|Series Theme: Wilderness Meditations|
Wilderness Meditations: 1. Welcome to the Wilderness
Num 20:4 “Why did you bring the Lord 's community into this wilderness?”
A Type? For a while now this picture of ‘wilderness' has been with me and I know it has been taken up more than once by others in these days. In my early Christian years, I studied ‘types' and looking up my notes I observe I wrote:
“we see Israel's wilderness experience especially in Exodus & Numbers. It was entered at the direction of God after the Passover with the enemy of the world left behind after the crossing of the Red Sea. As a "Type" it is illustrative of the life of the called-out child of God, separated from the world (Egypt) and Satan (Pharaoh) (see 2 Cor 6:16 -18) and is entered only through death to self (see Rom 6:2,11 / Col 2:20) It was supposed to be a limited experience through which they were to pass through in order to enter the Promised Land. We too are called to go on to maturity (see Heb 6:11-14/ Eph 4:13-15). It was a place of knowing God's daily provision f or basic needs e.g. food, water, general guidance. We need to learn to: i) feed on him to be strong (see Jn 6:57 / Heb 5:14 ), ii) drink of the Spirit (see Jn 7:37 -39) iii) receive his guidance (see Gal 5:25 ).”
But More: As a ‘type' I think that is all correct and yet the quick use of a concordance shows that the wilderness appears many more times and provides us with extensive resources for meditation, each instant saying something different to us. A wilderness tends to be a place of trials and hardship, with difficulties of provision and navigation. In this year of 2020, many believers, if not all of us at some time or other, have struggled with the restrictions imposed on our lives by the Covid-19 Pandemic. Doctors worry that the effects of mental stress may turn out to be almost as great as the effect of the virus itself.
Why the Wilderness: “Why did you bring the Lord 's community into this wilderness?” Now those words were spoken by the people who challenged Moses under trying circumstances, having travelled as far as Rephidim in the ‘Wilderness of Sin'. His response was not to give an answer but to fall on his face before the Lord, and then the Lord turned up with a miracle of provision.
There is a mystery of why Moses led them on the route he did through desert wildernesses and through inhospitable mountains instead of taking the much shorter ‘Way of the Land of the Philistines' north and east along the coast. Maybe it was fear of the Philistines, maybe the route they took was much better known by Moses, originally to the old Egyptian turquoise and copper mines in western Sinai, maybe because it was an area with which he had become familiar in his shepherding years. Having said all that, it was a route designated by God that took them to the divine encounter on Sinai and the establishing there of the covenant of Ex 19. They were in this wilderness because God had led them there. Having said that, it was supposed to be only of limited duration and throughout their journeyings they would learn much about the Lord, about His intentions towards them, and His care for them. Without the wilderness experience none of these things would have happened.
And Today? But the question was provoked by need. In this case it was of water, but in our case when people struggle to cope with the effects of lockdown it is a very varied need – for reassurance, for reasons why lockdown, for peace, for grace to cope, for wisdom to cope, and so on.
Many Christians have pondered, “Did God bring this about?” but the better question is, “What does He want to teach us through this time?” Maybe He did it by lifting off His hand of restraint and protection from scientists in China who then got it wrong, but even so, what have I learned so far from this time? What will I yet learn from the uncertain days ahead? Can I turn this from a time of questioning God to questioning me, as He seeks to bless and teach me to walk with head held high through these new days. Some questions to be asked and answered. The lessons of Israel in the wilderness are equally true for us today. As we said above, they would learn much about the Lord, about His intentions towards them, and His care for them.
And us? So the question must be asked, have I a teachable spirit? Have I just struggled, whether in the Pandemic lockdown or any other ‘wilderness experience', and felt miserable, or have I used the time as an opportunity to draw nearer to the Lord, to sense His presence, to learn more about Him? Have I learned something about the resources that His word speaks about that maybe I have been casual about previously? Have I learned to draw on those resources? Have I learned to be a resource for other people who don't have these resources?
And So? And so God may not have directly brought this plague which appears more likely to have originated in the sin of mankind, but He will surely make use of it, to reveal the hearts of men and women (and that includes us), and to offer them His presence in a place of trial and difficulty. It may be of mankind's making but it may yet be used to reveal the glory of the Lord.
Wilderness Meditations: 2. Reality brings Worship
Ex 7:16 “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness
Back to Basics: In 1647 the Westminster Larger Catechism, a series of question and answers for teaching believers, started out: Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer: Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever. The truth is that ‘glorifying God' is the right and natural response of a man or woman who has encountered God and realised how wonderful He is. Many Christians today, I believe, have lost sight of His glory and although some utter words that we call worship, it is only a very few who really pour out a heart response that is the automatic natural response of encountering God.
Decline in Thinking: The enemy has been at work over recent centuries and most of us have not been aware of it. One writer plotted the inadvertent ‘descent of man' and his corresponding thoughts about God through a variety of thinkers and scientists: Copernicus discovered that the earth was not the centre of the universe. We are but a speck of dust in the cosmos. Newton provoked investigation into the age of the earth. Today it is considered 4.54 billion years old. Mankind is just a marker at the end of existence. Spinoza , taught us that to the extent that we are physical beings, we are subject to physical laws, all of which have the character of necessity. Determinism followed. No freedom. Marx argued that the whole of human history was shaped by economic forces. Darwin , concluded that human beings were just one branch of the primates. Freud , maintained we are driven by sex instinct and the death instinct. So we are all accidents, there is no meaning, no God, no man made in the image of God. That is how ‘thinking' flowed through the centuries and this is what is taught today, this is the ethos in which our children are brought up, not that God created all of what we know, every atom and molecule in existence and us in His image.
And then Covid-19 and Wilderness. Suddenly people are going online to investigate church, the conduit to God. Suddenly people are going online for services, suddenly more Bibles are being sold. It would appear that Solomon's words, “He has … set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) are rising to the surface of our consciousness in a new way – there is more to life than material things. It is early days, but is it the start of a new seeking after God? When leaders and scientists are changing their minds so often, who is there to bring certainty? God perhaps.
Resist Oppression: The people of God were oppressed by Pharaoh in Egypt. He held them in slavery. The apostle John was under the distinct impression that that is how it is with Satan and the unbelieving world today: “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). But we have been set free from his oppressive slavery. And yet, s o often, the enemy seeks to oppress the people of God living in this fallen world with negative thoughts and feelings, but God says to him, “Back off! Let me people go so that they may each day worship me IN this wilderness!”
Will you rise up and cast off the negatives that the enemy brings through the media and others, cast off thoughts of conspiracy theories and all the rest of the rubbish he would use to pull us down into confusion. We ARE the people of God!!!!! He has delivered us out of Egypt. He's with us. Worship Him! Do what you're made to do, upset the enemy with truth. Worship the Lord God Almighty! This is a place of worship!
