Things that happen through a wilderness moment.

John the Baptist would have been raised to learn the Torah, the Talmud and the oral traditions of the Jewish faith. Many would have thought he would become a priest like his father Zechariah. But God had other plans for him and he lived in the wilderness.

Matthew has told us that he looked and lived like the wilderness. We have images of a rugged wild man who hadn’t combed his hair in a while or eaten a decent meal for years. The impact on lockdown!

In the last lockdown people laughed at how long my hair had got and I am doing all I can to make sure in this lockdown I don’t put on weight!

Wherever you are reading this blog from. Whether you are in lockdown or simply describing your circumstance as somewhat of a wilderness experience then please be encouraged that what you are struggling with is having a positive impact on you.

We may not realise this fully yet, however, when you are going through difficulty whether a war, a debilitating illness, persecution or the lockdown of a pandemic, it changes you. Deserts change you. This could be a season of refinement for us. There may be losses. Some may walk away within the wilderness but those that emerge could come forward changed. Let’s read some verses:

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3 v 7-10)

Whatever you think of John the Baptist he had courage!

So what had the lockdown done to this wilderness man?

Maybe you can describe your life as a period of wilderness, it has been difficult for you and you know you have changed. Let me suggest what may emerge from you from these verses.

He could see through the united front of two parties that were usually opposed to one another.

We will have a greater discernment. Seeing what is false and what is behind masks of pretence. Being able to spot strange alliances. Not being taken for a fool. The wilderness has slowed us down and we know what matters now.

He called for change.

Going through the motions of Christian duty are not enough for us anymore. Church going is over. Being the Church that Christ died for is all that we want to give our time to. Fruitfulness is not weighed within the Church building but in how we conduct our lives outside it.

He wasn’t enamoured with the past.

Our heritage will always be something to be thankful for. However a fresh experience of God with a daily in-filling of the Spirit is crucial to us now rather than how many ancient stories you know and how many people know you.

He believed God can start all over again.

We will want to do this. We do not want to return to what we once had and were. There is a repositioning of our lives. We will come out of our wilderness from a different place than how we went into it. People died in there and out of honour to them we cannot simply go back to life as normal. Everything is special now. Life has become even more precious. Thankfulness for what was normal before is on our lips and in our hearts. A new day is dawning.

He didn’t want to waste time on trees that were useless.

A major clean-out will happen. As when we throw out clothes and items we have never used for years there is a radical need to be real and if it doesn’t work then we stop it. ‘Because we have always done it’ will be scrutinised.

I am really looking forward to coming out of the wilderness to see the impact of what God has done in and through us within it.

Things to look forward to.

In the last few days I have been told by some that this year is going to be the best year ever and by some that it is going to be a right off. I wonder what it will be!

People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3 v 5-6)

Slow this down. Picture it. Can you imagine it? People from all over the place travelled to hear this new preacher man.

For years many have prayed this would happen for their churches. That people on the outside would come on in to the inside.

The people were ready for a new kingdom to come. John reminded the crowds of Isaiah’s prophecy. The Messiah would come.

Is it just crazy thinking that movements of people can happen like this today? Are we setting ourselves up to fail? This week I hosted a zoom induction service for an incoming Pastor to a church, my first, I heard people pray for ‘revival’ and I realised I hadn’t heard a public prayer for revival for some time. I’m not sure what a revival would look like. Would it involve the masses coming to a church service? One church said to me a few months ago that they had 3,000 viewings on their online service. That sounds like a revival to me. Well it would be if the 3,000 made a decision to follow Jesus.

These people were confessing their sins and being baptised. Can you imagine the baptism tanks open again? Can you see the confessing of sins in that place? Changed lives. I was lost but now I’m found, blind but now I see.

I don’t know what 2021 will bring but I feel better believing for something than nothing. So I choose to look forward to revival and baptisms!

Look the part

When people look at you what do they see?

When they looked at John the Baptist what did they see?

“John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3 v 4)

850 years previously wicked King Ahaziah had injured himself but instead of seeking God he sent messengers to a false god, Baal-Zebub and along the way they met a man who denounced the king with judgment. Later when the king sent 50 soldiers with a captain on 2 separate occasions this same man brought fire from heaven down to consume them. Who was this man? Well before we find that out let’s read some verses but remember what John the Baptist is wearing.

