4. God in the Wilderness?

Meditations in Isaiah 40: No.4. God in the Wilderness?

Isa 40:3   A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

We cannot leave this thought of God coming to the wilderness. It is an amazing thought and dare I suggest, one I have never heard preached about, perhaps implying we take it for granted. But that is what the prophet is saying here, that a highway is to be made in the desert so that God can come along it, in the desert. This is God in the desert. To catch the full impact of this we need to remember how we finished the previous study, with this thought about ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ being pictures of those spiritually dry times of life, times that are sometimes frustrating as we look for blessing and all we see is disorder, grumblings and lack of vibrant power and life in the church.  It is to such times that this word now comes.

There are a surprising number of times in the Bible when God turns up in the desert or wilderness. We concluded the last study with mention of Moses at the burning bush. There God comes to the desert with revelation, so first, desert can be a place of fresh revelation, fresh direction, fresh calling and sending, when God turns up.

Second, we find God leading Israel through the desert to the Promised Land (see Ex 15-19) – the journey through the desert had to be taken before Israel could reach the Promise Land BUT the Lord was with them throughout their journey. So, second, we can know the Lord’s presence with us in such desert times.

Third, we find God providing manna for Israel, food that kept on appearing for forty years there in the desert. Bread is sometimes a picture of God’s word on which we have to learn to feed. So, third, the desert experience can still be a time and a place of feeding on God’s provision, His word – yes, there in the desert!

But, fourth, water was also an issue in the desert and there they had to learn that although the environment was dry and arid, they would still, nevertheless, have provision from the Lord of water. Water so often is a picture of the Holy Spirit and so, fourth, even in the desert (before the circumstances change) we have to learn that the supply of the Spirit is there for us. Rely on Him, seek Him, receive of Him.

Yes, there was also, fifth, a time of battle while in the wilderness – against the Amalekites and God gave them victory. So surprisingly, fifth, the desert can still be a place of victory with God over our enemies.

Now remember, these are all illustrations of what can happen when God turns up in the wilderness, but there is yet a further dynamic picture to be considered.  In Ezekiel 47, the prophet has a vision of a river that flows out of the temple and down into the land and he is told, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows….. where the river flows everything will live. …. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.” (Ezek 47:8-12) This river is the river of life that flows out of the presence of God and here is the incredible thing – it transforms the desert!

As God comes down this highway in the desert, His presence transforms the desert, your life and mine and the world around us through us.  Can you grab that truth by faith and live it?  He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs” (Psa 107:35). “I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.” (Isa 47:18,19) Your life and mine?

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9. The Path of Plessure

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 9. The Path of Pleasure

Eph 2:3  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.

Tentative Approach: I confess, and I hope you don’t feel this, that I don’t like considering these areas that are ‘doomed for death’ if we are to grow as Christians, I feel very tentative about them. I think it is probably for two reasons. The first is because there is a negativity about death and I often feel challenged when I consider either myself or my church, that just perhaps some of these things do apply and need putting to death. But then, as I said yesterday, I realise that some of these things, if not all, need putting to death afresh on a daily basis. The second reason is that I am feeling frustrated because I want to move on into the second area about resurrection to see what the Lord wants to show us about living lives in his power. But we have to take our medicine first and face the challenges that arise in this Part.

Balance: The difficulty, and I acknowledge it before we get into it in this one – and it is particularly important that I say this to us who live in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century – is maintaining a balance that acknowledges the Lord’s good provision on one side but makes sure we don’t supplant Him by His provision on the other side. I will explain more as I go on.

Made to Enjoy: As you will see from the title and the starter-verse, our subject is pleasure. Now I don’t know if you have every thought about this, but we are made for pleasure. We have eyes to see the wonder of the world about us, and I have been almost drunk in the past as I have gazed on God’s creation, and on beautiful art work. Our visual world is truly wonderful. But then we have ears to hear, that pick up the tiniest of sounds like the scrabbling of a hedgehog in the undergrowth, to the wonders of the incredible range of music that we are capable of producing, to the roar of the sea on the seafront in an amazing storm. Yes, our audible world is also absolutely amazing.

