Sunday Sermon - 21st February 2021

Sermon, “Success in the Wilderness”, for Sunday February 21st 2021 – Lent 1.


(Please read Psalm 63; Genesis 9: 8-17; & Luke 4: 1-13)


Israel saw the great power that the LORD the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD, and in his servant Moses.” (Exodus 14: 31)

The people of God, saved from the hands of their enemy, lifted their voices in a hymn of thanksgiving and victory to their incomparable LORD (Exodus 15). They sang and danced at their deliverance.Three days later, we find the (very) same people are complaining in the desert (Exodus 15:27).  Last week we saw how one generation failed to appropriate the promises of the LORD and enter the land and his rest. That was just the beginning of a catalogue of failure(s) to trust the Lord. Their faith in God was tested and found wanting, even though (over and again) He provided for their every need…

It has been a hard year…a year of tragedy, hurt, injustice, loneliness and insecurity…a year of wilderness. But none of these realities means that we cannot learn from it and emerge stronger for it. I often hear people say, “I want to forget all about 2020!” They would like to consign it to the bin of ancient history.  I understand the sentiment. But that would be a big mistake…the mistake of the “Kadesh Generation”, no less. If we don’t learn from our wilderness experiences, we will likely die from them…A year when we found out…a year when we were…found out!


This week, I want us to look at the desert – or the wilderness – in a different way by sharing stories of success in the wilderness. There are many. The best examples are David and the Son-of-David, Jesus Himself. You could add Saul of Tarsus to that list; his dramatic experience of conversion was immediately followed, not by a preaching tour in Jerusalem, but by 3 years of Arabian solitude before the LORD deemed Paul ready for his mission.When did Jesus begin His work on earth? Luke tells us Jesus came out of obscurity at 30 years of age and went through the waters of baptism (Luke 3: 21-22).  For Jesus, this was a time of anointing and affirmation and power… a real spiritual ‘high’ no doubt. But not even Jesus is allowed to stay there.

Full of the Holy Spirit, He (Jesus) is led by the Holy Spirit (Lk 4:1). Where? Into the desert…into the wilderness, just as the LORD sent the people of God into a “vast and dreadful” place, to test them, to find out what was in their hearts, to discover what they were made of, and to find out what God could make of them (Deut 8:2-4)…

Like the people, like Jesus even, we need to discover all this for ourselves. And the best way, the best place, for these things is the wilderness. No one who comes to know God, or who has a genuine work to do, will avoid (altogether) the wilderness in their lives. The wilderness experience comes in many ways: in sickness, in broken relationships, in financial hardship, in bereavement, in facing our mortality. Sometimes He willlead us there; other times, He permits us time spent there.Why should we go there? Because that’s the place the work really begins…


There are lots of “fair-weather”, dry land followers. I speak of Christians who are fine when things are going well, when life is full and happy and comfortable. When the familiar sources of comfort are removed, these people frequently fall apart. They depart.How often we fail the test!

But Jesus passed. He faced 3 tests: 1. a test of his humanity (Lk 4: 1-4); 2. a test of his loyalty (vv. 5-8); and 3. a test of his identity (vv. 9-13). Jesus had to pass these tests. He did. They’re the same tests (generally) that we all face on our journey of faith. At his baptism, Jesus learned that He belonged, He was loved and that He was special. All of this learning was strengthened by time in the wilderness, not weakened.A faith that cannot be tested cannot be trusted


Theological college, as I recall it, was very hard…and deliberately so. It was a bit like the process of product-testing; for 3 years we were put under all kinds of stresses to see what we were made of. Ministers weren’t so much trained as formed. Genuine steel is tempered only in the fire.

Genuine believers listen to God’s word in the wilderness…not all the other distracting, deceiving voices; they can worship God anytime, anyplace, anywhere…even…especially in the wilderness; genuine believers (Jesus is the prototype for us) know that it’s not where they are that matter…it’s whose they are. How often it is (and no accident) that God’s people discover God in the midst of their wilderness, in their adversity…when they have to face themselves and face down their demons and, by doing so, they come out all the stronger and wiser for the time of wilderness….The wilderness makes us who we need to become!

