By Michael Hines
This article was taken from a sermon Michael Hines preached at the 2023 National Convention of Open Bible Churches.
In 1678 John Bunyan published the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of the Christian journey that Bunyan began writing while detained in a jail in England for holding church services. The Pilgrim’s Progress is considered one of the most important Christian books of all time. In more than 345 years, it has never been out of print.
Why? Because there is something about a long journey – the landscape you encounter, the fellow travelers you meet, the unexpected twists and turns in the road. It becomes a great leveler. That is why people take six months out of their lives to walk the Appalachian Way or undertake other incredible journeys.
This journey of our lives eventually evens us all out. We encounter different places along the way, the landscape of our pilgrimage, the places where we get stuck, places we miss altogether. All of them shape us. Nothing we accumulate along the way goes with us.
David speaks of it famously in Psalm 23 (ESV):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
We’re all here this week hoping for some of those still, restoring waters – the sense of the affirming hand of the Lord nudging us along paths of righteousness, preparing for us a table, allowing our cups to run over with goodness and mercy following us, pursuing us all the days of our life.
I want to address the journey of the past three years, which has been a great leveler for all of us, a time when many of us have longed for the green pastures and still waters of less troubled times.
We have all discovered that sooner or later the landscape of ministry changes, the terrain of our life gets more rugged, more barren. The climate gets more arid, the world more hostile because there’s no way to ascend the hill of the Lord without leaving the easy living of the coastal plain and climbing through the foothills of the Shfela, the Judean hills leading up from the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem, passing green pastures and the gentle level plains going up into the olive and pine forested hills surrounding Jerusalem. We may think we have arrived, but the Lord continues to call us on because there is no way to pass from the slavery of Egypt into the place of God’s promise without crossing through the wilderness of the “rain shadow” desert.
The Spirit Leads Into the Wilderness
Throughout the Bible it seems the people of God are never far from the wilderness; it seems to be the place God chooses to meet us. Very few of us would choose to go into the desert for refreshment. But if you speak to the tourist guides in Israel, they will tell you that over time the wilderness becomes their favorite place. There one experiences stillness.
The desert fathers discovered this.
As the air becomes drier, God’s voice becomes clearer.
Every year the Feast of Trumpets, Rosh Hashana, signals the end of the long, barren, hot, dry summer months. It is a season of reflection and thanksgiving in preparation for the last and greatest feast of the year, Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. It is during this season that the Jewish people take time to remember their forty-year wilderness journey and God’s provision and protection.
I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet (Deuteronomy 29:5).
In the wilderness they experienced God’s constant presence teaching them His law, His ways – molding them into a people. He admonished them to recognize His sovereign hand of protection over them.
I don’t know about you, but there were times in this past forty months that the manna felt dry, and I felt like going back to Egypt. The ground was hard, the people angry, and it didn’t matter where you turned. To your congregation you were the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, Chief Election Officer, and Minister of Racial Mediation. They wanted to know whether to mask or not to mask, whether to take their chances with an experimental manmade vaccine or an experimental manmade virus.
None of us chose this. But the first truth I want you to grasp is that sometimes the Lord leads us into the wilderness. Jesus was led there.
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry (Luke 4:1-2).
Jesus’ first act after being filled with the Holy Spirit was to be led into a hard place, a dry place, a barren place.
David was driven to the wilderness.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1).
Elijah fled to the wilderness.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).
Having just faced down King Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, an act of incredible boldness, and having called the nation to repentance, Elijah now found himself running for his life from Queen Jezebel. The angel of the Lord came to him saying, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (verse 7).
Today we see that same spirit of intimidation rising all around us, threatening us, isolating us, hounding us. Do you feel it? Has the journey become too hard for you?
The prophet Daniel saw it probably clearer than anyone in a terrifying vision of the end times, symbolized by a dreadful beast.
He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time (Daniel 7:25).
This was a different kind of kingdom – devouring, trampling, speaking words against the Most High, wearing out God’s people; that is, until the kingdom and dominion and power is given to the saints of the Most High. The revelation is told three times in three different ways, but it says the same thing. Trouble is coming. But those who know their God will do exploits, and they will overcome.
What does that mean? It is fixed. It is part of the unchangeable purpose of God. It is imminent. We are in these days.
