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The wilderness within us


Here we are five days into Lent, and I wonder how the journey is progressing. There are times when the prospect of Easter seems so far away. But like any journey, there are stages along the length of it that will offer us variations in all sorts of ways, not all of them easy to assimilate. Noah had his challenges to face. The story that has come down to us through the years is one that has captured the imagination of millions. The flood is itself a real confusion. How come God has determined to destroy all life upon the earth? How could he have got it so wrong so soon? 

Now, at the risk of being struck down by a thunderbolt, I will admit that I love and respect this story – I’ve known it since I was a small child – but I do not believe that it is literally true. But what I do believe is that it offers us a broader understanding of the relationship between humankind and God; and similarly with the narrative of the rainbow. We have all been surprised at times with the unexpected beauty of a rainbow, possibly because we are seduced by the added attraction of a crock of gold being hidden at its base. But infinitely more important is the image that it reminds us of God’s love towards us, despite seemingly overwhelming odds. To have survived the flood was an experience of epic proportions; to be confronted with the prospect of re-planting, re-populating, recreating the richness of the earth is daunting beyond imagination. Yet that was exactly what faced Noah and his immediate family, and apart from the fact that his first action on descending from the ark was to build an altar and sacrifice ‘of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt-offerings on the altar,’ thus to my way of thinking ensuring the immediate extinction of several species. But it also ensured God’s favour, and he swore never again to destroy every living creature.

There are so many ‘yes, buts’ in this story. But like so much of the scriptural narratives we have to take them at face value and work out what greater truths lie beneath. Here what we are offered in essence is that God may well take us through times of the greatest stress and distress, but throughout will be there to take our hand and guide us, always provided that we let him. The rainbow is the promise. It was to Noah and it will be to us. Not literally, of course, but as a symbol of the embracing love of God and the undertaking that we will not be abandoned to the floods that may threaten to overwhelm our lives.
Such floods are never to be underestimated. We will know people, some of them very close to us, whose lives appear to be one permanent flood, lives blighted with so much pain and anxiety that the presence, let alone the care of God is very much to be questioned. And I don’t have any easy, glib answer to that; indeed, I don’t know of any thoughtful Christian who does. It’s all very well to quote Robert Browning and say ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,’ but we know for a fact that that very often is simply not the case. And the thing about a rainbow is that it never lasts forever. It fades, it vanishes, sometimes it is scarcely visible at all; at other times it blazes from a darkened sky. It is there as a reminder, that is all, but a powerful one. Similarly there have been times when the whole order of things seems out of joint. Wars to end all wars abound, acts of aggression and cruelty are routine, words of condolence, of compassion, of encouragement are poured out, and yet we know that they are but words. When we hear of a shooting in a school we know it will be followed by words of condemnation and words of political convenience, yet we know, we know that it is only question of time before the next disturbed individual with a gun wreaks havoc. I find myself wondering what wilderness the families of the seventeen murdered people in Parkland, Florida are stumbling through today. And, further, what bleak wilderness Nikolas Cruz, the youth with the gun, must have been experiencing in the past. People are not born evil.

I want to look briefly at Jesus’ journey as told us by Mark. Things move with incredible speed and directness in this Gospel. We’ve not yet reached verse twenty in the first chapter, and we’re already told of Jesus’ baptism, God’s personal affirmation, Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness, John’s arrest and Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived. The Lenten connection here, in that we connect Lent with the time of trial in the wilderness, is only mentioned in passing, almost as though it is a moment of little consequence. And yet, we know that not to be the case. Our own times in the wilderness are to us of the greatest reality and are known to cause the greatest pain.

For one of the most informative and inspirational commentaries on this ‘wilderness experience’, which is how I suspect the marketing gurus of today would describe it, you could a lot worse than read the great theologian Harry Williams’ essay on this very topic. He notes that it is the same Spirit that descends upon Jesus at his baptism, affirming him as the Son of God that subsequently drives him into the desert where he is tormented by doubt, by all the same negative things that plague you and me, and convince us that we are of little worth. St Mark describes it as being tempted by Satan. The point is that we are all called and affirmed by God to be his children, and equally are all sometimes in places that seem to us to be utterly desolate. And, as Harry Williams points out, our wilderness is within us, an inner isolation, but emphatically an important part of our spiritual training, part of our understanding of what it means to be fully human. And the fact that Jesus himself was compelled to undergo such an experience is very telling. In his life we are offered crucial insights into the meaning of our own.

Consequently, we come to the realization that we are not alone. Isolated though we may feel ourselves to be, it is a path down which Jesus has walked, and continues to walk with us, holding us by the hand if we will but offer him ours and, if it’s not too fay an image, pointing us towards the rainbow. It’s not an easy journey by any means, rainbows often follow storms, some violent, but it forces us to come to terms with what it means to be fully human, and that, I suggest, is of incomparable value. Amen.

Richard Lloyd Morgan