Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jesus in the desert (a sermon)

We are now in the season of Lent. If we were to express the different seasons of the Christian calendar by way of analogy, we could choose the image of topography. The metaphor of topography expresses the fact that the terrain one encounters in the journey of the soul is often varied. At times, we feel as though our soul dwells in a land of great abundance and blessing. At other times, we may feel as though we are on the mountaintop or in the valley. At times, we may agree with the psalmist that the Lord leads us by still waters and lush meadows. At other times, we may agree with the psalmist that we feel as though roaring lions are tearing at our body. Lent is a desert time for the soul. It is a time when we reflect on the poverty and deprivation of our spirit, the difficulties one encounters in this life. The world sometimes feels as though it is a wild, dry place where one can get lost easily because the wind blows fiercely and the large sand dunes shift, causing us to easily lose our way. There are few landmarks in the desert and one is foolish to rely on the land for such marks because the landscape is ever moving and changing. But, with all the uncertainty associated with the desert, we do know that the desert can be a valuable place for us, for we grow the most in the unknowns of life. Adversity, more than ease, has the potential to make us stronger, to shape and form us into people of courage, gentleness and humility. The desert has the capacity to teach us about freedom, gratitude, quiet confidence and the value of trust and abandonment—if we will let it; otherwise, it may kill us. The desert is a place of adventurous risk. It is a place that requires faith.

This is why we have chosen themes from the desert experiences of the Israelites as our focal topic this year for Lent. We can learn how to respond to our own desert experiences by looking at how the Israelites responded when they spent 40 years in the desert before entering the Promised Land. Now, take careful note of the number in that last sentence: 40 years. The Israelites were in the desert 40 years before entering the Promised Land.

We must come to grips with the fact that, in this world, Promised Lands are the exception to the rule. More often than not, we experience life as disorienting, an untamed journey that requires risk and faith. True, there are times when God grants us a bit of rest and respite, an oasis in the desert, but then he marshals us out of our complacency to move on, forward--even if that move forward takes us past places we’ve already been.

I say this because my own experience accords with this...When I graduated from college, I thought I knew where my life was headed. Like the Israelites, I felt as though I could leave Egypt, head east and then turn directly north to get to my Promised Land while still in my twenties. But, the opportunity I was looking for did not present itself immediately, so (like the Israelites) we needed to head south (to Wheaton, Illinois) for a temporary season. It was not an easy time. Yes, there was success and joy, but there was also conflict and failure. We made many friends, but at times we also felt out of place and lonely. This is what the desert looks like: you pray and express gratitude for the blessings that are imparted to you, but you do so in the midst of opposition and adversity. After this time in Wheaton (like the Israelites), we went further south into Chicago. We thought our time of conflict and failure was over, but actually it intensified there. It was so awful we only lasted in that place for 6 months and then had to move on. So, we moved west (not east) to live in Colorado Springs with Heather’s dad. That was a humbling experience, since we were dependent on other people to make our way. I worked as a tree trimmer for a while, getting paid in cash at the end of each job. On one job, I came home with a broken pair of glasses and a broken thumb that felt like it was on fire. We had very little money and no insurance so this was a blow to our pride. But it was there in that desert place that I learned God loved me, full stop. He didn’t care about what I did or accomplished, he just loved me because he loved me because he loved me. I discovered that God really does care more about who we are than what we do and I would not have learned this without the desert.

After that time (3 years) God granted us the blessing of going into full-time ministry here in Europe. “At last,” I thought, “we can enter our Promised Land! No more trouble, no more hardship, no more conflict.” Boy, was I ever wrong! It was during this time that I lay awake at night, wondering if there was a God, thinking, “What if we’re all wrong and this is just a big hoax?” This desert of the soul that I experienced isolated me from my wife. Before I knew it, my marriage was in trouble and I needed to change something fast to salvage the damage I had caused. The desert taught me how to love. In the desert God reminded me he was real. In the desert I learned about the primacy of faith and I learned not to take others for granted.

When that time in Barcelona came to a close, Heather and I moved to Madrid to start Mountainview. And, once again, I thought my ship had come in. Boy, was I ever wrong! There, in the midst of more conflict and failure, I learned that my abilities were limited, that I made more mistakes than I’d care to admit. Yes, we did meet with success, but there I also learned that I needed to live out grace in even more radical ways (and I’m still learning that grace has no limit). There I learned that it’s okay to let go of things that provide security in order to follow the God who leads us out of comfort into more uncertainty. There were times of rest, but, by and large, I can honestly say that those times were the exception to the rule of the desert. Remember, Moses spent almost his whole leadership career in the desert. Though God gave Moses oases along the way, the rule of the desert trained Moses in humility and he died content with the adventure of his life, though all his dreams were not fulfilled.

