Maybe you find yourself in a spiritual desert of guilt and unhappiness, failure and weakness, with seemingly no relief in sight. Have you ever considered that God might have brought you there for a reason? God took Moses into the wilderness for 40 years before using him to rescue the Jewish people from Egypt. How long are you willing to stay there?
“DESERT LAB 101”
There is nothing the world enjoys any more than a success story. And, I don’t think, anything more disliked, with great aversion, than a story of failure, at least in our culture. The story of Willie Durant has always fascinated me and I have read much on his life. The last few years of his life are shrouded with secrecy and mystery. He, at one time, was the creative genius behind, what would become, General Motors. He either talked men into or bought them out. Men with such names as Walter P. Chrysler, David Buick, Louis Chevrolet, Ransom E. Olds. And formed this huge corporation. But, because of poor decisions and a loss of his fortune, he was once a multi-millionaire, his last few years he managed a bowling alley and was unable to afford one of the hundreds and thousands of cars that his company had once produced. The interesting thing about the Bible, as we come to it, you’ll note that most of the truth is shrouded in personality, it is cloaked with the personalities of men and women. And, whenever God authored through His servants, the lives of men and women, He seemed to leave out nothing, especially the failures. We can’t find people, in the scriptures, who are given such spotlights that He seems to hide, from our view, those mistakes that they made, the sins that they were involved in, the deserts that they found themselves living in. And I’m so glad because, “Scripture is given . . . for” - our - “instruction . . . that” - we - “may be . . . thoroughly equipped unto every good work.” And it seems that you and I need help, especially in terms of failure. Hopefully we will learn from the failures of these men and women and not repeat mistakes.
Now, there are several that I want to bring to your attention, as we continue our study in the life of Moses. If you have notes, it would be helpful because we are going to bounce back and forth. But the first is, a man called Mark or John Mark. An interesting individual who had every potential of becoming a great success story and yet, something happened that God included in the record of scripture for our instruction. Look at Acts, chapter 12. Acts, chapter 12, where his story begins. Acts, chapter 12, verse 11. Peter has been in prison. There is a prayer meeting going on. And this is what the scripture writer records, chapter 12 of Acts, verse 11. “And when Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’ And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” It seems that the home of John Mark was a great hiding place, a great retreat for those early disciples. It’s believed, by most expositors, that it was in the home of John Mark that the last supper took place, in the upper room; that is, their room above, on the roof, perhaps. It is also believed that this wealthy couple, whose son we know is Mark, was the owners of that garden where Christ prayed. We call it the Garden of Gethsemane. And so, John Mark was reared in a home that was soon given to the cause of Jesus Christ. It was his mother and, perhaps even, his believing Roman father, that opened their doors for the disciples to come and to pray. Mark, we know from studying, was twenty years old when Jesus Christ was crucified. It’s believed that he was the young man that fled from the garden when the guards grabbed him by the cloak. It’s interesting that John Mark, a young man, would be, perhaps, the one groomed to be the second generation disciple. He had all of the potential, the background, and yet, something happened in his life.
Turn over, just a page or two, to chapter 13, verse 2. “And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting” - this is the church at Antioch - “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul’” - or Paul - “for the work to which I have called them. Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” Now, note who’s in the company of Paul and Silas. “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. And when they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.” - John Mark. So it seems that this young man had great enthusiasm. He was willing to be involved in the cause of Christ. He had hobnobbed with the disciples. He had spoken to Paul and Peter. I imagine, if he had a problem as a teenager, he could ask one of those individuals their advise. His home was the haven for the disciples, soon to be apostles here. And he finds himself as the young helper on the first evangelistic crusade. Some have suggested, and I think it’s probably true, that John would perhaps lead the teenagers, or the young people, perhaps the singles, in studying the word. He would be in charge of that particular arena while Paul and Silas would speak and teach to the adults.
And now, we’re not sure but, something occurred in that missionary trip that would change the record of his life. God introduces a colossal failure, a failure in His ministry. Note verse 13, “Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John” - Mark - “left them and returned to Jerusalem.” Turn over to chapter 15, and let’s get a little more insight on what happened. Acts, chapter 15, verse 36. This lets us in on what happened. “And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia”. The word “desert,” is the Greek word from which we get our word “apostasy.” Evidently, John Mark, faced with, perhaps, the pressuring of the crowd, we’re not exactly sure, maybe he thought, having hung around with the disciples, knowing they had power to perform miracles, that perhaps his ministry would be just as enlightened. Perhaps he wasn’t met with the results that he wanted to see. Maybe the youths sneered at him and called him names. We’re not exactly sure of all of the clues but we know that he apostasied; that is, he departed, he deserted them, he left them in the lurch. And Paul said, “There is absolutely no way I’m taking that young man with me again.” I imagine the trouble that, perhaps, was caused by John Mark’s leaving. Perhaps people had just come to Christ and now the news is out that, “John Mark has abandoned his calling.” It seems that he would go down in record as a failure in ministry.
