I don’t do this often (make that never!) but today I’m posting the notes from one of my preaches. The first sermon I preached, in June 2011, at St Mary’s church, Old Harlow and was facilitated by Dave Welch one of the most enabling church leaders I’ve ever had the privilege to worship with.
Twitter has kind of become a bit like a church fellowship for me this year, especially since I’ve been off sick. Twitter has really helped me realise I am not alone in what I think and feel about life and God. First I came across the book “Evolving in Monkey Town” by Rachel Held Evans and the pieces of me I saw in it made me want more. My surfing that started with Rachel’s website led me to blogs like ‘She Loves Magazine’ and I started following them (and others like Micah Murray) on Twitter. Through Twitter I discovered a whole world of people who thought like me and had experienced something of what I have experienced. This led me to discover Jonathan Martin’s writing and preaching just before his book Prototype was released this month. I’ve started reading it, savouring one chapter at a time and listening to Jonathan’s podcasts from Renovatus Church NC as he expands on it. Friends, I’m only on chapter 1 and I am changed! This man is gifted! I was blogging about it and then I saw Rachel and Jonathan on Twitter starting to talk about wilderness today and truthfully? I wanted to join in!I wanted to say, “yes I feel that too.” “Yes and Amen to that too.” “yes yes yes” …but I’m not on that chapter yet! Then they mentioned Hosea 2 and I knew I just had to start writing.
But today I am struggling. My body feels so weak. My brain does not have the energy to filter sermon notes into a blog post. So friends, please be patient with me as I make one of the cardinal sins of blogging -going over a few hundred words by miles! I’m sorry the spacing and punctuation and links are probably all wrong on here today too. But friends, I must practice what I preach and just sleep and eat today. My desire to do everything perfectly was probably a big contributor to my illness in the first place so today I am making a stand and resisting the temptation, trusting that you will see through the punctuation to what God has to say to us today. I hope for those of you patient enough to read my many words, God will speak to you about your wilderness and bring you the sense of peace and knowledge that you are loved beyond what you hoped was possible in the middle of all the pain.
So without reading or hearing a single word about chapter 3 of Prototype ‘Obscurity’ (or obsessively checking the punctuation, spacing and spelling) here are my 2011 thoughts on the wilderness. That’s the year by the way not the word count, although it may be similar!
When Dave asked me to preach my first thought was, “What is he up to?” My second thought was “What is He up to?” and my third thought was – what on earth will I preach about? As so often happens in my life, God asked me to say yes before He revealed all the details. But a wise woman said to me just share what God has been speaking to you about. And that’s when “He will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (Hosea 2v14) popped into my head. I know! Obscure! But it’s been a great theme for me over the last couple of years. So maybe what I want to bring to you today should be called ‘Hope in the Valley of Achor.’
“I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope….. (Hosea 2:14)
The Valley of Achor that Hosea refers to is a destitute place. It can be a symbol of the wilderness feelings we might sometimes experience: feelings such as darkness, loneliness and emptiness. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve felt like you were struggling or hurting and just felt kind of alone in the midst of it all. Well that’s what I mean today when I talk about the valley of Achor.
Joshua 7 tells us how the geographical place called the Valley of Achor first got its name. When Joshua’s army had just claimed a victory, a man called Achan stole some of the plunder and took it for himself. And the place where he was punished became known as the Valley of Achor (or trouble). So firstly and perhaps a little uncomfortably we have to note that we sometimes end up in the wilderness because of our own waywardness. The punishment for our sin was taken by Jesus on the cross but the consequences of sin can sometimes leave us in painful places.
Sometimes it is not our own sin that leads us to a difficult place. It can be the sin of someone else that impacts so heavily on our lives OR it can just be the circumstances and pain of our fallen world.
However we end up there, God says he will make the valley of Achor a door of hope. But we often find the process of hope being produced in us, is painful and it is a process. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in.
“we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us,”
So firstly, suffering produces perseverance.
