MESSAGE FOR MAY 20, 2001 FROM DEUTERONOMY 8:1-20
(Message #9 from a brief series on the life of Moses)
This week, we continue our series of messages on the life and ministry of Moses. Up to this point, we have surveyed a number of the significant events of his life. The last few weeks, we have highlighted texts that speak of the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness. It was a time filled with rebellion against God and last week we saw that even Moses was not immune to that sin. Just a few months before leading a new generation of Jews into the Promised Land, we saw in Numbers 20 that Moses too succumbs to the temptation to rebellion and unbelief. So he, like the others before him, is sentenced to die in the wilderness, never to enter the Promised Land. This week, we meet Moses and God’s people after Moses’ sin in the book of Deuteronomy. This book deals with a narrow slice of history just a few months before Moses dies. Deuteronomy is primarily a series of sermons given by Moses while the people are in Moab near the Jordan, poised to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Jews a series of teachings about God and his covenant to prepare them for their soon entrance into Canaan. Deuteronomy, because it is so explicitly theological in its tone, has been called “the Romans of the Old Testament.” Deuteronomy is an incredibly rich source of truth about God and how he relates to his covenant people. We pick up this morning at one of these messages given by Moses to the people as he teaches them some vital truths necessary for them to continue in God’s blessing in the Promised Land.
The text for this morning is fascinating because in this message, Moses reflects on the 40 spent in the wilderness and he provides some new insights into why God put them there. If you read texts like Numbers 14 where the people rebel against God in unbelief and God proposes to totally annihilate them and begin anew with Moses, God only gives one purpose for the wilderness. The 40 years in the wilderness according to Numbers 14 is punitive. Verse 34 is pretty clear about God’s purpose for the wilderness, “For forty years--one year for each of the forty days you explored the land--you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.” God makes no bones about it. The wilderness was a large-scale woodshed and God was going to take Israel to that woodshed for 40 years because of their rebellion against Him. The wilderness obviously was intended to be punitive.
But here in Deuteronomy eight, when the wilderness experience is almost over, God reveals through Moses another purpose for the wilderness. He more fully interprets the wilderness experience. He says in verses two and 16 that God brought the children of Israel into the wilderness to “humble you and test you.” But what does that mean? This morning we want to see God’s additional purposes for the wilderness because all sincere Christians will spend significant amounts of time there. In every believer’s life there are seasons, sometimes extended seasons, where they find themselves under hardship. It may be illness or loss or other major life changes. The storms of life beat against all of us. There are times of deprivation—deprivation of health or comfort or ease or financial security. There are times of suffering and persecution and for the faithful, sometimes it’s intense. Then there are times when we are spiritually in the wilderness. We just don’t sense God’s presence. We sense a detachment from God. He doesn’t seem to be hearing our prayers. Our times in prayer and the word seem forced and obligatory—the joy is gone. We wonder if he still loves us.
Our sin is often contributes to that, but it may be more than just a season of luke-warmness. It is a manifest sense that God has in some way taken his hand off of us. The mystics called it “the dark night of the soul.” We know that he will never leave us or forsake us, but we long for the time when He will again reveal himself to us and renew the vitality of our walk with him. Because this text explains to the Jews why God put them in the wilderness and God doesn’t change, it is also of tremendous value to us in helping us see why God puts us through those times. Here are four reasons from the text why God takes us into the wilderness experiences of life—the deprivation and the difficulties that come with that.
