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!

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.  

5. Using Today’s Provisions

Wilderness Meditations: 5. Using today’s provisions

Psa 78:19  they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

Jn 6:31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.”

Recapping:  In the last two studies we have been focusing on the realities of receiving from the Lord in the wilderness. First we faced the possibility of unbelief over this matter of God being our provider. Then we went on to consider various aspects of our side of the equation – about having a heart focused on God and not on money, having a generous and caring heart that can provide for others. But there is yet a further aspect of being a receiver of God’s provision, especially in wilderness times.

The Place of Testing: The wilderness is a place of challenge and for the believer, a place of trial and testing. It is both a place of learning and also of proving the depth of our faith. In days of plenty and unfettered freedom, it is easy to be happy and contented, but when we enter a season of time in the wilderness, we are challenged over the question of provision and contentedness. It also challenges us as to  whether we can both remain in peace as we trust God for provision and whether we can hear God as we considered yesterday, to be creative and act with wisdom so that He may provide in that way if He wishes. But behind this there is yet another principle we haven’t yet touched upon.

The Example of the Manna: So we are considering the whole question of God providing for us in the wilderness and the obvious historical example of this was the manna He provided for Israel for forty years in the wilderness: The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled.” (Ex 16:35) What is especially remarkable about that is that it was supposed to be provision for only a few months but when Israel refused to enter the Promised Land and had to wait forty years in the wilderness, the Lord carried on providing it for them. But there is one particular aspect of the manna that I want us to focus on today. Not so much the fact that it was a daily miraculous provision from God, but more from the fact that it was His provision for them for five days each week, for them to use on the day, and if they kept it longer, it went off. Yet, on the sixth day they were to collect double, part to use on that sixth day and part to use the next day, the Sabbath – and it didn’t go off on the Sabbath!

Talents: There is more than one parable that uses talents or minas or bags of gold as the provision handed out.  In Mt 25:14-30 in the NIV it is bags of gold, in the ESV it is talents, but the message is the same. The house owner hands out 10, 5 and 1 talent to his servants and when he returns home it is clear he expected them to have used and multiplied what he had given each of them. The one who declared, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground,” (v.25) was thoroughly chastised. I would suggest there are two implications here. First, the more obvious one that we usually latch onto, is that God expects us to use all He has given us, to bless ourselves, to bless others, to bless the world and to bless Him. The second implication is that of relationship, how we view God. The third man saw Him as “a hard man” (v.24). He had a wrong understanding of his master, and that inhibited the way he lived.

How we view God: I believe the time of the Pandemic is a time of revelation, of the hearts of men and women. How people cope – or don’t cope – is an indicator of the resources they have. Believers should be those who have unlimited resources that are drawn upon as we go each morning to the fount that is Jesus. But part of it is how we view Jesus? As we suggested in the first of these studies, I don’t believe he is the cause of the Pandemic except in as far as he may have taken his hand of protection off Chinese scientists who then got it wrong and allowed it to escape into the world from the bats they had been investigating. It is more helpful to ask, ‘what can I learn from this,’ rather than worry about its origins, but that goes right back to how we view God.

To take a very basic biblical teaching: God is perfect. When something is perfect it cannot be improved upon and so in no way when you think about what God thinks, says or does, can you imagine there being a better way. We will not be able to know that of a certainty until we come face to face with him in heaven, but in the meantime it is a matter of faith and trust. Sin mars our thinking, our perception, our understanding, and it is for those reasons we can find ourselves listening to the enemy who whispers, “He is a hard man!” No He’s not. Satan is a liar.

Questions: In the wilderness the outlook is sparse and barren but with Him there with us, our resources are never in question, His love for us is never in question and so that leaves us with a question: have I received what I have as a gift from Him to be used joyfully and thankfully and fruitfully? On the other side of the coin, the question might be, have I taken for granted all the good things I have known in my life, all the good things that have happened in my life and have I therefore been ungrateful? To these we must add, am I using what He has given me to bless others, close family, friends and others He puts before me? Are my resources growing because I am using them and are they blessing others? 

