Finding God In Your DesertErwin W. Lutzer | January 2, 2011
Selected highlights from this sermon
Life is hard. Even Moses learned that. One minute he has power and influence in Pharaoh’s court, the next minute he’s on the run, living in a desert.
But the desert is where Moses learned about God. It’s where he learned about servanthood and humility. It’s where he learned obedience and the need for other people. And he learned to trust God.
Though we may not physically be in a desert, all of us, at one time or another, experience hard times. And it’s during these times that God teaches us valuable lessons. The desert isn’t a penalty box—it’s God preparing you for a new game.
It was Henry Thoreau who said that most people live lives of quiet desperation and die with a song still in them. And I suppose the song that they die with is one of hopelessness. They had such high hopes for themselves, for their marriage, for their life, and then as the bitter disappointments come, because life is hard, they die as they lived with a song in their heart.
Life IS hard. I was going to use a number of different illustrations but today I’ll use only one. It’s a letter that we received about a week ago from a couple that I had the privilege of marrying many years ago. The wife has had breast cancer so she had surgery and is recovering from that, and then she was hospitalized a month ago for pneumonia. She also has a disc missing so she is in a great deal of pain. That’s the wife.
They have two children, one of whom lost his job, so his house is in foreclosure. The other one has had several health issues, having to go to the hospital for surgeries. Now in the midst of all this they have a mother-in-law living with them and she has dementia and needs care 24/7. And then to top it off they discovered recently that there is a big crack in the foundation of their house that they have to look into and take care of all in the midst of financial issues and what have you. Life is hard.
I could tell you the story of a woman who wrote a letter to me about a week ago. Her husband dies. She’s in financial need and then her son commits suicide and she has to go through all that now alone. Life is hard.
Before I began this series I knew that James MacDonald had written a book entitled Life is Hard. I didn’t know that it was exactly the same title as this series of messages, When Life is Hard. I’ve not read James’ book, but I understand it’s very good and so I commend it to you. And next week I’m going to tell you about a book that I did read that will help me especially in the sermon next week in this two-part series.
I have to give credit to my wife, Rebecca, for the idea of speaking on the topic, When Life is Hard. I was going to speak on something entirely different and she said, “No, people are going through so much heartache; they are hurting so much, and life is hard.” I said, “Yeah, life is hard,” so that’s what I’m going to speak on as we begin this short series, because life is hard.
Take your Bibles and turn today to Exodus 1, and there we discover that for the Israelites life was very hard. I’m going to pick it up at verse 12: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.” It’s talking about the Israelites. “And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel so they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves, and made their lives bitter with hard work in mortar and brick and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
Do you think you’ve got employment problems? You don’t like your employer. You are overworked and underpaid. Imagine these Israelites working from early in the morning until later, and in the next message I’ll show you how much they had to work, and they worked as slaves. Was God there?
Today we’re going to look at a story in the midst of this pitiful situation, and that is of Moses. Now Moses, as you know, was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. You know how he became next to Pharaoh, and you know the story of how he grew up in Pharaoh’s court. In fact, he would have studied hieroglyphics and a whole lot of other subjects. He was very well educated. Josephus said that when the Ethiopians came against Egypt it was Moses who led the troops to a victory for Egypt. When he floated down the Nile it would have been to the strains of some beautiful music. And now suddenly this child of luxury and fashion decides that he can’t simply stay in the palace and watch his people suffer, so the Bible says (in Exodus 2:11-15), “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews sere struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, ‘Why do you strike your companion?’ He answered, ‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid, and thought, ‘Surely the thing is known.’ When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.”
And we could say, “Yuck.” Unending gravel, heat, nowhere to go! Think of what Moses lost. He lost his position in the palace with all of the perks. He lost the power that he had. He lost all the potential and all of that training for nothing. He’s sitting there in the desert with nowhere to go. For him, life was hard.
But, you know, it’s during the hard times that we really do learn the lessons that we really need to know. In fact, success is a very poor teacher. Failure and suffering is actually the best teacher. So we’re going to look at some lessons that Moses learned in the desert, and then what we’re going to do is to see why all of this should transform us. Beginning tomorrow we should look at life differently.
First of all, Moses had to learn the lesson of servanthood. It says in verse 16, “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel he said, ‘How is it that you have come home so soon today?’ They said, ‘An Egyptian delivered us out of the hands of the shepherds,’” and they he says have him come, and he came and Moses (verse 21) was content to live with him, and he even married one of Reuel’s daughters.
Now in the midst of this he had to learn the lesson of servanthood. Here he was and these young women are trying to water their flock and he helps him. They didn’t know that they were in the presence of greatness. Moses is going to have to serve in obscurity and he will serve in obscurity for forty long years. This man who was so well educated, the most intelligent conversation he will have for forty years is, “Baa.” That’ll be it.
