“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” ~ Matthew 4:1
“So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness…” ~ Exodus 13:18
Last week I shared a post wondering about the meaning of it all. I shared that nowadays when the month of February comes around I start asking what does it all mean? Feel free to revisit that post and notice for yourself the peculiar things that have happened for me mostly centered around one date, February 16th.
During my post last week I singled out a portion of my story where I showed that on the 1 year anniversary of February 16th after 2 successive years of significant life events happening on that date certain things seem to keep occurring on or around this date ever since. During the 1st year 3 years ago I had come across a video before the anniversary where I noticed the very day after, February 17. Also, two more things were that February 17 was significant from my youth and I happened to be scheduled for a final session with a career counselor for that same day that year as well! All of this was way too peculiar. What I forgot to mention last week though however, is that the very next day following this during this 1 year anniversary, February 18, 2015, was significant as well. It was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent… And this could signify what has seemed to follow for me in these 3 years since—being led into the wilderness.
Looking back it doesn’t seem farfetched to say that following that I entered into an extended season of Lent. And it seems that my Easter is still yet to come… (Feel free to read a poem I wrote that fits with this experience entitled “In the Meantime” by scrolling to the end of the post found here).
What does it mean to be led into the wilderness? Well, if I knew the answer to that it may be less of a wilderness-like experience. I think being led into the wilderness means to head out into the unknown. You don’t know what’s ahead. You can’t even hardly see anything of significance that’s in front of you, or around you for that matter. When it’s dark, its pitch black and lasts for hours. Light helps, but it’s still hard to see your way through the trees and terrain. You feel alone and lost even though you are somewhere and you may be traveling along in a group of other family and friends. Mainly I think it’s that overwhelming experience of feeling lost and alone. Where’s the opening, the clearing, or the destination? Where is there even food or drink or sustenance along the journey? Where is there encouragement and reason to forge ahead?
Something that is disturbing when talking about this is noticing that people don’t always head out into the wilderness of their own volition and desire. The 2 passages I reference in the beginning of this post mention in the first case the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness and then also God himself purposefully leading his people into the wilderness. What is up with this? Why would God do that? If that’s how God treats his beloved (that’s you and me) is it even remotely worth following, hoping trusting, believing in, or being his children through Christ at all? In terms of the second reference above with the Israelites in Exodus, how is that freeing them from captivity? And in terms of Jesus, God’s beloved son, how is this being fatherly, loving, protecting, or saving toward anyone?
All of these are good questions. You may have more. I’ll tell you, after what all of this has felt like over the past 3 years, if it seemed like I really had someone or somewhere else to turn to right about now, the temptation is real.
Amazingly though there are also things that are rather endearing even amidst such disturbances as well. Like what? Well, firstly I notice that God doesn’t just only subject us his people to such things. The first Scripture reference above tells us of Jesus also being led into and withstanding the wilderness. God doesn’t refuse to subject himself and even his much beloved son. In fact, he counts the experience as very much worth it and purposeful even for Jesus. It prepares Jesus. Hones and stretches, bends and throws, but does not break him. Jesus too goes through an enduring process when growing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52), when becoming mature. This not only accomplishes this task, but also sets him as a worthy one to draw strength from in our own wilderness experiences since he is able to sympathize with our very weaknesses, having been tempted like us in every way, yet stood without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Secondly, another thing I find endearing in all of this has been already briefly mentioned: there’s a worthy purpose also amidst the wilderness-like experience. A few years ago I noticed an interesting verse within the Old Testament book of Lamentations amidst the anguish and grief strung throughout it. Lamentations 3:31-33 says, “For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Did you see that? There’s a purpose behind God’s affliction.
Nowadays I can often think that it’s quite cliché to say “Everything happens for a reason.” In fact, as a Chaplain by trade I tend to shy away from actually suggesting it to anyone. I’ll go along with people just fine if they bring this up themselves. But I also don’t want to in any way minimize their own experience of their wilderness or somehow suggest that they’re feeling wrongly or too heavily in their own wilderness as well. Maybe I am too cautious. To link this to the first thing above then, it is comforting to know that the means by which one, even Jesus, is made perfect is through suffering. In Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that Jesus offered up prayers with loud cries and tears amidst his suffering for us on the cross. With this he also learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering as well. And so such are we as well—James 1:2-4.
Thirdly then, another thing that can be endearing amidst the wilderness is that there is an actual end to all such circumstances as well. Some won’t be reached in this lifetime. Some are only allotted a certain amount of time before completion or fulfillment of promise occurs. Saying that is not to minimize one’s experience in the wilderness no matter the number of days, weeks, months, or years therein. One can take heart that Jesus’ wilderness lasted 40 days and nights. As far as the Israelites go, 40 years is definitely a long time. Some didn’t survive the whole time, in fact a whole generation had to pass. Their wilderness, however, wasn’t only of God’s doing. They had their own faults along the way as well. That brings up another endearing thing–God never left or forsook them. He kept his promise and remained.
Along with this too there are also so many things, gifts really, that we too easily overlook as well along our wilderness experiences as well. Amidst any hardship there is reason to praise, be grateful, have joy, and be hopeful if for nothing else because of God’s already acted upon love for us on the cross. Also, other often overlooked gifts can include family and friends, health, everyday met needs, and maybe some modern conveniences. Each of these things are easily taken for granted amidst the trees.
Finally then, in all things through Christ there is full redemption secured for any and all sufferings one could ever endure in this life because of the life Jesus lived, the death he died on the cross, and then also his resurrection from the dead on the third day. It is in this way that what we read in Revelation 21:3-4 is accomplished—“Now the dwelling of God is with mankind, 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 (in other words, died, and new life fulfilled).”
In conclusion then, as I pondered what I might possibly consider in my writings for this past week, given Lent I was first struck by the wilderness experience. Not only that, though, as I looked further I noticed something that surprised me. What was the purpose of God leading his people into the wilderness in the first place? Worship!… When calling Moses, God said to him, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt you will worship God on this mountain (Exodus 3:12).” Put another way, a little while later God also told Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness (Exodus 7:16).”
Lately, every night at bedtime for my kids, my daughter has now been asking me, “Daddy, can we sing songs out of the black binder in the living room?” This binder is full of songs I was once learning to play on guitar but have now neglected for some time. One of the songs in it goes, “Blessed be your name in the land that is plentiful; where your streams of abundance flow; blessed be your name. Blessed be your name when I’m found in the desert place; though I walk through the wilderness; blessed be your name.” You can listen to the rest of the song here.
It’s extremely endearing to me that as my daughter and I sing this together at night she belts it out like no one’s business. It has also come to my attention as well that my wife and I chose this song to be sung at our wedding. I remember singing with so much joy and exuberance that day. So often though it can be hard to sing when in the wilderness. God is though, just as worthy, even then.