God in the Desert
If you want God, you will find Him in the quiet of the desert.
Elijah had fled to the wilderness, for forty days and forty nights, until reaching Mount Horeb. Once there, he climbed up into a cave and fell asleep, to be woken by a voice saying, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (I King 19:11).
What follows is one of the most striking moments in scripture.
“A great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces…but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”
God was in that still, small voice.
The wind, the rocks, earthquake and fire shook the mountain before Elijah, but he kept his cool and waited. He knew God too well to mistake him for these, for our God never comes in chaos and cacophony. He comes in stillness and quiet. And so, on that day on the mountain, Elijah waited for the calm.
In Hebrew, the word used here to describe the still voice is דְּמָמָ֥ה (de-ma’-nah): a light blowing; a gentle, quiet whisper of a voice. He had gone out into the desert to find God, and God came in the de-ma’-nah.
In the Book of Job, Eliphaz describes his divine encounter in a similar way, “A spirit passed by my face,” he says, “The hair of my flesh bristled up… There was silence (דְּמָמָ֥ה; de-ma’-nah), then I heard a voice…” (Job 4:16).
The pattern continues through the scriptures.
If you want God, you will find Him in the quiet of the desert.
This morning, we’ve read another scripture about a journey into the desert. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
The gospel story has been building up, as we’ve experienced in the Church calendar. The Son of God was born in the manger and matured under the care of Mary and Joseph. Finally, the day came for His ministry to begin. He knelt down by the bank of Jordan and John the Baptist Him plunged into the waters. Talk about a climax. Heaven itself opened up, the Father’s voice declared His pleasure with his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove. But immediately after this revelation, the Son of God was whisked away into the desert…to be tempted.
It sounds like an odd way to conclude the baptism.
But isn’t that how it goes?
When we sign up for a life in Christ, we have to expect something similar. The journey begins with the commitment, and, though a rich journey, it’s full of temptations and trials. The minute we reach out to God, we experience resistance, spiritual friction, little thoughts cast in our head to try to tempt us and pull us down. But here Christ teaches us not to worry.
God allowed His son to be tempted in the desert, and He allows you to be tempted in the desert. But in both cases, God is present.
But why does God allow us to be tempted?
Why the crucifixion before the resurrection?
In his first epistle, St. Peter writes: “By his great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,” St. Peter explains, and the he goes on to say, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Peter 1:3-7).
Our savior was whisked off to the desert to be tempted, because God the Father was preparing Him for something. God brings us through hard times for the same reason – for we too have to be prepared for the Kingdom. God allows us to suffer because He loves us – for it’s only through suffering that we can be refined, like gold in fire – and for a purpose more profound then we could ever imagine.
It takes trust, and the cup is bitter to the taste, but it’s also life-giving.
Fulton Sheen once said that anyone who teaches the resurrection without the crucifixion is demonic.
There is no crown without a cross, and the crown far outshines the cross.
In his epistle, St. James looks at this too, and encourages us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” he explains, “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-8).
Sometimes, this verse can sound like masochistic. I definitely don’t feel like rejoicing when times are rough, but there’s something here very true, which we have to take to heart. When you find yourself in the desert, don’t fear, God has lead you there, He will walk you through it, and He has a banquet prepared on the other side.
How is it possible to rejoice while suffering?
Perhaps by simply anchoring your heart, soul, and thoughts on the hope that Jesus Christ promises us.
Look at the Crucifix, and place your suffering on Him. It was on the Cross that Christ was Crowned. Christ walked through the doors of pain and death and stepped out into the Resurrection. When we unite ourselves to Him, then He carries us through those doors too, and into a paradise so profound that once there, we will wish that we could have suffered more here on earth, if only to experience the sweetness of paradise more deeply.
There’s a wonderful little detail in this passage about the desert. After Christ has passed the test and stood firm through all the temptations, it says that “angels came suddenly and waited on Him.” The word for ‘waited,’ in Greek, is ‘diakonieo.’ This is where you get the word ‘deacon.’ Originally, it was used to describe those waiting on tables to serve food. How ironic that the devil tempted Him with a little bread, but afterwards, Christ was rewarded by a heavenly banquet. And so, we too, by holding onto Christ when the waves beat on us, will be treated to a banquet with God for eternity.
What is the desert that God is leading you through?
Is it loss of friends and family? Is it the frightening uncertainty of what lays before you at a new chapter of your life? Is it poor health or simply old age?
Billy Graham once said, “Old age is not for sissies.” And that’s no joke. But it isn’t a mistake that God allows us to get old, nor is it an accident of nature that we have to suffer.
God loves you and is preparing you for something, and if we make it to the end we’ll look back and say, “God was with me all along, and that season of trials was the best thing that could have happened.”
Trust God and keep your eyes fixed on Him.
And what does all this say to us, this first Sunday of Lent?
Listen to the devil’s first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
There’s nothing wrong with eating a little bread, but Christ was making a point here, and this is the whole point of fasting during Lent.
The devil tempted Him with bread, and a particular kind of bread, the bread that is a substitute for God. This bread symbolizes anything in life that replaces God: money, fashion, our work, our friends, and even our family. Whenever we get so wrapped up in something that it takes priority over God or the Church, then we are eating the devil’s bread.
But Christ offers another solution: the “Word of God.”
The Church encourages us to fast through these 40 days of Lent for a practical reason.
Everyone knows that when you’re heartbroken you eat chocolate. It actually has a physiological effect. Chocolate releases the same chemicals in your brain as kissing (or at least that’s what they told me). Food has a way of comforting the heart. But in this same way, we can use food to quench the yearning in our heart that was meant for God. A little chocolate when you’re love-sick is okay, but you don’t want chocolate to become a substitute for a relationship with a person. In the same way, you don’t want food to be a substitute for loving God.
We spend so much time stuffing ourselves with creation that we forget to stuff ourselves with the Creator.
We settle for mere bread instead of the awesome Word of God.
And fasting isn’t just about the belly; it’s about the whole person. Whether it’s the food we eat, the busy social life, the drive of one’s career, or simply, the constant noise around us – all of these have a way of making us forget about our relationship with God.
Adultery, fornication, ambition…we fall for these because we’re hungry, but we aren’t looking in the right place. We settle for too little, taking the devil’s bread instead of waiting for the angels’ banquet.
This is why Lent comes to us.
So the Church brings us to Lent, now, and gives us each a chance to step out into the desert. Eat a little less, turn down the noise, and spend more time quietly before God – This is the desert in the heart – and don’t get distracted by the thoughts (be they in the form of a storm, an earthquake or fire) – and listen for the de-ma’-nah – that still, quiet whisper.
God is in the desert, so go out and find Him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.