On the face of it, it seems ridiculous to think of Moses ‘wandering in the wilderness’ for forty years, or is that just me? Apparently if they’d walked in a straight line it would be 5270.8 miles. Even today, even with a Sat Nav, that’s impossible, but forty years! However, when I factor in 603,550 men (Numbers 1:46), which easily equates to over two million people, it’s not so daft.

When I think about the shift from slavery to worship, for a whole nation, or from Israel’s bondage to Pharaoh to its bonding to the One, True, Living, God and especially when I think of how long it’s taken this single human (me) to get this far, it doesn’t seem so long at all. I like to think it’s my love of Tolkien and that quote from The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘not all those who wander are lost’, why I try and find such meaning in wandering, aimlessly. I suspect however, it’s more connected to my innate desire to settle, to stop moving, for a bit of comfort. But God…

But God is disturbing, disruptive, more concerned with why and how I’m going anywhere than where I want to go.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. Exodus 13:17-21

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. Exodus 17:1.

We are in a liminal space. The pandemic has created liminality around the globe for countless people in all walks of life. But for those of us in Christian leadership, especially across the Western world, the pandemic has merely drawn back the curtain on what was our present reality. The pandemic has revealed, not created, where we are.

I’ve been putting off taking some time to seriously reflect on this particular question, which I accepted on my list four months ago now. But I need to move forwards. I can be more comfortable teaching others how to navigate our cultural landscape than finding my own way. I get too settled. It’s not been a comfortable four months; the Lord has been continually at work, by His Spirit, nudging, cajoling, un-settling. I’ve made three commitments.

#commitment 1. I am re-focused on my ultimate destination

What kept Moses going? His relationship with the Lord, trust in his ‘commands’ and conviction about where he was headed. Terence Fretheim, in his commentary, talks about the wilderness wandering’s as a ‘community on the move from a past act of redemption toward a promised goal’. Keep that in mind. This is about people stuck between promise and fulfilment. I hear Jesus reminding me the reality of the kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully realised. That’s where I/we are called to live, to love, to laugh and to cry. Truth is, there’s no other place I can live and so many of the distortions, misconceptions and misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise), which I allow to cause me dissonance are if not of my own making, avoidable

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3.

Is it as easy as this? Yes and no. Living it out is frequently far from easy, but staying true to keeping our eyes on Jesus, as our compass bearing, makes all the difference in the world.

I’ve not worked out the proportions, but reading Exodus again, it feels like it’s all about Moses relationship with the Lord. My feelings tend towards exaggeration, but don’t you recognise the sense it all depends upon you, the responsibility which weighs too heavily at times, as well as the exhilaration when the kingdom breaks through?

What I’m seeing in this wonderful adventure of Moses leading the people of God towards the Promised Land is providing significant encouragement to me as we start taking steps out of the pandemic induced restrictions. The wilderness period is a liminal period in the biblical narrative and carries the potential for being one of our most helpful guides in the present day.

Over a period of forty years the people of God transitioned from slaves to citizens, from a people with a nameless God to one who knows the personal name of their deity, and from a lawless people to a nation bound by covenant. They completed these transitions by following Moses through the wilderness, a period marked either end by water crossings at the start and finish of this liminal journey. Now if that’s not a gift for a Baptist, what is?

We are now living in a missional era. The most pressing need for the church across the western world is to transition into ‘being missional’, no longer relying on ‘doing mission’ to others, we must accept the calling of Jesus Christ to be as well, ‘as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’. A missional church requires missional leadership. This is where you and I come in. Whether we consider ourselves primarily gifted as pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets or evangelists, we must all learn to lead out of our relationship with the Lord and our being, much more than our doing. It’s all about living faithfully according to Jesus’ call ‘come follow me’.

For Moses, it was his dynamic relationship with Yahweh and staying faithful, whether he felt like it and not, to the call from slavery to the Promised Land. For us, it’s towards ‘Christlikeness’ and the fulness of the kingdom of God we won’t dwell in fully until heaven.

We all need to wake up. If we’re asleep we need disturbing. Moses struggled with a lot but would not walk away from seeking to be faithful to God’s agenda. We are still living in a period of transition. It’s not called ‘post-modernity’ for no reason; we’re post/past something, but we can’t yet label where we are, because we don’t know when, or where we’ll land. If modernity lasted hundreds of years, it’s somewhat premature to try and be clear we’ve arrived at a new destination since the upheaval of the 1960’s in a mere sixty years!

A secular agenda, built around human beings at the centre, is not what it means to have arrived in the kingdom of God. I have not yet completed my call to follow Jesus. I have not yet experienced a total merger of ‘life in all fulness’ and the ‘normal Christian life’. Yet seeing Jesus changes everything, and we have seen Jesus. Keeping our eyes fixed upon him remains challenging, but re-focusing my eyes is essential whenever he gets blurred.

#commitment 2. I am re-aligned with God’s over-arching purposes

I’ve been approaching the question, “why did it take so long to get from Egypt to the Promised Land” from my own perspective. Of course, my perspective is always through the lenses of where I think (my understanding) I need to get to or how I think we should go about this (my personal traits). Note to self, “why do I always have my SatNav set on ‘quickest route’?”

