02.28.2014 Preaching Text: “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” (Exodus 6b)
I hate camping. Oh I get the aesthetics of it, in the same way I understand intellectually the joy of gardening. Producing something of beauty and color from out of nothing must be amazing, and on many levels. It’s just that I hate digging in the dirt, weeding incessantly, and, perhaps most significantly, betraying the fact that I know absolutely nothing about how to do it (with a dismal track record to prove it!).
In the same vein, being out in the wilderness, being part of nature, connecting with the earth, going to bed with stars overhead and awakening to dew on the ground and chirping birds in the trees does sound terrific. It’s just that I’ve never liked actually doing it!
Now admittedly, I haven’t camped outdoors since I was a kid, and that was mostly, as I recall, under duress. Going to camp, being away from home, family, and friends was not something I ever liked. So perhaps I have false perceptions of the whole enterprise colored by childhood associations.
Were I to venture forth to try again, this time of my own volition and with proper provision, perhaps I might actually enjoy it. Though I very much doubt it!
But even for those of you who do like it (and I know there are some), being in the wilderness is not something any of us would welcome in the sense it is used this morning in the Book of Exodus.
The wilderness here is an unrelievedly inhospitable place, far from hearth and home, far from the familiar, from the tried and true, far from the hopes and dreams that usher forth life. Rather, it is a place of deprivation, of terror even. It is the very negation of life.
The Israelites have left the familiarities of Egypt, having crossed the Red (Reed) Sea, now on their way to the Promised Land. Though they began with great hopes, they soon tire of the wilderness’ dispossessions. They begin to long for the days when they at least had enough to eat and drink. They see no future and little hope.
So they complain. And complain bitterly. So much so that Moses, their tireless leader, can’t take it anymore. They’re hungry and they’re thirsty, and they have no idea when things, if ever, will change for the better. Worse still, they feel abandoned and betrayed by God.
This kind of wilderness experience, of course, is not something that only happens in the distance past. It happens in the here and now, to us. In fact, one could argue that the wilderness is, in some sense, our everyday home, the place through which we must journey in earthly time and space.
Calling once again upon Augustine’s schematic of life, there exist two spheres, two cities. There is the city of God and the city of man. In Christ the eternal city of God has broken into time, into the finite city of man, altering it forever.
Yet its force does not yet dominate. While we do see evidence of Christ’s revelation in our lives and world, we also know its absence, and all too well.
Which is to say that Christians live a life of both fulfillment and hope. In fulfillment, we bask in the assurance of God’s goodness. Yet in the experience of the ‘not yet,’ where hope alone sustains, the wilderness becomes our de facto home.
In our Exodus story, we understand intellectually the way this works. We go through periods of uncertainty, even fear and deprivation, but we know we ultimately are headed to the promised land. We understand that things will work out.
But in the depths of the wilderness, such easy contemplation alludes us. We find ourselves questioning everything we ever believed. We know just enough about God to endanger ourselves. We know of his love and care, but don’t know yet enough about how that love is to be effected.
Christianity has a whole line of enquiry called “theodicy.” We finite human beings place the infinite God on trial in search of an explanation as to why this omnipotent, omniscient, all powerful God allows evil and suffering.
It’s a natural enough impulse, to be sure, especially while we’re languishing in a wilderness rife with suffering and deprivation. At such times we need to know why God allows such suffering, and will not rest until we do.
Over the years I’ve struggled with this, knowing full well the classic arguments for the existence of suffering and evil. I know that God gave us free will because God’s purpose is love, and love can never be coerced. I know also of the struggle between spiritual powers, of light and darkness, of how God has not as yet defeated the evil One, though his destruction is assured.
I also know of the resurrection, which places all our worldly fears and momentary afflictions in perspective, even as I know that eternal life is the very foundation of all Christian theology, and believe it in my heart.
Yet in the wilderness, such explanations can fail us, can seem empty. The heart demands what it has come to expect from God. In the wilderness abandonment is the dominant theme and mood, where God’s love can seem absent altogether.
Which is why the Exodus story is so powerful. Just when the people lose all confidence, and only, it seems, when all options are exhausted, when all hope seems lost – only then does the new light dawn.
The Israelites have lost all hope, fearfully languishing in the desert waiting to die. Only then, it seems, does God respond by giving them, first, manna to eat, and then water to drink, out of a rock.
Time and again, scripture reminds us that it is often when we human beings lose all hope, when things seem most impossible, God brings life out of nothing.
The impossibility of water flowing from rock illustrates the point. When all else fails, when human striving reaches its limits, God responds with powerful, life-giving force.
Over the last few days, in the aftermath of Linda’s sister’s death, I have felt this despair and this uncertainty. Yet, I’m reminded that it isn’t so much that we suffer (as we all will) but with whom we suffer that makes the difference.
To suffer alone is worse than death; it is indeed a kind of spiritual death. We can withstand anything, I would argue, as long as we know we are not alone, as long as we know we’re loved.
Last weekend, during Ann’s last days, her entire family gathered in her hospital room: her husband of close to 60 years, her four children and their spouses, all nine of her grandchildren, along with Linda and myself.
The love present was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. One by one, each family member said goodbye with grief and tears, but also at other times with gentle humor and heartfelt laughter – the full range of emotion.
She in turn said her goodbyes and did so with unfathomable grace and kindness. Which is to say that she stayed in character during the whole process.
As she breathed her last breaths, Bill and all her children surrounded her, hugged her, and sent her forth with permission to let go. Indeed those on the other side were waiting to receive her in like manner.
Amid the impossibilities of that moment, new life was born, like water flowing from impenetrable rock.
In the days since, the waters of our tears continue to nourish and moisten the soul, preparing us to become what Henri Nouwen famously termed “wounded healers,” Christ’s witnesses, passing along God’s impossible compassion and depths of love to all those in the wilderness struggling to know the same. Amen.