At first glance the desert seems cruel. Heat and loneliness surround once proud hearts and mock the fallen. As we drove through Nevada, Arizona and Utah this is the sort of landscape I imagined the wandering Israelites to have endured. There is little cover, everything is torn right open and left subject to the judgements of the harsh sun. The land is barren, bald and sun-scorched. There is a 110 mile stretch on I-70 where there are no services and it seems almost probable that if you are to get stranded here, you are to die here. The temperature hovered around the upper 40s and lower 50s (celsius) and even though the rock formations begged me to stop and stare I knew in my heart that we had to keep going, to keep travelling until we found green and water.
As we travelled on this never-ending road my thoughts returned to Israel, and how they wandered in the desert for so long. I think that up until I had driven across this unforgiving terrain the images in my head of the exile in the desert were juvenile and cartoon-like. I couldn’t imagine living in such a seemingly God-forsaken place. But when the sun went down and the rock formations blended into the dark sky I recognized something truly remarkable. There were stars. Not just a few but many, beyond my ability to count them all and as my eyes adjusted they seemed to multiply until the constellations came to light and there was no corner of the sky void of these dancing beauties.
When I was at Bible School my room mate and I would often steal away after curfew, with our sleeping bags in hand to lie in the middle of the giant field to stare at the sky. When winter came and the lake froze over, four or five of us would bundle as tight as we could and lie down, our backs in the snow, staring up at the stars from the frozen lake. No matter how hard life was, no matter how hard the teachings were or how insecure I felt in my ability to live out a good story the stars were always there and always reminded me of the constancy of God and His grace, truth and love. I learned to trust God again in the presence of the stars and to know and to submit to His will and majesty.
I wondered if it was like that for the Israelites, if the coolness of the night and beauty of the dancing stars had any affect on their hardened and muddled hearts. For the desert is where they also learned to trust God again. The desert for them wasn’t just punishment. It was were they learned to rely on someone other than themselves for manna and quail. There, in the sun scorched wilderness Yahweh provided daily miracles of provision to prove to them His love and correction. Even in the midst of one of the largest time-outs in history His presence was with them and they were forced to rest and take comfort in something other than the strength of their own hands.
This desert that we were travelling through had seemed to lose all of its ability to strike fear into the hearts of the passengers frequenting its motorways with the single glimmer of that first star. We made it through the desert, and into the lush mountains that we were searching for and it occurred to me that maybe one should harbour no fear of the desert. Yes, it is a place of desolation, dryness and dominance, but it is also one of great promise and joyful submission. It is a landscape of trust and expectance. Made soft by the generous but firm hand of a creative and powerful God.