Have you ever experienced a significant desert season in your life? I’ve chatted to a few people recently who have described a long season of doubt, confusion, spiritual dryness or a long season of waiting for something they long for in their life. Most of us don’t like the experience of short waits in our everyday life. Collectively, people spend about 67 billion hours a year waiting in lines. Even this small task can be a test of our patience most days.
Even in short waits the feeling of uncertainty about their end or the feeling of it being unfair makes us struggle. But then there are those experiences in life that involve not just minutes, but months or maybe even years of waiting. It can feel like a desert or like barrenness. This kind of waiting doesn’t just test our patience, it tests our hope.
Barrenness can take many forms. It can look like dryness in your life, loss, loneliness, or rejection. It can be some relationship not yet reconciled or something you’ve been asking God to do in your marriage or in your singleness. It can look like a pain or injustice you’ve endured and are asking for healing and restoration, or some struggle like depression. You keep asking God to do something new but change has not come yet.
For many of us, the waiting changes us and yet, somehow, some are able to keep their hearts alive in barren places.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were among a people who experienced a lifetime of waiting in desert circumstances. The nation of Israel was waiting for Messiah and Zechariah and Elizabeth who were very old and barren were longing for a child.
Their story shows us two ways of responding when God shows up in those dry, hopeless places in our lives. One is skeptical and the other is full of wonder.
What is the difference between them? How can we keep our hearts soft and hopeful so we don’t miss God when he shows up?
I wonder for Zechariah if maybe the experience of God with him in his waiting wasn’t personal for him anymore. I can’t imagine what it was like for him. All the years of asking for a child, the waiting, the possible stigma of unfaithfulness that others would have felt toward them even though they had lived incredibly faithful lives.
Waiting without answers or without an end in sight can be excruciating.
A couple of years ago, a great auntie in my family went missing. They drained lakes looking for her with no answers in sight. Within two months, her nephew also mysteriously went missing in a different city. Only his clothes were found near a body of water. The pain and confusion of the family as they waited to understand what happened was awful. Our auntie was recovered months later with no ability to tell how she passed and the nephew was never found. I think about the family members who were closest to them and wonder how they are being changed by the uncertainty and longing for answers. The lifetime of questions. The fear they now feel each time a family member walks out the door.
Waiting is so difficult and often the waiting changes us.
Maybe Zechariah had changed somehow in the waiting.
He clearly kept going through the motions. He was faithful in his duties. He continued to pray for the redemption of Israel and to believe God would send Messiah but maybe he had lost hope that God would still show up in his own personal desert. So when God shows up in an incredibly theatrical encounter to get his attention and give this very personal announcement that he would indeed have a son, at first Zechariah misses what God is doing.
There were nearly 18,000 priests who were each on duty 2 weeks a year. They cast lots to see who would burn the incense and offer prayers. If you get chosen, you can never do it again. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and some never get chosen.
And Zechariah gets chosen.
While he is there performing this holy, ancient service for Israel, an angel of the Lord shows up to tell him he will have a son.
God shows up and Zechariah wonders how can I be sure?
We hear his skepticism. He has everything he needs to believe that God could do a great thing for him. He’s a priest. He holds the stories of God’s faithfulness to others like Abraham & Sarah. He has the stories of his own life and this supernatural encounter. It’s pretty statistically reliable evidence that if an angel shows up and says God is going to do a thing, God is going to do that thing. But what he experiences is skepticism. It is almost like he has stopped believing that God will do a thing like this for him. It’s not personal anymore.
Maybe under all of our struggling with the deserts in our lives is this fear, this loss of faith. We can begin to believe that God comes through for others, but maybe just not for us anymore.
Elizabeth responds differently.
She hears the news in a much different way. Possibly just her old, mute husband scribbling a note to her or making hand gestures. She probably notices a few changes in her body. But there are no sonograms, no way to be certain. She could have thought he was crazy or maybe she was just ill. But somehow she believed not only that God could still do such a thing, she still believed he WOULD do such a thing for HER.
“The Lord has done this for me.” It’s personal to her. It’s not just about the redemption of Israel but it’s also about God showing up in a very personal way for her and for Zechariah. It has a feeling of intimate worship as we read how she stays in seclusion for five months and then when Mary visits her a song of worship pours out of her heart.
It makes me wonder, how can we keep our hearts soft and hopeful when we encounter deserts in our life? What are a few ways we can keep our life with God personal?
Remember and be thankful – It helps to remember the ways that he has shown up for us and for those around us before. Being thankful is a way of acknowledging his active work around us and reminds our hearts that he is not far away, passively watching our lives unfold. He is close and acting on behalf of those he loves.
Nurture an intimate friendship with God – Everyone does this differently but any relationship requires time and presence, listening and learning in order to grow. Reading scripture, praying, learning to listen, finding ways to glimpse how good and just and faithful God is often leads to worship because it is our natural response to be in awe when we are reminded of God’s greatness and his love.
Be around spiritual family – When the desert is hard and testing our hope, we need people in our life who will remind us that God still knows our name, he still sees our life and that he will come through for us.
We may not get an encounter with an angel, but Jesus is always showing up in our lives. If Jesus is always personal for us, we can find flourishing even in the desert.
There are parts of the Atacama Desert in Chile where no rain has ever been recorded. Scientists believe portions of the region have been in an extreme desert state for 40 million years—longer than any other place on Earth.
And yet more than 1 million people live in the Atacama currently. Farmers found ways to extract enough water from aquifers and snowmelt streams to grow crops and raise llamas and alpacas.
In 2015, a portion of the desert received a historic rainfall. Just under an inch of rain in one day. It may not seem like much but it was the equivalent of 14 years of rainfall for this region all in one day. And this desert that had already found a way to thrive and sustain more than 1 million people was now also covered in a beautiful layer of pink & purple bloom after the rain.
Jesus has come to take away the barrenness of the world. He can make us flourish and bring beauty even in the deserted places of our lives.
If you are in a season of waiting, how is the waiting changing you? Maybe today Jesus wants to renew your hope that he is showing up in the barren places of your life.