By Joel Bates
I wasn’t at Golgotha, but it was a dark Friday when I stood on the hill of crosses. We had been traveling together in the wilderness for about a week before my co-leader and I pulled the bottom out from under the missionaries-in-training. They would have to exchange their comfortable canoes for the burden of hiking with backpacks. Some of them glared at us in astonishment, the anger brewing under the surface because of what this could cost them. They were a mixed bag of global evangelists, some singles and some families all headed for unknown challenges in the four corners of the world. There were children in the group, too, including an infant and two toddlers. How would they be able to transport children and infants, food, and all the camping gear to a yet unknown destination? They could relate to Abraham, actually Abram, as he also faced a call to go to a land God would show him, a place far away over a distance he did not know. However, the mission recruits did have their first destination, just not the knowledge of how many more would follow, so with what they did know they lifted their packs and kid-carriers to their backs and set their feet on the path.
From the first, the way was slow going. Brambles and thorns obscured what little evidence of a trail existed, and soon they faced another challenge. They had to march up a mountain. Since the destination lay at the top, there was naught to do but trust the map and compass, hold to the bearing, and press on. Again I thought of Abraham as he sojourned throughout the land of promise, never really reaching the destination, hoping in the promise of a child, fulfillment always just out of reach and out of his earthly control, yet he was credited for his faith, faith in a promise. For most of his life that was his only bearing.
After spending most of the day trudging from one destination to the next, enjoying the temporary joy of a successful proof, and delighting brief rests, my co-leader and I chose one final destination. It was a small hill just a stone’s throw away from what would be our final campsite—a hill utterly insignificant and arbitrary except for one monumental feature, three large crosses standing tall.
The bedraggled missionaries knew neither the significance of the destination nor that it was the last destination of the trip. The light of day was dwindling, and the dark storm brewing on the horizon promised we would soon be pelted with raindrops. They put a good face on it all and set off with a degree of hearty will, but after we had been slogging along with heavy burdens in the rain for a few hours, they realized with great dismay that they had taken a wrong turn and passed their destination. The anticipated cheer of success faded as a growing anxiety of their being totally and utterly lost descended on them.
One of the group leaders, a young husband and father, looked at the group and in brokenness confessed that he doubted they could go on any farther. The children were crying and soaking in the rain. Nightfall threatened to obscure the destination. And quite honestly, he had lost his own personal belief in the mission. Knowing that this was not the time or place to quit, I pulled him aside and simply whispered, “I believe you can do this, and your group is capable of following you.” He silently nodded in acknowledgement as tears lined his cheeks.
They kept going. They were trying to follow a bearing in the dark, but the going was difficult and impeded by gullies, thick foliage, and the needs of group members to stop and rest as their fatigue no doubt fueled their own mounting doubts. I followed along with them, but my mind began to race with questions as I considered their struggles and how I was driving them on to this destination. I had to ask, “Is this too much for the group? Am I setting them up to fail miserably? Will they ever forgive me for challenging them so far beyond their perceived limits?”
The group stopped just short of the hill, resting and retreating mentally in a wet heap of packs, bodies, and tears. I stood back and watched and prayed desperately for God to help them since my commitment to this challenge prevented me from bailing them out. Two members stood apart with map and compass in hand, gaping into the darkness and straining to see any signs of a rise in elevation. When I strode to their side, they choked out the problem through their tears, “We’re lost in the dark and in absolute brokenness. We cannot find the destination.”
“Do you still have a bearing on the hill?” I asked. They did, and after comparing it to my own, I knew they were truly heading in the right direction. They just didn’t believe it. I simply reminded them to trust their map and compass and hold to the bearing. So in fear and doubt and suffering they set off, risking all to follow the bearing. Suddenly out of the darkness, the terrain began to rise slightly and then steeply ascend. My co-facilitator and I were following the hikers when a sudden hush came over the group. I looked up, and my breath caught as headlamps and flashlights one after the other illuminated the figures of three imposing crosses.
The group felt a rush of wonder and quickened their pace to the summit. They stopped and stood in silence at the foot of the rough-hewn emblems of suffering and shame. Without a word, one by one they let their backpacks slide off, losing them to the cold ground, leaving them, and not looking back. The broken young man who had been leading us fell to his knees and began to weep at the sight. Tears filled my eyes, too, as the rain eased and lightning lit up the sky, emblazoning the silhouetted crosses on my mind. The group, still wet, still in the dark, fresh from the trail of suffering was entranced in a state of awe and worship. In the face of suffering and lostness, brokenness and hopelessness, there stood the cross—the evidence of all that these missionaries were living for. The scene embodied God’s fulfilled promise that went all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. He had spared that only son and promised the coming of another only Son who would be sacrificed.
That Friday night, we glimpsed the pain and sadness of what the world apart from Christ feels. Though our encounter was brief, it deeply impressed us again with the hard fact that we needed saving. We knelt there remembering Jesus, the only Son sacrificed for everyone. He can relate to all of our pain and suffering and do more than just relate, but save us from it. There, to our surprise, in the middle of the night on a small hill amid a dying world lost in pain and darkness stands the salvation of all men, the beacon of hope to the nations, the immovable gospel for all ages, the fulfillment of the promise, the reliable bearing we hold to. There stands the cross of Christ.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.