Tommy and I recently got hooked on one of those ridiculous reality wilderness shows. In this particular version people are given approximately 30 minutes of survival training and then left (to die in my opinion) in the middle of Alaska. They start out as a crew of 25 and each person receives GPS “panic button” device. At any point, if they want to give up, they push the button and a helicopter appears seemingly out of nowhere and whisks them away (to the hospital usually). Um no. This is not the life for me.
Since moving to Idaho, we have had two wildly unsuccessful camping trips. On one of those trips, we actually came home a day early. In our defense, JoJo was really small and I was pregnant with morning sickness with Baby #2, but still. It’s pretty lame, I know. When we stopped at a pizza place on the way home and I got to use a real bathroom, as I lovingly caressed the toilet paper and got teary-eyed at the sight of running water, I was reminded that wilderness is not the place for me. Get real, when the power goes out for more than 10 minutes or so, I think, I cannot live like this. Send help.
But, many people feel differently about the wilderness. Many cultures recognize how formational time in the wilderness can be. In the aboriginal people groups of Australia, young male adolescents have traditionally gone on what are called “walkabouts,” journeys into the outback for as long as 6 months in order to make the “spiritual and traditional transition to adulthood” because they recognize the value in encountering the wilderness and coming out on the other side transformed.
There is something to be said about experiencing the hard reality of the wilderness, the deprivation, the struggle, the insecurity, and triumph. Wilderness is formational.
The wilderness plays an important role in the story of God. In Exodus, following God’s radical deliverance of the people of God from Egyptian rule, God brings them through the Red Sea, into the wilderness for a lengthy period of time, a 40-year long walkabout you might say. As many other preachers have said before me: it only took a moment to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but it would take 40 years to get the Egypt out of them.
Those 40 years reshaped them, transforming their minds and hearts from those of slaves immersed in a pagan culture with dozens of gods, to a free people solely devoted to following after the one true God. It was a new beginning, a fresh start, a blank slate on which God could write their new name: My People. It was a time of testing, of them testing God asking time and again, Will you keep your word? Will you provide? But also a time of testing for them as God tested them repeatedly asking, Do you love me? Will you follow me? Do you trust me? It was a time of preparation, to make them into a people who would be a light to the world, in order that all nations might come to know God through them. Wilderness is formational. It’s difficult, and unsettling, and disorienting but it has the power to transform, and to bind hearts together.
The people of Israel emerge from the wilderness transformed, united to God in a deep way. In Deuteronomy, right before they finally at long last enter the promise land, Moses speaks to the people and calls to remember the wilderness. Do not forget the journey, how God reshaped and reformed you into this people, how he worked the Egypt out from under your fingernails and set you free to be wholly his.
Do not forget. Remember. Remember who you are, remember whose you are.
But…we’re a forgetful bunch. Israel forgot within a generation. That precious fellowship they had with God from their hard fought journey in the wilderness? From lack of care and attention, the bond frayed like an old rope.
In Hosea, God cries out for his estranged beloved and declares, “Therefore, I will now persuade her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”
Into the wilderness? The place of danger and scorpions and scarcity? Well yes, but also: the Wilderness, the place of hope, of new beginnings, of cleansing, and testing, of reaffirmation of vows and renewal of commitments. When the excess and distraction of life is stripped away, when it’s just God and his beloved in the wilderness, perhaps then a new path forward can be forged. Wilderness is formational.
The call of the Lenten season is a call to the wilderness. We, like Israel, are a forgetful people. In the noise and chaos and hustle of our lives, we forget the God who calls us by name. We look down at our hands and realize the dirt of idolatry, rebellion, and apathy has worked its way under out fingernails.
As a husband and wife find themselves holding the frayed ends of the rope of their marriage, wondering how they got here, wondering how the stuff of the ordinary somehow wormed its way between them, increasing the distance ever so slowly, so too, we pause for a moment during this Lenten season and reflect on the bond between us and God, and perhaps find ourselves holding the frayed ends of a rope, wondering how we got to this place? So far, so cold, so disconnected.
But, that is not the final verdict. As God used wilderness to work Egypt out from under the nails of Israel, so too God uses it to get idolatry out from under ours.
As God used wilderness to work Egypt out from under the nails of Israel, so too God uses it to get idolatry out from under ours.
God is calling, calling us to the wilderness, to set aside the excess, the distraction, the noise. He is calling us to come out, “Come out my beloved into the wilderness. Let me remind you who I am, your gracious, forgiving, providing Savior. And let me remind you who you are: my beloved, my creation, called to join me in my good work in the world. Come out to me, come out to the wilderness and let me show myself faithful. Let me clean out the dirt of sin from under your fingernails and set your free to be wholly mine.”
This season of Lent, the call has been extended: to enter the wilderness, to repent, to turn from sin and turn to Jesus. It is a call to be reshaped by the gentle hands of God. It is a call to hope, to a new beginning. It is a call to say yes to God’s preparing work in your life, that you might be ready for what comes next, to join God’s mission of redemption right where you are.
The wilderness is uncomfortable, no doubt. It is dry and dusty and unrelenting. But the wilderness is formational, if we allow God to reshape into who is he is calling us to be, New Creation People. Come out, beloved. Come out to the wilderness.