Every year, students’ lives follow the same circular pattern - classes for a few months sprinkled with sweet little days off, a healthy couple of weeks off for the holidays, another few months of school work, then the all too glorious months of summertime.
It splits into four pretty distinct parts like that. And we’ve been doing this year after year for almost our entire lives. But we’re always, always surprised by how quickly they go by.
So take the end of the school year for example. The last couple of weeks you can hardly stay seated at the excitement of MONTHS off classes. I’ve seen school hallways turn to dangerous anarchy from sheer excitement. And once it’s there, you can breathe with sweet relief. And then we get into a routine at home, whether that’s working 9-5 or it’s working 2 hour shifts on Saturdays or it’s pretending you’re going to be productive right after this marathon of Seinfeld is over. But the best part about summer is that every day can hold new possibilities - all your free time can hold whatever you choose, and you have about 90 days worth of it. And if you’re anything like me, you even get to a point where you miss school a little bit. Not necessarily the work, but maybe the people or the sense of purpose. Or maybe you don’t.
But isn’t it incredible how on that last day in late August or early September, you look back and you think, “Did the whole summer really just go by?”
And then we think, “Did freshman year really just go by?”
And then we think, “Did high school really just go by?”
When we’re there, going day by day, assignment by assignment, episode by episode of Seinfeld, it’s real and full and time is tangible. But we lose our sense of what time means very quickly. And every year we are surprised by how time works, like we haven’t been following it’s rules for our entire existence.
For example, as Christians (or Jews) you hear a lot about the 40 years Israel spent wandering the desert. But we don’t really feel that. We’re so far gone, so far past that - that “40” is just a number. The book of numbers could tell us how Israel spent a billiondy gajillion years in the desert and we wouldn’t blink an eye. Except for the use of “a billiondy gajillion”.
So in Numbers 33, our author tries to make us get it. Here is Numbers 33:10-21:
10 They left Elim and camped by the Red Sea.
11 They left the Red Sea and camped in the Desert of Sin.
12 They left the Desert of Sin and camped at Dophkah.
13 They left Dophkah and camped at Alush.
14 They left Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.
15 They left Rephidim and camped in the Desert of Sinai.
16 They left the Desert of Sinai and camped at Kibroth Hattaavah.
17 They left Kibroth Hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth.
18 They left Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah.
19 They left Rithmah and camped at Rimmon Perez.
20 They left Rimmon Perez and camped at Libnah.
21 They left Libnah and camped at Rissah.
Honestly, it’s kind of terrible to read. This list actually continues from Numbers 33:3 all the way to verse 49. I get two verses into that and need a nap.
But do you see what’s happening?
At each of these places, the Israelites moved in, set up camp, set up their tents and their altars and their families. Then they lived there for days or weeks or maybe months. They ate and talked and worshiped and played and bathed and lived. At Kibroth Hattavah they did all these things. Then they packed them all up again and left. Then went to Hazeroth. And unpacked. And stayed. And packed. And left.
This was real for them. This wasn’t a story that could be skimmed through or skipped, it wasn’t a number like 40. This was their day to day lives. For 40 years. It must have felt like forever. And don’t forget that they are in a desert. Again, don’t be numb to it. They walked through the sand, the sun beat on their backs, they trudged along looking for the promised land with dry mouths and salty skin. For 40 years.
But in the midst of that long, drawn out terror they experienced some of the biggest miracles in the bible. God rained down food on them. It says they woke up to the bread (mana) sitting on the ground like the morning dew. And when they worried of having no water, twice God used Moses to bring forth water from a rock. A rock. And it says that every day God showed himself to them in a pillar of cloud and at night a pillar of fire so that they would always know where to go. A PILLAR OF FIRE.
But in the middle of that, in the middle of their years and years and years in the desert, they missed it. They complained about the bread and got used to the fire pillars said they wished they were back in Egypt, back in slavery.
It took me a while to see it, but we’re Israel. Me and you. We are God’s people. And there are sometimes (or plenty of times) when I feel like I am struggling. We’re egged on by promises of God’s ultimate plan, of a light at the end of the tunnel. But those come from the outside, where my struggle is a number and a list. From in here, it’s real. It hurts. It beats down on our backs as we do our best to put one foot in front of the other.
But God is with us the whole time. That’s the bible in a nutshell - God has been with us all along. I can promise you if you take a look back, and look hard, you’ll see that he’s sustaining you. He’s sustaining me. He’s raining bread on us like rain, he’s giving us water from the driest of rocks. We just sometimes have to really look to see it.
And in the end, the Israelites make it. They get to the promised land. But not all of them. Not most of them. They become impatient and turn their backs on Him who has been nothing but faithful. And so they don’t make it, not even Moses himself, because they could not manage to find it in themselves to trust even the God of the Universe in such dire circumstances.
So what does that mean? First, it shows he’s the only way out. Yeah sure, if they picked a straight line and kept walking, they would get out of that desert. But they wouldn’t end up where God promised they would. They may have even ended up somewhere worse than the desert.
Second, we have to, have to, be patient. Have you been in your desert for 40 years? Maybe not. But let this story be a testimony to God’s faithfulness. If he could be faithful to a group of Israelites who complained and cursed him and sought other gods and asked for better miracle food, if he could be faithful to them for 40 years, he will be faithful to you.
He will give you the energy you need, each and every morning, as plentiful as the dew on the ground. He will sustain you and show you life, even from the ugliest and most unlikely of places. And he will always, in some strange way or another, point you toward the promised land.
You just have to follow him.