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Covid-19. ‘In the wilderness, a door of hope.’

Hosea and Gomer, Amiens Cathedral

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her.  I will give her her vineyards from there, and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope. (Hosea 2:14-15)

And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead My case with you face to face. (Ezekiel 20:35)

They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37:11-12)

As we saw earlier, in response to Zedekiah’s, ‘is there any word from the Lord’, Jeremiah brought a tough message of sober realism. But the over-ruling trajectory of his prophesying is one of over-arching hope. Beyond the despair and ending is ‘a hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 32:17). Beyond the rooting out, the pulling down, the destroying and the throwing down are building and planting (Jeremiah 1:10, 24:6). For the ‘good figs’, the faithful remnant, beyond judgement there is mercy – they shall return to God and He will bring them back to the land (Jeremiah 23:3, 24:1-7).

The foundation of this hope was the absolute sovereignty of the Lord, “who made heaven and earth” and for whom “nothing is too difficult” (Jeremiah 32:17).

On this foundation are built two interwoven themes of hope in both Jeremiah’s message and the experience of the exiles in Babylon. These speak especially into our current times. And they form the core of the answer to our own question in the midst of Covid-19, ‘is there any word from the Lord?’.

The first theme is that destruction, loss, privation and death will become the means of renewal, restoration, prosperity and resurrection: the ‘wilderness of exile’ opens a ‘door of hope’ (Hosea 2:14-23); the ‘people who survive the sword find grace in the wilderness’ (Jeremiah 31:2); the dry bones become a mighty army (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The second, which I shall address in a future article, is that, in exile, the Lord forms them into a new community: the good figs, the faithful remnant, become the seeds of the future.

Lockdown and Lent

As the nation went into lockdown, I was drawn into understanding our own impending experience in the light of the two interwoven biblical themes of wilderness and exile. This was prompted: partly by the approximate coincidence of lockdown with  Lent, when we remember Jesus’ being “driven into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) for 40 days (‘quarantine’!), and; partly by a sense that ‘exile’, which I had seen for some years as configuring our situation as Christians in post-Christian Britain, was in some sense being accentuated and accelerated by Covid-19.

The wilderness/exile metaphor, therefore, became the essential core of my earliest reflections, prayers and writing (eg here, here and here). Prayers were framed especially around wilderness as a place of: intimacy and encounter with the Lord and of hearing His voice, testing and purifying, closeness to nature, and preparation for ministry. The wilderness of lockdown opened a door of hope – to individuals, but especially to churches and church leaders unable to use their buildings or carry on with the usual round of services and meetings.

More than two months later, while we may now be beginning to emerge from our own ‘quarantine’ in the ‘wilderness of lockdown’, I cannot help feeling that as the church in Britain we shall remain in the ‘wilderness of exile’, for some while longer and for a deeper work. It will be more than, or something other than, the temporary inconvenience and challenge of not being able to carry on ‘church as we knew it’. The ‘wilderness of the peoples’ or the ‘desert of the nations’ of Ezekiel 20:35, with its original connotation of the “experience of exile in the midst of the nations”1)Wright, C J H. 2001, p 165. The message of Ezekiel. IVP, Leicester., had already becoming more and more evidently our experience anyway, in ‘post-Christian Britain’, but through Covid-19 it has acquired a new meaning, which, I pray, will become clearer in the days ahead.

Wilderness
‘Wilderness’ is a highly significant, recurrent motif throughout the Bible. It provides a major part of the geographical setting of the biblical story and the physical context of the enacting of pivotal moments of the Lord’s relationship with His people. But it is heavily freighted with deeper meanings and intimations.

Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness recapitulated some of those earlier moments, including: Moses’ forty years in the land of Midian, culminating in his encounter with the Lord in the burning bush at Horeb (Acts 7:29-35; Exodus 3); Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai, with its climactic point at Mount Sinai/Horeb (Exodus 19-40; Deuteronomy 5), and; Elijah’s forty days and forty nights in the wilderness culminating in his encounter with the Lord at Horeb (1 Kings 19:4-18). 2)The climactic significance of Horeb in these stories prompts one to wonder if Jesus also went as far as Horeb during His forty days?

The story of Hosea and his wayward wife,3)Hosea is the first of the prophets explicitly to liken (or reveal) God’s relationship with Israel to marriage, “one of the boldest conceptions of religious thinking”. (Heschel, A J. 1962. The Prophets. Harper & Row, New York.) Hosea was a major influence on Jeremiah, who takes up the imagery of the ‘adulterous wife’ and the  ‘scorned spouse’ and uses it as a central thread in his own discourse. refers back to Israel in wilderness of Sinai, “in the days of her youth” when “she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:15), and prefigures and anticipates the future exile in Babylon, “the wilderness of the peoples” (Ezekiel 20:35). In all three, there is a “bringing into the wilderness” in order to purge and cleanse (eg Numbers 14, 16; Hosea 2; Ezekiel 20:37-38), to speak “face to face” and “enter into judgement” (Ezekiel 20:35), and to make or renew a covenant (Exodus to Deuteronomy, Hosea 2:16-21; Ezekiel 20:37).

Hosea even spells out the detail of the future exile, in terms of the loss of both civil and religious institutions, rites and service, when “the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim” (Hosea 3:4) – echoing and anticipating our own exile experience (as I argue here and here).

Wilderness, then, is both purgative and restorative, involving the severing of old relationships and attachments and the kindling or rekindling of a relationship with the Lord. In the wilderness of Sinai, Israel is purged of attachment to Egypt and all it represented, and formed into a new people, in covenant with the Lord and configured around His Law. In her wilderness, Gomer, as a figure of Israel, is cleansed from adultery and prostitution, comforted and betrothed again to her husband, the Lord. In Babylon, the exiles are detached from Temple and Kingdom and all they had come to represent, and formed into a new people around synagogue and Torah. And they are purged of idolatry – “one permanent result [of the exile] is very clear: Judah never again played with idolatry nor turned to her gentile neighbours for models of worship and religious conduct”.4)R E O White. 1992. The indomitable prophet. William B Eerdmans, Michigan.

