Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.” – Numbers 10:35
When I was a boy of loved nothing more than to find some wooded lot, an intown wilderness, and get lost for hours exploring every part of it. Near my house was a place my friends and I used to call the dirt hills. It was probably a good 20 acres or so, just right for boys to play in. We’d ride our bikes over there and spend hours getting lost and then finding our way back out again. It probably looks foolish now, but back then it was something that was spectacularly wonderful. They’ve turned the dirt hills into a subdivision now…I really hate that.
The Hebrew name for the book of numbers is Bamidbar, “in the desert” or simply wilderness. The wilderness is a vastly important concept in the Bible. Adam and Eve are sent out from the garden into the wilderness. Noah finds the wilderness on the high seas. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all find themselves in their own wildernesses. Moses receives his call to lead the Hebrews into freedom while out in the Wilderness. We’re only at the start of the second book of the Bible with this whole wilderness theme and haven’t even covered Elijah or Jesus or Paul; all who had profound wilderness experiences…and there’s more too, but you’ll just have to discover those another time.
In the wilderness things get real, they get real in a way that they simply cannot in places that aren’t wilderness. The book of Numbers, or perhaps we should just call it the book of Wilderness, is a great read. The first half of the book finds the Hebrews still camped out at the base of Mount Sinai. They are preparing to leave and make their final journey to the promised land. people are being counted…that’s why we call the book Numbers by the way, due to all the lists of counted and numbered people. That in itself should give us a bit of comfort, each counted person, each number that we read is a person…a living, breathing, real live person. Each one of those numbers matters to God! Even still today, amid the vast numbers of persons walking the globe…you matter to God. You, that singular, living, breathing real live person matters to God. In addition to all of this counting instructions are being given on how they are to live. Who does what; who camps where; who is responsible for which item. All have a part to play, all have a roll to live out. The first half of the book is the story of great blessing for people who live under the ever watchful and blessed care of the Lord God Almighty.
In the second half of the book we get a different story. The Hebrew people are on their way…but they aren’t doing such a good job of joyfully living in God’s blessing. There’s murmuring and infighting. Faithlessness and struggles. At times it can seem a bit like, dare I say, a church. The Hebrews could enter into the promised land quickly…but do to their shortfalls at living within God’s blessing and protection they are called to wander through this wilderness for far longer. Entering into the land of promise will be for those who come after them…not for them.
Still, there is this verse. The Hebrew’s have been given the ark of God. It doesn’t simply represent God for them…it doesn’t remind them of God. The ark is the very presence of God and his power in their midst. As they go, no matter if it is living joyfully in God’s blessings or in faithlessness, God goes with them. He goes with them to guide them and to protect them, to scatter all those who oppose them or who stand as obstacles in their way. God goes with them in this wilderness…and as they journey through it the wilderness mixed with God’s presence does what it does best…forms these people into God’s people. It’s in the wilderness, accompanied by God’s presence that these people come to know who they are…and more importantly whose they are.
We too find ourselves in the wilderness. It might be the urban jungle, or the country, or a bona fide wilderness. Never the less, wherever you are you are in the wilderness. Yet always there is God, present with us. He’s there in his word; there when we gather with other Christians; there in prayer; in sacrament; there in life together with us. As you go along this wilderness way that is laid out before you know that God is there with you scattering that which stands in your way and toppling that which opposes you. And its here, throughout this journey that you learn who you are…and whose you are. You are God’s and he’s with you…in the wilderness.