We’ve reached the last week of our Lenten “In the Wilderness” series, and so far, I hope, we’ve learned a few things from the Israelites about how we best cope with our own wilderness journeys.
We’ve talked about how to stay oriented toward God’s will. We’ve discussed the difficulty of trusting God’s provision, and we’ve emphasized the need for God-inspired perseverance, or “grit.”
In Exodus 18:13-27, the importance of mature, thoughtful companionship on such a journey shines through. At this point in the wilderness story, Moses has been reunited with his wife and children, who have been staying with Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest. Jethro is astonished by the miracles God has performed while liberating the Israelites from Egypt, but he is equally concerned about how Moses is trying to lead the people and handle all their problems on his own.
His advice is pretty simple: Find men you trust, men with high moral standards, and group the people under them to help. Otherwise, Moses, you are going to burn out. Moses takes the advice.
Sadly, Moses eventually burns out anyway, the stress of leadership proving to be too much. A fit of anger while leading the recalcitrant people ultimately costs him entry into the promised land. Moses’ failure is no fault of Jethro’s excellent advice, however. No matter how smart we may think we are, we all need wise companions as we make our way through this broken world toward God’s kingdom, particularly if we are called to lead in any way at all.
Jethro’s model for grouping people and spreading the burden of leadership and spiritual development has worked in every era. Jesus did something similar, focusing on his 12 disciples, who then would lead other disciples. They also ultimately founded churches, which largely were clusters of what we would think of today as home-based small groups.
The early Methodist movement mimicked such a model with great success. It’s distressing to me that most Methodist churches have wandered so far from such small group closeness and mutual accountability; I think it is one of the primary reasons we are in decline in the United States.
Churches working along such lines have been able to do great things even in the midst of terrible evil, where the howling wilderness becomes murderous. Take World War II and the mass killing of Jews by the Nazis, for example.
If you don’t know the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, you should take time to learn more about it. In short, this little French village, working mostly out of its small Protestant church, was able to save thousands of Jews from deportation and extermination. What fascinates me is how the people of Le Chambon say they never needed a planning meeting or a vote to figure out what to do. Well before the war, the pastor had put in place a biblical system for teaching and communication. He taught a small group of leaders, each of whom then went and taught their own groups.
When crisis came, the people knew biblically what God called them to do and they simply did it, using their little system to pass Jews back and forth to safety without ever having to discuss out loud what they were doing.
Le Chambon reminds us of what we are capable of doing when we follow common-sense biblical strategies. The kingdom of God can suddenly bloom in the most vile environments.
Put all this together—constant faithful companionship, orientation toward God, trust in God’s provision, and perseverance through faith—and we can make it through any sort of badlands, finding the Kingdom of God on the other side.