The Israelites. God’s chosen people. All they had was His promise, a beautifully crafted promise with the images of milk and honey, expanses of land to call their home, and an unhindered relationship with their Maker.
I wonder if they thought this Promised Land was the beginning of their journey…or the end.
Were they waiting until those first drops of milk and honey touched their tongues to start earnestly worshipping and seeking God in a new way? Did they believe they would find something invigorating in that place that would set in motion a beautiful harmony, a perfect existence that would only draw them closer to their God? Were they standing in Egypt worshipping an empty deity they believed would not be a real and vital part of their lives until Canaan?
Or were they holding on to that promise as their final destination, as that place where everything would just stop and become bliss? Where they would have earned their reward and be placed in honor as God’s people, without another care or worry to haunt the remainder of their days?
Did the Israelites believe they were a people created for Canaan…or that Canaan was created for them?
They were a people who felt lost, a bitter people after awhile. And why shouldn’t they be? Back in Egypt, they knew what life was like. They knew how to worship their God, where to find Him amidst their trouble. They held on to the hope of His promise, of that land flowing with milk and honey. It was a stark contrast to the life they knew, but they could picture it.
Forty years in the desert will change a people. Forty years wandering in the wilderness. Where you swear that you have passed that rock before, probably a dozen times. Where the heat beats down on you day after day until you can’t tell if the sun is rising or setting, or perhaps neither at all. Where beads of sweat pour down your brow and cloud your eyes. Where you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, from where or to where or why. Where God is nothing more than a figment of your imagination because you can hardly hear His promise any more, can hardly imagine a taste of any milk or honey, though there’s plenty of manna and quail to go around. Where you’re so sick of manna and quail that you could puke.
The desert sucks. It is…nowhere. How can you ever hold out hope for a promise of the future when you’re nowhere, stuck in the middle of nothing, and just wandering? Making a nick in the rock every time you pass it to make sure you’re not crazy the next time around, that the hot sun is not playing tricks on your mind.
Yup. It’s the same rock.
We have all been there. Walking in circles, not knowing why. Struggling under the weight of things. Searching for direction. Thinking back to the place we left and longing for its stability. We know in our hearts that it was not what we were created for, that there is nothing back there for us. But we can barely remember the promise we left it all for. We hardly know what it was we thought was out there. We only remember feeling like we had to move, then striking out with purpose only to grow weary and lose it as we pass that same rock, that same bush, that same tree. Watch the same sunset, the same sunrise, the same expanse as nothing seems to change and whatever promise we thought was out there fades into a mirage somewhere between the manna and the quail.
We know the desert. We know the wilderness. We know the wandering.
But were they wandering at all?
Were they not following God, whose constant presence led them in cloud by day and fire by night? Did He not show them the next step, the way to move, how to walk? Did He not feed and care for them?
They were not alone. They were not lost. They simply felt that way. Because they had given up everything they’d known for a promise. That’s all – just a promise. A dream of something better, a deep conviction in their hearts that God would bless them with that milk and honey. They had nothing to go on but His word and that unignorable feeling in their hearts that they were made for something more, that something better awaited them.
They said they were wandering and we believed them. Because we have known that feeling ourselves. But not for a moment were they lost.
They were merely unsettled. A people without a place, but only for a time. A people knowing they could not turn back, knowing that nothing waited in Egypt for them. Nothing valuable, anyway, except perhaps the stability they had come to depend on. The predictability. The routine. Knowing that they heard the faint echoes of the promise, still deep in their hearts, even when they couldn’t remember the exact words or what had been so enticing about it. They were just unsettled – not where they used to be but not yet where they were going. Called, but not fulfilled. Journeying, but not yet arriving.
They felt like they were nowhere, and getting there fast. Or perhaps endlessly dragging out the journey, getting nowhere never.
But they were being led, so they were never wandering. They were simply following, responding as they had been called, going out in pursuit of the promise. Holding onto something unseen. Being hallowed and holied by the journey itself, shaped in the wilderness on the way to Canaan.
Following the Lord by cloud and by fire, forsaking all for the promise – just the promise – of more.