2 Kings 1 v 7-8 “The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?” They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

“John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.”

So here comes John. Matthew says he is the voice that Isaiah the prophet spoke about and he came looking like the prophet Elijah. But there’s more.

Remember this? “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. …“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you.” (Joel 2 v 13, 25) God sent the locusts as a sign of judgment. They are destructive even today wiping out the entire year’s crops in split seconds. The message from the prophet Joel was if you repent and turn to me then I will restore and repay you.

“His food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3 v 4)

And what of the honey? Every Jew knows about the honey. When their ancestors were freed they were promised a land flowing with milk and honey.

John looked the part.

Matthew will record Jesus’ words later: ““What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. .” (Matthew 11:7,9)

The outward appearance is important for someone who is a voice calling in the wilderness.

Malachi said Elijah would come again and John certainly looked like him.

The voice of repentance had to have the appearance of rejecting what the world could offer to support its claims.

It is important for us also. Not that we have to walk around looking like John the Baptist! But our voice and our lifestyle needs to match.

Know not only what you are talking about but who you are talking to.

It is not what we believe that is of the greatest concern. You can attend all the courses in the world to become proficient at what you believe but if you cannot use the Koran to reach a Muslim or if you do not know that the Buddhist holds to values such as purity of heart, compassion, charity and humility very similar to Christianity then we are going to struggle to reach them. It is not what you know that is everything it is also what ‘they’ know. You need to build a bridge for them to walk towards you.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 3 v 1-2)

John the Baptist began to preach at a time when the Roman kingdom was all over them. The thought that the prophesied kingdom of David would come again was fading. ‘Will we ever see the kingdom?’ John the Baptist comes and says ‘Yes, it is near.’

But what kind of kingdom is coming?

More to the point will they receive it?

Matthew’s gospel will tell us that the generation of Jesus missed it.

So a similar but hidden question is now posed throughout his gospel, will the readers of this gospel miss the kingdom again?

Matthew will use the phrase 33 times. He prefers to use it rather than the other gospels use of ‘Kingdom of God’.

If he had not used ‘Kingdom of heaven’ his Jewish audience would have turned away instantly for they would not even write the name for God such was their honour of His name.

Matthew knew his audience.

We must know not only what we are talking about but who we are talking to.

Know the context of people’s lives.

Today when you are with people who do not know Christ, try and find out what they do believe. What values do they hold dear? What inspires them? What is the foundation of their life?

Maybe knowing them will mean you use different vocabulary which may give them a better chance to hear what you have to say.

The identity and the context of your life

The enemy of your soul will do all he can to say you haven’t done anything with your life and it simply isn’t true. God has done amazing things through you the great and the small and you should be thankful. And the good news is there is more to come. Most probably the highlights of your life have been the moments when you remained focused on the person God created you to be and you positioned yourself or created the context so that you could give of your best.

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” (Matthew 3 v 1)

Your identity

John, son of Zechariah, yes that’s true. But he was known as John the Baptist because that is what he did. Of course he never called himself that. Nor did he call himself John the Christ or John the Prophet as we discover in John’s gospel. He described himself as a voice calling in the wilderness. Matthew will tell us this soon. The whole world knew him as the Baptist but he thought of himself as a voice. The world wasn’t wrong but what he thought of himself would be what sustained him. If he had truly believed he was the Baptist then when the crowds stopped following him and started following Jesus and the baptisms decreased (see John 3:26) John could have been jealous. But he tells us that we must decrease and Jesus increase. What you think of yourself can block your way. His identity was a voice. We will eventually get to Matthew 14 where on being arrested his baptism ministry had certainly dwindled in size and what was left was his voice. He certainly wasn’t baptising in prison, put there because he spoke up against Herod Antipas divorcing his wife and had taken his brother, Philip’s wife. His voice, his identity, stayed with him to the end. It is important to know who you are and not let your world move you away from what is your true identity.

Your context

Where are you positioned? I have started to play chess recently after many years. The aim is to corner the King so that he cannot move without being destroyed. You do that by getting your pieces into position.

