The twelve tribes of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. It was a time of purification - transitioning from their old life under Pharaoh to a new life under the direct reign of God. They were accustomed to having human rulers boss them around and give structure to their lives, but in the desert God began to teach them a new way.
In this new order, God taught the Hebrew people to rely directly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God drew nearer to them than the Hebrews ever thought possible - or even desirable! Indeed, one of the major themes of Exodus is the plea of the people that a human leader - Moses - play go-between for the congregation and God. Our spiritual ancestors were too afraid to approach the Lord themselves; they much preferred to have a human ruler to mediate divine authority.
Nevertheless, God found ways to interact directly with his fearful people, and over time the Hebrews learned to follow him in trust. We read at the very end of Exodus how the Lord gave the people a visible sign of his presence - a cloud during the day, and fire at night. The Hebrews learned that when God's tent - the Tent of Meeting - was covered with the cloud, they were to stay where they were. But when the cloud rose from the Tent of Meeting, the people knew that God was calling them to move on, to explore new territory.
Eventually, the Hebrews settled down in the promised land, and after a while they insisted on having a human king. They did not trust God to lead them directly, preferring old Pharaoh's system to God's direct reign. Though God warned them that a human monarch would make their lives miserable, the people insisted - they wanted to be like the other nations, having a human king to fight their battles for them.
In first-century Judea, there were many groups vying for supremacy. Preeminent among them was the Herodian puppet government, driven by selfish greed and subservience to Rome. There were also the Sadducees, who sought to maintain the Temple cult at all costs. Then there were the Pharisees, who believed that national restoration would only come through a strict, legalistic application of the Torah. And there were the Zealots, who looked back to the Maccabees for inspiration; they were committed to fomenting a violent revolution which would break the Roman yoke and restore the Davidic kingship. Yet, despite their claims, none of these groups presented a real alternative to Empire. At best, these groups offered a Hebrew Pharaoh in place of a Roman one.
The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God dwelled among his people in human form, submitting to our struggles and limitations. In this consummate act of solidarity, God demonstrated once and for all that he would not stand aloof while his children suffered; he became one of us, sharing our human experience and demonstrating in his own body the way to true liberation. Even today, through his resurrected presence, we experience God as dwelling immanently among us, guiding us directly. Because our world has been occupied by the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, we are freed to walk in his life and power, rather than in bondage to the empires of our day.
What does this mean for us as Friends of Jesus? How do we make sense of our heritage as the people of the God who encamps in our midst? How is the living Spirit of God moving among us today, calling us into risky action and shared sacrifice? How do we know when the cloud has lifted, that the Lord has called us to take up our tents and follow him through this desert? Are we ready to trust him, to love him, to honor him as our only King?