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Finding A Stream In The Desert

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 4, 2009

Selected highlights from this sermon

Sometimes life throws us a curveball. A job is lost or a relationship has gone bad. During these dry times, when nothing seems to go right, is there hope for us? 


In God, we can bear fruit in the desert, as long as we seek Him out and plant our roots into His support and nourishment. When we continue to rely upon God in the middle of life’s difficulties, it can be an incredible testimony to the world around us.  

I’m convinced that at some point in our lives all of us experience a desert. You are either in a desert now or you are on your way to one, and what I intend to share with you today from the Word should be transforming in terms of whatever it is that we happen to be going through at the moment.

When I speak of the desert I am talking about a situation such as some of you are in who have perhaps have lost your job recently. I was talking to one man who lost his job and he said, “It’s not just a matter of money. It’s also a matter of my self-worth. To think of my company that I worked for, for so many years and that they just don’t need me anymore - that hurts,” he said. That is a desert that he’s going through.

It may well be a medical need. Maybe the doctor told you something that you thought could only be true of somebody else, and now you have a long desert that you are going through. And where do we even end when we begin to talk about human relationships? Some of you are in marriages that have not worked out very well. Some of you may be living together as a married couple but there’s no real connection. There’s no oneness. There’s no unity, and perhaps there’s not a whole lot of hope for the future. That’s the way the desert is. Unending sand and gravel, monotony and no reason to believe that tomorrow will be better.

Well, in Jeremiah 17, Jeremiah has hope for people who are in the desert. As a matter of fact, today we’re going to learn how we can thrive in a desert. Maybe you think that that’s not possible, but as we open God’s Word to Jeremiah 17, we might find out that it’s not as impossible as it seems because God is with us in the desert. When you read Jeremiah 17 you think for sure that you are reading Psalm 1 because there are real parallels between it and Psalm 1.

Open to the text and let’s look at it together. It’s a contrast between a shrub in a desert and a tree. Both of them have the same environment but a very, very different outcome. Let’s read the text beginning at verse 5 of Jeremiah 17. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.’”

You know, next to the Dead Sea in Israel you have a lot of salt and nothing grows there except occasionally you see a shrub. In contrast, verse 7 says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, (notice) for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

We’ll read just that far for the moment. Wow! What a contrast. It’s the contrast between a shrub, which represents a life that is empty, a life that really exists but there is nothing there. There is no sense of wellbeing, no sense of meaning, no real sense of permanent accomplishment, whereas the tree represents a life that is really fruitful. And God wants us as believers to be fruit bearing. As a matter of fact, Jesus said that if you aren’t bearing fruit, you are like those branches that are cut off and thrown into the fire. There is really no value to you as far as Jesus is concerned if you are not fruit bearing. And what God wants us to do is to bear fruit while we are going through our desert experience, and not be anxious in a year of drought.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what is fruit?” Fruit actually is the expression of the inner nature, and God wants us to bear fruit, which is the expression of the inner nature of God.

You know, when I was growing up in Canada, it was kind of cold up there. It still is, by the way, especially in winter. And we were up there for my dad’s funeral and it was 27 below. Now that’s centigrade, but if you figure it out, it still is about 15 or 20 below Fahrenheit, and then it was a windy day. It was cold up there. So I grew up not seeing orange trees, I can assure you. I saw pictures in books of orange trees. I never thought I’d see an orange tree, but one day I was in Florida, and we were driving along and suddenly there are oranges growing on trees. The textbooks were right. Oranges grow on trees.

I made a very profound observation. It took a lot of study. I said, “These are orange trees,” because, you see, that was the expression of their inner nature. Now if they had been apple trees, they would have been bearing apples, but they were orange trees, and bearing fruit means that we express the inner nature of God of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, faith, meekness and temperance, and according to the Scripture we can have that in a year of drought when the heat is the hottest and there is no rain in the forecast.

