Hope in the Wilderness

Exodus 17: 1-7

At the beginning of Exodus, the Israelite people seek refuge and safety in Egypt. They live there peacefully for years, but by Chapter 17, the Israelites are on the move again. This time fleeing Pharaoh, who has enslaved them on the basis that they are foreigners in his land. 

With dry mouths and blistered skin, the Israelites follow Moses through the desert. They are free from Pharaoh, but now they find themselves subject to the elements of the desert. And they find themselves at the will of another leader claiming divine direction.

As they journey through the heat of the desert, the people begin to grumble.

They are hungry, thirsty, and growing impatient. So much so that they consider turning back. Willing to live under Pharaoh’s rule if it means a reprieve from their desperation.

When they ran from Pharoah’s army, God parted the sea. As their bellies growled with hunger, grain rained down from the sky. And when their thirst convinced them that death was around the corner, Moses’ staff brought a wellspring of water from a rock. 

Yet after all of this, the Israelites still asked, “is God among us or not?”

As we read today’s text let us wonder together, why do the Israelites struggle to trust God?

In their book “What Happened to You?,” Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry discuss the ways that our brain processes trauma. Dr. Perry explains that our brain has four parts that process what we experience in the world. The first automatically interprets and responds to sensations like taste, smell, and touch. And the final part to process information is our cortex, the rational part of our brain.

They continue by pointing out that this process affects the way that messages of safety are communicated from person to person. Fear, frustration, anger, and memories of past trauma shut down the “smart” part of the brain and messages of safety cannot be received. 

As a people who had experienced displacement before, the Israelites may have associated their escape from Egypt with their traumatic history. Even though God continued to provide and Moses had proved his integrity more than once, their thinking brains were not online and they struggled to trust God. 

Later in their discussion, Dr. Perry says that “being connected is the most efficient way to get information up to the cortex.” He says, “In order to communicate rationally and successfully with anyone, you have to make sure they’re regulated, make sure they feel a relationship with you.”

In our text for today, when the Israelites function out of a place of fear, God responds with connection rather than punishment. God ensures them that they are not alone and equips Moses to lead them. 

In reality, it doesn’t matter how many times we experience God’s grace, God’s power, and God’s love and goodness in this world. We will still have momentary lapses in memory when we are struggling. And like the Israelites, our unhealed trauma can keep us from trusting that God is among us. 

But today’s story makes it evident that God is willing to be with us when we trust and to be there when we are wandering in the desert asking “God, where are you?” 

At this point in the Christian calendar, we find ourselves in the wilderness of Lent. And even though we know the outcome of Easter, it often feels like the story ends on Good Friday.

Like the Israelites, we have an empire trying to convince us that the promises of God are nothing more than a pipe dream. That a world in which everyone is restored to community and fullness is not something we should count on. 

But God invites us over and over again into the embrace of community, where we can begin to heal and bring our thinking brains back online. Where we can let our divine imaginations wander. 

As the Church, may we curate spaces of safety and connection. May we create spaces to quarrel with God. May we give each other permission to question what God is doing as we traverse the desert. And may we remind each other of all that God has done, is doing and will do to fulfill God’s promises.