Monday, August 10, 2009

"God-Imapcted LIfe: Desert"

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 22:1-5; 23:1-29 (“The Message”, Eugene Peterson); Mark 1:9-13

A census taker was working an area in the mountains, and there was one house he had to visit that was far from any paved road. First he came to a gate on a private road. It was unlocked, but there was a sign on the gate that read “No Trespassing”.
He opened the gate, and drove through, and closed it behind him. As he drove along, he passed other warning signs: “Keep Out”, “Violators Will Be Shot”, “Turn around Before It’s Too Late”, and “This Means You!”

He finally came to the cabin, and he knocked on the door. An old man with a shotgun opened the door. Surprisingly the old man was willing to answer the census questions, and then they started talking about other things: deer, and cougars, and coyotes, and eagles. The old man made some coffee and told stories for hours. Finally the census taker said he had to leave, and the old man smiled, and stood up, and shook his hand, and said, “Well, you come back again sometime. I don’t get many visitors up here.”

David spent years in the wilderness of Judah: it was not a wilderness of trees and rivers, but a wilderness of pure desert. And it was not a sandy, open desert. It was a desert you could hide in: with mountains, dry canyons, cliffs, ravines, and caves, and a few secret places where water could be found.

David was not a hermit in the wilderness. As we see, he soon had four hundred, and then six hundred, men with him. First there came his own family: his seven brothers, with their wives and children.

Because of the wars with the Philistines, and perhaps because King Saul was gradually falling apart in his rebellion against God, there were increasing numbers of people in the kingdom of Israel who had no good place to go: people who were in distress, or in debt, or just plain discontented. They found David, and David found a way to take care of them, and the families they brought with them. There were a lot of people to take care of.

David took care of them by going into the protection business and by being a hired mercenary. As for the protection business; David’s was honest work. There was no law and no security, so David provided it and was compensated for it. He put his men to work protecting communities, and farms, and ranches from the Philistine raiders, and from the raids of the desert tribes, because Saul was unable to keep the peace in the remote parts and frontiers of the kingdom. There was a time when David was briefly tempted to turn his protection business into a protection racket, but that is another story.

Because David had done all the right things, and because he had done everything well, he was a marked man. King Saul’s demented jealousy turned into demented fear and hate. And so David was a righteous outlaw, a good-hearted man with a price on his head, a human being blessed by God and set apart for a purpose: wanted, dead or alive.

That is the way it was. In one sense David seemed to have failed, and fallen short of a great potential. In another sense he was a victim: a victim of jealousy, insanity, injustice, and betrayal.

David started out in life without any ambitions at all. In a time when birth order really counted, he was the eighth son of a poor family. He was the spare. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as a “nobody”. (1 Samuel 18:18, 23)

Then the prophet Samuel silently anointed David to set him apart for a purpose. (1 Samuel 16:13) But we have no clue that David really understood this. He never spoke or acted as though he thought he was supposed to be the king, even after Jonathan, his best friend, the king’s own son, told him so.

For a while, the whole world seemed to open up before him. He was brought into the royal house to play the harp and sing for the healing of the demented king. He became a commander of the king’s armies. He became the king of hearts of the kingdom. All the people, and the king’s officials, and the king’s own family loved David.

But King Saul developed that nearly fatal fear and hatred of David, and tried to kill him more than once.

Hatred and injustice seemed stronger than love and goodness. David went from having nothing, to having everything, and then to having nothing again. All he had, at last, was the desert, and a community of misfits and rejects.

For years, David would live life on the edge of survival, always in danger; either on the run, or ready to run at a moment’s notice. If anything the Bible says is clear, it is this: David’s lot in life was unfair. It was undeserved. It was hard and hopeless.

There was no visible way out. And David just had to make do. His ambition was just to survive. He had to live in the desert and make it his home. And so he did.

Deserts are dangerous places where you have to be careful, and alert. You are forced to think first about the basics. You have to watch and listen for hazards, and breakdowns, and snakes, and other wild things. You take precautions. You watch out for the safety of whoever is with you. You have to know how to respect where you are and yet not be subject to your fears. Driving or walking in the desert requires a healthy kind of faith. Life hangs on the edge and becomes precious and holy. The desert shows us what it means to live on holy ground.

The Bible is full of desert stories. The first three generations of Israel lived in the land that God had promised them as if they were nothing more than strangers and desert dwellers. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept their tents and their flocks and herds away from the towns, away from the farmlands, out in the desert, out on the edge. This was God’s idea for shaping their identity; for making them people of faith.

When they lived for generations in the fertile fields of Egypt, along the Nile River, they were still on the edge. They were surrounded by abundance, but they lived in the desert called slavery. This was part of God’s plan to shape their identity and make them ready and hungry to live on holy ground of freedom and faith.

Then Moses led them from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, but they spent a whole generation in the desert in between. A generation died in the desert, and a generation was raised in the desert. The desert was the method of a faithful God to help his people rise above the failure of their faith into a living and active faith and confidence. This was God’s solution for shaping their identity.