So what you notice is that not only are we able to bear fruit, but I’m looking now at verse 8. It says, “It is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” – even when times are bad. You say, “Well, that’s impossible.” Well, you listen to this message because in a few moments I think we are going to see that it is possible. It’s possible to bear fruit in a time of drought, and it says in Psalm 1, “He brings forth his fruit in his season.” That doesn’t mean that there are times when I have the fruit of the Spirit, but there are other times when there is just no season for it. When the person cuts me off in traffic, that’s not a time for bearing the fruit of the Spirit. That’s the wrong season to bear fruit. That’s not what it means. It means that there are times when there’s the season for figs, and there’s the season for oranges, and there’s the season for bananas. You are always are bearing some fruit. It’s God’s intention that we always bear some fruit, but sometimes we bear one fruit in the Spirit, and we need it more than we do the other, but we bear our fruit in His season.

Now if we want to thrive in the desert, be very clear first of all that we have to be a tree and not a shrub. If you are just a shrub – empty, aimless, without purpose, disconnected from God – you can never bear fruit. We have to distinguish fruit from works. You can do good things. What you can’t have, though, is the expression of the inner nature of God. That can only happen if you are a tree.

So the first way in which we can survive in the desert is number one, we have to be planted. We have to be a tree and not a shrub. You say, “Well, I just feel like a shrub today. Maybe I am a shrub. How do I become a tree?” Well, at the end of this message I’m going to make it very, very clear as to how you can connect with God and become a tree, so hang on.

Secondly, it is not only necessary that we must be a tree and not a shrub, but if we want to survive in the desert, we must be planted in the right place. Now your Bible is open and your finger is pointing toward verse 8. “He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream.” The imagery here is a flowing stream where the water is fresh as opposed to a stagnant pool. And so he’s planted here beside the living water? And how is a person planted? Well, there it is in the text in verse 7: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.” That’s the way we are planted close to a stream.

It really means faith – complete, total faith in God, and a willingness to say, “I trust God in the midst of the drought, in the midst of the heat, and I will not be shaken just because there does not seem to be the anticipation of any rain or moisture, because I’ve got a secret stream, and I’m planted next to the stream, and I can make it.”

Now, you and I naturally resist faith in God by nature. What we do is we are confident in ourselves and we will do it and we will do it our way, and God is there to help us, but He’s not there to take over – nothing that drastic. And then we wonder where He is in an era of drought.

I love to tell the story, because it’s a true one, of a young medical student who came to see me because he was very frazzled. Clearly he was in difficulty. He hadn’t slept well because he had a lot of pressure on him to do well in medical school, and to enter medical school. He hadn’t entered yet, but he didn’t think that his grades were high enough to get into medical school. And there was pressure on him from his parents, pressure from the family and from the inside – his own internal biological structure. His DNA was committed to being a doctor, and so he was seeing me because he was in distress. And he said, “I don’t think that my grades are high enough, and I’m facing some final exams, and I can’t sleep. I’m worn to a frazzle.”

So I smiled at him. Always smile before you give somebody a pill or before they take the castor oil. I said, “You know, we can take care of that right here.” “Really?” “Yeah. All that you need to do is to give it totally and completely to God. Get this weight off your shoulders that you were not intended to bear anyway. And you so submit it to God that you say, ‘God, whether I pass or whether I fail is up to you. I’m going to do the best that I can, but I am just going to free myself from this unbelievable pressure of thinking that I need to get into medical school.’ I said, ‘Let’s just give it over to God so that you can walk out of here relaxed.’”

He said, “I can’t do that.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Maybe God doesn’t want me to pass medical school. How do I know that God is going to get me through?” I said, “Come on. You’re doing it on your own now and you’re not doing a very good job anyway, are you? You’re probably going to flunk anyway. I mean, if you’re going to flunk, do it victoriously for heaven’s sake.” You and I resist it, and in resisting God we impugn His goodness because we say, “He isn’t going to be there for me in this time of need, and I’m not sure He’s going to do it my way,” so we resist trust in God.

Now this young man was a tree. By that I mean I believe that he was a Christian. But you know, you can be a Christian and you can still be planted in the wrong place and not be beside the stream of water. And when that happens, even though you are a tree, you begin to look like a shrub, all dried up, with no real hope, just making it by shear grit and determination, asking God to help you to be sure. Everybody wants God’s help to do what they want to do, but with an unwillingness to finally give up the fight and give it to God totally.

