Tuesday, February 19, 2013

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Through the Wilderness and Into the Promised Land

In 1987, the humorous and classic fairy tale, The Princess Bride, was released.  This movie has won the hearts of millions with its interesting plot points and clever lines, but the part relevant to us today is the Fire Swamp scene.  In order for Princess Buttercup and her love, Westley, to get away from the bad guys, they have to go through the Fire Swamp, which is a scary place with firebursts that shoot out from nowhere ready to burn you at any given moment, R.O.U.S.’s or rodents of unusual size, which are ready to attack and eat you at any given moment, and quicksand that threatens to swallow you up if you should step into it at any given moment.  The Fire Swamp is a wilderness indeed.

In the film, Princess Buttercup exclaims, “That's the fire swamp! We'll never survive.”  And Westley replies, “Nonsense! You're only saying that because no one ever has.”

Have you ever been in the wilderness?  Actually, that’s the wrong question.  We have all been in the wilderness before.  Wilderness experiences may include, but are not limited to:  Times when you felt lost and were walking aimlessly through life.  Times when everything just seemed too hard or too overwhelming and all the pressures were piling up.  Times when you thought you would never move forward in life and nothing positive or new would ever happen.  In all the various wilderness experiences, your belief in God is shaky.  You wonder:  has God abandoned me?  Yes, each of us has had our own experience of wandering in the wilderness, and one of the hardest parts about being in the wilderness is not knowing you are there.
So, the real question is not have you been in the wilderness, but how should you respond once you are in the wilderness? 

The wilderness is often a time of waiting and wanting.  We are waiting for things to change, and we want something different than we have.  This waiting and wanting is a horrible way to live life.  Days, weeks and even years pass you by while your pining away for life to be other than it is.

In Psalm 102, the Psalmist is having a wilderness experience and hear what he says:
Listen to my prayer, O Lord, and hear my cry for help! When I am in trouble, don't turn away from me! Listen to me,  and answer me quickly when I call!
My life is disappearing like smoke; my body is burning like fire. I am beaten down like dry grass;   I have lost my desire for food. I groan aloud…

The line that really stands out to me is “answer me quickly when I call!”  Because more often than not, God doesn’t answer us quickly even if we beg and plead.  The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days.  In the bible, the number 40 means a “very long time.”

In today’s passage in Deuteronomy, we recall Israel’s story.  How a wandering Armenian was their ancestor, and he lived in Egypt as an alien (Joseph).  Then, as the people grew into a great nation, they were enslaved and treated harshly.  Then, God took them out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power (the Red Sea).  The next thing the scripture mentions is that God fulfilled God’s promise to his people by bringing them into a land flowing with milk and honey.   But there is something missing in this account.  What about those 40 years in the desert?  This account just glosses over what was one of the most difficult times in Israel’s history, a time that shaped them as a people of strength and courage and faith.

To the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of vulnerability-a rough terrain in an unknown land, with uncertain provisions.  It was a place of testing where the promises of God were all they had to cling to.  It was also a place of transition that lay between their slavery and their freedom.  One day, one day, they would make it out alive and into the promised land.

Rather than waiting and wanting, the best thing we can do in our wilderness experiences is to embrace the here and now and immerse ourselves in the present moment.  We can’t live our lives waiting for tomorrow, waiting for some other day.  Well, we can, but as Creedence Clearwater says, “Someday never comes.”  Today is all we have.  The saying, “It is what it is” has become very popular these days, and it conveys the sentiment that we should accept reality as is.

Rather than wanting life to be other than what it is, it is wiser to be thankful for what we do have than focusing on what we don’t have.  We all have been blessed.  Even in the most difficult times, there are things to be grateful for.   We may have lost our job, but we have our family and friends.  We may have lost our partner, but we have our health.  We may have lost our health, but we have an entire church praying for us.   It is wise to be thankful for the good things in our lives even while we bemoan our troubles. 

Now, the only way out of the wilderness is through the wilderness.  Westley and Princess Buttercup had to go through the Fire Swamp in order to escape the bad guys.  There is no way around the wilderness, not to the left or to the right, not above it and not below it.  But only through.   And so the young couple takes a bold step and enters in, hoping to make it out alive.

In many ways, our journeys are not that much different from the Fire Swamp scene.  At times in our lives, we are forced to enter into a dark and scary place.   This place is filled with danger, and we are vulnerable there.  If we have any hope of making it out of this situation, we must also go through it in order to arrive at a better place.

If you’ve ever been to therapy, you’ve probably heard your therapist say something like, “Just feel the feeling.  Don’t judge it.  Don’t avoid it.  Just let it be what it is and let it move through you.”  The only way to truly be free of  a negative experience or emotion is not to resist it, because what we resist persists, but to let it enter in and let it keep on moving out. 

So it is with the wilderness experiences in our lives.  The only way out, and we all want out of the wilderness, is through. 

One helpful hint for enduring our wilderness situations with contentment and gratitude is to realize that the wilderness is a temporary phase in our lives.  It is a place of transition.  When God wants to move you along, to take you from point A to point B, to take you from the land you once lived in to a new land, God places you in the wilderness.  It’s not punishment.  In reality, it shows God’s faith in you.  God knows you can handle your trial and so in an attempt to help you, God makes you go through something difficult.

Rather than hate the wilderness, we should learn to embrace it and say amidst it all, it is well with my soul.  Things can be well with my soul even if things aren’t perfectly well.  I know it doesn’t seem like it at the time, but everything is really going to be just fine.  Since you have already been through the wilderness a few times in your life, you know from experience that you truly do make it through to the other side.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

And then comes the good part.  We must never lose hope, even when life is hard and grim, because God promises to rescue us from our troubles and place us in a promised land, a land where we experience fulfillment and satisfaction.

I know a woman whose husband at the time was, unbeknownst to her, involved in white collar crime.  She realized this when $600,000 appeared in their joint checking account one day.  Not long after the money came in, her husband was taken away by the police.

Talk about a wilderness experience.  Betina lost what she thought was her whole life in one moment.  But rather than wait and want, she decided to continue to live life the best she could.  Though she lost much of her money, she still had some left over to travel to Bali and Fiji.  Though she lost her husband, she still had a family who loved her, and she went and spent time with her sister and her sister’s daughter.

How about you?  How do you respond to your wilderness experiences?  Do you let them beat you down or do they help you to rise up?

We can never lose faith because, no matter what happens, God has plans for our lives, and we are on our way, even if we don’t realize it.  Jeremiah 29: 11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord.  “Plans for your good and not for your harm.  Plans to give you hope and a future.”  Life is an opportunity we must seize, not an ordeal we must merely survive.

Through it all, we realize we are stronger than we think.  We can carry a heavier load than we thought we could.  Our wilderness experiences build character and make us into the people God wants us to be.

The invitation this morning is to remember than God has plans for our lives and no time of trial lasts forever.  It is a temporary place on our journey that we must go through in order to get to the other side, in order to get to the promised land, where all our hopes can be fulfilled. 

No matter where you are on this day, whether you’re enslaved in Egypt, or wandering through the wilderness or rejoicing in the promised land, let us always be able to say to our God, it is well with my soul.