Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wilderness years

Ever had contact with a grumbler? They can steal your joy in a second. For some people, life is a series of complaints and they love to share them.
The Exodus story is one of struggle, and victory and great miracles. The events leading up to the crossing of the Red Sea make exciting reading, let alone movies. Yet following the immense parting of the waters and destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the ensuing years seem to be a bit of a letdown. A journey that should be a few day’s duration turns into a trek of forty years wandering around in the desert.
People who wanted their freedom so much, who saw God’s miracles suddenly seem to lose the plot. In chapter sixteen we see them complaining that they are hungry. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt” they exclaim,” There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted”. They had decided that they were facing death, rather than trusting the Lord who had brought them out of bondage to provide.
In chapter seventeen, having been provided with manna to eat, the people now grumbled that there was nothing to drink and complained again to their leaders, Moses and Aaron. In subsequent chapters, their lack of faith is demonstrated by the fact that when Moses was absent, receiving the Ten Commandments from God they demanded an idol to worship, in the form of a golden calf. Finally, when God brings the Israelites into the vicinity of their Promised Land and Moses sends out spies who report of its hostile inhabitants, the people grumble again. “The Lord hates us; so He brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” (Deuteronomy 1:27)
Perhaps slavery had worked an effect of passivity and dependence on this population. God demonstrates His provision and faithfulness, yet they fail to appreciate His blessings, thank Him and trust Him. They continue to sin against Him.  That is why a whole generation wanders in the wilderness instead of entering the promised land.
The stories of the Bible of course are not just history. They demonstrate principles which are as relevant to daily life today as they were three thousand years ago. The Exodus story is one of coming out of bondage, into freedom and new life. This life is one of blessing and provision and change, change for the better if we are able to trust God beyond our external circumstances.
Criticism can become a habit, one that Satan can use to deadly effect in churches.  Critics don’t like the music. They don’t like the preaching style of the minister. They don’t like newcomers coming into the congregation with fresh ideas. Like sparks in a brushfire, the grumbles of a disgruntled few can spread and destroy whole ministries. Those in leadership need our prayers and encouragement.
Similarly, on an individual level we must ensure that we don’t take the blessings of God for granted and grumble when we experience trials and setbacks. In the parable of the sower, Jesus explains how troubles and testing and worries can destroy the gospel message in the heart of the believer. Satan will snatch away your life, if it is not rooted in good soil.
 How do we cultivate such soil? By prayer and praise, study of God’s word, time spent with Him and through fellowship with other Christians in a caring church community. It’s hard to grumble when counting your blessings. The early apostles, themselves no strangers to trials and persecution remind us that times of testing deepen our faith and character. James goes so far as to advise “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:2).  Paul writes Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
There is a verse in the great account of love in 1 Corinthians 13 which always resonates with me. Verse 6 reads “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I always think of this verse when I hear people talking about the state of the world today with its manifold problems. Sometimes conversations can turn into “pity-parties” – “oh, isn’t it awful” when we consider crimes or immorality or personal afflictions. It’s the salt and light of Christ which heals and gives hope in dark times and we are called upon to share it, gently and respectfully.
It’s easy to look at the Exodus account and wonder why the people grumbled. After all, we know the end of the story. It may not be so easy to be relaxed about major problems that we face in this life, some of which may have no earthly solution or ending. However, we can take heart from God’s word.
“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (Deuteronomy 1:29-31)
“The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you and you have not lacked anything.” (Deuteronomy 2:7)

Images at Kata Tjuta, Central Australia

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