Nearly 3 years ago Hannah and I were thrown into our own Valley of Achor in a pretty big way. All of a sudden, a marriage was gone, we had lost our home, we’d lost having our friends nearby, we lost my job, her school, our involvement in our local church and all manner of other things. And when we moved back to Harlow, basically because it seemed like the only practical option, it felt like the wilderness. It felt like exile. I really did not want to be here. And those first few months, probably the first whole year and sometimes still now, life just required sheer hard work, perseverance and a gritty determination to get through the day. I wasn’t sure I could make it through. I could really identify with what Jokey read earlier about Elijah. When he’s first in the desert he says, “I’ve had enough Lord.” I guess Elijah was also thinking – I can’t do this Lord!
Did you notice what God did for Elijah in those early days in the wilderness? He let Elijah sleep and He sent an angel to give him food. He gave Elijah just what he needed and He didn’t demand anything of him at that stage. Sometimes all God asks of us is to sleep and to eat and accept what God provides for us. If you’re not the one in the desert and you’re blessed with culinary ability, maybe you could be an angel to someone and just bring them food so they don’t have to think about it. It’s just a thought.
There’s something else to notice about Elijah and how he deals with this wilderness -Elijah is totally honest with God. “I’ve had enough Lord!” When we’re in the desert we need to be honest with God about how we feel. The thing with my Valley of Achor is that it forced me to be honest. So much had been stripped away and the wilderness feelings were so intense that sometimes I couldn’t help myself but let it all pour out.
Before that time I hadn’t been comfortable being openly angry or upset with God. I kind of felt I didn’t have the right to question the maker of the universe. But really I should have known that it’s ok to be honest. The psalms are full of honest expressions to God. In the psalms David says things to God like, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” Then look at Job. He was allowed to express his bitterness and God defended him for being honest. On the other hand, God told Job’s friends off for faking it.
So through the Valley of Achor I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s ok to rant! But seriously, I believe our healing process rarely begins until we face the facts of what is happening honestly before God and express our pain to Him. It’s part of any developing friendship, there’s a deepening of intimacy as we open up and share with each other honestly. And it’s just the same in our relationship with God.
So if you’re in the valley right now, can I encourage you to be honest with God about how you feel? Can I encourage you to grit your teeth and hold on and persevere? Can I encourage you to sleep and eat if that’s all you can do, because sometimes that’s enough.
The next step of the process in Romans 5 says that perseverance creates character. The wilderness is often a place for pruning and that unpopular word “discipline.” In the Valley of Achor we may become more aware of our shortcomings and the areas of our life that need some attention. For me, it was my reliance on other people. Instead of celebrating and developing the character God made me to be, other things and other people had become my identity. I needed to know that the only thing that could never and would never change was the love God had for me and His faithfulness towards me. I needed to know that to place my identity in being His child was the safest place to put myself. And I’m not saying all that stuff’s in place now. I’m still a work in progress!
Recently, people keep saying to me, “You are not the woman you used to be.” (The woman I used to be would probably not have been stood up here right now I can tell you!”But I can see what they’re saying. I know my character has changed and there has never been another time in my life where I’ve noticed those changes so much. I know I’m stronger than I was. I know I’m more confident. Even people who have little idea of what has really gone on in the wilderness have noticed the changes that God has made in my character.
I heard someone recently say, “when you get to heaven God won’t ask you why you weren’t Mother Teresa but He will ask you why you weren’t Caroline East” or Dave Welch or whatever your name is. I believe God can use the wilderness to help us discover who we are, to discover the unique gifts and passions that he’s placed inside each of us.
So if you’ve been in the Valley of Achor for a while, think about what God is doing with your character. Someone once said that in his prison cell, God wasn’t making Joseph’s circumstances the circumstances Joseph wanted but God was making Joseph the Joseph that God wanted. Keep asking God to speak into your situation and change you for the better because of it.
Remember He speaks gently and tenderly in the desert. The reading we had about God’s dealings with Elijah always make me feel so grateful to God for his tenderness when we’re struggling. Elijah had run away and was pretty much saying I’m not doing this anymore Lord; he was probably depressed and most certainly frightened and then God says He’s coming to see him. I’d have been bothered at that point. I might have suspected I was in a bit of trouble for not facing up to my fears, for not doing what I was called to do and all the rest of it. But what actually happens? God’s voice is not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. God does not come at Elijah with a big stick and say, “What’s the matter with you boy?! What can I beat out of you through this suffering” No God comes with a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
And He comes to you and I too and says, What are you doing in the wilderness? What is God doing with your character in the wilderness? How is he gently speaking to you and gently changing you?