4. Handling Finances

Wilderness Meditations: 4. Handling Finances

Psa 78:19  they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

Past Uncertainties:  Writing this in the run up to Fall in 2020, we can look back to the months of lockdown, and see the months of uncertainty about how the virus is passed on, whether you remain immune once you’ve had it, whether younger people are less vulnerable, what are the outcomes after you’ve had it, will you survive if you catch it, is testing important and does it work, and when will a vaccine be available?

Future Wonderings: Those were the survival uncertainties but as we gaze into the future (and if you read this in years to come you’ll know some of the answers) there are the consequences of the Pandemic, the economic consequences, that will be seen in respect of rebuilding businesses and even entire industries, coping with mass unemployment, changes in medical provision, changes in education provision, that are impacted by the financial mess left by the Pandemic and the things governments all round the world had to do to help people, firms, businesses etc. survive, that have left a financial and economic wilderness. This is the perspective from this time and in many ways the picture looks more like a lunar landscape than those lush green lands we’ve known in the past. If this perspective is half-way true, then we who are the people of God have the greatest opportunity before us we’ve ever known, but it does involve us first of all learning the reality of the God who provides.

Financial Provision: I think financial provision is a bit like healing – sometimes God involves Himself and sometimes He leaves us to play our part.  Take healing as an illustration. If we abuse our bodies with over-eating, alcohol excess, or drug abuse, or simply never take exercise, we should take responsibility for our state. Repentance may open the door for the Lord to step in or maybe He will require us to get human help or start exercising self-control (Gal 5:23, Titus 2:6, 2 Pet 1:8).

When it comes to finances and the Christian, the starting point has to be a right attitude. When Jesus taught, You cannot serve both God and money,” (Mt 6:24) he was saying you always need to put God above getting money and, as we’ve already seen said that when we seek God’s will and put it first, THEN the Lord will provide for all we need. (Mt 6:33) Note ‘need’ not ‘want’. Having a generous heart towards others in need (2 Cor 9:6 etc.). In fact caring for those less well off is also part of the package (1 Jn 3:17) and in the days to come these elements may prove to be essential:

  • that we put God before finances, putting our trust in Him and in His will,
  • that we learn to be wise and not extravagant in the way we use our money,
  • yet we are generous towards others,
  • and we make a point of meeting needs of other less well off.

God’s Provision: Now let’s assume we’ve got each of these things in place and have an open heart to the Lord, then however hard the wilderness is, we need to hold onto that confidence in Him, that trust in Him, that He will be there for us. Now I believe there are two ways of thinking we need to be clear about:

  • the way that knows God can provide without our involvement,
  • the way that knows God will enable us to see ways of provision.

Now there have been plenty of testimonies through history of the way God turns up and provides for His people – outside their activities. Sometimes that provision is putting giving on the hearts of some of His saints to provide for you. When I was a young penniless Christian, a friend and I felt it was right to leaflet the entire area at Christmas time. We did it two years running. Each year the cost amounted to what today would probably be in excess of a thousand, and each year the Lord provided to within a few pennies of the sum spent, I presume by simply putting it on the hearts of other Christians who heard what we were doing.

Some people are called to ‘live by faith – the Schaeffer’s who, last century, set up the Christian retreat called L’Abri in Switzerland (read the book by the same name to be blessed) were a family who experienced this in action. There have been many others. Perhaps asking the Lord to give you the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9a) may open the door to a new area of service, yes, even in the wilderness. But finances can come through ways brought about by us when we are inspired by the Lord. When we know He is with us in this wilderness, when we trust Him, put Him first, look to Him, then we can find that new ideas, new creativity, new hope, can spring forth, maybe new businesses, new approaches to how we do things.

Having the debris of yesterdays that didn’t work being cleared away, makes space for the Lord to lead and inspire us if we are open to it. Don’t try reasoning it out. It starts behind the closed door of your ‘quiet time’ as you read His word, pray, wait on Him, seek His face and His will, be still before Him and listen. That is where the fresh resources come, the new ideas come, the fresh inspiration comes from the Creator God who is wiser than we are, knows how things work better than we do, can see into the future and know how various things would work, so He can guide us with what we call ‘wisdom’. It’s a new day with new possibilities. In the world it’s tough. In God are ANSWERS! 

