Exodus 3.1; Mark 1.12
A Sermon by Dr. Michael A. Milton
Perhaps you have read J.I. Packer’s wonderful book, Knowing God. I believe that this book surely ranks as one of those books that people say, “It made a lasting impact upon my life.” We need to know the God of the Scripture to be saved, not the God of our imagination or the God we want. Then there was Experiencing God . This book sought to go beyond Packer’s knowledge and emphasized a more personal relationship with this God. But beyond Knowledge and beyond Experience is something else: TRUST. One way to think of TRUST is to say it is “Confidence well placed.” Trusting God means that you not only know this God, have experienced Him, but you are now ready to place your life and your future, and perhaps as important, your past, in the hands of this God.
The picture I used in the graphic design for this series is a picture of an older woman with her hands on the Bible. When I saw it it evoked the image I remember so well: the hands of my Aunt Eva. Her hands were wrinkled from time. But her trust was strengthened through time. And her stories to me were stories of living often on the far side of the wilderness: in her childhood at when she had to care for the family for her mother was ill; in the hardships of World War One and how that affected our family, and the Depression as a farmer’s wife, then again in World War Two when her other brother was killed, in the days of caring for her sick husband, of becoming a widow and trying to make ends meet, of being a widow and being 65 years old and taking in the 9 month old baby having never had children herself, of the years of that child’s heartbreaking prodigal experience, and so many other things. I thought of her hands when I saw that picture.
I also thought that as I look in the mirror and see some lines in my face, I think of some things that likely brought those lines. But I also think, “Those experiences were the testing places where I really learned to trust God the most.” And maybe you think of how God has really helped you to trust Him through trials.
When I saw that picture of the elderly woman’s hands on that old Bible, I also thought of how trusting God is what we all have to do. There is no better place to learn about trusting God than through Biblical biography. And in Exodus chapter three we have one of the most amazing turning points in the Word of God. We have the call of Moses. But the call of Moses happens in the wilderness. It is there, “beyond the wilderness,” or as the NIV puts it “on the far side of the desert” that the future leader of Israel learns to trust God.
This morning look at just verse one of chapter three:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Exodus 3.1
Look at this passage as a clue to how God builds trust in His people. Look particularly at the poignant paradoxes that end up working to help us build trust in God in the wilderness.
The First Clue and the First Truth
Look at this: Moses was “tending” or “keeping the flock.” Now that is different. “Moses, I thought you were a prince? I thought you ruled in Egypt. You said go here and men went here. You organized, you built, and you led an empire of men. But now you tend a flock of sheep.” We know what happened of course. Moses, born to a Hebrew family, hid in the bull rushes of the Nile, was found and kept and raised by the princes of Egypt. But Moses discovered his Hebrew roots. And he saw the oppression of the Hebrew people. Moses wanted to change things. So Moses encountered an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew. And Moses killed that man. He ran. He ran far across the wilderness. The royal fugitive ended up in Midian, in the eastern Sinai, and he was tending sheep.
Here is the truth of how God builds trust in His people in the wilderness (and pardon the rhyme, but it helped me to remember it):
God may take you to a hard location to forge in you a new vocation.
Maybe you were a vice president of a bank, but now you could use a loan yourself. And you wonder, “How in the world did I end up here?” Or maybe you are a mom who always looked forward to staying home with your children, but your family’s financial crises has caused you to have to work outside of the home. And you are wondering, “How did I get here? This is not what I planned.”
God often takes us to hard places to create new people who learn to trust Him like never before.
This happened with all of the great men and women of the Bible. Think of how Paul was in prison. What good could come of that? But in prison Paul wrote Philippians, the book of joy. And while there, Paul was used to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the household of Caesar! He was in a hard location, to learn a new vocation.
Here is another clue to seeing how God works trust in the wilderness.
The Second Clue and the Second Truth
Now this is odd. Moses was tending the sheep of “Jethro his father-in-law.” Now Jethro is not an Egyptian name. It would be as odd in their ears as it may be in yours. You think of Jethro Bodine and they might have thought about someone just as backwoods as that Jethro. How interesting that this Prince of Egypt is now married to a backwoods Midianite girl and working for her father! But Jethro is not a Hebrew name! The prejudice against Gentiles that developed later in rabbinical Judaism was not as pronounced at that time, but it was still an assault of the identity of a Hebrew. In fact, it just raised the question, “Who are you Moses? And where you do come from?”
Questions of identity can haunt a man. But what Moses had to learn was that his identity was not in anyone but God. And God caused this man of royalty, this Egyptian-Hebrew married to a Midianite girl and working for a Midianite chieftain, to learn the truth we all need to know:
The Lord uses people who may seem odd to help us place our faith in God.
