Blessing in the Wilderness

Tuesday 11 July

Miriam Swaffield is the student mission leader for Fusion, a movement that helps local churches connect with students and that helps students to connect with Jesus.  Here is a summary of her message on Tuesday evening at #Sligo17

When I was small, I used to live in quite a tough area of central London.  Every holiday, we went to Wales.  My family is not one for sitting back and relaxing with a book.  We were the type of family that turned the beach into a massive construction project. Every year, we made unbelievable channels to the sea with the hope that our beautiful sandcastle would remain but every single time we could not hold back the ocean.  The next morning, the beach would look as if it had never been touched.

Recently, I was at a beach that looked strange.  It wasn’t actually a sandy beach but they had been shipping in sand and pouring it on top of the shingle.  But the sand kept getting washed away.  It looked like we were living in a modern day parable.

We all know the parable of the wise and foolish builders.  We love a good parable and we think we have that one sorted.  Don’t build your house on sand, build you house on rock (which is Jesus).  But the annoying thing is that parables are meant to shock and subvert.  We cannot box in parables as children’s stories and action songs. 

Jesus used familiar language and yet somewhere in the middle, He changes the story.  The listener had to pay attention because what they thought would happen, didn’t happen.

Matthew 7: 21 - 29

Jesus has been talking about good fruit and bad fruit, and about the cost of being a disciple.  The parable of the wise and foolish builders is an important one for us, if we let it impact us.  It is more and more vital that we speak about the cost of following Jesus and not just the great stuff.  I’m slightly concerned that we are gift-wrapping the gospel and not really sharing what it means to actually walk it out.  I want to talk about what the sand is, what the rock is but particularly about the wilderness.

One of the most crucial things I notice about this parable is the storm.  Did anybody ever make it clear to you that everybody gets a storm?  Whether you are a builder who built according to what Jesus says or whether you walked away, whether you are faithful or fickle, no matter what you have done, it appears that to be human, to live in this world means you will get a storm.

It is not whether you get a storm, it is how you weather the storm.

This is a crucial teaching for this generation.  I work for Fusion to help prepare young people for university. The drop off rate from faith and church during major life transitions is huge. 

Some of the things I hear make me wonder what people have been taught.

“I used to believe in God but then my grandma died.”

“I used to think God was real but then I got depression.” 

“I like Jesus but I don’t want anything to do with the church.  I don’t like organised religion.”

“I don’t like the idea of Jesus being the only way, it makes me uncomfortable.” 

“I’d like to believe in God but I don’t think He’s okay with my lifestyle choices and if He’s not into what I’m into then I don’t what to believe in Him.”

The most shared, tweeted, underlined and highlighted verse by far is our old favourite Jeremiah 29:11:  “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” 

We love to put that verse on a fridge magnet with a picture of a sunset or a kitten.  When my parents broke up, my friends all sent me Jeremiah 29:11.  That is actually quite a worry for our faith.  If we take that verse out of context, we miss the point. Jeremiah was delivering that word in the midst of another 70 years of exile.  The book of Jeremiah is not happy reading.  And it doesn’t end well. 

Everybody gets a storm. But somewhere along the line, people have believed the lie that following Jesus means we won’t get shaken.  Where is our theology around storms?  Did you know that you are formed in the hard place?  It is when you are hit by the storm that you find out whether your faith can stand.

It turns out that we have a lot to learn from the wilderness. In the Bible, the idea of the wilderness was vital.  Hand in hand with the wilderness is blessing.  Sometimes we talk about going through the desert or the wilderness as if it is a “cursed” time.  There is an extraordinary journey of faith formation that goes on in the wilderness.

The people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness.  That is quite a challenge.  They understood that their children would inherit the land.  Joshua was formed in the wilderness and it came hand in hand with blessing because of what it allowed him to see and know of God.

When you get taken out to a place where the silence is deafening, then you discover that God speaks.  In the silence, Yahweh breathes His life.  God provided manna and pools of water, pillars of cloud and fire.  The wilderness was a place of faith formation.

Even the word wilderness is related to the word “speaking”.  If a Jew saw the word wilderness in the scriptures, he or she would think, “Pay attention because God is going to speak.”  You go through the wilderness in order to reach the Promised Land.

It is not the end of the story but you cannot shortcut discipleship. You cannot shortcut long-term foundations built on rock.

In the Hebrew culture, the opposite of holy (the essence of God) is “sand”.  It is either holy or it is sand.  There is no life in the sand.  Suddenly Matthew 7 has huge echoes of the ancient Hebrew understanding of wilderness, of holiness and discipleship.

Jesus knew that the people would understand that the opposite of God was sand!  In the wilderness, we hear the whisper of God.  When we strip back and it is just God and me, it is a place of intimacy in faith.  It is not a place to give up.  The wilderness is the place of discipleship, formation and blessing.  It is the place to keep walking.

Every week, we have people coming into our church who don’t know Jesus.  It is an absolute privilege and a joy.  Because active believers are so rare, people are intrigued.  We are experiencing some unbelievable opportunities for God to step in, even while we are in the wilderness!  Young people are searching because they know this could not be all there is. God is on the move.  In the wilderness, they are finding fire and clouds and manna and the voice of Yahweh.

Some of us are crying out “How long?”  The wilderness is hard but He is good.  Some of you will be feeling like you are walking through the desert and you don’t know where the next oasis is.  This is the place of formation.  This is the place of hearing the voice of God and discovering who God is. This is the place of building your life on the rock.

For some people, the storm is now and your life is shaking and you are concerned that you have built your life on the wrong things.  Turn around if you were trying to store up treasures on earth.  Turn around if you were building an empire not the kingdom.  Shake off the fear of man and crack on with seeking first the kingdom.  Even if it means you are poorer.   For some of you this is a moment to repent (turn around) to re-align with your eyes fixed on Jesus. 

For some of you, if the storm hits, you won’t know what to do because you don’t know Him.  If you are saying, “If a storm hits, my life will fall”… then today is a good day to give your life to Jesus.

Some of you are about to exit the wilderness and enter into a season of fruitfulness.

In Deuteronomy 2:7 Moses says, “The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.”