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We left off last week with a celebration! Singing. Dancing. Tambourines. I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation. Deliverance. Freedom. Freedom from enslavement. The LORD will reign forever and ever.
We said at the beginning of this book that if deliverance were all Exodus was about, we would end at chapter 15:21. If we didn’t know the story the next part might come as a bit of a surprise. I’m sure it came as a bit of a surprise to the Israelites who had just been led up out of Egypt. Bring on the land flowing with milk and honey right? That’s what life is all about right? That’s what the Christ-following life is all about right? “Every day a Friday” as one church leader put it in a book. Who wouldn’t want that, unless you’re on rotating shifts or work weekends? Instead, we have this – “Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur.”
The wilderness. They will be there for 40 years. Multiple generations. One writer describes the wilderness like this – “The experience of order leads immediately into disorder, freedom becomes anarchy. Into the jaws of the wilderness, where demons howl and messiahs are tempted, where familiar resources are taken away…Lifelessness seems to be the only order on which one can depend. The journey from the Red Sea to the promised land is littered with freshly dug graves and not a single birth is recorded. Wilderness is life beyond redemption but short of consummation, but the former seems ineffective and the latter only a mirage…The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizons keep disappearing in the sandstorms. And so trust in God often turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. Commandments collapse into the disorder that shapes daily life.”
Seems rather a bleak picture no? The thing about the wilderness though, is that God is with us. God is leading us and God meets us. God hears cries for deliverance in the wilderness and God meets us there. In the wilderness, we face matters of life and death daily. For the Israelites in our story at this point, it is a matter of survival. Matters of life and death are brought into stark contrast – are easily seen – compared to the things that distract us when we are living in relative ease and seeming security but living in bondage to something from which we are unable to extricate ourselves – sin and death.
This is the thing about the wilderness. A few weeks ago we talked about Moses’ own wilderness experience coming back to Egypt from Midian. This was a life or death situation for Moses. He almost died. He was in a liminal situation. A threshold situation. In between two places. The thing about liminal situations, the thing about transitional or wilderness situations is – they are the places in which transformation happens. Three days journey into the wilderness for the Israelites. Three days in the belly of a great fish. Three days in the tomb.
These are the places that transformation happens. These are the places that in which we are forced to look at something beyond ourselves and beyond our own resources – which turn out to look pretty meagre. We are forced to face our own inability to control things and manage situations. It’s little wonder that these situations are portrayed in actual wilderness. It can be hard for us to see this in the city with all the order of the city and the streets being named and everything numbered and easily found and so on. We saw this recently in the series of hurricanes that assailed the Caribbean and the south-east US. What to do in the face of nature then? Run or hunker down and pray? It is in wilderness situations that we can be most prone to look for something beyond ourselves. That our thoughts are reduced to only one thing.
For the Israelites at this point in our story, the one thing is survival. They need water. We need water to survive, we can’t go very long without it. The two questions for the Israelites (and by extension us) that are in play are 1) How are we going to survive and 2) How are we to function as a people? How are we to function as a people that have been delivered? What have we been delivered for? What is to define us as a people?
“When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah.” The word Marah repeated three times for emphasis here. It means bitter. The message could not be more clear. One writer puts it like this – “Sometimes in our Bible study and in our preaching and teaching, we need to look for the truth that is not so obvious, for opaque meaning, lessons to which we may be blinded by the dramatic. Not so, I think, in this passage. The lessons are neither subtle nor subdued. They are right on the surface, hard to miss even by those who try.”
So let us not miss them. It’s been said that sometimes we find what we were not looking for, and we call it serendipity. Sometimes we find what we were not looking for and we call that trouble and angst. Sometimes we can’t find what we’re looking for and we call that disappointment bordering on hopelessness. They found water and it was bitter. We don’t know where Marah was, and this is a good thing because Marah is universal. It’s not so much a place as a circumstance. Do you know what it tastes like? If you don’t you will. Following Christ does not equal every day a Friday. To say otherwise is a lie, a pernicious lie. To say that your experience of life is otherwise because of a lack of faith is a pernicious lie. We must be careful with our attempts to explain why.
Scott Peck is the author of the bestselling book The Road Less Travelled. The second most best-selling non-fiction book behind The Bible. The first line in the book is this – “Life is difficult.” The Bible is just as honest. When they came to Bitter, they could not drink the water of Bitter because it was bitter. That is why it was called Bitter. We will know loss in life and we will not know why. We will get bad news from the doctor. We will get a phone call from the hospital. Our families will break apart, shatter. Things we have dreamed of will not happen.