Then we have taste and I don’t know where to start or finish. I have been privileged to travel the world and so have tried so many tastes in many countries and so I hesitate to start describing foods or drinks because it is like a tsunami and I could get carried away. Taste is incredible! But then we have touch and I guess this is the one of the five senses that we possibly take more for granted. I love the feel of wood, that has been planed and rubbed and just waits for further treatment. I love the feel of my wife’s skin, but I will move on quickly. I’m using too much space.  Finally smell, and I leave it to the last because it is so powerful. I will just mention two things and if you don’t know them, where have you been all your life? Fresh coffee and recently baked bread. Enough said. Smell is amazing.

Now I have taken that time and space to make a point – and we could go on to think about many experiences of the human race that bring pleasure and that could take up the page – and the point is that despite the protestations of the ascetics down through the ages, we have been made by God to be the most amazing beings who can ENJOY the physical and material world that He has made. Think about that and it says a lot about Him. Worship Him for His love to us in this way.

Godless Enjoyment: Before we met Christ, this material world was all we knew and we gave ourselves to it in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. In our starter-verse, the apostle Paul speaks about gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts, and there is a danger we become all legalistically puritanical and become unbalanced, denying the truths I have spoken about above, resulting in a harsh life of abstinence.

But he does speak truth, that pre-Christ our life was just those wonderful things I spoke about in the paragraph on the senses and nothing more and when “those wonderful things” are all that energise and motivate us they start becoming jaded and, rather like drugs, we want more and more to get the same satisfaction. For those who know about economics, it is the law of diminishing returns at its best.

Twenty-first century living: So we are someone who comes to Christ in the first third of the twenty-first century and we live in a world of material appreciation (that’s the nice way of putting it), a world of material excess and pleasure, a world of technology that increasingly assaults our senses in the communication realm and threatens to overwhelm us. Basic pleasure is being threatened. Boundaries are falling and confusion reigns in the realm of sexuality, as just one example, and more than ever we need to cry – Balance! Christian, keep a hold on God in this ever-confusing world.  Hold to His word, hold to His presence, hold to His reality. If the material is drowning your life, it is a time to step back and bring a balance, with some stuff, perhaps, needing to die.

The “world”: Feelings and pleasure were the arbiters of our life before we came to Christ, but many still focus there and not on Him. The apostle John wrote significantly about “the world” in his first letter, meaning the godless, self-centred world, not the wonderful globe we live on. The Message version puts it very well: “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” (1 Jn 2:15-17) The world’s ‘goods’ are for our pleasure but when they are THE source of our pleasure, we’ve lost it, and that needs to die. “wanting, wanting, wanting.”  Wow, that describes the emptiness of so much of life today that reveals the shallowness, the barrenness, the limitations, the inadequacies of living in the materialistic world to the exclusion of the spiritual world of God.

Generation Struggles: I watch the different generations today, struggling with this. The younger generation being carried away with their electronic goods, and their desire for a new and ever new experience, with virtual reality being the tip of the iceberg (or, I might suggest, the forefront of an oncoming tsunami). The older generation so often with more time and money on their hands, but still, so often, godless. We went on a cruise to the Mediterranean some years ago and as it was our first time we were assaulted by people comparing that cruise to other ones they had been on (jaded!) and one couple said to us, “Oh, this is our tenth cruise,” and I couldn’t help thinking, “For goodness sake, get a life!” But it was symptomatic of a people filling in their time, sadly frittering their lives away.

I run a group for the more elderly and its purpose is to build friendships and strengthen memory in the aging, and ultimately lead them to Christ. One of the many things I do with this group is I get people to share in pairs or threes about a particular part of their past lives and having been doing it  for several months, I can tell you this generation have “been there, done it all, got the tee-shirt three times over” but mostly they still don’t know the Lord and are still looking for something.

And So? Don’t lose touch with a vibrant relationship with the Lord, (or get one if you have never had one!) and don’t get to the end of your earthly run thinking, “Well what was all that about?” Pleasure is good and God-given, but pleasure without God just promotes a jaded feeling. The more you know Him, I have found, the more He heightens the pleasure. Yes! Without Him, the pleasure is like chewing straw. Don’t do it.

