Shimmering white sands for miles. Mountain silhouettes in the distance.
I was finally visiting the place I’d admired on Instagram and through internet searches. The glory and mystery of White Sands National Monument was a sight to see. And I was eager to explore it.
The Bard trio hit the sands, and I was at the head of the pack in search of the perfect place to sled the rolling dunes.
We followed the trail markers for less than a mile and all the warnings at the park entrance started to make sense. You could easily get lost out here. The charm of the white sands could lure you in and deceive you if you weren’t careful. A string of missteps and this playground could morph into a wilderness.
Fortunately, we didn’t get too far off-trail and had a blast. But I tell you this story to set the scene for a greater story—and one I think you and I can both identify with. A story about slavery and freedom and wandering and a good God in the midst of it all.
Today I invite you along the ancient path of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. It’s here—in their wilderness—that I recognized I was in the middle of my own. It’s here in their wilderness that we can see the beauty of God in the wasteland.
In this desert, we moderns and the ancients can empathize regardless of time or space to see that God delivers, dwells, distinguishes, and directs His people in the wilderness.
God delivers His people through the wilderness.
You’re probably familiar with this story. Years after a season of fruitfulness in Egypt, the people of God are despised. Just as God promised, they’ve grown more numerous than the stars and sands and they were now a threat—or so Pharaoh thought.
“The Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country […] But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites…” -Exodus 1:9, 10, 12
Forced into backbreaking labor for the King of Egypt, Israel needed an escape from bondage. Ten plagues and a parted sea later, God delivered them from slavery and brought them into the wilderness.
Little did they know that the long, desert way was for their good. The journey through blazing heat by day and bone-chilling cold by night were God’s grace and kindness sparing them from other enemies until they were ready for battle (Exodus 13:17).
God dwells with His people in the wilderness.
As Matt Chandler would say, “God draws us out to draw us in.” It’s in the wilderness that God reveals His presence with His people.
It starts with a cloud by day and fire by night—both crafted to protect God’s people from the cruelty of the desert. The story continues with the building of the tabernacle, more commonly called the “tent of meeting” that is evidence of the “with us” nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” -Exodus 29:45-46
Exodus closes with Moses outside of the tent, but Leviticus opens with Israel’s leader entering the tent again. God is committed to walking among His people, and He was just warming up to reveal how He’d make that possible (Leviticus 26:12).
God distinguishes His people in the wilderness.
The descendants of Abraham would bless all people on earth (Genesis 12:3). As God declares “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” He is echoing a promise made long before Egypt and long before their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 19:6).
They would be a kingdom full of priests mediating between man and God. They would be a holy nation reflecting the very nature of the one true God. Ten commandments, sacrifices, food and purity laws, festivals, all of it lined out in great detail, were marks of God’s people distinguishing them from the rest of the world. And they weren’t intended to condemn the latter but to deliver them too. To bring them into the dwelling presence of the Lord.
“You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” -Leviticus 20:26
Israel’s story of deliverance was out. It was known that the all-powerful God was with them. And their set-apart culture left no question that they belonged to Him. Yahweh gave His people their identity in the middle of the wandering.
God directs His people in the wilderness.
The people wandered, but not aimlessly, even though they often questioned that last sentiment. They were headed to a land that was promised, but the road trip went wrong—or so they thought. A two-week trip took over 40 years as they imperfectly followed God’s lead through the wilderness of Sinai, Paran, and Moab.
“In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all of their travels.” -Exodus 40:36-38
If there’s one lesson that seemed to mostly stick with Israel in their wanderings, it’s that they weren’t willing to move unless God was at the lead.
They wanted to go back to bondage. They grumbled. They questioned God’s goodness. They worshipped idols. They disregarded His holiness. They tried to overthrow leadership.
But they didn’t move unless He led.
I tend to be a lot like them. I often want the comforts of shackles over the unknowns of freedom. I often complain. I often have a running list of “whys?”. I often love created things over the Creator. I often forget I need to be made clean. I often resist authority.
But I don’t want to go unless He’s leading me.
What if the wilderness is actually a road trip gone right?
If you’re still with me, I want to tell you a story of another Bard family adventure.
Mom and I were in route to a swim meet in Austin, Texas—only a two-hour trip from our hometown. This was before Garmin and Siri and Google Maps, so we were navigating with the old-fashioned help of MapQuest and an Atlas.
Aerosmith and Elvis blasted through the speakers and all was going well, until it wasn’t.
Five hours later we were curving through rolling hills instead of fighting the infamous I-35 traffic. I was certain we were lost. Mom was certain we were on an “adventure.” We slid into the pool parking lot just in time for me to get a quick dip in the water before race day.
Days later, I’d go on to swim some of the best races of my life. What started out as a road trip gone wrong turned out to be a road trip gone just right.
I think the same can be said for our wilderness days.
Maybe the wilderness isn’t really a road trip gone horribly wrong. Maybe it’s actually the scenic route God uses to remind us of His miraculous deliverance, dwelling presence, distinguishing marks, and perfect direction. Maybe it’s a hard journey filled with other travelers who are wrestling with some of the same things. Maybe our time in the wilderness is designed to give us greater delight in who God is and what it means to be one of His own.
Maybe He uses the wilderness to draw us in. Maybe He uses the wilderness to show us He makes life flow in the most unexpected places.
“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her […] See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Hosea 2:14, Isaiah 43:19).
The Promised Land came. The Promised Land is coming. Take courage, dear heart.