Walking with God in the Desert
These Wednesday evenings of Lent we have been watching Ray Vander Laan's DVD Series 'Walking with God in the Desert'. It has been a refreshing, interesting, stimulating and different perspective on the Christian life. The basic ideas are that the role of the desert in the Bible is very important. Lots of things happened to God's people collectively and individually in the desert. We know about the wandering in the wilderness of the Israelites for 40 years. We heard earlier about Elijah's journey into the desert to escape from Queen Jezebel. We know John the Baptist lived in the desert before his public revival ministry. We heard earlier the familiar story of Jesus being in the desert for 40 days, tested and tempted by the devil before he began his public ministry. The deserts of the Holy Land are not like the deserts in Sahara or Namibia – full of sand dunes. The deserts that those in the Bible knew and which are still there today are full of rocks and hills, hard and unforgiving ground, disorientating and draining of the will to live. The temperature reaches as much as 40. The ground is hot and uncomfortable and there is no respite from the blazing sunshine. Wandering in the wilderness is a figure of speech describing being totally lost.
Ray Vander Laan makes the point that the desert can be a metaphor for the Christian life. For the struggle of the Christian life. But he says that far from being a negative experience, walking with God through the desert is an enriching and inspiring experience during which God's presence is affirmed time and time again. In the wilderness the Israelites depended on God totally for survival. In the wilderness Elijah was provided with food to sustain him when he wanted to give up and die. In Jesus' desert experience he was strengthened mentally for his role as suffering servant. His resistance to evil propelled him forward into his saving work for the whole world for all time.
Supposing I say to you 'Are you walking through the desert with God' at the present time. Would it make sense? It may be that you lost your life partner many years ago or recently and that you have that ongoing sense of loneliness – perhaps even every day. Maybe you carry an illness that weakens your strength and brings compromise to every day life. Maybe you bear a never-ending burden for a member or for members of your family. You long for it to be over. You have forgotten what life was like before it started. Perhaps you live with disappointment every hour of the day, in yourself, or someone else. Maybe God is your greatest disappointment. Is worship far from an expression of the heavenly Jerusalem for you and more of a walk in the desert? Perhaps even your prayers bring insufficient relief. The wonderful image of the broom tree in the story about Elijah is the evidence of God's protection and provision. The broom tree survives in the desert and offers just enough shelter from the fierce sun to bring respite and comfort to the traveller. It is providential. So – in your walk through the desert with God, just think of the last time you came upon a broom tree. The time some good news arrived, some blessing appeared, some solution was found to a problem. It is the Christian testimony that God will meet us in our need and answer our prayers. Ray Vander Laan uses the phrase 'just enough' repeatedly. In the desert there is not a 5 star hotel, nor even a luxurious oasis and camp. But – there is a broom tree to give shelter and to allow, respite, survival and resuming of the journey.
The next tree that the traveller in the Holy Land desert will come across is the acacia. This represents more than the base line of providence. In spite of being found in the desert, the acacia is useful for many things. It is pod bearing and can provide balm and medicines, preservatives, perfumes and incense. Acacia wood is dense and strong and so is useful for making things and for building. The Ark of the Covenant, and the Tabernacle were made with acacia. In Freemasonry, acacia is the symbol of the immortality of the soul. It symbolises the transitory nature of human life. It represents the appearance of youth and vigour. Hence, Freemasons say, 'This evergreen is an emblem of our faith in the immortality of the soul. By this we are reminded that we have an immortal part within us, which shall survive the grave, and which shall never, never, never die'.
Ray Vander Laan suggests that in our walk in the desert with God we will come upon the acacia tree. He applies this spiritually by suggesting that we should always be thinking about the good we can do for others. The gifts we are given, the opportunities that we have, the faith we can share. We might just be a broom tree with an occasional arm around someone or a passing kind word, but we might be an acacia which can do so much more. The point is that in the desert there are possibilities for us if we will recognise them and take them up. It is so easy to be negative, to moan and complain and so blind ourselves to what God is asking of us, refuse God's higher calling and even turn against God's good purposes. We are to be channels of God's saving grace. We are to use our gifts and skills in the service of Jesus Christ. We are to be helpful to others, positive towards them and kindly of disposition.
The next tree that Walking in the Desert with God described is the tamarisk tree, also known as the East Indian Salt Cedar which grows slowly and lives very long – for hundreds of years. In Genesis 21:33 it is the symbol of eternal covenant and eternal life with God. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God (Genesis 21 : 22 - 34). Applying its meaning to our Christian lives, we are asked to think about what long term good does our lives represent. What heritage do we leave, what legacy in our family life and in our Christian Church. We are asked to think of what we can do for the long term – years after we ourselves have left this human life on earth. Can we leave something worthwhile? Who will remember us anyway. On war memorials throughout the land there are names reminding us of people who died in past national causes. There are inscriptions on some say 'Their name liveth forever'. Lots of people investigate their family histories these days. Genealogy is a new recreation. Living out our Christian Faith and passing it on to others is the most important legacy we can leave. If it were not for the lives and living of Christians throughout the centuries we ourselves would not enjoy or benefit from our Christian Faith. We would not know God. We would not have the salvation of Jesus Christ. We would have no knowledge of eternal life. Let your faithful witness be your tamarisk tree for future generations. Let it be your testimony, your heritage, your legacy. It is something you can do. Something worthwhile you can leave behind.
It could be argued that Christianity today is walking through the desert of western life, culture and values. The headline news nearly everyday is about Islam. It is never good news. Only once in a while is there a Christian item making the main television news, an occasional broom tree for us to shelter under for a moment. The news is mostly dire, troubling and even distressing. There is little beauty or goodness in the daily news diet. The BBC has destroyed Songs of Praise which against all the odds survived the purges of Christianity from the airwaves. But it is now an entertainment show in which the actual singing of hymns seems intrusive and unnatural. The head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC is a Muslim, Aaquil Ahmed.
But let us travel on. In this desert there are broom trees, acacia and tamarisk. Our Church, this House of Prayer, this sanctuary represents all three trees which grow in the desert. It is a broom tree for those who just come once in a while to worship. It is an acacia for those who have within them a living faith and who exercise that faith in actual service and good works to our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a tamarisk tree which will remain here for many years after we have gone.
You know the phrase 'a creaking gate'. It is used to describe someone who is always moaning and complaining about their health problems. There are people who for years turn up for doctors' appointments every week. I remember hearing about a woman in the town I grew up who was like that. ;Whit's wrang wi' ye the day Tillly?', asked the GP. 'Doctor, I am mortally thingammied', she replied. Creaking gates live long lives. Others can suddenly face quick exits from the mortal life. Christians should never be creaking gates. We have the positive message of salvation to show in our lives and to speak about discuss and demonstrate. Life with Jesus Christ is a life of overcoming obstacles, disappointments and struggles. We share in his victory over wrong and sin and death. The Church's message is not presented clearly today. You don't hear many ringing endorsements of Christianity's joyful Gospel. But the Lord Himself is our broom tree, our acacia tree and our tamarisk tree. Europe may be a spiritual desert and we may be walking through it but God is present with us every step of the way.