12/11/17 LIFE IN THE DESERT
“At certain times and places, God will build a mysterious wall around us. He will take away all the supports we customarily lean upon and will remove our ordinary ways of doing things. God will close us off to something divine, completely new and unexpected and that cannot be understood by examining our previous circumstances. We will be in a place where we do not know what is happening, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives by a new pattern and thus where He causes us to look to Him…… the souls that God leads into unpredictable and special situations are isolated by Him. All they know is that God is holding them and that He is dealing in their lives. Then their expectations come from Him alone”
IT IS NORMAL FOR GOD TO PLAN SEASONS IN THE DESERT IN THE LIVES OF HIS SERVANTS
So important is the desert experience in God’s leadership emergence process that it is unlikely that the persons God uses will avoid a season in the desert at critical occasions in their lives. There are some lessons that can only be learned in the desert. Besides, who has ever heard of a course in a Bible College called DESERT 101. It would be impossible to compose such a course and even if it wasn’t impossible, who would willingly apply for such a course anyhow? There are some things that can only be learned in the desert. Those of us in the Western world, are steeped in affluence and immersed in a culture that demands instant gratification of our material needs and desires, have no concept of life in the desert. We are so use to plenty we take anything else for granite. This concept has been translated into our Christian walk.
THE HOLY SPIRIT LEADS US INTO THE DESERT AND THEN OUT OF THE DESERT AT THE FATHER’S APPOINTED TIME.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit in to the desert…..” –Matthew 4:1
Desert experiences do not take our sovereign God by surprise. Rather they are purposeful and serve as times of preparation for God’s future purposes. Sometimes it might even seem that it is a consequence of the sinfulness of other people that causes us to end up in the desert, but God’s purposes can still be worked out in these circumstances, as Joseph would ultimately testify, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about as to this day, to save my people alive.” (Genesis 50:19-20) Joseph teaches us of the importance of attitude and focus as we make our way through times in the desert.
IN THE DESERT, GOD ALLOWS MANY OR ALL OF OUR FOUNDATIONS TO BE REMOVED FROM UNDER US.
Initially, the desert can be a lonely place. It was for Rebecca and me. However, we have grown to appreciate life in the desert as we have pressed into God and found that we are indeed not alone. One of the early characteristic of life in the desert for us was the closing of anger, bitterness and discouragement, in the process, God has been repositioning us to ensure that our identity is found in our relationship with Him and not in the things we have been doing for Him and the titles and roles that come with these responsibilities. Essentially, it is any experience which seems to, on the face of it, contradict God’s revealed purpose or promise for you. It is in these times, however, that we need to hold on fast to these promises and not allow despair and hopelessness to take hold. In the desert God is taking us to a place of total dependence on Him that will be characterized by a new level of living by faith and trust in Him.
THE DESERT IS A PLACE OF TESTING TO PREPARE US FOR A NEW SEASON OF LIFE AND SERVICE.
It is important that we understand these tests and pass these tests. The desert is not a place of punishment or banishment, but rather, a place of preparation and transition. Paul explains this process in his first letter to the Thessalonian church. “….we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.” “We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts” –1 Thessalonians 1:4. There is a process that takes place in the desert: TESTING TO APPROVE TO ENTRUST new responsibilities.
THE DESERT IS AN INTENSIVE TIME OF PERSONAL CHARACTER GROWTH, WITH THE MOST IMPORTANT AREAS OF FOCUS BEING OUR FAITH AND OBEDIENCE.
We read of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” The desert is a place where God focuses on growth in our character rather than growth in our competence. Growth in our gifts that outstrips growth in our character can be a recipe for some disaster that is waiting to happen. The desert is a place of humbling and brokenness where we are stripped of our independence and (painfully) learn to become God dependent. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments…. He gave you manna to eat in the desert….. To humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.” –Deuteronomy 8:2,16. The desert is a place where we learn to walk by faith and trust God for our needs, where we are totally dependent on Him. As we have been walking through this desert season, Rebecca and I would look at one another and comment that this has been the most stimulating time in our lives, but also the scariest as well.
