Sermon series: In the Wilderness

christ-in-the-wilderness-driven-by-the-spirit-1A good number of churches make use of sermon series, and a lot of thought and preparation goes into these. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to share them?! To start this off, John Allister, vicar of St Jude’s, Mapperley in Nottingham, shares details of a recent sermon series on the people of God travelling through the wilderness, and particular addressing the temptation to grumble and complain.

Why Address This Issue?

The Bible famously does not give us much in the way of direct practical guidance—where we should live or whether it’s better to be a teacher or a doctor. It focuses far more on issues of character—what sort of people we should be as Christians. It is the same with churches. The Bible gives us a few instructions about what our gatherings should be like, but it does not tell us what pattern of services to have or whether it’s more important to run a toddlers group or a student cafe. Instead it focuses more on culture, which is roughly the corporate equivalent of character. Is the culture of the church loving or judgemental? Is it friendly or confrontational?

Interestingly, the theme of culture mattering more than strategy also comes out in much secular leadership literature—Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage or Jim Collins’ Great By Choice being good examples.

One of the most deadly aspects of culture that a church can have is that of grumbling. It strips people of the joy that should be theirs in Christ and it destroys leaders. As a leadership team at St Jude’s, we realised that a culture of grumbling was a big problem in the church and had been for decades. So we decided to do something about it.

Preaching from Numbers

Probably the most important passages in the Bible that deal with grumbling are the ones detailing the journey the Israelites took from Egypt to the Promised Land, as told in Exodus 15–17 (Egypt to Sinai) and Numbers 11–14 (Sinai to the Promised Land). It’s also referred to in a number of other passages such as Psalm 95, 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 3–4. One of the major sources of inspiration early on in the preparation of the series was Jeff Manion’s book The Land Between, and a talk he gave from it at the Global Leadership Summit in 2010.

This series also gave us some valuable time to spend preaching through Old Testament narrative. The Bible tells us that all scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3.16). The Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus himself grew up with and used, yet all too often churches and preachers neglect it. We don’t want to do that, and we want to model how to handle it in a godly way so that the people in the pews have more confidence in reading it for themselves.

The situation of the Israelites in the wilderness has for centuries been seen as similar to that of Christians today – what is often called the now and the not yet. We have been rescued by God from slavery and oppression. We have his presence with us and a foretaste of the future joys, but we do not yet have the fullness of the good things that have been promised to us. We are no longer slaves in Egypt, but we aren’t in the Promised Land yet.


Good preaching commentaries on this part of the Old Testament are rare. Books I used were:

Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus (BST) – the section on Exodus 16-17 is good but much too brief
Douglas Stuart, Exodus (NAC) – quite a heavyweight commentary, a lot of detail
Gordon Wenham, Numbers (Tyndale) – good but too brief
Timothy Ashley, Numbers (NICOT) – a lot of detail, much of it not especially useful for the preacher
Iain Duguid, Numbers (Preaching the Word) – brilliant, clearly designed for preachers. I disagreed with Duguid about 20% of the time, but both agreeing with him and arguing with him were very helpful!

Jeff Manion, The Land Between – I found it a wonderful inspiration to start with, but the more I dug into the text, the more I found to disagree with. His talk at the GLS was brilliant though as a single sermon on Numbers 11.

Of those, I bought The Land Between and Duguid specifically for preparing this series; I had the others anyway.
In many ways, I found good songs more inspiring on these passages, which is unusual for me. In particular:
Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer, William Williams

In the Wilderness, Michael Card.

“In the Wilderness” is the literal translation of the Hebrew title for the book of Numbers, and I used it as a title for the series.

What Did the Series Look Like?

There were nine sermons in the series, on nine nearly consecutive Sundays one autumn.

  1. Exodus 16:1-18 – Bread from Heaven

2016-02-02 (1)God has led his people into the wilderness for a specific reason – he wants his people to learn that they need him far more than they need food or drink. He wants his people to learn to walk with him, trusting him as their God, and that they can see this by the way that he feeds them. The passage itself is carefully structured to emphasise this.

  1. Exodus 17:1-7 & Psalm 95 – Hard Hearts

The people were faced with a choice, though they didn’t realise it. They looked like they were running out of water again, so they started complaining and accusing Moses of leading them to die in the desert.

Their real problem, though, was that they were hard-hearted. They hadn’t let anything that God had done for them over the last 3 months or so affect their hearts. If they had been soft-hearted towards God, then they would have looked at the plagues, the Red Sea, the Passover, the twice already he’d provided them with water (Ex 15) and the daily provision of manna and one-off provision of quail (Ex 16). They’d have seen that God provided for them and cared for them; they’d have let his love change their hearts, and they’d have started to trust him. As it was, they doubted whether he was even with them (Ex 17:7).

Difficult times are a great opportunity for us to trust God’s goodness to us and praise him for everything he has already done for us. Let’s worship him full-heartedly!

