For the sake of a short lesson, I’d like to use Israel while in the wilderness as an allegory of the Christian life.

Now – when you picture that forty-year national meandering, do you picture that “wilderness” as a “desert?” If you do, you need to understand that is not necessarily accurate. Some of Israel’s travels may have crossed deserts, but not all of it. “Wilderness” simply meant some sort of wild, untamed territory. Most people hear the word “desert” and think of a barren, sweltering, uninhabitable, hostile place. And spiritually, a desert might be a place of confused wandering, testing, isolation, dryness and delay. There is some truth in these thoughts, but there is much more – and some of those truths are positive.

The word “desert” is not particularly common in the Bible; it is found only 41 times. Far more common is that other word: “wilderness.” But in the Old Testament they both are translations of the same Hebrew word. “Wilderness” is found nearly 300 times in our Bibles, mostly in the early histories. Some of those references are generic, but more often we have specific references, like the “wilderness of SINAI,” and as it is in our text, “the wilderness of the RED SEA.”

Let’s flesh out our allegory a bit before moving on. Israel had been redeemed through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb – the Lamb of God. I know we could allegorize this differently, and admittedly I have done so in the past. But just for tonight, let’s say that God’s people were about to be immersed in the Red Sea. Certainly, all God’s children ought to be baptized as a testimony of their relationship to Jehovah. But in this case, even before they got to that point, the trials began. Satanically-inspired Pharaoh changed his mind about letting Israel go to serve the Lord. He called up his army, and with swords drawn and blood in their eyes, they went to slaughter God’s people. Similarly, down through the centuries millions of new believers have been persecuted for even thinking about being baptized – or being “rebaptized” in obedience to the Lord. But in this case God was with His people in the pillar of cloud, to direct and protect them. Everyone made it safely into the baptismal tank and beyond.

So Israel passed through the “wilderness of the RED SEA.” Then in chapter 15 we read, “So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of SHUR; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.” Then in the next chapter, “They took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of SIN.” Three chapters later – Exodus 19:1 – “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of SINAI.” Those saints were going from one desert to another followed by another – from one frying pan into another. Before they eventually arrived in the Promised land they had to pass through even more troubles – the “wilderness of PARAN” and the “wilderness ZIN.”

Like Israel back in their day, today’s Christians shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves going from one wilderness to another. But what I hope you’ll see this evening is that this isn’t unusual – and this isn’t a disaster. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” – I Corinthians 10:13. Not only is wilderness travel normal, it can be the opportunity for divine blessings.

A desert can be a place of CONNECTION and divine INTIMACY.

God could have taken Israel straight to Jerusalem and given them His law when they were in the land. Why did He choose the desert for this important revelation of His Word? Isn’t because He wanted to establish a connection – which they hadn’t experience before? Wasn’t it because, once in the land, the people would have become so intent on settling down and setting up their new lives, they wouldn’t have had time to listened to God? Because of the lack of population and distraction, a desert can be a place of silence, serenity and sight. It is an enforced “prayer closet.” God wanted to take His new bride out into a place where they could have an intimate honeymoon.

And remember 40 years earlier it was in one of these same deserts that the Lord introduced Himself to Moses. Again, at the time, it was just the two of them, and where they met together it was holy ground. “Don’t be afraid, Moses, but still, I insist that you take off your shoes.”

It was in the wilderness of Sinai that God revealed the initial chapter of His Word. I have read in a book by a Jewish Rabbi that the word “desert” is related to the Hebrew word “word.” I wasn’t excited about the logic he took to link those two, so I won’t push that idea too hard. But if it is true, it raises an interesting thought – it is in the desert places where God often speaks to us. Sometimes God has to lay us on our backs in order to get us to listen to Him. Sometimes He has to take away our sight, as He did with Saul of Tarsus, so that we can see Him. Sometimes He has to take us away from the “maddening crowds” for us to hear His still small voice. Isn’t that exactly what He did with Elijah during that man’s period of severe depression?

The desert is a place of intimate connection – it also can be a place of DIRECTION.

The children of Israel had to learn to listen to God as though their lives depended on it. The desert, or wilderness, can be a dangerous and unforgiving place, if we are not properly prepared for it. Israel was not prepared. And spiritually speaking, other than a few lessons like this one, you and I aren’t prepared either. But that is okay, because the God of green pastures is also the God of dry deserts.

