Meeting God in the wilderness
There are many reasons why we might feel that we are in the wilderness
Life has become a barren landscape. There is no hope.
We have lost someone and we don’t know which way to turn
Our hopes have been dashed – whether for ourselves, our children, our business or our church.
We are worried sick about our family, or our finances, about our health, about our work load.
A relationship is going pear shaped.
We are stressed and we are tired
Maybe some here are conscious of growing older, of having to let go of many of the things that we have, in the past, taken for granted – things that have defined us and given us a sense of purpose.
Maybe it is a particular besetting sin that we have been battling, possibly for years, and there appears to be no breakthrough. Being a Christian can feel at times as if we are pushing a heavy ball up a hill, and we are not sure whether we are pushing the ball up, or if the ball is pushing us down.
Or we are in the wilderness because God simply seems distant – like that man on the moon. We have lost (or maybe we have never known) any sense of intimacy or joy in our faith.
Isaiah 40 is a message to the people of Jerusalem who are in the wilderness, in exile in Babylon, 500 miles away. The Proclaimers might be able to walk that distance, but the exiles were not. Jerusalem has been virtually destroyed, and they are now the captive migrant workers in a foreign land forced to do the dirty work.
That is why they sang sad songs: ‘By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion’. (Ps 137.1).
They remembered what Zion, Jerusalem had been and what it was now.
They remembered murdered children, sons and daughters who were never to grow up to become men and women. They remembered the glory of the temple, the dwelling place of God, now in ruins.
And they weep. Some on the inside and some on the outside.
‘Comfort, comfort my people … in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’.
And what Isaiah seems to be saying here is that:
- The wilderness has been their place of testing.
The people of Israel rebelled against God. In their pride, they chose to reject him and serve other gods, gods that they had created: gods of fertility, of political and military power, of wealth and material prosperity.
God could just have walked away. But he didn’t. He sent them prophets, people like Isaiah. They spoke of the living God, who loved them, who had blessed them with the land and with the law, with the temple and his presence; but they also declared that if the people persisted in walking away from God, in putting their trust in false gods, then in his wrath he would bring them to their senses. He would strip them of that which was most precious to them: their wealth, their freedom, their land and their temple.
And sadly the people did not listen and that is exactly what happened.
But sending the people into exile, into the wilderness, was not God having a strop.
When I am angry I think: ‘They’ve hurt me. I’ll hurt them’.
But God doesn’t think like that. He is not vindictive. His anger is to discipline us, in order to draw us back to himself.
When life goes well, it is easy to forget God; to think that we are in control and determine our own destiny, that we deserve the good that we get.
But when it goes bad, and when things are stripped away from us, we begin to realise how small and dependent we are, how fragile our dreams are, and we begin to realise that we need God.
There are many reasons why we find ourselves in the wilderness.
It might be because we have walked away from God – as it was for Israel.
It might be because we are being faithful to God. The Psalmist says ‘Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter’. (Psalm 44.22)
It might be because we are simply men and women living in a fallen world
It might be because we have chosen to go into the wilderness: I think of Jesus choosing to go into the desert for 40 days.
Whatever the reason, the wilderness can be a time of testing:
It can be the time when we completely turn our back on God: if he exists and he loves me, how can he allow this to happen to me?
Or it can be the time when we cry out in desperation to him – because we realise we have nobody else to go to.
And then the wilderness becomes that incredibly precious place of dependence on him.
When I was preparing this I thought of Matt in hospital, who is having some severe treatment. He is in isolation, and last weekend was pretty grim for him. He emailed me, and I have his permission to quote this,
Interesting perspective on The Exile. I guess my experience has been that I thought that it was going to be rough, but no matter how much I prepared myself mentally for it, actually going through the few days last weekend was worse that I had imagined, and showed how little I could have actually prepared myself for it. It didn’t matter what I’d done before, all I could do was endure through the time and have faith that the discomfort, pain and extreme fatigue would pass. It didn’t pass the first day, or the second, or even the third, but it did pass.
Now I’m on the other side, I can look back, and part of me has blocked out how bad it was already, but I know that during that time I felt nearly hopeless, and certainly felt helpless, with the only thing that sustained me was the knowledge that this was expected, it was almost even necessary, and that once I got through the other side I wouldn’t be healed, I wouldn’t be stronger, but I would be through the darkest place in my treatment.
I am talking about the theory of the wilderness. He is doing the practical. Please pray for him.
2. The wilderness can be a place of comfort.
God says through Isaiah, ‘Comfort, O comfort my people … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’
When I first read this I thought that God was saying to the people of Israel, ‘You have suffered enough. I’ve punished you enough. In fact, I’ve punished you twice as much as I should have done. So now you are now forgiven’.
But as we read through Isaiah, I do not think that is what he is saying.
In chapter 53, he speaks of one who will be completely innocent, but who will come and take all the sin of Israel onto his shoulders. He will suffer. But he will not suffer for his own sin, but for the sins of others. He will be pierced and crushed for our sin.