THE DESERT IS A PLACE OF CHOICES
Continually, I have found that I have two options as life in the desert unfolds. I could take situations into my own hands, and have good reason to do so, or I could trust such situations to God and leave them in His hands. God kept saying that I had a choice. But if I took a situation into my own hands, then he would need to excuse Himself because there wasn’t room for the two of us to address a particular situation. I am now learning to trust God and wait on Him for His timing and His open doors and His resolution to difficult challenges and His provision of necessary resources at a greater depth. The greatest choice that summarized all other choices was communicated to me by God at the time I entered the desert. He said,
“In the desert, Daniel, you can give birth to an ‘Isaac’ or an ‘Ishmael’. Make sure you give birth to an Isaac.”
The contrasts between these two possibilities that faced Abram and Sarai in their desert experience were extreme.
Born of the Spirit Born of the flesh
Wait on God Rush ahead
Humanly impossible humanly possible
God’s glory Man’s glory
God closes and opens doors I close and open doors
THE DESERT IS A PLACE OF SPIRITUAL WARFARE
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit in to the desert to be tempted by the devil.” -Matthew 4:1
Satan realizes the critical nature of the desert and the consequences of us passing the tests of the desert, perhaps even more that we do. In the desert our points of vulnerability become even more acute and Satan, who is aware of them, will press in to try and cause us to fail the tests of the desert. The book of Psalms talks about “remembering” God’s works of the past. It also urges us to “give thanks” to God for his faithfulness and mercy. When we are weak and under spiritual attack, all we have to get us through will be our past experiences of God. We must, therefore, cultivate these times of intimacy with Him in our daily walk, so when the tempter comes, he will have nothing to hold on to. We must also hide God’s Word in our hearts. God’s Word alerts us to when the battle is spiritual. It also teaches us how to respond. God has given us everything we need to get us through this season of warfare. (Ephesians 6:17)
THE DESERT IS A PLACE WHERE WE LEARN TO EXPERIENCE INTIMACY WITH GOD AT A DEEPER LEVEL AND SEE THINGS FROM HIS PERSPECTIVE.
Life in the desert is less cluttered and more simplified. In the desert God strips us of the things of the world and frees us to go deeper with Him so that He might reveal Himself to us in a fresh way. The wells of necessity are deeper in the desert. More and more we will begin to see things the way God sees things. This is perspective, that quality which separates leaders from followers. The desert is a place of revelation, as we see in the case of John the Baptist…. The word of God came to John….in the desert Luke 3:2
The desert is a time of preparation for the future and is a time where God teaches His chosen servants to learn how to follow His prompting and partner with Him in what He is doing. In the desert, we transition from knowing about God to knowing God, as we are weaned from the accumulation of things that have hindered us from hungering and thirsting for the Living Water. “But when God who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see these who were apostles before I was, but went immediately into Arabia (the desert) and later returned to Damascus” -Galatians 1: 15-17
THE DESERT IS A PLACE WHERE WE RESTORE THE DISCIPLINES THAT FORM A STRONG FOUNDATION FOR OUR FUTURE LIVES AND MINISTRY
God has no shortcuts in His training program and the dropout rate can be high. The desert has a way of stripping life down to the basics and causing us to evaluate what is ultimately important and what is not. In the desert we are set free from the Western world’s agenda to create a materialistic heaven on earth and we realize that it is in the establishment of disciplines that we can move beyond the superficiality of our culture and deepen our foundations.
THE DESERT IS A PLACE OF VICTORY THAT LEADS TO NEW BEGINNINGS AND A NEW FUTURE IN THE FULLNESS OF GOD’S TIME
“Forget the former things;
Do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
And streams in the wasteland…” -Isaiah 43:18-19
“But He knows the way that I take;
When He has tested me, I will come Forth as gold” –Job 23:10
“…And the God of all grace, who called
You to His eternal glory in Christ, after
You have suffered a little while, will
Himself restore you and make you strong,
Firm and steadfast.” -1 Peter 5:10
There comes a time when life in the desert comes to an end. For life in the desert is a time of preparation, a time of revelation and new perspective, a time of learning how to walk in the presence of God, a time to pull all the props away and move on from the things of the past and a time to walk by faith and trust God to be our provider. Just as the Lord leads us into the desert, so it is that He leads us out of the desert, often with the promise that the best is yet to come.
