The Wilderness – Desolation and Redemption

Paula Gooder – Let Me Go There – the Spirit of Lent – Chapter One

When I say the word ‘Wilderness….wilderness’ I wonder what springs into your mind?

I wonder what do you think of as I say that word? How do you respond?

What images do you see? Somewhere dry, deserted and hot….. and lonely….. a wide expanse of nothingness.

Maybe you’ve once visited a wilderness or desert and can remember what that felt like. Or perhaps you’ve never visited such a place and so you imagine what it must be like.

Or perhaps as I said that word, it evoked an emotional response. A time in your life where you experienced wilderness….How did you feel then? How does it make you feel now?

Or maybe you feel like you’re in a wilderness now, a place of desolation, fear, anxiety or pain?

Maybe you think of a personal relationship, an experience, past or present or something happening in the news here or overseas, an everyday experience or something happening in the church or this community or our nation.

I have to say I’ve never been to a physical wilderness, although I did once fly over the Sahara Desert and I was shocked by how big and large it was. In many places it is bare and empty with limited signs of life.

“How much longer…how much longer?…”

But in my own life, there have been times which have felt like a wilderness…. Times when I felt lonely and scared…times when life felt dry and flat. Times of depression and anxiety…of uncertainty and fear. Times when I’ve had to wait….and been able to do little else but cry out to God in despair…. How much longer…how much longer.

But, in those times… and I say this with hindsight, God always heard my cry and met me in the wilderness. Bringing me comfort, hope and peace, even though circumstances didn’t suddenly change.

As we begin our Lenten book, ‘Let Me Go There’ written by Paula Gooder we find ourselves this week exploring and thinking through the reality of wilderness…

both physical and emotional.

In future weeks Paula will turn our attention to Jesus…whose ministry was birthed out of wilderness. Jesus who after forty days and nights in the wilderness resisted the devil’s temptations.

But before we get there, Paula wants us to explore this theme of wilderness and consider how it relates to our lives.

The wilderness appears many times in the Bible.

shaped by the wilderness

Time and time again in the Old Testament stories, events, and characters like Hagar, Moses and Elijah are shaped by the wilderness and their experience thereof.

The first thing to be noted is that the wilderness if often a place of ambiguity. In the Old Testament the wilderness is a pace of terror and shelter, of death and redemption, of despair and hope.

Now Paula cannot cover all the references to wilderness in her first chapter, and I certainly cannot this morning.

But we are going to take a brief wander through some of the main passages,

the most powerful passages that encapsulate and embody the essence of the wilderness in the Old Testament.

We begin with the character of Hagar.
Now Hagar’s story is interwoven with Abraham and Sarah.

God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and that his descendants will be as many as the stars.

However, Abraham and Sarah don’t have children, and so after waiting and waiting they decide to try and solve the problem themselves.

And so, at the suggestion of Sarah, Abraham sleeps with Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and she becomes pregnant with Ishmael.

And twice Hagar ends up in the wilderness… the first time she runs away from Sarah, who has grown very jealous…but while in the wilderness she meets an angel of God… and she knows she has met with God…she calls him El- Roi… the God who sees all.

The second time is after Hagar has given birth to Ishmael, and Abraham sends them away as they no longer fit in with his plan….

In the wilderness Hagar confronts great terror. Hagar believes that both her and her son will die for they have no food or water… and Hagar watches in fear as her son grows weaker and weaker.

She cries out to God in terror…. And the God who is all seeing, hears her cry and appears to her.

Hagar who has been rejected and cast out by Abraham and Sarah and doubts her very self, finds in the wilderness a God who sees her, and loves her, and cares deeply for her.

And this God who sees everything clearly remains the same today…and in our wildernesses still sees and hears us even when we feel that no one else does.

Now Hagar was driven into the wilderness to die, our next story recounts how the people of God escaped to the wilderness to find freedom.

The story of escape from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea is one of the big stories of the Old Testament.

It speaks of freedom, new life, faith and release from oppression. It tells of a God who will always free people from slavery. Over the centuries this story has inspired and given hope to many….. and so, it is quite striking that those least inspired by their escape from slavery where God’s people themselves.

