The Wilderness Experience
James 5:17: "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months."
Several weeks ago, I came across this passage and the Lord sent a thought that I never had before. Of all the things we pray for, we seldom pray about the weather. As we come to the end of the winter of 97-98, the church has probably been praying for the weather in a special way. But, we usually donít about it. The most common subject in the prayer meeting is the illnesses among the people we know. Now, I do not want to criticize this. Praying for the sick is good and commanded in Scripture. Iíve just noticed that it is something we pray for on a constant basis. Another thing we pray for is the salvation of loved-ones. Again, this is noble, as Iíve heard stories of men and women praying for their spouses for thirty and forty years and finally seeing fruit. We also pray for our financial needs and needs of other kinds. Of course, this is all good. But it is interesting to me how we donít pray about the weather unless faced with tornadoes, hurricanes, Noríeasters, and El Niño.
We look at Elijah (or Elias, as he is known in the Greek) and we say, "What a great man of the faith!" We are totally astounded by this fete of prayer. Yet, we kind of gloss over one phrase the Lord weighed heavy on me: "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are..." Elijah was human! He feared; he doubted; he sinned. He was just like us. This phrase really turns out to be a double-edged sword. Though he is able to stop the rain, he is unable to be fearless in the face of opposition. On the other hand, a flawed man is able to stop the rain.
Elijahís story is remarkable, indeed. A man from Gilead is spoken to by God Almighty. He is given a task of confronting Ahab for the idolatrous worship. He then sees the rain stop because of his prayers. The Lord sends him to a brook to fed by ravens. When the brook dries up, he is sent to Jezebelís hometown in Tyre, Zaraphath. While there, a starving widow feeds him. The widowís son dies and Elijah raises him from the dead. Then, he goes to Ahab face to face with a bold challenge. The prophet sees the Lord send fire from heaven onto the soaking-wet sacrifice. The people then kill hundreds of false prophets and King Ahab runs off to Jezebel. But the next thing doesnít fit the story -- it is totally inappropriate considering the way Elijah has seen the Lord work. When Jezebel threatens his life, he runs into the wilderness. This is nothing more than sad and disgusting. He totally "chickens out."
Moses was another man "subject to like passions." Not only was he a coward, he was a murderer. Again, this man had a remarkable -- almost unbelievable life. The Pharaoh so hated the Hebrew people, that he determined a vast and ugly genocide of baby boys. Moses so happened to born about this time. He mother could no longer hide the crying circumcised child. She put the baby into a buoyant basket and sent him into the Nile, which was full of crocodiles. Pharaohís daughter so happened to be bathing on the river when she spots the circumcised boy. You can imagine the familiar cry of "oh, Daddy, can I keep him" pouring out of her privileged mouth and the indulgent father who was unwilling to say, "No." Now, we can imagine what was going through the mind of Moses as he grew up. He walked, talked, and dressed like an Egyptian. Yet, he knew he was a Hebrew. No doubt there was quite a level of self-hate.
Imagine the scene, then, when Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was filled with all these mixed feelings of guilt and rage. Being really only Hebrew by blood, he had to prove his pedigree in some fashion. This tempest of confusion resulted in an angry and terrible murder. Moses the murderer -- how seldom do we think of him that way! After killing the poor Egyptian (who did not deserve to die), Moses the Hero sees tow of his Hebrew brothers fighting. Instead of obeying the wise voice of their champion, they mocked him. This "half-breed" murderer in regal garb did not deserve any respect! Moses was shocked that his sin was known and being a man, he ran from the wrath of Pharaoh and the derision of his own nation. Again, the hero has one last chance at valor: he drives away evil shepherds from these Midianite women. Impressed, these desert maidens tell their father of this heroic Egyptian. An Egyptian! The man who fashioned himself as the hero of the Hebrews is nothing but an Egyptian. Such a story is proof of our Lordís sense of humor.
Moses found himself in a foreign environment. Living in the palace his whole life, he was now a shepherd in the desert. The frustration must have been cosmic. Moses could never be more out of his "comfort zone." We often find ourselves in frustrating situations. In rage, and depression, and arrogance, we sin terribly. Sometimes, we run and hide just like Moses and Elijah. As Christians, we need to be reflecting the True Light, which is God. Yet, we poorly reflect the love and glory of God. This reminds me of the spectacular mirrors that I saw in Windsor Palace. Mirrors were very important as light magnifiers before the advent of electric light bulbs. I always thought a mirror is a mirror is a mirror -- until that day in the palace. These mirrors had a deep and rich reflection that produced vibrancy and clarity. Yet, some of the mirrors had what looked like tarnish. Then, I realized that these mirrors had silver behind the glass. We are like those silver mirrors: able to beautifully reflect the Light of God, but needing to polish from time to time. This time of tarnish removal is called the wilderness.
