Wilderness University

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God desires to teach us to trust in Him, rely on Him and be obedient to Him.

Exodus(37) (Part of the Rescued(36) series)
by Marc Webb(77) on June 2, 2024 (Sunday Morning(345))

Obedience(35), Teaching(1), Trust(25)

Wilderness University

Players gathering for the first day of basketball practice at UCLA were full of anticipation. They wondered how their coach, John Wooden, would set the tone for the long season to come. They didn’t have to wait long. Veterans knew what was coming. But first year players were no doubt perplexed by the initial lesson imparted by their Hall of Fame coach: He taught them how to put on a pair of socks. He did not teach this lesson only once, but before every game and practice. Why? Wooden discovered many players didn’t properly smooth out wrinkles in the socks around their heels and little toes. If left uncorrected, these wrinkles could cause blisters that could hamper their performance at crucial times during games. Many players thought the practice odd and laughed about it. Wooden knows some of them still laugh about it today. But the coach would not compromise on this basic fundamental principle: “I stuck to it. I believed in that, and I insisted on it.” In our desire to grow as Christians, we can easily forget about the fundamentals of our faith. If we do, we run the risk of developing painful spiritual blisters that can hurt us as we run our race.

This morning in our scripture found in Exodus 15:22-27, we see the Israelites in their first week at, what I call, Wilderness University. This was the place where God was going to teach them how he was going to be their God and how they were to be his people. Just like Coach Wooden, God was going to teach in perplexing and unorthodox ways. In basketball, Coach Wooden knew that the players’ equipment, including their socks, would be vital to their success. In living as God’s children, the Lord knew that he had to equip them with certain characteristics that were vital to their success as his Chosen people. The wilderness was going to be the university of higher learning that the Lord would use to teach them those lessons. The Lord does the same for us today. Our wilderness are the trials and testing that God takes us through in order to sanctify us or to make us more like Jesus. Coach Wooden started with socks. The Lord started with faith. If this fundamental wasn’t taught first blisters would break out, physical ones for Coach Wooden’s players and spiritual ones for the Israelites. It was imperative that the Lord teach them to trust in Him, rely on Him and be obedient to Him so they would be ready to do his will and fulfill the purposes he had for them in the Promised Land. That brings us to our big idea this morning: God desires to teach us to trust in Him, rely on Him and be obedient to Him. This is Faith 101, and the lessons include trouble, testing and teaching. As we become more proficient and obedient in these lessons we become more like Jesus.

Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, as we open your Word this morning, pour out your Holy Spirit on us. Open our hearts and minds to what you want us to learn and what you want us to apply to our lives. May these words spoken this morning bring you glory and honor. Help us to become more and more like your son, Jesus, every day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Our first point this morning is Trouble found in Exodus 15:22-24. Follow along as I read. This is what God’s Word says, “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah).” So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”

Again, like last week, at the beginning of our passage we see the word “then” which should cause us to look at what came before. What came before is the Song of Moses that was sung to the Lord for his deliverance from the Egyptians at the Red Sea and his total destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Now Moses leads Israel from the Red Sea into the desert of Shur. In Hebrew it says that Moses “caused the Israelites to set out” from the Red Sea implying that they may not have wanted to leave that place of triumph to travel into the desert. After four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, they have just had their first “mountaintop” experience. They are like Peter at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:4, “Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” They may have been like, “Hey Moses, did you just see what God did. It’s good for us to be here. Let’s camp out here for a while.” They probably realize that the only way forward was through the desert and that was not going to be as good as where they were right now. In the human experience we know a few things about mountaintops. One, the mountaintops are not usually where the learning and growing takes place. It’s not where our faith is tested because life on the mountaintop is good, and we don’t seem to have a care in the world. It is the wilderness, the desert, where learning and growing usually happens because that is where our faith is tested. But, in our humanness, the wilderness is not the place we want to be because life is tough there.