There he is serving in obscurity, but also serving in humility. We don’t understand this text unless we realize that it says at the end of Genesis that the shepherds were an abomination unto the Egyptians. We’re not talking about any job. We’re talking about a job that Moses’ culture considered to be the most lowly, the most gruesome in many respects, and the one that was most despised, and God said, “For forty years that’s what you are going to be doing.” Wow!
Serving in obscurity, serving in humility, Moses learned a couple of things. He learned that when you are going through a hard time it is very important to be willing to do absolutely anything. Moses couldn’t wait around for a job that was up to his potential. There was no way that he could say to himself, “I am very much overqualified for this job, and so it’s not me.” No, when you are desperate and when times are hard you do anything that you can do that lies before you, whether it is in keeping with your aptitude and gifting or not.
Imagine Moses with all of his training and all of his aptitude lies in one direction, and all of his work has to be in another. Do you think he ever got used to it? I don’t think so. He has a son and he names him Gershom, and Gershom means “I am a foreigner in a strange land,” but he is committed there for forty years and doesn’t think that anything will ever change.
There’s another lesson that he learned in terms of servanthood. When you are going through a hard time, you need other people. Imagine Moses in the middle of the desert without a family to take him in. What is he to do? And during hard times what God teaches us that we need one another. The woman who is going through a time of huge trial with the death of her husband and the suicide of her son needs the support and the prayer and the hope that is given to her by others within the church. Even financially here at Moody Church we try to do what we can to help one another. We can’t do everything and that’s always a challenge, but when you are going through a hard time you need the community of God.
There’s a second lesson that Moses learned and that is the lesson of trust. Now your Bibles are open. You’ll notice it says in verse 23, “During those many days.” Years ago I think I multiplied 365 times 40. Thank God for pocket calculators. You know I’ve always said that as long as I am right ninety percent of the time, who cares about the other five percent? So here we do the math and we discover it’s about 14,600 days. Forty years by any stretch is a long time, but was God doing anything in that period of time? Was God working or did he simply abdicate responsibility? No, and if you are in the habit of underlining your Bible, you might want to underline in verses 24 and 25 the verbs. Remember what a verb is? And the Lord heard their groaning. He wasn’t deaf after all. And God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Sometimes we keep reminding God of things as if He might forget them but God doesn’t forget, and He doesn’t know yesterday a lot better than He does 20 years ago or 100 years ago. I am sure that it has dawned on you that nothing has ever dawned on God, and so God here is remembering; He is hearing and He is seeing the people of Israel. He was seeing those slaves.
Now next week I am going to talk about how those slaves had to see even that calling as from God. But God is doing something. What does God do when you are in the desert? I think everybody has a desert experience of some kind. Israel was in a desert. Moses is in the desert. Jesus is in the desert. I’ve been in the desert.
You know what the desert is. The desert is a time of monotony, when nothing seems to be happening, and the other characteristic of a desert is hopelessness because every day is just like the one before it and nothing ever changes. That’s the desert–when times are hard.
What is God doing in the desert? Does He abandon us in the desert? You know, it says in the book of Deuteronomy a very interesting passage about Israel in the desert. It says, “He found him in a desert land in a howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, and he kept him as the apple of his eye. God was watching like an eagle that stirs up its nest, and that flutters over its young spreading out its wings…bearing them on its pinions” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11). God says, “I was with you there in the desert. I was walking with you during the times when you didn’t have water and when you needed food. I did not forget you during your hard time.”
I understand that when eagles build a nest they use sharp branches and sharp rocks, and then they fill it with feathers and they make it very comfy, and the little eaglets, when they are born, don’t want to go anywhere. They love it there in their home, and then the eagle sometimes pushes them out and sometimes the mother eagle will do something that’s pretty mean. She’ll begin to pull out all the feathers, and soon all the feathers are out and these little eaglets are on such sharp rocks and branches and they say, “What is this?” And the wind is blowing through their home and they were so comfortable and now their nest is so stirred up, and they say, “Things are so bad, we might as well fly out of here and die.” Well that’s one way to get them to fly, and then of course, as you know, the eagle goes underneath them and picks them up and takes them back until they learn to fly. God says, “That’s what I was doing with you during those hard times in the desert. I was with you; I was hearing you; I was seeing you.”
You know it’s easy to trust God when the bush is burning, when the water is parting, when the mountain is shaking, and when the money is flowing, and your employer is glowing. It’s easy to trust God then, but it’s difficult to trust Him in the desert when it’s unending sand, monotony, boredom and nothing is happening, and you look around and you think to yourself, “I have no reason to believe that God is here.” But He is. He is with us.