55. A Lesson in Obedience

Meditations in Exodus: 55. A Lesson in Obedience

Ex 16:13-15   That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

In Numbers 11 there is a further more detailed account of what happened here that reveals the provision of Quail as a semi-judgment on the people but here the emphasis is on the manna and so we will ignore the Quail and focus on that.

The Lord has said He will provide for them and in the morning there appears what appear thin flakes of some unknown food and The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” (v.31) You will see from a footnote to this verse that “Manna means ‘what is it?’ hence the link with verse 15.

Now so often when we come to this story we focus on the fact that this was God’s provision for Israel in the desert and “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan.” (v.35) This was God’s supernatural food for Israel as long as they stayed in the desert. It was supposed to only be a matter of months but it turned out to be forty years. So, it was a sign of His love and provision for His people throughout their time in the desert. When they get to the Promised Land they can eat the fruit of the land but for now in a sandy wilderness, manna is their provision.

So, yes, it is right to focus on the provision aspect of this story but the detail of the account show there is a bigger issue at stake here. We see it when we look at the instructions for collecting this manna, which we have already briefly noted but which is now spelled out in more detail. So let’s turn now and look at the details of the collection of this manna.

First of all, Moses explains what it is: “Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.” (v.15) Not literal bread maybe but God’s provision that is the equivalent to their staple diet, the basics of what they need to stay alive. He then tells them (FIRST instruction) that they are each to collect it and how much to collect: “This is what the LORD has commanded: `Each one is to gather as much as he needs. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’” (v.16) Your footnote will tell you that an omer is about 2 litres or 2 quarts measure. A small bucketful perhaps. Note in passing that each person was to go and collect their own. It was a very personal provision.

But then something strange is recorded: “The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.” (v.17,18) They went out and gathered it and when they then came back and measured it, everyone seemed to have the same – sufficient. The apostle Paul quotes this verse (2 Cor 8:15) and appears to imply they simply shared it out and it balanced out. As a community they got what was sufficient.

Then he gives them a SECOND Instruction: “Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” (v.19) This was provision for TODAY and not tomorrow; they were to trust that the Lord would bring it again tomorrow. We are then shown what happened when they didn’t do this and tried to provide for tomorrow: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.” (v.20) The lesson is very clear: the provision is for TODAY and only today. It was to be collected early morning because, “Each morning everyone gathered as much as he needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away.” (v.21)

What follows appears to have been the result of a THIRD Instruction: “On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much–two omers for each person–and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses.” (v.22) The report of the community leaders appears to have been a confirmation to Moses that the people had obeyed for Moses instructed, “This is what the LORD commanded: `Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” (v.23) What was amazing on this sixth day was that, “they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it.” (v.24) Then comes the clarification: “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.” (v.25,26).

So note what we’re seen of this manna:  i) It came every morning, ii) if they didn’t collect it straight away it would melt as the sun got hot, iii) it was provision for that day and if they tried to keep it, it went mouldy, iv) on the sixth day they could collect two days’ worth and it would not go off on the second day because, v) on the seventh day none would be provided.

Now we need to return to what we said at the beginning of all this, that there is a bigger issue here; it is of training and obedience and learning to trust. We see this emphasised when some of the people wouldn’t stick to the rules: “Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” So the people rested on the seventh day.” (v.27-30)

So we see two sets of disobedience and two ways of correction. Initially some tried to collect two days’ worth and it went mouldy and then later in the week some went out to look for more on the Sabbath and received a rebuke. This account is a mixture of divinely supernatural provision and a training course on trust and obedience. The thing is that by the second week of this provision, we can be fairly sure that the people were complying with the rules, if not then certainly by the third week – and forty years later they were still doing it!  This is not a one-off provision such as the water at Marah, but this is a daily trusting and obedience for each and every person (adults at least).

What parallels are there with modern day Christian experience? It is still all about provision but that provision, in whatever form it takes, comes through the Holy Spirit. The lesson is still the same – the provision is for today. We see the failure of this so often in church life: we get blessed with one particular way of meeting with God on a Sunday, say, and so assume that that is the way for every week, instead of trusting Him for fresh direction week after week. But that is a bit challenging isn’t it, whether it is church services, Bible Studies, prayer meetings or whatever and so often we therefore fail to get the new provision for TODAY. May it not be so.

