17. Radical Change

Wilderness Meditations: 17. The Place of Radical Change

Acts 9:1-4  Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

A Hesitation:  I have pondered for a day whether to write this study, but the message underlying it has remained strong and is one that brings together the previous two studies  and emphasizes what I believe the Lord wants to say to us in these days. I want us to consider Saul – or Paul as he became – and his Damascus road experience. I have always considered it a desert road experience and yet I am not certain that that is accurate. Having researched it, the truth is we don’t know what route he took from Jerusalem to Damascus, all we know is what the above verses say, that he was nearing Damascus.

Possibilities: Because I find it an area of the unknown and, more especially, an area I’ve never considered before or heard anyone else speak on, it bears a quick consideration. It seems there were three main highways, trade routes from the south to the north. To the far east was what was known as the King’s Highway, possibly the main trade route. To the west was what was first a coastal road that at various times has gone by different names, ‘Way of the Philistines’, the Coastal Road and The Via Maris,  going up the coast and then sweeping in across Israel to go north on the west of the Sea of Galilee and then north and east across the mountains – south of Mount Hermon and down to the plain of Damascus. However, a more likely route was the Hill Road or Ridge Route that went more directly from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee and continued up the east side of the sea, northwards to Damascus – a rough road, wild at times. Paul was not travelling alone (see v.7) and whether these were friends, other Pharisees, or simply travellers, we aren’t told and we hear no more of them apart from fact that they led the blinded Saul into Damascus.

Transformation: Although a modern writing would have given more details, what we have in the text of Acts and the epistles is quite clear. Paul’s testimony: “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) As he later testified in Acts, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4,5) and even more, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.(Acts 26:9)

The account of his encounter with Jesus on the road down to Damascus is well known, as is the incredible change that took him from being a church persecutor to church builder, opposer of Jesus to herald of Jesus, from legalistic Pharisee to grace-filled apostle. Now consider this further: The transformation that took place is about as dramatic as you can think, but mostly we don’t like the dramatic, we prefer the known, the ordinary, the expected. But in the days we have been living through are none of those things; they have been dramatic, the future is unknown, it is certainly not the ordinary and uncertainty has replaced expected.

Yes but… Now I can hear the defensive voices rising – but I made that same radical change when I turned to Jesus and, yes, I am sure that that is so for many of us. But here’s the thing, I am certain that one of the main questions that have been coming from heaven in the recent months is, what have you been learning in all of this? I don’t know what your answer would be because I’m sure I haven’t seen the full picture of what I have been learning, but in the first of these three additional studies I wrote about how we need to adjust our thinking to see God in the midst of our circumstances. In the second one we saw God moving in the most unexpected place which required a letting go of the present days of ‘success’, submitting to God’s strange directions, directions that challenged the present security.

Change? For some of us these will be radical changes. For some of us we have so struggled to cope with the uncertainties imposed upon us, that to say that we sense the Presence and the Peace and the Provision and Power and the Protection of God in the midst of all this, is a bridge too far for us. To say that we can cope with God purposefully pushing us in new directions can be seen as just yet another lot of uncertainties that make life even more scary.

We can pretend but the reality is far from that. Yes, we are saved, we are believers, but the hard truth is that living in this materialistic and constantly changing world, so much of church life has become routine, almost habit, and the power and presence of God has become something to talk about rather than be experienced.  

I have written this before but may I reiterate, perhaps in an abbreviated form, a vision of church I have used before in previous series, a vision that is simply what is portrayed in the New Testament of ‘church’: a church that is “alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of the life of the church, and the surrounding world is impacted and changed”. That is the God side of it, if I may put it that way; the other side is our part, to catch this vision, yearn for it, pray and pray and pray for it, and to be open to whatever the Spirit might say or do. For many of us, I believe, to believe this, if we dare be honest, is as radical a transformation as that which Saul went through on the road to Damascus.

Review the Change: Paul in Jerusalem, totally set in his ideas, opposed to anything other than the Judaism he knew, indeed hostile to the new ideas of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2). He sets out to strengthen his ideas by arresting those in Damascus who hold those ideas, and on the way, on a dusty road, coming down out of the mountains, his life is changed when the Son of God challenges all he knew. His set ideas, his set goals, his set vision, are all set aside, and it is a new day. This, dear man or woman of God, is the transformation that I believe God is wanting to bring to His children, His church, who have for so long accepted a second best, powerless version of Christianity, of Church. Am I feeling He wants us to change all we are doing? Only in so far as it hinders the coming in power and revelation of His Spirit. I am not there but I am praying. I think it is a day of slow and gradually progressive transformation – until He comes in power. If you have any questions, pray. Please pray.

