Numbers 10:11 – 11:30 ‘Wilderness wandering…’
Reflection by Anne Stewart

Our journey with Moses has taken us from the time of oppression in Egypt and on into the wilderness as we seek to reach the promised land.  Moses has returned from his time with God on Mt Sinai and has delivered God’s covenant to the Israelites, which they have accepted with great joy.  A short time later they break the covenant and begin making a golden calf, forgetting their promise not to worship other gods or to make idols.  God is not happy about this and God draws Moses into God’s anger and pain at the breakdown of the covenant.  God has plans for the Israelites which Moses appeals and God relents on the planned punishment.   Despite all that has happened God still desires to dwell among God’s chosen people, so they build a tabernacle where they can be in God’s presence and worship.  But even this isn’t enough to heal the rift between God and the Israelites.  The wound is so great that Moses finds even he cannot enter the tabernacle; even he cannot enter the presence of God.  This is the extent of the damage done to the covenant relationship.  Israel’s breaking of the covenant still has to be dealt with and so we move on into the book of Leviticus which details an understanding of what is required for the people to be holy enough to return to the relationship.

So, we find ourselves in the book of Numbers.  So called, I believe, because of the various censuses they undertook to count the tribes.  The Hebrew tradition know this book as ‘bamidbar’, which means ‘in the wilderness’.  The book begins as they are one year into their journey from Mt Sinai, a journey they began with great enthusiasm.  But just three days later, in the wilderness of Paran they began to moan and complain.  They were hungry, thirsty and pretty soon they began to wish they were back in Egypt.  Which is, when you think about it, a profound rejection of God.  Hoping for some good news to inspire the people, Moses sent twelve scouts ahead to check out the promised land ahead of them.  Two of these scouts came back excited about what they saw, the other ten were terrified by what they saw.  Fearing annihilation ahead, they pleaded with Moses to take them back to Egypt.  Even Moses’ brother and sister began to speak against him in public.

Now we might have imagined God, having just liberated them from the oppressive Egyptian rule, would be a bit put out by this apparent dishonouring of his efforts.  Thanks, but no thanks; you gave us what we wanted but it’s not so great after all!   But God lives with their choice not to go forward and says, ok so this generation can continue to wander in the wilderness for forty years and only their children will see the promised land.  God remains faithful to his people, honouring their choice.  God will let them waste their whole lives if they choose to live in rebellion. So, they spend the next forty years going round and round in circles in the wilderness, on what should have been an eleven-day journey.

Going round and round in circles in the wilderness.  Is that a familiar experience for you?  I know that I have certainly been there.  Looking back, what surprises me the most is how long it took for me to see that I was the only one that this was hurting.  But still, emerging from what has become a pattern can be difficult.  The first difficulty is in actually seeing the reality of what is going on.  Often, we need an event, or something that is said to jolt the penny into dropping.  The wilderness is not a place to stay forever in, but, that said, we shouldn’t assume that time in the wilderness is always a bad thing.  The wilderness can be a great teacher.  For some, the wilderness times are when God is most present, or the most able to be heard.  These can be times rich with reflective learning and great springboards for growth.  But they can also be hard work while you are there.  Often it’s only after we have emerged that we see any value in those times of being lost in the wilderness. 

We don’t see well when we are lost.  I wonder if there’s a bit of that around us at present.  Last year we were gifted with great leadership which saw us come out of lockdown well, and remain pretty much fully out for the remainder of the time since.  Until around ten days ago.  That’s an extraordinary experience compared to how most other countries have, and in some cases continue, to suffer through this pandemic.  But, this time, along with a rampant virus, the airwaves have been inundated with complaints, cruel comments, and conspiracies.  It is fascinating and terrifying to watch what people do to process their fear.  Some rush to the need of rules to follow.  Some rush to break those rules.  Others hide away, and others push on ahead.  But actually, we are all a bit lost at present, none of us know where this will all lead.  On our own we can’t control this thing, but we can control how we are in it!

