The Wilderness Years
Great leaders often spend long years in which their gifts are either unused or, as yet, unusable before their rise to greatness. Winston Churchill is a classic example. At a young age, he caught the attention of Britain during the Boer War in South Africa, when he played a key part in foiling a Boer assault on an armored train. Although he was captured, he promptly escaped in dramatic fashion. After his return home, Churchill became a prominent politician during the early part of the First World War. Later, however, he fell out of favor. He was regarded as something of a loose cannon, unreliable in his judgment, and he spent most of the years between the First and Second World Wars on the fringes of power. No one trusted him enough to give him a major responsibility in leadership.
Churchill did not return to the center of the action until the outbreak of the Second World War confirmed the accuracy of his prophetic warnings about the danger posed by Nazi Germany. On the day the war broke out, he was installed as First Lord of the Admiralty, in charge of the navy. Within a year, he replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister after the fall of France to the Germans. At that point, it became clear to all that he was the only figure who could command the support of all the various political factions. The rest, as they say, is history: Churchill was at center stage for what was his, and perhaps also Britain’s, finest hour (Adapted from ‘Living in the Grip of Relentless Grace’ by Iain Duguid)
A similar pattern of training for greatness is common in the Bible. A place of leadership over God’s people frequently follows a period of lengthy preparation in the wilderness of exile. This common pattern links Abraham, whose call to service came at age seventy-five, and Moses, who kept his father-in-law’s sheep before being turned loose on God’s flock, and David, who spent years on the run as an outcast before rising to the throne God had promised him. For each, God’s way to glory passed through the valley of humiliation.
In contrast, lesser figures in God’s program require less preparation. Is this perhaps why Isaac, who is the least prominent of the patriarchs in Genesis, led a relatively smooth life? There was no real conflict over the birthright in his case, even though he too was the younger son. His wife was delivered to him on a silver platter, as it were, through the faithful ministrations of Abraham’s servant. I wonder, did Isaac need less preparation because he was a less significant player in God’s game plan? His most important acts were to be born and (almost) to be offered up as a living sacrifice. In those key events, he was a passive rather than an active participant.
The same could not be said of Jacob. His life was marked by conflict and strife from before day one. Even in the womb, life was a struggle for Jacob. In Genesis 29 he found himself thrust out into the world as a fugitive, little prepared to live by faith. He had been raised in a world of plotting and conniving, of parents who tipped the scales of justice in the direction of their favorite child. He had learned how to lie and scheme well enough. He thought himself well-equipped to play the world’s games in the world’s ways.
However, the world that Jacob was entering would test his abilities in this department. His uncle Laban was a picture of worldly shrewdness and unscrupulousness, his match in every way. Jacob would again abandon the way of faith and turn instead to human strategy and manipulation. But he will find himself outdone by his uncle. And so will we. There are plenty of uncle Labans out there.
Join us this week as we learn of God’s work in his people through the valley of humiliation, the wilderness years. One of the truths we will learn is that home, for Jacob and for you and me, is on the other side of the wilderness, where we shall be in God’s house forever, with hearts and voices tuned to a perfect pitch. In the meantime, the faint strains of that foreign song summon us on through the weary desert. Do you know that tune? See you this Lord’s Day.
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