“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.” Exodus 17: 1a
The wilderness of Sin – or Zin, as it is sometimes called – is an actual geographical place, somewhere in the Sinai. No-one is sure exactly where it is. After crossing the Red Sea, we are told that God led the Israelites under Moses into a desert area toward Mount Sinai. It was called the wilderness of Sin and was in the region of the Sinai desert through which they had to pass on their way to the Holy Mountain.
The wilderness of Sin is a geographical reality; sin itself is a theological reality. And it too is a wilderness.
Sin separates us from God. It takes God out of our lives. As sinners, we try to make a go of it alone. Soon we learn one very important thing: when God is absent from our lives, we find ourselves lost, in a place that cannot sustain life. In the wilderness. Thirsty and hungry, we cram our existence full of stuff that can never truly satisfy us, and we remain dry and famished. The wilderness is a place of death.
Only God has the life-giving water and food to sustain our passage through the wilderness of human sin. To cut ourselves off from God’s life-supporting supplies means spiritual death. To accept God’s provision for us gives us life that is neither empty nor unfulfilled. – the perfect life with Him that God always intended us to have. But sin makes us crazy with hunger and thirst. We don’t see the truth, and instead we chase a desert mirage of human contentment. We do not turn to God. We want to keep what’s left of our lives to ourselves. It’s Adam and Eve’s basic sin: to live without reference to God. The sad result is something less than full life.
Sin has ravaged all of us in some way. We have to deal with its effects on our lives every day. We are all of us on a journey through the wilderness of sin, all of us vulnerable, and some of us dying of spiritual thirst or hunger. If we want to live, we need to turn to God. We do this by gathering together in the Church that is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. The Church of God is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
The reading from Exodus refers to Moses’ people as “the congregation of the Israelites”. A congregation is a gathering together of a wide assortment of people. Often they have very little connection with each other except their commitment to their leader and their common enterprise. A church congregation too is a gathering of people very unlike each other. Our Leader is Jesus Christ and our enterprise is the Gospel of God. Christ and the Gospel is what brings us together, holds us together, and undergirds all that we do together. We do not stay together because we like each other, but because we are committed to each other for the sake of Christ and the Gospel on this journey that we are taking with Him. We need Him, and we need each other, if we are going to make it through this wilderness of sin.
Exodus tells us that “the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded”. We are all of us at different stages on this journey. Some of us have been travelling a very long time. Even as we struggle ourselves, we may know what it takes to survive. Some of us have only just started the journey. We may be enthusiastic, but highly vulnerable. We need the help of our companions on this journey if we are going to make it through the wilderness of sin. The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Some of us are in A & E, some of us on the wards, and others are out patients. Even though we may all be at different stages, we are all on the same journey. And not one of us is invulnerable to the dangers along the way. Sin is dangerous. It is life-denying. We all need to be cared for.
God had not promised the congregation of the Israelites – and He does not promise us – an easy passage. What He has promised is true life and freedom with Him. There are many stages that all of us must pass through on this difficult journey. But God is leading us. If we rely on Him and on each other in this hospital for sinners that God has given us, we shall prevail. In the Church we are all in God’s NHS: God’s Numinous Hospital for Sinners.
“Numinous” is a word used to describe the feelings of awe, wonder and sense of sin that human beings have in the presence of God. In this hospital for sinners we call “the Church”, God comes to us and we experience the numinous. We see His glory, and by His presence we are given healing, sustenance and life.
Sometimes, however, we come unprepared to meet God here. We focus on the non-essentials. At times, we actually misbehave. What we need is more understanding of God and each other and a lot more reverence and mutual respect. Disrespect and thoughtlessness can cause real casualties among us as we journey. Every one of is vulnerable to, and perhaps badly hurt by, the ravages of sin. This is not a museum and none of us is an exhibit of perfect sanctity yet. In God’s NHS we need to be more attentive towards God and the needs of others and less concerned about ourselves. Otherwise, none of us may ever get out of this wilderness of sin fully alive.