45. The Wisdom & Provision of God

Meditations in Exodus: 45. The Wisdom & Provision of God

Ex 13:17,18   When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.

These chapters appear to be made up of blocks of information, each one different and yet each one highly significant in its own way. This block of the remaining verses in this chapter contains three distinct sets of information.

The first set of information (v.17 & 18) is about the route that Israel took at the Lord’s leading and in it we see the Lord’s wisdom: When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” (v.17,18)

Their end goal is the Promised Land or what we have often called Canaan and in more modern times, Palestine, directly north on the cost of the Mediterranean Sea. However the most direct route to it was through the land of the Philistines (south west of what became Israel) and they were known for being marauders and that route, as it left Egypt, was heavily guarded by a string of Egyptian fortresses. Neither wanting His people to have to contend with the Philistines nor possibly have trouble with the outlying Egyptian fortresses, the Lord led them more to the east towards what is known as the Red Sea or Reed Sea, or Sea of Reeds. If Israel found immediate conflict with the Philistines the Lord foresaw that they were not yet a great fighting force but more of a motley mass of individual families, and they might lose heart and turn round and go back to Egypt. This is the declared reason of the Lord but as we shall see there might yet be another double reason why He took them this more easterly route but we will have to wait until the next meditation to see that.

We then come in the second mini-block of information (v.19) to what is an action based upon history: Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (v.19) In Gen 50:24,25 Joseph had made his brothers make this promise which Moses now fulfils and Joshua will see is done (see Josh 24:32). It is a prophetic fulfillment sign that emphasises the strength of the will of God that had been declared to the Patriarchs and was now being fulfilled. Jacob had already been buried in Canaan and now Joseph can be as well (when they reach there! Amazing to think  they carried Joseph’s bones around with then for what eventually turned out to be over forty years!)

In the final mini-block of information we see the Lord’s ongoing provision for this people – His visible guidance! “After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” (v.20-22) In 12:37 we noted they had moved to Succoth, thought to be west of the Bitter Lakes, and now they move north east to Etham, thought to be nearer the Bitter Lakes in the north of Egypt.

Now note very carefully this is no random moving but they moved as guided by God and only when God guides. His provision of guidance is clearly visible and can only be described as divinely supernatural, a pillar of cloud by day which turned into a pillar of fire by night. Both of these pillars indicate the presence of God (see Ex 14:24). It would appear that subsequently the Lord often spoke to them from the pillar (see Num 12:5-6; Dt 31:15-16; Psa 99:6-7)

There are those (who presumably don’t read the text carefully) who would make suggestions for a variety of paths for Israel to take but I suggest there are sufficient names to make it quite clear. Some would like to suggest theirs was a random wandering but the Lord’s very obvious presence with them in these two ways challenges that. Now this is going to become significantly important shortly and so we will retrain making comments that are more applicable in the next study. Simply bear it in mind that Israel are where they are NOT by accident but by the Lord’s design. I will stop at that point.

However, there is one further point to be observed in passing, the final part of verse 18: The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.”  Although we were told earlier that the Lord didn’t want Israel to get into skirmishes with the Philistines, nevertheless they go out fully armed. One can only surmise that this was part of their “plundering the Egyptians” (12:36).  Before they enter the Land many years will pass but when they eventually do they will need to fight both on their way towards the land and once they are in it. At least they are equipped for a fight even if mentally they may not yet be ready for it. Is there something for us to ponder on in that?

As I view what went on here, I sometimes wonder how the Lord may ‘interfere’ with our lives to protect us? Does He stop us moving into certain activities because He sees that in the long-run it will be harmful for us? Does He stop us doing some things because He sees that it would develop pride in us that would overwhelm us? He certainly gives us great leeway as our mistakes show, but I still have this feeling that He keeps us away from other things to protect us. Check your life and see if you feel the same – and then give thanks.

