This is my sermon from three years ago. Since I wrote it, there have been more storms and floods and disasters and the current economic situation is beginning to feel like a wilderness. In any case, I think this is still relevant and not too terribly dated. Likely, some of it will show up in tomorrow's sermon.
Generally speaking, I am not one who thinks in images; I am much more word oriented. But the word “wilderness” is a highly visual one for me. There is an icon of Jesus in the wilderness. It is a mostly yellow place with some green trees one of which looks a bit like a cat with its paws tucked under its chest. The devil has bird feet and pterodactyl wings and seems to be scurrying away from the Christ. At the bottom of the icon, angels on either side of a gloriously robed Christ offer him bread and wine.
Well, it’s a nice picture but it doesn’t strike me as all that realistic. I found a painting, though, that moves me deeply. Christ is seated on a rock in a place filled with rocks. He has on a simple robe and cloak – no purple or gold here – and his feet are dirty. His hands are clenched between his knees and he is looking toward the ground but his eyes are vacant, staring but seeing nothing. This Christ is empty, alone, waiting for someone to minister to him.
All of us grew up on the story of Noah and the ark. Illustrations of this story – before, during and after the flood – are usually relatively benign images except for German woodcuts of those caught in the floodwaters. Certainly the ones in our Bible storybooks are not at all threatening or scary. In today’s reading, the ark has reached its final resting place, the dove has given the sign that there is dry ground and God has set his bow – quite literally the weapon of a warrior – n the sky as a promise never to inundate the world again. And reading of the flood overwhelmed me with images from the last year – of Mississippi, Louisiana, New Orleans, Central America and the Philippines.
Flood and wilderness. Until now, I never stopped to think about what awaited Noah once the doors of the ark opened. Somehow, those Bible story pictures have shaped my knowledge far more than I realized.
Noah did not step out into a land covered with rich grass for pasture and trees filled with ripe fruit. Noah’s post-flood world looked just like a land of mudslides, houses torn from their foundations and crushed, bodies buried in mud or left in the attic where they died. Noah’s world was empty, desolate, waiting for someone to minister to it.
We don’t have to look far to find an image of what Noah’s wilderness looked like. We don’t even have to travel outside of East Tennessee, out of this part of God’s creation that is so beautiful with the mountains all around us; yet those mountains hide pockets of devastating poverty and land ravaged by overuse and mining.
There are times when we are like Christ, in our own wilderness, seemingly alone and empty.
There may be times when we are thrust into the wilderness of the destruction that Noah faced.
Most of the time, we are called to be the angels who minister to those in either wilderness.
We start that ministry with prayer. You can be sure that is the first thing Jesus did when he was driven into the wilderness. We pray for those who cannot pray for themselves for sometimes the wilderness is so barren or painful that prayer just can’t happen. We pray, too, that we will be shown how we should be ministering angels. We might need only make a call or give a hug. We might need to get in the car and head into the wilderness with the energy and tools needed to turn it back into a livable place.
But we do not pray “there but for the grace of God go I.” This is the prayer of the Pharisee
who says, “Father, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector.” Jesus teaches us to pray instead “your will be done” and “deliver us from evil.”
The picture of Jesus alone and unseeing is not the total picture. Jesus knows he is not alone. He may not know what the wilderness holds for him, but Jesus is confident that God is present with him, that God’s will will be made known and that he will be delivered from evil.
Noah opens the door of the ark on the worst flood devastation humankind has ever experienced. But God has just made a covenant with Noah and all living creatures and God does not walk away from a promise. God chose Noah to build the ark and to be the preserver of all living things including humanity. Now that the deed is done and the journey is over, God will continue to guide as Noah and his family turn devastation into a verdant, life-giving land once again.
When you find yourselves in a wilderness, even when you cannot pray, be assured that God is with you, that the Holy Spirit is leading you and sending angels to minister to you. They might not look like angels. You might think they are good friends or perhaps strangers but strangers and good friends do the work of angels and do it willingly.
Lord, make us angels to those in the wilderness who need us to minister to them.