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Summer 2019: Places

The Desert
July 21, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: Exodus 16

The town of Saint Catherine, located in the heart of the Sinai desert, is so dry all its water must be piped in from the Nile River over 200 miles away. Its so cold tourists from all over Egypt come there just to see the occasional snow flake. Its so high the town has adopted the tourist friendly tagline, “rooftop of Egypt.” No wonder the Israelites, camped around this mountain after leaving the lushness of the Nile River delta, cry out to God for water, for food. No wonder they wanted to go home.

We spiritually descend from desert people. Abraham, the great spiritual patriarch, leaves his home along the lush Euphrates river and heads south into the deserts around the Dead Sea. When drought makes their desert life impossible they head further south, to Egypt where they settle on the dry edge of the Nile River Delta. Settlement brings slavery. Liberation leads them back into the desert. God promises them a land of their own, a fertile land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But first they must survive the desert.

Sinai’s largest city, El Arish, sits on the Mediterranean coast about midway across the peninsula. Its 160,000 residents enjoy beautiful beaches, balmy temperatures, plentiful fresh water and an abundance of fresh food. El Arish is an ancient city, lying along an ancient road connecting Egypt to the rest of Asia. Had the Israelites taken this road, today a four lane, limited access highway coming to an abrupt stop at the Israeli border, their journey to the promised land would have lasted months instead of years. But God sends them south, into the desert, into the heat and cold, the depravation and starvation. Like Abraham before them they become nomads, moving with the rains, with the grass, seeking life amid the barren hills.

In the summer of 1996 Elisabeth and I packed up a rental truck and made our first sojourn to New York, spending a year in the village of East Hampton, a resort town on the far end of Long Island. Eight years later a truck, this time driven by someone else, delivered our worldly goods to a house on the other end of Long Island. This time we would spend ten years.

Before returning to New York we wondered if living there again would be as hard as it was the first time. In some ways it was harder. We felt alone, out of place, broke, often wishing we could be anywhere, anywhere else. Yet it was in New York Elisabeth discovered herself as a writer and wrote her first novel. It was also in New York where she built a large part of the resume now sustaining her work as a free lance editor. It was in New York I found my bearings as a pastor – first by learning who I was not and then, over time, learning who I was. Eric was born in New York. As much as we came to detest New York, as much as we longed to leave New York once we got there, as hard as we found it, our time in New York shaped us as individuals, as a household, as a family in ways no other place has. New York was our desert.

God sends the Israelites south, into the heart of Sinai, into the heat and cold, into the land of no food and no water, precisely because it was harder. In this land of no roads they would learn to rely on God for direction. In this land of hunger and thirst, they would learn to rely on God for provision. In this land filled with other tribes more militarily skilled and organized then them, they would learn to rely on God for protection. In this land of isolation they would come together as a people, a people shaped by God’s eternal promise: you will be my people and I will be my God. They enter the desert as petrified slaves, following a God they didn’t know to a land they were afraid to possess. They leave the desert as a nation formed in the image of their God. A nation chosen by God to be a sign of hope, of renewal, of life to the rest of the world.

Deserts strip us bare, leave us exposed, make us vulnerable and leave us yearning for salvation. In the desert we meet our deepest, most hidden self – the parts of us we’d rather avoid, the parts of us in need of the deepest healing, the parts of us we’re afraid to acknowledge. In the desert we see our true selves and see how close we are to death. Physical death, emotional death, spiritual death, or all three. We feel the heat radiate from the sand, we feel the hunger in our bodies, the thirst in our mouths, we see the vultures circling   erhead and we are forced to choose. We can choose life, inviting God into our inner space, into our desert, allowing ourselves to be reshaped, rebirthed, born anew from above. Or we can continue wandering through the wasteland.

In the desert we become vulnerable. God uses our vulnerability to break through into the innermost places in our lives, bringing healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes in the course of our spiritual lives we may intentionally seek out the desert. Retreats and pilgrimages, fasting and intense prayer can all create space to examine our true self, face our alienation from God and invite Christ’s gracious rebirth into our lives. Spiritual seekers also continue to flock to the world’s geographic deserts, embracing their desolation in an quest to see and know God in more powerful ways.

More often, however, God leads us into the desert as part of our normal life journeys. Major health scares or the period of mourning after a loved one’s death can become a desert. Times of depression or unemployment or employment in an unsatisfying job or spent putting dreams on hold to care for someone – all these can become deserts. As can the time of searching after retirement or the time spent waiting for death. Any time we find our false selves stripped away and we come face to face with the reality of our true self we’re entering a desert. And there, in our vulnerability, in our hurt and pain, our sense of being lost and alone, God reveals the divine self to us. God shapes us, forms us, heals us, renews us, into the people he’s created us to be.