God in the desert

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.”

Desert photo found with Google.

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.

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In good company on a mission

Clouds picture found via Google

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are Good News. This is a season in the church calendar for joy: I’m filled with joy that Jesus lives and reigns; I’m filled with joy that sin and death no longer have the last word.

But this is also a season emphasizing mission: As Dale Bruner points Matthew - A Commentary (Vol 2) The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Brunerout in his commentary on Matthew, every appearance Jesus makes to His followers after His resurrection includes a call to mission. The Holy Spirit of the living Lord sends me on a mission to where I work, go out for ice cream, and even travel on vacation.

When this sounds overwhelming to me, I remember I’m in good company with the first followers of Jesus.

Maybe I don’t feel bold enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m in good company then. Jesus first gives His commission to go and tell that He’s alive to a group of women who have been (understandably) frightened by a dazzling angel. He later commissions scared disciples hiding in the dark and sad disciples who will watch Him ascend to heaven. The truth is that Jesus equips and sends fear-filled people to free people from fear of alienation, sin, death, and hell.

Maybe I don’t feel qualified enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m still in good company. Jesus appears to and commissions 11 disciples – an incomplete number following Judas’ tragic death. In the Bible, 12 is a perfect number, not 11. But the truth is that Jesus equips and sends imperfect people to do His perfect work.

Maybe I don’t feel official enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Guess what? I’m in good company. The Gospels refer to the disciples being commissioned by Jesus – no mention (yet) of specific leaders, church officers, or even the more official title of apostles. It’s simple people known as disciples who Jesus sends on mission. And that is all a Christian should ever want to be – a disciple. So the truth is that Jesus equips and sends ordinary people to do His extraordinary work.

Maybe I don’t feel spiritual enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. By now you’re not surprised to hear I’m in good company. Jesus first commissions a group of doubters. It’s not just Thomas, but a bunch of them who have doubts mixed in with their worship. But Jesus remains patient and forgiving: He does not divide up His disciples into two groups – commissioning those who believe and worship while telling those who fear or doubt to come back later when they have their acts together. No, in the Gospels, all are commissioned, leading me to see how Jesus’ sending power is far greater than His disciples’ faults and failings. The truth remains that Jesus equips and sends unsure and uncertain people to do His sure and certain work.

Maybe I don’t feel authorized enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Again, I’m in good company with those feelings. I think about how the very first people to be sent on mission by Jesus are women. Today that’s no big deal, but in Jesus’ day, a woman’s testimony did not count in the law courts of the land. Women were not allowed to stand as witnesses. Everyone would’ve said that as women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are poor choices as the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet the women are the first ones commissioned by the angel at the tomb to go and tell. Then they meet Jesus Himself who again confirms they are indeed the ones to go and tell the Good News. Throughout the Gospel, Acts, and the letters, we see women serving and proclaiming the Good News in wonderful ways. Still today the truth is that Jesus equips and sends all His sisters and brothers of all ages and cultures to do His work that enfolds everyone regardless of gender, age, and culture.

Jesus is raised from the dead and now reigns over all. This fills me with joy. It also sends me and all Jesus’ followers on a mission. The command “Go and tell” is for each of us. That’s joy and the mission of this resurrection and ascension season.