After Mountainview, we moved into the city. Starting Oasis has been no cakewalk either. Every year has been riddled with uncertainty and change. By the grace of God we are here today, together. There has been plenty of joy, but it is the time of conflict and tension, the hard times that have made the times of joy that much sweeter.

I tell you this story to show you that not only do we see the desert as a normative experience in the Bible story of the exodus, but I have also experienced it this way in my own story. No doubt, you can see this in your own story, too. So, it’s good to know we’re not alone in our poverty.

Because it’s normal for us to encounter the desert in this life, we’ve been looking at how to respond when we realize we’re in the desert. This is where the good news comes in. If you were here last week, you’ll recall I encouraged us to “be content with the foolishness of wandering” because our God is a God that leads us on a wandering path. You’ll remember that we said this because “you don’t get the adventure of life without the wandering.” We also said that God causes us to wander because it requires us to have faith and take risks. By leading us in a wandering path, God shows us that we have to depend on him and trust him. And when we do, we find that, though the way is hard, he does have the ability to take care of us and lead us faithfully. Last week, we encountered God as a mysterious God that is always out in front of us. He is the “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” God, not just the “I AM WHO I AM” God. In saying this, we were saying that we cannot make God our object in this life, because he cannot be captured. Though he is ours and does lead us faithfully, he is, by the same token, not fully ours yet. These are good reminders, principles to live by in the midst of life’s desert.

But tonight I want to briefly remind us of something else about God. He is not just the one who leads us by pillars of raging fire and billowing smoke. He is also the one that hides himself gently in our midst. To see this, we need to tell the exodus story again with different eyes.

You remember that the story of the exodus begins with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. God frees the Israelites through many acts of miraculous power. The final miracle occurred on Passover. This was the time the angel of death moved through the land, taking the life of every firstborn in Egypt. In this way, God manifested his power, his supremacy over life and death. But, in this story, we also see the lowly, innocent Jesus in the form of the lamb. That night, the Israelites sacrificed a lamb, applying its blood to their doorposts as a sign that they belonged to God, so when the angel of death came to their house they were spared. At the very beginning of their desert wanderings, God showed them that ultimately he is mighty, but he displays his might as simple, hidden mercy. This is to say: Jesus, the humble servant, the sacrificial lamb, is right there in the midst of our desert wanderings. So, tonight, I want to remind you that God not only goes before you in might and mystery; I also want to remind you that he is in your midst, hidden, humble, in the person of Jesus. Ultimately, this is what gives us the strength and hope to follow the God who cannot be captured, for in some strange way, he does make himself ours.

Let’s keep telling the story then, to see how Jesus was (and is) in the desert with us. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were led to the Red Sea. Here, they were trapped as the Egyptians came charging after them, pinning them on the shore with nowhere to go. And here, at the Red Sea, Jesus is the staff in our hand. Earlier in the story, this staff turned into a snake. Normally, you would not pick up a snake, but this snake is different. This snake swallows the arrogant snakes that think they can overcome, but it knows that, should someone meek and trusting reach out for it, it has no need to strike out. To that person, the snake becomes as harmless as a piece of wood, but it still has authority and still guides you in trekking the wilderness. In the desert, God not only goes before you in the pillar; he also remains right by your side, ready to help you, like a faithful friend, in the wilderness. This staff becomes your vine and you are the branch. Don’t let go. Remain with him, remain in him and he will give you strength to carry on. This staff is your victory. It defeats the adverse powers shooting at your back.

Crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites were led to a place where they had no food, so God provided manna (a bread from heaven that was as gentle—and as pure--as snow). We know this manna as Jesus because Jesus refers to this exodus experience with these words, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the [manna] bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven [like manna] and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry…” (John 6:32-33,35) Here we see God, the great, powerful pillar of fire, the one who cannot be touched without getting burned, coming down to us in such a fashion that we can pick him up and eat. This is the vulnerable God, the servant God. This, indeed, is the greatest of his miracles. Just as the Israelites depended on this bread every day for 40 years, so we depend on this bread, the body of Jesus. His body and his blood means we are forgiven, set free and sustained for the desert of this life. Jesus’ forgiveness is something you will need in the desert.

From there, the Israelites were led to a place where there was no water. At this place, Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his staff and water would gush out. Often, we wonder about this curious incident, but when we take a close look at it, we see Jesus in the story, discovering that Jesus too was struck by another kind of wooden staff—a spear. As Jesus hung on the cross, he, along with the Israelites, said, “I thirst.” When he crossed the threshold of death, someone took a spear and struck God, the Rock, in the side. At this point, John, the disciple of Jesus, said he saw blood and water flow from Jesus’ side. There is more than medical concern being expressed here in the narrative. It is likely that John saw a parallel, a fulfillment, for just as the rock was struck in the wilderness, providing water from a thirsty source for thirsty souls, so Jesus was struck in his hour of deepest deprivation, providing water from a thirsty source for thirsty souls. And just as the water sprang forth through an act of faith, so we too, by believing in the crucified, stricken Jesus can experience streams of living water bursting from our souls. For Jesus also says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow within him.”