  1. Numbers 11:1-9 – The People Complain

The headings we used for looking at this passage were:

  • Complaining is Contagious – it started in the hangers-on rather than the Israelites, but they let themselves get infected. How often do we do the same?
  • Complaining Distorts the Past – they looked back to their time in Egypt and only remembered the food, forgetting the slavery, mistreatment and massacres of their children!
  • Complaining Distorts the Present – the passage shows us how good manna was, but the Israelites objected to it anyway. It’s really important to remember all the ways God has been good to us and praise him for those.
  • Complaining Forgets the Future – they are meant to be on a journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but they have completely lost sight of their goal. We need to keep our sights on our final destination to help us in the present!
  1. Numbers 11:10-17 Moses Complains

These verses represent a turning point for Moses. Before this, he has saved the nation three times by praying for them. He never does that again; instead we keep on seeing challenges to his leadership. The people’s complaining breaks him. Worst of all are their unrealistic expectations – they expect him to do what only God can, and he starts to expect the same of himself, then finds himself unable to meet those expectations and instead becomes suicidal. How can we cope in that sort of situation? 1) Hold onto God for rescue 2) Be realistic – what is our job, what should other people do and what can only God do? 3) Keep coming back to the gospel – our only priority is to follow Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

  1. Numbers 11:24-30 God’s Antidote to Grumbling

In a remarkable incident, God answers some of Moses’ prayer by providing more leaders for the people. Specifically, he pours out his Spirit on seventy elders. We see that the Spirit gives us a deeper experience of God, the Spirit enables us to speak for God (e.g. Eph 5:18-21) and the Spirit means everyone is important but no-one is indispensable. Are we feeling like grumbling? Ask God for a deeper experience of his Spirit, ask God for opportunities to encourage others and see if you can find others to carry the weight of things you don’t feel you can do.

  1. Numbers 11:18-34 Angry Birds

We often remember that God is Love, and rightly so. But the Bible also shows us that God is Light, and there are passages like this one that show us that he still judges sin. What can we see about our God of love?

We see that God judges the worst offenders to give the rest of the people a chance. The annual quail migration was passing again. One year before, God had taken a patient attitude to their complaining and provided them with quail. But now they have nearly reached the Promised Land. Time is running out, so it is time for more of a boot-camp approach. The worst offenders die, in the hope it will save the rest of the nation from suffering the same fate. We see too that God’s judgement works through the natural consequences of the people’s sin. Ps 78:27-31 makes it clear it was the people who ate far too much quail who died, as a consequence of their ingratitude and gluttony. But far beyond God’s judgement here, we see that if we trust Jesus, God has himself taken the punishment that we so richly deserve.

  1. Numbers 12 Complaining and Bigotry

We see yet another complaint against Moses from the people. This time it is his own family grumbling, and their grumbling leads them into racism, specifically against Moses’ black wife. God’s response is dramatic – he gives Miriam a skin disease which makes her unnaturally white and cuts her off from God’s people. Grumbling often leads to scapegoating, prejudice and even racism. God didn’t tolerate it then and he won’t tolerate it now.

  1. Numbers 13-14 Anatomy of a Disaster

The people had the perfect opportunity to enter the Promised Land, and they blew it. The problems start in Numbers 13.27 – the scouts don’t look at God but instead look at the opposition. They then responded in fear and let their fear distort the facts (vv 31-32). The fear then affected their sense of self-worth (v33). So they grumbled and doubted God. His response (14.11) was to say that they had treated him with contempt. We sometimes do the same when we accept the world’s opinion of us rather than God’s. Joshua and Caleb instead show us what real faith looks like – they see the opposition through the eyes of faith and God responds in generosity (14.24). What challenges do we face? Do we see them with the eyes of fear or faith? Do we treat God with contempt, or do we follow him wholeheartedly?

  1. Matthew 3:14-4:11 Jesus in the Wilderness

Matthew has been presenting Jesus as the True Israel – the embodiment of the Perfect People of God. Israel failed in the wilderness. Jesus deliberately re-enacts it – Israel survived on their own food for 40 days; Jesus goes without food for 40 days. He faces the same sorts of temptations that Israel did, but he realises that if God is with him he doesn’t need to worry about provision – unlike Israel who thought they were going to starve to death; he doesn’t feel the need to prove that God is with him – unlike Israel who asked whether God was with them or not; Jesus could not be bought off even in exchange for the whole world. So we need not be afraid when facing the devil’s schemes – we have Jesus with us and in us, and he has utterly beaten the devil and his schemes. In Jesus, God accepts us completely and without reservation.

If you would like to know more about this series, contact John through the St Jude’s website. If you have a sermon series you would like to offer, send me a message through the contact page or on Facebook.

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7 thoughts on “Sermon series: In the Wilderness”

  1. Thanks for this. I think many of us spend quite a lot of our lives in wilderness in some way or another, and reflections on how to live there with faith, hope and courage are things we need to preach / hear / practice. When I had a year of treatment for cancer, my main Biblical story for make sense of it was wilderness: I had to learn how to recognise and follow God when all my usual landmarks were gone, there were no signposts, I was disconnected from my usual patterns of worship, each day felt like another purposeless wander, and God was present in new and nebulous ways of smoky cloud and fire at night. Maybe there’s a sermon series in all that?

  2. Great Ian, as usual. What about something also on the point God never intended His people to spend so long in the wilderness – it is a place to pass through not to dwell in. Too many sermons that I have heard leave the congregation thinking ‘God meant me to be here so I just have to grin and bear it ….”

    • Nigel that is true. But it is also true that the ‘in between’ of the desert wilderness experience forms a foundational theological paradigm for Christian living in the NT. We have been set free from the slavery of sin, but we have not yet entered the promised land of perfection in God’s presence.

      I know this can be misused, but it also is a protection against an over-realised eschatology which is sometimes a problem in charismatic circles.

      And do you have a sermon series you would like to offer…?


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