Yet, as in most times of being lost in the wilderness, there are also good things to see around us.  There is grace in the desert.  There are always things to be grateful for; unexpected gifts along the way that surprise us and lead us on in hope of what lies ahead.  Can you think of anything that has brought a smile to your face in the last week?  Maybe this can help; I am loving the weather (again) but this time we get slowly to watch the earth wake up from its wintery sleep.  Last lockdown it was flashing it’s colour at us as it settled down for winter.  But now leaves are beginning to burst without any care for covid or it’s variants.  I am loving the view out of our newly cleaned windows (thanks Mart! – pretty sure that happened last lockdown too).  I am loving the tidier garden that has benefitted from the three pair of hands that have been engaged in it over the past few days.  I am still smiling every time I think of that classic clanger that Chris Hipkins dropped earlier in the week, but even more so the expression on Ashley Bloomfields face as he heard what was said. If you missed it, ask someone.  I love watching families on their daily jaunts (stretching their legs) through Jellie Park, groups from Laura Fergusson, students, and lots of dogs (don’t the animals in our world love the extra attention they get in a lockdown!)  Soon we will have ducklings in the stream!

The Israelites moaned and complained and wanted to go back, even though every bit of logic told them that ‘back’ was not a good place to be in.  Desperate to get out, they had pleaded with God for their liberation.  So grateful to be out, they had readily agreed to a covenant relationship with the God who had liberated them.  But very soon ‘out’ lost its shine.  Discomfort set in and oppression seemed the better alternative to them.  The discomfort we are currently living with also has an alternative.  Does anyone really want that?!

So, I wonder if the idea of ‘grace in the desert’ is something that we can all learn from during our current time in the wilderness.  A lack of grace in the desert didn’t go well for the Israelites; it kept them going round and round in circles for a very long time.  I fear a similar lack of grace could do this for us also!  What about practising grace in how we treat one another, the checkout operator at the supermarket, the petrol station, the testing station, the vaccination centre, the hospital and so on?  Everyone is doing their best to handle a really difficult situation for which no government, no agencies, no individual, no ethnicity, nothing is to blame except a highly efficient virus that is doing very well for itself and we’re trying our hardest to get rid of it.  And in the midst of it all let’s give thanks for the things that give life; the lovely sunny days, the people who sacrifice so much to lead the country through this time, those who advise them and keep the response strong and active.  I can’t get my head around what it takes to make 20,000 contact traces, to vaccinate 80,000 people in one day, or to test another 50,000.  Imagine the backroom work that has to go on to make this possible!  Teams and teams of people processing results, formatting data, ringing people, connecting the dots, all so we can be well informed each day at 1pm and feel safe that good people are working hard to keep us safe.  And all most of us are asked to do is to stay home and wash our hands regularly!  We might be wandering a little bit lost at present but can’t we give thanks for that rather than complain about every perceived imperfection? 

In this season of new life, which always follows every season of cold and discomfort, we might want to spend some time allowing ourselves to be reminded of this by watching the world around us.  There is confidence in the bursting buds, the showy daffodils, the sweet-smelling hyacinths, confidence that there will be more good life to come.  That God has not abandoned God’s creation and never will. 

I invite you to click on the link to listen to Neil Young’s ‘Light a candle’

“Light A Candle”

Instead of cursing the darkness,
Light a candle for where we’re going,
There’s something ahead, worth fighting for.

When the light of time is on us,
You will see our moment come,
And the living soul inside will carry on.

It’s a chance to give new meaning to every move we make,
In the cavern, in the cave, where we come from.

When the light of dawn is on us,
We will see what we can be,
And the ancient ones can sleep an easy sleep

In the hallways of the ages, on the road to history,
What we do now will always be with us.

It’s a chance to give new meaning to every move we make,
In the caverns, in the caves, where we come from.

Instead of cursing the darkness,
Light a candle for where we’re going,
There’s something ahead, worth looking for.

When the light of time is on us,
We will see our moment come,
And the living soul inside will carry on.

Light a candle in the darkness,
So others might see ahead,
Light a candle in the darkness, when you go.

Light a candle in the darkness,
So others might see ahead,
Light a candle in the darkness, when you go.