This is the final week of our series, Into the Wilderness.
We've been following the Israelites as they've struggled through water shortages, food shortages, and lots and lots of grumbling and complaining. Every time they face a new crisis, though, God comes through for them.
And as we've talked about, these stories are in our Bibles for a reason. Each one has been handed down from generation to generation to help us all understand what life is like living in the wilderness - in our case, the wilderness of a broken world.
Every one of us faces wilderness in our lives - depression, broken relationships, losing a job, illness, grief - and these stories speak to that.
In every one, the big idea is the same: God has not abandoned you in the wilderness. You can trust him to see you through.
He did it back then and he'll do it now.
So, Exodus 17. God gave the Israelites water from a rock. But then, in verse 8, out of nowhere, the people are attacked.
While the people of Israel were still at Rephidim, the warriors of Amalek attacked them. Moses commanded Joshua, ""Choose some men to go out and fight the army of Amalek for us. Tomorrow, I will stand at the top of the hill, holding the staff of God in my hand.""
Ok. When you're reading through Exodus, this story kind of comes out of nowhere. Who in the world are the warriors of Amalek? Why are they attacking the Israelites? They're in the wilderness and all of a sudden they're at war?
What we have here is something the Hebrew Bible does a lot.
In the Old Testament, storytelling looks a lot different than it does today. In our culture, when you tell a story, you want to put in as much detail as you possibly can - how did things look? How did things sound and smell? What were characters thinking and feeling?
In the Hebrew Bible, though, narrative is far simpler. The authors rarely, if ever, give us the details we're longing for. ""And so Adam and Eve lived in the Garden. And then the serpent came to them and said...""
""Wait. There's a serpent? It can talk? Can all the animals talk? How did Eve feel about this talking snake? Give me details!!!""
But that's not how the Bible works. It's Jewish meditation literature, remember, and the sparse details in the story force us to stop and ponder, to pray and meditate.
Because 9 times out of 10, the simple words we read are intentionally designed to point to profoundly deep truths. And they come alive when you've been reading and meditating on other parts of the Bible as well.
For the ancient Israelite readers, who read and studied these words day and night, the Amalekites showing up out of nowhere would have made a lot of sense.
We read in Genesis that Amalek (the father of the Amalekties) was the grandson of Esau. Esau was the brother of Jacob, also known as Israel (the father of the twelve tribes of Israel). And in that story, there's tension between Jacob and Esau about who is the chosen son.
So the Amalekites were essentially distant cousins of these Israelites wandering in the wilderness (and there is a bit of family resentment there).
In the next chapter, we meet some other distant cousins - the Midianites. Midian was one of the other sons of Abraham. And, at least in Exodus, the Midianites are pretty helpful to Israel.
So you've got these three lines all coming down from the same family. The Israelites, the Midianites, and the Amalekites. What matters in this story, is how they respond to the promises of God.
Back in Genesis 28, God tells Jacob (a.k.a. Israel, the great uncle of Amalek and the half-nephew of Midian),
Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth!... And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What's more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land.""
So. There is a promised land for the Israelites. God will protect them and bring them back to it. That's what's happening in Exodus.
The promise goes on, though: all the families of the earth will be blessed through them. Which means God was going to bless the Amalekites and Midianites because of Israel.
How do the different families respond to this promise in this story? Well, the Midianites bless Israel and help them out. The Amalekites go to war. They don't want the Israelites on their land, so they try to snuff them out.
And according to Deuteronomy 25, they didn't just attack the Israelite army. They pounced when Israel was exhausted and weary, and hunted down the old and weak stragglers first. Ruthless.
So, if you're an ancient Jewish reader of this story, and you've meditated on the Bible for years, this account, with its sparse words and lack of detail actually comes alive with layers of meaning.
The Amalekites weren't just wandering mercenaries. They were a nation seeking to stand in the way of the promises of God.
This story is not just about a random battle. This story is about whether God will keep his promises when the world wants anything but...
And remember, these stories have been passed down from generation to generation on purpose. Although they are about historical events, they also describe the realities of the wilderness of our broken world.
God has made promises to you. He will see you through this wilderness. He will bring you to the Promised Land - the New Creation. Life. Harmony. Provision. Joy. Peace. That's what lies ahead. That's what's been promised through Jesus.
