As we close in on this final week of Lent, our time in the desert ends where it began: with a paradox. Israel was never more than a few weeks journey away from the Promised Land even though it took them 40 years to get there.
The homeless caravan of God’s people had been traveling about two years when they first arrived at the edge of the Promised Land. Even that journey had been longer than necessary as they traveled in fits and starts around the Sinai Peninsula. But though the people of Israel didn’t know the route they were taking, God did. He had been leading them step by step with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Exodus 13 tells us that God chose not to send Israel on the direct route to the promised land, not because he was trying to torture them. But because he was trying to protect them. They had spent generations in bondage under despotic leadership, and he knew that a battle with the Philistines so soon after their freedom might destroy their spirit, that “the people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17).
Instead, during those first two years of wandering, God embarked on a ministry of healing. He sent his spirit among the people. He met with Moses and gave Israel His law. He provided for them. He rebuked them and corrected them. He was patient with them and forgave them. And he led them, circuitously but deliberately to the land he was going to give them.
As the more than 600,000 Israelites camped in the wilderness of Paran, poised to begin their final march into the Promised Land, Moses sent spies to check out the land. They were to account for the enemies, but they were also to report back on what the land itself was like. The people waited 40 days, and when the spies returned, they brought back samples: clusters of grapes so big two men had to carry them, along with figs and pomegranates.
“We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit,” the spies said. But that wasn’t all. “Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. Amalek is living in the land of the Negev and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the side of the Jordan.”
In other words, the fruit looks great, but the enemies look greater.
Surely God had been right in his assessment of the people; even after two years they didn’t have the heart or the faith to follow God into the battles needed to gain the promised land. Their journey could have ended soon after. They could have marched in, and with God fighting for them, claimed the promised land. It was what Caleb and Joshua, two of the 12 spies, tried to tell them:
“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them” (Numbers 14:7-9).
But instead of following God into the land he’d promised, the Israelites turned back to the Red Sea road they’d just traveled, back to the desert and the wandering. And instead of destroying them as their disobedience deserved, God loved them and forgave them. But he didn’t release them from the consequences of not following him where he led. Because even after God had led them this far, none of the adult generation that had fled Egypt would ever enter Canaan. None but Caleb and Joshua, the only two spies who looked at the Promised Land and saw the presence of God waiting for them.
Every time I rehash this part of Israel’s story, I can’t help but ask, where is God leading me? Not just the direct paths and the straightforward destinations, but the Promised Lands that I’m not yet ready for? The ones that require alternate routes and “unexpected” delays so I won’t turn back out of fear. I also wonder how many Promised Lands I’ve refused to enter and ultimately been kept from: not because God is evil and vindictive but because God is my father and He disciplines those he loves.
Not only is today the final Wednesday of Lent, but this is Holy Week. Sunday we waved palms like the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, and tomorrow is what we know as Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ last supper. After washing his disciples’ feet and sharing a meal, Jesus tries to prepare them for what’s coming and to offer comfort for the pain they’ll experience in the coming days. He tells them he’s going to prepare a place for them and that he’ll come back for them. Then he says something the disciples don’t understand: “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:4-6)
I believe what Jesus was telling his disciples is the same thing God was telling Israel in the desert, and it’s the same thing I think he wants us to remember too: getting to know God and discovering where he’s leading us are the same thing. When we trust him, we follow him. And where he’s leading us is always closer to his presence.
So where is God leading us as we find our way out of this Lenten desert just in time for Easter? He’s first leading us to the cross, to the fellowship of his suffering. At the cross, we can leave all our fears and failures, all the promised lands we missed because we refused to follow God along the way he was leading. But we can leave more than that: we also can leave our idolatry and immorality. Our grumbling and complaining. At the cross, God has forgiven us for all the ways the desert showed us we’ve failed.
But God is not only leading us to the cross. He’s also leading us to the empty tomb, where once again we experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. This is the miracle of miracles, the ultimate provision, and the only Way we ever really need to go.
This is the end of our journey, friends. Our desert wondering ends with the empty tomb. The Risen Christ is our Promised Land.
Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.