The Desert

 

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In 1803, at 3 cents/acre, President Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson spoke of its “immense and trackless deserts”.  Major Stephen Long (no relation) in mapping the purchase in 1823, labeled the region of western Kansas/eastern Colorado as “the Great American Desert”.  It was a lack of timber and surface water that earned the country its name.  It’s was and still is a hard place.

Earlier this year the Kansas Governor declared a drought emergency across all 105 counties of Kansas.  It’s been years since the Southwest part of the state has felt rain.  It truly is the Great American Desert.

When we think of desert, the image of camels, sand dunes, and sidewinders.  But the Hebrew term is more of a scrub brush wilderness.  Much more like the brush of Arizona than the dunes of the Sahara.  This is where the men of the Bible were made.

What them there was irrelevant.  Jesus was “led” there by the Spirit (Luke 4.1).  David fled there from rebellion (2 Sam. 15.23).  Elijah fled in depression (1 Kings 19.3-4).  Moses arrived first because of shame.  He killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew (Exodus 2.11).  Then when he broke up two Hebrews fighting, they questioned whether he would kill them as well. (Exodus 2.14)  Moses had become “known”. (Exodus 2.14)  When shame becomes known, men flee.  So Moses fled to Midian.  He became a shepherd, where he tended flocks throughout the desert.  Moses has always been a man of the Mountain.  He met Yahweh there (Ex. 3-4).  He got the 10 Commandments on the Mountain (Ex. 20).  There was the Blessings and Cursing’s on the two Mountains (Deuteronomy 28-29).  Finally, he died atop Mt. Nebo. (Deut. 34)  He was the Man of the Mountain, but he was a man made in the Desert.

His first stay in the desert was all about training.  Before he led a million Hebrews out of Egypt, he led a bunch of sheep in the wilderness.  The primary image of God and his people is that of shepherd.  Jesus used the metaphor extensively.  God trained his men as shepherds.  There were Abraham’s flocks and David the shepherd.  Jesus made it clear that his ministry was patterned after the vocation of a shepherd.  Before he could lead men, he led sheep.  It was a training ground.  Finding water, finding food, leading a flock, directing a massive and stubborn group…these were all skills that Moses obtained in the desert.

calvin-hobbes-test-anxiety-290x300In his second stay, the desert was a place of testing.  A little needs explaining before tackling the testing that Moses and the Hebrews went through.  I have written much more about this elsewhere, so I wont dwell too much on it here.  Test’s conjure up images of entrapment and anxiety like Calvin.  As if the Instructor or Teacher has stayed up well into the morning trying to come up with a single question that will trip up their students.  The Hebrew understanding was less about entrapment and more about revelation.  The test was to reveal what was in the hearts of God’s people.  The test didn’t go well.

  • Before they get out of Egypt: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that brought us to the desert to die?” (Ex. 14.11)
  • Three days into the Desert of Shur: “What are we to drink?” (Ex. 15.24)
  • Forty-five or so days in, in the Desert of Sin: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!…but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex. 16.1-3)
  • At Rephidim, between the Desert of Sin and Desert of Sinai: “Give us water to drink!” (Ex. 17.3)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “Our hardships are too many!” (Num. 10.11-13; 11.1)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had meat!” (Num. 11.4)
  • In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had died in Egypt!” (Num. 14.2)
  • In the Desert of Zin: “We have no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates.  And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.5)
  • In the Desert of Zin: “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21.5)

The revelation of their hearts was abominable.  Sin rose to the surface when all luxuries are removed.  Their rebellious nature was on display when desert testing ensued.  I bet the same pattern takes place in your life?  When things are drying up around and stress comes, the ugliness of my heart is brought forth.

In both cases, it was a place of trust.  It was the place that inspired the Sons of Korah to pen the famous lyrics:

“As the deer pants for streams of water,

    so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

    When can I go and meet with God? (Ps. 42.1-2)

Training and Testing does not take place in cozy places and affluence.  We grow and discover in places where and when things aren’t going right.  We learn dependence when we have too.  Deuteronomy 8 says:

“Remember how the Lord your 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, whether or not you would keep his commands…Your clothes did not wear out and you feet did not swell during these forty years…He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions.  He brought you water out of hard rock.  He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.” (8.2, 4, 15)

All these things God did in good favor in order to show His provision and His sustenance.  He did this to show that He can be trusted.  God promised long ago to take care of us.  It’s an agreement called a covenant.  Only in the desert, where life is a struggle, do we learn what it really means to trust.  

