Thursday, October 20, 2016

Into the Wilderness

When you and I think of a wilderness, we usually have in mind a place of rugged mountains, trees, terrain with few if any paths, let alone roads, wild and possibly dangerous animals, and someplace we wouldn’t normally choose to spend the night alone.

When we hear the term “desert,” we probably think of sand dunes for miles, sand flies, mirages, maybe camels, with only an occasional oasis.

In the Bible these terms are often interchangeable, and the land that is spoken of as either desert or wilderness is chiefly known by its lack of people, not just its untamed condition or missing vegetation. It is a place where life, especially the easy life of settled towns and villages, cannot be maintained. Often in biblical lands, it was due to scarcity of water.

In Christian circles, we apply these terms to hard times when things seem desolate and we feel “lost.” When we speak of being in a “wilderness experience,” it usually carries with it the idea of aimless wandering, uncertainty, and usually a level of oppression like that of the children of Israel—a time when we feel God is not near.

But I was challenged recently to consider a study on how the Scripture references the wilderness, or the desert, when it comes to the experiences of God’s people. The Bible presents us with a very different picture. The qualities we assume may be there, but so are many others. Consider the following.

Moses, raised as a prince of Egypt, takes the deliverance of his people into his own hands, fails, and has to flee to the desert. Was he not supposed to deliver Israel? Well, we know that he was, but at this point, he had decided to on his own, having never yet been called by God for the purpose. Although he was used to power and luxury in the palace of Egypt, he found himself fleeing Egypt and heading to the anonymity of the wilderness. We find him residing with a shepherd’s family, marrying a shepherdess, and having a son in the wilderness of Midian (see Exodus 2). But, think about it. The prince, by age 40, was powerful but self-willed. He had a sense of justice, but an uncontrolled temper (he did murder someone, after all). And while important, he was alone. In God’s providence, it was in the wilderness where he found a wife and had a family. He spent 40 years learning “desert living” (which would, providentially be quite important as Israel's leader). And most important, he met God and heard His call (Exodus 3).

Israel, delivered from slavery, crossed through the Red Sea on dry land, and went into the wilderness where they also met God and heard his voice. They received their “constitution.” Because they failed to believe God when told to conquer the land of promise, they wandered for a generation in the wilderness. Was that wasted time? I would argue that, in addition to the removal of an unbelieving generation, the wilderness experience made these former slaves a nation who saw God provide miraculously for 40 years—manna, quail, clothes that didn’t wear out, pillar of fire and cloud, miracles, deliverances, and more. He led them out of slavery, and prepared them to come into the land of promise in the wilderness.

Where did David flee when Saul was after him and found God close at hand—even guiding his almost daily escapes? The wilderness of Judah.

Where did Elijah go and hear God’s “still, small voice?” The wilderness/desert of Sinai.

Where did John the Baptist go to preach (strange choice!) and find people coming to hear the message of repentance? The Judean wilderness.

Where did Saul go after his conversion to be instructed by the Lord  in preparation for his apostolic ministry—Arabia, which is as “desert” as it gets.

And where was Jesus when he passed the test that Adam and Eve failed when he successfully resisted Satan’s temptation? He was on a 40 day wilderness excursion, led there by the Spirit--see Mark 1.

One more thing: Moses, Israel, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, Saul/Paul, all were led by God to the wilderness and met God there.

Perhaps rather than shun our “wilderness” moments or “desert” experiences, we should instead ask ourselves if, since God has brought us to this place, are we ready to meet God there? And in each of these cases, meeting God in the wilderness led to empowerment and effectiveness, and was the path to receiving God’s promises. Isn't that what we all want?