16. Crucial Contact

Wilderness Meditations: 16. The Place of Crucial Contact

Acts 8:26  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

Continuing:  So now we have to pick up the second of these additional thoughts for this series and it really is a continuation of the previous one in some ways.  Remember Philip has been ousted from the comfort of Jerusalem, where he was a deacon just getting on with the job of serving the church, but now on the run from persecution and finding himself in Samaria. There, I suspect, is where he found himself very surprised as, when he dared share the news about Jesus with these ‘aliens’, they listen to him, believed him and received what he was saying. Somehow this must have boosted his faith for he starts rebuking demons and sicknesses and it all breaks loose – God is on the move in a big way! The town goes wild!

He even picks up some weirdo – Simon a sorcerer – who tags along, challenged by what he sees (v.13). The word gets back to Jerusalem and so they send Peter and John to check it out. (v.14) When they turn up, they lay hands on the new believers who are then filled with the Spirit (v.15-17). After a confrontation with Simon, “Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” (v.25) Philip is left to just carry on the good work. End of story. Not quite.

The Kingdom always moves on: God has other ideas: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (v.26)  If this had been me, I have a feeling I might have questioned this – “I’m doing a good work here, this is where the people are, they need me, there are more to get saved, I’ve settled into this, I’m comfortable with what I might originally have thought was a wilderness crisis situation!” Whether or not Philip did, I don’t know. Again, it if was me, I might have added – “To Gaza, down through the desert? I’m not John the Baptist, I’m just a deacon on the run from Jerusalem, that’s not my gifting!” But God knows that, God knows exactly what He can do with Philip – and with you and me!

The point is that the kingdom of God is always moving on. We may not have the eyes to see it, but do you remember what Jesus taught? “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working,” (Jn 5:17) or, as the ERV puts it, “My Father never stops working, and so I work too.” God keeps on, Jesus keeps on, the kingdom keeps advancing, even if we cannot see it, even if we allow things like pandemics to cloud our thinking.

Philip goes: So yes, Philip goes and hopefully you know the story – he encounters a high official from Africa, leads him to belief, baptizes him and leaves him to return home with a new outlook. Job done. (v.27-40) And that is the end of the story of Philip here.

Lessons? So, what does this say to us? Well I guess the first thing has to be don’t get settled in what you are doing, however good it appears. We do what God calls us to do. That raises the question, do I know that what I am doing in life is God-called? Do I have the confidence that I can be at peace in my calling, getting on with life doing the stuff He puts before me, taking the opportunities He puts before me? But maybe we should add, am I sufficiently secure in my relationship with Him to realise that there may be things He wants to change in me, circumstances He wants to bring my way that will lead me into doing things differently or doing different things?

A Changed World: Let’s be honest, a year ago we could never have guessed that this year was going to unfold as it has done. I have read various writings and prophecies that indicated changes were coming but most of us never got a whiff of the Pandemic and all its ramifications. As we have written before, uncertainty for a disciple should be the norm, never quite knowing where Jesus will lead us next. However, I don’t think most of us in the Church accept that as a day-to-day working hypothesis; the theory we work on – or used to before this year – is that life should just carry on leaving us in comfort and ease. Perhaps that is why so many were finding ‘church’ boring. But it’s a new day, we are having to learn new things, new ways of relating to others, new ways of doing church, new ways of coping in trying circumstances.

In the previous study we spoke about the need to adjust our ways of thinking and perhaps for some of us that is a scary thing. If that is so, it is probably because we have lived a form of Christianity that is at odds with what we find in the New Testament. “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7) We prefer to see what is before us, what is coming, but these days are challenging that.

Help! But can Philip help us? Yes, he started out on the run, but he dared open his mouth, and God took over. Wouldn’t you like it, if your neighbour, work-mate colleague, fellow-student (at a distance) responded to your belief-comment and conversation opens up and (at a social distance) you pray for them, they get saved, healed, delivered?  God not you? So God gives you something different to do, less glamourous, unnoticed by most and you end up leading some seriously significant person to the Lord. I recently came across the testimony of a leader who preached a rubbish youth message at another church one evening and felt bad about it, but some years later, he encountered one of those teens now grown up who told how he’d given his life to the Lord that day, had become a youth leader and was now regularly leading many other teens to the Lord. We never know the impact we might be having!   Don’t despise the small things God gives you to do in the wilderness, just be faithful in the way you do it, and leave the rest to Him. Who knows how you might be changing the world? Don’t think, “Wilderness! Doom! Persecution! Doom! Pandemic! Doom!  Think, God opportunity! Hallelujah!”

15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

14. Place of Transformation

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!

13. Place of Humility

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 Lock-down 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 lock-down 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?  

12. Place of Trust

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 trappings 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.  

11. Place of Fellowship

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.  

10. Place of Dismay

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 realized 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? Recognizing what is going on in us and around us, is the first step to coming to our senses and realize 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.

9. Place for Revelation

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.  

8. Spiritual Strengthening

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.