By Elder Enoch Ofori Jnr
(Sermon, 23rd June, 2012)
An Unlikely Place for Durable Rest
"Thus saith the LORD, The people which were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest" (Jer. 31:2).
The wilderness is not a fun place nor an amusement park. Neither is it an idyll nor a place to holiday. As a place totally lacking in creature comforts, the wilderness is surely not a place for relaxation. But God caused His people to rest there.
With all the images it conjures, favour is rarely to be found in the desert, a place of want–all sorts of want: want of food, want of water, want of people, want of clothes, want of jobs, want of friends, and want of money. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the wilderness is full of perils–the peril of enemy attacks, the peril of bandits and the peril of wild and poisonous animals (Deut 8:15). But that’s exactly the place God said His remnant people would find rest after having delivered them from their enemies, into whose hands He had earlier delivered them to be punish and oppressed for their national sins (Jer. chapters 30 & 31).
It’s remarkable how God does His things, but the desert is where He brought Israel of old after He delivered them from Egypt so "that He might make them know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3). The sheer exhilarating irony of it: Right after deliverance from oppression, God takes you straight to the wilderness, there to find grace! Thus Moses reminded the Israelites: "… the LORD thy God hath blessed thee in all the works of thy hand: He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness: these forty years the LORD thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing" (Deut. 2:7).
Early on, en route to Canaan, the Lord assured the Israelites, "My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest" (Ex 33:14). He has since repeated His promise in the New Testament: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).
‘Your Rest is in Me’
”Grace in the wilderness” is God’s way of telling us ‘I am totally in charge. No matter the dire circumstances of your life, your survival depends on Me. Your rest is in Me, not what you see around you’. The unfavourable circumstances you find yourself in dare not interfere with grace; they dare not intrude on the sacred duties of grace. Whether it’s the dreariest and driest desert, Grace will give rest. God’s grace at work in the life of His people is the most unbending force for good there is!
King David aptly captures this essential spiritual truth in Ps 63 while seeking refuge in the wilderness of Judah after fleeing from the insurgency of his son Absalom:
"O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
"To see Thy power and Thy glory, so as I have seen Thee in the sanctuary.
"Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee.
"Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in Thy name.
"My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips:
"When I remember Thee upon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the night watches" (Ps 63:1-6).
The king is not on his luxury throne in his sumptuous palace in Jerusalem, but he has found grace in the wilderness. In the desert his soul has found satisfaction in God, and his lips give vent to the joy of his heart in joyful praise.
"We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7).
You don’t have to be a lush environment to be closer to God. We worship a God with whom nothing is impossible. His promise is that He won’t leave us comfortless, and that He’s with us till the end of time (John 1 4:18; Matt. 28:20). But He never said He’s our comforter only when we are in green pastures in a physical sense. Spiritually, the whole world is a wilderness, but grace will give us rest in this dreary desert-like world of perils and privation. For our sakes, He has overcome the world of troubles so we will "be of good cheer" (John 6:33).
God is our canopy which shields us from the storms of life. If you are on Zion, my brother and sister, you are absolutely covered:
"And the LORD will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence.
"And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain" (Isa. 4:5-6).
"A cloud … by day and … a flaming fire by night" hark back to Israel’s days in the desert.
"And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.
"And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
"He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people".
"And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:
"And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night".
"Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
"And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
"And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys:
"But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.
"For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys".
"In the daytime also He led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire".
When you find grace in the wilderness, you have solid protection from all the perils ordinarily associated with the wilderness. The LORD gives you 24-hour non-stop protection. The dangers of the day and the perils of the night will come nowhere near you. We read in Ps 91:
"Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
"Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
"A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
"Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
"Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
"There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling" (vv. 5-10).
In Psalm 23, David says in praise of God:
"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
"He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake" (Ps 23:1-3).
The first sentence of the third line–” He restoreth my soul’–hints at the nature of the renewal: it indicates spiritual rest and reinvigoration in "green pastures … beside the still waters" of God’s Spirit. It’s an expression of a deeply felt assurance of God’s presence and unfailing providence no matter how tough the going gets. That’s why the Master tells us not to think about what we will eat or drink as our heavenly Father has made provision for all those things, but to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:31-33). His promise is that "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb 13:5). Like Israel of old, He has blessed us with grace in the wilderness because His presence is with us.
This is where divine anointing (spiritual presence) and our general wellbeing intersect. God accompanies His people spiritually, but the effect of His spiritual presence is not limited to just the spiritual. It manifests itself in our physical wellbeing as well. Thus we read in Isaiah 32 that where the Lord withdraws His Spirit, the physical environment deteriorates and languishes. But His Spirit renews all dead life:
"Tremble, you women who are at ease, shudder, you complacent ones; strip, and make yourselves bare, and tie sackcloth around your waist.
"Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine,
"For the soil of my people growing up in thorns and briers, yes, for all the joyous houses in the exultant city.
"For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks;
"Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
"Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
"And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
"My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places" (Isa. 32:11-18; cp Ps 104:29-30).
When He pours out His Spirit from on high, grace will appear in the wilderness: the wilderness will abound in fertility and sprout into a forest; joy will return to the desolate places. The wilderness will finally find justice, and the effect of the justice will stay–"righteousness will abide in the wilderness-turned fruitful field".
The grace of God will satisfy you with righteousness in the wilderness; you will lack nothing. Then your soul will rest in God, filled and content with His overflowing goodness and anchored in His power of protection.
The grace found in the wilderness is an enduring one: "According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not" (Hag 2:5). So ”fear not”, no matter the hard times you are going through. You have found grace in the wilderness. It may sometimes get extremely hot or windy or empty in the pocket–as desert life is wont to be–but be assured that you are secure. God will never take away from you His cloud by day nor pillar of fire by night. He will accomplish what He has purposed in you: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth" (3 John 1:2).
Our rest is in Yahweh:
"And it shall come to pass in the day that the LORD shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve".
"Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid".
"In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink.
"He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water". Amen!