John had positioned himself in the wilderness ready for God. There is no better place than the wilderness. The wilderness is a special place for us in the Bible because it teaches us many lessons from the story of the Israelites. For years we have been preached at to get out of the wilderness but for the Jew they long to be there for it is where God met them the most.

The wilderness years were not wandering years. Nearly 1 year was spent at Mount Sinai where Moses was up and down the mountain getting revelation and instruction for the building of the tabernacle. They then at the foot of Sinai built the tabernacle and then moved on. But for 38 years they were in Kadesh Barnea because spies had brought a bad report, they never moved on and a generation died. Their total travelling time took less than 2 years arriving at the Promised Land with a fresh generation of leaders. It was the wilderness where they died except for 2 men, Joshua and Caleb.

The goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The people at the Exodus are a fearful and frightened people. By the time they get to the Jordan they are ready to fight as an army. It was the wilderness that changed them.

‘Wilderness’ in Hebrew is ‘Midbar’ and it means ‘word’. Where did the Torah (first 5 OT books) come from? It wasn’t from Egypt nor the Promised Land. Where did they encounter God? It was the wilderness where revelation was given and they experienced God.

Further to this we know from Jewish history that the Maccabean armies launched their attacks from the wilderness and that other groups of orders such as the Qumran lived in the desert.

John had purposely left his parents and gone into the desert of Judea to live. This was the context for where he would develop his identity, his voice, in order to fulfil the reason for his life.

Maybe today you will need to make positional decisions to create the context for the next chapter of your life. Maybe you already have and you can describe it as a wilderness. It is probably the best place for you right now.

Your identity and your context are crucial so that the reason for you being here can be fulfilled.

The reason for your life

‘It’s a wonderful life’ made in 1946; ‘Dad’s Army’ made in 1971; ‘Erin Brockovich’ made in the year 2000. Just a few of the films I watched over Christmas that were made 74 years, 49 years and 20 years ago. Each time I watched the film I was caught up in one thought, ‘where has the time gone?’ Life has flown by. Do you ever ask yourself how you got to the age you are today so quickly?

We move to a new chapter. Approximately 25 years have gone by in the turn of a page. The CEV says ‘Years later …’ The NIV says, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” (Matthew 3 v 1) Luke has the gap shorter because we have the story of Jesus as a 12 year old boy in the Temple.

“In those days …” What has happened in those silent years?

Mary and Joseph have had more children. Jesus grew within a family. You also know the security of a family but also perhaps the turmoil that families go through.

Joseph has most probably died. Jesus has known grief. Your loved ones have died also and you have had to contend with all the emotion of that.

Jesus became a carpenter/builder. Jesus has known tiredness and joys of work. You have known the successes but also perhaps the instability of work.

The reason

After a period of time, two men would emerge from different places, one from the Judean desert and the other from Nazareth to fulfil the reason for their life. Yesterday I caught the end of a news report about Marie McCourt who has campaigned for what is called ‘Helen’s Law’ after her daughter who was murdered in 1988 and whose killer has not revealed where her body is. The law will go a long way to make sure that a murderer is not paroled without confessing those important details. Marie McCourt said this, “As a person of faith I believe I have been put here on this earth for this reason, Helen’s law.” Today I will write a eulogy for a funeral I am conducting this week. As in all funerals details will be given of the person’s life. I will speak of perhaps his reason for life was when he and his wife rescued a girl from a difficult life and adopted her. That decision was a turning point for that girl’s life and it could be said the reason for his.

There are high points in our lives that are behind us and in front of us still and we need to highlight them even whilst we are alive and draw encouragement from them. The enemy of your soul will do all he can to say you haven’t done anything with your life and it simply isn’t true. God has done amazing things through you the great and the small and you should be thankful.

I was moved the other day reading an old man’s Facebook status. He had been a minister all his working life. His wife has died and he is struggling with grief. He took some pictures of his new apartment he has moved into and though it could rightfully be said that the most active part of his life is behind him, he wrote how he still has a reason to live, he writes to people to encourage them and he studies the Bible.

We are going to need to adjust throughout this life. Today, the UK has entered into another national lockdown, more adjustments are needed, but the reason for our life continues.

Life passes by very quickly, live in the moment, take your opportunities, adjust and be who you are called to be. Be ready for a new chapter even after many silent years.