And so what we have here is the fact that those who trust in the Lord (notice what it says) “do not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green.” But contrast this to the man who trusts in himself, the person who says, “I’m going to do it my way,” to quote the words of a famous song. You’ll notice it says in verse 6, “He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.”

Even when good comes, is he satisfied? No, he’ll still complain, and what he doesn’t understand is that there is goodness coming to him right now in the midst of drought, but he can’t see it. All that he sees is the pain and the heat and the anxiety regarding the next house payment that has to be made, and that’s all that he can see. He cannot see God. He’s a shrub in the desert.

Well, first of all, you have to be a tree if you want to survive in the desert. Secondly, you have to be planted at the right place, and third, you have to be growing to the right depth. Here again I’m looking at verse 8. “He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream.”

You know, I am told that when you see a tree, and there are some huge ones that are in existence, there is as much beneath the ground as there is above the ground. In other words, that trunk and that root system goes down as deep as the tree is high, and then it extends these roots just everywhere. I think we’d be surprised if we could have a way to see into the ground, if we had an x-ray that would show us the tons and tons of strength that a tree is willing to have, and has in order to sustain itself. And think of the redwoods in California. When I was there I noticed that if one were growing crooked, buttresses would begin to grow up on the side to straighten it out. But the Bible says that when there is a drought we should be like a tree, which begins to seek water and its roots will go off to find water. And that’s why it is true to say that when a tree grows in an atmosphere where there is plenty of moisture, its roots are not nearly as deep and as strong as trees that grow in a desert. And its roots find a stream.

You see, that’s what God does in our deserts. That’s what God does when things don’t turn out when we anticipate the future. And the future that we anticipate is very different than the future that happens. That’s what God is doing. He is calling from heaven and saying, “Don’t you get it? I want you to develop strong roots that go down to a hidden stream so that you can endure it and so that you don’t have to be anxious, even in a year of drought.” You know what happens with trees? There is photosynthesis where the energy of sunlight provides nutrients. All of that happens under the good hand of God as trees grow, and as they have leaves and fruit.

Now let’s talk practically. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, how do you get this trust in God? How do you take those roots and develop them in a year of drought, in a year when you don’t know the future, in a year of uncertainty, in a year in which you have even lost your job? How do you develop that?” Well, it’s not easy, but I need to give you some very important steps here.

First of all, this trust in God can only come about by the Word of God itself. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. And it says in Psalm 1 that the person who meditates in the Law of God day and night shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season. That’s the parallel to Jeremiah 17.

You know what I discover in my own life? It’s that when I am nourished by the Word on Wednesday, I’m dry on Thursday, and I have to get back into the Word because the nourishment that I received on Wednesday doesn’t carry over to Thursday. Thursday’s doesn’t carry over to Friday, and on and on it goes. And therefore if you are simply coming to church and you are not meditating in God’s Word (you’re not reading the Psalms), I can tell you that when the heat comes, and when the pressure is on, you aren’t going to have the resources, you aren’t going to be able to have the kind of faith that you and I need when we are going through a drought. We will be anxious in a time of drought, and in time we begin to dry up as Christians, and we are more like a shrub than we are [like] a tree.

Now there’s something else. It is not just the Word of God. It is the people of God, and this needs to be stressed. You see, here at The Moody Church we have so many different opportunities for you to connect. Years ago we wrote a promise statement that we frequently use. “Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God and with others.” You can’t just connect with God if you are not connected with others. And let me explain why by going back to the redwoods of California.

When I was there many years ago I was told that the roots in a redwood tree are not nearly as deep as you might think. Now those roots spread out so there’s lots of root system under the tree, but they don’t go down as deeply. And then this is what the redwoods do. They connect with one another. If you could see beneath the soil you would find that, like a spider’s web, all of the trees are interconnected, so that if there’s one tree over there beside a stream, all of the other trees benefit because they take advantage of the one tree that has some water, and their root systems are connected.

