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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Forty years earlier, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. Now they are camped, looking across the Jordan River to the land that God had promised to their forefathers. Not able to go into the Promised Land himself, Moses recounts what had happened during the wilderness wandering and he prepares them for the new land they will now receive. “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
Forty years it had taken them to make the 300-mile-long journey, an average movement of about 100 feet per day. Obviously, there had been a few bumps in the road along the way. The people ran out of water more than once, which the Lord had provided miraculously. They ran out of food and complained until the Lord sent manna falling from the sky. This went on for forty years. Forty years of living in tents in the wilderness. Forty years in which the Lord had made sure that their clothes didn’t wear out and their feet didn’t swell. Forty years in which they had constantly complained. Forty years in which they had rebelled against God’s authority and the leaders He had placed over them. Forty years where they suffered needlessly for their stubborn rebelliousness and idolatry—fiery serpents and scorpions, earthquakes and plagues, consuming fire from heaven.
It didn’t have to be like that. In the first year, the Lord had brought them to the brink of the Promised Land and was ready to send them in to conquer Canaan. Their spies affirmed the fruitful bounty of the land. But they refused to enter Canaan and take possession of the land promised to them. Though the Lord assured them that He had given their enemies into their hand, that He Himself would fight on their behalf, they were too frightened, did not believe the Lord, and refused to go. And so He led the 2.5 million Israelites on the not-so-scenic route, wandering in the wilderness for forty years.
The Lord says that He did it so “that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” The Lord knew that, once they reached the Promised Land and had all its abundance, they’d be likely to forget that it was all a gift from Him. So in preparation for the Promised Land, He humbled them. He put them in a situation where they said, “We cannot survive out here on our own. We need the Lord to keep us alive.”
So He did: and to remind them that He is the One who sustains life from day to day, He provided just enough manna for them to live from day to day. The Lord kept it up, too: the manna didn’t stop falling until they entered the Promised Land. Thus they learned from the humbling and the testing that the Lord would provide for them all things. And perhaps that trust would come easier for sinners in the wilderness than in the Promised Land. It’s easy to turn wealth and abundance into idols that make you think you don’t need God. Poverty and need can have the effect of making you see your need for the Lord’s mercy.
The purpose of God’s testing was to lead Israel to trust Him more fully. The reason He provided such miraculous physical blessings was to show His people that they needed and that He could provide far more than physical blessings. With His Word, the Lord could meet all their physical needs as well as the still greater needs of their souls. Without God’s Word, physical blessings by themselves will never be enough. Food alone won’t give life. Life has deeper dimensions that only God can satisfy. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
There was more to it, too: it was a matter of discipline. Moses declares, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.” Some of the discipline in the wilderness was punishment. There’s no hiding the fact that they were in the wilderness for forty years because the generation of adults that came out of Egypt refused to believe that God would give them the Promised Land, but instead gave in to the god of fear and believed that they’d be slaughtered by those in Canaan. Because they doubted God and refused to enter the land He gave, the Lord declared that none of the Israelites would enter until that generation died off.
But not all of it was punishment. Discipline also means training: and once again, the Lord was training His people to trust in Him. As He provided food and deliverance from danger in the wilderness, so He would give them victory over the inhabitants of the Promised Land.
One more thing about those forty years: they had a starting point. The Israelites weren’t always in the wilderness. They’d spent 400 years in Egypt as slaves. But the Lord rescued them from that slavery—rescued them wondrously, miraculously, and dramatically. The wilderness might not be the greatest place to be, but it’s a far better situation than slavery and death. That’s especially true since it wasn’t their destination. The wilderness was just the time between the slavery and the Promised Land. Throughout those years, the Lord would humble them, test them, and discipline them. He would also provide for them, protect them, and give them the Promised Land full of every good thing. Because of this, they were to “remember the whole way that the Lord [their] God [had] led [them].”
It’s no coincidence that Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. As Israel was baptized through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus was baptized and went straight to His temptation for forty days. He did perfectly what the people of Israel utterly failed to do. Where the people sinned against God again and again, Jesus remained perfectly sinless and obedient. Where they needed to be humbled, He was perfectly humble. Where Israel panicked because there was momentarily no food, Jesus fasted and trusted. In fact, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to prove He is the Son of God, Jesus quoted this Old Testament lesson: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Always humble, He met every test and remained the disciplined Son.