The wilderness also speaks of rest and refuge. As Jeremiah writes, “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness—Israel, when I went to give him rest” (Jeremiah 31:2). The Psalmist longs to escape the “violence and strife, iniquity and trouble, oppression and deceit” in the city and find a “refuge in the wilderness” (Psalm 55:1-11). In Revelation 12, the woman (symbolising Israel) flees “into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God” (Revelation 12:1-6).

Central to the wilderness encounter is hearing the voice of God, speaking comfort, rebuke and direction for the future. At the Burning Bush, Moses hears God speak directly to him for the first time, commissioning, equipping and empowering him for his calling to lead the people out of slavery (Exodus 3:1- 4:17). The pivotal moment of Israel’s wilderness experience was the giving of the Law at Sinai, which set our how they were to live in the Land. In his ‘post-traumatic’ condition after his showdown with the prophets of Baal and Jezebel’s subsequent threats, Elijah seeks refuge in the wilderness; at Horeb God speaks, comforting him and redirecting him back to the remaining tasks of his ministry (1 Kings 19:1-18). In the wilderness, the Lord “speaks comfort” to Gomer/Israel (Hosea 2:14). In the “wilderness of the peoples”, the Lord pleads His case with His people “face to face” (Ezekiel 20:35). John the Baptist came “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight'” (Matthew 3:1-3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4).

Windows of opportunity

At the beginning of lockdown I saw it as a God-given opportunity to “come aside to a desolate place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31), an enforced sabbath when we would rest from our own works (Hebrews 4:10). Building on the above discourse,  and especially on the Jesus’ forty days, I identified four aspects of this.

First, wilderness is a place of encounter and intimacy with the Lord, and of hearing His voice (Hosea 2:14-23; Exodus 34:27-28; Deuteronomy 29:5; 1 Kings 19:8). Lockdown provided an opportunity to “consider our ways” (Haggai 1:1-11), take stock and to deepen our relationship with the Lord, and seek His will for our lives and our life together. The many questions raised by pandemic and lockdown, for example, about judgement and end times, urged us to return to the scriptures and seek to ‘understand the times and know what to do’  in our present circumstances.

Second, wilderness is a place of testing and trial, of refining and purifying, of confrontation with the devil (Mark 1:13), where the Lord uses adversity to discipline and purify us (Job 23:10; 1 Peter 1:6-7) so that we bear fruit (John 15:1-2; Hebrews 12:3-11). I believed that, through lockdown, God was calling us humble ourselves, pray, seek His face and repent (1 Chronicles 7:14; James 4:10). Latterly, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that the Lord wishes to do a deeper work in us His people through this current wilderness experience, and as He did to the ancient exiles, purge and cleanse us of particular forms of idolatry and syncretism that afflict or threaten the church today. I’ll say more about this in the next article.

Third, during His forty days in the wilderness, in a recapitulation of Eden and an anticipation of the Age to come, Jesus was close to nature – “with the animals” (Mark 1:13). Nature did not go into lockdown on 24 March, and, with the coming of spring, a stilling of traffic noise and a diminishing of pollution, many people woke up up both to its joy and beauty and to the way humanity has wasted it. For those able to get out, lockdown was and remains an opportunity to get closer to creation and to the one who made it. Humanity’s abuse of God’s creation has played a significant part in the pandemic and part of the above humbling, I urged, must be to acknowledge this and to do what we can to be better stewards of His earth.

Fourth, Jesus was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the wilderness and emerged in the ‘power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4:14). The wilderness prepared Him for three years of ministry, culminating in His death, resurrection and ascension. Other biblical wilderness experiences, also had this preparatory significance as we saw above. The  wilderness of lockdown was to prepare us for the challenging times ahead,  including the radical changes in society, economy, politics and church that Covid-19 will effect or accelerate.

The primary application of these, as I understood things, was at ‘ground level’, ie they were issues to be worked through by individuals in their walk with the Lord, by local churches and ministers, and by Christian organisations (including Village Hope!). And I am sure that many will witness to the blessings and benefits of these last weeks of lockdown in terms of the four aspects above. Further, we are not out of lockdown yet, and there is still time for the wilderness to do its work!

However, as I observed here and here, many churches and church leaders, and Christian organisations, have managed to ‘avoid the wilderness’ (or at least the fasting from meetings part) thanks to electronic communications and social media. We have, as it were, ‘turned stones into bread’!5)The element silicon is an essential constituent of both stones and computers!

This led me to look more deeply at all three of the temptations Jesus underwent in the wilderness and to see that our relationship with cyberspace was just one of three critical challenges, corresponding to the three temptations, which confront the church as a whole and, especially, its leadership. I shall explore these in my next article.

 

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Wright, C J H. 2001, p 165. The message of Ezekiel. IVP, Leicester.
2.The climactic significance of Horeb in these stories prompts one to wonder if Jesus also went as far as Horeb during His forty days?
3.Hosea is the first of the prophets explicitly to liken (or reveal) God’s relationship with Israel to marriage, “one of the boldest conceptions of religious thinking”. (Heschel, A J. 1962. The Prophets. Harper & Row, New York.) Hosea was a major influence on Jeremiah, who takes up the imagery of the ‘adulterous wife’ and the  ‘scorned spouse’ and uses it as a central thread in his own discourse.
4.R E O White. 1992. The indomitable prophet. William B Eerdmans, Michigan.
5.The element silicon is an essential constituent of both stones and computers!
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