The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
Psalm 147:2 (NIV)
Yesterday morning I had the honor of giving the message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. As I was studying for the message, I came to this verse from Mark’s biography of Jesus:
At once the [Holy] Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness…
Mark 1:12 (NIV)
One of the things that I love about my forty-year, perpetual journey through the Great Story is that I am always discovering and rediscovering things from a different place on my life journey. The same verse that I may have passed by without a thought six years ago has a potent spiritual impact on me today.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been spiritually chewing on the the theme of exile as it is woven throughout the Great Story. For the Hebrew people, there were two defining moments in their history: their exodus from slavery in Egypt and establishment as a nation (told in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua), and their captivity, exile, and eventual return from Babylon (the back story of Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, along with prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel).
Along this chapter-a-day journey I have often observed that wilderness is not only a theme throughout the Great Story, but it is a theme and archetype throughout human epics. A story is simply not a good story if the hero doesn’t have to face trials, struggles, and challenges, and those things often happen when the hero finds himself/herself far from home in a wilderness, an exile.
What struck me about the verse from Mark was that it was Holy Spirit who sent (the Greek word ekballo means to “drive out” or “expel” much as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden) Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days (as the Hebrews were in the wilderness 40 years) to be challenged by the enemy.
Themes like exile resonate deeply in our spirits because they resonate with my own human experience. I don’t know a single human being who has not experienced their own personal wilderness. Call it what you will: wilderness, exile, times of testing, falls from grace, and the valley of the shadow of death. This is part of the journey. What’s perhaps most ironic is the way in which I am shocked whenever I find myself in the wilderness, my denial of what’s happening, my anger to think God would allow it, my blaming God for doing so (just as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent), my bargaining prayers to try and find a shortcut out of it, my depression when no shortcut appears, my testing of various realistic responses, and finally my acceptance of what has been, what is, and my need to move forward.
I observe that my wilderness experiences serve the purpose of growing me up spiritually. The “defining moments” of my own spiritual development on this earthly journey were predicated on moments and periods of wilderness. I look in the rearview mirror and see them all: break-up, addictive behavior, shame, failure, adultery, separation, loss, divorce, infertility, and the list goes on.
But there is another theme that is often lost and forgotten while I journey through my personal wilderness. Perhaps I am simply blind to it in the moment. On the other side of wilderness lies return, redemption, and restoration. These are every bit a part of the story as the wilderness exile.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 147, is a song of praise and Thanksgiving that was most likely written for worship in the Temple of Jerusalem after both the city and the Temple were restored and rebuilt by those who had returned from exile in Babylon.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself feeling gratitude for all the wilderness experiences of my life. I’m glad they are over, and I’m glad that I don’t have to go through them again. Perhaps there are still periods of wilderness on the road ahead. C’est la vie. My past experiences have equipped me to endure any future wilderness with greater context, deeper wisdom, and assured hope.
After exile comes return.
After fall comes redemption.
After death comes resurrection.
After the work week comes the weekend. On this Monday morning I’m banking on hope on both the macro and micro level!
Have a great day, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.