It's impossible to appreciate the wilderness wanderings of Israel until you've stumbled around in the places where the Israelites grumbled against God (see Numbers 20:1-2). Most everywhere in these inhospitable places, no life exists at all. Once while traveling through the Desert of Zin in southern Israel, we read from Deuteronomy 8:1-3, where Moses reminded Israel why God led them through the wilderness: "that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not" (v. 2).
Our bus stopped in the desert for half an hour, and each of us headed in a different direction to spend some time with God. I took some water and a small Bible and found a secluded spot in the sun among the stones and lizards. The crunching beneath my feet revealed layers of dark, sharp flint, which stretched from horizon to horizon and reflected the sun like a mirror. Sitting down in this lonely place, I imagined the Hebrews' mournful journey as they sojourned 40 long years on account of their disbelief and disobedience to God. What a lesson in wasted time.
I began to reflect on my own wilderness wanderings and prayed for God to help me to bring specific parts of my life under submission to Him. I remembered that Israel's first act after they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land was to set up stones to memorialize the event (see Joshua 4:5-7). Before I made my way back to the bus, I found two large stones and set them on edge as memorials to my prayer.
After one such excursion in this wilderness, one of our traveling companions, a Houston pastor named Henry, boarded the motor coach with a sweat-soaked shirt, and collapsed in his seat. When asked if he could now understand why the Israelites grumbled against God, he answered, "I'm with them!" and extracted a long swallow from his canteen.
God has answered my wilderness prayer. But it didn't come about because I traveled to Israel, prayed a prayer, and set up two stones in the Wilderness of Zin. As I look back over the years since that half-hour I spent in the desert, I can see His hand guiding me through days I would never have chosen—days of deep distress, loneliness, financial crises, heartrending deaths and bitter disillusionment with people and with my own dreams. I've come to recognize that God changed me in the same way, remarkably, that He changed the Hebrews. He taught me to surrender as He took me to painful places. And He loved me enough to take me there . . . .
One morning in Jerusalem, I chose to have my devotions on the Mount of Olives at sunrise. Walking through the Old City's dark and narrow streets, I passed beside the Temple Mount and exited the city on its east side—much as Jesus would have done the day He left the Temple for the last time. After climbing the steep ascent of the Mount of Olives, I sat near its summit as the sun began to warm my back. Turning to Matthew's Gospel, I read about Jesus leaving the Temple, predicting its destruction, and sitting on the Mount of Olives (see Matt. 24:1-5).
Looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount—now crowned with a Muslim shrine—I thought about how Jesus' prediction proved true. Because Israel rejected Him, they ultimately lost the very objects they hoped to secure through His death—their Temple and their nation (see John 11:48).
As I gazed across Jerusalem's sprawling panorama, I suddenly heard a sound that jerked my mind in another direction. Far in the distance, a rooster crowed . . . and then another . . . and another. Surrounded by a throng of cries, I immediately thought of Peter, who denied Christ, and all of the disciples who deserted Him at the bottom of the hill. Then I thought of myself.
The sights and sounds flooded my heart that morning. What I saw before me represented Israel's rejection of Christ. What I heard symbolized Peter's denial of Christ (see Luke 22:60-61). But what I felt within I couldn't relieve with closed eyes or ears. My sin also put Christ on the cross. That rooster crowed for me.
Lord Jesus, Israel rejected You, Peter denied You, Judas betrayed You, the rest deserted You—and I threw my lot in with them all. You didn't just die for a guy who needed a little help to heaven. I am totally depraved and in need of Your grace. O how I worship You today for giving Your life to pay for my sin.
I will love you, O Lord, and thank you, and confess to your name, because you have forgiven me my evil and nefarious deeds. —Augustine of Hippo
From Going Places with God, © 2006 by Wayne Stiles (ThM, 1997; DMin, 2004). Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Dr. Stiles is executive vice president and chief content officer at Insight for Living.