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Wilderness Worth-ship

By Michael Card – “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to say, ‘Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness’” (Exodus 7:16, emphasis added). It is one of those tiny phrases most of us unfortunately read right over. But, as is so often the case in Scripture, it is the small detail that unlocks the immense truth of what the passage is saying.

Moses had fled to the wilderness. He had encountered the burning bush in the wilderness. And now he had returned from the wilderness to Egypt in obedience to the call of God on his life. In his final warning to Pharaoh before the plagues were to descend upon and devastate Egypt, Moses, speaking for God, says, “Let my people go that they may worship me in the wilderness.” The goal of deliverance is always worship.

We all know the outcome. Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let the people go and thereby brought down destruction on his people.

Two points need to be understood here. First, the purpose of their deliverance was so the people could worship. The object of their freedom was not simply their emancipation. The purpose was the worship of God. The second point, which is more directly related to our discussion, is the setting of their prospective worship, “in the wilderness.” True worship always happens in the wilderness. Praise is almost always the answer to a plea that arises in the desert.

There Israel would experience lamentable thirst. In the wilderness the rock would be struck and water miraculously provided. (Exodus 16; Numbers 20). In the desert, as their enemies were attacking, God told the people, “Stand still, I will fight for you” (see Exodus 14:14). In these and numerous other instances, it was powerfully (yet not convincingly) demonstrated to the people what their God was worth. And that is the central issue of worship: What is God worth? In fact, the first primitive form of the word was “worth-ship.”

In the wilderness the children of Israel discovered that above all others, He was worthy. He was the Father they wanted. He was the Provider they needed. He was the Mighty One without whose protection they would have disappeared in the desert sands as had so many other lost people before them. As they discovered His worth in the stresses and strains that only the wilderness provides, the Father hoped His chosen children would have ascribed to Him worth-ship.

The wilderness is still the place of worship. But for you and me it is not a matter of dunes and dry ground; in fact, it may even be deceptively green. Our hunger and thirst are more spiritual realities than physical ones. The desolation we often experience involves our yearning for a more palpable feeling of the Presence of God. We need spiritual bread every bit as much as they needed the manna in the wilderness. Our deep thirst for Living Water is just as intense as their parched throats ever knew.

And so we look to the One whose coming incarnated for us the Manna, the Living Water, and the Presence of God. Jesus has entered into the wilderness of our wilderness and has found us, His lost sheep. He has provided everything we need and more. He himself is our provision. It is our most profound experience of His worth. He is the answer to that most basic question of worship. Jesus shows us what God is worth and so we ascribe to Him worth-ship.

But the power of these realizations only come to light in that dim, blinding light of the wilderness, in the context of hunger and thirst for His presence; in those situations when we cannot feel His hesed for us.

Those men and women whose stories the Bible tells show us that these dark hungers can only be articulated in the language of lament. The brokenness of the wilderness, the perceived desolation, the sovereign sorrow that is only experienced there must always lead us either toward God and His Presence and sufficiency, toward the comfort of His hesed, or else away from Him for a time—for some, sadly forever. That crucial moment turns on the decision to either lament in His direction or to walk away, back into the silence of the denial of that hopeless desert.

I ain’t got weary yet
I ain’t got weary yet
I been in the wilderness a mighty long time
And I ain’t got weary yet
I been walking with my Savior,
I been walking with the Lord,
I been in the wilderness a mighty long time
I ain’t got weary yet

(-- Early Negro Spiritual)

There is no worship without wilderness. There can be no worshipful joy of salvation until we have realized the lamentable wilderness of what we were saved from, until we begin to understand just what it cost Jesus to come and find us and be that perfect provision in the wilderness.

If, as you are reading this, you find yourself in the wilderness, realize that though you may not feel like it at the moment, you are in the very place where the Bible reveals that true worship can happen. If you’re like me, you might also find that you have nothing to say from where you are, no words to articulate the depth of the dimensions of your hunger, thirst, disappointments, frustrations, or anger. If this is where you find yourself, then I would like to propose that you (along with me) are poised on the edge of a promising place. We need only to push on toward the discovery of what God would have us cry out, of what He commands as the appropriate response to what we find almost unbearable. I would like to propose that you and I need to learn what biblical lament is about. We should look into the stories of those whose lives and laments have been enshrined in Scripture to see what they said when they found themselves in the place you and I stand today.

Taken from Chapter 3 or A Sacred Sorrow, by Michael Card (NavPress). Reprinted with permission.

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