Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” – Exodus 15:22-24
Back in the 1980’s there was a popular movie called “Vacation” staring Chevy Chase. It chronicled the Griswald family vacation as they journeyed across the United States to an amusement park called Wally World. Of course a movie wouldn’t have much appeal if it was a simple A to Z sort of journey. This story includes the wrong ugly station wagon (is there another kind?), teenagers embarrassed by their un-cool parents (is there another kind?), visits with strange cousins Catherine and Eddie, the unwanted travelling addition of Aunt Edna (who has the nerve of dying on the trip), the cruel death of a dog and when they finally arrive at Wally World, wouldn’t you know.. it’s closed. Only a movie can make any of these things funny, in reality these events would make us cry.
The Israelite journey sometimes reminds me of the Griswald family vacations in that it often has a “if it can go wrong, it will” sort of feel to it. But because it isn’t a movie, it isn’t that funny. Consider the Israelite journey leading to Exodus 15:
God calls Abram out of comfort to be a nomad. – Abram and Sarah have to wait a century for children. – A re-enforced a barrenness plan is thrust upon subsequent generations. – The lying twin named Jacob with a reputation for crooked choices is the chosen one. – The family is saved from famine through Egyptian enemies. – Salvation eventually turns into slavery through an Egyptian pyramid scheme (okay I couldn’t resist sliding that in) – God listens to the cries of the people and raises up a heroic leader named Moses. – Powerful plagues give witness to God’s control over creation. – The people are freed from slavery and they walk through the Red Sea on dry ground. – The people party like it’s 1446 BC.
And so they begin to make their way to the Promised land. Three days later…3 days…and they begin to grumble about a lack of food. If you consider what they’ve just witnessed it seems unbelievable. Over the course of their wilderness journey we read in Exodus that the Israelites grumbled at least 19 times, 5 of those times in the first month after they walked through the Red Sea. They are such a bunch of ungrateful, short sighted, egotistical, and selfish people.
Except that none of us are ready to call them that are we? For we know we are a people who can wake up in the morning to a ray of sunshine, but when our toast burns we’re already mumbling about a crummy start to our day. We get to study in world class universities, but an 8 o’clock class has us cursing the schedule maker. Our kids can play happily for an hour, but in the one-minute that they choose to go in the forbidden cupboard, we let out an exasperated yelp of frustration because “you kids never listen!” And these are only the day-to-day matters. What about when it comes to weightier matters of faith and life. We can have freedom to come and go as we please and live a lifestyle that is by most standards around the world abundantly rich, yet when the stock market dips we feel hard done by. We can have perfect health for fifty years and then when there is a medical hiccup we wonder why God would let this happen. Short-sightedness is not just an eye problem but a heart and soul problem, and it wasn’t a disease that only infected the ancient Israelites, it affects all of us today. When we hear the people grumble and complain at the waters of Marah, which means bitter, the reaction we should have is not one of self-righteousness, but rather it should humble us because we are looking in a mirror. And sometimes we need to take a good look so that we are aware of just how ugly we can be.
It’s a good thing that no one in the Israelite camp had their own GPS tracking device because if they would have plugged in the coordinates of the Promised Land they likely would have been driven crazy by the little voice that says, “re-calculating.” God’s takes them on a path through the wilderness that is not the easy route between Egypt and the Promised Land. This tends to frustrate not only the Israelites, but we today as well, for we all tend to want to take the path of least resistance, the one that we can makes sense of, the one that we can control. But our way “home” through the wilderness always seems aimed at getting us to let go of personal control.
The season of advent is a season in which we long for a perfect world, a beautiful place, we long for God to make all things right. But we long for it because we very much understand that we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert. We have days where it is so hot that you could fry an egg on our back, it’s so dusty you can taste it, our feet have blisters, our kids want to know how much further we have to go, and did we mention that it’s hot? Our spouse doesn’t want to stop and ask for directions, the same diet of bread is getting old, the group in front of us has a nasty digestion problem, if you know what I mean, and did I mention that it’s really hot? Yes we know what it means to walk the desert journey and we can find lots of things to complain about. But advent is a time to remember that God’s ways and God’s timing are not ours. God’s journey…get this…includes using a baby to transform the world. Babies cry, they need diaper changes, they sleep a lot (you hope), and they need constant care. A baby is not a neat, clean, tidy and efficient way to redeem the world…but we know that eventually this baby shows what true life is all about…but that story takes time, it takes a lifetime. And the baby needs to learn to walk before it can run. And so do we.