So what I’d like us to do is to understand that Moses had to learn the lesson of servanthood. He had to learn the lesson of trust, and then obedience, because in chapter 3 the bush burns. God says, “Moses, I am calling you to go to Egypt,” and Moses was standing there, if you please, on holy ground. He had to take his shoes off and he’s arguing with God as to why he shouldn’t go. God says, “Go,” and Moses says, “No.” God says, “I am adequate for you.” Moses says, “I don’t care. I’m just not going.” He had a fear of failure, and fear of transition.
You know it’s interesting that Moses says to God in chapter 3:11, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Who am I? Isn’t that the question of the century? I’ve known wives who have abandoned their husbands and children just to find out who they are. Husbands have left their wives to find out whom they are. Where I grew up everybody sort of knew whom he or she was, but we live in a different age, and we have this whole business of self-image. Who am I?
You know I read a book one time by a very good author otherwise, but it was on self-image and he was talking about this beautiful Swiss girl and she wouldn’t look in a mirror because she thought she was ugly and so he helped her hold her chin up, and he said, “Open your eyes and see how beautiful you are.” I thought to myself, “You know, we need a theory of self-image that not only works for beautiful young women but also for ugly old men, don’t we?
We need a theory of self-image that actually works for Phyllis Diller. Some of you don’t know it, but Phyllis Diller achieved fame because when God created her–well let me say this. She’s just barely pretty. Okay? In fact, I remember she said one time that she was in a beauty salon for nine hours. Can you believe that? Nine hours in a beauty salon! And she said, “That was just for an estimate.” (laughter)
We need a theory of self-image that is much stronger than that, and you know what? It’s right here in the text. Moses says, “Who am I that I should lead the children of Israel into Egypt?” and God said, “I will be with you,” and that’s the answer to who you are. If God is with you, you know who you are.
Well, Moses continues to argue with God. You’ll notice in chapter 4 it says, “Behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice.” Do you know what’s going on here in the text? Moses is still bitter. He’s angry. Forty years has not lessened the pain of having been rejected by his people. He tried something and the people didn’t help him, and God didn’t help him, and Moses is saying to himself, “I’m not about to go back now. If you’d have called me back then, I was single and it was simple for me. I could have been the leader. But now I am married. I’ve got a couple of kids. I’m living here in the desert, and now you want me to leave everything and go?”
And so Moses is arguing with God over it, and he doesn’t want to be hurt again. I’ve tried that! You know it is said that if you have been burned on hot milk you’ll even blow on yogurt, so Moses here is saying, “I don’t want to try this again.”
God says, “Moses, what’s in your hand?” He says, “A staff – a rod.” It was a rod that was perhaps five or six feet long and several inches in diameter. It had been a branch of a tree that grew and God says to Moses, “What’s in your hand?” He said, “A rod,” and God said, “Throw the rod down,” and then Moses was able to do miracles with this rod, and afterwards when he does eventually go, notice this please, that the rod goes wherever he goes. He’s going to try to cross the Red Sea, and lo and behold, the Bible says that he took his rod and put it across the top of the sea and the waters parted. He’s going to need water and he’s going to strike the rock with his rod because the rod of Moses now becomes the rod of God. And God says, “Moses, that which you picked up in the desert is going to be the means by which I will reorient you and retread you in an entirely different direction, and you’ll always remember that it was in the desert where I taught you lessons that success in the palace could never teach you.”
And so what we really have here is the fact that he had to learn the lesson of obedience. When life is hard and you are in a desert you don’t know it but that God might have for you brand new plans, and when he calls, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how much you’ve been in your routine, you are going to have to go. The lesson of obedience!
Let’s translate this to where you and I are. First of all, let me say regarding the lessons that we need to remember is that God is with us in hard times. He is there. He is seeing. He is hearing. He is answering. God is with us in hard times.
I love that story in Genesis 39 regarding Joseph. It says, “And the Lord was with Joseph and gave him favor in Potiphar’s house.” Then you know the story of how Joseph was falsely accused and thrown into a dungeon, and do you know what it says in the same chapter? It says, “And the Lord was with Joseph in prison, and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the eyes of the jailer.” Wow!
God is with us in our promotions when everything is going well, when the sea is parting and the rivers are flowing. God is with us in our promotions. God is also with us in our demotions, when we are unjustly let go, when accusations against us are false that we cannot correct. It is then that God is also with us. God is with us in hard times.
Remember that story about the man who had a dream about all these people who were lined up and Jesus came along and said to this one, “I bless you, I bless you,” and when Jesus got to this man, Jesus stepped back and said, “You know, I’m not going to bless you because I know you are going to love me and follow me whether or I do or not.” And then he went on to the next person. Do you feel that way? Do you feel that you have been left out? Other people seem to be prospering, but life for you is hard, and it’s one tragedy after another. Have you ever noticed that they often come in pairs? One thing happens, and then another thing. God is with us in hard times.
