The first lesson we need to learn from Israel's journey from the desert of Sinai to the desert of Paran is that there is a distinguishable difference between deserts. If there were not, the Scriptures would simply tell us that Israel remained in "the desert."
This is something that sneaks right past most of us. To us, a desert is a desert is a desert. We live in a world of black and white when it comes to God - favored or not favored, blessed or not blessed, desert or Promised Land.
But that's simply not the testimony of this journey in Numbers. There is clearly a difference between deserts; there is something that sets apart the desert of Sinai from the desert of Paran (and later, if you keep reading, the desert of Zin). And what is this something?
We cannot afford to overlook this. Later on in their journey, and even beyond that as they settle into the Promised Land and struggle through exile, Israel is able to remember the different scenes of their Exodus journey not only by the deserts, but by the mountains. Hey, do ya'll remember that time in Sinai when....? And then when we were at Paran, there was that....?
They do not say, Gosh, ya'll remember those forty years we were in the desert? No. It's never the desert; it's the specific desert - the desert at the foot of a certain mountain.
The same is true for us if we're paying attention. Most of us just feel our wandering, our lostness, our wilderness. Most of us focus so much on the desert that we don't see the mountain. And then one desert looks like another looks like another until there is just for us one: desert. But the truth is that most of us don't stay in one desert for such extended periods of time. Our deserts are changing.
Because our mountains are changing.
Talk to anyone who feels like life is just "one thing after another" and we can see this plainly. They're stuck in the desert without recognizing their mountains. They have gone from health scare to job loss to foreclosure to relationship stress to rebellious children to falling away to...you name it. And with eyes locked on the dirt and the dust, they haven't realized what God has done in each of these places; it all feels like the same place.
But if we take the time to look up and see what the mountains are in this desert, we start to develop a different perspective on things. Look up at the mountain of health and the desert is the scare. It's hard. It's no fun. It's a wasteland. But when the health scare passes, when the diagnosis comes, when the healing is setting in and taking place...and there's still another desert, we have to learn to look up again and see what this mountain is. Is this the mountain of a job? Fantastic!
That doesn't sound like the answer most of us would give, but here's why it's so crucial: when you recognize that your mountains are different, you recognize that your deserts are different, and you are able to remember what God did you for at the last one. If you never look up and realize that you're in a different place, you spend your whole life waiting for God to do something, and you miss all the things that He's already done.
If you make it through the desert of a health scare, God has done something for you. He has provided in the desert in some way, shape, or form. If you then find yourself in a different desert but you do not distinguish between the two, it's easy to think that God hasn't done anything at all. Life just keeps piling up, and God is nowhere to be found. But if you are able to recognize that this is a different mountain, then you are able to turn and look at the mountain God just moved (and moved you from) and say, okay, God has done something. He did something there, and He will do something here.
It's not easy. Even Israel struggled, quite often, to keep believing in God in a new desert. But at least they were building chapters into their stories. At least they were able, when reminded, to see what God had done in one place and to recognize that this was not quite the same place. There was something new about Paran, about Zin; this was no Sinai. Yet they never long forgot Sinai, either.
We have to be willing to do the same. Even if it's hard. Even if we don't get it quite right. We have to be willing to see and to understand that our stories are being told in chapters, that our deserts are on the move and even though a desert seems like a desert seems like a desert, the mountains that define them are different. And herein lies the key to discovering God.
For He does move mountains.
That just doesn't mean there's not another one just around the corner.