When the everlasting Son of God came down from heaven, and entered the world as a human being, the Father in heaven had a plan to shape his son’s life in the desert. When the time was right for him to openly begin his work, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized. He heard his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) And then we read this: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.”
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke the temptations are based on assumptions of doubt; to make the Son doubt the love of his Father, and to doubt whether that love was enough to sustain him in any circumstances.

Satan always started by calling into doubt what the Son had heard his Father say: “You are my son whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” Satan began with the words: “If you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)

The desert was the place where Jesus learned the absolute need to trust the fact that he was beloved, and to discover that it was enough in life to be so loved. Jesus came to restore us as children of God who can live in faith, trusting that we are beloved and living a new life because of it.

When we look at Jesus born for us, living a humble workman’s life for us, and dying on the cross, we see God at work setting the foundation for us to be the free and beloved children of God, with whom God is well pleased, who are able to live as new creations of God in the realm of a holy ground where the Lord reigns.

Ruthie Gillis tells me that, when she was about twelve or so, her parents gave her the job of taking the cows out to pasture. She had to take them out to a place a couple of miles from the farm. She rode the distance on horseback. She might have been afraid to be out there by herself with those cows, except that the field where they grazed was on a hill, and she could see the farm from there. That field is like the desert of God where God sends his people out to live by faith.

In another world, Ruthie could have been a beloved child, comfortable at home, waited on hand and foot. And that would have made her a spoiled child, a ruined child. But in the real world, Ruthie was a farm girl, wasn’t she, and that wouldn’t have made any sense at all.

Instead she was given something important to do. She was entrusted with the family business, out alone, out in the weather, out in the distance. Her faithful parents, in their great love, put her where things could happen, where things could be uncomfortable, where things could go wrong.

Ruthie would have to learn what it meant to be a real human being by being trusted by those who loved her. She would learn to understand, and love, and trust her parents, by being made part of their work, even the difficult parts, even the long, silent, lonely parts.

Would she show the same faithfulness and responsibility out in the field as she showed under their own roof? Ruthie was well beloved, and her parents were well pleased in her growing, and thriving, and the joy she took in her work; even when it was long, and silent, and lonely.

Earlier in the story of Saul and David, we can read that the kind of king that God desired for his people was a person after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14)
From the very beginning David had shown a heart that put into action his faith in the presence of God. He had shown a God-impacted heart. In the desert David showed the same heart that he had shown as a boy facing the giant Goliath; and as a young man set to the task of playing his harp for a deranged king; and as a member, by marriage, of the king’s own family. David had a good heart, a God-impacted heart, and his heart did not change during his long, hard, silent life in the desert.

The pattern for life as God’s beloved children, called by the Lord, called by Jesus for his love and purpose, always includes a desert. This is not a desert of sand and rock, or a lonely place of heat and thirst.

There is an experience in life that Eugene Peterson calls a “circumstantial wilderness”. We can find ourselves in a desert of circumstances. In the circumstances of loss or grief, sickness or failure, unfairness or disappointment, change or bad times, conflict or weariness, we can find ourselves in a long, silent, lonely place. We can be in a desert of our own making or the desert of people, and forces, and events beyond our control.

It is an experience where we can lose all sense of direction, all sense of hope. It is an experience in which we don’t know what to do and where there isn’t much we can do. It is an experience where we may be tempted to become angry, or depressed, or bitter, or deceptive, or vindictive, and live as though we are people who are not beloved by God or by those who have known us best. We may be tempted to become people who do not live lives after God’s own heart.

David passed the test of the desert.

He continued to serve others. We see this in the way he saved a town under attack, and the way he left the shelter of that town rather than subject its people to the temptations and dangers that would come from his presence there. (1 Samuel 23:1-13)

We see David’s heart in the way he found strength from his friendship and fellowship with others. We see that God gave him encouragement from his friend Jonathan.

We see David’s heart, most of all, in the way he found strength from God. (1 Samuel 23:16; 30:6) After years in the desert he would still be able to say, “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.” (2 Samuel 22:33)

David could have become a bitter-hearted human being because so many horrible things happened to him (as indeed they did). He had chances to pay Saul back for the harm he had done him. The misfits who followed David were full of encouragement for him to kill the king the first chance he had; but he didn’t do it because, even though David was the Lord’s anointed, so was Saul. (1 Samuel 24:1-7) The desert can be holy ground that teaches us that we are God’s beloved and so are all the others.

A desert of sand and rock is awesome and makes us mindful of the presence of God. Then it becomes holy ground. Our desert of circumstances is also holy ground and teaches us to depend on the presence of God by faith. Our desert teaches us the importance of the words and actions to which God calls us.

The cross itself was a vast desert in which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus was suspended in that desert, held by nails in his hands and feet, to make us the beloved sons and daughters of God.

This communion meal is the invitation Jesus Christ to receive all that he has done for us in the deserts of his life and his cross. The Lord’s Table is where we are invited to receive all that he has given us in the victories he has won in those deserts. He will feed us and nourish us when we are passing through deserts of our own, knowing that he shares them with us. This meal helps us to know that we are held in a love and faithfulness that are far greater than our own, and that that love is worth everything else. It is good to be beloved by God, and this is enough to sustain us in life.

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