Regaining Perspective: The truth is that God and God alone is worthy of worship. It doesn't matter where you are, in the valley in the shadow of death or on a mountaintop bathed in sunshine and hope, that fact remains exactly the same – God is worthy of our worship. Failure to worship indicates a failure to realize who He really is, the all-mighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, eternal, never changing, Creator of all things, Lord of all things. Merely because He does not tower over the world bellowing, “I am God, worship me you puny beings,” merely because He does not scare us into oblivion with His might, His holiness, His awesomeness, don't think that He is not worthy of your adoration.
If the experience of lock-down has caused you anxiety, if it has left you wondering and fearful, if it has left you devastated at the loss of a loved one or even a job or a business, don't let your anguish dominate you and pull you down so that you almost feel like giving up life itself. These realities are painful but they are not the whole picture and to be able to see that, maybe we are going to have to wait until we come out the other side, come out of the valley in the shadow of death and be able stand once again on the heights and look down and see the full panorama – and wonder. And when we see the end result we will bow and worship. So, as a child of God, why not bring that future into the present and by faith worship Him – He does know what He is doing in the midst of the Pandemic brought about by human failure. He is working for our good and the good of the world in the midst of it. It may appear dark under the shadow of death sometimes, but let Him lift you up by the Spirit to be above it and catch the big view so when you come down again, you can worship here in the wilderness while we wait the outcome. As you do it, watch how your spirit will be lifted. Worship brings the reality to the fore and that dispels the half-truths. Do it.
Wilderness Meditations: 3. Dining with God in the Wilderness
Psa 78:19 “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”
Varied Landscapes: In a natural wilderness food and water are in short supply. It is a strange thing but the Promised Land was a place of great provision and yet also terrain that sometimes went by the name, wilderness. There was land in the north near Dothan they called wilderness (Gen 37:12,22). There was the Desert of Beersheba to the south (Gen 21:14), the desert of Paran, to the south of the land (Gen 21:21), the wilderness of Judea, the land to the west side of the Jordan valley (Mt 3:1). Yes, in many ways a land of contrasts. And isn't that just how life is, a history of contrasts. Sometimes we go through times of great abundance, and other times they are times of great shortage.
Spiritual Variations: Our trouble is that we tend to only measure these times in terms of material things, but the truth is that there can also be varied times spiritually. There can be times when we know great spiritual blessing and there can be times when the Lord seems miles away and we feel spiritually barren and empty. Another thing to be noted is that the material and the spiritual don't always run in parallel. We can be materially very well off but spiritually barren (usually without realising it!). Alternatively we can be materially poor but spiritually very rich.
Israel Struggling: “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psa 78:19) This was Israel in negative mode, the psalmist recalling how they hadn't handled the limitations of their time in the wilderness well. Asaph the psalmist recounts how God had been there for Israel prior to their travelling through the desert (not a place to stay forever!) but they had forgotten His blessings, His provisions so far. They had forgotten His miracles of deliverance from Egypt. This of course in now before they reached the land, probably in the Sinai Peninsular wildernesses, a place, as we noted previously designated by God for them to pass through where they would learn a number of things from Him and about Him.
Present Wilderness: Many people have felt their early months of the 2020 Pandemic crisis to have been a wilderness experience for them. Previously, in the West at least, we had freedom and abundance. If we wanted to go out for coffee or shopping, we could. With the lockdown for some three to four months, that was all curtailed. Most shops (except the essentials such a food stores) were shut, restaurants and cafes were shut. Our gymnasiums, health and fitness clubs were shut; all things that made for affluent Western lifestyles were removed. Suddenly we were in a wilderness. But that was just the material side of it all. I believe, without realising it, most of the church has been in a spiritual wilderness. I recently heard a well-known church leader say, “the truth is that we have been deeply ineffectual as churches and denominations. There is very little evidence of the power of God among us and virtually no evidence of the transformation of society because of us.” I thought that was remarkable in its brevity and its accuracy! But it also says we have been in a spiritual wilderness without realising it, long before Covid-19 arrived.
Can it change? That is what the Israelites asked of Moses in the wilderness when they asked about God's provision. Can God provide for us under these circumstances. This wilderness, these circumstances, are devoid of life, devoid of provision (and we don't know how long we will be here!) That picture used by Asaph is very graphic isn't it: “spread a table in the wilderness”. On another occasion they declared, “ We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Num 11:5) They had lived fairly well previously (and had not realised it and taken it for granted) even though they had been slaves. Now they are complaining because they cannot see how God could provide such abundance in a wilderness! By definition, a wilderness or desert is a place of limitation and shortage. The challenge they experienced is the same one we experience. Every difficulty brings a challenge with it: can I trust God in this time to provide for me, care for me, protect me – however long it continues?
Jehovah Jireh: How often we delight in hearing the teaching - Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides (Gen 22:14) – but we hear it in good times and so now, is it still true in the wilderness? Of course it is! We may be in a time of diminishing resources, fewer things available to us, but that doesn't matter when God is with you. He knows our need: “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.” (Mt 6:31,32) How are we to respond? The Message version puts it well: “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (Mt 6:33) That is the truth and with an uncertain economic future we may need to hold on to that more than we've ever done before. Perhaps this is a time when we'll learn the truth and reality of Jesus' promise here.
Be Encouraged: In the meantime, Isaiah cried out, “To the testimony!” (Isa 8:20 NKJV) i.e. remember your testimony, remember what God has done for you so far, let that be an anchor for you! Struggling? Remember what God has done for you so far. Praise Him for it and watch your spirit rise.
Wilderness Meditations: 4. Handling Finances
Psa 78:19 “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”
Past Uncertainties: Writing this in the run up to Fall in 2020, we can look back to the months of lockdown, and see the months of uncertainty about how the virus is passed on, whether you remain immune once you've had it, whether younger people are less vulnerable, what are the outcomes after you've had it, will you survive if you catch it, is testing important and does it work, and when will a vaccine be available?
Future Wonderings: Those were the survival uncertainties but as we gaze into the future (and if you read this in years to come you'll know some of the answers) there are the consequences of the Pandemic, the economic consequences, that will be seen in respect of rebuilding businesses and even entire industries, coping with mass unemployment, changes in medical provision, changes in education provision, that are impacted by the financial mess left by the Pandemic and the things governments all round the world had to do to help people, firms, businesses etc. survive, that have left a financial and economic wilderness. This is the perspective from this time and in many ways the picture looks more like a lunar landscape than those lush green lands we've known in the past. If this perspective is half-way true, then we who are the people of God have the greatest opportunity before us we've ever known, but it does involve us first of all learning the reality of the God who provides.
Financial Provision: I think financial provision is a bit like healing – sometimes God involves Himself and sometimes He leaves us to play our part. Take healing as an illustration. If we abuse our bodies with over-eating, alcohol excess or drug abuse, or simply never take exercise, we should take responsibility for our state. Repentance may open the door for the Lord to step in or maybe He will require us to get human help or start exercising self-control (Gal 5:23, Titus 2:6, 2 Pet 1:8).
