The book of Deuteronomy is an interesting book. It begins with Moses recounting the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and ends with someone else completing the story as we watch Moses pass away before our very eyes. In the meantime, Moses reminds the Israelites of all that God has done from the beginning of their journey through where they have come to this point, and then admonishes them to "be careful and do" all that he is reminding them of. Deuteronomy 1:5-8 we read:
Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying, "The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, 'You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland in the Negeb and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. See, I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring.'"
Moses points out the beginning of their journey. "You have stayed long enough at this mountain." We have a tendency to be boorish, don't we? To become comfortable, even in discomfort? We will take uncomfortable over unknown, almost any day of the week. The Israelites had not arrived at the land God had promised them, but they were comfortable in the land where they were. They were in the wilderness! It does not get much more uncomfortable than that, but you don't find much more familiarity than forty years somewhere, either. Friends, we have stayed long enough at the mountain. Move!
I think another important point here is that God told the Israelites to "Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers." There was no committee formed. There was no vote. There was no decision necessary. God had already provided the land, the Israelites just needed to accept the free gift before them. But they wanted to complicate the situation. Do you ever think, "This is too easy? I must not be doing it right." So they did what we do. They formed committees. They had votes. They sent out PR representatives to see if this would go okay. (see v. 21-25)God told them to take possession of what he had already delivered to them. It was free! Go possess it. But the unknown is scary. To be overly profound, it is unknown! So they searched out the unknown land, and they saw that the land was good, but they were still afraid! And Moses reminded them, "Yet, you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God." (v. 26) The Israelites started running.
I hate running. I detest it, actually. I would rather swim, walk, ride a bike...sit on the couch!! I HATE running. In fact, when I was forced to run track in high school, the coaches put me on the distance team. They did this because I was too slow to be a sprinter. When practice would start we always began from the south end of the track, the end furthest from the field house. Around the track we would go, and as I would near the completion of the first lap, coach would holler, "Pick it up West! You need to be on pace for 8 minutes. PICK IT UP!" And I would. I would run so hard in front of him, around the curve, down the straight away, on to the next curve, and then right out the gate that led back to the field house! You never saw anyone shower and change faster in your whole life. Then I would sprint to the car in the parking lot, jump in, and take off. I have always hated running, yet, for the last three years, I haven't stopped - running. Not physically, of course. Anyone could take one look at me an know I'm not a runner. Spiritually. I have been running from God. I have been bitter.
Almost three years ago I made a decision to leave the church where I was working to pursue missions. We were certain this was right. We felt a vitality that we had never known before when we would talk and dream of missions - of serving the Lord in meaningful ministry, not in planning games or "fun activities" that, in the end, no more lead to life than a kick in the face. Ministry, as I had come to know it, was not ministry. There was no deep devotion to God. No dependence upon prayer. It was all superficial. No depth. And this was what was expected of me. Not at one church, but at all I had served in. My frustration level grew stronger and stronger each day, angered by the peddling of the Gospel as though it were some cheap trick and Jesus some magic genie to make all your worries disappear. So we prayed. We talked. And then, one day, we left - feeling like Abram when God said, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land THAT I WILL SHOW YOU." (Genesis 12:1) Don't miss that last part. I - God - am sending you to the land that I will show you. He did not tell Abram where he was going, when he would get there, or the road he would take. He simply said go, and I will show you. We clung to this verse with unabashed hope! With JOY! We are going, and God will show us! How exciting?! But the land where we thought we were going turned out not to be. And the wandering began.
I told you we stepped out in faith, unsure of where or when we were going, but that we were going nonetheless. And then the silence came. No land. No road. No time frame. Just silence. I do not know that there is a more painful sound than the silence of God, and if you have ever heard it, you know exactly what I mean. It is excruciating. Six months of unemployment. Countless interviews with churches and mission organizations. Nothing. Dead end after dead end. "God, what happened?" I began to get angry. My heart hurt. "Maybe we should never have left Egypt," I thought. This must have been how the Israelites felt as Moses reminded them in Deuteronomy 1:27 "And you murmured in your tents and said, 'Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.'" Wandering in the wilderness is lonely, frustrating, and fearful, especially when the one who told you to go stops talking to you. So I started to run. For the last two and a half years I have run, believing that not only does God not want to use, but that he can't use me. I'm not smart enough, not charismatic enough, not connected enough. No one will want a seminary drop out, former youth minister turned school teacher. God doesn't want me. Church attendance has been sporadic, at best, and when I do go it is painful to remember what used to be. Preaching. Spending the week perusing and studying scripture. Searching out the beauty of Christ. Loving people. Helping students, and parents, grow spiritually. But so returns the pain, too, of watching more churches game and gimmick people in to the pews, spreading their nets wide, but not DEEP. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. God is using churches all over the place, many doing great things to introduce people to the love of Christ. But that's it. That's where it stops. There is so much more to the beauty of Christ than just entering in to a relationship with him. It would be like asking a woman to marry you, then never looking beyond the proposal again. So the running continued.