Why did He do so? He wasn’t just re-enacting wilderness life to see what it might have been like for His ancestors. He did this to redeem them—and to redeem you, too. He lived that perfect life to credit you with His perfect obedience. Then He went to the cross; and on the cross, His Father punished Him with the judgment for the sin of the world—yours included. He was crucified for our sins, then raised up again on the third day. That is why He came, what He came to do.
All of this frames your life on earth; and, actually, it frames your Thanksgiving Day tomorrow. I pray that it is a day of celebration and comfort, though I’m guessing for many of you, it’s not going to be the Norman Rockwell kind of holiday with lots of extended family that you’re used to. COVID lockdown, mask mandates, and social gathering restrictions will probably put a damper on the festivities. You may also have all sort of other issues tugging at the corner of your mind or elbowing their way front and center.
There’s a reason for this: you’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the wilderness. You’re not in the Promised Land—not yet! You’re still in the land of fiery serpents and scorpions, of thirst and hunger—or cancer and COVID, fear and anger, bad decisions and troubled relationships, depression or substance abuse. That’s what living in the wilderness is like, and the troubles you face will be used by the devil to leave you thankless and hopeless and doubting God. But you have so much to be thankful for!
There’s first article stuff—the daily bread that the Lord provides for you—like clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, family, and all your goods. It’s easy to take for granted, but the poorest in our nation still have more than much of the rest of the world. You have much because the Lord gives it to you and because the Lord sustains it from day to day. For this, you should truly give thanks—not just once a year, but daily, and likely far more than you do.
But there’s still more to be thankful for. The Lord also gives you those other strange gifts that He gave Israel in the wilderness: namely, the humbling, the testing, and the discipline. Life in this wilderness is a rocky road. You will hurt, you will lack, you will sin, you’ll stumble and fall and fail. And you’ll wonder why the Lord chooses to do things this way.
The best answer we can give from Scripture is that you’re His children. The setbacks and troubles that you face are a consequence of being a sinner in a sinful world, but their effects are not random acts of fate. The Lord has made you His children—His sons, He says, in order to assure you that you are His heirs. As you make your way through this wilderness, remember that you’re in the wilderness, and that’s already a step up: once you were enslaved in sin, dead, and headed for hell. But the Lord brought you up out of your “Egypt” through the Red Sea of Holy Baptism, all for the sake of Christ who died for you. For those apart from Christ, this world is the beginning of hell. But you’ve already been rescued, redeemed by the blood of Christ: this wilderness is on the way to the Promised Land of heaven.
So the Lord, who has made you His children, disciplines you as a father disciplines his sons. That’s not an enjoyable thing: the book of Hebrews tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). In fact, Hebrews also tells us, in the mystery of the Incarnation, that “Although [Jesus] was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). So it is for you. When you lack—be it food or peace or health—He uses that for good, to discipline you to cast your cares upon Him and trust in Him. He tests you, because sinners like you and me need constant testing, constant redirection, back to repentance and trust in Him.
The Lord is treating you like beloved children. If He did not, you would be God-forsaken, left to yourself—perhaps with a nice life, but with no hope. Troubles in your life would not be used for a father’s discipline, but only as punishment for your sin. So where you are so humbled, disciplined, and tested, God will use these things also for your good. Where you have been tested, you can be God’s instrument and a strong advocate for those who are tested like you. Where the affliction overwhelms you as something greater than you can bear, know that Christ has borne it for you. If such things continue to point you back to Christ and guard against falling in love with the wilderness, then that focus back on the cross is a blessing indeed and something to give thanks for.
And always remember this: you’re in the wilderness. The Lord has led you out of the slavery of sin and death thus far, and you have a destination. The Promised Land of Heaven is yours, where you have the certain hope of eternal life free from all sin and struggle, where God will wipe every tear from your eyes.
A blessed Thanksgiving Day to you all; and rejoice, my friends. The Lord is treating you as His beloved children, because you are His beloved children.
Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you. He has led you out of death to life, out of sin to righteousness, out of hell to the Promised Land of Heaven. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.