I think of Psalm, chapter 78, verse 9, that reads, “The sons of Ephraim were archers equipped with bows, yet they turned back in the day of battle.” And I think of, perhaps, us, by way of application. We have so much potential. We have training. We have knowledge. We know more of the word, perhaps, than many have ever known. We have so much at our disposal, our bows are ready and our arrows are finely shaped. Our prayers are ascending to heaven, that are worded so well. We put on great appearances. And yet, in the day of battle, when the pressure is on, when the sneering begins at school or at the job, for fear of ridicule, in the day of battle, do we turn back? We can hardly talk about the church being persecuted, as the scriptures do, because the church in America certainly isn’t persecuted. But yet, I think of what Jesus Christ said to the church at Smyrna. He said to stand in day of battle. Whatever that battle may be, and there are battles for us, different perhaps than those believers in other countries I’ve mentioned in the past, those believers in Russia. I heard a story, just recently, about a group of believers who met on the outskirts of town, in Russia, this past winter. I was relating that story to you and I wanted to bring this out as well, they met in an abandoned building. There were so many people that they were packed like sardines into this building to hear the gospel. A man had slipped in, under cover from America, a Christian leader who would speak to them and teach them. And they had come from all over in the dead of winter, no heat in the building, every window and door was open to give circulation of air and still, though icy cold outside, the humidity dropped from the ceiling. They have their battle, we have ours, though different. Perhaps, for you, it is a battle to go next door and witness for Christ to your neighbor, who has never heard Jesus Christ come from your tongue. I heard a sad story of a man who had carpooled with another businessman for nearly fifteen years, he was also a neighbor. He died of a heart attack. And this individual was sharing with a friend of mine how, for fifteen years, he now sadly recalls, he never asked his neighbor, he never asked that man if he knew Jesus Christ. And what of us? Do we desert? Are we prepared for battle and yet, in the first fray, when we hear the clanking of the armor coming, when we hear the rumbling of the wheels, when we see the army approaching, what do we do? Equipment and all, we run, we look for the white flag, or do we fight? I know it’s a lot more convenient, perhaps, to keep our mouths quiet but it’s a lot less effective, wouldn’t you say? I read an interesting little story, probably not true, of a little farm house and the farmer sitting on the porch. And he has his back against his rocking chair and his feet propped up on a bucket that he has filled with water and dangling into that bucket of water is a fishing line. And his neighbor comes over and says, “Hank, there ain’t any fish in there. You’re not going to catch any fish in that bucket.” Hank kind of shifted the straw to the other side of his cheek and he said, “I know but it’s so convenient.” We’ll come back to Mark, in just a moment, because I want to give you a good ending to the story.
But I think of another failure, not a failure in his ministry, not a coward, but David, who ended up in the desert of guilt and unhappiness, a man who was a failure in his morals. And I think of how different David is to Mark. There wasn’t a streak of cowardice in this young man. Why, he had taken on wild animals with just his sling. He had approached the armies of Israel, who had been at a standstill for months because the Philistines had a secret weapon, known as Goliath. And Goliath would come out every day and parade before the armies of the Israelites and say, “Who will come against me?” No one would dare step forward until this runt of the litter, this teenage boy, with sling dangling from his hip pocket, comes to bring food to his brothers and he hears that Philistine and he says, “Well, it’s about time I took him on.” And, to the amazement of everybody, he walks out into the valley and he tells this towering giant of a man, “Before this afternoon is over, I’m going to take your head from your body and feed your flesh to the birds.” Here was a man, who at the name of Jehovah, would fight an enemy like this. And yet, he became a casualty because of moral failure. The man who was considered “the apple of God’s eye,” a man after God’s own heart, one who penned into existence such great experiences of worship, found himself in a lonely place, a desert of guilt and unhappiness.
Would you turn to Psalm, chapter 32, it’s a Psalm that ties in with chapter 51, and read what David said? And I want you to note the agony of one who was hiding his sin. One who had not learned yet the wonderful privilege of repentance and freedom from guilt. He writes in Psalm, chapter 32, verse 3, “When I kept silent about my sin,” - when I hid it, when I tucked it away - “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.” Man, talk about a desert! Talk about unhappiness. And yet, if you’ll turn over to chapter 51, you’ll see what happens. In this desert of guilt and unhappiness, he had learned and had been willing to repent. “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy loving kindness; according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned”. Verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit” - or a right spirit - “within me. Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation”. Verse 14, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Thy praise.” There is something that, ladies and gentlemen, we all have in common with Mark and with David. Because of failure, because of sin, we also find ourselves in a desert place. Maybe, this morning, you are experiencing a desert of guilt or unhappiness, failure of some sort, disappointment or weakness. God has brought you to that place, not to abandon you there but, to teach you there. Because that is the place where He can gain our undivided attention. You see, David, for a year, had hid the sin. He tucked it away. He thought no one knew. And yet, he reveals to us, “My soul, my body, my mind, was wasting away.”