The first reason is found in verse two. Moses says God led them into the wilderness “to humble you and test you “in order to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commands.” In verse 16 he again repeats the purpose “to humble you and to test you…”
That’s really the main purpose under which all the other purposes should be grouped. God uses the wilderness to humble and to test. Another way to put that would be to say that God puts us in the wilderness to show us how weak we are and how rebellious we are. He humbles us in times of deprivation. That is, he brings us to the end of ourselves to show us how weak we are and how desperately we need him. And he tests us to show us what is really in our hearts. One of the most toxic, faith-killing conditions a believer can fall into is self-deception. The wilderness has a uniquely powerful way of revealing what is truly in our hearts—how spiritually mature and God-centered we really are. Frankly, when times are comparatively easy, it is very difficult to know the state of our heart. We are like those big, organic sponges. If you dip one of those dry sponges in colored water, the water immediately migrates in toward the center. You can’t tell what color liquid is filling the sponge by just looking at it. But when pressure is applied, what is inside the sponge oozes out, revealing what was inside. We’re like that too. It’s often not until God applies pressure—the pressures of tribulation and trial that we discover whether our hearts are truly filled with faith or whether we have been on cruise control—trusting in ourselves. When we are squeezed by the difficult times of the wilderness, what is inside our hearts comes out. God uses wilderness seasons of our life to show us the truth about our attitudes toward him.
We must understand that God doesn’t need the Jews to go through the wilderness experience to reveal Him what is in their hearts. The purpose of the wilderness was not because He needed to be informed of the Jews’ heart condition. God knows what is in the heart of man. Psalm 139 says, “You [God] perceive my thoughts from afar…Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O my Lord.” God has no need to be schooled about what is in the hearts of the Jews but the Jews do. They were like us—often quite uniformed about what is in our hearts—what our true motives and priorities were. Why do we serve God? How spiritually mature are we? Just how much faith do we have? How much do we rely on God as opposed to our own strengths and abilities and resources? In the wilderness, the Jews discovered where their hearts were toward God in the midst of all their griping and moaning. Their horrible, self-centered attitudes in the midst of the wilderness crucible powerfully revealed what was in their hearts. If, when we are pressed, when we are tested, we react in anger or frustration or bitterness or complaining, we must understand that is what has been in our hearts all along. Think about it. If we are truly showing the fruit of THE SPIRIT and the source of our fruit is the Holy Spirit, will that be effected in the tough times? No! The Holy Spirit is not constricted by our circumstances. The trial doesn’t CREATE spiritual immaturity. All the trial does is squeeze out of our hearts what has long been inside them. Its as we see our weakness in the wilderness and our profound need for God and as we see our sinfulness and repent that part of God’s purpose for the wilderness is fulfilled.
A second reason for the wilderness is found in verse three. Moses says of God, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” God uses the wilderness to teach the primacy of God and his kingdom in our life. The wilderness times of our lives play a crucial role in causing us to focus on what should be truly primary and central in our lives. God says in essence to these Jews, “I took your food away from you and gave you one menu item that was intended only to enable you to survive. I put you in a place where the central need of physical life—sustenance, was brought down to only survival levels to show you that your life is not about food.” Jesus reiterates this sentiment in Matthew 6:25 when he asks, “Is not life more than food and the body [more] than clothing?” What Jesus is saying and what is implied in verse three here is that we are strongly tempted to reduce life on this planet down to meeting our material needs and wants.
We are physical, material beings with material needs and wants and we live in a material, physical universe. But we are also spiritual beings living in a spiritual kingdom. And the great temptation and the great, ongoing battle we must daily fight is to keep the spiritual values and priorities ahead of the physical, material needs and wants. And the reason that is hard is because of the truth Paul spells out in 2 Corinthians 4:18. He says, “…what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Those things we are to place first in our lives, those things related to Christ, his righteousness, and his kingdom are unseen. We don’t see Jesus and the spiritual world--but the food, the money, the houses, the clothes—the material part of our existence, we can see those things. So, the key to living for Christ’s kingdom is faith which is living as if the unseen elements are the most important ones to us. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Faith is placing ultimate value on what you don’t see and LIVING as if that which is unseen, God and his kingdom, is of ultimate value to us.
