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Oct 11, 2015

Redemptive Wandering

Redemptive Wandering

Passage: Numbers 14:17-33

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: The Story

Category: Old Testament

Keywords: redemption, wanderings, wilderness


Wilderness experiences in life can be some of the most transformative encounters with God. Whether they are wilderness of our own making or God's planning, they often hold more potential for growth and engagement with God than even our "Promised Land" dreams. This message looks at the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness and what God did to meet them in 38 years of their own making.


Redemptive Wanderings


October 11, 2015

 INTRO:  As many of you know, backpacking is one of my favorite pastimes.  Just about every summer for the past couple of decades since David was about four, I’ve enjoyed taking a few days to wander the mountains and valleys of everything from the Rockies to the Cascades, being awed at the wonder of amazing vistas and tasty huckleberries

            We usually follow well-marked trails that, while strenuous, take us to our desired destination in the shortest distance possible. 

            About 10 years ago, my late, great prayer partner Tom Bates, suggested that we head over to the Jim Lakes Basin in the Mission Mountains Wilderness of Montana. He suggested that instead of trying to find the trail that was not very obvious, that we simply cut up above the tree line along a ridge that would run us up into the lakes area.  So that’s what we did.

            After a several of hours of bushwhacking through underbrush and slogging up and down ravines, we were beginning to wonder if Tom hadn’t pulled a fast one on us.  After a few more hours of slow progress we were sure he was laughing at us from the comfort of his Lazy-Boy recliner. 

            We did finally find the lake we were after…and the fishing the next morning made it all worthwhile

That experience taught us all the difference between wandering and being lost.  (Men, that’s an important distinction to trot out when your wife suggests you’re lost! J  “No dear, I’m just wandering.”)  Pressed to explain, I would have to say that being lost is having no idea where you are or where you are going while wandering simply means you’re taking more time to get there.  (That should satisfy your wife and kids, men! J)

You can always say J.R. Tolken says so!  (Slide:  "Not all those who wander are lost.")

In our study of God’s unfolding Story of His work with His people in history today, we’re in the books of Numbers & Deuteronomy.  Both books cover the roughly 40 years of time between the Israelite’s departure from slavery in Egypt to their entrance into the Promised Land of Canaan. 

            Those were 40 years that could have been one 20th the length of what God actually had envisioned for His people.  Instead, what should have been a 2 year experience turned into a 40 year school or hard knocks…assuming you weren’t over 20.  If you were 20 or above, your journey could have been significantly shorter…as well as your lifespan!  

            Which leads us to the whole question of why does God program in periods of wilderness in our lives?  After all, God could have taken his people directly from Egypt to Canaan via a few week vacation in the Sinai Peninsula. 

            Exodus 13:17 gives us one of the answers to that question when it says (reading from the New Living Translation), “When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, "If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt."

            Just walking around in a wilderness has a way of toughening you up.  After a few days of wilderness hiking, my muscles get stronger.  My skin gets tougher.  If we’re at higher altitudes for long enough, our blood even increases its capacity to carry more oxygen.

            Wildernesses are necessary parts of the journey of life.  They have the capacity to build strength and a healthy toughness and resiliency into our lives.  They bring out the worst…and the best in us.  Wildernesses test our endurance.  They teach us how to streamline life, shed excess baggage and manage our resources

            But for the people of God, no matter what century of life we’re in, wildernesses are there to teach us how to develop a life of faith with our God of redemption.  Wildernesses are the in between times of life—the sometimes agonizingly slow or long or hard times between the hopes and dreams God plants in us of a better future and the actual realization of that future. 

            We all nurture hopes and dreams of a better future.  For the Israelites, that was a future free of slavery and out of Egypt.  It was a future in the land God had promised to their forefather Abraham.  It was a future where everyone had their own property, where they lived near and in towns that could protect them in times of war, where God could be worshipped and obeyed, free from the mandates and laws of pagan people. 

But between where they had been for 430 years (Egypt) and where they wanted to be for centuries to come (Canaan) was A WILDERNESS.  That wilderness turned out to be 40 years.  But it was NOT 40 useless, lost, barren or meaningless years.  It was 40 years of experiencing God, of learning to live as the people of God and of growing through hunger & thirst, routine & ritual, life & death.

