Dear radio friends,
What a glorious comfort it is as we stand at the beginning of the year of the Lord 2008 to know that God leads us. In the words of the hymn, “He leadeth me: O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught! What e’er I do, wher-e’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.” This is the comfort of the church of Jesus Christ exclusively, of those who have been redeemed by God from the Egypt of sin. God will control all that happens to His church and to His child in a perfectly wise way to lead them to heavenly glory.
For the world, the opposite is the case. We read in Psalm 73 that “Thou castest them down to destruction; they are set in slippery places.” The assurance of the leading of God is given to a repentant child of God who is walking humbly with God and seeking, by the grace of God, heaven. To such is the comfort that God will lead him in this coming year. Take hold of that.
Are you aged? What happens if you get a stroke this year? Are you a widow? Will you be further into your loneliness? Are you afflicted with diabetes? Perhaps you are a young couple and you cannot have children. What about your job? You have fears, perhaps, as a parent, for your children in this world — what’s going to happen to them? Young people, are you afraid? To every child of God, whatever his life is, the promise of God is that He will lead him in a perfect and wise way this year.
Yet God’s leading of us is so often hidden and apparently, to our perception, wrong, and we cannot see it except by faith. That is what we learn in Exodus 13:17-22, which form the words of our text on this first Sunday of the new year. Those words talk about Israel after God had brought them up out of Egypt and how He chose to lead them to the land of Canaan. Hard-hearted Pharaoh, as you remember, would not let Israel go. In ten plagues, Jehovah had devastated Egypt. He has now brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, and they shall go on to Canaan—to the land that was promised to Abraham. But the way that God will take them there? Apparently it is all wrong. It is not the obvious one. He does not lead them as man would think.
That is also the way that it shall be with us in this coming year. God will lead us. But He does not consult us or make us His counselors. He will lead you this year in ways that, perhaps, you would not choose, ways for which you cannot with the human eye see the reason or the good. For He declares that “My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are my ways your ways,” saith the Lord. “For as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God will lead us for infinitely wise and good reasons, but reasons that will not always be plain to us.
God will not lose sight of the goal. He shall bring us at last to glory and He shall lead us perfectly that way.
In the text to which I referred, we read of the fact that, after bringing Israel out of the house of bondage where they had suffered for four hundred years, God did not then lead Israel to the promised land of Canaan by the most direct route. There was an obvious way to go from Egypt to Canaan. We read, it was “through the way of the land of the Philistines … that was near.” There was a path or road that lay along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea connecting the land of Canaan to Egypt. It was a highway, a road, that was existing. It had much in its favor. It was the shortest. It could, perhaps, take a week or two for two million people on foot to walk it. One could hardly get lost. It offered a plain path.
There was one drawback. It led through the land of the Philistines and, while that was something to consider, for the Philistines were steeped in war, yet, what could those Philistine warlords do to the people of the God who had just wrecked ancient Egypt with His ten plagues? You see, everything pointed to go in that direction. Had not Israel suffered enough? Was not the easiest and the shortest route to Canaan the best that would bring them to their rest? Were they not now ready to take up their life in Canaan?
There was another way to Canaan, if you wanted to call it that. But it probably would never have entered Moses’ head. It made no sense. It would be to turn south and to enter, as we read, “the way of the wilderness of the Red sea.” This wilderness was avoided by everyone who could. There was no water or shade, and the possibility of getting lost was real. Mountains stood on both sides, leading one finally to the Red Sea. And the Red Sea was not a stream. For two million people it was impassable. And if somehow one would manage to get across, he would only come to another wilderness even more desolate and remote than the previous one. There would be no place for families with children and old people and cattle. And if you would lead a people in there, then for sure the nations of the world would laugh at you. And they did. They would say that Moses brought them out to have them all die in the desolate sands. But if, by a miracle, finally things turned out, it would take at least a year and a half to lead people by that route to Canaan’s borders.