When it comes to finances and the Christian, the starting point has to be a right attitude. When Jesus taught, “You cannot serve both God and money,” (Mt 6:24) he was saying you always need to put God above getting money and, as we've already seen said that when we seek God's will and put it first, THEN the Lord will provide for all we need. (Mt 6:33) Note ‘need' not ‘want'. Having a generous heart towards others in need (2 Cor 9:6 etc.). In fact caring for those less well off is also part of the package (1 Jn 3:17) and in the days to come these elements may prove to be essential:
that we put God before finances, putting our trust in Him and in His will,
that we learn to be wise and not extravagant in the way we use our money,
yet we are generous towards others,
and we make a point of meeting needs of other less well off.
God's Provision: Now let's assume we've got each of these things in place and have an open heart to the Lord, then however hard the wilderness is, we need to hold onto that confidence in Him, that trust in Him, that He will be there for us. Now I believe there are two ways of thinking we need to be clear about:
the way that knows God can provide without our involvement,
the way that knows God will enable us to see ways of provision.
Now there have been plenty of testimonies through history of the way God turns up and provides for His people – outside their activities. Sometimes that provision is putting giving on the hearts of some of His saints to provide for you. When I was a young penniless Christian, a friend and I felt it was right to leaflet the entire area at Christmas time. We did it two years running. Each year the cost amounted to what today would probably be in excess of a thousand, and each year the Lord provided to within a few pennies of the sum spent, I presume by simply putting it on the hearts of other Christians who heard what we were doing. Some people are called to ‘live by faith – the Schaeffer's who, last century, set up the Christian retreat called L'Abri in Switzerland (read the book by the same name to be blessed) were a family who experienced this in action. There have been many others. Perhaps asking the Lord to give you the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9a) may open the door to a new area of service, yes, even in the wilderness.
But finances can come through ways brought about by us when we are inspired by the Lord. When we know He is with us in this wilderness, when we trust Him, put Him first, look to Him, then we can find that new ideas, new creativity, new hope, can spring forth, maybe new businesses, new approaches to how we do things. Having the debris of yesterdays that didn't work being cleared away, makes space for the Lord to lead and inspire us if we are open to it. Don't try reasoning it out. It starts behind the closed door of your ‘quiet time' as you read His word, pray, wait on Him, seek His face and His will, be still before Him and listen. That is where the fresh resources come, the new ideas come, the fresh inspiration comes from the Creator God who is wiser than we are, knows how things work better than we do, can see into the future and know how various things would work, so He can guide us with what we call ‘wisdom'. It's a new day with new possibilities. In the world it's tough. In God are ANSWERS!
Wilderness Meditations: 5. Using today's provisions
Psa 78:19 “they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”
Jn 6:31 “ Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.”
Recapping: In the last two studies we have been focusing on the realities of receiving from the Lord in the wilderness. First we faced the possibility of unbelief over this matter of God being our provider. Then we went on to consider various aspects of our side of the equation – about having a heart focused on God and not on money, having a generous and caring heart that can provide for others. But there is yet a further aspect of being a receiver of God's provision, especially in wilderness times.
The Place of Testing: The wilderness is a place of challenge and for the believer, a place of trial and testing. It is both a place of learning and also of proving the depth of our faith. In days of plenty and unfettered freedom, it is easy to be happy and contented, but when we enter a season of time in the wilderness, we are challenged over the question of provision and contentedness. It also challenges us as to whether we can both remain in peace as we trust God for provision and whether we can hear God as we considered yesterday, to be creative and act with wisdom so that He may provide in that way if He wishes. But behind this there is yet another principle we haven't yet touched upon.
The Example of the Manna: So we are considering the whole question of God providing for us in the wilderness and the obvious historical example of this was the manna He provided for Israel for forty years in the wilderness: “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled.” (Ex 16:35) What is especially remarkable about that is that it was supposed to be provision for only a few months but when Israel refused to enter the Promised Land and had to wait forty years in the wilderness, the Lord carried on providing it for them. But there is one particular aspect of the manna that I want us to focus on today. Not so much the fact that it was a daily miraculous provision from God, but more from the fact that it was His provision for them for five days each week, for them to use on the day, and if they kept it longer, it went off. Yet, on the sixth day they were to collect double, part to use on that sixth day and part to use the next day, the Sabbath – and it didn't go off on the Sabbath!
Talents: There is more than one parable that uses talents or minas or bags of gold as the provision handed out. In Mt 25:14-30 in the NIV it is bags of gold, in the ESV it is talents, but the message is the same. The house owner hands out 10, 5 and 1 talent to his servants and when he returns home it is clear he expected them to have used and multiplied what he had given each of them. The one who declared, “ I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground,” (v.25) was thoroughly chastised. I would suggest there are two implications here. First, the more obvious one that we usually latch onto, is that God expects us to use all He has given us, to bless ourselves, to bless others, to bless the world and to bless Him. The second implication is that of relationship, how we view God. The third man saw Him as “a hard man” (v.24). He had a wrong understanding of his master, and that inhibited the way he lived.
How we view God: I believe the time of the Pandemic is a time of revelation, of the hearts of men and women. How people cope – or don't cope – is an indicator of the resources they have. Believers should be those who have unlimited resources that are drawn upon as we go each morning to the fount that is Jesus. But part of it is how we view Jesus? As we suggested in the first of these studies, I don't believe he is the cause of the Pandemic except in as far as he may have taken his hand of protection off Chinese scientists who then got it wrong and allowed it to escape into the world from the bats they had been investigating. It is more helpful to ask, ‘what can I learn from this,' rather than worry about its origins, but that goes right back to how we view God.
To take a very basic biblical teaching: God is perfect. When something is perfect it cannot be improved upon and so in no way when you think about what God thinks, says or does, can you imagine there being a better way. We will not be able to know that of a certainty until we come face to face with him in heaven, but in the meantime it is a matter of faith and trust. Sin mars our thinking, our perception, our understanding, and it is for those reasons we can find ourselves listening to the enemy who whispers, “He is a hard man!” No He's not. Satan is a liar.
Questions: In the wilderness the outlook is sparse and barren but with Him there with us, our resources are never in question, His love for us is never in question and so that leaves us with a question: have I received what I have as a gift from Him to be used joyfully and thankfully and fruitfully? On the other side of the coin, the question might be, have I taken for granted all the good things I have known in my life, all the good things that have happened in my life and have I therefore been ungrateful? To these we must add, am I using what He has given me to bless others, close family, friends and others He puts before me? Are my resources growing because I am using them and are they blessing others?
Wilderness Meditations: 6. Reading the Signs
Num 14:22 “the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness.”