My friend, if you are going through a trial, you can’t bear it alone, and God never intended you to. Your root system needs to be connected. That’s why we have TMC communities. If you only come to Moody Church to worship on Sunday morning and you are not connected, it may well be that you can endure for a while, but the time is going to come when you say, “The night is so dark and the pain is so deep and the future is so hopeless that I can’t endure it alone. I need God’s people to come alongside of me to help me, to encourage me, to pray with me, to hold me accountable. I need all that if I’m going to survive the desert.” There are times when you can’t even believe on your own. Others have to believe for you, and you use their strength to be connected to the stream. You see that’s why we have church.

I remember reading years ago that someday everybody is going to go to church on computer. Give me a break. Is this what it has come to? You can’t connect with people on a computer. You can’t share prayer requests on a computer. Oh, maybe you can in some way, but you can’t connect your spirits. You can’t interlock your root system with a computer. That’s why all of you who are here today need to connect. You need to, yes, become a member most assuredly, but you need to be in a small group – a TMC community, all the way along the line, because we can’t survive the desert and the heat alone.

What are we learning? We are learning first of all that we need to be a tree and not a shrub. We need to be planted in the right place. We need to be planted to the right depth. And now why should our lives be the way they are, and what is God trying to do? Two quick lessons! First, drought shows the contrast between a tree and a shrub. That’s very important. This is why God sends drought. This is why He sends economic collapses. He has a purpose.

In 1968 I studied in Israel the entire summer. For three months we lived in Jerusalem and we crisscrossed the land, and it was after the 1967 war, and we had total freedom, freedom that people don’t have today. You know 1968 is a long time ago. That makes me a little scared to have to say that I was even living in 1968, but I was studying in Israel. And one of the things we did was we took a 4-day trip to Mount Sinai, an incredible experience. We got up at 3 o’clock in the morning and climbed to the top of Mount Sinai. We got up at 3 because it was cooler then, but on the way we spent those days in the desert with a bus, by the way, that constantly was overheating, and you know it would blow its top and all the water would go out. Fortunately there were some tanks of water they brought with them. Oh it was thirsty! Oh it was hot! And sometimes in the distance we’d see trees. We knew that, even though we couldn’t see the stream, there had to be some hidden water. And we’d go and we’d discover that there was an oasis, even if we couldn’t see the water, and we knew you don’t grow a tree like that in the desert unless there is water hidden somewhere.

Now what does God do during a time of economic uncertainty? What He does is He puts people, who work in businesses and factories and hospitals and offices, next to each other. And what He wants to do is to show that there is a difference between the Christian and the non-Christian because the Christian, as a tree, has resources in the year of drought. And that’s why Colson says that whenever God sends cancer to a person who isn’t a believer, he also sends cancer to a Christian so that the world can see the difference. And when a Christian is laid off and a non-Christian is laid off, they react differently. Why? It’s because they have resources when the heat comes. And so God wants to use our challenges to know that we react differently. And then people begin to ask, “Well, why is it that you are able to endure?” And we become witnesses to the hidden stream because we are a tree in what should be unending gravel and desert.

Second, drought reveals our real inner life, doesn’t it? This gets to us very, very personally. The question is whether or not we really do know God, and how we handle adversity. That’s always the question in the Bible. From Genesis basically to Revelation all the instruction regarding Christians is how we handle adversity. Do we see God in adversity or do we turn to ourselves and become obsessed with what is going on around us?

If I were to sit down and have a cup of tea with each of you individually in my study and look you in the eye and ask you this question, “What is your greatest problem?” it would be interesting to hear what you’d have to say. It would be interesting to hear what I’d have to say.

You may say, “Well, you know it’s a relationship that’s gone sour. It is a health issue. It is a money issue.” I mean you name it. If we have thousands of people here today, thousands of different answers will be given. Do you know what the truth is though? The real problem that we have does not exist outside of us. The real problem that we have exists within us. It’s whether or not we have come to know God in such a way that we can cope because we have found the hidden stream when the year of drought comes. That’s really the issue.

Now, you know, you look at this text and you say, “Well, you know it makes no sense for a person to be a shrub. Why doesn’t everybody just trust in the Lord and be like a tree, planted by water that sends out its roots? Why doesn’t everybody do it?” Oh, do you have any idea of your own heart? Do you realize how we live lives of self- deception and we live in fog because we want thoughts about ourselves that come spontaneously? We will not accept the thoughts of God’s word about us, and that’s why we want to do our own thing, no matter how hot it is out there. Look at what it says in verse 9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?” I sure can’t.