APP:  So for starters today, I’d like us to have a brief conversation with God about the “Promised Lands” of our hearts. What is it that you envision in the near, intermediate or distant future that comprises your “Promised Land”?  What is your heart longing to see realized? 

  • To finish school?
  • To have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
  • To get married?
  • To experience a certain level of success in your career?
  • To get to the mission field?
  • To get the job of your dreams? Start the business of your dreams?
  • To enjoy children and grandchildren?
  • To get an apartment…or own a house…or start a ministry?

What are the dreams, the “Promise Lands,” you nurture in your heart today?  Let’s take 60 seconds to tell God what our Promised Land looks like in our mind’s eye.

Now, before we get much farther, I want us to experience one of the many great blessings of actually being God’s family gathered today.  It is a strange family gathering where family members just sit and stare at one family member who does all the talking

But it is a wonderful family gathering where there is lots of banter and interaction going on between brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents.  That’s what the family of God is all about. 

[Invite people to gather in groups of 4-6.  Not required.  You can sit comfortably by yourself if you want.  But maybe just sitting quietly in a group listening to others share is a huge step forward for you today.  Or maybe talking less and seeking to listen more to someone else’s sharing today will be your huge step forward.] 

Also, I encourage you to have a variety of people in your group—different ages, people you know and don’t know.  Once you have a group, take a few minutes to answer these 2 questions:

  1. What different kinds of “wildernesses” have been or are being experienced by the people in your group? (Examples:  loneliness, singleness, marriage, divorce, death of a loved one/friend, career crisis, unemployment, health crisis, etc.)
  2. What do those “wilderness” experiences have in common? (Common feelings, experiences, trials, difficulties, etc.)
    1. They’re barren: life may feel a bit dry and desolate.
    2. They’re unfamiliar:
    3. They’re unrequested:
    4. They’re challenging:

[Share responses together.]

Now, let’s move into some of the Scriptures that point out various things we can learn and grow from in the Israelite’s experiences in the wilderness

We’ll be taking the 40,000 foot view of these passages today.  So here we go! 

  • The children of Israel left Egypt/the Land of Goshen, arrived at the Red Sea and eventually crossed it after about 2 ½ weeks (24 days).
  • Next they took another 3 weeks (20 days) to reach the Wilderness of Sinai. So from leaving Egypt to getting to Mt. Sinai was about 44 days.  (Remember, they were sometimes traveling day and night, a supernatural enablement for this distance of about 450 miles.)
  • Moses spent about 3 months up and down on Mt. Sinai (days day 53-140 = 87 divided by 28 (days in lunar calendar month) = 3.1 months.)
  • In the 11th month from their departure from Egypt, they head out for the Promised Land from Mt. Sinai.
  • Over the next year, they navigate about 20 stops between Mt. Sinai and Kadesh Barnea.

            So the trip from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land (Kadesh Barnea) is about 2 years

            Here is where commentators will differ on what happens next.  Many think that the Israelites left Kadesh after their failure to trust God after the spies entered the land and wandered for 38 years around the desert.  But some believe that they simply stayed at Kadesh those 38 years until the death of Aaron and Moses at which time God used Joshua to lead them into the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert. 

            Perhaps the reason for the difference of opinion is that the book of Numbers is not a book that is written necessarily in chronological order.  Giving of the law is scattered in among various events that don’t necessarily follow in sequential order.

Regardless of the time-line you settle on, everyone agrees on some very basic points:

  • The people of God could have spent just 2 years in the desert if they had walked more by faith rather than disbelief.
  • During that time, especially the first two years, they repeatedly tested God with their complaining and grumbling and faithlessness. What should have toughened and strengthened them and built greater faith in God for the battles they would have to face in taking the Promised Land was turned into a time of doubt, rebellion and complaint. 
  • The remaining 38 years in the desert were still years when God was with them, still revealing himself to them, still strengthening them and getting two new generations ready for the Promised Land. But nearly two generations, along with Moses and Aaron, lost the joy and challenges of moving into the Promised Land.  They died in the wilderness instead of realizing their goal. 