I want to take you back to one more man. And this is the individual we have been studying for some time. I want you to notice the desert place he finds himself in. The desert of obscurity and silence, Exodus, chapter 2. He was undoubtedly the man that God had designed to be the deliverer of the Israelites. He was prepared in the throne room of Pharaoh to understand law that would be so helpful when he would transcribe the oracles of God into the law that we have today. He was the prince of the courts, schooled in all the learning and wisdom of Egypt. And yet, he was not schooled in the wisdom of God. And he thought that the time was now, it was right, “And I will instigate MY plan to deliver the Israelites.” And so he strikes down an Egyptian and he hides him in the sand. Because of that, Pharaoh learns of that murder and Moses has to flee.
Let’s take it up there. Verse 15, “When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian; and he sat down” - or he pitched camp - “by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.” Perhaps he intimidated them by his Egyptian dress. This also gives us an indication that the priest in Midian had very little respect from the people who lived in that area, that they would drive away his daughters and then take the water that they had drawn for their sheep and give it to their own. “When they came to Reuel” - who will be known, from this point on, as Jethro - “their father, he said, ‘Why have you come back so soon today?’” - he knew that it took them longer - “So they said, ‘An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds; and what is more, he even drew the water for us and watered the flock.’” - his response is interesting - “And he said to his daughters,” - three quick questions - “Where is he then? Why is it that you have left the man behind? Invite him to have something to eat.” - “This is the kind of man we want around here.” “And this might be a future son-in-law,” he’s thinking. Well, they invite Moses in and, sure enough, “Moses was willing to dwell with the man” -verse 21 - “and he gave his daughter Zipporah” - which means “little bird” - “to Moses. Then she gave birth to a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said,” - the meaning of the name is - “I have been a” - stranger - “in a foreign land.” Now, don’t miss, for a moment, the agony of his soul. Here is the prince of the court, here is the deliverer, here is the one who believed, as his mother had planted the seed in his heart, that he would lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And now, he is a disaster, a failure, thinking, perhaps, he’s an eternal wash-out. Pitching camp in the dusty, sandy region of Midian. He, who had so much wealth and everything at his fingertips, now will work as a shepherd for his father-in-law. And live in an attached dwelling to his father-in-law’s tent. Here is “Mosheh,” here is the son of the Pharaoh’s daughter, a failure because of his methods.
I’m glad that God has designed that we would learn of these men’s failures because we have much to learn. The world would say, “Now let’s cover this section up.” In fact, oral traditions would often leave out the hideousness of the sins of their forefathers, “We don’t want to hear about that.” And yet, God says, “I want you to know so that you can learn.” The world would scratch it’s head in amazement. I read an unbelievable account and I knew you probably wouldn’t believe me so I brought the book along. Here it is, you can check it out after the sermon. I was telling one story one time and a lady leaned over to my wife and said, “Did that really happen?” So I brought verification, here it is. A woman, who was very wealthy, who had a lot of prominence, decided that she would have a book written about her ancestors. She was very proud of those in her family line. And so, at great expense, she hired a well known author to write that book. But, it didn’t take long before this man discovered that one of her grandfathers, unknown to anyone, was a murderer. And, although it had been covered up, he had been electrocuted in the electric chair in Sing Sing. And she was mortified and she said, “Well, leave that out of the book. That won’t do much for my reputation.” And the author, with credibility, said, “No, I must put that in there.” And so she said, “Well, I’ll tell you, I’ll double your fee if, when you write that account, you word it in such a way that no one will really know.” And I want to read you what he wrote. “One of her grandfathers occupied the chair of applied electricity in one of America’s best known institutions. He was very much attached to his position and, literally, died in the harness.” You can come up here afterwards. The gospel truth, right here! What a cover up! And that’s typical. We don’t want anyone to know of something like that in our past or our personal history. Let’s cover it up. And God says, “No. Expose it. Because I want believers, in the twentieth century, to learn from it.”
And I want to give you three things that we learn from their failure. From Moses’ failure, I believe, we can learn the importance of dependence. A man who was so qualified and so equipped, he was ready to take on Egypt and lead Israel out in his own strength. He had yet to learn that he would have to go in the strength of God, in dependence on Him. Did Moses learn that? Here he is in the desert of Midian, a wash-out, depressed, discouraged, tending sheep. He names his first son, you could almost hear him weep, “I am an alien here, a stranger to this place.” And yet, something happened because his next son, that’s given in a later text, he names Eleazar, which means “God is my help,” “GOD is my help.” He had learned, in the desert, that dependency is much more important than self-sufficiency. And he would refocus his attention, there in that tribulation, and focus it on God, who is his help.
