Why the Wilderness? (Exodus 2:11-22)

Brian O'Dea is weighing job offers. He is 52 and trying to find "a legal and legitimate means" to support a wife and child. In response to a classified ad he placed in a Toronto newspaper last month, he got more than 150 communications. Allowing for some that were obvious pranks, O'Dea says he still has several bona fide jobs to consider. "It happens all the time," you say. "People seek, advertise for, and sort out job options. People with skills can get work these days." But I haven't told you everything yet.

O'Dea is just out of jail, after a long career in crime. He served a ten-year term in a Canadian prison for smuggling seventy-five tons of marijuana into the United States. He is using his past as a credential in his quest for legal and legitimate work.

The ad he ran carried this caption: "Former Marijuana Smuggler." It told of his criminal conviction and jail term. "Co-owned and participated in the executive level management of 120 people world-wide in a successful pot-smuggling venture with revenues in excess of US$100 million annually," the ad said. "Expert in all levels of security . . . extensive computer skills . . . well-traveled and speak English, French and Spanish." For references, he sent readers to "friends, family and the U.S. attorney." [1]

A job application that builds on a criminal past? That names one's sins? That implies success in a legitimate venture can stand on a shady past? If you know the stories of several biblical characters, you could begin writings resumes now. Jacob/Israel, Rahab, David, Bathsheba, Saul of Tarsus — the list would be long.

Suppose we try just one. Let's give it this headline: "Criminal Ready to Lead Exodus." The resume would list "excellent education in Egypt's best schools" and could claim "first-hand knowledge of Pharaoh's court and first-name acquaintance with members of his family." At the same time, it would acknowledge a criminal past in which he murdered an Egyptian overseer of slaves. Thus it might refer to a "forty-year exile during which a ‘softie' was toughened up by desert life and taught to survive in the rugged Sinai." Know his name yet? You're right. Moses.

Who could have known that Moses needed forty years of Egypt and forty years of wilderness to be Yahweh's prophet-deliverer? Who indeed — but God himself.

Discipleship Requires Discipline

I fear we've communicated a notion of Christian discipleship that makes it trivial, unimportant, and uninviting. Given the way some people speak of "user-friendly churches," I have to wonder what they mean by it. If they mean accessible, speaking biblical truth in understandable terms, and touching cultures with meaningful acts of compassion, it's all right. If they mean playing to the lowest common denominator and giving up anything that entails repentance, sacrifice, and restraint, it's misleading and false. There is no discipleship without discipline.

Being a church member does not equal being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Disciples get humbled and broken; some church members won't hear to it. Every disciple suffers; I've known church members who walked away rather than do so. Disciples are molded and pruned by life; church members may want nothing more than to have their comfort zones respected.

Church members are notoriously apathetic about following Jesus. They may read Christian books, listen to Christian music, and speak in Christian cliches; those same people may still curse their mates and abuse their children. They are notorious for their conditional loyalty even to the church, much less Christ; they want other people to pay the bills, do the work, and keep them happy. The way to God is through discipleship, and real discipleship is not a carefree stroll from one spiritual high to another but a marathon for which most of us are not prepared.

Moses and Israel in the Desert

What happened to Moses after his unlikely rescue from death by Pharaoh's own daughter? "At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful before God. For three months he was brought up in his father's house; and when he was abandoned, Pharaoh's daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. So Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and deeds" (Acts 7:20-22). Moses would have been at a loss for his ultimate task of confronting Pharaoh, organizing hundreds of thousands of slaves, and going before the Israelite community as its leader. It took forty years in Egypt to give Moses this part of his training.

During that period, he was acutely aware that he was really an Israelite and not an Egyptian. He identified with the oppressed rather than their oppressors. He must have dreamed about rescuing them. He must have envisioned himself as the champion of his people — rallied to and followed by them. So the day came when he thought it was time to act. This is what he did:

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?" He answered, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Then Moses was afraid and thought, "Surely the thing is known." When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, "How is it that you have come back so soon today?" They said, "An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock." He said to his daughters, "Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread." Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. She bore a son, and he named him Gershom; for he said, "I have been an alien residing in a foreign land" (Ex.2:11-22).
Is it mere speculation that Moses had dreamed of leading Israel? Is it presumptuous to see a vision of him as an arrogant man ready to lead God's people before God called him to the task? Hardly. This is from a speech by an early Christian evangelist named Stephen and recorded by the historian Luke:

When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites. When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his kinsfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand (Acts 7:23-25).
Moses was presumptuous. He was running ahead of Yahweh's plan. He "supposed" the Israelites would recognize him as God's instrument of deliverance. But God hadn't called him to that task yet. How crestfallen Moses must have felt in Midian. He had failed to rescue his people. And he had forever taken himself out of the deliverance picture. If the Israelites were to leave Egypt, someone else would have to lead them. But God still had something in mind.

Moses needed a second forty years of training before he could lead an exodus of Israelites. Yahweh had to teach him humility, patience, and simplicity. The Israelites would have been overwhelmed in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula except for the guidance of someone who knew how to deal with that forbidding territory. When would the adopted child of Pharaoh's daughter learn that? Would a prince adopt the life of a nomadic shepherd?

God didn't tell Moses to kill that Egyptian taskmaster. Yahweh didn't drive him into the desert. Yet God did take all the experiences of his life (e.g., parentage, education, Midian, etc.) and put them to use for his purposes on his timetable. The discipline of eighty years was necessary background to the ministry of forty. Moses needed more molding. He needed some things pruned away. He needed to trust less in himself and more in Yahweh.

