THROUGH THE DESERT
We're continuing this week with topics that you have asked to hear sermons about, and this week's topic is the spiritual desert. What are we to make of the times when God seems to have taken a vacation without us...when no prayer seems to make any difference, when reading the Bible seems as flat as the grocery list, when no part of life really seems to be going well and God doesn't seem to care enough to do something about it? Hot, dry, sand-in-your-eyes, barren desert. What's a Christian doing having times like those?
Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that desert times are actually a part of the spiritual path. Not even Jesus escaped the desert, as we saw briefly last week. Right at the start of Jesus' ministry...after this glorious high when he went down into the waters of the Jordan river and was baptized with the very voice of God declaring Jesus' importance...right after that, the Spirit of God sends Jesus out into the desert wilderness to be tempted for 40 days and nights.
Almost as soon as Paul has his miraculous experience on the road to Damascus, where a dazzling bright light and the voice of God actually knock him off his horse....right after that he spends 14 years squirreled away back in his hometown of Tarsus...not doing much of anything except becoming ready to be God's vessel of salvation to the Gentiles.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the importance of the desert is the experience we read part of this morning...the Exodus. The Hebrew people had been made slaves in Egypt. God called Moses to get them out, and he did...with a lot of fanfare. There were plagues and promises and a body of water that dried up to make a path for the Hebrews and then drowned the Egyptians behind them. There were miracles and covenants and the voice of God promising a land of milk and honey...and then there was desert. Nasty, barren, dry desert...for 40 years. If you ask me, I think that the only story in the entire Bible more important than the Exodus story is the story of Jesus himself...and in many ways I think they are actually the same story.
When I look at this story in the Old Testament, I see the physical manifestation of what Jesus does for us spiritually, and the journey of the Hebrew people from slavery to the promised land is exactly the spiritual journey that we are called to make as Christians. I could spend the whole sermon outlining the parallels, but that wasn't the question I was asked to deal with. The question was, basically, "Hey, I'm a Christian, what am I doing in this desert?" And the answer is, "The desert is the place that forms the people of God."
In the history of Israel, this desert experience is where a ragtag bunch of Hebrew slaves became one nation under God. It was in the barren desert that God gave them the Law and asked if they would be obedient. God is not a sneak who puts the bad news in the fine print. God did not wine and dine Israel and convince them to sign on the dotted line with a gold Cross pen and a signing bonus. No. God took them out into the desert, where there was little to eat and still less to drink...where they had to move from camp to camp, dodging snakes and jackals and the blazing sun. It was there, in the middle of the desert, where God tested them and asked if they would follow, because if they could not handle the desert, they could never handle the Cross.
The desert is often our first big test as Christians. God first proves to us that we are loved, that God is good, and that God can do great things in and through our lives. God pulls us out of slavery and we are astounded at the signs and wonders that we see at our deliverance. But then comes the test. Yes, we have responded to God's love, but do we really love God because of who God is or are we in this faith thing for the benefits package? Do we believe because it's a way to make life easy or do we believe because it is true? Just to make sure we don't fall into the trap of thinking faith is just one more self-enrichment program, God allows us to wander into the desert...sometimes even leads us there.
So the bad news is that Christians should actually expect a time of spiritual dryness, where the conditions are severe and every day is a struggle. For the Israelites, it lasted 40 years. For me it lasted ten. For you it might be more or it might be less, but the lesson of Scripture is that we should not be surprised that we have it. It is part of faith formation.
I had a friend in high school who got the most fascinating job when she graduated. She worked for a company somewhere in Connecticut that did quality control testing for a whole range of different companies. She spent her entire workday trying to destroy things. She dropped toasters from two stories up and tried to run pantyhose with a knife.. She stood on coffee tables, poked at beach balls with sharp objects, she dropped and smashed, kicked and stretched just about anything you can think of to see if it would break or get ruined. I've often had kids in youth groups I would like to recommend for that job.
