Sunday, September 12, 2010

I am Thankful for the Juniper Tree

Until a few years ago I looked down on Elijah for his sojourn in the wilderness. He had called down fire from heaven, defeated the prophets of Baal, released the heavens to rain, out ran Ahab’s chariots, and then, at the threat of Jezebel, he turned tail and ran away. He went into the wilderness and lay down to die under a juniper tree. An angel woke him up with a prepared meal. He ate and drank, and went back to sleep. The angel woke him up a second time with a meal. He ate and drank and obeyed, traveling forty days and nights to an appointed destination where he received a new and redemptive ministry.

I found myself under my own juniper tree. The wilderness was barren. I had no strength or desire to move in any direction. My instincts told me to get moving but I lay down and told the Lord “I find myself in the wilderness again, but this time I have no reserves, no hope of getting out. I’m going to stay here until you send an angel to tell me what to do or I die.” The shade of the juniper tree was my only comfort. I wondered if God would strike it down like he had Jonah’s vine. And then I realized the juniper tree was God’s gift to me. It was essential to my survival even when I preferred to die. It was a good place to relearn how to trust God fully.

I didn’t get an angelic chef or a keg of heavenly Gatorade. I found comfort in the gift of a small spiritual shade tree and I began to give thanks for it. The wilderness is a good place to die if you have already died to yourself. Unlike Elijah, I didn’t choose my wilderness; it seemed thrust upon me. But I was there none-the-less and my one consolation was that I wasn’t there alone. God wasn’t talking, but He was there and I wasn’t going to leave until He said leave.

It became more and more clear to me that the wilderness is the right place to be when you have the slightest hope that God is going to meet you there and give you a new sense of direction and a renewed call. It’s better to die under a juniper tree than wander aimlessly in search of a city whose builder and maker is not God. I recalled the closing lines of a sermon I had preached decades earlier on Elijah’s victory on Mount Carmel. “Faith is not so much calling fire down from heaven as it is climbing a mountain of opposition to face the enemies of your salvation; it is not so much searching for a city whose builder and maker is God as it is climbing a mountain of sacrifice to offer back to God His greatest gift to you.” I would now add, “faith is not so much climbing a mountain to see fire and wind and the earth shake, or even to hear a still small voice, as it is sleeping alone under a juniper tree waiting for the Angel of the Lord to return with new marching orders.”

I can’t say I ever got a clear sense of direction with a specific rendezvous point. Instead I felt a nudge to travel a little farther with a simple promise I’d find other shade trees along the way. Then there were clusters of trees and an oasis here and there. I have come to a renewed realization that obedience is better than sacrifice. Lengthy sojourns in the wilderness are not meaningless. And besides you might bump into some very significant people there: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, Elijah, or John the Baptist, to name a few. Come to think of it, Jesus spent some time there as well.

The juniper tree may just be the sign the angel is on his way.

Cleveland, Tennessee
September 12, 2010

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