That’s the life of faith in a nutshell—that’s living a life pleasing to God—placing God and his spiritual kingdom (both unseen) above this material world and our material and physical needs and wants. The question is: how do we learn to place ultimate value on what is unseen—the spiritual, over that which is seen, the material? One powerful way God teaches us is, He takes away the material to show us that life, true, meaningful, deep, satisfying life doesn’t go away when the material things are taken away. That which we most deeply need is not found in a meal or a house or health or our sense of security. How do we discover that horribly important truth? One way is, God takes the material away so that we can see that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Its no accident that Jesus quotes this verse to Satan when, near starvation in the wilderness, Satan tempts him with food. He draws strength to overcome this temptation by telling Satan that his life was not about food, about satisfying his material needs and wants. Neither He nor we are simply food consumption units. We are children of God in a spiritual kingdom. We must arrange our values to be consistent with who we really are.
If we are in a time of deprivation, our fleshly, carnal response will be just as the Jews was. We’ll gripe, we’ll complain, we’ll whine. If that is our predominant response to deprivation, God has just shown us that the material, the physical IS INDEED more important than the spiritual and we are idolaters just like the Jews. Because when the material is taken away, we fall flat on our faces. If the spiritual is primary—Christ and his kingdom--and the material is taken away, what will our response be? It will be to use the time of deprivation to grow closer to him—it will be to strengthen our faith in him, to trust in his gracious provision rather than to whine and moan about why he hasn’t provided yet. This is a testing time, but it is also a time for us to discover that our life is not about food or comfort or health or wealth—it’s about Jesus. Times of material deprivation can be wonderful times of feasting on God and indeed are intended by God to be so. God is a jealous God and if our hearts are being drawn away from Him by the blessings of this life, he is free to take them away so that we might return with passion to Him, our first love, our highest call, our great God. Its when much of what we value materially is taken away from us that we discover in new, powerful ways that our life is in God, not in what this world has to offer. Though we are IN this world, we are not of this world,…our citizenship is in heaven and that should be where our hearts are as well, not anchored to this world by comfort or wealth.
A third reason for the wilderness is God uses the wilderness to teach us his faithfulness to provide for us. Verse four says, “Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.” In a crowd this size there are probably some here today who have clothes they’ve had for twenty years. For most of us, they don’t fit because OUR problem is not deprivation, but plenty and the plenty generally ends up around our wastes. But if you are the same size and weight you were 20 years ago, and you have worn the same set of two or three outfits and one pair of shoes, what kind of shape do you suppose they would be in? They would be rags because clothing and shoe fibers deteriorate. The Jews, whose clothes and shoes were subject to scorching, dry conditions and hard wear, never wore out. That’s a miracle. And these Jews who spent forty years, much of it on the move, wandering around like Nomads in the hot desert sand—they never had swollen feet! For anyone who is on their feet, you know that is a miracle. The point is, God miraculously provided for their wardrobe and physical health needs.
It’s self evident that we never really know experientially God’s faithfulness to provide for our needs until we actually HAVE some needs. How can we with certainty say we are genuinely trusting God for our finances or our health or other survival needs if we have never been in need? How can we ever truly say that we are trusting God in those areas until we have been put in places where, if God didn’t do a miracle, we wouldn’t make it? God shows us his faithfulness to provide us with strength or money or housing or other basic needs by allowing us to be in want. The text literally says in verse three that “God let you be hungry.” That sounds like foreign language to a church culture that often tacitly assumes God exists to satisfy our all needs. God let these people be hungry. They were hungry because God let them be hungry. Now, that thought will give us a headache from the inner conflict unless we remember that God doesn’t exist for us, but we exist for God.
God created us for his glory and one way that he is glorified in us is by showing us that he is good and faithful to provide for our needs. In order for us to see his faithfulness, he will sometimes put his children in want so we will more clearly see that He is faithful. Why do you suppose God let these people wander for 40 years in a place that is uninhabitable? Verse 15 says it was a “vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpion.” What better place to show God’s unique capacity to provide water than in a place where there is no water? What better place to show God’s power to provide food for 2 million people than in a desert where there is no food to speak of? What better place for God to show his glory in protecting his people than in a place filled with venomous vermin? The wilderness was a veritable showcase for God’s faithfulness. The Jews reaction, if they had been God centered instead of self centered, would have been NOT to complain, but to marvel at how God brings water from a rock and manna from heaven and clothes that don’t wear out and feet that don’t swell. But in order to adopt that attitude, you have to be making God’s glory your agenda, not your own comfort. Times of deprivation should be times of great adventure for the mature believer. “Boy, I don’t know how I’m gonna get out of this one—God is going to have to do something utterly fantastic this time.”