ENTER THE WILDERNESS OF GOD
Too much to do. Wanted, needed, pursued. Too many people. The ongoing pressure to serve, to help, to do, and very little time to simply be. And so you go, escape, dis-entangling yourself from the strings of want and need and doing to find space. Space, a place that is far from the bustle of town or city, a place that may seem dry and lifeless but where you know there is simply enough. Not enough for want or need but enough to be.
Leaving the sounds of the sleeping town behind, the gentle hum of night-time humanity, you take a hard road into the earliest of lights, the hint of the dawn that is yet to come. You head for a secret place, secret because it is yet unknown, secret because there you can reveal your own secrets.
It is a cold place, but it is not too difficult to build a fire, a light shining in the darkness, offering protection but also a cleansing flame. A burning place.
And there alone you unlock your secrets to none but the air, the dimming stars, the scattered vegetation and the chittering of desert life. And underneath that almost-silence another layer of presence, of Angels, of the Divine, and a dark voice of accusation. As the world around you thinks you cannot ignore them. Slowly, your heart is a vault of many rooms, you unlock each secret place. With each comes the darker voice, it cannot be passed over, yet you sense there are lies in its truths and there is truth in its lies. You speak words out loud, none hear those accusations apart from the rocks, the sky, the angels and God.
With each confession there is release. In this wild open space accusations cannot rebound off others, but are embraced by the sky, dissipating with the smoke from your open fire. Or perhaps they are carried away by the angels you feel so close? As the darker words fade there are new words, forgiveness and peace, words from God. As those words fill the secret places prayer begins, a conversation, an intimacy.
Hours pass, the fire dims, and with it any thought of the secrets you once carried. Hours in the wilderness, yet years could have passed since you confessed in the secret place, a lifetime since the doing, the wanting the needing. Instead there is being, and with that being a closeness to the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
Now the darkness is passed and the light of new day brightens the sky. Voices can be heard from travellers from the road, calling, searching for you.
Restored, renewed you rise to greet them. Like our Savior Jesus we to must enter a wilderness at times.
Elijah Repairs the Ruined Altar
So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.
I Kings 18:30-39
The climax of Elijah’s struggle for Israel which took place at Mount Carmel. From early morning the prophets of Baal called on their god. In vain. When the sun began to set down, Baal’s prophets fell silent. No one had answered them. No one had responded.
This in itself was Elijah’s victory, for the people saw that their idol was silent and would not help. And this is often the first step how a man can start to seek the true God. Until we live in illusions, until we are happy with the values which we rely on, we can hardly be led to change our opinion. But when crisis comes and reveals how vain and empty what we have relied on is, then we might start to seek a different God. When we are disappointed, when we get our fingers burned, when our would-be certainties and false self-confidence crumble, then something new can begin.
Elijah calls the gathered Israel: “Come here to me!” And they come. At this moment mere onlookers become active participants. Until now they have just watched. Until now they have silently waited what would happen. But now they come to Elijah. Now they are asked to fill jars with water and pour it out on the altar of the Lord. Three times over! Now they themselves must decide. To come to Elijah and do what he said meant to give up Baal. And at that moment they really gave him up. The Lord won’t reveal himself to disinterested observers nor to scandal-hunting journalists at Mount Carmel; will he give sign to those who seek him. The Lord never gives an unshakable proof of himself to anyone. Instead, he confirms the faith of those who wait for him by his actions.
