Into the Desert: Place of Faith

The Desert-2After a series of plagues, pharaoh finally tells the nation of Israel, “Get up! Get away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go!” (Exodus 12:31), and so the people do just that, and they take off.

However, Pharaoh quickly realizes that he is saying goodbye to his free labor force and quickly changes his mind (as dictators occasionally do), so he sends a military force after Moses and the children of Israel. Exodus 14 tells the story of Israel being pinned between the “Sea of Reeds” and Pharaoh’s army. (It’s instructive to remember that the Egyptian army represents the pinnacle of military technical superiority at this point; for Moses and a group of escaped slaves, fighting wasn’t really an option.)

The people understandably freak out, and accuse Moses of leading them to this point only so they can die in the desert. They then ask if they could go back to Egypt (more on these points later), but instead Moses responds to them by saying, “‘Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the LORD rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you. You just keep still.’” Fighting will do know good in this battle; this is something that only God can do.

Then God’s “messenger” appears, first as a cloud, then as darkness falls as a pillar of fire, and we are told that the cloud/fire moves from in front of the camp to behind them, in between Egypt and Israel (14:19-20). At that point Moses stretches out his hand and the sea in front of the nation parts. Exodus 14:22 says very matter-of-factly, “The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.” To be honest, I really don’t know what this must have looked like. I believe that something happened, but I don’t know that it really needed to look like Charlton Heston’s (Cecil B. DeMille’s) version.

Besides, that’s not the point: to me, the point is where the fire was, and where Israel was walking. The text says that this all happened at night, and that the pillar of fire is behind the nation, between them and Egypt. So they are told to start walking, by Moses.

Into—as far as they know—the sea.

When light is behind you, what does it do? It casts a shadow, right in front of you. Where you are stepping.

In other words, the people can’t. See. Anything.

This is what faith looks like.

Going into the desert requires a moment when you finally say, “Okay, I cannot see what’s in front of me, but I am ready to take a step.”

What most of us call “faith” in our world isn’t really faith at all, because most of the time we live comfortably, and can see right in front of us. We “know” what God is up to; we feel safe and secure in our faith, or if we do not we can easily identify the problem and “fix” things.

But occasionally God does something different. When we are called into a true desert to address something deeply meaningful and life-changing, we are called to a moment of “sheer faith,” where we may not be able to see anything ahead of us. In this moment, all we have is knowledge and belief that we are being called through the waters to “something else.” This moment of sheer faith is similar—but not necessarily identical—to the concept of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” when God withdraws His presence in order to call His followers into deeper levels of faith and trust.

In the Exodus moment, there may be an awareness of some kind of “protection” so we can make our walk to freedom, but other than that we are walking in darkness into the unknown. Everything inside us wants to see. We may pray for the fire to come around in front of us so we can have our way lit, but in this case we left with a promise and a call forward. The text says that the land was dry, but Israel wouldn’t have known that until they started walking forward.

And this is just the beginning of the desert!

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One thought on “Into the Desert: Place of Faith

  1. Like any story in scripture, there is much to be said, and it’s particularly true about Moses leading the people out of captivity in Egypt–after all a lot happens in 40+ years. One of the points I think you (Eric) where emphasizing is the need for those who seek to be authentic in their faith to step out sometimes when the reasons/results aren’t known. We-Americans particularly-need to ‘understand’ anything and everything. In discussions about faith and/or belief, I’ve often heard, “If I can just understand…why this happened…what I’m supposed to do…etc…then I’ll believe or trust or forgive. That really seems strange when you consider the stories that come out of the Bible. There are very few examples of people understanding first and then making their decision to follow God.

    We have the God-given ability to choose what we’ll do and what we don’t do. There are several ways I think we make that choice in matter of faith.
    We can tell ourselves that it’s God calling us, and we step out into a lot of unknowns.
    We can wonder if it’s God calling us and search through scripture to see if it ‘fits’ or
    ask friends what they think we should do or maybe just pray about it.
    We can decided it doesn’t make sense and just forget about it.
    We rationalize how we can find a benefit from doing whatever it is, if it shouldn’t work out to be
    God’s call.
    I confess that I’ve done all of these things but the one that first comes to mind is the last one–rationalizing a benefit. When I went to Brite Divinity School at TCU to seek a Master’s in Religious Education, I was told that program was no longer available. Then I was asked if I had ever thought of becoming an ordained minister. Without a seconds thought, I said no, never. That was true; I had never thought of becoming a minister…the options I had growing up were: wife/mother, secretary, nurse or teacher. Even though I had been heavily involved with church and chapel programs, I’d certainly never thought of ministry. And then, I was given a way out if I should want to try it…I was told I could begin the MDiv tract and ‘if it wasn’t what God was calling me to do,’ I could switch to a Master’s of Theological Studies. My first thought, honestly, was that if I did switch it would still benefit me and my faith journey.

    Though my reasoning wasn’t the best, God was very gracious to me in that I experienced affirmation after affirmation as I worked toward an MDiv. It was 83 hours of intense studying and more writing than I had done in my first 50 years of life. But it was good! It was soul-feeding and life enriching! It was deep joy and rich blessing! And then when I began my work as chaplain at a retirement community, it was wonderful gift. God provided a way for my soul to heal after the trauma of my Mother’s early and awful death…I walked with many people who died well and at peace, and I was blessed to be in those holy moments.

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