Two, the mountaintop experiences are usually followed by valleys. We can’t stay on the mountain forever and the only way is down. Satan will use the valleys especially after mountaintop experiences to discourage us and shame us, etc. Our successes are usually followed by failure. We see this in scripture. Immediately following the victory at Jericho, we see the Israelites defeat at Ai. After the victory of Peter confessing Jesus as the Messiah we see the defeat of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Even after Jesus Baptism, which was a mountaintop experience, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Of course, Jesus overcame the Devil’s temptation becoming the example we must follow to make it through the wildernesses of our lives. One more lesson we can learn: Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Guess who was leading the Israelites into the Wilderness? The Lord was leading them in the pillar of cloud. The wilderness does not come as a surprise to God, he is in control of the wilderness, he is the one leading us into the wilderness usually for a time of testing and teaching because he wants us to trust in him, rely on him and be obedient to him (Big Idea).

So Moses caused the Israelites to travel into the desert of Shur. According to Stuart, the Desert of Shur was a vast, rugged, sparsely populated wilderness region in northern Sinai. Once they left the banks of the Red Sea, they traveled in the wilderness for three days without finding water. It would have been very difficult to make it in the desert without water, especially with that amount of people, and with the children and animals. We can imagine the people are getting worried and anxious. They are probably rationing what water they have left which means their energy levels aren’t where they needed to be. Maybe they had completely run out of water by this point. But then they come to Marah. They must have been overjoyed at finally finding water. But the joy was short-lived as the water was too bitter to drink. We get an aside from the author that the reason this place was called Marah was because the water there was bitter. In fact, the name Marah means “bitter.” They Israelites had traveled for three days without finding any water and when they finally found some it was bitter and undrinkable. This was the first test from the Lord. How were they going to react to this hardship? Would they cry out to the Lord for help? As we see they reacted in the wrong way. The people became “bitter” towards Moses and grumbled against him. This was the beginning of a reoccurring habit for the Israelites as there are over a dozen passages in the first five books of the Bible where we see the Israelites grumbling and complaining.

The Israelites sinned a number of ways here. First, they were forgetful. They forgot what the Lord had done for them less than a week ago. Psalms 106:7 says, “When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.” Second, they were selfish. Their primary concern was what God could do for them and were probably thinking why hasn’t he just done it already. Three, they were anxious. ​​ “What shall we drink?” revealed their anxious hearts. In Matthew 6:31-33, it says, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Fourth, they grumbled against Moses which was really grumbling against the Lord. Moses was just the human target that they could see and vent at. Their worry and anxiety, their grumbling and complaining, showed an attitude and a heart problem that if left unchecked would lead to a host of other problems. This spiritual heart problem was what the Lord wanted to heal in the wilderness. They were spiritually immature and it was the reason for the Lord’s testing and teaching.

This was the Lord’s Wilderness University where he was going to teach them Faith 101. They were going to need many examples of the Lord’s grace, mercy and goodness toward them in the troubles they were going to face, in order to build the kind of faith that He wanted them to have. We are a lot like the Israelites. We love the mountaintops. We love it when things are going well in our lives. But when circumstances go awry, we cry out to the Lord in complaint. We say things like, “I don’t know why this always happens to me?” or “why doesn’t God hear my prayers” or “Why doesn’t God care about me.” We say, “Lord, what have you done for me lately?” We forget that he saw us through a particularly tough time just last week. We forget that our faith grows in times of trouble. In fact, we don’t really even want to think about that. But God is good all the time even when he is leading us to bitter waters. It shows his mercy, grace and compassion that he doesn’t want us to be infants in our faith. He wants our faith to grow to maturity and the only way that happens is through trials and troubles in our life. So we know that God is good because he has proven it over and over again. The key is to remember his goodness the next time and every time that trials and trouble comes our way. That brings us to our first next step this morning which is believe in the goodness of God even when he leads me to bitter waters.

Once we identify that trials and troubles have come, that is when we need to be ready for the testing and the teaching that the Lord brings to us to grow our faith. That brings us to our second point, Testing and Teaching, found in verses 25-27. This is what God’s Word says, “Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink. There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.”