A fourth reason for the wilderness is, God uses the wilderness to prepare us for times of blessing. The whole context screams this. This is a time of preparation for Israel and here Moses intermingles words about God’s reasons for the wilderness with glimpses of the bounty of the Promised Land. Verse seven and eight describe it as “…a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, … “ (verse nine) “a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.” We see the connection between the wilderness and preparation for the coming prosperity in verses 15-17. In verses 15-16 he relates the severe hardship of the desert. Then, without missing a beat, verse 17 looks ahead to future prosperity and says literally says, “Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth. But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”
The text is clear that there is a big danger associated with material prosperity. Verses 10-11 spell it out, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.” Do you hear in that text there are two possible responses to material prosperity? The first, the one God commands is, “Praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” The second is forgetting God and that is expressed two ways. The first is in disobedience, “Failing to observe his commands, his laws and decrees…” The second is in verse 17, “…you may say in your heart, `My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.” Here we see the specific potential dangers of prosperity which we are ALL susceptible to in this immensely prosperous culture and both of these dangers stem from pride.
Material prosperity tempts us to pride first by a desire for self-rule—“I know better than God—I don’t need to do what He says— that’s disobedience.” Second, material prosperity tempts us to pride through a desire for self-sufficiency, “I made my money—I worked for every cent of it—my hands and MY strength, my cleverness, my resourcefulness have brought it to me.” When things are going well for us, the temptation is to become self-focused. We are spending so much time and money and energy on ourselves, it follows quite naturally. In that context, God is quickly forgotten—not mentally—we may still be going to church three times a week. But we forget God in the sense that there is no sense of dependence upon him and no sense of need for his Lordship or His provision in our lives. WE can do it—after all, look how wonderfully we’ve made it up to this point!
Do you see the point? God uses the wilderness to humble us so as to protect us from the pride that so easily slips into our lives in times of prosperity. The final manifestation of this pride is seen in verse 19, “If you forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” Do you see the progression here on these two tracks? On the one hand, if you have a heart that has been humbled by the wildernesses of life, you will react to prosperity as in verse 10 “Praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given…” Humble hearts are grateful hearts. But on the other hand, if your heart has not been humbled by the wildernesses, then prosperity can bring nothing less than shipwreck to your faith. You will forget God by disobeying him, by taking credit for his blessings that brings idolatry of self and of God’s gifts which leads to destruction. The wilderness brings humility if we respond appropriately to it and “God gives grace to the humble, but opposes the proud.”
This has so many applications to it, but one is to parents. In light of this text, why on earth do so many Christian parents feel it is their God-given responsibility to keep their children from as much discomfort and deprivation as possible? We need to ask ourselves, how is my parenting informed and influenced by the truth of the potential dangers of material prosperity? If that truth has little or no influence in our parenting, we may very well end up with grown offspring who are shielded, sheltered and set up for shipwreck because the storms will blow. Second, is this the way we look at the difficulties—the wilderness experiences of our lives? Do we look for God’s hand or do we just gripe about it. Do we see the incredible value trials have in showing us the true condition of our heart? Do we live as if God and his kingdom is THE central issue of our lives? Wildernesses have a wondrous way of showing us our true focus. Do we, who live in such a prosperous culture where everyone has SO much, really celebrate God’s faithfulness, or do we just assume God HAS to give us his blessings? The wilderness powerfully shows us God’s faithfulness. And do we have humble hearts that are filled to the brim with gratitude or have we forgotten God through disobedience and/or self-sufficiency? May God give us grace to learn the lessons of the wilderness.
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