God’s Covenants Come Out of Wildernesses by Jamie Campbell
I’m not sure which of the church’s penitential seasons I love more – Advent or Lent. I have a sneaking suspicion it may be Lent – not because of any great theological or liturgical reason, but because I actually get to sit back and observe the season properly. We’ve turned Advent into an elongation of Christmas that means that for those of us responsible for church music O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing may have been played and or sung over a hundred times before we get to the 25th of December!
But with Lent we don’t seem to do that – we keep Easter at the end of it, the light at the end of the tunnel that we, eventually, get to. In many churches this period of penitence is marked by making the church as stark as possible, covering crosses and other images, using unbleached candles, even going as far as wearing sackcloth vestments. The word “Alleluia” is buried for 40 day –sometimes even given a full funeral. And then Easter Sunday comes and it’s a beautiful and joyous occasion.
We, of course, have a mini-Easter each week; but what really makes Easter Sunday special is when you go through the drama of 40 days of “wilderness” and then break forth into joy!
I have to confess; it wasn’t until I joined the Episcopal church and experienced Lent and Holy Week that Easter Sunday became a very special occasion. Although Tain Parish Church always marked Good Friday and always had a Family Service on Easter Sunday I didn’t see any great difference between Easter and any of the other Family Services1.
You see, the issue was that there was no Lent.
One of the key themes in Advent and Lent is waiting. In Advent we wait for the Birth of Jesus, but what do we wait for in Lent?
Put very crudely, we wait for it to be over. If we’ve given up something, we wait to take it up again -and we enjoy it all the more for having spent 45 days without it (unless you enjoy a Sabbath from your fast each Sunday).
Our Old Testament Lesson today almost jumps the gun a bit for a Lenten reading. We all know the story of Noah’s Ark that this follows – 40 days on a boat in open water. A very wet wilderness. Then comes “The Rainbow days of Noah” – at the end of it all God makes a covenant, a promise and gives Noah a sign of this; though, I’m sure Noah would have liked this sign a lot earlier.
Many of us, I’m sure, can relate to Noah’s experience on the Ark. He was (remembering that he had to wait for the waters to clear) 150 days locked in with his family while outside the storm and the seas raged. Some of you may read this and say “only 150?! He got off lightly, I’ve been stuck here for nearly a year….LET ME OUT!”
I could be very flippant at this point and sit back and say “hang on in there, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel all of this will be over soon.”
If we only look at today’s Old Testament lesson superficially, we could leave it there and be content with “the light at the end of the tunnel” drawing nearer and everything being okay; but something as devastating as a flood doesn’t go away overnight. Even once the waters have receded the damage remains – sometimes for years and centuries to come.
They stepped off a boat into their “renewed life” and found themselves standing in the devastation of the aftermath of a flood and I’m sure they looked at one another saying “I thought it was over?” “I thought life was going back to normal?”– which is why God makes promises.
The Israelites needed a promise of something new after 40 years in their very dry wilderness (the opposite of Noah’s).
The Lord made a covenant with them – a promise for their renewal. The trouble was, that the Israelites couldn’t keep to their end of the bargain.
They didn’t like the way things were being run. The leaders then told them what the latest rules and guidelines were, that was, until the Israelites got tired of waiting for the “new normal” and went so far off course that the ever changing guidelines needed changed again.
There was no quick fix solution, but there was much rejoicing there was when they finally reached the promised land and their time in the wilderness was over – even if there were still some restrictions.
However, the reality for the Israelites was that not everyone made it. Those who were my age when they left Egypt would be in their 60s when they got to the Promised Land. Some, like Moses, never made it.
It’s a reality of life that we have seen again and again. That sadly, there are those who will not know in this life how the pandemic ends. It’s a harsh truth that we have lost many, many faithful believers through a variety of circumstances.
I do not wish to belittle any of them or to suggest that the circumstances that we are experiencing now in 2021 are the same as the Israelites faced – but I do wish to say that we have the same God who promised the Israelites that He would see them through their time in the wilderness and kept His promise when the time was right.
I also think it is of great assurance to know that we have a God who not only keeps his promises, but keeps them eternally. The covenant He makes in today’s Old Testament Lesson still stands. The covenant He made, and affirmed, reaffirmed, re-re affirmed many times over with the Israelites still stands. And most significantly, the Covenant he makes with us in Christ still stands. The promise that “whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
In a few weeks, many of us will mark a part of the Old Covenant – the Passover, Easter. Some of us will even remember on Maundy Thursday the night that Jesus kept one of the regulations of the Old Covenant and in celebrating the Passover said this is “The New Covenant, Sealed by my blood.”
Lent, concluded by Easter – a time in the wilderness completed by the mark of something new and a new beginning.
After we spend time without something, we appreciate it more. The most exciting thing about Lent, is we know it will be over soon. There is always a light at the end of what can feel like a long tunnel.
A year ago, none of us thought that we would be worshipping entirely online. When, on the 22nd of March last year I stood in the pulpit of St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Tain and preached to a camera in an eerily empty church I thought life would be back to normal by summer. None of us thought that nearly a year later, we’d still be wandering in the wilderness with glimmers of light and hope darting in and out of view almost as often as the guidelines change.
I wonder how many of us have become jaded to the whole pandemic, and have become complacent in how we deal with life.
Perhaps we need to use this time in the wilderness of Lent to examine where we are in the wilderness of life – because there is a light at the end of both tunnels.
Psalm 78:7 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter says this:
That they might set their hope in God,
and not forget His ways,
but hold in mind His mighty works
and keep his laws always.
The mightiest work of all being in Jesus Christ – who as St. Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4 – was born as one of us, under the old covenant in order to create a new covenant. One that gives us hope that there is more to life and that life is worth living!
In John 3: 17 we read: “For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” So that through Him, we can have a new beginning.
Like Noah, like the Israelites and like Jesus, we need to set our hope in God and remember the mighty works He has performed since the beginning of time.
That He is the constant in this ever-changing situation and He is the light at the end of the tunnel.
Our Lenten fast has been long – but great will be the Sunday when God’s church celebrates the Resurrection. When our wandering in the wilderness is completed in the promise of New and Everlasting Life so that we can stand in church once again and sing “Christ the Lord is Risen. Today. Alleluia!”
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
1 And if the Rev Douglas Horne is reading in despair at this point, it’s not your fault.