Moses was proud. But his pride was bruised severely, I believe, when he had to associate with those Midianites. But they took him in. And he even got his wife from that backwoods tribe. And he got a job from them. But more than that: that Midianite wife of his would be used of God to cause Moses to live up to God’s commandments. In what some think of as a strange part of Scripture, Zipporah, the Midianite wife of Moses, circumcises her son and throws the remains at Moses’ feet! Why? Because this man of God failed to take care of his own family and bring his baby to God for the sign of the Covenant (and that is one reason I encourage parents to bring their babies for baptism!). She scolded the man of God and made him look to God. And when Moses was overworked it would be his father-in-law, Jethro, who would drop in to see about his baby girl married to this man who hears God’s voice. And he would see that Moses was overworked, and in Exodus chapter 18, God uses the Midianite chieftain and shepherd to tell Moses how to govern the people using elders. Wow.
Maybe God is using a person or people in your life to shake up your world today. Maybe it is an ungodly boss. Maybe a scolding mother in law! Maybe you wonder how someone as high and smart as you are ever ended up married to someone like you are! But I know that God sanctifies us through our wives and through our husbands. Maybe the people in your life today, the last people in the world you would have used to bring God to you, are God’s instruments to help you trust in Him.
Clue number Three and Truth number Three
Let’s look at this:
“and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Now Horeb is another name for Sinai. It means dry and barren. And if you have ever seen pictures of the eastern Sinai Peninsula you would agree that this is a pretty good name for it. But I am drawn to these words “the far side of the desert. And the Hebrew “Midbar” means desolated placed. “Midbar” is the barren wilderness We got that, but there is something else going on here. For Moses was tending sheep on the “West side of the wilderness.” What does that mean? The answer is an important clue.
I think the translators did that because the Hebrew word “ah_ar” speaks of “the disoriented side” of a place. East is the direction of orientation. Thus they translated this word as “west.” That “ah_ar” side of the wilderness is the side opposite the sunrise. It is, as the New Revised Standard translates it, “Beyond the wilderness.” But my personal preference here is how the NIV puts it (perhaps less precise but more expositional): “And he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Moses was in control, he thought, when he used his power and position to try and set his people free his way. But his way was not God’s way. God had another plan. And Moses had to go to the far side of the wilderness to learn to know God, to experience God, and finally to trust God.
This is the third truth:
You learn to trust God best on the far side of the wilderness.
Have you ever found yourself on the far side of the wilderness? My beloved the far side of the wilderness is a hard place. Mount Horeb is a hard place. But let me show you the Gospel in this story.
Our Lord Jesus went to the far side. Our Savior went to the wilderness and was tempted by Satan but Jesus did not sin. And angels ministered to Him in the desert. But our Lord went to a dry, barren hill called Calvary to die for our sins.
And you will meet Jesus when you have come to the far side of the wilderness in your soul. For Jesus said that you must die to yourself to live for Him. You may have to suffer for His name. You may have to be forced into the far side of the wilderness to come to know Him and trust Him like never before.
One day those old hands on the Bible will not be able to hold that Bible any longer. One day they will slip. One day the far side of the wilderness, the other side of sunrise, the west side of life, the sunset of life will come and the hands will slip. But Jesus will never let you go. And Jesus Himself will lead you to a new place, not to a barren mountain Horeb, but to Mount Zion, the city of God, the place of peace, the place where you have always wanted to be.
You may be living today in a hard location, but God is preparing you for a new vocation. And Jesus has been there and is with you now.
You may be having to deal with people in a situation that seems really odd, but they are going to be the ones to help you trust in God. And Jesus has been there and is with you now.
You may be traveling a road that feels rocky, in a place that feels far away from God. But that is where God is. God is in the far away places of life. He is there when you see Him and when you don’t. He is sometimes seen most clearly in the darkness of life. And is thus true: you learn to trust God best on the far side of the wilderness. And Jesus has been there and is with you now.
These are the lessons that Nina Bergman learned. Nina Bergman is a woman who has struggled with MS and who wrote her reflections on her sufferings in a book she entitled Comfort from the Cross. She wrote on how God has used her suffering, her far side of the wilderness, if you will, to bring her close to Jesus. In once place she writes about the road she lives on. It is a gravel road. It is hard and bumpy in places, and the county always has to come with road machines to try and fix it. The rocky, troublesome, old gravel road is just a mess. But that road leads home.
Nina’ suffering leads her home every day. And it is true: the way of the Cross leads home. The way of the wilderness leads to a knowledge of God, a fresh experience of God and to trusting God.
You see this is what you must remember: Moses had to find God in the wilderness to lead a people to a land that would bring forth a Savior Jesus Christ. And Jesus went back to that wilderness to defeat the devil, to bring not just a small band of people out of slavery, but to bring the human race out of sin and into the family of God.
He has brought you to the wilderness because that is where we can best find Him. But he does not lead you there to leave you there. But to get your attention and to call your name. Will you follow Him?
If you will. You too will see that your “far side of the wilderness” is really the road home.
Bergman, Nina Mason. Comfort from the Cross : Help for the Hurting from the Seven Last Words of Christ. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 1990.
Blackaby, Henry T., and Claude V. King. Experiencing God : How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.
Packer, J. I. Knowing God. 20th anniversary ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.