Those first two years just after being released from Egypt and just before God intended them to enter the Promised Land were to be years of growth in faith

  • God knew there would be difficult things to endure.
  • He knew they wouldn’t have food or water without His provision and without them asking Him for it.
  • God wanted the wilderness to be a place where all the distractions of Egypt were stripped away so that all the presence of God could prepare them for both the battles and the blessings of the Promised Land.

So fast-forward to the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”—the rejection of God’s call to take the Promised Land after 2 full years of God’s tutoring in the desert.  We’ll find it in Numbers 14. 

            The back-story is in Numbers 13 where the 12 spies, one from each tribe, are sent into the Promised Land on a sort of reconnaissance mission.  Numbers 13:18ff tells us what they were to look for. 

See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. 19 What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? 20 How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)

            It was a sort of Lewis & Clark expedition of a land none of them had seen.  Of all these instructions, how many of them related to checking out the countryside and how many related to checking out the people

It was about half and half, or 60/40.  Two instructions related to the people and the cities.  Three related to the land itself. 

So the report comes back from all the spies that it’s a great land, amazing crops, fertile countryside and, yes, walled cities with very large people. 

So what do 10 of the spies focus on?  The walled cities and the big people.

APP:  There is nothing wrong with taking stock of reality.  Reality was, the land was amazingly fruitful…and the people were amazingly big and fierce.  But God knew that when He promised that land to Abraham.  He knew that when he took 2 million Israelites out of Egypt and toughened them up in the desert for 2 years.  He knew that when He brought them to Kadesh Barnea as the launching point into the Promised Land.  And Moses sent the spies in to get a realistic picture of what was coming, both good and terrifying. 

But the search party was never to become a board meeting through which the nation succumbed to fear and decided to turn back.  It was to be a recon group that prepared the nation for the challenges to come and the blessings that would be in the midst of those challenges. 

APP:  Are you finding some of the challenges of the future, of progress and moving forward, to be seemingly impossible?  Is fear nipping at your heals as it did with the Israelites and causing you to question God’s goodness?  Are you tempted to just slide back into what is familiar, the old “Egypt” habits that look like less work and more leisure?

            That’s not God’s way.  His way is to constantly bring us to new challenges that require fresh faith.  Fear looks at daunting circumstances; faith looks at divine promises

            Whether we are talking about taking downtown Spokane from the darkness and evils that permeate it today and turning it into a place where people experience the heart of God in the heart of the city OR whether it is some personal dream or future God has given you that looks impossible, we will either respond to the challenges in fear or faith.  There really is no middle ground. 

Now, skipping over all the ugly wrangling that led the Israelites to reject God’s call to take the Land and instead whine and complain against God and Moses, let’s go to what God says and does when the people rebel.  It reveals some very important things we need to know about God and about how he often deals with His children when they rebel. 

            After God threatens to destroy the whole nation of doubters and whiners... Moses and Aaron intercede for the nation and ask that God spare them.  Here is a bit of the dialogue between God and Moses in Numbers 14:17ff—

“Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared:18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ 19 In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”

20 The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. 21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, 22 not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times— 23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. 24 But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. 25 Since the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.”

            Then God declares that everyone over 20 years of age will actually die in the desert over the next 38 years.  Vs. 29ff—

In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. 

But go back to vs. 22--22 not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times— 23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. 

That little phrase “tested me 10 times” might be a figure of speech that means “many, many times…over and over again” they tested me.  OR it might also refer to ten actual times of rebellion in those first two years (from Exodus 14 to Numbers 14) where God’s people chose to ignore all that God had done before to rescue them and chose to doubt His heart, question His care, ignore His love and reject His promises of protection for whatever new challenge they faced. 

            God’s stern discipline didn’t kick in until the Israelites had repeatedly rebelled and that in the face of some pretty dramatic demonstrations of God’s presence and power.

Here is the double-edged sword of the presence of God:  with greater demonstrations of His presence come greater responsibility for obedience and faith.  To those of us who can look back and see years of the faithfulness and power and goodness of God, more faith and more obedience is expected. 

            This is one reason why walking by faith doesn’t necessarily get easier the older we get. Like a personal physical trainer who is always adding new exercises or weights to our workout, God is continually adding new faith opportunities and exercises to our growth in Him.  We need to get over the notion that we’re going to reach some level of spiritual maturity that will make the next steps of faith “easy.” 