So it is not Israel’s suffering in the wilderness which cancels out their sin, but the suffering of the innocent one. And his self-sacrifice is so great that it doesn’t wipe out our sins once, but twice!!
Of course we are talking here of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is a mystery that is so deep that it cannot really be expressed in words. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that we are forgiven not because of anything that we do, but because of what he did.
And that is really good news, because if our forgiveness was dependent on us serving a sentence for our sin, how severe should that sentence be? How much do we need to suffer to merit God’s forgiveness?
I read the story of a man, Felix Bush, who in the 1930’s had an affair with a married woman. Her husband found out and murdered her. Felix felt guilty for his lover’s death. For 40 years he chose to go into the wilderness. He lived alone, with nothing, in the harshest of circumstances. At the end of those 40 years he comes back to the town. He was talking with the minister about his own funeral, and the minister asked him if he was right with God. He said, ‘Yes I am. I have paid’. But the minister very wisely said, "Mr. Bush, you can't buy forgiveness. It's free, but you do have to ask for it."
We have sung a song which asked God to forgive us because we are really really sorry. But that is not right. How sorry do we need to be to get God to forgive us? This sorry. This sorry. This sorry. And how do we measure our sorry-ness? By how much we beat ourselves up?
If forgiveness is dependent on us, we will never be completely sure if we are sorry enough or if we have suffered enough or if we have done sufficient good works to cancel out our bad works!
The wilderness can be the place of great comfort, because when everything is taken from us, we realise that we cannot earn our forgiveness. We cannot earn it by cancelling out the bad stuff with good stuff; we cannot earn it by being religious; we cannot earn it by suffering; we cannot even earn it by serious sorrowful repentance.
The wilderness is the place where we are stripped of everything. We are stripped of our self-reliance. It is the place where all we can rely on is the work of Jesus on the cross and the promise of God that because he died on the cross, our sins are forgiven.
That is why John the Baptist calls people out into the wilderness to be baptized. To go to him they have to leave behind all the things they put their trust in. It is why people in the early church would be baptized, enter the water, virtually naked – they have nothing to bring with them, nothing to hide behind, nothing to rely on.
And it is why when they come out of the water, they were dressed in white. It was a picture to show them that forgiveness and this new life was nothing that they had done – and everything that Jesus has done.
3. The wilderness is the place where we prepare to meet the coming God
Isaiah speaks of how a road will be built in the wilderness.
The commentators are not completely agreed on this.
Some say that it is the road that the exiles in Babylon will take as they walk to Jerusalem. Others say that it is the road that God will take in order to come to the exiles, to bring his comfort to them.
My own reflection is that it is talking about the road that God will take, but it is the road that he takes as he leads his people out of Babylon to Jerusalem.
But as Christians we understand that the royal road points to something more. For God has come to his people (that is what Christmas is about) in order to lead his people out of captivity, in a world ruled by sin and death, into the new creation ruled by life and love. And as God comes into the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem with his people, ‘the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together’ (Is 40.5)
Nothing will stop this. God’s triumphal procession is certain. And yet we also need to prepare this road.
That is what the New Testament teaches. John the Baptist is described as the voice of one calling, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Matt 3.3).
He is the messenger who has come to prepare people for the coming of God, for the coming of Jesus.
And he does that by calling people into the wilderness, calling us to strip away our false gods, our pride, the things that we depend on to give us our sense of identity or purpose or value. He calls us to trust in the promise of God – the promise of forgiveness and of comfort and of a final home.
So I finish by speaking to those of you who feel, for whatever reason, that you are in the wilderness.
Please don’t despair, and please don’t give up: even if that ball is so heavy and it seems to be pushing you down the hill.
Use your experience as a time of testing; allow some of those things that you have put your trust in to go – so that you reach out more for him. Use it as a time to stop trying to earn forgiveness, to stop trying to make yourself acceptable to him, and learn to simply receive his forgiveness and love as a gift.
And see the wilderness not as a place where you are 500 miles away from God, but as the place where you can meet with God, and where you can be led by him, through those deserted and dry places, to your final home and your ultimate glory.
[Appendix: Many men and women of God met with him in the literal or the metaphorical wilderness. They had everything stripped away from them; they were tested; but they continued to trust God
- Joseph – innocent and forgotten in a foreign prison
- Moses – looked after Jethro’s flocks for about 50 years or so in the wilderness
- The people of Israel - brought out into the wilderness for 40 years
- Ruth – who chose to leave her home in order to travel with Naomi to a foreign land
- David – hiding from Saul in caves in the wilderness; later forced into exile by his own son.
- Elijah – who is taken by God into the heart of the wilderness
- Jesus – who chooses to go for 40 days into the desert
- Paul – who, having met with Jesus, goes into the wilderness for 3 years – before he began the mission which was going to, quite literally, change the world.]