Once the Israelites ran into trouble the testing began. The test was, how were they going to react to the trouble they found themselves in? We know they reacted badly. They grumbled against Moses and the Lord. But notice how Moses reacted. He cried out to the Lord. He didn’t grumble against the Lord as the people had done to him. He cried out to the Lord on their behalf asking for him to provide water for the people. We have some good examples in the OT about how to deal with troubles. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery and then thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He kept trusting in the Lord, believing that he had a plan for his life and that plan would sooner or later be fulfilled no matter what. And it was. We also have the story of Job. God allowed Satan to take everything away from him but his life. He lost his family, his wealth, etc. His wife told him to curse God and die but Job was a righteous man. He may not have understood what was happening and why and even came close to going too far with God, but he trusted in the Lord and had faith that whatever happened was God’s will for his life. And now Moses. When he is attacked and grumbled against, he doesn’t attack and grumble against the Lord. He cries out to the Lord. He trusts the Lord to take care of his people. These are the examples we need to study and strive to follow, not the Israelites who just three days after seeing their miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, let their circumstances cloud their faith in the Lord. That brings us to our second next step which is to handle the difficult situations in my life by crying out to the Lord.

Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord answered his prayer. The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood and when he threw it into the water the water became sweet. The word “showed” means “instruction.” The Lord was instructing Moses connecting their testing with his teaching. We see the faithfulness and patience of the Lord with his children. He showed his faithfulness by supplying what they needed right when they needed it. And he showed his patience by not rebuking or punishing them for their grumbling, complaining and lack of faith. He was testing and teaching the Israelites so that they would learn to trust in Him and rely on Him. He knew it was going to take time to get them where he wanted them to be. He was going to have to be faithful time and time again, over and over again, testing them again and again and continually teaching them, until they learned how he wanted them to react to the troubles they encountered. This process wasn’t going to be a quick one but the Lord was in it for the long haul. His lesson plan was to test them and then teach them. His teaching would set them up for more testing that was going to take place in the future.

What was this teaching? It was to listen carefully, do what is right, pay attention to commands and keep decrees. First, they were to listen carefully to the voice of the Lord their God. They had probably been listening to the many gods of the Egyptians, but the Lord had proved them to be false gods. Now he wanted them to listen to the Lord who was their God. Second, they were to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Not what was right in their own eyes. Third, they were to pay attention to the Lord’s commands. Fourth, they were to keep all the decrees of the Lord. We begin to see a pattern for faith in the Lord here. The Lord wanted his people to trust in Him, rely on Him and be obedient to Him (Big Idea). ​​ What were these commands and decrees that the Lord wanted them to keep? We don’t know for sure, but they were probably an introduction to the Law that the Lord would give them more fully at Mt. Sinai. In this introduction to the Law, He also introduced the concept of covenant. A covenant established the basis of a relationship, including conditions, promises, and consequences if those conditions are unmet. The Lord’s teaching of listening carefully, doing what is right, paying attention to commands and keeping decrees were the conditions of the covenant. The promise was that if they kept those conditions, they would have physical health. None of the diseases the Lord brought on the Egyptians would come on them. The consequences are implied here that if they do not keep those conditions those same diseases would come upon them. Mackay says, “Divine displeasure was often associated with disease and illness.

The Lord’s teaching in verse 26 called for loyalty and obedience to him. He wanted them above all else to please him by doing what was right in his eyes not their own. And if they did, he promised to be Jehovah-Ropha, “the Lord who heals you.” Anders says, “In the Old Testament “ropha” means “to restore, to heal, to cure … not only in the physical sense but in the moral and spiritual sense, as well.” At Marah God demonstrated his healing power by curing the bitter waters. And this was intended to teach the Israelites to trust him for every kind of healing. Psalms 103:1-5 says, “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” This was a promise that if they turned to him in confession and forgiveness when they sinned, he would heal them spiritually and they would be kept physically well. Just a note that this was the old covenant. In the new covenant, today, we understand that having faith and believing in Jesus doesn’t mean we will live a completely healthy life.