The Price of Discipleship

What Moses had to learn is what you and I must learn too. There is a price to be paid for anything that is worthwhile. Isn't that one of the hardest lessons for today's parents to teach their children? The value of things? Somehow we must come to understand there is a cost for everything we want.

A student in my ethics class made 36 on his mid-term exam. He came to me distraught and saying he couldn't understand why his grade was so low. "I was told this class would talk about topics like capital punishment and sex and cloning," he said. "So what have we been dealing with in class?" I asked him. "On what subjects have I assigned readings for the class?"

"Yeah," he said, "but that exam was hard. I thought we'd just come in here and share our ideas and . . ."

"No, no, no!" I interrupted him. "That's a bull session or conversation with your roommate. This is an academic exercise in which there are readings, papers, and exams. They aren't the same." He never caught on. He failed the course.

"I want to be an attorney!" says a high school student. But when he finds out that means not only finishing high school but four years of college and three or four more of law school, it isn't nearly so attractive. "I want to play football!" says another. But when he learns about off-season conditioning, practices that take away his after-school hours, and learning plays, he decides it isn't for him after all. "We want a big house filled with nice furniture!" say the newlyweds. They borrow, charge, and pile up a mountain of debt. Then the payments come due — and they find they've had an appetite for steak but only a maccaroni-and-cheese income.

"I want to be a disciple of Christ!" says someone. Then you need to understand that the grace that cost God his Son cannot be cheap for you to receive. In one sense, salvation costs you nothing; in another, it costs you everything. It is God's work to provide, and he has done that at the cross; in receiving it, however, we pledge unreserved devotion to him.

So what will it cost you? I don't know all the specifics, of course, but I can assure you there will be some wilderness time. You will need some pruning and molding. You will need to learn to trust God more than yourself. You will need to grow through the Christ- as-happiness-formula stage of life to the Christ-as-companion-in-struggle understanding of discipleship. There is no automatic joy in following God's lead, and it typically takes you into the wilderness.

In the barren wastes of the wilderness, we are confronted with the grim and harsh realities of our own weaknesses and failings. We come to know ourselves as never before. For many Christians, the wilderness is a place of isolation in which we have the opportunity to identify and confront the hidden sins and fears that threaten to destroy us as people and prevent us from reaching our journey's end.

The wilderness can thus be a place of purification, somewhere we can examine ourselves, face up to our failings, and put things right. It is a place of exile, not a permanent home. It is not where we are meant to be. Yet our wanderings in that place of exile can prepare us for that homecoming, not least in that it gives us a new awareness of how much we long to return home. [2]
Peter used the metaphor of Christians as pilgrims and exiles and wrote this:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name (1 Pet. 4:12-16).

When I was fifteen and in the tenth grade, I played basketball — but had very limited gifts and skills. I was the sixth man on the team at my best. It was great fun. It was hard work. Coach Thompson had us begin practice four days of the week with a hundred laps around the gym floor. For two or three weeks, I could hardly finish and was at the rear of the pack.

Then I got sick on Saturday afternoon. With no doctor in our little town, I was sick for about thirty-six hours before anything was done. To make a long story short, apparently my appendix had been a smoking gun for those two or three weeks and finally burst on Sunday afternoon. After two or three days during which I remember nothing, Dr. Stevenson said, "Young man, all those laps you ran saved your life. If you hadn't been sweating out the poison your appendix was dripping into your body, there is no way you could have survived when it exploded in your belly!"

I wonder how many experiences will have that quality in our spiritual lives when we get to heaven? We'll look back and realize how necessary some time of strain, weakness, and dragging up the rear was to our spiritual survival. A wilderness time got us ready to endure or taught us the true priorities of living.

Do you think Moses understood the meaning of the first two-thirds of his life while he was living them? Not on your life! He has to have been confused. He has to have doubted whether God was even aware of him, much less involved in what was going on. Why keep running laps when what he wanted was to play ball? Why tend sheep in the Sinai when what he wanted was to lead an exodus from Egypt? It became clear later, many years later.

By being forced to rely on [the Lord's] grace more fully, we are being prepared for service to him (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10). In making this spiritual journey, we are not only living out Moses' experience but Christ's as well. Is this not what the writer of Hebrews had in mind? "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). We cannot say that Christ "learned" in the same sense as we do. Nevertheless, there is a tie that binds us to Christ our brother. We, too, learn obedience from what we suffer. The Lord drives us into our desert to conform us to the likeness of his son: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).
Brian O'Dea and Moses both had garbled resumes. Both told of failure, loss of life direction, and even criminal deeds. What a testimony to the sovereignty of God that some of the most unlikely of life-events wind up being credentials! Who knows but that your heaviest burden today or most embarrassing failure from the past will become the very thing that equips you for some task God will need done? Who knows but that your wilderness experience of the moment is precisely what you need to make home seem more desirable, more real? I can guarantee you that God has the power to make any ordeal endured in faith into a victory.

Don't give up. Try not to be too frustrated that you can't see where things are going. Your line of sight on everything happening now will be clearer at the end. Like Moses, you will discover there was no wasted effort, no needless lesson learned, and no forgetfulness on the part of your God. There is a purpose to every wilderness.


[1] Jerry Guidera, "Ex-Marijuana Smuggler Turns Over New Leaf By Touting Trade Skills," The Wall Street Journal (March 14, 2001), p.B1.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Journey (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp.70-71.

[3] Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 91. 


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