Context: The danger of taking part verses as a basis for meditation is that you can take it completely out of context and thus lose some of the importance of it. Num 14 recounts another of Israel's moaning and grumbling times followed by the Lord testing Moses' heart yet again when He threatens to destroy the people (v.12). Moses again pleads for Israel (v.13-19) and the Lord accepts his plea but says they will die in the wilderness over the next forty years, allowing only those currently twenty years old or younger to go in (v.20-35) The reference to the signs He performed comes therefore as a reminder of what He had provided for them but which they had ignored. The miracles of deliverance from Egypt and the miracles of provision in the desert should have acted as signs that pointed to the Lord's goodness and acted as a basis for faith to believe Him so they could take the Land – but they didn't!
The Purpose of Signs: Each one of the ten plagues in Egypt that the Lord now refers to as ‘signs' were intended to grab Pharaoh's attention, pointing him to the fact that he was dealing with One who was infinitely more powerful than he was. (see the references to those miracles as ‘signs' in Ex 7:3, 10:1,2, 14:11, Deut 4:34, 6:22, 7:19, 11:3, 26:8, 29:3, 34:11) The ‘signs' in the wilderness (linked in some of the above verses) were miracles of provision, again partly intended to teach Israel about the wonder of the God who was about to lead them into the Promised Land.
Signs are meant to Encourage: The wise men were told, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:12) i.e. you'll know you've arrived when you find a stable with a baby in it! (Implication: there aren't too many of those around!!!) ‘Signs' draw your attention so, for example the disciples asked of Jesus, “Teacher ..when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” (Lk 21:7) and his reply was, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven,” (Lk 21:11) and, “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.” (Lk 21:25) Now some of those things appear extraordinary and may yet come, but others of them are things that occur quite often in history. It is almost as if Jesus is just saying, every time you see some of these things, just keep looking upwards and remember, I AM coming again.
But! Yet there is another aspect of this. We have said that signs are there for those with eyes to see, but if you keep asking for signs it is clear you don't have eyes to see. Seeking for signs can indicate a critical unbelieving heart: “ Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven,” (Lk 11:16) to which Jesus responded, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” (Lk 11;29) You want a sign? Then think about this. See if this will incline you towards God. Matthew recorded that Jesus used this picture twice (Mt 12:39 & 16:4) Reliance on signs can lead one into deception: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mt 24:24) Learn to keep close to God, be well taught in His word, and be sensitive to His Spirit and His presence and His peace will be far better than any signs.
John's Signs: The Gospel writer John was the master at spotting Jesus' works as signs. The words ‘sign' or ‘signs' appear 18 times in his Gospel, often referring to his specific miraculous works (e.g. Jn 2:11- Water into wine, Jn 4:54 – healing a sick boy, Jn 12:18 – raising Lazarus) or general references to his miraculous works (e.g. Jn 2;23, 6:2,14,26, 7:31, 20:30) or in the context of arguments with the Jews who were very ‘sign conscious' (e.g. Jn 2:18, 3:2, 4:48, 6:26, 9:16, 11:47). Signs, he implies, are things pointing to God for those with eyes to see.
And Us: The miracles God did in Egypt and then in the desert, were miracles of deliverance and then of provision. The miracles that Jesus performed were signs for those who had eyes to see them. The question thus arises, do we have eyes to see? Do we see things in our lives that are a) general gifts from God to mankind that bless us, and b) specific things that have happened in our lives, both before Covid-19 and since, signs of His blessings on us, things that the blind say are ‘coincidences' but the child of God recognises comes from the hands of a loving God. Several years ago, I took all our old family diaries and compiled a list of the things that my wife and I had done since we were married over forty years ago. As I did that I started also recollecting myriads of things that had happened in those years that, looking back, I can now see as the hidden hand of God guiding and directing us. It is beyond coincidence.
Have you looked back on your life, perhaps on the past six months, and seen the hand of the Lord on your life delivering you from darkness into the light, changing you, providing for you? Many have testified that the period of lockdown has been a time of revelation, of their eyes being opened to appreciate life in a new way, recognize afresh so many good things that life had held that we had taken for granted. If you're not sure, if you are a believer, sit down before Him with a notebook and ask Him to open your eyes to these things and make as big a list as possible of the things He's done for you, see them as signs of His love for you, praise and thank Him for them, exult in His provision in the wilderness and, yes, worship Him in the wilderness. Get free of the negatives, or the depression the enemy would seek to impose on many, see yourself afresh as the child of God that you are and rejoice.
Wilderness Meditations: 7. The Place for Spiritual Development & Revelation
Lk 1:80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
Context: If you are a gardener you know there are four things that make for a successful plant: a healthy plant to start with, good soil, sunshine and water. Those who live near the seashore know there are certain plants – and only a limited number – that can thrive in salty ground. A gardener knows there are some plants that will grow in dry ground and other plants (called bog plants) that need wet ground, and most other plants come somewhere in between. In the wildernesses of the world, according to National Geographic, live roughly one sixth of the world's population, and deserts cover more than one fifth of the world's land area. Plants that grow in deserts or wildernesses, and people who live in the deserts and wildernesses – and this is the important point – have adapted to be able to survive there. Hold on to that thought!
Enter John the Baptist: John is conceived supernaturally (see Lk 1) and is clearly filled with the Spirit even in the womb (Lk 1:15,41) with a commission to turn Israel back to the Lord. (Lk 1:16,17,76-79) It is then we see our starter verse, so often read but rarely thought about, I suspect.
The life of John the Baptist is a real challenge. As a kid he lived in the wilderness! And do you know what is amazing about that? He survived as a child in the desert! How? It had to be God. A child who obviously learned how to cope with wilderness dwelling: “John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) Protein and sugar – pretty basic survival fare! Our starter verse indicates that he grew, developed as a child into teenage years and beyond. If Jesus was about thirty when he started his ministry, John must have been roughly the same. When John was born, both his parents were described as “very old” (Lk 1:7) and so it is not inconceivable that they had both passed away fairly early on in John's life which might explain his wilderness time. But there he clearly met with God and “became strong in spirit”.
His wilderness time, with no distractions, meant he became sensitive to the Lord and so perhaps it is not surprising that we read, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Lk 3:2) For John it was clearly a place of God-encounter, of natural provision and a place of revelation. When John starts preaching he has a clear message of righteousness needed, calling the people to repentance to be shown by baptism, and with clear instructions to the various groups who came to him (Lk 3:7-14) and an awareness of his role in introducing Jesus (Lk 3:15-17), although it seems that he had more of the Old-Testament-prophet type of understanding of impending judgment rather than an understanding of the coming kingdom. For John, his time in the wilderness was therefore a time of growth, of developing spiritual awareness, of spiritual understanding and of revelation.
And Us? Can it be that our time in this present ‘wilderness' - whether it be in the ongoing time of the Pandemic, or some other dry and barren time we might be going through – we too might grow? Let's just pause at that word. We may make excuses and say, ‘church isn't like it used to be or like it should be' and we are right in that, but is that a reason not to grow, even in this time. The prophetic picture of Jesus in Isa 53 described him as, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground .” (Isa 53:2) The days of life in Israel as Jesus grew up, were spiritually dry. That is obvious by the way they responded to Jesus' teaching (see Mk 1:22,27) but if his later life is an indication of something he had learned when he was younger, he took time out to be alone with his heavenly Father and there received his resources. By the time he was thirty, God could declare, “I am very pleased with you.” (Mk 1:11 ERV) Already he had taken his human form and learned to relate to the Father day by day.