Power is being consolidated; war is being readied against the saints of the Most High. Those who are not facing it directly are being worn out by a force and a power we don’t understand. Like Elijah, we are tempted to run, abandon our calling, give up.
The Spirit leads you into the wilderness to be tested, to experience the heat of refining, to walk into your calling, to prepare you for days that are yet to come, to learn how to worship. And it is amid wilderness that you find refreshment.
If the last forty months have felt like forty years, if you’ve been circling, wandering, without experiencing immediate fruit and you are not feeling God’s presence, know that it is in your desert place that He wants to speak with you, to draw away with you and remind you that your shoes have not worn out, the manna has not run dry. If you’d look up, you’d see rivers of living water flowing out of the rocks because the Spirit who leads you into the wilderness is able to sustain you there.
The Spirit Sustains Us in the Wilderness
The Spirit sustained Jesus supernaturally. He was “with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13). The Spirit also sustains practically. He led the Israelites with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He provided manna for them and water from the rock. He sustains spiritually through the Word of God. At Mount Sinai, he had a message for the people:
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2-4).
The wilderness humbles you and tests you to know what is in your heart. It teaches you that man does not live by bread alone.
The “tabernacles” or “booths” used during the Feast of Tabernacles reminded the people of the tents they lived in in the desert. Made from flimsy branches of trees, the tents left the people fairly exposed to the elements. We all need this lesson on the character of God because we are prone to wander.
Trust comes from knowing God’s character. It was God who provided for the people in the wilderness. He was also able to provide in the land of promise. This teaches us to not limit Him.
God called out in Isaiah 55:1,
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has not money, come, buy and eat!” In the New Testament we find Jesus saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37).
Jesus made this offer during the last day of the festival, after there had been little to no rain for six months. When you come out of a long, hard, barren summer season, the Feast of Tabernacles is a reminder that God is faithful. He who led the Israelites through the desert will lead you into His promises. Even though there are giants in the land to which He is leading you, do not limit Him. Do not withdraw from Him because of the giants in your life. Press in, rejoice. And out of your life will flow “rivers of living water” sustaining you and others.
The Lord will be seen in the wilderness.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. . . . . They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God (Isaiah 35:1-2).
The Spirit Transforms Us In the Wilderness
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13).
God waits till we get to the end of ourselves and meets us by His Spirit. Elijah heard the still, small voice at Mount Horeb, a place of surrender. And the Lord changed him there.
When God transforms us in the wilderness, weak hands are strengthened, anxious hearts are calmed, blind eyes are opened, deaf ears are unstopped, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:3-10). Jesus was filled with the Spirit at the Jordan (Luke 4:14), led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-21).
For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water (Isaiah 35:6-7).
The wilderness gets hot. We get weary. We get tired. Let’s face it, the manna gets old. We get bored. We long for the next, new shiny promise, but we must wander a little longer because the Spirit has led us into the wilderness – sometimes forty days, sometimes forty months, sometimes forty years. It gets wearisome.
We believe God and trust Him for that land of promise ahead. But right now, we are in a dry place – led either by the Spirit, like Jesus, driven by circumstances, like David, or simply finding ourselves there in despair, like Elijah. Know that the Spirit who takes you to the wilderness will meet you there, transforming your heart, attuning your ear, and teaching you that man does not live by bread alone. You cannot learn it anywhere else.
Are you finding yourself in a wilderness season with little inspiration or direction in a dry and weary land with no water? Come to Jesus. He wants to refresh you with the kind of refreshment you can find only in His presence when your soul thirsts for Him.
Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:18-19).
About the Author
Originally from England, Michael Hines first answered the call to full-time ministry while on honeymoon in Jerusalem in 2002 – at a time when the city was being rocked by a relentless wave of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. Sensing the call of God to stay in the Middle East, Michael and his new wife, Bonni, spent much of the next decade and a half serving with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, living for five years in Israel before relocating to the U.S. in 2007. After many years ministering in churches across the U.S. and leading numerous pastors’ trips to Israel, in 2018 they planted Foundations Church, an Open Bible church in Williamsburg, Virginia, that they still pastor. Their heart is to raise up leaders who can hear the voice of God, minister to the broken, and teach the Bible faithfully. Michael and Bonni have four children, each born in Jerusalem, and currently live in Williamsburg.