Another man who reflected poorly upon our Lord was Simon Peter, the leader and clown of the Apostles. Peter spoke and misspoke more than any of the "Twelve." Christís love is so evident as Jesus tolerated so much from this man. Letís be fair to Peter: he was a fisherman way out of his comfort zone. This man, though flawed in many ways, entered the life of faith as a volunteer. Peter knew everything about fishing, repairing nets, and fishing boats. Yet, he left it all to follow Jesus into a wilderness where he was learning to "catch men." Christ used this flawed man on the Day of Pentecost in a mighty way, even though Peter denied the Lord just fifty days before. Jesus used the Wilderness to change Peter from flawed man was willing to be used to a flawed man that was used. I think Matthew 17 provides a poignant scene where our three flawed subjects, Peter, Moses, and Elijah meet face to face in the presence of a Radiant Christ. Though not flawed, that same Jesus is the ultimate example of the Wilderness experience.
The incarnation, the birth of the God-Man, is the beginning of the Wilderness Wandering. We still wrestle with the idea and implications of the Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Infinite Lord of the Universe could walk in human flesh. Then we see the Man who deserved a kingís palace to grow up in a dirty little village in an unappreciated occupation. Then, the Carpenter (!) from Nazareth (!) set outs on a three year Wilderness Wandering (a wandering with purpose and direction ordered by the Almighty, mind you) not to conquer politically or militarily, but to conquer the world by being spent -- dying. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head -- not even in death: he didnít even have his own tomb. Yet, there was never a more successful result of a Wilderness in one Manís life.
Further, we can see what happens when a whole nation is out of its "comfort zone." The descendents of a man named Jacob (AKA Israel) gained deliverance from famine by the incredible placing of one his sons as the second most powerful man in Egypt. The Lord preserved his tribe and in four hundred years, they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. The problem is that they not only grew in numbers, they had become influenced by the Egyptians. Being rough and ready shepherds from Canaan, they were now accustomed to the land and ways of Egypt. The Lord was determined to break all the bonds with the Egyptians. This began with persecution, slavery, and genocide in the first chapters of Exodus. This process of separating the Hebrews from the Egyptians continued through the plagues, the Passover, and the Red Sea. But, a bit of Egypt stayed in the peopleís hearts.
The fact that Israel in the Wilderness longed for Egypt even after all the great things they saw is troubling to me. They saw horrible plagues fall upon the Egyptians and the destruction of the greatest nation of the day. This included the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the strongest army of the world. They were given water to drink from rocks and food from the sky. God provided everything that they needed. They saw His presence as a pillar of smoke and fire leading them though the desert of Sinai. Yet, they still feared the strange circumstances they were in.
The nation in Sinai had two major problems. One was that they feared that they would not have necessities to live. The other problem is that they despised the simplicity of the Wilderness Wandering. We can easily see that their fear for necessity was unfounded. While this fear was unfounded, the rejection of God's simple plan is despicable.
Let me explain what I mean by the despising of the simplicity of the wilderness. Numbers 11:4-6 -- "And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, besides this manna, before our eyes." They complained that the Lord only gave them manna. They were required to have one wife, one God, and one Perfect Law. Life was simple for them and they could not stand it. They longed for the sensuality, variety, and the flavor of Egypt. God's best was not good enough for them and many died in that desert accordingly.
We often find ourselves longing for the Egypt in our lives. We have a simple plan laid out for us in a relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer and the heeding of Scripture. But God's simple plan of walking the path of the Cross is not good enough for us. We grow weary of the living in the Wilderness. This makes sense since our sin-cursed bodies are not fit for Wilderness living -- we feel more comfortable with the "former life." When faced with the terror of the unknown and desolate place where God calls us, we long for the comfort and ease of self-reliance and independence. The wilderness can seem lonely and barren if we do not stay close to the Lord.
Israel faced wild animals in the wilderness, rather than the domesticated ones of Goshen. The wilderness was a place with little water, while the Nile seems to flow eternally. It was also a place sparse in population, while Egypt was full and developed. God provided the needs of the people in the Wilderness. While in Egypt they provided for themselves. God guided the people in the desert; nobody was lost in Egypt. God's power was highlighted in the wilderness, while man was lifted up as a god in the case of Egypt's Pharaoh. Sin was exposed in Sinai; no one was confronted in Egypt. The Exodus was a time of testing, but the captivity was a time of comfort. The Wilderness produced faith; Egypt produced self-reliance and discouragement.
We often seek to return to that Egypt in our lives to our detriment. This act of looking back reminds of the hand on the plow. Peter returned to his fishing after denying the Lord; Christ had to confront with "do you love me more than these?" Let us stop longing for that former life. Victory only comes in the wilderness.
John 16:33: "These thing have I spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In thew world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." Christ said that He "defeated, conquered, triumphed, and gained the victory over the world." He did not accomplish this through armies, or demonstrations, or miracles. He defeated the world by being spent. He died on the cross and the world was handed its greatest defeat. All we need to do is to read Isaiah 53 on a daily basis to drive home the idea of victory through suffering. The Wilderness is the only place where we walk with Christ.
God wants us in the wilderness. It's the place where He guides. Where He provides and prepares. Where He redeems and repairs. The wilderness is the place of God effective presence -- the place where He can work through us. It's where He is. We should long for the dry and barren place -- the place of victory. God wants us in the Wilderness with Him.