Well, in verse 10 God searches the heart and tests the mind. You and I will go on with our own strength, trusting ourselves as long as we can, and it works for a while, but when the real heat comes, and the real drought begins to take over, self-confidence and self-trust will turn out to be a delusion, because only those who trust in the Lord have the hidden resources to survive in the desert.

Do you trust God? Do I trust God? Do I understand that my biggest problem is within me, and not my circumstances? Do you understand that? Most of us don’t.

There was a man by the name of George Mueller. He lived in England in the 1800s and he had about eight or nine orphanages that he ran without asking for any funds. Now many people think that that is the way you should do things. You should never ask for money. I disagree with that because the Bible disagrees with it. Paul asked for money. Jesus commented on money. He was constantly talking about it. People today in churches get jittery when you talk about it, but if it’s talked about the way Jesus talked about it, we should talk about it.

But anyway, God led Mueller to do this, and he knew that this was a special leading that he had. And he said that the reason he did it was because there were three categories of people that didn’t trust God. The first was the old people who didn’t think that God would be there for them. Remember they had no retirement and no social security. We’re talking about the 1800s. And they thought that God wouldn’t be there for them in their closing days. They had lived such miserable lives and he needed to prove to them that God is trustworthy.

The second category was business people because he said that business men were beginning to think that they had to cheat in order to keep up with the competition. They could not run an honest business and compete, therefore they had to cut corners and cheat to be competitive. And he needed to prove to them that if you do what is right, you can actually trust God, even in a year of drought.

The third category was those who had physical disabilities, who didn’t think that God would be there for them. What Mueller was basically saying was, “Look, drought hits everyone – saved, unsaved, religious, non-religious.” The question is can you and I survive a year of drought because our faith is strong enough when the rain stops and the paycheck ends? That’s the question. The text says we have inner resources.

Now the bottom line is this. To start this journey what you and I need to do is to understand that first we have to be a tree and not a shrub. So let me speak to those of you who are shrubs out there. Empty, bouncing around and looking for an answer and nothing works! You are trying to be a tree but it ain’t working! How do you become a tree so that you can be planted by the water, and so that you can learn to develop roots that go to a stream?

You know, there’s a story I’ve told you before that happened in Canada where all the neighbors got together and they accepted a proposal to have trees planted along what I would call a boulevard in the middle of their street. And they wanted evergreens planted there, and of course, everybody had to be in agreement so that the whole street would have evergreens. And they pooled their money and the trees were planted. And these little evergreens refused to grow. They watered them and watered them and they just dried up. Finally somebody just pulled one out of the ground and then he realized something. These were not evergreen trees. They were only branches. What the guys had done was they had just put in a bunch of branches. No root system!

Jesus said that every plant that My Heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. All the shrubs are coming out some day – pulled out. You have to be planted by God. I have to ask to you very personally, and I’m talking here even to church members here at Moody Church. Are you planted by God? It’s possible, you know, to be a shrub and to be a member of Moody Church if you give the right answers to all the questions. The Bible says that if we finally confess our helplessness and our sin, and confess that we have leaned on our own righteousness (and that means confession too), that then we can believe on Jesus and be saved, planted by God. Let me ask you if you have you been planted by Him so, though drought may be coming, you can make it.

Let’s pray.

Receive, oh Father, we ask, the prayers of our hearts. We ask, Father, that during this time of drought and uncertainty for so many, you might help us to be knit together as a root system. And for those, Lord, who have never trusted Christ as Savior (they are trying to do it but it’s not working), show them that they need a new heart. You have to plant them.

Before I close this prayer, if you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, would you just say, “Jesus, today, I want to become a tree. I want to receive Christ as Savior.” Tell Him that. “I know that I’m a sinner. I believe in Jesus.” Just tell Jesus that if that’s your heart’s desire. And those of you who know Him as Savior, would you commit to the coming months, to this year, that you will pursue with all of your strength deeper roots?

Grant it, oh God, we ask in Jesus’ name, because we are helpless. Amen.

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