But even when we fail, when we slide back, when we grumble and grouse about the trials and difficulties of life, God remains a God who is “slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.” Yes, we and some around us may feel the negative effects of our sin and rebellion for some time in life.  But that does not mean we will ever be separated from God’s abounding love or from his forever forgiveness. 

            Those remaining 38 years were not a wash in God’s plan.  They were still very much a part of his plan, revised as it was. 

            Which brings forward both a troubling and a comforting question about times when we disobey God.  Can we do things that mess with God’s best plan for us?  Clearly this passage…and life…teach us “YES”. 

  • We can marry someone who is not a spiritual match (either not a believer in Jesus or not at the same level of commitment) and we will feel the effects perhaps for many, many years.
  • One young man I knew and respected in a previous ministry committed 3 felonies in rapid succession, behavior totally out of character for him, and was sentenced to 22 years in jail. He lost his marriage and his wife even gave their two children away in an adoption.  His life in this earthly journey was radically and inalterably changed. 

But over the past 15 years or so of that experience, God has continued to meet him in prison, continued to grow him, and continued to give him influence and ministry in the lives of others. 

Maybe your sins and rebellion against God aren’t that dramatic…or maybe they are.  Moses himself, that great leader of Israel in the desert, had his own problem with anger that resulted in God disciplining him by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land because he failed to honor God as holy before the people when God had told him to speak to the rock and bring forth water. 

That judgment of God may seem severe to us from our vantage point in history.  But Moses had experiences with God I doubt any of us have had…and he had many of them.  With those experiences came greater responsibility and greater accountability. 

But did that mean that those 40 years leading the people of God in the desert were somehow less significant?  Less meaningful?  Less growth-producing…and less God-encountering?  Absolutely NOT!  In fact, I think there may have been a depth to Moses’ life, and to many of the Israelites who died in the wilderness, that would not have come had they moved directly into the Promised Land.  I think knowing that their life’s time-frame was narrower…and that their children would have to endure years in the desert because of their poor choices…probably moved many of them to teach and model and mentor the next 2 generations of offspring with an increased passion, an increased urgency and an increased godliness that may not have been present without 38 more years in the desert. 

Personal: I know that there are some sins of my parents that I’m still struggling with and in some way suffering from.  I know there are sins I have engaged in that my children are struggling with and still suffering from. 

            But when we’re able to acknowledge those sins and when we’re able to embrace God’s discipline in my life as a result of those sins, then there comes a new level of trust, a new degree of resting in God’s sovereign discipline in our lives that enables us to live life more passionately and take better steps of faith in the remaining trials and tests. 

APP:  Perhaps you’ve been tempted to think that some past or present sin or failure has disqualified you for God’s best.  But this passage of God’s word today challenges that notion.  Even when we do things that close one door of blessing God had in mind for us, God remains the same—abounding in love and forgiving.  He continues to work all things together for the good of those who love him.  That is the greatness of the God we serve. 

            That singular truth ought to keep us from beating ourselves up about our sins, mistakes and wrong turns.  That truth ought to free us to rest back into the loving arms of God even when we know we haven’t done the best.  Any day we get up and decide to walk with Christ will never be a day of second-bests when it comes to our relationship with God.  Yes, we may not get out of life all that we hoped for.  But we always have the potential to get into a deeper relationship with Christ, even when we’re under His hand of discipline. 

At the end of Moses’ life, as he was preparing to bid farewell to earth and embrace God’s presence, these are the words he gave to God’s people whom he had loved for 40 years and led through the ups and downs of growing in faith.

Deuteronomy 2:7--The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.

Deut. 6:4-7--Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 

Deut. 8:1-5--Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Deut. 30:19ff--This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life….

Wildernesses can be very redemptive.  So let’s invite God to refocus our perspective and hearts in the middle of the wildernesses we may be in right now.


  • What does God want YOU to do with this truth today?
  • WHO is someone you can share that with this week?


  • Acknowledge where we have sinned and repent.
  • Submit to God’s leadership and discipline.
  • Thank Him for his forgiveness and abundant love.
  • Rest in His embrace…and renew our commitment to walk by faith in the challenges yet before us.