We read that “God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near … but God led the people about through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea.” That is the route, the difficult route that God chose for Israel. How utterly foolish this must have appeared to Israel. I can imagine one of the leaders of the tribe of Judah or Ephraim, when he sensed the direction that Moses was pointing the columns of Israel, when he saw that they were going to the right instead of to the left, that perhaps he ran to the front and came to Moses and said, “No, not this way, Moses.” I can hear the words of a wife in the tribe of Zebulon saying to her husband, “You go up there and you talk to that man. We can’t possibly go this way. My father is aged. He can’t walk through a wilderness. We have little children and babies. We can’t go that way. Go tell him, ‘Moses, you made a mistake. You’ve got us heading in the wrong direction. Don’t you understand that there is a plain, a short, a marked-out path that leads along the Mediterranean Sea. That’s the way we have to go. And if we go this way, we’re just going to come to disaster for sure.’”
Only for Moses to respond to these men: “I’ve made no mistake. God, who leads us by the pillar of cloud and fire by night, has led us into the way of the wilderness.” For Jehovah, not Moses, led them. We read in Deuteronomy 32:10, “He (Jehovah) led them and instructed them and kept them as the apple of his eye.” The One who created geography; the One who knows each valley and mountain pass; the One who, from on high, sees and knows all led them into the wilderness. He led them in what we would consider the “long” way, the wrong way, the difficult way, the impossible way. But He led them the right way. He led them the only way. He led them the best way, the way that leads to Canaan. It is not optional. For He is God.
The way that leads to glory is not the way that your flesh would choose. It is not the way that human wisdom would pick. But it is the way that God leads. And God leads through the wilderness. Do you understand?
That is true today for the church and for you and for me. It does not mean, of course, that we would decide, in the light of this Word of God, that if we are going to be spiritual in 2008, we must make decisions that make it hard for ourselves in the earthly sense. No, God leads. And God is telling us that what human flesh sees as the easiest, the shortest, way to reach glory is not the way to glory at all. But the way that He leads now, the way that is so often contrary to our own flesh, the long way, the difficult way, that is the way that indeed brings us to glory. It is the way that is designed to show His sufficiency and His wisdom.
This is contrary to the health, wealth, and success gospel that many preach today — that God shows His love simply by delivering you from all of your adversities and heartaches and sicknesses. That is not the Word of God. No, God leads in ways that are often difficult and mysterious to us. He may lead you in ways that are difficult for your health. Maybe with your child, your teenager. He may lead you in mental difficulties, emotional difficulties. There may be problems in your marriage and you need to work at those problems every day. Maybe He is going to make you more lonely. Maybe you are going to struggle with insecurities. And for the church, the way shall not be one of ease. There shall be constant difficulties.
Instead of health, the Lord may bring sickness. Instead of prosperity, He may lead in ways of difficulty. Instead of peace of soul, He may cause you to pass through depression. He may lead you in the way that we think is all wrong. But He leads perfectly.
First of all, we read that God said, “Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.” He is referring to the fact that the Philistines lived along the path of the easy route to Canaan — and that the Philistines were at that time too strong for Israel. Yes, of course, God could sweep the Philistines aside. But God does not use His power simply for the ease of His people. God uses His power for a purpose. God does not simply remove the obstacles in our life. But He wills that by His grace we contend with them. And He knows there are certain things that Israel is not ready to face. They have to be taught.
God knew that if Israel had immediately, after leaving Egypt, bumped into the warriors of the Philistines and gotten their nose bloodied, they would run all the way back to Egypt and hide. In other words, the Lord was saying, there are temptations, there are struggles, for which the Israelites were not yet prepared by the grace of God to face. So God turned them aside into the way of the wilderness.
So also there are certain circumstances and situations that are too strong for you right now and would overcome you. You might not think so. But God leads you, and He promises that He will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able to bear. You may want the short and the easy way. As a young man, as a young woman, you want it easy. As a husband, you want it easy. You see the way of wealth and health and all the plans that you have dreamed about. That is the best way. That is the way in which your soul is going to be happiest. And that is the way you will be able to worship God the best, you say. But God knows that if He leads you that way, you will not be able to stand. There are battles for which you are not ready — battles that at this point in your life would mean defeat. So God does not lead you the way that you think best because God deals with you according to your infirmities. He knows your strength and He knows the obstacles and will not bring you to that place where you cannot stand.