I am trying to further embrace my trust in Him here in the desert.

Leverage: Suffering (part II)

A single event can change perspective.  It is funny how an isolated encounter, a single experience, or a chance meeting, can radically alter the way things are perceived.  The world will never be viewed in the same way after 9/11.  Technology was in question after Apollo 13, Challenger, and Columbia.  Something as trivial as Lebron’s Decision (and in a smaller scale Durant’s move to San Fran) has changed the way athlete’s are viewed.  A single event, in this case, the Cross, changed forever how suffering can be viewed.

All the guys from the previous post had something in common; they all wrote on the other side of the cross.  The cross became the leverage point of suffering.

On the one side of the cross stood death and the other a resurrection that overcame death.  The empty tomb emptied suffering of all that it held.  That is why James can write: “Consider it pure joy my brothers when you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1.2)

James, the half-brother of Jesus, knew suffering.  He led the church in Jerusalem.  It struggled financially (see 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32).  It struggled doctrinally: “should the Gentiles be circumcised?” (Acts 15).  It struggled with persecution (Acts 8.1-2) and eventually James would be martyred by stoning.  Suffering was a major part of the ministry to which he had been called.

James leveraged his suffering though.

In the same way that our doubt can be leveraged into belief; hope can be born out of our suffering.  James knew that suffering would come.  Since is inevitable, James argues that we can learn perseverance in it.  I ran cross country in high school.  I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I enjoyed it.  It taught me to push through pain, to persevere and to endure the suffering.  The only reason I could do that was the finish line ahead.  Perseverance for James (James 1.3), obedience for Jesus (Hebrews 5.8) and Paul’s enduring example of Jesus (2 Cor. 4.8-12) came as a direct result of their suffering. But what for us can come about through our suffering?  What can suffering give rise too?

Suffering is a casual (don’t try to convince the one suffering of this) reminder that this world is not permanent.  We were created for paradise and partnership with God.  When our sin severed this pact, our world and our relationships in it were changed, but not permanently.  Temporarily, for or 100 years or so on this earth, we struggle in relationships, with the world, with identity, and with purpose.  In other words, we suffer.

John paints a picture in Revelation 21 of a different place:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

The garden of Genesis 1-2, the “good garden” where God resides with man with no barriers, returns in Revelation 21.  A place where paradise and partnership is reinstituted.  This is a welcomed sight in Revelation because of all the books of the Bible, Revelation probably has more suffering talk than any of them.  Think about this:

  • John is writing from the island of Patmos, where he has been exiled for preaching the Gospel. He even call himself a “companion in the suffering”. (Rev. 1.9)
  • To the church in Pergamum, he reminds them of Antipas martyrdom (Rev. 2.12)
  • The Lamb (Jesus) wandered around heaven with a gash on his chest, a reminder of the suffering he endured.  He looked as if “he had been slain” (Rev. 5.6, 9, 12)
  • The seals, the trumpets, and the bowls, all brought with them an element of suffering, be it war, famine, or plague.  Suffering was a key theme in them all.
  • The beast made war against the saints (13.7) and “this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (13.10)
  • The woman on the beast was “drunk on the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (17.6)
  • God will “avenge on her the blood of his servants” talking about the blood spilt by the temptress Babylon. (19.2)
  • John “saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.” (20.4)
  • The theme of “victory” or “overcoming”, the Greek word nikao from which Bill Bowerman built the company Nike, is woven throughout the book.

But then…

The New Heavens and the New Earth arrives and pain and suffering are no more.  Suffering is the reminder that this type of world was never a permanent landing spot.

So we leverage, suffering as an opportunity for hope.  Jesus suffered the very worst this world had to offer.  He bore the weight of every sin ever committed and will be committed by humanity, on his body.

But death could not hold him.  The empty tomb is an image of hope.  The dark hours of crucifixion, followed by the quiet bleak hours of Saturday, gave way to the rolled-away stone and the empty tomb of Sunday.

Like Paul says in Romans 8.37:

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The word for conquerors that Paul uses in Romans 8: nikao!  Since Jesus has overcome death, we too can conquer, not physical, but spiritual death!

Everyone will sit beside a hospital bed and watch a loved one waste away from cancer.  All will watch abuse or neglect steal the future of a child.  We will suffer!  But we know that because Jesus overcame, we too can prove victorious!

So we live with hope that Christ gives us that ultimately we will be in the place John describes.  And hope is leveraged suffering.