Secondly (and very importantly), in a hard time God has you exactly where He wants you. You are today where God wants you. You say, “Well, no, that’s not true because where I am today is my fault.” Well, Moses could have said the same thing. He could have said, “You know, it’s my fault that I acted the way I did in relationship to killing the Egyptian. I should have been wiser. I am being judged and in the desert because I blew it.” All right! Fair enough! But isn’t it interesting that it’s there in the desert that God has a way prepared for him? It is there in the desert, as a matter of fact, if you think that somehow Moses was quote out of God’s will (if you take that point of view), isn’t it interesting that right there in the middle of where he shouldn’t be God has a life prepared for him, and he marries and has some children? And right there, God has a new path, because the will of God has enough fluidity to take you where you are at and use your present circumstance for your good and for His glory. You are today where God wants you to be. Now that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t improve your situation. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be job hunting if that’s what you need, or improving your lifestyle or your relationships. We understand that, but God today knows exactly where you are. He knows the longitude and the latitude of where you are sailing in the boat of life, and when a hard time comes God is there.
Look at these slaves that I’ll comment on in the next message. Here they are with no ability to make their lives better and yet they call on God and what is God doing? God is hearing, God is answering. God does this.
If you miss everything I’ve said today, would you remember this? Don’t ever interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God. Just because God is silent sometimes when we are in the desert and we cry up to Him and we see no answers, don’t ever interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God. God is there, caring, orchestrating, working, and who knows? The bush may burn tomorrow. He has these surprises in store that we can’t see. Moses thought that the forty years he had just lived was predictive of the next forty years with the same monotony and the same boredom.
Let me ask you some questions. What have you picked up in the desert? What has God taught you in the desert? Did He teach you faith? Did He teach you patience with people? Did He teach you how you needed others when you were in the desert and now you are more generous and more giving, and you’ve opened your life up to other people, because it’s God’s intention that the desert touch our lives?
In fact, that’s the last lesson. The desert has a way, I think, of giving us a new touch with God. Regarding Moses and his desire to lead the children of Israel out and his willingness to identify with the people of God (and the Bible gives him credit for doing that, especially in the book of Hebrews), I think that God probably said to himself, “The time isn’t right and furthermore Moses isn’t ready to be the leader. He has to be taught servanthood. He has to be taught humility and trust. He has to learn to obey even when it is inconvenient.” The palace could never teach him that. Only hard life in the desert could do it.
The desert is not really a penalty box, if I could put it that way. The desert is God getting you ready to get into a new game and preparing your heart for it. You’d never be where you are at today in your hard place if God did not intend to use it for His glory and for our good. It’s hard for me to say because when life is hard, it’s hard to see His purposes, but that’s exactly what He’s teaching us– that He is there with us.
I think that probably the best example actually is Jesus Himself in terms of life being hard. Jesus was evilly spoken against. Jesus was forsaken by His friends. There were false accusations, six false trials (mock trials), and then Jesus in the human side of it was forsaken by God. So there He was having a very, very hard experience and we see that in Gethsemane, and yet the Bible says that, “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross and he despised the shame,” and on the other side of the crucifixion there was the resurrection.
If you are here today and life is hard, let me ask you a question. If you are here today as a believer, what you are experiencing today in this life is the worst you will ever experience, because eternity and heaven is coming. If you are here today as an unbeliever and life is hard, this is the best it will ever get. All of eternity is going to be far worse than what you are experiencing today. So for the Christian there are no permanent tragedies. Your worst tragedy is temporal and it’s the worst it will ever get. If you are here as a non-Christian, this is the best it’ll ever be, with all of its tragedies. It’ll only get worse after you die–far, far worse. And the real issue is our relationship to Jesus Christ. When He went through what I just described, dying on the cross for our sins, shedding His blood for us, it is because of that, that we can come to the Father to be forgiven, to be received, to be welcomed by God and belong to Him forever. Your eternal destiny depends on your relationship with Christ, so my question to you is this: Do you know Him personally, having received Him as your Savior-not your wife’s Savior or somebody else’s Savior, but yours?
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, we thank You today that Jesus was willing to go through His desert (The time was hard and we thank you) and that having gone through what He went through that we as sinners can be reconciled to You, belonging to You forever. We pray, Father, for all who have heard this message, for those who are sick and in pain; for those, Lord, who are struggling with financial needs, who don’t know where their rent is coming from; for those who are in relational tug-of-wars in their marriages and in their families. Father, we throw ourselves at Your feet and we seek Your help, and believe that You are trying to teach us lessons that somehow smoothness cannot teach us. Lord, we pray that even as we remember Your death today, it may be with the sure knowledge that because of Jesus we are forgiven and life will get better. In Jesus’ name, Amen.