3. Dining with God

Wilderness Meditations: 3. Dining with God in the Wilderness

Psa 78:19  they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

Varied Landscapes:  In a natural wilderness food and water are in short supply. It is a strange thing but the Promised Land was a place of great provision and yet also terrain that sometimes went by the name, wilderness. There was land in the north near Dothan they called wilderness (Gen 37:12,22). There was the Desert of Beersheba to the south (Gen 21:14), the desert of Paran, to the south of the land (Gen 21:21), the wilderness of Judea, the land to the west side of the Jordan valley (Mt 3:1). Yes, in many ways a land of contrasts. And isn’t that just how life is, a history of contrasts. Sometimes we go through times of great abundance, and other times they are times of great shortage.

Spiritual Variations: Our trouble is that we tend to only measure these times in terms of material things, but the truth is that there can also be varied times spiritually. There can be times when we know great spiritual blessing and there can be times when the Lord seems miles away and we feel spiritually barren and empty. Another thing to be noted is that the material and the spiritual don’t always run in parallel. We can be materially very well off but spiritually barren (usually without realising it!). Alternatively we can be materially poor but spiritually very rich.

Israel Struggling: they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psa 78:19) This was Israel in negative mode, the psalmist recalling how they hadn’t handled the limitations of their time in the wilderness well. Asaph the psalmist recounts how God had been there for Israel prior to their travelling through the desert (not a place to stay forever!) but they had forgotten His blessings, His provisions so far. They had forgotten His miracles of deliverance from Egypt. This of course in now before they reached the land, probably in the Sinai Peninsular wildernesses, a place, as we noted previously designated by God for them to pass through where they would learn a number of things from Him and about Him.

Present Wilderness: Many people have felt their early months of the 2020 Pandemic crisis to have been a wilderness experience for them. Previously, in the West at least, we had freedom and abundance. If we wanted to go out for coffee or shopping, we could. With the lockdown for some three to four months, that was all curtailed. Most shops (except the essentials such a food stores) were shut, restaurants and cafes were shut. Our gymnasiums, health and fitness clubs were shut; all things that made for affluent Western lifestyles were removed. Suddenly we were in a wilderness. But that was just the material side of it all. I believe, without realising it, most of the church has been in a spiritual wilderness. I recently heard a well-known church leader say, “the truth is that we have been deeply ineffectual as churches and denominations. There is very little evidence of the power of God among us and virtually no evidence of the transformation of society because of us.” I thought that was remarkable in its brevity and its accuracy! But it also says we have been in a spiritual wilderness without realising it, long before Covid-19 arrived.

Can it change? That is what the Israelites asked of Moses in the wilderness when they asked about God’s provision. Can God provide for us under these circumstances. This wilderness, these circumstances, are devoid of life, devoid of provision (and we don’t know how long we will be here!) That picture used by Asaph is very graphic isn’t it: “spread a table in the wilderness”. On another occasion they declared, We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Num 11:5) They had lived fairly well previously (and had not realised it and taken it for granted) even though they had been slaves. Now they are complaining because they cannot see how God could provide such abundance in a wilderness! By definition, a wilderness or desert is a place of limitation and shortage. The challenge they experienced is the same one we experience. Every difficulty brings a challenge with it: can I trust God in this time to provide for me, care for me, protect me – however long it continues?

Jehovah Jireh: How often we delight in hearing the teaching – Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides (Gen 22:14) – but we hear it in good times and so now, is it still true in the wilderness? Of course it is! We may be in a time of diminishing resources, fewer things available to us, but that doesn’t matter when God is with you. He knows our need: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (Mt 6:31,32) How are we to respond? The Message version puts it well: “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (Mt 6:33) That is the truth and with an uncertain economic future we may need to hold on to that more than we’ve ever done before. Perhaps this is a time when we’ll learn the truth and reality of Jesus’ promise here.

Be Encouraged: In the meantime, Isaiah cried out, “To the testimony!” (Isa 8:20 NKJV) i.e. remember your testimony, remember what God has done for you so far, let that be an anchor for you! Struggling? Remember what God has done for you so far. Praise Him for it and watch your spirit rise.  

