1 Peter: 3:18-22
Our baptismal waters still wash us, though we may have been baptized long ago. That covenant in which we emerge from the waters of chaos is still in effect and God’s voice and promises still hang in the air as does that of the community and our own. That longing for a changed life and the chance to be washed clean, to die to the old self and be born to eternal life still pulls at our hearts and still directs us. We emerge from those waters like the Israelites from the Red Sea, the sea torn apart and the heavens torn apart in much the same way, to make way for the meeting of God and God’s people. So we stand there on the shore, dripping from our baptism, God’s words of love claiming us still echo all around us. What are we expecting next? Maybe we are hoping for a party or some clarity about God’s direction. Maybe we expect peace or joy or certainty.
But instead we are suddenly flung out into the wilderness, by that so-called gentle dove, the Holy Spirit. It happens so fast, we don’t even realize what’s happened. We’ve got whiplash. Suddenly, the landscape has changed. The air has changed. The light has changed. The company has changed. Everything has changed. Whereas before it was lush and green, here it is dry and bare and empty. Occasional rocks dot the landscape. A single dead tree stands at some distance. Animal bones are strewn about, and a skin of a snake lies partially buried under some sand. Whereas before there were the musical sounds of water and songbirds, here are the sounds of insects and birds of prey and shifting sand. Whereas before shade and cool breezes offered comfort, now blazing heat beats down and radiates from the sand and rocks and the hot wind whips at us. There is nowhere to take shelter.
For some of us the desert is one of grief, in which we face the pain of loss, the emptiness, the despair. For some of us the desert is one of illness, in which we face the unknown, the treatments, the endless looks of pity, the loss of independence. For some of us, the desert is one of depression, a feeling of being flung someplace desolate and hostile, a feeling of being alone and sinking deeper and deeper into the sand. For some of us the desert is one of poverty, uncertainty about where our next meal is coming from, fear of the car breaking down or another large expense that can take away our ability to afford heat or food. The desert is addiction or it is a loveless marriage. For some of us, this week, the desert is the helpless feeling of watching the grieving parents on the news, fearing for our country, and being locked in conflict with those we love about steps forward to address the violence in our schools and neighborhoods.
This is not what we expected the Christian life to be, once we were washed and claimed. We want answers, not more questions, we want solutions, not more difficult conversations. We stand confused in the desert and wonder what’s next. We think of Noah as he stepped off the ark into the empty world. What questions must have been going through his mind? How did he decide where to start? We think of the Israelites as they made those first steps out of the sea bed onto land and began their trek, one foot in front of the other, across the sand, further and further from everything they had ever known, learning what it meant to be free, complaining, learning how to trust God. How did they find the strength to break camp and go on? We think of Jesus, flung out in the wilderness, alone. What did he think about those 40 days? How did that experience change him?
We start to walk, which is difficult as the sand gives way beneath our feet with each step. The methodical crunching, the dry heat beating down on us, the wind blowing sand and debris in our eyes from time to time. We look for a way forward, but it looks about the same in any direction. We look to go back, but it isn’t clear where we’ve come from. So we just start walking—it is better than just standing around. With each step we doubt. Are we getting anywhere? Are we just moving further from our goal, our place of relief, our destination? How will we find water? How will find nourishment? How will we find life?
We see something move off in the distance—or was it our imagination? Was it a snake? A bird? A wildcat? We begin to sense danger all around. Will we die here in the desert and be eaten by the wild animals? We picture ourselves the meal of jackals and scorpions and vultures, no one ever knowing what became of us. By now we are thirsty and hungry. Our lips are dry and split. Our stomachs moan. We feel weak. We wonder what we’re made of. Will we make it through? And we feel so alone. Wouldn’t it be nice just to have someone to talk to or to sing a little song with? Wouldn’t it be nice to share memories with someone or to walk with a great story teller? Wouldn’t the time go by so much faster?
We’ve been walking for some time. Hours, maybe days, we’re in a fog from thirst and exhaustion, but we suddenly become aware of a distant sound. Then we realize that it is right next to us, the crunch crunch crunch of footsteps right next to us, and we look to our left and there is a dear friend of ours. This is someone who has been to the desert before, passed through it and continued in ministry. He smiles. He doesn’t have a water bottle. He isn’t going to change any stones into loaves of bread. He isn’t going to tell us what direction to walk in to make things easier. He isn’t going to lift us up and take us out of our difficult desert, but he is going to walk beside us. Just knowing we aren’t alone, gives us some confidence, some hope. And we suddenly have a sense of peace, knowing that new, abundant life isn’t something that can be taken away from us. Life and love will ultimate prevail, whatever happens in our little life.
Jesus tells us a story. It is the story of the ark, which we see intersecting with Jesus’ own story of coming out of the waters to a vision of a dove. It is a story of wilderness experiences long past, of those of Noah, those of Moses and the Israelites, those of his own time in the wild. It is the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, which we see intersecting with his own time in the wilderness in temptation and testing. It is a story of the Israelites crossing into the promised land, which we see intersecting with his own story of dying and rising to bring a new vision into reality, of the promised land, new lifeHe tells a story of God who created all the earth, who loves every creature, who made humankind in God’s own image, who continually walks with the people, who gives us new life, who invites us into a new vision of abundant life, who utterly loves us and calls us family.
As we walk, we feel a glimmer of hope, a tiny little flutter against the heaviness. We start to think of what life will be like when we are no longer in the desert. We first think of all the water we will drink and all the different foods we will wolf down. But we begin to think of how we will always have this desert experience with us. How we will look at our family and friends differently, what it will be like to see their faces again and tell them, show them how much we appreciate them. We think of how we will live differently going forward, and what we will say when we meet people who are in their own desert experience.
And we start to see the vision of the waters of life flowing for each one, of every person and animal having enough to eat, of putting the basic needs of others before our own desires, of living in peace, of living a loving existence of cooperation. It is a vision of health and wellness and wholeness. It is a vision of balance and finding our proper place. It is a vision of everyone’s gifts being appreciated and used. It is a vision of the community of all creation as God intended it. It is a vision of peace, each person putting down the objects of violence as God put away the bow, the deadly weapon of war, to embrace covenant and promise and life.
And beneath our feet, the sound of the crunching sand gets softer, until we look down and see a little green plant. We see a tree in the distance with some foliage. It is alive. We detect a scent of rain in the air, and watch the sky darken with clouds. A drop falls, cold and sweet. Then another and another, cool, fresh, hopeful. Jesus hands us a bit of bread and something to wash it down with, his very self, broken and poured out. We suddenly see that we have been surrounded this whole time with others going through pain and hardship. We know we are part of something, that we are not alone or abandoned, but part of a communion of love, part of the great “I am,” people shaped by desert but attended by angels, people who are loved who are made for loving, Jesus own body, born, blessed, tested, generous, broken, and risen to bring life to the world.