In March, Jennifer and I found out we were having our first baby. There are no words to describe the joy and excitement we felt. Then, a few weeks later we had our first sonogram. For the first time, when he was six weeks and one day in to being formed, we saw our son's heartbeat. A tiny, white flash on a screen of black and dark grey. There he was. Our baby. And this, God used to begin melting my heart of stone, turning me ever so slowly back to him. My thought, I can't raise this baby on the run. I am accountable to God for how I raise him. I am accountable for how I lead my family spiritually. So the running began to slow.
The Israelites were frustrated with the process. They were angry with God. Look at Deuteronomy 1:27-28:
And you murmured in your tents and said, "Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, 'The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the size of the Anakim there.'"
They were angry and afraid. But be it known, the Israelites had abandoned God. God did not abandon the Israelites. They ran from him because they were afraid of the unknown. They were brought from Egypt and told to go to a land that God would show them. Then quiet. Be quiet. Just listen to the silence - the silence that is so quiet it literally hurts your ears. We were leaving a baseball game one night. Thousands of people were leaving the stadium, and in the noise I heard a high pitched squeal, "MOM! MOM! MOM!" I looked to see a mentally challenged adult who had been separated from her party. "MOM! MOM! MOM!" The cries continued. No response. That is how the Israelites must have felt. That is how I felt. "ABBA! ABBA! ABBA!" No response. "DADDY WHERE ARE YOU?!?!" Nothing. Having been lost more than a few times in my life, I can say that most often we get lost because we did not follow the directions given to us. The Israelites were wandering around the wilderness lost because they failed to follow the directions of the direction giver.
Moses, trying to cheer them up said, "Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 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." (1:29-31) Can you imagine the thoughts running through the Israelites as he's saying this? "Hmm. Right, Moses. He carried us. That's why my feet hurt. That's why my body is exhausted. I'm hungry. I haven't had a pillow in years. 40 years Moses! 40 YEARS! And not one day have my feet left the ground. Out of Egypt. We would have been better off staying. We had MEAT, Moses. We didn't live in fear. It was better there." When you're running you can't think rationally. God had sent plagues, parted a sea, provided cover in the day and fire by night, yet the Israelites disbelieved God. He had forgotten them, surely, they thought. He must have. Why else would they have wandered 40 years? God had not forgotten Israel. Israel had forgotten God. Moses reminded them of the great things God had done for them, how he had provided for and even carried them. Verse 32, "Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go." God never stopped leading Israel, they simply stopped recognizing who it was they were following. They had become blind to the things of God, much as we do in our own wilderness.
Can I offer you encouragement? It is the same encouragement I have found. God is not done. He has not stopped leading you. He has not called you to a place he will show you just so you can lay destitute forever in the wilderness. If you have gone blind, if you have stopped recognizing the things of God then remember. Just as Moses reminded the Israelites of all God had done for them, so I remind you. He brought you out of your Egypt - your pit of sin and despair. He carried you through your wilderness, like a father carries his son, just as he did with Israel. Remember. Remember what God has done. I hate running. I have spent the better part of almost three years doing it. I am tired. Stop running with me. Remember what the LORD has done, and return to him today. For the past few months I have thought about these things - about life and ministry, family, priorities, and following God. The climb seems mightily uphill. I have doubts and fears. I worry - after all, how can I ever get back? More importantly, how can I get where I'm going when I don't know where I'm headed? What I do know is that my heart feels full again, and for this I am grateful. I know that the LORD our God goes before me and will himself fight for me, just as he did in Egypt, and he will carry me, as he did Israel in the wilderness, as a man carries his son. Believe it!