So back in Romans. We’ve persevered, we’ve noticed development in our character. Now what? Well now, Character produces Hope.
I guess some of you who have lived through unspeakable pain would ask how do we hold onto hope in the most difficult of circumstances? Well you’ve possibly heard it a million times before, not always at the most tactful of times but the fact remains that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (says Romans 8). So we can look forward with a reasonable, logical confidence that in some way God will bring good from what is happening to us. I have had to accept in recent years that I may never see or know what that good was or at least not til I get to heaven anyway. But just because I cannot see it, does not mean it is not there. It might take years to realise the good that was happening in the wilderness. You see we can look at this wilderness position and be afraid and honestly, some of the time I do. Or we can remember that there is no valley in our lives that won’t produce some sort of fruit- whether it be strength, character or renewed vision or whatever it is that God is doing in you.
Choosing an eternal perspective is a spiritual discipline that makes our stress yield to God’s peace. Does that mean we will float through each day without feeling the pain of our trials? No – but it does mean that the backdrop against which we view those dark moments will be replaced with the truth that there is an eternal purpose in every pain and that it’s through the struggle out of that darkness that we gain the strength to fly and become all God created us to be.
So while we hope that God is working some good in the wilderness, we also need to remember that it is the character of God to be good. To hope is to place our trust in God’s goodness.
I have been challenged about this over the last couple of years. God gently pointed out to me that I wasn’t living in hope because I wasn’t totally convinced that God was good and that He really loved me. And in the wilderness we wrestle with this question don’t we? If you really love me God, why does this hurt so much? But in 1 John we are encouraged to know and rely on the love God has for us. In the Valley of Achor what we know in our heads has a funny way of becoming a reality in our hearts. And sometimes it’s only with hindsight that we can see how He carried us through. (Footprints poem). Why is there only one set of footprints? Where were you Lord? It didn’t feel like it but actually we were carried.
?Natalie Grant – This is what it means to be held and to know that the promise was when everything fell, we’d be held.
We see hope begin to rise for Elijah. Having slept and eaten, having heard from God, Elijah is given a task, a glimmer of hope for the future – a series of anointings. Elijah is told to anoint a new king for Aram and another for Israel, and then to anoint Elisha to succeed Elijah as prophet.
And God has a task and a purpose for you out of the wilderness. The purpose He has for you is unique to your character, your passions and your gifts. Proverbs 29v18 says that Where there is no vision, the people perish. If you have no vision for the future there is no hope. So, friends, what is God asking you to do?
I recently found out that when you write it in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. But for many of us we get stuck with only seeing crisis as danger and miss out on all the opportunities it can open up. There is opportunity in the desert. There is hope in the desert.
There is one vital “Valley of Achor” episode in the Bible that we must remember. Jesus himself knows what it is to feel desperate and alone. As He hung on the cross He cried out (in honesty) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet through that Valley of Achor moment, our ultimate hope for all our life and beyond was sealed. That valley of Achor became a massive doorway of hope for all who would believe and respond to Him. In dying on the cross, Jesus opened up the doors to relationship between God and us.
Some of you here today have watched me go through the Valley of Achor, indeed I wouldn’t have made it through without you. What I really want you to hear today is that this is the hope that’s held me up. I have a God who is bigger than the Valley and is stronger than the pain. I have a God whose love took Him into the Valley of Achor for me…and for you. My greatest desire is that you would know that love for yourself, that you would seek that relationship with Him that was made possible by his pain. As I prepared this, I wrestled with how much I should be including my own experience to help you apply what’s been said. But I trust that what you’ve heard has been from God. It’s not about me. It’s about our great God who is so faithful, even when everything around us seems to be falling apart. If hope is to grow out of our suffering, it must be because our suffering drives us to God. That is the order. You cannot put perseverance and character into brackets, and leave them out. You can’t fast track to hope straight from suffering. That’s just a flawed mentality where we say “I’m fine, I’m fine” but underneath we’re really hurting! But if, in our sufferings, we have been able to persevere because we have had hold of God’s hand, and if in that we find we have had strength above our own, then Hope gently begins to work into our hearts. Because He has said, He will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.