After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
I have a horrendous sense of direction. I recently got lost visiting a place I’d been to three times before, and I’ve doubled the length of several journeys by taking continuous wrong turnings.
Despite my appalling navigation techniques, however, I have never wandered in the wilderness (and trust me, for the locationally challenged, Central London can very often feel like a wilderness of epic proportions) for more than half an hour. This passage, on the other hand, is at the beginning of the Israelites’ 40 years (though they don’t yet know it) of wilderness wanderings.
Their escape from slavery in Egypt was nothing short of miraculous, and they now find themselves at the beginning of a long journey to the Promised Land. On the edge of the desert, the Israelites must have wondered what was to come.
As Lent begins, it is possible that you – or those around you – are feeling the same: unsure what is to come, uncertain what the future holds, anxious about tomorrow. Maybe you don’t know where God is leading you, or you’re worried that he has, perhaps, left you to wander alone in the ‘wilderness’ – of grief, of fear, of infertility, of unemployment, of sickness.
The Israelites did not know what lay ahead for them, and I’m not sure they would have wanted to, for it wasn’t an easy road. But what they did know was that God was with them. His presence, in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night, accompanied them throughout their wanderings.
It might be easy to think that the Israelites were, in some ways, better off than us. They had a visible sign of God’s presence in the wilderness, and cloud and fire were already regarded as traditional symbols of a divine presence. It must have provided great comfort to them – not only in offering shade from the sun and light in the darkness – to visibly see the presence of God. But as we will see over the next five weeks, journeying through the wilderness with the Israelites, this did not stop their complaints, rebellion, or doubts.
And us? Well, we live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), secure in the promises of God in Christ, and trusting that, even though it may not be physically visible, God’s presence is with us in whatever situation, whatever wilderness, we may find ourselves.