2. Reality brings Worship

Wilderness Meditations: 2. Reality brings Worship

Ex 7:16 Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness

Back to Basics:  In 1647 the Westminster Larger Catechism, a series of question and answers for teaching believers, started out: Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever. The truth is that ‘glorifying God’ is the right and natural response of a man or woman who has encountered God and realised how wonderful He is. Many Christians today, I believe, have lost sight of His glory and although some utter words that we call worship, it is only a very few who really pour out a heart response that is the automatic natural response of encountering God.

Decline in Thinking: The enemy has been at work over recent centuries and most of us have not been aware of it. One writer plotted the inadvertent ‘descent of man’ and his corresponding thoughts about God through a variety of thinkers and scientists: Copernicus discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe. We are but a speck of dust in the cosmos.  Newton provoked investigation into the age of the earth. Today it is considered 4.54 billion years old. Mankind is just a marker at the end of existence. Spinoza, taught us that to the extent that we are physical beings, we are subject to physical laws, all of which have the character of necessity. Determinism followed. No freedom.  Marx argued that the whole of human history was shaped by economic forces.  Darwin, concluded that human beings were just one branch of the primates. Freud, maintained we are driven by sex instinct and the death instinct. So we are all accidents, there is no meaning, no God, no man made in the image of God. That is how ‘thinking’ flowed through the centuries and this is what is taught today, this is the ethos in which our children are brought up, not that God created all of what we know, every atom and molecule in existence and us in His image.

And then Covid-19 and Wilderness. Suddenly people are going online to investigate church, the conduit to God. Suddenly people are going online for services, suddenly more Bibles are being sold. It would appear that Solomon’s words, He has … set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) are rising to the surface of our consciousness in a new way – there is more to life than material things. It is early days, but is it the start of a new seeking after God? When leaders and scientists are changing their minds so often, who is there to bring certainty? God perhaps.

Resist Oppression: The people of God were oppressed by Pharaoh in Egypt. He held them in slavery. The apostle John was under the distinct impression that that is how it is with Satan and the unbelieving world today: the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). But we have been set free from his oppressive slavery. And yet, so often, the enemy seeks to oppress the people of God living in this fallen world with negative thoughts and feelings, but God says to him, “Back off! Let me people go so that they may each day worship me IN this wilderness!”

Will you rise up and cast off the negatives that the enemy brings through the media and others, cast off thoughts of conspiracy theories and all the rest of the rubbish he would use to pull us down into confusion. We ARE the people of God!!!!! He has delivered us out of Egypt. He’s with us. Worship Him! Do what you’re made to do, upset the enemy with truth. Worship the Lord God Almighty! This is a place of worship!

Regaining Perspective: The truth is that God and God alone is worthy of worship. It doesn’t matter where you are, in the valley in the shadow of death or on a mountaintop bathed in sunshine and hope, that fact remains exactly the same – God is worthy of our worship. Failure to worship indicates a failure to realize who He really is, the all-mighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, eternal, never changing, Creator of all things, Lord of all things. Merely because He does not tower over the world bellowing, “I am God, worship me you puny beings,” merely because He does not scare us into oblivion with His might, His holiness, His awesomeness, don’t think that He is not worthy of your adoration. If the experience of lock-down has caused you anxiety, if it has left you wondering and fearful, if it has left you devastated at the loss of a loved one or even a job or a business, don’t let your anguish dominate you and pull you down so that you almost feel like giving up life itself.

These realities are painful but they are not the whole picture and to be able to see that, maybe we are going to have to wait until we come out the other side, come out of the valley in the shadow of death and be able stand once again on the heights and look down and see the full panorama – and wonder. And when we see the end result we will bow and worship. So, as a child of God, why not bring that future into the present and by faith worship Him – He does know what He is doing in the midst of the Pandemic brought about by human failure. He is working for our good and the good of the world in the midst of it.

It may appear dark under the shadow of death sometimes, but let Him lift you up by the Spirit to be above it and catch the big view so when you come down again, you can worship here in the wilderness while we wait the outcome. As you do it, watch how your spirit will be lifted. Worship brings the reality to the fore and that dispels the half-truths. Do it.

