A Second Desert

This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org

By Bryce McDonald ’21. Bryce is a philosophy concentrator in Leverett House

Exodus 33:1-6

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’”So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.”

Today’s reading shows us an unfamiliar side to God. He tells his people, the Israelites, that they should proceed to the bountiful land which he had promised long before to their ancestor Abraham. He warns them, however, that he might not be there with them the entire way. Due to their constant evildoing, he would have to destroy them if he had to witness their sin in his presence. Not easy to swallow.

As Christians, we too are on the road to the promised land. Though the promised land of Israel was simply a shadow of the things to come (Colossians 2:17), their journey was set in writing for the sake of those traveling the narrow road to the eternal promised land of heaven, which is the state of every Christian in the present age. This journey through the desert is especially relevant to us as we contemplate during the season of Lent the forty day journey which Jesus made in the desert as he was tempted by Satan, and the long journey he up made to Jerusalem, knowing fully well that a horrible death would await him there. This time, however, God has promised to travel with us. Hebrews 10:19 tells us that now, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.”

Nevertheless, like the Israelites, we are a stiff-necked people. At every stage in the Old Testament, we are deceiving ourselves if we read about the evil of the Israelites and believe that we would do otherwise in that situation. We must read ourselves into the story, and usually into the worst characters, in order to accurately apply Scripture to our lives. Thus, if we could approach God only by the merit of our actions, he would have to destroy us too, before we could see him face-to-face.

Lent is not about feeling excessive melancholy or undue misery. It is a time for realistic evaluation of our debased condition, especially as we were when God found us in the gutter, picked us up, washed us off, and told us he would now see us as though we had lived the perfect life Jesus did (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Lent is an occasion to “take off our ornaments” along with the Israelites, when they realized the true extent of their depravity. In exchange, we should put on the garments of humility, of constant vigilance against the deep-rooted sin in our lives—the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Model for non-Christians the humble spirit which Christ showed by being tempted as a frail human for thirty years on Earth. When they see the openness which you show to admit your own sin, they are one step closer to recognizing their own shortcomings, and turning to God for healing. This was always the intended conclusion to the season of Lent.

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