Renewal in the Wilderness

Lent 4

Numbers 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22
Eph 2: 1-10; John 3:14-21

The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

As many of us know, Dean Bertrand is an accomplished runner, with a bounty of marathon medals to his name. My own career as a runner was much more ignominious.: I ran cross-country for one quarter in high school, after my pediatrician diagnosed me with tendonitis in my knees and then prescribed distance running as a treatment. This was laughably misguided, but I had fun and racked up some decent times before collapsing in a heap at the end of a 7K, unable to walk for several days. Thanks to that injury, I missed a meet I had been eagerly anticipating and training for. Turns out, it was the meet from hell.

The meet was hosted by one of our rival high schools, and the competitors ran through the woods along a trail guided by arrows and by student hosts. Unfortunately, the student hosts figured out that they could ensure their own team won by misdirecting the others. If they had made one or two misdirections, they might have gotten away with it; instead, they kept at it until the other teams were finishing two and three hours after the home team, with the last stragglers being hunted by flashlight after dark. My friends said it was terrible: They figured out pretty quickly what was going on, but they did not actually know the way out of the woods, so they kept following the directions they were given as the route lengthened before them, hoping that someone decent would shine a light and point the way home.

Today is the first anniversary of our pandemic shutdown. When I look back, this year feels a bit like that race must have felt to my classmates: someone keeps moving the goalposts. At first, we thought we’d are back in church by Easter — last Easter. Then Pentecost. Then, maybe, by fall. By then, it was clear we had no idea what was coming. A few of us got back into our building, and then had to leave it again. Now, the vaccine seems to be bringing real hope of a less-confined life, but new variants are spreading, and our hopes have been dashed so many times that it’s hard to trust that it will be real. Like the ancient Hebrews, we are wandering in a wilderness, with no idea how long we will really be there.

The Israelites must have been familiar with clinging to hope. In the beginning, when God said to Moses, “Get my people out of Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land,” they probably thought it would be a journey of a few weeks, or, at most, a few months. After all, the trip from Cairo to Jerusalem is only 100 km longer than the Camino de Santiago, the Medieval pilgrim path in Spain that takes about a month to walk. But then God invited them to begin the conquest and the Hebrews pulled back in fear, so God sent them to wander for forty years until they had learned to trust in God.

Today’s reading from Numbers takes us to one of the strangest incidents in that wandering. The people are bickering and rebelling because they have not arrived where they wanted to be, when God sends upon them a plague of poisonous snakes, which bite them so that they begin to die. And when the people realize they’ve messed up, they cry to Moses and God tells him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a stick, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

It’s weird and atavistic, but, if we’re honest, we’ve gotten to know those serpents pretty well, this last year. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Many of us have been doing rather a lot of that: sitting alone, unable to escape ourselves, or sitting with those we most love, unable to escape them, either. It’s given us a lot of time to stare at our own compulsions, or to develop them. Many are having problems with alcohol, as that quarantini changed from a fun break to a habit to necessity. I suspect something similar may be happening with marijuana and pornography. Many have sought to relieve their boredom and stress by buying things — so many things they did not really need — and are now staring at a mound of debt. Others have allowed their stress to lead them into domestic violence. And then there are the other cravings, the ones which are not, in themselves, harmful: The desire to travel. To be able to make plans. To succeed at a certain project, which had to be placed on hold. To eat in a restaurant with friends. Or, just to eat with friends. The desire to hold the people we love. The desire to hold them and never let them go.

Most of us, I think, miss the people more than the things. In a world dominated by consumer capitalism, that’s some real clarity. We, as a people, have been told that things equal success, and had been going along, mindlessly fulfilling our own material desires, regardless of the earth’s capacity to sustain the rate of depletion. Now, we see that endlessly ordering things over the Internet does not actually fill the hole in our heart. For that, we need one another.

That sorting of our desires is what Lent is all about, too: sitting with who we are and owning it, both the good and the bad. Seeing what God is encouraging us to weed out of our lives, and where God is urging us to grow. Not so that we can sit in our shame, but so that we can learn from it. After all, the word “Lent” comes from an ancient word meaning “springtime,” not “misery.” Even the idea of repentance is fundamentally a hopeful one: it means that we are not trapped in the worst we have been or done. There is forgiveness, and the grace to change. Jesus said, “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:20) But that kind of shameful hiding is counterproductive; it is in being seen for what we are and accepting the grace of God — grace to turn and try again — that we can be healed.

When Moses made that bronze serpent, he held out that hope: that by gazing square on our failings, we can name them and turn aside. Even so, we look to the Cross of Christ, seeing writ there the truth about who we are, and who God is. We are the people who crucified Love. And God is the one who loves us still and opens our hearts to accept that love. Both are true. And while we and our lives will pass away and be gone, the enormous love of God endures forever. That love is the source and end and ground of our Being.

We need that love, for, as we keep hearing, we are headed toward an unknown future. To a degree almost unimaginable, we do not know the shape that our daily lives will take in the immediate future. And, whatever shape it takes, we will no longer be able to take for granted much of what makes our life sweet. As grief therapist Megan Devine said, “We’ve lost our belief in certainty.”1 But, perhaps, certainty was never meant to be ours. None of us, really, has the power to control our future. Perhaps what we were supposed to have was courage and trust.

Something strange happened to the Hebrews during those forty years in the wilderness. The generation which had been born into slavery died, and a new people took their place, a people who knew how to be free. A people who could enter the Promised Land, because they were ready. They had learned how to be resilient when new challenges lurked behind every shifting dune. They had learned how to care for one another. They had learned how to trust their God. And in the face of all that resilience, it did not matter to them that they had never even seen the Promised Land. They were ready to work for it. They were ready to fight for it. Because the the Promised Land? It was just another patch of dirt. It was the people who made it holy: the people, and their God.

  1.  Quoted in Julie Beck, “We have to Grieve our Last Good Days,” The Atlantic, March 9, 2021.

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