God will make a way

Can God trust you? Can you be trusted to follow Him into a situation of uncertainty and to find that He is your peace?

“Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2 v 23)

There is a sense of relief in this verse. He made it. Jesus was born and now was safe growing to become a man. But let us remind ourselves of some of the problems (with a little help from Luke):

Mary had to say yes.

Mary spends 3 months away from Joseph and comes back obviously pregnant.

Joseph was going to divorce her.

There was no room anywhere for them to have the baby.

Threats from Herod.

The mass slaughter of the innocents.

Fleeing to Egypt as refugees.

Threats from Archelaus and the disturbance brought about by his reign.

It is an incredible story.

God restricted His power on earth and chose to use people like you and me to create the miraculous to happen.

When it looks impossible, God can make a way. He can manoeuvre and change circumstances so that His will, will be done.

At any time God could have sent the army of angels not with a message but with the instruction to supernaturally open the way for Jesus to be born in peace and safety. He is still the God of the Exodus and the God of the parting of the Red Sea.

One thing is clear – we are called to walk by faith.

To walk through the Christmas story, from one place to the next and waiting for further instructions, it calls for faith.

The birth of Jesus shows us that God will make a way when there seems to be no way.

Can God trust you to walk with Him? Just hold on to Him and wait to see what He does next.

The ways of God are sometimes the long way

Can God trust you?

Can you be trusted to go into a situation of real need and to rely on His provision? Can you be trusted to be taken into a situation of pain and to rely on His presence to comfort you?

“But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2 v 22-23)

They have stopped on the way. It was all going so well. They had left Egypt on the exciting news that Herod was dead. They began dreaming again. But then they hear the bad news.

God sees things that we do not see. He not only sees the things that happen to us but also the things that could have happened to us. Egypt to Bethlehem was a lot shorter route than Egypt to Nazareth. The long way round is often the hardest way. But I am not thinking in terms of miles and distance but with the circumstances of those moments of the journey.

“Having been warned in a dream …” What was that warning? Was it a warning not to go to Jerusalem or Bethlehem? No. Joseph had already paused the journey afraid to go there. He would not need any warning not to go there. Perhaps it was a warning not to go back to Egypt. There are times when the return looks like a place of comfort, safety and an easier life then continuing forward. Perhaps it was a warning to overcome their fears of Nazareth. Mary’s hometown, the place of conception and the place of stigma. The long way round is often the hardest way.

Let’s remind ourselves that the ultimate reason why Jesus came was His death and resurrection.

But how did Jesus get there? Born in a humble village of Bethlehem, becoming an asylum seeker in Egypt and then raised in a town of Nazareth. Nazarenes were despised people and he would be called one of them.

From infancy to childhood, childhood to boyhood, boyhood to teens, teens to manhood, thirty years of living in Nazareth. What went on in that time, we do not know.

For thirty years, the vast majority of his life on earth, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, under the direct guidance of God the Father, lived amongst the poorest people and in total obscurity.

That is the long way round.

Your name may not be known. You may not have a place, title or position. You may struggle to make ends meet. You may not have what others want you to have. You may not have that perfect job, that perfect spouse, perfect children, you may feel alone, unwanted and unknown.

You may describe your life as being lived the long and hard way.

But can God trust you to remain in relationship with Him in Nazareth?

The ways of God are sometimes puzzling.

Can God trust you? Can God trust you to keep hold of faith even when you don’t know what is going on?

Our lives are not simple. They are not run like a GPS in the car telling us the quickest and easiest route to take. There seems to be many routes and sometimes the way God leads us down can be puzzling.

“After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.” (Matthew 2 v 19-22)

It doesn’t matter where you are, God can speak to you – even in Egypt.

Herod is dead. It feels like the whole world is relieved. In his 36 year reign there was hardly a day went by that someone wasn’t sentenced to death. The Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote of what happened at the time and you can easily access this. When Herod died, there was a fight between his sons on who would be king. In an earlier will, Herod had given the title to Antipas, but then changed the will to Archelaus. It was to be settled in Rome before Caesar who in the end compromised by making Antipas Herod over Galilee and answerable only to Rome, whereas Archelaus was not given the title Herod but ‘Ethnarch’ meaning ‘National leader’ over Samaria and Judea. But whilst all that shenanigans was taking place in Rome, there was uprisings in Jerusalem. Three would-be heroes who all claimed the title ‘king of the jews’ formed guerrilla armies and ransacked towns that were pro-Roman. Though they looked for divine intervention none came and they were all killed. Archelaus made his mark by appointing his own High Priest, Joezer, for the Temple. Jerusalem pilgrims from across the world became involved and protested against this decision and 3,000 were killed on one day.

