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Where is God in the desert?

Many of you would be familiar with the famous footprints in the sand poem. For those that aren’t it is worth a read:

“One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD.   Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
 
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.   He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”
 
The LORD replied: “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

What is conveyed here is actually an important biblical theme that is seen particularly in light of the ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ theme of the Bible. As can be expected, the wilderness in the bible is not portrayed as a nice place. It is the place that the Israelites must travel through before reaching the promised land (Exo 15:22). However, the people sin and are judged with 40 more years in that wilderness (Num 14). Throughout the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the bible), the wilderness becomes a place of place of rebellion (Num 12), suffering (Exo 14:11), quarrels (Exo 17:1-2), judgement (Num 11:1-3), and temptation (Exo 17:7). The New Testament picks up this theme again in the temptation of Jesus, where he is hungry, thirsty and assailed by the devil. It is for this reason Christians often use the imagery of desert to describe times of great trial or difficulty.

One such ‘desert’ for me was the submission of my Master’s thesis this morning (I actually quite enjoyed it but probably will need a few weeks to get over the strain). I focused intently on the use of location in Stephen’s speech of Acts 7, and particularly how it pertained to God’s presence. I noted something interesting that bears out in other scripture as well. The ‘wilderness’ might be time of great strife, but it is also the most common location for God to appear to his people. This is seen in how God appears to Hagar, not once but twice in the desert (Gen 16:7, 21:14-17) Likewise, it was in the desert that God first appeared to Moses (Exo 3:30-33).
 

 

Throughout the rest of the wilderness narrative, perhaps the most common theme is God’s presence with his people through the tabernacle. As Alec Gilmore writes, “wilderness is a place for theophanies”! Perhaps the clearest indication and encouragement of this truth is found as Moses summarises the people’s time in the desert: “The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’” This verse is even said to be the motivation for the famous poem above.
So what are we to take out of the times of spiritual dryness and darkness in our lives. My encouragement to us all would be to look for signs of God’s sustaining presence. It is in the valleys, not the mountains, that God is most shaping us into the people he wants us to be. No one likes to be caught in a desert, but it very may well be the place that he comes to you. To experience his glory is to render all trials and difficulties comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18). The final hope that we have as Christians is that the desert will not last forever. Isaiah 35 paints this reality with beautiful promises that “he desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;” (35:1) and “waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;” (35:6-7).
Jesus ultimately fulfilled these promises, but we live in the time of now but not yet. His redemption of the world, and the removal of deserts (at least the metaphorical ones) is almost upon us. In the midst of such turmoil we need to take these words addressed to a people stuck in the wilderness: “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
 
Pastor Dan