1. Welcome to the Wilderness

Wilderness Meditations: 1. Welcome to the Wilderness

Num 20:4 Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness?”

A Type? For a while now this picture of ‘wilderness’ has been with me and I know it has been taken up more than once by others in these days. In my early Christian years, I studied ‘types’ and looking up my notes I observe I wrote:

“ we see Israel’s wilderness experience especially in Exodus & Numbers. It was entered at the direction of God after the Passover with the enemy of the world left behind after the crossing of the Red Sea. As a “Type” it is illustrative of the life of the called-out child of God, separated from the world (Egypt) and Satan (Pharaoh) (see 2 Cor 6:16 -18) and is entered only through death to self (see Rom 6:2,11 / Col 2:20) It was supposed to be a limited experience through which they were to pass through in order to enter the Promised Land.  We too are called to go on to maturity (see Heb 6:11-14/ Eph 4:13-15). It was a place of knowing God’s daily provision for basic needs e.g. food, water, general guidance.  We need to learn to: i) feed on him to be strong (see Jn 6:57 / Heb 5:14 ), ii) drink of the Spirit (see Jn 7:37 -39) iii) receive his guidance (see Gal 5:25 ).”

But More: As a ‘type’ I think that is all correct and yet the quick use of a concordance shows that the wilderness appears many more times and provides us with extensive resources for meditation, each instant saying something different to us. A wilderness tends to be a place of trials and hardship, with difficulties of provision and navigation. In this year of 2020, many believers, if not all of us at some time or other, have struggled with the restrictions imposed on our lives by the Covid-19 Pandemic. Doctors worry that the effects of mental stress may turn out to be almost as great as the effect of the virus itself.

Why the Wilderness: Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness?”  Now those words were spoken by the people who challenged Moses under trying circumstances, having travelled as far as Rephidim in the ‘Wilderness of Sin’.   His response was not to give an answer but to fall on his face before the Lord, and then the Lord turned up with a miracle of provision.  

There is a mystery of why Moses led them on the route he did through desert wildernesses and through inhospitable mountains instead of taking the much shorter ‘Way of the Land of the Philistines’ north and east along the coast. Maybe it was fear of the Philistines, maybe the route they took was much better known by Moses, originally to the old Egyptian turquoise and copper mines in western Sinai, maybe because it was an area with which he had become familiar in his shepherding years. Having said all that, it was a route designated by God that took them to the divine encounter on Sinai and the establishing there of the covenant of Ex 19. They were in this wilderness because God had led them there. Having said that, it was supposed to be only of limited duration and throughout their journeyings they would learn much about the Lord, about His intentions towards them, and His care for them. Without the wilderness experience none of these things would have happened.

And Today?  But the question was provoked by need. In this case it was of water, but in our case when people struggle to cope with the effects of lockdown it is a very varied need – for reassurance, for reasons why lockdown, for peace, for grace to cope, for wisdom to cope, and so on.

Many Christians have pondered, “Did God bring this about?” but the better question is, “What does He want to teach us through this time?” Maybe He did it by lifting off His hand of restraint and protection from scientists in China who then got it wrong, but even so, what have I learned so far from this time? What will I yet learn from the uncertain days ahead? Can I turn this from a time of questioning God to questioning me, as He seeks to bless and teach me to walk with head held high through these new days. Some questions to be asked and answered. The lessons of Israel in the wilderness are equally true for us today. As we said above, they would learn much about the Lord, about His intentions towards them, and His care for them.

And us? So the question must be asked, have I a teachable spirit? Have I just struggled, whether in the Pandemic lockdown or any other ‘wilderness experience’, and felt miserable, or have I used the time as an opportunity to draw nearer to the Lord, to sense His presence, to learn more about Him? Have I learned something about the resources that His word speaks about that maybe I have been casual about previously? Have I learned to draw on those resources? Have I learned to be a resource for other people who don’t have these resources?   

