It strikes me how many Bible stories take place in a desert. I talked about this a few weeks ago in a message I gave at Trinity CRC, observing that it makes sense for the desert to figure so prominently in Scripture because the two geographical features that continually seem to wrestle for control in the Holy Land are the sea and the desert sand. One Bible dictionary describes how the wind rages across Middle Eastern deserts, “driving plants, animals, and people before it like chaff.” The dictionary entry goes on to say how people believed the desert was a place where only “divine intervention offers deliverance from death.”
Long ago, I learned from James Houston how biblical deserts are not only geographic locales but also a symbol of the periods in our lives when we need to be tested and learn the ways of the Lord. These are difficult times. However, it’s in a desert experience – when I feel disoriented and uncertain – that I may best learn to trust God in deeper ways than if everything were fine.
Despite the cards, lights, parties, presents, and general festive cheer, Christmastime can feel like a desert. Loneliness, seasonal affective disorder, family being far away, financial strain, or grief over an absent loved one easily make this a difficult time of the year.
It’s not a typical Christmas text, but the Song of Moses gives me courage when I feel blue this time of year: It reminds me how God never abandons me in my desert experiences. Even “in a desert land” or “in a barren and howling waste,” God finds me, just as He found and led the Israelites in ancient times. He not only finds me (even though that would be enough!), He also shields and cares for me; He guards me “as the apple of His eye.”
Mind you, that doesn’t automatically make the desert a challenge-free place. Moses sings of how God is like the mother eagle who “stirs up her nest” and pushes out her chicks. They need to learn to fly, not always play it safe in the nest. But the mother still “spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft” as they struggle and learn. Similarly, followers of Jesus are always being pushed out of the nest, out of our comfort zone somehow or other as the Holy Spirit dares us to dream and risk and redefine impossible as we pursue God’s mission for us. And even when it feels most difficult, God never drops or forgets any of His people.
I dare say one of the reasons God allows me to experience a challenging time, a desert place, is so that I can better experience Him. When I am worn out and dried up, I have nowhere else to turn except to God, the One who shields and cares for me. God leads me in my desert experiences and makes me better despite – or because – of them.
Granted, He doesn’t necessarily promise to entirely remove me from the desert – at least not on this side of the new heavens and new earth. But He does promise to never forsake me or leave me on my own. He didn’t find me in the first place just to give up on or lose me.
With God’s presence and in His strength, even a barren or blue Christmas can become a bit more of a joyous Christmas for me. And if I can share that Good News with someone else, maybe it’ll bring a bit more joy to their Christmas, too.