But look at those other things: developing spiritual awareness, of spiritual understanding and of revelation. Have we used this time – when distractions have been removed, activity has been limited, the old resources removed and new ones found – have we made use of this time to grow in the wilderness and become strong in spirit? Perhaps one day we will be restored to life as it was before this particular wilderness; will we be changed by the experience, will we have grown, or will we have to admit we missed the opportunity when it was there, simply because we didn't realise it was an opportunity?
Wilderness Meditations: 8. The Place for Spiritual Strengthening
Mt 4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Viewpoint: We concluded the previous study with thoughts about how we may view a present wilderness experience. In fitness and sports training circles, they say, “No pain, no gain.” In spiritual terms, a life without difficulties is a life that never becomes strong and never grows. It's not what we like – for we all prefer ease and absence of difficulties – but the truth is that trials and testings are the things that strengthen and mature us.
Facing the ‘Ow! Times': The apostle James wrote, “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.” (Jas 1:2-4) I find that first verse one of the most uncomfortable in the New Testament – being really happy when tough times come???? When my faith is being tested, that is not comfortable and yet James says it will develop perseverance in me – stickability. And stickability is one of the signs of maturity and the Lord wants me to be mature. “Not lacking anything”? The good old Message version puts it, “not deficient in any way”. When something is “complete” it is finished, can't be improved upon. Wow! That's God's goal for me and it comes through a process which involves living in the wilderness sometimes. This therefore suggests that if I see myself in a wilderness at this time, I need to rejoice over that, rejoice that I am living through circumstances that will change me for the good, that will mature me, produce stickability in me, teach me that all God's resources are here for me and that I am not lacking anything in Him.
Further Problems: Probably because wilderness times are times of vulnerability, it means they are also times when the enemy seeks to use that to try to pull us down. God allows that to strengthen us, help us realise who we are with His resources, and to triumph over the enemy's suggestions. Jesus made it worse for himself by fasting forty days. Now that is a long fast and in lengthy fasting you tend to go through various stages – initial weakness, growing peace and ability to cope, final peace even in the face of physical weakness. At the end of that time his physical resources were low but his spiritual resources were strong. The natural human means of strength were removed but the Spiritual dimension is something else.
Note the Spirit: I believe most preachers/commentators that I have heard have been wrong about interpreting the Spirit's role here. Most suggest that coming out of the desert he was now empowered by the Spirit: “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit ,” (Lk 4:14) but that ignores what we find at the beginning of it: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (Lk 4:1) Now prior to that we read, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk 3:22) Jesus, being obedient to his Father's prompting (Mt 3:15) has a twofold reassurance from heaven – the Spirit comes down uniting him with heaven, and the Father's voice affirms him – both public things, perhaps more for our benefit than his. The apostle Peter preached about, “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32) There seems a direct link between obedience and being filled with the Holy Spirit.
And So? Jesus' ability to cope with the temptations from the enemy at the end of his time in the wilderness is, I would suggest, a combination of:
knowing his Father's love,
being full of the Spirit,
being determined to remain obedient to the Father,
citing the truth as revealed in the Scriptures (Lk 4:4-12)
And Us? Let's summarise this as the nature of the time, the goals of the time and the resources of the time:
The nature of the wilderness: a time of being deprived of the things we usually rely on.
The goals of the wilderness: a time of testing that strengthens and matures us.
The resources of the wilderness: knowledge of the Father's loving acceptance, being filled with the indwelling Holy Spirit, our own resolve in Him, His word ever available to us.
If we can hold this perspective of the times we are going through, then it may help speed up the process of change, perhaps of the circumstances but certainly of us.
Wilderness Meditations: 9. The Place for Revelation
Mt 3:3 “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”
Viewpoint: We often view a ‘wilderness time' or ‘desert time' as a time when God seems distant but the biblical pictures often show a different picture. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that Moses met God at the burning bush. It was in the wilderness that God turned up for Hagar (Gen 21:15) and was there for Ishmael (Gen 21:20) and, as we've seen, Jesus survived the wilderness and John grew up there growing in the Lord. It was there in the wilderness that John caught the sense of the message from the Lord about preparing the way for God to come, as in our starter verse above.
The Elijah Example: Now our problem sometimes is that we feel the need to get into a really great spiritual place before we can ‘hear' God. It is then that we need to turn to the story of Elijah to put the picture straight. Elijah has indeed been doing the stuff with God and has had a tremendous victory that resulted in the deaths of a large number of prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:22-40). So empowered by the Lord was he after this that he managed to run all the way back from Mount Carmel to Jezreel ahead of Ahab in his chariot, possibly some twenty five miles. Awesome.
But it is there his life is threatened by the queen (1 Kings 19:1,2). Elijah is spent. He's come down the other side of the mountain, so to speak, and feels in the wilderness of despair: “ Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness . He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord ,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.” (1 Kings 19:3-5) Exhausted he sleeps. He is wakened by an angel and given supernatural food (twice) and on the basis of that travels south into the Sinai Peninsula, to Mount Horeb, otherwise known as Mount Sinai. This again is serious wilderness-mountain country where he finds a cave (19:9). There he has a divine encounter with God where he is questioned by the Lord and reassured that he's not the only believer left.
But it is the means of it that is significant. He's told to stand out on the hillside to wait for God (19:11a). Before he has a chance to leave the cave a hurricane hits the hillside – but it's not the Lord (19:11b). An earthquake rattles the mountain – but it's not the Lord (19:11c). Then fire rages on the mountainside – but it's not the Lord (19:12a). It is seriously dangerous out on that mountainside and so he stays where he is. And then, in the silence that follows, he hears a gentle whisper – and he knows it is the Lord (19:12b). He covers his face and goes to the cave entrance and the questioning (v.13c), instructions how to proceed (v.15-17), and reassurance (v.18), come.
The Place or Revelation: Moses had had his revelation in the wilderness on Mount Sinai (Ex 3 & 4), Elijah, as we've just seen it, had it there as well. Both men were at the end of themselves. Moses, once a prince of Egypt was now a nobody, a wilderness shepherd, Elijah a scared prophet. Both meet God in the wilderness and are commissioned for what was to come next. John is an orphan child (probably), living in the wilderness. He is coming from a place of weakness. He is an outcast, a weird character in the wilderness, minding his own business and ignored by everyone. But, as he grows, he starts to catch the heart and calling of God. He is to be a voice calling in the wilderness, telling people to repent and get ready for the coming Messiah. Moses was to deliver Israel, Elijah was to anoint a variety of individuals to bring about the purposes of God, and John was to baptize the Son of God. How did John start out? We don't know but perhaps there were spiritual seekers who came across him and banded with him. He stood on the hillsides perhaps and shouted at passing travellers. The word got out and the spiritually hungry came to seek him out – in the wilderness.