But more. We read that God led the people about through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea for a reason. We know that reason was that the wilderness was to be the place of preparation, in order that Israel might be prepared for Canaan. It became very plain that by nature they still coveted Egypt, they still coveted this world, and they needed purification. That is why God leads them the way of the Red Sea. That is why God brings them across a Red Sea and they cannot go back. That is why for forty years He will chastise them in the wilderness and teach them and care for them. When, at last, they enter into the land of Canaan, they must know that they enter it by grace. If Israel went to Canaan by the shortest paved way; if God would simply swat the Philistines out of their way and they would appear in Canaan two weeks out of the land of Egypt, imagine that! How would Israel then enter into the land of Canaan? Well, they would walk in with a proud swagger, thinking they deserved the place.
Beloved, God has redeemed us in the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. He has called us to glory. But now one thing He does in all of our days is to teach us that our eternal reward is entirely of His grace. And it takes the wilderness to do that. It is only through the desert that Israel came to know themselves as the least deserving of all people, as murmurers, lusters, complainers, and people who did not have a spiritual memory.
For us it is the same. We read in I Peter 5:10, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” The process of chastening, of reproving, of humbling us is good. It is when you have been brought face to face with your own weakness and sin, it is then that grace appears in all of its luster. And that is how God is going to take you to Canaan. The pathway is called Lessons in Grace. It is called the Way of Holiness. And it is calculated by God to bring you to dead ends, to places where your strength is spent and your hope is gone and your vision is lost. Only then will He carry you over the Jordan.
What we seek in life and what God seeks for us are often two different things. We seek short, easy, and direct ways to our pleasure. But God does not seek our earthly pleasure. He seeks us.
And that is the encouragement that we have. We have the encouragement that is the absolutely sure promise that we shall be brought to Canaan.
We read that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had “straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.” Joseph had made Israel swear that they would carry his bones to Canaan. Now Moses and the people of Israel remember that. For forty years they will carry Joseph’s bones in the wilderness. We ask, “What for? Why are you carrying these bones in the wilderness?” The answer is, “Because God promised Joseph that his bones would be in Canaan.”
Canaan was a picture of eternal glory, a picture of the salvation of the body and soul of the believer. That was God’s promise: You will be there, and nothing that death brings upon you will bar the way of your entering. That is God’s encouragement.
God says, “I’m going to lead you in ways that you cannot figure out, but I’m bringing you home. And I tell you that nothing will be lost — not your bones, not anything that Christ has redeemed. You are going to cross over the Jordan. The way that I lead you is not going to fizzle out, it is not going to end up as the dreams of this world. But you, exactly through the way that I lead you, are going to be brought home to eternal glory.” There is nothing that can ever prevent that, for it is the promise of the eternal God.
Then the encouragement is this: that God will preserve us with His faithful presence. “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.” A pillar of cloud now appears and the pillar of fire appears before Israel. And God makes it very visible that He is with them, that He is leading them, and that no one could mistake this: that He Himself had become their Guide.
Now take that comfort for this year. If God is with you, a desert becomes a garden. If God is with you, a widow’s table becomes a feast. If God is with you, a nursing home becomes a portal to a king’s palace. If God is with you, sickness becomes a badge of honor; and trial and sorrow become things that we kiss. He is faithful. For “He took not away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.” He never left them for a moment. He was always there. That is our encouragement!
“I will not leave you, I will not forsake you. Nothing in this year will cause Me to do that. I will be with you, I will lead you.” We know this, for God swears to those whom He has redeemed in the blood of Jesus Christ that, come what may in the year 2008, “I will lead you, I will not forsake you, I will take you by the way of My eternal wisdom to glory. I will guide, I will lead, I will direct, I will keep you from things that are too strong. I will show you My grace.”
He leadeth me; O blessed thought! He is with me. And so we may conclude: “Surely grace and lovingkindness shall forever follow me, till, my days of life all ended, evermore my home shall be, O Jehovah, in Thy holy house with Thee.”
Let us pray.
Father, bind Thy Word unto our hearts and give us to submit and to trust in Thee, the faithful, wise God of our salvation. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.