The question for us is not so much a matter of why. We can ask why but it doesn’t really do any good, and oftentimes there’s no good answer. Beware of anyone who tries to give you a glib or easy answer as to why. The question for us is “On what are we going to base our lives in the face of bitterness? On what are we going to base our lives in the face of the howling wilderness waste?”
I’ve said before that Christ is not so much the answer as the decision. “Now the judgement of the world is here,” Christ said. The krisis – the decision. The decisive point of human history. This story is always pointing forward to Christ. We need to decide on what we are going to base our lives. We base our lives on other things. Ourselves. Our own control. We look for things outside our self that really aren’t very good for us. We distract ourselves endlessly. We try to work against the “Life is difficult” line by making life as easy as possible for ourselves, numbing ourselves in all the different ways in which we numb ourselves.
That really aren’t very good for us.
This is a lot of bad news I realize. You’re all very down at this point.
Here’s the thing though.
God is there. God has not left the people post-Red Sea. Remember the pillar of fire night and the cloud by day? God is there. The people of Israel were not only delivered from something – they were delivered to something. Power and presence. God with them. Deliverance and worship. Turning to God in the midst of this howling wilderness waste in which they found themselves – in which we find ourselves. The people complained – quite rightly I would say and the text brings no judgement on them at all – And the people complained against Moses saying “What shall we drink?”
Moses knew what to do. He cried out to the Lord. We talked about people with a bold voice for hurt. Have a bold voice for hurt before God. These people need to live! Is it even possible? Moses cries out to God. I know I’ve been alluding to this howling wilderness waste line. It’s Deuteronomy 32:10-12 and I love these verses – “He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.”
Because we look for help from foreign gods. We look for healing in all the wrong places. It’s what we do. God never leaves us nor forsakes us though. The LORD shows Moses what to do, and the water becomes sweet. God brings healing. God has shown us what to do. How to live as redeemed people, as delivered people. I have shown you mortal what is good. Micah 6:8.
God has enabled this is us through the person of his Son and the person of His Spirit who is with us. Guiding us. Enabling us. Strengthening us. Calling us to participate in his delivering, saving, healing work. Making the waters sweet. There’s a great rabbinic saying about this passage that goes like this – “Moses asked God why God created brackish water. God replied, ‘Instead of asking philosophical questions, why don’t you do something to make the bitter waters sweet?’”
There are people all around us at Marah. Cry out to God on their behalf. Do what you can to make the bitter waters sweet. It can be something as every day as bringing Thanksgiving dinner to a group of young people who don’t have a lot of good experience with family dinners. Cry out defiantly to God in the midst of their howling wilderness waste.
The people of Israel are then reminded they have been delivered to worship. They have been delivered to enjoy God’s presence. To obey. To trust. To be tested in this way. Not so much in a pass/fail way but for their faith to be proved or trained. The lesson here is that God is the bringer of life. Water is life. Healing is life. God is the one who heals. “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians…” Not in a threatening “Do this or else!” way. Look at how the command ends – “I am the LORD who heals you.” The Israelites have been delivered to worship, to make God’s ways known to the world. To be healed by God and to take part in God’s healing work which is nation-wide and creation-wide. Someone described this as the difference between saying “If you obey the speeding laws I will not give you a ticket” and “If you obey the speeding laws you’ll be much safer.” The command is given out of concern and love and the desire to have us live in communion with God, which is life abundant. The enablement to follow has come from Christ and the gift of the Spirit.
As followers of Christ, we live between the times. We’re in a kind of threshold situation. We talk about treading the verge of Jordan one day in our hymn. In this way, we live in a wilderness. It’s nothing to be afraid of. God is with us. Transformation happens. It’s not all Marah. Sometimes it’s Elim. “Then they came to Elim, where there were 12 springs of water and seventy palm trees. There they camped by the water.” Date palms. Sit back and eat dates and drink good water.” One commentator puts it like this – “Often, after the trials and test of a Marah, God has an Elim prepared for his people… Dealing with nothing but Marah day after day would suck the life out of us. Dealing with nothing but Elim day after day would soften us and never stretch us. A healthy combination is, on the one hand having our backs against the wall and learning to trust God, and on the other hand, those days when we feel we are ‘living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky’…” No matter what our circumstance friends, be assured that God is with us, that God heals us, that God invites us into loving communion through the person of his Son and the power and presence of his Spirit. May God make these truths ever more clear to our hearts.