Exodus 13:17-18 becomes more fascinating the more time I’ve dwelt in it. It highlights God’s concern the people might change their mind if forced into battle (‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt’. 13:17). The people of God, not for the last time, prove He had good reason for concern (What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 14:11). God knew the people of God were not ready to take on the challenges a more direct route would have brought. I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to any advice suggesting delay. Whenever I believe I know what the Lord is calling me to do, I tend to get out and get on with it. I tend towards living in the big picture and not worrying about the details. That has occasionally led to impatience with those who have legitimate concerns about today, or how they fit in, etc.

This episode tells me, if planning for the future makes a difference for the Lord to the shape that future will take, then I must take care. Irrespective of whether I’m wired as a pioneer or a settler, I need to check what I’ve fed into my personal heart SatNav – does this sit comfortably within God’s purposes?

I find it easy to be critical of those I see keen to grasp hold of the ‘pioneer’ label when I don’t see any expectation or intentionality of people becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. But it’s not always so easy to acknowledge the same limitations in myself. So here’s my antidote list:

  • What’s my motivation here? Is it truthfully about honouring Jesus or myself?
  • Who am I relying on to fulfil this step? Can I fulfil this myself, in my own strength? If so, I need to be concerned: it’s either of me or not a big enough step.
  • Am I being and remaining open to being re-filled by the Holy Spirit?
  • Am I ready and quick enough to repent and adjust my compass bearing?

What about my development as a leader? I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with my wife Maggie, (she works in education) about teaching staff promoted to a level of incompetence. Surely not me! Baptists are always going on about the fact we’re not a hierarchical organisation, but we’re immune from what became known as The Peter Principle. Apparently, Peter and Hull intended their 1969 book of the same name, to be a satire, but it became popular as it was seen to make a serious point about the shortcomings of how people are promoted within hierarchical organisations. Honestly, I see this in churches all the time. The mentality a Baptist Minister is a Baptist Minister belongs to a period of history we’re no longer living in, but churches make massive assumptions when they appoint … well, people like me (and maybe you too?).

Check out John Maxwell’s Five levels of leadership, for yourself. I find it a helpful grounding in reality to identify where I am and recognise:

  1. If I’m to grow up a level I won’t do that by neglecting those gifts, skills and capabilities already acquired and practiced.
  2. If I’m to grow up a level I won’t do that if I think I’ve moved past the need to pay attention, firstly, to myself!

John Maxwell states:

  • The first person I must know is myself – self-awareness.
  • The first person I must get along with is myself – self-image.
  • The first person to cause me problems is myself – self-honesty.
  • The first person I must change is myself – self-improvement.
  • The first person who can make a difference is myself – self-responsibility.

#commitment 3. I am re-committed to living according to God’s direction

We know a lot about the first two years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, but hardly anything is detailed about the next thirty-eight years. The presence of the Lord is not measured by the number of words:

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. (Deuteronomy 2:7) What a testimony, I’d be happy with that!

However, the next reference is more discomforting:

It took us thirty-eight years to get from Kadesh Barnea to the Brook Zered. That’s how long it took for the entire generation of soldiers from the camp to die off, as God had sworn they would. God was relentless against them until the last one was gone from the camp. (Deuteronomy 2:14-15 The Message)

God’s roundabout route is sometimes the best route he can take us, as these verses are reminding me, for several reasons and any one is enough for me:

  • I am more likely to acknowledge His presence if I take my time. ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25) comes to mind. Following the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, I had a chat with a man with a military past who reminded me (the army, navy, air force, plus representatives of the Royal Family all walked in step). He told me: ‘when you keep in step you walk forwards together, in unity’. I want to be at one with the Spirit of God.
  • I am more likely to rely on divine provision if I go at his pace and walk in his direction. Manna and quails were supplied super-naturally. My sustenance may not be as immediately, obviously, supernatural, but if I seriously believe (as I claim) this is God’s world of which we are but caretakers, my gratitude for daily bread and life will be a continuum of praise and thanksgiving.
  • I am more likely to co-operate with his purpose of transformation. The Father is intent on seeing through the ‘good work’ he began in me, which is about who I am becoming, much more than achieving any self-set targets.
  • I am more likely to live by the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message) by having to rely on God.

I’m not sure what you think about the how of following a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, but let’s think about this. A whole nomadic nation clearly didn’t break camp every single morning and move on. Maybe these thirty-eight years didn’t look so much different to my last thirty-eight years in one sense (only one, I hasten to add): we’ve lived in six different places, staying between one and fifteen years in each).

I can’t say I’ve moved a long way in four months, but I can say ‘here I am wholly available’. How about you?


This is part 4 in the 7 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the rest of the series here.

Nigel Coles

Nigel is Regional Team Leader of the West of England Baptist Network. He facilitates the life of the webnet team and oversees the missional strategy for the region. He also works to develop missional strategy over a wider geographical area with our partner Associations and Baptists Together. Nigel believes that when Jesus sent out seventy-two others, he meant everyone who was there, and this passion to help everyone find their way in the mission of God is what inspired the development of Seventy-two.