THE COVENANT IN THE WILDERNESS
Given by The Revd Alison Walker, Castle Street, Cambridge and Haslingfield Methodist Churches, in Chapel on 21st January 2015.
To try and warm up a little, imagine yourself on a hot summer day, sitting on the beach, and feeling the hot sand running through your fingers….
The Godly Play stories set in the desert use a box or flat bag of sand to enable us to imagine life amongst the sand dunes and plains. As you move your hand in the sand, smoothing it out, drawing attention to it you say:
“The desert is a dangerous place. It is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are. There is little water, so you get thirsty and you can die if no water is found. Almost nothing grows there, so there is almost nothing to eat. In the daytime it is hot and the sun scorches your skin. In the night it is cold. When the wind blows, the sand stings when it hits you. People wear many clothes to protect them from the sun and the blowing sand. The desert is a dangerous place. People do not go into the desert unless they have to.”
And so with this evocative description, we enter into the story of the people of God’s enforced wandering in the desert. So much happens in those 40 years – escape, and then learning how to have freedom whilst also learning to trust God. Miraculous provision of food and water and yet little rest, even when they draw close to the Promised Land, they are not yet ready and they are turned around again, back to the desert, back to the place that is dangerous not only because it is a harsh environment with wild animals, but dangerous because it is the place where you can meet God.
The desert wilderness captures our imagination and becomes a metaphor for those nights, days, weeks, months or even years when we feel ourselves to be spiritually uprooted, homeless, when the future is sure only in that we know there will be more walking, more searching and no end in sight. The people of God in the desert are people without a country, with a fragile identity. Perhaps you also have lived for a while outside of your own country. There are moments of homesickness and craving for favourite, comforting foods – just as the Israelites very quickly moan about their hunger and long for Egyptian hotpot and proper bread. But more than that the sensation of being foreign, of never quite understanding the culture, of their being a separation between all that you have assumed and taken for granted, and all that you will never get nor be able to enter into. You become a little paranoid when you don’t speak the language – is that person talking about me? or worse still, will they want to talk to me?! The simplest of daily tasks takes longer, anything difficult becomes overwhelming. The experience of being a foreigner and the experience of wandering in the desert I think have shared boundaries, we can look from one experience into the other.
Into this confusing time, God gives his Covenant. God gives the Commandments, and the whole Law, to enable a spiritually close relationship with God. It’s easy for us to be so hot on grace over law that we forget that the Law was not meant to prevent people from praying, from meeting with God, but was meant to draw people close to God in a way that kept them safe, so that God’s power could be known in ways that brought healing not destruction.
And from this perspective of the desert – from the freedom of being a nation-state (no taxes, no passports, no borders to patrol), from the freedom of travelling as and when needed, the Israelites can look to the other nations. Sometimes what they see tempts them – to find love and marriage, to worship other gods, to take up other customs and practices – but they still turn away from these things and back to God, because the freedom and distance of the desert enables them to know God’s will, to hear God’s voice, to understand how they must be different compared to those around them.
Being a foreigner, adrift in someone else’s land gives you this perspective. You recognise it first in the way that you are probably very critical of the customs of your temporarily adopted country: strange, extravagant or extra reserved, you constantly battle to find your way. But slowly as you look back on your own country, your own history and experience, you begin to question your own culture, your own received ideas, the rose-tinted glasses fall away and you are privileged to understand the true strengths and weaknesses, to see possibilities that were previously unimaginable for you. When you return to your culture, you still see it as if the focus is a bit too tight, the contrast turned up a bit too high, and it is uncomfortable. Then, as slowly as it arrived, this new perspective fades away, subtly and slowly so that you do not notice the absence. That time of perspective and vision is a precious delicate gift.
It is a gift that Wesley House has right now – exiled for a time from familiar buildings, the rhythms of domestic and academic life interrupted, making space for something new – something we can hint out but not yet achieve. The gift of perspective now looking back on the Methodist Church, perhaps tempted to wish for a return to an old comfortable state, but reaching a new relationship, a time of growth in independence, a time to raise your voices and speak messages that you were perhaps not able to say before. But be wary, this is only temporary – this gift will dissolve when the new life becomes the routine life. So, look now, remember these thoughts and sensations, write them down, treasure them, because if you do not, you will not be able to draw on all of these things to bring back with you the meaning of this your desert time. It is also a feature of our itinerant ministry: you arrive in a new place and all is strange, you look back on the old with fondness and forget how strange and difficult it was, and by the time you need to move on again, the weird ways of your current churches have become normal and you, like everyone else, believe that you are normal, that you have always done it this way, that everyone else is heading in the wrong direction.
God could have waited to give the Covenant, waited until the people had worked out their own issues, found their own identity, settled into the Promised Land. Instead the Covenant comes in the Wilderness, at the very moment when we do not want and cannot handle any more challenges. Perhaps it is because in that moment of struggle, we are really aware of how great are the demands that God asks us to accept when we become his People, perhaps at other times we make our Covenant promises and the meaning passes us by. In the Wilderness, our senses are heightened, and we know within what it means to be employed for God or laid aside, to be weak or strong, to have all things or nothing. Remember this time – because this clarity of vision will serve you when the way becomes darkened, when God’s voice becomes the echo of a whisper, when the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud have dissipated. Each Covenant year we stand again the Wilderness, it is just that sometimes we are aware, and sometimes not. Each Covenant year we separate ourselves from our surrounding culture with its own beliefs, temptations and false promises and we re-align ourselves with the boundary-less people of God, and with the true promises of God.