From the life of David, I believe, we learn the importance of repentance. A man, who had hidden his sin, who was living with the awful guilt of violating God’s counsel. There in chapter 51, he finally bears his soul and he says, “O God, give my lips a song, give me joy.” - “Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned . . . Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation”. My friend, if you are in the desert like Moses or David, perhaps God is trying to teach you dependence or lead you to repentance.
From the life of Mark, I think, we learn the importance of endurance. He, who had failed in his service for Jesus Christ, would one day write the second gospel of your New Testament and emphasize one thing about Jesus Christ: He is the servant of God. Something had happened, in his life, and I want to tell you what I believe it was. We have the first clue in Colossians. Would you turn there. Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Colossians, chapter 4, verse 10. For eighteen years, Mark has seemingly vanished. We haven’t heard from him. We haven’t seen him. No one refers to him. And now, eighteen years later, something has happened. Colossians, chapter 4, verse 10. Paul is writing, “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’ cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him)”. I love that! Paul, at one time, didn’t want anything to do with him. And now he’s telling this body of believers, “If Mark comes along, let him in, welcome him.” What happened? Turn to II Timothy. Keep heading right. II Timothy, chapter 4, verse 11. I love this. It brings tears to my eyes to think of what had happened. Paul is writing from a prison cell and he says, verse 9, “Make every effort” - Timothy - “to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me” - interesting, he talks about Demas now committing apostasy - “and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” “He is useful to me” - where before he had been a detriment. He had caused problems, confusion. But now, in the last years of Paul’s life, he says, “I want to see Mark, who is useful to me.” I think the thing that pulls it all together for us is found in I Peter, chapter 5. I Peter, chapter 5. Peter is writing, this time.
And I want to take just a moment to stop. If you have notes, there is one point, one final application that I think we can learn from all three, “quote, unquote,” “failures.” And that is, the value of listening. It’s interesting that the word “desert,” in the Hebrew, is the same word translated “God speaks.” Isn’t it fascinating to think, by way of an application to us today, that, in the desert, when I am guilty of sin, when I have, perhaps, left the counsel of God, when I am covered with unhappiness, there is solitude and seeming silence, that, there in desert times, God WILL speak. And, in all three of these men’s lives, God spoke through another Christian. I believe the Christian in Mark’s life is Peter. Look at chapter 5, verse 13, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.” We now know that Peter, evidently, had taken Mark under his wing and had discipled him. Peter, the one who had also denied Jesus Christ. Peter, the one who had also fled when the battle began. Now HE is helping Mark along. And “son,” is a term of discipleship. He says, “I refer to Mark, my son.” Somewhere, in that desert experience, God allowed Mark to rub shoulders with Peter. Perhaps, a potential disaster, perhaps, someone who never wanted anything else to do with ministry, “I’m finished. I’m quitting. I’ve failed. I’ve blown it. No more.” And Peter comes along and he puts his arm around Mark and he says, “Listen, I failed too. And let me show you how to focus on enduring for the name of Jesus Christ.”
In David’s life, he was in a desert that would, perhaps, last the rest of his life. Until, finally, another man, by the name of Nathan, would come into his courtroom, confront him, tell him a story that rings David’s heart, about someone who had stolen the only sheep of someone else and David said, “We need to kill that individual. Let’s have justice.” And Nathan says, “Thou art the man.” But, you know, these men did something very interesting. Perhaps unlike what you and I would normally do. Defend ourselves. Justify ourselves. Refuse to listen. Say, “Who are you to accuse me. I know God.” And yet, David listened and, because of that, repented.
What happened in Moses’ life, I believe, in the desert of Midian, is that his father-in-law, Jethro, turned out to be a rather Godly priest. We would learn later, in the story, that Jethro will give Moses great advice on how to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Their God had sent Moses in a desert where it seemed that God’s silence was too loud to hear and yet, there in the middle of that desert experience, there was a Godly priest that was respected by no one in that village, and yet a priest who would refocus Moses’ attention so that when his second son is born, he says, “Oh, now I know, now I understand, GOD is my help.”
My friend, has God brought somebody into your life and are you listening? Perhaps it’s a relative, like Moses. Perhaps it’s a Christian friend, a preacher or a prophet. Someone who declares to you the counsel of God. Are you listening? Do I listen? We’ll all spend time in the desert. The important thing is what we learn there. Because these men were able to listen: from the pen of Moses would come the first five books of the Old Testament; from the pen of David would come more glorious Psalms about worshipping God, who forgave him; from the pen of Mark would come the second gospel of the New Testament. Failure, a desert experience, does not mean the end. If we are able and capable, by God’s grace, to listen, to change, to repent, to learn, the desert can be the beginning of endurance. It can be the beginning of dependence. Shall we pray.