Today’s Text and Thought of Encouragement:
“For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation and adorn the wretched with victory. Let the saints be joyful in the glory and beauty which God confers upon them: let them sing for joy upon their beds.”
“How comprehensive is the love of Jesus! There is no part of His people’s interest that He does not consider, and there is nothing that concerns their welfare that is not important to Him…The breadth of His tender love is such that you may resort to Him in all matters.”
C. H. Spurgeon
Today’s Study Text:
“When Jesus heard of it, He departed thence by ship into a desert place apart.”
“Into A Desert Place Apart”
“The lives that are getting stronger are lives in the desert, deep-rooted in God.”
What do I think it would mean, in a personal way in my life, to have a “desert” time apart?
How can “solitary” time alone with God help me better understand His will for my life?
“The desert…is a place of revelation. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.”
Clergyman and Author
“God is an infinite stillness. Your soul, if it is to be united with the Lord, must partake of His stillness.”
As we have studied the first twelve verses in Matthew 14, it has become evident that this was a turbulent time in history. With violent rulers in power, lone voices speaking up for what was right were definitely not appreciated. I received a broader understanding of the impact of “the Herods” – father and son – on the 34-year period of time from Jesus’ birth to His death, in the enlightening commentary written by Stanley Hauerwas on the book of Matthew. I learned a great deal from the way he described the setting for the amazing miracles of Jesus found in Matthew 14. Here’s how Hauerwas paints his word-picture:
“Matthew (after chapter 13) suddenly injects into the story he is telling about Jesus the story of the death of John the Baptist. The story of John’s death is a mini novel that helps us understand the kind of world into which Jesus has come and to which He is an alternative. It is the only story in the Gospel where Jesus does not appear and that is why it is so important. The story of the murder of John is a story of the world of power, sex, and intrigue. It is a story about our world – the one Jesus challenges, the one for which He is the alternative.”
I find the line, “for which He is the alternative,” to be at the heart of our study text for today, and here’s why. Jesus came to earth not just to talk about the stark realities which portray the core differences between His heavenly kingdom and the earthly kingdom established by one throne laid brutally upon another. Instead, Jesus wanted to show us by the way He lived everyday, why the choice of His kingdom was a better choice. Jesus’ world was not one of force and greed and terror. It was with the heavenly goal of revealing this truth everyday in a life lived in humble service, that Jesus sought to give those whose lives He touched, a true picture of His Father’s world – the kingdom of love that would not pass away.
The world Jesus came into as a baby and had to survive in as a young man was not a perfect world. In fact, it was a fragile world, stripped apart by the greed of those who stomped on the poor in their hunger for wealth. It was a world occupied by brutal, foreign powers whose intimidating tactics left women widows and children fatherless. It was a world where might did not produce right. And where doing the right thing could leave you headless. This was Jesus’ world. The real world He lived in. This is why Matthew, a former tax-collector who understood all too well the world of Jesus, took the time to give his readers a glimpse into what Jesus was up against in His ministry. But what’s more, at the crux of Matthew’s message is the detailed depicting of two options -- open to those individuals who lived on earth during Jesus’ life and I might add, down through history. Call this a picture of two “alternative” universes. Herod’s world of force, greed, and lust. Jesus’ world of humility, peace and joy. But don’t forget – the humility, the peace and the joy in Jesus’ world, as Jesus was quick to remind us, are not the same as what we think these qualities are all about.
For Jesus, as for you and me, the human ability to survive in these opposing worlds was not easy. And so, as our text today tells us, Jesus didn’t just up and take off to “get away” from everybody and their needs because He didn’t care about what was going on in their lives. Quite the opposite. Jesus went away to a place apart, or as some versions of the Bible translate this passage, to a place of solitude, in order that the purpose of His work on earth would never be diverted. It was His Father’s purpose which was central to everything He did, every day of His life.
Having lived in desert regions for much of my own life, I find the fact that the choice Jesus made to go away to the desert was an extremely wise one. Something I’ve done more than once in my own life. The description of “desert living” by Rene Voillaune, a French spiritual writer, best describes to me what I have learned from an “apart to the desert” experience:
“The desert bears the sign of man’s complete helplessness as he can do nothing to subsist alone and by himself, and thus discovers his weakness and the necessity of seeking help and strength in God.”
Having been camping out in the “desert wilds” as we called them when I was young, I’ve found that what Voillaune shares is absolutely true. If you are to survive in the desert, it most likely is not on your own ingenuity – even if you believe that to be true.
From the viewpoint of a grander spiritual experience in what may be referred to as a wilderness, as Jacques Ellul so pointedly explains, “The desert is the place where human powers must be renounced. In the desert there can be no more trickery, no illusions as to getting out by one’s own means, no possibility of placing hope in natural sources of help.”
After hearing about John’s death, I don’t find it a bit unnatural for Jesus to head into the desert – a place of solitude. But even more, a place where Jesus understood that not just on one day, but on everyday, total dependency on His Father was the only way He could get across the wilderness we call life. And this is why Jesus went apart into the desert. He longed to focus – to see through the fog of grief – and penetrate the pain of loss. John’s death served only as a brutal reminder to Jesus of the path He, Himself would soon tread. It was indicative of what Jesus would face. And thus, for a brief time I believe Jesus longed to hear more clearly, His Father’s voice, uninterrupted by the turmoil and noise of daily life.
In a short prayer, author Ruth Duck beautifully expresses the way each of us can absorb our Father’s presence in our own lives when we are led to come apart into a desert place:
“God of the wilderness, God of the wastelands of our lives, lead us apart to those places where we hear Your Word most clearly. In the startling awareness…may we order our lives with repentance and with compassion. Sift from our lives the useless chaff…through the grace of Jesus Christ.”
“The desert…means the presence of God.”
“Lord of the shadows in my life
of the dry and dusty places
where cobwebs hang
the light burns low.
You are my help, Lord,
through all the thorny places
when pain runs through my soul.
Hold my hand, Lord,
as we walk together
in the shadow of Your wings.
Help me, Lord,
to sing Your song
of life renewed
through water in the desert
and manna for the soul.”
Dorothy Valcárcel, Author
When A Woman Meets Jesus
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