The Way Through the Wilderness
None of us would have guessed 2020 would take such a dramatic left turn. And yet, here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, being advised by our government officials to social distance, stay home, and prepare for the tidal wave, known as the Coronavirus, to fully hit. We didn't choose this, didn't ask for it, didn't expect it and yet here we are, right smack dab in the middle of it.
That's the way it sometimes works in the wilderness. There are moments in life when you make the decision to turn left, step off the beaten path, and journey into the unknown. And then there are moments when the circumstances of the world turn you left and lead you forward into what you didn't see coming.
The Good News; how you get to the wilderness isn't as important as how you get through the wilderness.
The question is not, will we get through this. We will get through this. The pandemic will end. Our quarantine will be lifted. We as a country, as churches, as families, and as individuals, will get through this. If we have professed our faith in Jesus and we walk in step with Holy Spirit, then we have the luxury of knowing all of our battles have already been won. There is nothing on earth that can render us defeated. This too will end. Which makes the greater question: not will we get through this, but who will we be when we get through this?
What we do in the wilderness, determines who we become on the other side of the wilderness.
We are where we are today because the circumstances around us have forced a shift within us. Many of you sit in your home right now. You are separated from family and friends, from jobs and life giving community activities. Our security has been shaken. Our stores have run out of food, toilette paper and the ability to provide a sense of safety. Our small businesses are struggling to stay above water. Our kids are doing school from home. Sports and activities, put on pause, their futures hanging in the balance. Many of us know people already infected and struggling to fight this virus. And many of us wait, in the eerie unknown space, not sure of what tomorrow holds.
This battle has us fighting in a way that our culture is not used to fighting. Instead of being on the front lines, producing and performing, gathering and sending - most of us are at home - waiting and resting, trusting and praying. This is not a posture we welcome. It is not a posture we find comfortable and yet, it is the posture in which we discover ourselves.
As families, we don't sit still and yet, here we are - stilled for an unprecedented amount of time. We did not choose this and yet the way we walk through it will determine who we become on the other side of it.
John the Baptist walked into the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus. He knew Jesus would not come the way the world expected. And so he did what no one else would do, so Jesus could come and do what no one else could do.
John's journey into the wilderness enabled him to prepare the way for Jesus.
John's journey into the wilderness enabled him to encounter Jesus.
And John's journey into the wilderness enabled him to get out of the way of Jesus.
John prepared the way for Jesus
John the Baptist was the forerunner to Jesus. He came to prepare the way for the Savior. He was a brute of a man. From the time he was just a boy, he chose to dive head first into radical living. He walked away from the easy route and lived among the Engedi Colony in a part of the land of Judea, known as the wilderness. John's skin looked like leather from the hot desert sun, and his hair was full of unkempt dreadlocks. He roamed the desert, eating on locust, sleeping under the stars and depending daily on the provision of God.
John set himself apart. When people would have told him to turn right and take advantage of his position, he turned left and put himself in a place of divine dependency. He denied the opportunity to secure his place as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah and he trusted the Father had a path of security paved.
Luke 3:3-6 says, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: A voice of one calling in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.”
John encountered Jesus
John knew Jesus. They were cousins. He wasn't preparing the way for someone he didn't know and yet personal encounter in the midst of preparation was so important. Jesus had a way of inviting people into his story. Of grabbing hands with them and locking hearts. He empowered people, called them up into whose image they were created in, showed them they had something to offer. Everyone gets to play in the Kingdom, everyone has a place. This is a journey we were meant to take together.
For some of us, responding by locking arms with Jesus is something we struggle with. Some of us lack the courage, we fear not having the knowledge, we misuse our time, we feel unworthy, and we wrestle with opening our hands. Whatever the reason, grabbing onto his outstretched hand is sometimes hard.
John hesitated when Jesus stepped into the water to be baptized. He knew this man was the coming Savior. He was the Redeemer and yet, in the midst of divinity, John had a part to play.
Matthew 3:13-17, "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
John got out of the way of Jesus
Sometimes I am my own biggest issue. I let things get in the way of the direction I know I was created to walk, the part I know He's called me to play. Just this morning, I talked with a group of women about the gap between what we know and what we do. And how sometimes our feelings don't line up with our faith. When we cling to the tangible instead of the divine, we need not wonder how we've ended up miles away form where we intended.
Spiritual maturity is doing what needs to be done even when the feelings of doing it have long sense left. Feelings are fleeting. When the honeymoon of the wilderness wears off, what are your feelings left with? Have you grown up enough to navigate the tension even though you feel like caving to it.
When asked if he might be the Messiah John answered....
Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
John got out of the way of Jesus because he had grown deep in Jesus. On down the road of this story, John would be arrested. From his prison cell, he would call out to his cousin, his Savior and from that cell his pleading would go unanswered in the way he'd hoped. John would get through his wilderness - because that's the promise of the Gospel- but the way through wouldn't be the way he'd planned.
It brings me hope that even John struggled with his feelings those last days in his prison cell. In the midst of his struggle, he sent word to Jesus, "“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3.) John just needed reassurance that his wilderness time wasn't for nothing and I love how Jesus answered him.
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6.)
I imagine Jesus saying something like this...
"John, you did well. You prepared the way. People are seeing for the first time. They are hearing. They are healing. Thank you for the way you came into this. You will be blessed if you trust me with the way you will come out of this."
If you know the story of John the Baptist, then you know he went on to be executed. King Herod gave his wife John's head on a platter for her birthday. Interesting choice of gifts if you ask me! Dead or alive, John came through his wilderness. He got to the other side and I doubt once there, he regretted his decision.
This upside down way is the way of the Kingdom. Jesus doesn't do growth the way the world does it.
It’s in being quiet that you will learn to talk
It’s in going hungry that you will learn to eat
It’s in giving away that you will learn to receive
It’s in going deep that you will be taken high
It’s in being still that you learn how to freely move
If you are struggling to navigate this unknown space you are not alone. Rest assured, the question is not, will you get to the other side, it’s who will you be when you get to the other side? What are you doing right now, in the midst of your unexpected left turn to prepare the way for Jesus to come into your space? The temptation in the wilderness is to fight for your own provision, the invitation is to learn to live from Him. He is what you need and in Him you have all you need.
As the honeymoon of the wilderness wears off and we embrace the fact that this is a new for now reality, what are the storylines in our heads sounding like? Are we selecting the grumbling and complaining of the Israelites or the proclamation and anticipation of John the Baptist? Jesus is present and at work. He is in your space. Will you find Him? Will you join Him? Will you embrace His invitation?