shared love with a spouse for years, or raised a child to be a compassionate, responsible adult, has known the presence of God. Anyone who has been confronted by a friend and given good advice we didn’t want to hear–get counseling, see a doctor, change our behavior– has seen an angel. God goes with us into the wilderness, teaching us what we will need to know when we come out.
When have you had a dramatic encounter with God? When have you had a wilderness time? Are you in the wilderness now? Have you found guidance for your journey? Have you met angels who ministered to you along the way? What are you learning? Take a minute to think about these things. If you want to write a note on a prayer card and put it in the offering plate, we will pray for you during the week. You can put your name on the card or not, as you choose.
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A dramatic encounter with God is not the end of the story but the beginning. After such an encounter, we move into the wilderness. God goes with us into the wilderness, teaching us what we will need to know when we come out. May you find this true in your own life. Amen.