I am notoriously bad with directions. My ability to get lost has amazed and astounded my friends throughout the years. Some of them have found out the hard way that just because I’ve been somewhere before does not mean I know how to get there again. For that matter, just because I’ve gotten somewhere does not mean I know how to get back to where I started.
Once, as a high school student, I went to some sort of nature trail with my youth group. Somehow a friend and I managed to get lost on the nature trail. We knew that the other group members could not be far away. We knew that we were close, oh so close, to a marked trail. And yet there we stood in the middle of a Kansas prairie, unable to see anything but tall grass and distant tree lines. Even though we knew we couldn’t really be that lost, even though there was no real danger of harm, panic began to set in.
That’s the thing about wilderness. It is a frightening space–whether it’s actually dangerous or not. Wilderness is a sort of anti-space where we can’t figure out where we are in relationship to anything that we know. As the ancient Israelites could attest, even a miserable place can seem preferable to this no-place, this unknowing space. In the midst of the physical wilderness, this lack of direction for forty years, the Israelites also experienced a spiritual wilderness. They could not figure out who they were in relationship to those things that they knew most intimately–particularly, they couldn’t figure out their relationship to God.
They praised God and then cursed God. They asked Moses to receive a message from God on their behalf and then they proceeded to make their own god out of melted jewelry. Where was God? What was God like? How were they supposed to be in relationship with God? And what did their covenant with Yahweh mean for their relationships with each other? In this week’s brief story from Numbers, we see God portrayed as provider and denier; as murderer and savior. The ancient Israelites did not know where they stood–literally or figuratively.
Centuries later, we have another Jewish wanderer named Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night. Since this story is in John’s Gospel, we can be pretty sure that “night” here does not refer merely to the time of day–there is spiritual darkness in his life. Nicodemus is looking for a path, a sign, anything to show him where he stands in relation to God. And apparently he thinks that Jesus can help him get his bearings.
In the song “Hard to Get,” Rich Mullins cries out to God: “I can’t see where you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here, where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”
That is the holiness of the wilderness spaces in which we find ourselves. When all we can see is sand or prairie grass; when there is nothing familiar, nothing comfortable; when no directions seem right but none seem necessarily wrong either; when we are utterly and absolutely lost, we might wander for awhile. We might walk in circles for days, or years, or decades.
Eventually, though, by God’s grace, and out of sheer exhaustion, we will let ourselves be led. Eventually we will rest in God’s steadfast love.