When the small patches of dry grass were eaten up by Israel’s flocks, where were they to go next? Further direction was one of the key parts of their wilderness adventure. And for that the Lord had provided His pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night. “The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night” – Exodus 13:21. That cloud was there from the moment their spiritual lives and their Christian journey began. Even apart from the direction the divine cloud provided, an added blessing was that it became a shade by day and defense by night. It provided cool shade in the scorching heat, and warmth when the desert temperatures fell really low. According to Jewish tradition – if you can trust it – God’s cloud formed a canopy – a tabernacle – that surrounded the nation on all sides including above their heads. And when the nation needed direction, “as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses” – Exodus 33:9.

Obviously, a wilderness is a place of forced DEPENDENCE.

When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he took no food. While in the Gaza desert, before getting to the wilderness of Sinai, an angel was commissioned to feed him. And when he was in that cave on the rocky mount where the law was given, there were no rams stuck by the horns in the thickets. He was completely dependent upon the Lord. He was sustained by the Lord, just as Moses had been sustained for forty days on that same mountain so many years before.

And returning to Israel, look at them worrying about their lack of food; look at their yearning to return to Egypt. But the Lord supplied, and they were fed with manna. Unfortunately, they eventually grew tired of that. Furthermore, they were drenched in miraculous water, but later, after a few days of global warming, they forgot how the Lord met their thirst.

And that is my point – it is in the wilderness that we learn to depend on God. As long as we have our jobs, our strength, our gardens, we don’t really need the Lord. Oh, as Christians we dutifully tell ourselves, “Yes, I need God’s blessings.” But we don’t actually and consciously depend and rely on Him alone.

But that is where the wilderness comes in. After a few days of freedom from Pharaoh and deliverance from the Egyptian economy, about which they had probably complained for years, Israel had been confronted with no economy at all. So they began to murmur and complain, about the new situation in which they lived. The Lord responded by saying, “I’ll supply you with all the food you need, but it will be delivered one day at a time, with the exception of that one special day of the week.” The manna would supply their need of sustenance, but it would also supply a new test – will Israel faithfully and without complaint obey, serve and worship the Lord?

In Jesus’ miracle of meal multiplication, five thousand people were fed, and there were plenty of left-overs. Christ’s disciples enjoy eating left overs. Later some of those people who had been temporarily satiated, brought up the comparison between Moses’ manna and Jesus’ miracle. John 6 – “They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the DESERT; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”

Jesus’ reply to those people points to one of the lessons Israel had not learned. And it is a lesson we need. Those latter day Jews weren’t simply ignorant or unbelieving; they were wilfully unbelieving. “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?” Christ had just given them a sign as great as that of the manna in the wilderness, but it wasn’t enough. Probably if He had given those people that same kind of bread and those same fish every day for a month, they would soon have been clamoring for Southern Fried Chicken, Big Macs and Double Whoppers with cheese and fries. The point was not so much about the food – as it was about their relationship with the Lord. The purpose of the wilderness was to enhance their contact with Jehovah.

Ultimately our wilderness experiences are for the purpose of STRENGTHENING our TRUST in God.

You may be in the middle of a new Sahara in your life, and you don’t know whether to go north or south. Maybe God wants you to stop where you are and look up to see which direction the pillar of cloud is moving. Trust the Lord to open some doors and to shut some others. Trust the Lord to give you some fresh guidance, some friends and godly leadership, some wisdom.

You aren’t sure from where your next meal will come? Don’t lose your mind; lose your fear instead. Learn to say, “Feed me, Lord. I will eat whatever kind of manna you provide.”

Are you worried about North Korean Egyptians, or Democratic or Republican Egyptians? Look around and study that impenetrable divine cloud standing between you and them. Like the Egyptians, your enemies cannot touch you except in the way the sovereign God will permit them.

But what happened to the majority of unbelieving, untrusting Israel? Weren’t they consumed by one wilderness or another? On the other hand, as we see in Joshua and Caleb. Destruction was not the primary purpose of the wilderness. God intends for us to walk across Jordan into the Promised Land, not to be carried across like the dusty old bones of Joseph.

Wildernesses are designed by God for our good, if we will take them that way.