If you feel like you are in the desert, first of all know this: it’s okay. You’ll be alright, for as we noted last week, God goes before you and the wandering road is the road of trust. But you’ll also be alright for another reason: God is also there with you, right by your side, hidden in the landscape as a lowly rock. He joins you in the desert, and says, “Strike me, if you will. I will still bless you and sustain you. You will never go without.” Jesus is the rock, struck for your soul. You can carry on. There is hope for a new day.

I want to mention one last place the Israelites stopped, one last way Jesus met with his people in the desert in a hidden kind of way. When the Israelites were camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, God gave instructions to Moses concerning the construction of a tabernacle, a Tent of Meeting. It was called the Tent of Meeting because this is where one could meet with God in a special way. Of course, God was everywhere. In a special way, God was out in front of them, the “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. But, in another special way, God was among them, accessible. The Tent of Meeting was a place where the people--directly and through the priest-- could meet with God and receive continued forgiveness when they failed to walk in God’s ways, which was more than once. I bring this up because I’d like you to notice just one thing about the tabernacle. It’s this:

The tabernacle formed the nation. It represented the heart, the center of the nation and the nation organized itself around the tabernacle.

Before the tabernacle was built, the people didn’t really know what to do with themselves. So, along with God’s instructions to build the tabernacle, God also instructed Moses how to organize the people around the tabernacle, and even how to set out together when the pillar of fire moved them on to their next adventurous journey. Even while travelling, the tabernacle held a position in the center of the community and when they set up camp again, it remained at the center.

The point I’m getting at is this: Jesus is the tabernacle. He is God among us. And just as the tabernacle formed the nation, so Jesus makes us who we are, as a body. God designed it this way because he knows that we can’t do this journey alone. We need each other. In today’s time, we have somehow got it into our head that, “As long as I have Jesus, I’m good to go.” We have a “Jesus and me” mentality. But this part of the story tells us that you don’t get Jesus without also getting each other. He places himself in the center of our midst not just because he wants to be worshiped, but also because he wants us to love one another, look out for one another and care for each other in the midst of the wilderness. See, in those days, you couldn’t look at Jesus without also seeing right through him to your neighbor. You didn’t get Jesus without other people coming along as part of the bargain. It’s how God designed it, how God wanted it.

So, today when God reminds us that you’ll never walk alone, he’s not just talking about himself, he’s reminding us that we also need each other. This is how it has always been. This is how it still is. This is how it always will be. It was true with the Israelites and it was true with the disciples of Jesus. True, each follower of Jesus was drawn one by one to Jesus, but Jesus did it this way because he wanted to create a new kind of family. I’ll say that again: Jesus wanted to create family where family didn’t exist. Before the tabernacle the Israelites were, by comparison, a scattered, disorganized nation. God knew they would never survive the desert in such a persistent state, so he wisely ordered their lives by the law of his mercy. In the same way, when Jesus called Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot to follow him, they too were scattered and divided, enemies, though they were both Israelites. In calling them to himself, Jesus wanted to form a new kind of family, to teach them to love each other and care for each other (for he knew that without each other they would never survive the trials to come). Notice that, in the case of Jesus with the disciples, it is like the Israelites rallied around the tabernacle. Jesus is how we meet God. Jesus is where we go to receive mercy and forgiveness. Without Jesus, our tabernacle, there is no way we can live together as one.

Just remember, you don’t get Jesus without each other—and we don’t get each other without Jesus. So, let’s not forget that we need each other. And let’s not forget to be there for each other. Jesus draws us together because the community is God’s way of providing protection and care in our desert. There is strength in the community that Jesus brings together. It becomes our source of courage and hope. There is safety. In the community, there is Jesus. And, in Jesus, there is the community.

So, when you’re in the desert (which, remember, is more often the case than not) remember: you are not alone. Yes, God goes before you in a mysterious way, but he has also hidden himself in our midst. He is Jesus, meek and gentle, in our midst. He is the lamb. He is the staff. He is the manna. He is the stricken rock. He is the tabernacle. He is in you and me and the person next to you. Look at each other now. Look at each other. You are looking at Jesus in the desert. Yes, life is hard, and it sure would be nice to be done with the desert, but you are not alone. You are never alone. Just reach out for him. Reach out to each other. And never let go. Amen.

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