One of the difficulties of preaching, or of speaking of faith in general, is the fact that the truth has a way of being paradoxical. Speak truth, and there is often a counter truth that must be said as well.
Take for instance, those wonderful words of Jesus, “You must turn and become like a little child if you are to enter the kingdom of God.” Intuitively I think we understand what Jesus is getting at. We watch our beautiful little children come up for the children’s sermon every Sunday, and we recognize that they have something we tend to lose in adulthood — that simple-hearted capacity for trust and for wonder, and that extraordinary lack of pretentiousness. Little gems of wisdom are delivered from their lips that seem to come straight from God, such as the time I asked the children what the Holy Spirit was, and five year old Mark answered, “Everybody knows what the holy spirit is!” And I said, O really, what? And he said, “God praying.” It was without question the best definition that I had ever come across for the holy spirit. At moments such as these, we adults feel the urge to take off our shoes because we know we are standing on holy ground.
But alongside of the “turn and become like little children” verse, there is also the necessity of what Paul says in Ephesians about “growing up in every way” in the life of Christ, and our Old Testament story this morning drives this point home.
The Israelites — the children of God — have just been delivered from their brutal captivity to Pharaoh in Egypt by the mighty hand of God, and initially they rejoice as only children can. But now they find themselves in the wilderness, and the wilderness can be tough. Food and water are scarce.
And before long, we see the down side of children. The grumbling, the murmuring, the temper tantrums the blaming. And beneath it all there is the theological question with which the story ends: “Is God among us or not?”
From the point of view of children, the primary image of God is that of Santa Claus. God is the one who gives us what we want. Or God is the perfectly protective parent who will make sure nothing bad ever happens to us.
Out in the wilderness the children are not getting what they want, and the possibility of dying of thirst seems quite real, and the conclusion to be drawn is that “God must not be with us.” And so they become angry with Moses, because apparently he’s a fraud — he isn’t speaking for the real God after all, because the real God wouldn’t let this happen. They know that God is supposed to be leading them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Why, instead, do they find themselves in this place where water and food are so hard to find?
A good question. Why indeed, didn’t God just zip them through to the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey? How come they had to wander in the wilderness for forty years?
Apparently they needed to do some growing up before entering the promised land. (In short order they will arrive at Mt. Sinai where they will be introduced to the concept of a covenant, with the responsibilities that go along with keeping this covenant.)
I got an email this past week from an old high school friend who mentioned that his high school aged son had been getting into some stuff that disturbed his wife and him, and so they had sent their son off to Outward Bound, a month long wilderness program primarily for young people that teaches survival skills, and gives them intimate contact with the wilderness. There are important lessons about life that apparently can only be learned in the wilderness.
As I’ve been writing the “Confirmation Play”, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the spiritual lives of teenagers. It is not uncommon for teenagers to come to question the faith of their childhood, and in certain ways this questioning may be necessary. Inevitably, the primary image of God we grow up with is that of Santa Claus, or God as the parent who never lets bad things happen to us. As a kids grows up, invariably they begin to have experiences that challenge these images, which commonly leads a young person to conclude that there is no God.
George Buttrick, a chaplain at Harvard a couple of generations back, recalls that students would come into his office, plop down on a chair and declare, “I don’t believe in God.” Buttrick would give this disarming reply: “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” And then he would talk about Jesus, the corrective to all our assumptions about God.
As Christians, it all comes back to Jesus, but we easily forget this. Jesus challenges our thinking about God. Yes, he said God is ABBA, a daddy who knows what you need, and time and again he challenged his disciples to trust God and give up their fear. But Jesus is also the one who went to Jerusalem fully knowing that something really bad was going to happen to him there. So if the beloved son could end up crucified, then evidently trusting the Abba God doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to us as well. In fact, sometimes this God we are called to trust will lead us into pain and suffering for the sake of the great love that holds the universe together.
The lesson this morning from Paul’s letter to the Philippians expresses this mysterious Jesus God truth:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.”
Growing up in our faith involves learning how to empty ourselves of our claims for privilege, comfort and worldly success. We often forget that from a human point of view, Jesus was a miserable failure, not a success. Getting nailed to a cross was the epitome of failure in those days.
The question asked by the children of Israel was, is God with us, or not? The witness of Jesus is a resounding yes! but this divine presence comes not in the way we expect. Not as a Santa Claus, or the protective parent, but as one who suffers with us, and invites us to lose ourselves in the love that is seeking to reconcile the world.
It is striking that the lectionary is leading us through the wilderness with the children of God at precisely the same time as we find ourselves in the midst of what is being called the worst economic depression since the Great Depression. We have been brought into this economic wilderness by a culture that encouraged the mantra, “I want, I want, I want” without asking, “Can I afford what I want?” People at the top made grotesque profits based on this mindset — profits that ended up evaporating, taking away the savings of ordinary folk. Ordinary folk, have found themselves in foreclosure because they took out mortgages they couldn’t really afford.
The wilderness has lessons to teach. Just ask anyone who lived through the Great Depression. It was hard, very hard, but it was also a time in which people relearned the trust Paul spoke of: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” It was a time for relearning how to share, to get by with less, and to value what truly is important in life.
This is a time of growing up, and growing up isn’t easy. It is, in fact, a life long process, though we like to think we’ve accomplished it once we’ve finished school. As the children of Israel were getting ready to live in the promised land, we are getting ready to live in heaven, where there is nothing but love.
The wilderness is the place to learn how what it means to love, to trust, and to hope.