The Lord’s first lesson in Faith 101 was complete. He had tested them and taught them what he required of them as his people, and if they were obedient to his teaching, he would not bring any of the diseases on them that he brought on the Egyptians. The next lesson and the next phase of testing could begin. But before that next lesson started, The Lord led them to Elim where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees and they camped there. We see the mercy and grace of the Lord. He had already given them good water to drink at Marah. The bitter waters had already been made sweet. But instead of taking them immediately back into the wilderness for the next semester, he gave them a “spa” day, a three-day weekend or a Spring break, so to speak. Elim was a place of abundance and was symbolic of fullness and blessing. This is what the Israelites had to look forward to if they would trust in Him, rely on Him and be obedient to Him in the future (Big Idea).

The cool thing about this story is that the Lord was patiently and lovingly bringing his people along knowing their past but not wanting them to stay there. He knew where he wanted to take them and knew what their teachability level was in the beginning of their time together. Just like high school and college, when you are starting out you take freshman level courses not senior level ones. Your teaching starts out easy and then gets harder as the classes progress. You have to start with 100 level classes before you can get to the 200 and 300 level classes. In the Wilderness University that the Lord had enrolled them in, they had to start out with Faith 101 before they could get to Faith 201, etc. They had to learn how to put their socks on properly so they wouldn’t get spiritual blisters. The Lord didn’t rebuke and punish them at this point because they were just starting out. In fact, he led them to an awesome oasis where they could rest and relax. But, he wasn’t going to leave them at Elim. He wanted them to learn and progress in their faith and in the covenant he had introduced to them. The next test was coming, and it was coming so that they would grow and mature in their faith. It was coming so that they would learn to trust in, rely on and be obedient to him, instead of grumbling and complaining.

Testing is important in the development and maturity of our faith. We see this in James 1:2-4, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. I Peter 1:6-7a, says, in the Living Translation, “So be truly glad! There is wonderful joy ahead, even though the going is rough for a while down here. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it.” Life is rough on this earth. Sin has caused this to be. But we have something better to look forward to. God does test us, not because he wants us to fail, but because he wants us to learn to succeed. And we succeed by listening carefully to his voice, doing what is right in his eyes, paying attention to his commands and keeping all his decrees. I think the key is allowing Him to turn the burdens that we bear through His testing and teaching of us into blessings. Just like the Israelites, it is a matter of our attitude towards testing and our hearts toward the Lord.

My conclusion is from Anders' commentary: One pastor of a small church in the Midwest learned this truth while visiting a widow in his church. As he talked with her, he noticed two large jars of beads on a shelf. He asked why one jar was nearly full of beads while the other jar had only a few. “Through my life I have experienced many burdens that God has changed into a blessing for me,” she told him. “The jar with a few beads represents my burdens, and the nearly full jar stands for the burdens God has turned into a blessing in my life. As he does so, I move a bead from one jar to the other. It doesn’t help to complain when I hurt, but it does help to look for God’s hand in turning things around.”




Wiersbe says, “If life were nothing but tests, we would become discouraged. If life were all pleasure, we would never learn discipline and develop character. Let us be grateful that the Lord gives us enough blessings to encourage us and enough burdens to humble us and that he knows how much we can take.” So, during the course of our lives, God will take us to the desert and will test us, and we will have opportunities to react to his testing. We can complain and doubt God’s leadership, as the Israelites did, or we can trust for the bead to be transferred from the jar of burdens to the jar of blessings. That brings us to our last next step which is to Be grateful to the Lord for his testing and teaching knowing it is for my good and to mature my faith.

As the Ushers prepare to collect the tithes and offerings and the Praise Team comes to lead us in a final song, let’s close our time together in prayer. Lord God, thank you for this time we have spent together worshiping you and learning from your word. As we leave may we be committed to worshiping you and serving others daily. Help us to believe in your goodness even when you lead us to bitter waters. Help us to handle the difficult situations in our lives by crying out to you. Let us not complain and grumble about them but be grateful for your testing and teaching knowing it is for our good and to mature our faith. Help us to trust in you, rely on you and be obedient to you in all things. Finally, help us to stay connected to you and to each other. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Source: Coach Wooden Started with Socks espn.go.com/page2/s/questions/wooden