“Let my people go,” God said, “so that they can worship me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 7:16)
Worship and wilderness. I’d like to think that there is no connection. Surely the ancient Israelites were not so spiritually thick in the head that God’s presence could be overshadowed by a little milk and honey! If the Ancient One would meet with them, no doubt it would be in the parting of the sea or when fortress walls came crumbling down, yes?
Apparently not. In his great wisdom, it turns out that the Almighty had discerned that they’d be most spiritually pliable when sand was chafing in the nether regions of their undergarments. He chose to get personal somewhere between their Deliverance and the Promised Land. In Egypt they saw his power; in Palestine they saw the fulfillment of his promises. But the magic happened in the middle.
That’s where they meet, and under that desert sun God makes it clear that He is nobody’s mascot. He describes himself to Moses, saying, “…Yahweh! The LORD! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7 NLT) He has standards and expectations, and a ridiculous amount of love.
The desert narrative is God and his people, for better or worse, getting to know each other. What kind of God is it that when you are parched and ask for water, has you stand in front of a rock and says, “There you go…”? When you run out of food, what kind of God says, “Wait until morning, and then scrape up whatever you can find on the ground…”? This is a God who has offered Himself, and sees how easily we get sidetracked by secondary appetites.
Desert experiences aren’t forever, but going on to live a supernatural existence requires a holy communion that I haven’t seen taught anywhere else. God did not keep Daniel from the lion’s den, or Shadrach and his friends from the flames, or Mary from an unplanned pregnancy. Unexpected Company is unveiled in uncomfortable circumstance.
The Apostle Paul penned his heart’s desire this way: “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings…” (Philippians 3:10 NASB). He wanted to know Jesus, experientially, and understood that this would include both resurrection power and profound suffering.
In many of our churches we give indifferent assent to this, but only provide a voice for stories told from the perspective of victory and resolution. Suffering and brokenness and desert experiences are whispered about in private conversations and prayer chains. In many respects this is understandable. However, I suggest that there is a corporate disconnect when we preach the cross of Jesus but only celebrate the manifestation of his resurrection.
There is a beauty to be found in water from the rock and manna from heaven. More than that, a sense of wonder needs to be rediscovered when, for the first time, we see the Holy of Holies being crafted in a person’s soul. Indeed, one of the lessons of the great exodus is that the purpose of the desert is not to experience the faithful provision of God, but to create a space among his people for His glory.
For many of us, this goes being the realm of theory. Things haven’t turned out they way we thought they might. We assumed the light of God’s goodness would continue to shine ever brighter, and now we find ourselves in the desert, or the lion’s den, or the flames, or the tomb, or a place of anxiety, stress and depression that makes a mockery of metaphor.
It’s called Holy Ground. Let’s worship Him here.
Go on down to the silent place,
You who dare to seek God’s face.
For it may be you’ll find down there
An answer for that load you bear.
Stop not at the convenient spot
You’ve been before, for God is not
A landmark on a religious map,
Or a brew poured from some preacher’s tap.
Continue on with your open sores
To solitary haunted shores
Where human voices utter not
One breath of what a true God aught
To do or say or even be,
Silent before His blood-stained tree.
Sit awhile in the cold dark tomb-
That barren place that became the womb
Of every hope we ever had,
And the death of all that makes men mad,
For that is where our God is found.
Your weary heart is holy ground.