We have entered the season of Lent. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have observed 40 days of spiritual preparation to ready themselves for Easter. It is a time we hope we will grow in our ability to understand and relate to God, particularly as we experience God through the story of Jesus Christ and direct interaction with God’s Holy Spirit.
Long before Jesus Christ came upon the scene, however, the people from whom he was descended, the Israelites, had to go through their own process of understanding and relating to God. Their Lent was a long one, 40 years rather than 40 days, and it was spent wandering in the wilderness.
The Israelites were happy to go to that desolate place, at least at first, because they had been slaves in Egypt, and the desert was their escape route. The journey was a hard one, though, and staying close to God proved to be difficult.
There is much to be learned from their time in the wilderness. The lessons God was teaching them are many of the same lessons we should learn during Lent. Including this Sunday, we’re going to spend four weeks during Lent understanding some of those lessons, letting them shape our Lenten experience.
We’ll begin with Exodus 13:17-22, that moment when the Israelites set out from Egypt. Right away, we’re told something that might be a little disturbing; rather than taking them the relatively straight, easy-to-navigate route to their homeland, God leads them toward the desert. This is in part to help them avoid something they were not ready to handle, war with the people who would have attacked them along the way.
For me, this falls under what we usually call “God’s timing.” Even when we follow God, it’s not unusual to continue to think we’ll meet our goals and find success according to our very human expectations. When we’re disappointed in God’s apparent slowness, what we may be missing is how God has steered us away from some disaster we could not foresee. The creator of the universe is also the seer of the Big Picture.
There also is an important little aside in the story, the detail that the Israelites gathered up “the bones,” the mummified remains, of Joseph, who more than four centuries earlier had risen from slave in Egypt to its de facto ruler, in the process saving the Israelites from famine. It was only later the Israelites became the Egyptians’ slaves.
What’s interesting here is that over four centuries, the Israelites had remembered who Joseph was, despite their declining circumstances. They had remembered what God had done for Joseph, and what God had promised he would do for the Israelites.
To trust God, it helps to have storytellers—you need at least a few people who remember the community’s narrative of truth and hope. It is how a community of people remember their identity and pass that on from generation to generation, staying focused on a common vision.
Lent is a good time to ask ourselves how we’re doing as a Christian community at telling our stories. Do we know the story of Christ well enough to tell it? Do we share the story with a sense of urgency, knowing that if we fail to tell it, a generation may find itself disconnected from God’s promises?
Lastly, we see the Israelites knew how to remain oriented, even if it seemed they were going in circles. As long as their eyes were on God, they were on track; when they doubted the path laid out for them, they got themselves into trouble.
God made the path easy for them with a kind of holy GPS. He led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Sometimes, these signs kept the people in place for a long time. Other times, these signs kept them moving.
As believers, we have signs, too, signs as obvious as holy cloud and fire. I know, you hear it from the preacher all the time, but you need to hear it again. The Bible really is our guide, and Lent is a great time to rededicate ourselves to living by its truths.
I frequently hear people say you can make the Bible prove any point you want. I will agree that the Bible really is more a library than one book, and there are parts that seem to conflict, usually because of different contexts for the passages that seem at odds. But I also believe it has a cohesive, overarching message, and when we understand that message, we find it fairly easy to discern from Scripture how to live our lives.
That big message is along these lines: God is holy and perfect and made all things. Through disobedience, we are separated from God, but God loves us so much that he went to extraordinary lengths to reunite us to him. After revealing himself through Jesus Christ, he made reunion possible through the cross. When we affirm through our own lives that Christ’s death on the cross is a real event, we are rejoined to God. And finally, God is remaking all things to conform to his holiness.
Orient ourselves toward the big message and the one who delivers it, and we’re following the Lenten path.
Next week: How do you pack for a trip like this?