They’ve barely left Egypt when they start to wish they hadn’t left at all. They begin to wish that they were back in the safety of slavery.

Back in Egypt they had food to eat and water to drink, even if their overlords beat them to death!

Somehow, although their bodies were free, their minds were still stuck in the past….

And of course, we can understand their fear of the wilderness. It was a vast, unfriendly expanse where many easily die of hunger and thirst.

But what they forgot was they hadn’t got there alone….in the most amazing way God had led them to freedom.

And God was still with them, would still provide for them, showing them the way and giving them manna and water as they needed it most.

It took the people of God years, maybe even more than the forty years they had to wander the wilderness, to understand and realise that the only way to navigate the freedom of the wilderness was to place their hand in the hand of God.

They had to learn to trust God, to allow God to be present with them. And I think the same is true for us, our wilderness situations may not change…. but we can choose to trust God, to trust his leading and provision.

Our reading we shared together from Psalm 107 is just the first section of this Psalm and throughout this Psalm the same repeated refrain runs over and over…

O Give Thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endure for ever.

Psalm 107 contains a catalogue of what God has done but it is a catalogue designed to teach us about the character of God.

If God saved his people in the past we can be confident that he will do so again and again….because he is good, and his steadfast love endures.

And so, this Psalm is one for the wilderness, in rehearsing God’s deeds in the past,

we don’t do so to lock us into history but to lift our eyes from our current despair to hope, and to give us confidence that God will act in the same way again.

The other refrain that also runs through this Psalm is ‘they cried to the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them in their distress.’ God hears our cry….but we need to cry out first….

Often when we feel like we’re in a wilderness we curl up, whimper or feel that we are too angry, too miserable to address God.

But as we saw when we looked at the Psalms last summer, there is nothing to shocking, too rude, too miserable, too angry that we cannot speak to God.

God wants us to cry out to him from whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.

God does intervene; he wants to intervene in our times of wilderness….our first step is to cry out to him in the first place.

The prophets particularly Jeremiah and Isaiah regularly mention the wilderness…

both recognise the reality of wilderness, the desolation, the terror, the fear, the unknown but what makes the wilderness ambiguous for them is God’s presence within it.

The life-giving, hope-bringing, loving presence of God brought grace and undeserved generosity into the desolate plains of the wilderness.

In very simple terms….where God was, the wilderness was wilderness no more.

Isaiah talks of rivers springing forth and gushing through the wilderness and desolate places becoming rich and fertile.

Jeremiah speaks of grace in the wilderness not death….of hope not despair and all because God loves his people with an everlasting love and is faithful to them.

And the word which Jeremiah uses for faithfulness, ‘hesed’ in Hebrew, has a broad range of meanings, it encompasses goodness, kindness, loyalty, steadfastness and love.

God’s presence will provide
hope and grace and steadfast love…

For both Jeremiah and Isaiah wilderness experiences will come…but whatever form that wilderness takes, God’s presence will provide hope and grace and steadfast love….

When we find ourselves in an emotional wilderness, either individually or as a community or nation, the temptation is to hunker down as despair sweeps over us.

But Jeremiah and Isaiah would remind us to look up, to wait expectantly for the God who has, since the dawn of time, transformed chaos into creation, the empty void, the waste into joyous hope.

God’s people have always found hope and grace in the midst of wilderness, there is no reason for this to stop now.

And it is in the context, with this backdrop of wilderness thinking that we will next week begin to consider, the work of John the Baptist and, to a greater extent, the ministry of Jesus who both began their days in the wilderness.

For now, we have seen that the wilderness is a place of ambiguity, simply because in the midst of desolation and despair, time and time again God met his people there. The wilderness never changed. It was bleak, barren, scary, a place in which death and hunger and terror lurked. What transformed it was the presence of God….

Where God was, the wilderness became a place of oasis, rest, refreshment. Where God was grace and love reigned and hope became possible.

The message of the Old Testament is that God never changed, he will not change, and as he has met people in the wilderness in the past, he will continue to do so for us today.