The Wilderness: Part I

by Pastor H. Leon Ben-Ezra

Sermon originally preached September 14, 2003

Passage: Revelation 12.13-14

We have seen in different places of the book of Revelation how John draws from the imagery of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. There are the plagues of the seven trumpets, Moses as one of the two witnesses and, in our text, the imagery of the eagle’s wings comes from God’s description of the Exodus. [See Exodus 19.4] And there are other examples. The focus of today’s sermon will be another of these images from that time in Israel’s history. Today, we look at the theme of the wilderness. There is much for us to learn here. So, first we’ll take a look at this image and how it is used in the Old Testament. Then we’ll see what it has to say to us.

When you think of a wilderness more than likely the image of some desolate place comes to mind. And that would fit with what the Old Testament is pointing to. When Israel left Egypt, it entered into the desert, the wilderness. It was a desolate place. David makes use of this image in describing his own soul and his picture is telling.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1

It is worth noting the title of the Psalm: ‘A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.’ How apt. The wilderness as a dry and weary land. But it is important that you see that the wilderness is not just a place of such bleakness. There are other ways in which the Scriptures use this image.

The wilderness is also a place of refuge. Here, consider Moses. When he killed an Egyptian the king was after him. Moses fled. Where did he go? He went to the wilderness and became a shepherd there. The wilderness became for him a place of safety from those who would kill him. Then there was David. I’m sure you remember how he was chased by the jealous King Saul. Where did he go? Again we read how he hid in the wilderness. And even for Jesus, the wilderness became a place of refuge. There were times when He had to withdraw from the people. Where did He go? Into the wilderness. The wilderness was a place of refuge, a place of safety.

The wilderness was also a place of deprivation. As you think about Israel’s experience in the desert I’m sure that you remember the problems that they faced. At the beginning of Exodus 15 Israel celebrates God’s great victory over the armies of Egypt at the Red Sea. But what is the end of the chapter about? There is no water. And the people grumble. ‘What are we going to drink?’ When we get to chapter 16 it is no better; more grumbling. This time it’s about food.

… and the people of Israel said to [Moses and Aaron], "Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Exodus 16:3

Israel found that the wilderness was a desolate place. God called Israel into that wilderness and there He deprived them even of the necessities of life. Why? By God’s design the wilderness became for Israel a place of testing. God used the wilderness to test Israel’s faith. How often they were put to the test and, sadly, how often they failed. There was the seemingly constant complaining about the lack of water. There was the incident of ten of the twelve spies who brought back that discouraging report. And then, when God did provide the people with manna, the bread of heaven, what did they do? They complained about that too. The New Testament has some commentary on that time.

For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Hebrews 3:16-19

What a sad time. Israel was put to the test in the wilderness and so many times they failed the test.

But it wasn’t only failure in the wilderness. Yes, God put His people to the test. And yes, there were many failures, but there were also many successes. It was a time of purification. Listen to how Moses looked back on those forty years.

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. Deuteronomy 8:1-5

And so, we see that the wilderness is also a place to learn God’s ways, to learn how to follow Him and to trust Him in the midst of hardship. As a result, the Israel that left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land was very different from the Israel that started out in that wilderness forty years earlier. God had taught them much in the wilderness, much about who He was, about His ways, about trusting Him.

This leads us to that thought that the wilderness was a place to meet God. Think again about Moses. Where did he first meet God? At the burning bush in the wilderness. Moses meets God and worships Him there. When Moses first confronts Pharaoh, what is his demand? Israel must meet with their God to worship Him. Where? In the wilderness. [Exodus 5.3] Let’s shift into the New Testament. Consider the ministry of John the Baptist. It was a ministry of calling the people back to their God, to renew a right relation with Him. And where did that ministry occur? He was a voice crying in the wilderness. John called Israel to again meet with their God in the wilderness. And when Jesus spent forty days in fasting and prayer to His Father to consecrate His ministry, where was He? In the wilderness. In different ways, the people of God were called to meet with their God in the wilderness. Yes, the wilderness was a place of deprivation and that made it into a place of testing. But what was the result to those who responded in faith? A growing knowledge of God. The wilderness was a place where Israel met God and came to know Him.

And that leads to the last characteristic of the wilderness. It is a necessary part of the journey to the Promised Land. Israel was unable to go straight from Egypt to Canaan. How could they? There weren’t ready for it. They had learned much evil while in Egypt. That’s why they looked longingly back to Egypt when life in the wilderness got difficult.

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." Numbers 11:4-6

How foolish! They had forgotten what Egypt was really like. They had forgotten that Egypt was the land of oppression and slavery. It was a land that appeared to have good things but didn’t because it was the land where God was not. Israel had forgotten the lessons that their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had learned. Time in the wilderness was necessary. And it was necessary because the wilderness was where Egypt was not. In the wilderness Israel was weaned from its longings for the allurements of Egypt. In the wilderness Israel was taught to love God.

Now, John’s vision takes all of this and sticks it in a verse.

But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Revelation 12:14

The woman is the Church, us. And John is telling us that we are now in the wilderness. And what does that mean? We are in the place of refuge and of safety. There is a dragon who hates us and wants nothing better than to destroy us. But in the wilderness our God will keep us safe. But look around in our wilderness. What do we see? We may well see the things that we do not have. We may well see that the wilderness is a place of deprivation. God brings us into situations where our lack is obvious. Sometimes it’s a matter of something material but other things are more important: children conceived but never born, children born and raised but who choose foolishly and suffer for the rest of their lives, the expectation of marriage that is never fulfilled, marriages begun but ended earlier than expected, close relationships destroyed by sin, parents lost to the grave, good and proper hopes that are dashed. Here are things that feel as necessary as food and water. And yet, we find ourselves deprived of them. And what shall we do in this place of deprivation? Shall we give in to complaining and murmuring against God whether with outward words or just inward attitudes? Or shall we meet with God in worship, pour out our hearts to Him, with all its pains and sorrows, and ask Him to teach us how to trust Him? The wilderness can be a great place of learning, learning how to depend on God, learning that needs will be met at just the right time, learning that as important as our personal desires may seem none of them are as important as honoring our God with our lives, even if that includes great cost. The wilderness is a great place to learn from God and be changed.

But here is where there is a problem. It is so easy to be drawn away by the allurements of Egypt. The world around us is so enticing. It is a place of prosperity, of pleasure, or mirth. It’s all too easy to say, ‘Oh for the good life of Egypt. Oh for the pleasures that my neighbors enjoy. I want them too. They are so much better than this manna.’ But remember that Egypt is the place of oppression and slavery and death. It is a place that is filled with distractions. It is a place where God is not. So, John warns us elsewhere,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15-17

Remember that being in the wilderness, being deprived of even good and seemingly necessary things, dealing with the trials and learning the hard lessons is a necessary part of the trip to the Promised Land. No one enters heaven without going through the wilderness. We must leave Egypt behind. But when you do enter the Promised Land then you will see that the time and effort spent in the wilderness will have been worth it.

Let us remember Jesus. He was also tempted with the lures of this world. But He faithfully pursued the journey through the wilderness with all its tests and deprivations and now finds Himself enthroned on high. Let us look to Him, our gracious Savior, to give us all that we need to persevere through the wilderness so that we might enjoy the Promised Land with Him forever.

  Part II >>   The Wilderness

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