And Us? If you sense the present is a wilderness experience, don't be put off – God will be looking for you. When you run out of your own resources you're in a good place to be open to Him, to listen to Him when He turns up. It doesn't matter of you feel a failure – in history you're in good company. You only have to determine one thing: will I obey God when He speaks? If you are, then get ready to listen. If you're not, then don't bother to read on. Understand God loves failures – Moses, Elijah, John, the twelve disciples called to follow Jesus. He is not put off by our stumbling discipleship. Yes, we may have down times like Elijah – ours will probably be at two o'clock in the morning when we can't sleep. We may have a history of failure like Moses – but God is only concerned with what you will do at His bidding. You may come with no family background like John, but it's not about you, it's all about Him. Ask Him to build and strengthen your faith in your time in the wilderness, so when He draws near and speaks you can give the Mary answer: “I am the Lord's servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Lk 1:38) May it be so.
Wilderness Meditations: 10. The Place of Dismay
Gen 37:22 Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don't lay a hand on him.”
Num 21:5 “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness ?”
Lk 15:17-19 “ When he came to his senses, he said….Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Continue: Yesterday we considered revelation but this doesn't only mean ‘the word of the Lord' as such, because we often make that sound very spiritual, but it can simply mean revelation about ourselves, coming to a new understanding of who we are, and so on. We mentioned Moses and Elijah, two men who met God in the wilderness, two men who had come to the end of themselves, two men who God then commissioned for His service. There is something about the wilderness that I have observed throughout to 2020 Pandemic – it brings people to the end of themselves, a necessary prerequisite if people are to become open to God.
So much of the time – and especially if you live in the affluent West – we are comfortable and comfort breeds complacency and complacency feeds ideas of self-ability, we think we are Ok, we are doing ‘all right', we are getting by ‘quite nicely thank you'. It is one of the follies of sinfulness, Sin that I so often define as self-centred godlessness, that we think we can get by without God – that's ‘godlessness'. We start finding meaning in life, coming to our senses when circumstances impose on us and we come to the end of our resources – deserts and wildernesses are good at making us run out of our resources.
Joseph: The trials of Joseph (Gen 37-) start in the wilderness (I say ‘start' but they really started when he was being spoilt by his father and is given prophetic words by God) where his brothers have wandered with their sheep. In the wilderness they throw him into a pit and then sell him off to slave-traders. It is the start of a wilderness experience that lasts some fourteen years. From being the spoilt brat of the family he becomes a lowly slave of a rich Egyptian but what makes this a different story is that God was with him. From being an insensitive, prophecy-bringer, he is in circumstances where no one listens to him. But God blesses the Egyptian who sees the worth of this young man and puts everything in his care. It's God! He prospers as a slave but that doesn't stop him ending up in prison where the same thing happens. (Gen 39:20-23). But he is still God-conscious and when two men start having dreams he gives them interpretations that prove true (Gen 40) You know the rest of the story. It is a while before the wilderness experience ends in glory but that's what it does. The end result? A transformed Joseph. See his words to his brothers (Gen 50:19-21)
Israel: We've considered Israel before so this is just a reminder. From relatively well-fed slavery they are delivered from Egypt and had three months of wilderness travels in front of them. It turned out to be forty years wilderness experience. Then when the new day arrives and they start travelling towards the Land again, it is still through difficult terrain, but this time of hostile kings, and they forget their past and grumble again for yet again their future looks under threat. A wilderness experience threatens our very existence, it is something to be endured, to be survived, and we fear for our futures. The question marks about the virus and about the economic outlook rumbled on throughout 2020, the future was very questionable and many struggled and felt they were at the end of their resources. The ground being prepared for Renewal or Revival?
Jesus' Teaching: The parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-31) is best known for the wonder of the Father who welcomes home the prodigal but within it there is also the vital teaching that until the son came to the end of himself he wasn't in a right attitude that would cause his return. It is a strong picture that Jesus presents in the parable, of his downward spiral: First, “he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need,” (v.14) a picture of economic decline that raises awareness of need. Second, “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs,” (v.15) a picture of the lengths unemployed people have to go to in such times, taking on even the lowliest of jobs, a humbling experience. Third, “he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (v.16) An empty stomach brings an even greater feeling of despair and when everyone is in the same position, there is no one available to help him - except his father back at home! When all the trappings of the affluent life (given the son by the Father's money) had been removed, he eventually “came to his senses” or came to himself, and realised the truth – he was in a hopeless mess, he had come to the end of himself and his resources, but back home was a loving father he had taken for granted. It was time to return (otherwise known as repentance).
And Us? Recognising what is going on in us and around us, is the first step to coming to our senses and realise we desperately need God. The Pandemic may have various other outworkings but unless this one becomes firmly ingrained in each of us, nothing will change and the world around us will continue getting worse. There are some further aspects of this to be considered and we will do that in the following studies.
Wilderness Meditations: 11. The Place of Fellowship
Ex 4:27 “The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.”
Ex 18:5 Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, together with Moses' sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God.”
Num 10:31 Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.”
Recap: Yesterday we considered revelation about ourselves, coming to a new understanding of who we are, things that come to light in the trials of the wilderness. We focused on the experience of coming to the end of ourselves, a prerequisite if we are to be open to God.
Solitude: The wilderness is a place of solitude. Israel may not have felt alone, they were after all a nation of over a million people probably, but nevertheless, there in the wilderness they were cut off from the rest of the world. For three months they were in a state of ‘lockdown', limited in their lives to surviving as they followed God to the Promised Land. Feeling alone is not merely the prerogative of the introvert, it can be the feeling of each and every one of us at different times of our lives, and one of the things a time in the wilderness does is help us realise the value of people. Our three starter verses today show how family came to play a significant part in Moses' life as a leader.
Contact 1 - Brother: First of all, he has met with the Lord on Mount Sinai at the burning bush and received his calling, and then the Lord calls his brother Aaron, back in Egypt, to go to find him (Ex 4:27). Aaron is going to play the role of a helper until Moses finds his own confidence during the whole process of deliverance from Egypt. For Moses, a sense of aloneness could have been especially strong and the remedy is obviously the Lord's presence but He understands that we also need help incarnate, in the flesh, and so the Lord sends his brother. The Lord sends him – and he hears, and so clear was it, that he goes.
Contact 2 – Father-in-law: Time has passed, the Exodus has occurred and Moses and his people are back at Mount Sinai. It has been a lonely task but now it is time for his family to join him for the rest of the journey to the Promised Land. Family closeness comes and goes according to the circumstances. Lockdown meant separations, lifting lockdown meant coming together. Lockdown for some accentuated already difficult personal relationships, for others made us appreciate them more. Families can be battlegrounds or sources of support. But now, after the initial exodus out of Egypt, as they travel through the wilderness, Jethro brings the rest of the family to join Moses. (Ex 18:5) In Ex 18 we see Jethro bringing encouragement and then wise counsel. It is good that he was there, for Moses needed extra input from outside.