And So? And so God may not have directly brought this plague which appears more likely to have originated in the sin of mankind, but He will surely make use of it, to reveal the hearts of men and women (and that includes us), and to offer them His presence in a place of trial and difficulty. It may be of mankind’s making but it may yet be used to reveal the glory of the Lord.

9. Human Glory

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.9.  Human Glory

Isa 40:6   A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The significance of the passing of time in Scripture is fascinating.  For instance, there are periods of waiting, waiting for seeds to grow, waiting for the right time, waiting for time to pass. Sometimes when we are waiting we think it is the end. Israel must have felt that when they went into the Exile.  Israel might have wondered about it in Jesus day when there has been silence from heaven for over four hundred years. The disciples thought it when Jesus body lay in the tomb until the third day.

One of the things about time passing is that it is so easy to forget what God has said when His word comes, or even to be led into doubt that we have heard aright. That must have been the case when Sarai urged Abram to take the servant girl, Hagar, to use here to continue the family line (Gen 16:1-4). Time passing challenges our faithfulness.

Now Israel are in a ‘desert state’ or ‘wilderness state’ as the word of the Lord comes to comfort them. No doubt time has passed but now the Lord has said He is coming’ it seems their period of waiting is coming to an end, but for God to be rightly received there needs to be a right perspective, a right way of thinking about Him, and that right thinking always has to start with a recognition of what we are. In comparison to the Lord we small and insignificant and in the verses to follow in this chapter we are going to be reminded of something of the Lord’s greatness, but before we do that we have to see our smallness, and our frailty. Humility requires right understanding.

That is where I got to as I approached these verses but then I realised something. There is a difference between verses 6 and 7. If verse 7 was absent, we would think that verse 6 is really good; it is only when the balance or counterpart of verse 7 comes that we find our aspirations dashed. So think again. The truth is that there are two sides to revelation about mankind and the way God thinks about us, and it is important to consider them both and so we will take verse 6 here and verse 7 in the next study.

The prophetic word rolls out: A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” (v.6a) Isaiah hears the word, the instruction to call out to his people and his instinctive reply is to ask what he is to call. It could be anything. It could be about their sinfulness, it could be about God’s greatness, it could be about judgment, it could be about blessing, it could be about another nation or people, but instead it is a general declaration about mankind: All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b)

Right, stop right there. Think about this description as it stands. We are like grass. Grass? Grass covers a lot of this earth.  God must like grass. Grass is useful for feeding cattle and when it turns into straw it has other uses. There are also many sorts of grass, and some of them are purely ornamental (we have at least five different sorts of ornamental grasses in our garden apart from the grass on the lawn.) Grass is quite a good picture.

But then he speaks about “the flowers of the field”. I don’t know if you have ever observed a ‘meadow’   Listen to Wikipedia’s definition of a meadow: “A meadow is a field habitat vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions.” Those ‘other non-woody plants’ are either flowers or other plants we often refer to as weeds. There is a big thing in the UK about growing ‘meadows’ specifically because of the wild flowers that grow in a meadow. There is something quite special about the wild flowers that grow in the midst of grass.

Now, there is a key word in the midst of picture language, ‘faithfulness’ and we said above that the passing of time challenges our faithfulness. Some versions have the word ‘beauty’ instead but incorporate a note about ‘constancy’ or ‘faithfulness’.  The versions that lack ‘faithfulness’ have just half the picture, I believe, because it is not only about frailty, it is about faithfulness and when we go on into verse 7, frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We will consider some more about that aspect in the next study, but for the moment consider our faithfulness as a flower that stands out in the midst of a field of grass. It is beautiful in the eye of the Lord.

Elsewhere in Scripture we find, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psa 8:4,5) and the writer to the Hebrews takes that quote and slightly extends it: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little] lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.” (Heb 2:6-8) Before we let the enemy put us down, let’s remember this is how God sees us, this is what He designed us to be, and in the present prophetic picture our faithfulness (when it is there) is something beautiful to behold, something that blesses the Lord. Let’s make sure we hold on to it.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord help me remain faithful to you in every area of my life. Thank you that you have a plan for my life, you are blessed by it and yet have more for me. Open my eyes to your possibilities for me.

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?