Why is that all important? It is because of the verses we read.

They are returning home. They were both delighted. This is a breakthrough that God has given them. A window of opportunity to go back and start a life there. Can you imagine the conversation they had on the way back? Where shall we live? ‘Let’s live near Jerusalem where the Temple is’, ‘what about Bethlehem?’ ‘I wonder who will replace Herod? Thank God that He got rid of that evil wicked king!’ It was always going to be Judea, they had spent 2-3 years there already and they knew it well. One place they were not prepared to go was their hometown Nazareth. Facing the stigma of their story was not where they believed they should start their lives out of exile.

But as they near Israel they begin to hear of what has been happening. They hear of what we read from Josephus and more. Joseph is told about this new leader called Archelaus who sounded worse than his father.

Do you understand what it is to walk into a puzzle? You see God move and then it looks like He didn’t or it just gets worse? You get healed and then it looks like the healing is lost? You get provision and then it looks like it wasn’t God who provided?

Why didn’t God reveal the whole situation back in Egypt? In exile he holds back the successor to Herod and the stories of what was taking place. Sometimes it appears that we are not ready to receive all the information.

Do you know what that is like?

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod he was afraid to go there”

It is a situation of being tempted to believe that God hasn’t done anything in the first place, it was just your mind in overdrive, you read into what wasn’t there.

BUT is the greatest enemy to your obedience. It is usually followed by FEAR. That pincer moment usually causes us to go nowhere. We have stopped moving forward and we don’t know what to do.

We know these verses really well, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

If this story is describing you then it would seem that the best thing you can do is to wait. The next move is God’s. Wait for Him. Keep trustworthy. God will move again.

A Hope full New Year!

Herod, outwitted, now furious, orders something to be carried out that is evil to the core. Bethlehem did not have a large population, some think the number was around twenty but it surely impacted the whole town.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2: 16-18)

The Jews knew the prophecy, but we need reminding.

(Jeremiah 31: 15-17) “This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. Your children will return to their own land.”

Six hundred years before Christ was born in the context of the captivity of Jerusalem. It must have seemed like God had deserted his people when they were deported by the Babylonians. Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping as the exiles pass her tomb in Ramah on the way to a strange land.

Matthew only records part of the prophecy but his readers knew the whole of it. Through Jeremiah, God was saying there is hope.

The mothers of Bethlehem were crying out. They were victims of evil. Why?! Is their cry.

The slaughter of the innocents happened, Jesus had been born.

The King of Egypt ordered the new born males to be killed and Moses had been born.

Identical beginnings and it reveals Jesus is greater than Moses.

From the beginning of his life and at the end of his life on the cross we see a violent and terrible world. A world that He came to redeem.

For Jesus, the greater Moses, living between the atrocities of Christmas and the cross came to redeem our lives but also to show us that that gospel message can survive the most dire of circumstances.

If the gospel can survive the violence of Christmas and the vulgarity of the cross it can survive anywhere in the world and in any circumstance.

So no longer do we need to say, ‘Where are you in this?’

For as we see the total vulnerability of God to expose Himself to the atrocities surrounding His incarnation, we see He exists in pain and suffering.

What is He doing there?

He is delivering us. He is bringing us out of the hell of the pain.

He is doing it not through a law but grace. Grace upon grace. Continual grace.

He is here. And where He is there is hope.

I know something of the tears, pain, bitterness and the questions – why? Why did that happen?

As we start out this year we don’t know what will come our way exactly. But there will be death. It was all around us in 2020. Death of relationships. Death of dreams and death of loved ones. Am I a pessimist? No, the opposite, but we know it is true. At those times we also know that we can feel hopeless. The meaninglessness can overwhelm us if we don’t let hope rise within us. May this year be a hope filled one! In the midst of your pain you will find Him, HOPE will be there, He always is.