Lessons in the desert

By B.J. Funk

If his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, had asked a young John what he would be when he grew up, he likely had no response. But, fast forward the story of John to his adulthood, and hear his firm answer: “I am the voice of one who cries from the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord.” He even qualifies what kind of voice he is. Not just any voice, but the voice. John knows his calling. He knows who he is. He is the voice that cries in preparation for the Holy One who would later cry over Jerusalem.

How did he know? How can you and I know what God has in mind for us? Can we be as sure as John was?

The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his child would be great in the sight of the Lord, being filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Gabriel said that John would bring people back to the Lord. Since no prophecy had been heard in 400 years, imagine the delight of his parents when their son was handpicked by God! It must have taken tremendous restraint for Zechariah and Elizabeth not to brag on their boy to the neighbors.

Luke 3:2 reads, “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert.” John went to a quiet place where he had plenty of time to focus on God. Away from the call of the streets, the lure of his mother’s home-cooked meals, and the companionship of friends, John found a place of solitude with the One who prepared him for his life’s work. In the quietness of each evening, John had nothing to do but listen to his Maker. Their enviable companionship led John to reject everything that hindered him from his mission.

With nothing holding him to home, John made a new home for himself, rejecting the standard robe and headdress of the day for clothes of camel skin and a leather belt. He didn’t care about trying to impress anyone. He only cared about hearing God and doing his will. He did not want the praise of men; instead, he wanted the praise of God.

If homesickness or the longing for human contact ever bothered John, we are never told. In his conversations with God in the wilderness, John finds a riddle to throw out when he begins his ministry: “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (John 1:15). In that challenging sentence, John highlights the preexistence of Jesus and makes a bold statement graced with humility. For John, the emphasis would always be on Jesus. He reiterated that in his words recorded in John 3:30, “I must decrease and he must increase.”

John came out of the wilderness with a message burning in his heart. His first sermon would not have passed the pastoral committee of the church. He called the crowd a “brood of vipers” and chastised them for thinking their spiritual lives were on target just because they had Abraham as their ancestor.

If we are looking to John as a role model for seeking God’s will, then going to the desert must be a part of our plan. Sometimes, we go there intentionally. Other times, we are put there due to a tragedy, a sickness, or the death of a loved one. Whatever the reason, the desert has some lessons for you. God will join you there as you determine to pull away from the crowd and let him touch you with a new focus. Your desert won’t likely be an actual wilderness. Your desert might be within the walls of your own home, in the winds of financial distress, or in the devastation of unwanted news that turns your life upside-down.

My desert experiences bring me to my knees first and then move me forward. God uses the quiet time away from the crowd to talk to me. I know if I ever want to get out of the sand and walk once again on the road of life, I must listen. Times of desert difficulties make me see Romans 8:28 in a more meaningful way. “…and we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him….” Every time, God uses my deserts for the good of my spiritual life. He pours fountains of living water into my soul and sends manna I did not know I needed. I am richer because of lessons in the desert.

None of us wants a desert. It’s dry and lonely. Just as he knew John needed to pull away to hear his voice, God knows what it takes to teach you who you are. Allow your desert experiences to mold you into God’s plan. When you come out, you will be ready to decrease so that Jesus can increase. Don’t be afraid of your desert. God will meet you there.

B.J. Funk (bjfunk@bellsouth.net) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.

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