It was not easy for the Israelites to wander in the wilderness. The heat of the day was oppressive. The cold of the night wind was freezing. Water was scarce. The bugs were terrible. There were snakes underfoot.
At some point, most, if not all of us, wander in the wilderness. We even have phrases that describe our journeys in the wilderness. “Going from bad to worse. Jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Between a rock and a hard place. ‘I was told to cheer up, things could get worse.’ so I cheered up – and sure enough, things got worse.”
Christians believe that trips through the wilderness can lead us to a deeper connection with God and to the promised land of trust in God’s presence. We live with this faith because we believe Jesus is the living bread who sustains us when life challenges us in the wilderness.
Steve Wiens describes the Christian belief of life in the wilderness.
“In the wilderness, you’re given the opportunity to be sustained by the God who will go all the way with you, no matter how hungry you get. No matter how weak, how frail, or how lost. It’s the place where you learn you’re not all that impressive, and you don’t need to be. It’s the place where you learn the ordinary you is enough. The wilderness offers you a chance to be restored by God, if you will stay there long enough.
How to Know You’re in the Wilderness with God, The Arc, Steve Wiens, August 28, 2017
Bob Wright was a 22-year-old pilot in Vietnam. When he was flying a mission, an enemy bullet pierced a fuel line and caused the jet to crash in flames in the Gulf of Tonkin. Wright was rescued from enemy fire as a helicopter came to his rescue and a crewman dropped into the sea beside him. Being placed in a harness he was hoisted into the air as his legs dangled. He was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the crash. It was doubtful he would walk again because his sciatic nerve was crushed.
Bob wrote of how he was placed in a hospital bed and of how the months dragged by until one gray day when the paramedics carried in a young soldier named John who had suffered significant injuries by throwing himself on a live grenade to protect his friends. To Bob Wright, this was an astounding act of bravery, but he reported that even more surprising was John’s answer when a nurse asked John if he needed anything from his seabag. John’s reply, was “just my Bible, please.” The nurses fixed a special stand for John’s Bible so John could turn the pages with a tongue depressor.
Bob reported that at different times, the tongue depressor would fall from John’s lips as some verse seemed to mean something special, and he would murmur, “Thank you, Lord.” John never complained. He never cursed the enemy. He was always encouraging other people on the ward and even the nurses would visit John after they went off duty because he was giving them strength. Bob reports that John’s generous nature touched everyone except him because he could not feel sorry for himself with a fanatic in the next bed. Bob would lay awake at night silently curing John and hating him for being able to look at life with any kind of hope at all. After some time, the doctors removed Bob’s restraining belts, but anger was still burning in him. One morning, Bob awoke to hear John praying. As he listened, he thought to himself, “what is it now?” To his astonishment, he heard John praying, “Lord, help Bob, he’s got no hope.”
That prayer infuriated Bob. He felt that John was the hopeless one, not himself. Then John began to read parts of his Bible to Bob. One morning Bob lashed out at John, “Look at you! How can you talk about a God of love when you’re such a mess? What kind of God would do that?” As John sat propped up in his bed looking at Bob, John’s eyes filled with tears, but Bob knew that John’s tears were not for himself. Bob knew that John’s tears were for Bob. John told Bob, “God didn’t do this to me – man did. I know how much the Lord loves me. Do you know how much the Lord loves you?”
Bob reports that right then he realized God’s presence in the midst of the wilderness. He fell back on his pillow and for the first time in a very long time he cried. It was now or never. Yanking the IV drip from his arm and casting aside the traction belt on his waist, he slid to the floor and crawled to John’s bed as he begged, “Pray for me, John.” Pray for me because I can’t do this alone.”
A few weeks later, after nine months in that ward, Bob packed his bags and walked out of the hospital. The doctors had never seen such a sudden and complete recovery from a crushed sciatic nerve, but Bob knew that an even bigger healing had taken place in the midst of his journey through the wilderness.
- 14-17, Guideposts, 1987
Martha Snell Nicholson wrote a poem entitled Guests that is about God’s sustaining presence in the wilderness.
Pain knocked upon my door and said that she had come to stay.
And though I would not welcome her, but bade her go away, she entered in.
Like my own shade, she followed after me.
And from her stabbing, stinging sword no moment was I free.
And then one day another knocked, most gently at my door.
I cried, “No, pain is living here. There is not room for more.”
And then I heard His tender voice, “Tis I, be not afraid.”
And from the day He entered in, the difference it made!
I invite you to hear again from Steve Wiens as he describes how people of faith in Jesus enter the promised land of trust in God’s presence.
When you finally leave the wilderness, you will not be the same person who entered it, as long as you let it do what it needs to do: starve the false self and nourish the true self. There are things that need to change in me; they just won’t be changed by feeling bad about myself or trying really hard to fix them. That isn’t how wholeness works. The journey of wholeness is not a self-improvement project. It’s a journey of loss, trust, transformation, and eventually hope.
When you’ve done your work in the wilderness, it’s time to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. It’s time to cross over into Canaan, the Promised Land. But you have to see it to enter it.
May you hear the compassionate voice of God calling to you as you suffer in the wilderness. May you smell the fragrance of freedom as you leave behind the narrow place. And may you see the horizon of the Promised Land coming slowly into view.
All of us travel through the wilderness from time to time. That is how life works. For followers of Jesus, however, our trips into the wilderness are only part of the story of our lives. They are not the final story because we believe in Jesus, the bread of life.
In the Wilderness
by Pastor Marc Brown
August 1, 2021
Accompanying Scriptures: Exodus 16:2-15, John 6:24-35
(full online service video below)