Contact 3 – Brother-in-law: It was time for them to leave Mount Sinai and make their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Presumably Moses' brother-in-law had come with the family when Jethro came, but Jethro has now gone back home and Hobab, Moses brother-in-law, indicates it is time for him to return home as well, but Moses realises his value: “Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.” Hobab, is described as a Midianite (also known as a subgroup called Kenites - Jud 1:16), who no doubt knew this area well and from Judg 4:11 it is clear he went with them into the Land, i.e. he agrees to Moses' request and stays with them.
And Us? Not only do we need family (personal or church) we need the personality, expertise or gifting they bring, each one different, each one valuable, each one able to contribute something meaningful into our own lives. Has this been a time of realising the value of those who are for us (as well as realising those who aren't) and therefore the wonder of potential of the family of God? One of the effects of the Pandemic lockdown, many people testified to, was the realisation of the value of other people.
The lockdown raised fresh awareness of the value of links to others – stronger links with family, friends, neighbours - not just to share salvation but also to gain from them, part of community – family, local, church. The realities of the wilderness lockdown meant for many of us that, as we struggled with the limitations imposed upon us, we realised our limitations and needs in a new way. As we noted in the previous study, for some it meant coming to the end of ourselves and relying on the Lord in a new way.
For many it was this recognition of the value of people – people at the end of the phone, on zoom, on Skype, on e-mail, over the fence. If you ever read Winnie the Pooh as a child or to your children or grandchildren, you may remember a story of how they tried to take the bounce out of Tigger by losing him in the mists of the hundred acre wood. Instead it was Pooh and Piglet who got lost and when Christopher Robin found them – accompanied by Tigger – they found a new appreciation of him! We sometimes need to get lost to find appreciation of others, we sometimes need to lose them before we appreciate them. In 1 Cor 12 Paul when to great lengths to spell out the value of being part of ‘the body' of Christ. Let's not lose this newfound appreciation and if you haven't found it yet – you probably have but just haven't been aware of it – just stop and thank God for the people in your life.
Wilderness Meditations: 12. The Place of Trust
Jn 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up
Lev 16:10 the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
Recap: We have been considering how we think, how we look at the world and look at life, how we have to come to the end of ourselves before we can truly be open to God. We reminded ourselves in the last study how we need people in our lives. We can't get by without God and it is difficult to get by without people. People are one of God's resources to us, that was a primary lesson we learned afresh in the early months of the 2020 Pandemic lockdown.
Things Taken for Granted: In a previous series about guilt, about how we can fall short of the things God has for us, we noted things we take for granted in our lives, and the wonder of our salvation was one of those things. Now I am sure there are many, many Christians, who have simply attended church, joined in the worship and prayers and listened to the sermons, week after week, month after month and year after year, but as we have done that the shear repetition of it all has meant that it has dulled our appreciation of who we are and what Jesus has done for us. As a result of that, so often our repetitious ‘services' have meant that we hear the words but we still try to make ourselves good, make ourselves righteous, make ourselves spiritual, in order to win God's approval. And it is there we fall down.
Through the lockdown period, church-going ceased, services started up online, meetings were conducted via Zoom. Suddenly many felt isolated from what they had known of as ‘church'. Suddenly, with the trappings stripped away, many were looking afresh at what they believed. It was a time of reassessment, of realising God's salvation through Christ was THE only way, knowing Him personally had to mean more than turning up at a building on Sunday mornings.
The Old Testament Speaks: A snake on a pole? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (Jn 3:14) As the snake in the wilderness became of focus of both repentance and faith for healing (Num 21:9), so Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, lifted up by God in reputation (Phil 2:9) and lifted up from death into heaven where he rules at his Father's right hand (Acts 2:33, 5:31, Eph 1:20). We may be in the wilderness but we too have died (Rom 6:2), have been raised (Rom 6:4,5), and there, in the Spirit, we are seated with him (Eph 2:6). It doesn't matter about the limitations of Covid-19, rejoice in the fact that we are divinely supernatural people who have been ‘lifted' with Christ.
But then a scapegoat in the wilderness? The word ‘scapegoat' is familiar, one who takes the blame – unfairly! There were two goats in Lev 16, one offered as a sin offering to take the guilt, the other sent into the wilderness to take the act of sin out of God's presence. In the New Testament the application of that is brought to us: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many.” (Heb 9:28) He took our guilt and punishment on the Cross and passed into the wilderness of death, carrying our sins away. If, in this wilderness, you see this scapegoat more clearly, understand God is just reassuring you that you can't take your sins away, Jesus can and has. Don't take them back.
Reality? So there is the teaching which, it is quite likely, you've heard before. But there are various things in those two pictures involving the wilderness, that should create questions in us:
Coming to the snake on the pole (the Cross) in the wilderness (of the lost and fallen world) required recognition that, having been bitten by snakes (the many expressions of sin in the world), we were at the end of ourselves and death faced us. Repentance meant facing the pole (the Cross) and the one on it, seeing the cause of our woes being nailed to death and taken by our Saviour, accepting his death was on our behalf. We receive it and are forgiven, cleansed and healed. Have we taken that for granted?
One of the two goats took our guilt. Jesus took our guilt. Do you still live a life tinged with guilt? Your guilt has been dealt with. Once you confessed it and repented, God forgave you. (1 Jn 1:9). Done deal, there is no more to be said. The other goat took our sins away into the wilderness (of death). Do the wrongs of your past still lurk in the background? Realise they have been removed, taken far away, you are a new creation in Christ, “the old has gone, the new is here.” (2 Cor 5:17).
And us? With all the trapping stripped away, have you been able to see in this wilderness with a fresh clarity the reality of your salvation. You are what you are not because of your church-going or other ‘spiritual acts' but entirely because of the combined work of Christ on the Cross and now the applied outworking of that by the indwelling Holy Spirit: the past work, the present outworking, all coming from Him. Our part? Just to believe it and receive it in reality. May that be so.
Wilderness Meditations: 13. The Place of Humility
Deut 8:2 God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart.”
Refocusing: Remember, we have been considering how we think, how we need to realise that we have to come to the end of ourselves before we can truly be open to God. We have reminded ourselves that we need people in our lives but, even more, we need to remember that God is to be the centre of our lives. When it comes to being Christian servants of God, Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5b) I suspect that this is a verse to which we pay lip service but most of the time live our lives as if he isn't there. Yes, I believe he has given us autonomy and wants us, as mature believers, to make wise decisions, speak graciously and act righteously and yet unless our hearts are inclined in his direction (Deut 5:29 NIV) we end up in godless attitudes, ways of thinking, and then godless speaking and behaving.