The thing was, she was not employed by a company that liked to destroy. She was employed by a company whose mission was to make things better...to help other companies develop products that could stand up under heavy use, that wouldn't be ruined by accidents, and that would serve well the customers who bought them. If an item didn't pass the test, it went back to the company for further development.
That is what our deserts are about...it is a time of testing to see if our faith is going to hold up well enough to be deployed into ministry. If we buckle in the desert, God doesn't throw us out, but we do need to go back for further development...and then another round in the desert...before we are truly ready for the work to which we are being called.. Think of it as Christian boot camp. It's not fun, but by golly, you're a soldier when you come out.
But I promised you good news as well as bad news, and the good news is also very plain in the Exodus story that we read earlier. The good news is that we do not go into the desert alone. God goes with us, and God is patient with our struggles. I don't know about you, but when I read the Exodus story, I simply marvel at how patient God is with the Hebrews. Look at chapter 16.
In chapter 14 they are freed from Egypt and see God's miracle at the Red Sea. Most of chapter 15 is a song celebrating that miracle and their freedom and that chapter ends with them camping at an oasis with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Well, in chapter 15 they head out further into the wilderness. By verse two they are already complaining. "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." For heaven's sake, they could probably still see Egypt if they stood on tiptoe.
But God is patient with them, even though they have just insulted God's integrity. More than that, God listens to their complaining and provides bread. The bread that was provided came in the form of Manna. The word "manna" literally means, "What is it?" which is what the Hebrews said when they first saw it. But they learned that it was good to eat and God provided it fresh every morning.
It's obvious it is from God and not an accident because it is so weird. It shows up every morning, it won't keep until the next day, and no matter how much you gather it is exactly enough. But that's not all. On one day a week there isn't any...the Sabbath...the day they're not supposed to work, and the day before they can gather twice as much and it will keep until the next day. The same stuff won't keep overnight on any other day but that one. Clearly this is God providing for them and manna became a symbol of God's provision.
Whatever we are going through, and however much we complain about it, God is still right there with us. God is in the desert. God provides manna to the Hebrews and the angels come to minister to Jesus in the wilderness. We cannot go to a place where God cannot come. God led the people through the desert...taking the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Day after day, year after year. They complained and they moaned and they sinned, but still God was there both by day and by night.
The good news about our spiritual desert is that God is there with us. Often in the desert that is hard to believe. Sandstorms make it hard for us to see and it becomes easy to forget what God did for us yesterday because we are so hungry today. But God is there anyway, and God will provide for us, even if we might look at God's provision and say, "Manna, What is it?"
My manna was the little church I belonged to in Florida at the time of my divorce. That church had nothing that I was looking for. There was hardly anyone my age, the music was pathetic, the preaching had no point as far as I could tell, and there were no programs to speak of. I visited there and said, "Manna...what is this?" God said, "Stay." Well, what that little church had was a non-judgmental love that literally gave me food when I had none and sanctuary when I had nowhere else to turn. Every morning without fail the manna fell, as solid and dependable as the country folks who provided it. Eventually they became the church that sent me into ministry.
I know what desert is like. I know how it feels to think you are all alone in the world and to feel like God has closed up shop and has given up listening to prayers or providing help. It's not fun, and I'm not going to be out there signing up to do it again. But I can tell you that I was formed there. I faced my demons there. I stumbled and fell and got banged and bruised there, but in the process I got stronger. I wrestled with God, yelled and screamed at God, and in the midst of it all, I remembered who I was. In that ten year boot camp I became fit for ministry, and in coming here I finally was allowed to enter the land of milk and honey.
I can't say when your desert time will come, and I can't say how long it will last. I can't even promise it will only be once. But I can tell you that God will go before you and will stay there with you until you're done. You might not know it...you might think it's only a cloud or fireflies. It's God, making sure that you can recognize the manna and that you know that even rocks can provide water if you tap them when God says to.
I might have to go back to the desert again sometime...who knows? I'm not looking forward to that, but I am no longer afraid of it either, because I know now that God goes with me. It's funny, but with God even a cross turns into a good thing.
"Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me...and I will give you rest."
© 2002, Anne Robertson
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