But before that happens, Elijah repairs what has been forgotten, covered with dust, torn down and destroyed in the long years of unfaithfulness. He repairs the old altar of the Lord. No one has sacrificed there for a long time. He rebuilds it with twelve stones although everyone knows that the tribes of Israel have long ceased to live together but live in two kingdoms. He creates space around the altar which resembles the courtyard of the tabernacle when the people still wandered through the desert. And finally he has 12 jars of water poured out on the altar, similarly to the prophet Samuel when he and the people confessed their sins. And we may understand his actions like this: “If something genuinely new and blessed is to begin in the church but also in our personal lives, we won’t make it happen by just starting over without further ado. On a blank page. If a person wants to begin a new life, he or she must return to where they made a mistake. It is important to acknowledge our past. To repair what has been torn down.” Elijah wants to emphasize: “The new begins by repairing the old.” That’s why the church always comes back to Scripture. That’s why we should confess our sins. That’s why we should remind ourselves of our vow at baptism. That’s why wives and husbands should remind themselves of their marriage covenant. That’s why a nation should remember its past and not draw a line under it. But that is also why coming back is so hard. It means to acknowledge what we would rather forget and what we have perhaps really forgotten. Now Elijah reminds all this to Israel at Mount Carmel with his words and his actions. He goes back to the times of Jacob, Moses and Samuel. He wants to return and pick up where the mistake was made. To continue on the road from which they turned away long ago.
Elijah’s prayer carries the same emphasis. He even appeals to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is more than just rehearsing history. For Elijah and also for us this is a great encouragement. Our prayers never need to start from scratch. When we call on God, we turn to someone who has already done much for us. Our faith has a history. There is much that it can rely on. It has good experience with God. The Christian knows on whom he calls. Every prayer we pray may begin with thankfulness for what God has done for us. When we realize this, we can pray a much stronger prayer than if we just pop at God what we want right here and right now.
And that’s another remarkable thing about Elijah’s prayer. He doesn’t want anything for himself from God. Instead, he prays for what God wants to happen. “Let it be known that I have done all these things at your command.” The success of Elijah’s prayer is not in its urgency or in Elijah’s skills or eloquence. God answered his prayer because Elijah asked for what God wanted. It might seem unnecessary to you, to pray for something that God wants. But this is where a biblical prayer differs from all other prayers. Jesus, too, prayed: “Not as I will, but as you will.” And we, too, pray: “Your will be done.” When we as Christians pray, it is not in an attempt to have our wishes fulfilled. Our prayers have a different goal: Accord with God. In prayer we wish to concur with our Lord as much as possible. To identify with his will. To wish and to do what God wants. What happened at Mount Carmel was not what Elijah planned but what was God’s desire and goal. When Elijah prayed: “Let them know that you are turning their hearts back again,” he expressed precisely what was most important to God. God is not uncaring and indifferent. The God of Israel loves his people and longs for their love. And Elijah is great and holy because he understood this, because he risked his life for it and because he prayed for it.
There is another remarkable thing about the sacrifice at Mount Carmel. Elijah prepares everything but God finishes it. All what Elijah does, the rebuilding of the altar, the preparing of the sacrifice, the pouring of water as a sign of repentance, yes, even the gathering of the people would make no sense if God himself did not finally intervene and set it on fire and accepted the sacrifice. There’s no point in speculating how it happened. The story wants to say something else very clearly: “In our actions we may, and we should, count on God’s help.” Our work, our ministry, our effort should be like Elijah’s actions at Mount Carmel. Our task is to prepare many things. To respond to God’s challenges and calling and begin boldly to work. But at the same time we can never do it all alone and manage everything. Our work, our share stops at a certain moment, and then everything is left to God. Often our situation will be similar to Elijah’s. We will risk much for God’s Kingdom: our strength, our efforts, our name, our honor, our property. Some will risk their lives. If God doesn’t help, we run the risk that all our efforts will be in vain, useless, often even ridiculous—just as the dripping sacrifice at Carmel would have been ridiculous if God hadn’t intervened. But, God did intervene! God owns his work.
Faith, however, means that we take the risk. That we go to a foreign land with Abraham, build a ship on dry land with Noah, wait in Egyptian prison with Joseph, go to Pharaoh with Moses, hide before Saul with David, go gather every forgotten grain with Ruth, plead with the king with Esther, build the city walls with Nehemiah, stand up against enemies who outnumber us take up the cross with Jesus, enter a pagan house with Peter, walk through the world with Paul, make the gospel comprehensible with Cyril and Methodius, hold on to the truth. Perhaps our actions won’t be known in history but God still waits for them and values them just as highly as the actions of the famous. Every one of us can repair or rescue something in our lives, or start something new. And even if they are tasks that surpass our strength and ability, we may believe that God will gladly own what he himself has called us to, what he has led us to, what he has inspired.