What happens when those promises are threatened by forces beyond your control? What happens when the Amalekites show up and try to snuff you out? Let's keep reading.
THE STAFF OF GOD
So Joshua did what Moses had commanded and fought the army of Amalek. Meanwhile, Moses, Aaron, and Hur climbed to the top of a nearby hill. As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. Moses' arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.
After the victory, the LORD instructed Moses, ""Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven."" Moses built an altar there and named it Yahweh-Nissi (which means ""the LORD is my banner""). He said, ""They have raised their fist against the LORD's throne, so now the LORD will be at war with Amalek generation after generation.""
I find this to be one of most powerful and evocative moments in this whole wilderness storyline. The imagery is incredible.
Moses, holding up his staff until sunset while his friends support his arms.
Now, again. The story keeps the details pretty sparse. Was Moses praying? Who is Hur? How many people were fighting?
Again, the story doesn't tell us much. But what it does show us is laden with meaning.
For example, the staff. Throughout the entire Exodus story, Moses' staff represents trust in God's power and provision.
- With this staff in Moses' hands, God sends the plagues on the Egyptians.
- With this staff in Moses' hands, God parts the Red Sea.
- With this staff in Moses' hands, God brings water out of the rock.
There's nothing magical about the staff. Moses is not Gandalf.
It was just a piece of wood Moses used when he was a shepherd. Something for Moses to lean on while waiting for his sheep to finish their lunch. But now, when Moses uses this staff, it's a symbolic act which loudly proclaims, ""I trust you, God!""
Or, as it says in verse 15, Yahweh Nissi. ""The Lord is my Banner.""
In ancient warfare, flags and banners flying over an army told everyone who you were fighting for.
""Oh look! It's the army of so-and-so!"" ""I fight for this king.""
When the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, this piece of wood - this shepherd's staff - became a banner on the hillside, and the message was clear: this army belongs to the Lord and HE is our strength.
Yet again, God works in object lessons. When the staff is raised - when the people trust in God to deliver them - they have success in battle. When the staff (the banner) is lowered - if the people try to rely on their own strength - they start to lose.
Our spiritual ancestors passed this story down to us to teach us something:
When we are in the wilderness, trusting in God's strength - raising his banner - is the only way we can make it through. We're not strong enough, we're not smart enough, we're not clever enough - to overcome the brokenness of our world on our own.
When we are in the wilderness we must trust in God to see us through.
But... What do we do when our strength starts to fade? What do we do when our trust starts to waver? When our arms get a little shaky?
It's in those moments we must remember that we do not face this wilderness alone. Yes, God is with us, but so is our community.
Look again at verse 12. Aaron and Hur ""stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset."" Symbolically, they helped Moses trust God when couldn't on his own.
This is why no Christ-follower is an island. We need one another. We need community. Because on your own, yes. Your trust can start to waver.
When you've been battling that disease for years, it's hard to keep trusting, isn't it?
When you're depressed, again, that staff feels awfully heavy.
When you have people constantly undermining you, how long can you really hold out hope?
Your trust can falter in the wilderness. But in those moments - in the church? In the body of Christ? - your spiritual family can trust with you.
Because you are not in this wilderness alone.
And I want to demonstrate that right now.
I'm going to ask you to be brave and do something that might feel a little awkward. But at all three of our campuses: if you're in an intense wilderness right now and feel alone, would you stand?
Stand if you feel thirsty or hungry in the wilderness you're facing. Stand if you feel you're being attacked when you're at your weakest. Stand if you feel something is fighting against the promises of God in your life.
I want to pray over you. I want to pray for God's deliverance. For God's provision.
Ok. Stay standing. Now here's the part I need you to trust me: I want you to know you are not alone. If you are near one of these standing people, would you please stand with them?
Those of you in that wilderness, like Moses please lift your arms as I pray - lift your banner - this is an act of trust that God will see you through. And if you are willing, let the people around you hold your arms up while I pray.
If you'd prefer not to have people touch you, you can put your palms up in front of you and the people around you will simply stand with you. In fact, I'd like the whole church to stand.
As I pray, I want this to be a physical reminder that you are not alone. God is with you, and so are we.
If you're in the wilderness lift up your arms. ""The Lord is my Banner""
Friends, please don't leave this service today without receiving further prayer if you need it. You don't have to go through this wilderness alone. The Lord is our banner. And we are with you!