Right Heart: Humility, a dictionary suggest is, ‘ the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance,' but for a believer it is more than that for it involves God. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Rom 12:3b) The Living Bible expresses that as, “Be honest in your estimate of yourselves, measuring your value by how much faith God has given you.” Humility, for the Christian involves acknowledging that, yes, without God we are nothing but a mess, BUT in Christ we can do all things – and do them well with his directing and enabling.
Working in Humility: Bringing humility into our lives is, I believe, a process that takes place in the ‘wilderness'. It comes about when most life supports have been removed, as in the arid wastes of the desert or in lock-down in pandemic circumstances. In those times all our self-sufficiency, and the pride and arrogance that goes with it, are removed from us, eradicated by the tough times like bleach eradicates stains on clothing. In good times we relish our self-sufficiency and in so doing we find our vision distorted, pushed out of true and we are left believing wrong things about ourselves – I can do this thing – on my own! I am up to this, I am bright enough, clever enough, smart enough to achieve great things; success is just round the corner, and I can handle it. And then disaster strikes. The warm, cosy environment we had be exulting in for so long, thinking we were doing so well, is subjected to a gale of circumstances that knock down all such pretensions. Our hopes and dreams and aspirations and ambitions suddenly come to a grinding halt.
The 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic did just that. Without warning suddenly this virus was spreading across the world and the news was filled with numbers of infections and then, even worse, numbers of deaths. The wilderness arrived. Governments, panicking and seeking the help of their top scientists and medical experts, found there were no smart answers only more and more uncertainties. Depending where they were, governments acted at different speeds, some quickly, some not so. Instructions on how to avoid catching it were issued, then demands for lock-downs and suddenly the world and all its pretensions came to a halt. Plans of every shape and form were put on hold. We had never known anything like it in our lifetimes. The reality of it all was uncertain, some warning it could be very bad indeed, others proposing it was a government conspiracy. Responses to government instructions varied from meek obedience to (and this sadly seen in some Christians) hostile rebellion against all authority. In America it was so often based on ‘our rights', elsewhere it was just hostility against authority. Posturing, bravado, blustering, all signs of the absence of humility, often abounded. While death stayed away from your door, it was easy to do that but when a loved one died a horrible death on a ventilator in a hospital, more sober and temperate words follow.
Death Sharpens Focus: Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 7 speaks words that modern man finds uncomfortable: “the day of death (is)better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting….The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” (7:1,2,4) How could he say such a thing? Because facing death focuses reality, brings humility in the awareness of our frailty. And death has been there, lurking in the midst of uncertainties. Has the Lord been working humility into your life and mine? Humility, we said, gains a right perspective.
The Work of the Lockdown Wilderness: This period that we all went through with greater or lesser difficulties in the early part of 2020 on has, I suggest, created two things: a doorway and a path to walk. It is a doorway in that it took us from one world – the world of pre-pandemic that we all tended to take for granted, into a new world of greater clarity and hopefully greater humility, but now there is a path to walk out, a new way of viewing the world and our lives, lives that will be better for having lived through the Pandemic lockdown period and the ongoing outworkings of it. Rather than me spell out that pathway for you, you might like to ponder on the nature of this new path. Some will yearn to get back to the ‘good old days' of pre-2020 but it likely that that world will never return, or if it does, it will come with many new features. That leaves us asking, what have we learned, has humility made better people of us?
Wilderness Meditations: 14. The Place of Transformation
Isa 31:1,2 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God
And So: And so I believe we come to the end of this brief series of reflections about the experience and lessons of life in the wilderness, a life most of us would wish to avoid and yet, in 2020, a new life imposed upon us where for a while human resources were limited, freedom of activity was limited, and yet still a time where we learnt that the Lord was still there. For some of us it came as a shock, for others as a welcome respite from the busyness of the life that had been.
Transformation? Have we been changed by the experience of ‘wilderness'? For the good? Are we more confident in Him or have we allowed ourselves to be almost overwhelmed by the uncertainties and fears? Have we seen this as a time of restriction or a time of potential for God to come and bring glorious transformation? Again and again the prophets of the Bible come out with these amazing pictures of the transformation that God promises. How do our hearts respond? Have we been become those who can reach out to others, or those who have become too beaten down by the circumstances that they need others to reach down into the cistern of mud and despair that they feel they are in, and carefully lift them up again? (see the picture of Jeremiah – Jer 38:11-13) Do the words of the prophets thrill our hearts with an anticipation from the Spirit that this is His goal for this time – transformation of us and the world about us. Let's put three of these sets of verses before us and ask the Spirit to release faith in us as we read them:
Isa 31:1,2 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom . Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” What an amazing picture from a land of silence, solitude and barrenness to one where life bursts forth. Have you ever seen one of those films that show life bursting out of the ground after the rains come? It is amazing. Can we pray for the rains to come now?
Isa 35:6 “Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy . Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” This is no more than happened when Jesus came (see Mt 11:5) and no more that he said was possible for us (see Jn 14:12). Is it something we have been praying for or had we, as I suggested previously, allowed our expectations to be quashed by the enemy and the unbelief of the world around us? Read it again: healing and an outpouring of His Spirit. Now pray for it - and keep praying.
Joel 2:22 “Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green . The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.” The wilderness, He promises, is not one of dry lifeless existence, but a place where He seeks to bring transformation in and through His people, a church that is alive with the presence of God by His Spirit, where life and vitality, fellowship and friendship, power, authority and revelation pour through the congregation of His people, through this potentially wonderful ‘body of Christ', bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of their life, and the world is impacted and transformed. Can we believe for that? Pray for it. Work for it.
Watch: But Joel's word reminds us that often these things come gradually. How the Lord decrees His coming is up to Him. Maybe He will just suddenly turn up, maybe as in this word there will be gradual signs building and building. Gardeners and horticulturalists know this. They watch for the various stages of development; first the leaves form after winter, blossom appears and falls, tiny fruits gradually appear and grow bigger and bigger until ready for picking. Jesus nudged his disciples on one occasion, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.” (Jn 4:35b) But that was after he had just said, “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest'?” (v.35a) Don't look at the natural seasons, he was saying, just look at the people coming, there is the harvest.
Today? “He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) Jesus had just read one of the Isaiah Messianic prophecies. Jesus has done his part; he's come and done all that was necessary for salvation to be opened up to all who will come. Now we wait on him to see the next phase of his work and he continues to work in the midst of his enemies to bring in the kingdom. Elijah waited for the rain and as soon as he saw the glimpse of a small cloud (1 Kings 18:44) he knew the rest was about to come. Are we looking for it coming? Are we gazing at the horizon to see the signs of the coming of the Lord in power? In recent weeks I have started to make a note of the little signs that ARE appearing of Him moving in our midst in a new way. In the space of two weeks I have noted six specific things, six different people revealing the presence of God coming in a new way. He wants to come and transform the wilderness, He is coming, be alert, be full of faith (Lk 18:8), pray, watch, make ready, you may be His means of bringing it. Yes??? Yes!