Sunday, February 17, 2008

Going Through the Wilderness

Exodus 17.1-7
The People of Israel are depicted by the writers of Exodus as a pretty ungrateful bunch. Rescued from abject slavery, they are soon complaining that they were better off in Egypt than wandering free in the wilderness. And, of course, they do have a point. The Pharaoh was engaged in a campaign of mass extermination - killing the baby boys and working the adults to death - so life in Egypt was no bed of roses. But, on the other hand, life in the wilderness certainly isn't a picnic, either. The escaped slaves are now at risk of dying from thirst, until God rescues them again with a stream of life-giving water which flows from a new spring on the holy mountain of Horeb.

Mind you, we might well ask ourselves what the people of Israel were doing in the wilderness, wandering constantly around the inhospitable fringes of this mysterious holy mountain. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land should have taken only a matter of days or weeks, even for people travelling on foot and driving their livestock with them. Another of the traditions about this period, the Book of Deuteronomy, makes clear that the reason the nomadic life in the wilderness lasted for forty years was entirely because of the faithlessness and disobedience of the people themselves. They refused to trust God's promises, preferring to scratch a living in the desert rather than enter the land flowing with milk and honey that lay just over the horizon.

Do we inflict wilderness experiences on ourselves because of a lack of trust in God's promises? Are there countless possibilities waiting for us just beyond a horizon which we refuse to cross, preferring instead to sulk in our tents or stay in the relative safety of what is already familiar to us?

Christians are also reminded by this passage that, when we find ourselves in a wilderness of our own or other people's making, Jesus is the rock from which the life-giving water flows which can sustain us through hard times. This week's reading from John's Gospel consciously draws this parallel - making the point that the Spirit of Jesus can give us a life-giving spring of spiritual resources welling up constantly within us.

Romans 5.1-11
Paul makes the case that having wilderness times in our lives is not always such a bad thing. People who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, and who have therefore never wanted for anything, often lack the stamina and strength of character that are needed to make the best out of life. I guess that's why Nigella Lawson reportedly plans to cut her children out of her will, or at least to make them think that they might be cut out. She wants them to stand on their own two feet.

Paul lists a number of advantages of going through a wilderness experience. First, he points out that if we have never encountered any trouble we shall never need to rely on faith. Perhaps that's one of the problems with modern life in the West. It can be so trouble-free, for much of the time anyway, that we never learn to develop the spiritual resources that will see us through the hard times.

Of course, atheists would argue that faith is only for wimps and cry babies. They would say that truly mature people don't need a crutch to lean on when life turns sour. Instead, they would urge us to turn inwards and find within ourselves the inner strength to cope with our troubles. But the truth is that very few people are atheists at heart. If they don't think about God it isn't, generally, because they don't want to believe in anything. It's because they have never needed to ask themselves the difficult questions about the meaning of life and the suffering it brings.

Finding faith can be a great source of strength and peace when those difficult questions are brought bubbling to the surface by tragedy or disappointment. And not only that, says Paul, but also suffering - in and of itself - can build our character by giving us qualities like determination and endurance. This, after all, is why people climb mountains and cross seas in small boats. They don't just confront these challenges because they are there to be conquered. They do it because they want to prove themselves and become better, stronger people, whose characters have been forged in the furnace of affliction. Without hardship there can be no exhilaration. Without sorrow we can never know true joy.

Above all, of course, experiencing difficulty encourages a sense of hope and hope is uplifting. In 1996 Tony Blair surged to victory on the slogan, 'Things can only get better!', and people hoped it was true. As far as the economy is concerned, New Labour probably lived up to that promise, although only time will tell. But I think voters were expecting something more than a strong dose of Gordon Brown's economic prudence. They also hoped to see a different kind of politics, with less sleaze and graft. The fact that turnout at elections has fallen steadily since then probably reflects a loss of hope that things really can change. And that's sad, because - without hope - our society is condemned to flat-line on a wave of disillusionment and despair. If the wilderness doesn't create a sense of hope for something better then there can be no escape.

Thank goodness, then, that it is when we are at our weakest, and the wilderness seems to stretch on and on for ever, that Jesus comes to our rescue. And if he can rescue us from the wilderness - and from our own despair that things can ever improve - how much more can he empower us when we are working with him for change.

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