Psalm 63 speaks to a time when David himself went out into the wilderness of Judah. David knew that God was not confined to a physical sanctuary or found within the walls of a temple.1. David searches for and finds God there.The unbeliever says, “No God!” David says, “God – you’re my God…and even in this dry place, my thirst is for you!”  (Ps. 63:1) Now, here I am, in the place of worship!

For David, a king used to a throne and all the finest things life can offer, even the wilderness is a place where he can sing. How different he is from the Exodus generation who can only sing in the tents of victory and prosperity.


2. Davidis still satisfied with his God. “I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (Ps. 63:5) David will sing anyway…in feast or in famine. “I will bless you as long as I live…” (Ps 63: 4)

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.I cling to you;your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63: 6-8)


3. David knows he is part of the story of God.God has been David’s help. (My help) This is his story; this is his song, praising his saviour all the night-long. This is David’s blessed assurance! During the long, dark night of the soul, the man must meditate on the LORD. He must recall (remember) all the help that he has been given in the past. This is not the same as “living in the past”.  Rather, it is a drawing on the past, on that deep, deep well of God’s kindness in and through any number of experiences of desert or wilderness…a tracing of the rainbow through the rain.  God meant this wilderness for good. God isn’t out to kill us, as the unbelievers in the wilderness thought. No, He’s out to make us what we need to become…to be better people, better followers, better servants…


O Joy, that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.’ (O love that wilt not let me go; a hymn written in 5 minutes by George Matheson during a time of great distress).


The rainbow became a sign of the covenant promise to Noah and all his descendents…that God would remember…that God has not forgotten his people, even if the enemy tells us that He has.

David’s wilderness will end. And so, ultimately, will ours.


4. David is assured of safety in God.Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. 8 I cling to you; your right hand upholds me…There is no safer place!

It is strange that David should experience safety in this place of wilderness. He has vacated his city and his throne; he is a fugitive from his enemies who include his own son who has taken his father’s throne; David has been threatened and cursed by friends, but he is still a king in this place. David is secure enough in the justice and judgment of God not to feel bitter, not to plot revenge against his detractors. He will forgive them in time. But in the meantime David’s focus will be upon God and the sanctuary that only the man in the wilderness can really know.

Your situation, you see, doesn’t define you – your illness, your hardship, your good fortune. But your relationship with God does. How you believe is how you behave.This is what makes David’s time in the wilderness a great success. When you have nothing left but God. That’s the wilderness…


Our relationship with Jesus…or loyalty to him…our identity in Him, is what matters most. Jesus could not have taken our sins away on the cross had he not been in (and through) the wilderness…had he not passed that test for us. Respect is earned on the hardest of ground.


Though Jesus was (is) God he was no Superman. He gave all that up. He would not rely on His own strength but that of the Spirit, just as we have to on a daily basis.  A faith that is tested can be trusted. He did something for us which none of us could have done for ourselves. He saved us! That’s why we trust him…or want to trust him more. He was tempted but was without sin.

At the end of the day, His victory will be granted to us. Any success we have, in good report or in ill, will be down to Him. If we make it to the Promised Land, that will be his doing.


We often hear parents saying, “I hope my children don’t have to go through some of the hardships I have had to.” I am not convinced that is right, though I do understand the protective instinct. No…as Christians…our times in the wilderness have helped to make us…they have made us recognize, sometimes, that trials are a gift and that the greatest lessons (the most painful) were those that taught us that adversity was a friend. But most of all, that we have a friend in that adversity…and what a friend!


But, if we hadn’t have gone into these wildernesses, we would never have known what was there, what was in us, and what the Lord could make of us. We would not have known that he was there. Faith does not make life easier, but a faith tested will always increase our sense of God’s provision; it will prepare for what is coming next; a faith tested will help us walk that bit closer to God wherever we are.


Anne Robertson (2002) is right: “I might have to go back to the desert again sometime...who knows? I'm not looking forward to that, but I am no longer afraid of it either, because I know now that God goes with me. It's funny, but with God even a cross turns into a good thing.

"Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me...and I will give you rest."



O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.


O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.


O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.


O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

(By George Matheson. 1842-1912)

MFR sermon written on16/02/21







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