1.9 The Testimony of the Bible

Meditating on the Judgements of God:   1.9  The Testimony of the Bible

John 3:16,17   For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

I still have a sense of dissatisfaction, that I have not yet adequately covered the point I am trying to make at the moment and which should be remembered in all that follows. Earlier on we said that God is love and that God is good and that God is perfect and we spelled out definitions to try anchor those words. But when I originally wrote a book on God’s love in the Old Testament, when it came to His goodness, I noticed that the testimonies of such people as David always anchored the term with God’s activities. To keep us from becoming judgment-orientated, even though this is the subject we are working towards, we perhaps need to remind ourselves of some of the good things God has done as shown to us in the Bible. That is what this study is about.

Our starting point has to be the Creation. As we have noted before, when God finished creating the whole of the earth, including us, His assessment of it was that “it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As a world without strife or disharmony in any shape or form, it was good to live in and the provision of fruit and vegetables was amazing. I am told there are over twelve hundred varieties of edible bean in the world today! God’s provision for us is all about pleasure and enjoyment within the boundaries He established. Wonderful!

When Adam and Eve fell He did not destroy them but simply put them outside the garden area where they had known the Lord. He did not give up on His plans for mankind. When we come to look at the judgements of Genesis we will discover that although mankind constantly got it wrong and went from bad to worse, God’s activity was incredibly restrained when it came to dealing with them.

We then find Him starting to build a relationship with a man called Abram and when he doesn’t do very well on occasion, God still keeps on with him – and with his son and his grandson Jacob. In fact His dealings with mankind simply reveal the folly of sin in man and the grace and goodness of God who does not give up on us.

Indeed God works within the sin framework of the world that exists after the Fall, and so copes with Jacob’s self-centred twisting, uses spoilt brat Joseph and allows the chosen family to end up in Egypt where they settle but end up as slaves. He then takes a failure called Moses and uses him to confront the awful sin of the Pharaoh of Egypt and delivers Israel out of his hands. He puts up with the moanings and groanings of Israel as they travel to Sinai and eventually when they refuse to enter the land God has chosen for them, He waits patiently until the generation of unbelief has died off and then takes the next generation to this land described as  a land flowing with milk and honey,” (Ex 3:8) a picture of wonderful provision.

When, long after they have settle there, they demand a king, the Lord does not give up on them but gives them one who fits exactly the king they have in mind, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites–a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) Unfortunately he fails and so God gives them another to be king, David, who does unite and establish the kingdom. When it comes to his son, Solomon, we see the peak of God’s blessing when the Queen of Sheba comes to visit and is absolutely overwhelmed by God’s provision (see 1 Kings 10, esp. v.7-9)

When Solomon eventually drifts away form the Lord, the Lord does not give up on them but splits the kingdom to give two opportunities for blessing to flow out of relationship with Him. The northern kingdom fails from the word go and the southern kingdom has good, bad and very bad times. The northern kingdom eventually fails and is carried away and when the southern kingdom settles in for very bad, they too are eventually swept away in what we call the Exile. Now we might have expected God to have given up on these people and utterly destroyed them but to our surprise we find He brings them back to the land and restores them.  Four hundred years later His Son, Jesus, is born into this land.

When we observe the ministry of Jesus the simplest way of describing it is to say he simply did good and kept on doing good in his Father’s name. Through him blessing followed blessing. When he formed a group of disciples he did not give up on their misunderstandings but patiently taught them. He allowed himself to be arrested, falsely tried, condemned and crucified. Three days later he rose from the dead and  instead of preaching death and destruction for this foolish world (both Jew and Gentile), he promised blessing, which came in the form of the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

When you watch the movement of the Holy Spirit you see power and joy and then gifting of both spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12) and spiritual ministries (Eph 4:11,12), all of which are expression of His ongoing loving intent for us. In and through the Church we see his ongoing blessing of individuals; it is an ongoing picture of the love of God being poured out and poured out in abundance.

Please, although we are going to focus on studying the different types of judgment, and the reasons and purposes involved in judgment, and then specific judgments, please don’t get judgment-centred. Hold to the things we have considered in this first part for the judgments are minimal in comparison to all the goodness that is revealed in the Bible.