The people of Israel, in our first reading, have been wandering in the wilderness for a very, very long time, waiting and praying to see the promised land. They are getting so close, almost on the home stretch of their journey, and the people are starting to get pretty impatient. (Wow, who among us can imagine what that must be like?! (#sarcasm))
It’s certainly not a short walk from the land of Egypt to the land of Canaan, where the Israelites are headed – but they end up being stuck in the wilderness for a LOT longer than they had originally expected or planned. It was enough time for them to forget the important reasons why they were there in the first place – they had fled slavery in Egypt, following God’s promises of safety and life in a country of their own.
And in their impatience, the people start complaining – they complain to Moses; they complain to God; they complain about anything and everything. In our reading from Numbers, we hear them complain that they have no water and no food – and then in the next breath, they complain that the food is terrible!
The food they have been eating is the manna that God had sent them; and I guess, to be fair, I can imagine that just about any food – even food from God’s own hand – would get pretty old after forty years of eating it. The people are still being fed in the wilderness, but even though the food they are eating nourishes them, it just doesn’t bring them the sense of satisfaction or fulfillment that they are craving.
If you’re anything like me, there’s probably a lot in this reading that feels familiar – it feels really relatable to what we’re living through right now. We’ve also been wandering in a kind of wilderness – and while our wilderness is more virtual than literal, we’ve still been in it a lot longer than we expected or planned. We’re getting close to the home stretch of our journey as well, and we’re filled with impatience to finally get there. Because, while we too have been fed in various ways during this time, it hasn’t brought us the sense of satisfaction or fulfillment that we come seeking.
I am hopeful at least, thinking about our first reading, that we’re probably not going to be suddenly attacked by a bunch of poisonous snakes anytime soon – so we’ve got that going for us! (Although, considering the way the last few Marches have gone, I also don’t want to give the universe any more ideas for new calamities to inflict on us!) But even without the snakes, there’s no denying that it has been painful in many ways to experience this pandemic, and painful how long it has dragged on.
Tomorrow, March 15, marks exactly one year since the last time we gathered. One year. The weight of that year fills me with grief. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to do this for forty years. In that one year, millions of people all over the world have gotten sick and died. In the US alone, over half a million people have died from this disease since last March – and they weren’t just 500,000 strangers. Our friends and neighbors are among those numbers; some of us lost beloved family members; and all of us here at St. John’s lost at least one of our fellow siblings in Christ.
And beyond the grief of illness and death and loss, a year of pandemic has been like salt in the wound of our country’s deep dividedness. Our nation was already deeply polarized well before the pandemic hit – but instead of uniting in our fight against a common enemy, we have been torn apart by our disagreements about how to deal with the coronavirus, along with so much else. This year has left us more divided than ever. It has left us with feelings of grief and frustration, feelings of loneliness and fear, and it’s left us feeling uncertain about where it is that we go from here.
Because the hard truth we must face is that this journey still isn’t over yet. With the rollout of the vaccines, it finally feels like there is an end in sight after all this time of waiting and praying, and that is very good news indeed! But we’re not quite to the end yet. And I fear that this next stage of this journey might actually be the hardest part yet.
You see, there’s one piece of the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness that almost always gets overlooked – and that’s that when the Israelites first start getting close to the promised land, they initially refuse to enter it. They had been dreaming for so long of what it would be like when they finally got there, but when they finally saw it, it wasn’t exactly what they had expected. They felt daunted by the amount of work and preparation it was going to take for them to actually take possession of the promised land. And they lost faith in God’s promise to be with them and to help them, even though that’s exactly what God had been doing all along.
As we draw close to the ‘promised land’ of returning to our in-person gatherings and the traditions we have missed, we need to be prepared for the reality of that next stage of the journey. As much as we would love for things to just snap back to normal, to just slide right back into our old patterns of doing things, the truth is that it’s just not going to happen like that. It’s going to take time, and patience, and trust in where God is leading us.
Because even if we were to throw open the doors of our building tomorrow and lift every last one of our Covid safety precautions – no masks, no distancing, no nothing – it would not instantly be the same as it was before. There is still the risk of another surge in cases, while we wait for everyone to be vaccinated. There are still folks at high risk who will not feel comfortable returning to our gatherings for some time to come (which is perfectly understandable!). And this year has left its mark on all of us. As much as we might like to move on and forget it ever happened, this year has been a trauma that has shaped the way we view ourselves, our world, and each other. Things are going to be different – they won’t be the same as they were before. Because we are not the same people we were before.
The world is not the same place that it was before.
But knowing all this doesn’t have to be a cause for despair. We don’t have to make the mistake that the Israelites did of losing hope and losing faith, thinking that God has somehow forsaken us. God has not forsaken us. God has been with us every single step of this journey – as we’ve gathered online to worship, as we have figured out new ways to carry on with work and school, as we have waited with hope and longing for a vaccine – God has been there with us. And God’s certainly not about to abandon us now
John reminds us in our gospel reading that God’s love and care for us goes far, far beyond our human understanding. In this passage, we hear Jesus speak to us one of the best known verses in all of scripture, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That is some seriously powerful love. And I would argue that the next verse, John 3:17, is even better news yet. Jesus continues, saying, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God in Christ came to save the world!
No matter how this pandemic has changed the world or changed us, we are never beyond the reach of God’s saving love and grace. Never. God is faithful to God’s promise not to give up on us, and God’s love is constantly at work in us and around us, transforming the world and bringing us to new life. And so even though it might still be a while before we get to feel a sense of normalcy again, we don’t need to be worried. God’s got this. The next stage of the journey is in God’s hands.
What we need to do now is to root ourselves even more deeply in God’s powerful love and grace. We need to open our hearts to listen for where God might be calling us to go from here, and we need to pray for the wisdom and the patience to hear that call and to follow where God is leading us. And we need to stay strong in our faith, trusting that God is always with us, leading us, feeding us, and loving us, every single step of the way.
I’d like to close by sharing a prayer written for the one year anniversary of the pandemic. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving and confession, of grief and praise, and of trust in God’s neverending grace and goodness. I invite you to bow your heads and pray this prayer with me.
Good shepherd, thank you for walking with us through this valley of the shadow of death: through the suffering, the anxiety, the loneliness, the boredom, the longing for closeness and the longing for personal space, the confusion and fear, the impatience and hope, the good days and the bad.Elizabeth & Matthew Myer Boulton, the Salt Project
Forgive us for our suspicions of each other, the ways this ordeal has made us more divided, as a country and a world. Help us bridge our differences and come together — even as we are physically distant.
Thank you for all the ways, large and small, that this ordeal has strengthened us as a community: the acts of kindness, the new ways of doing things, the support we’ve offered and received.
Forgive us for the inequities this pandemic has exposed. Kindle in our hearts a new commitment to justice as we build and rebuild our community together. Keep us ever mindful of those most in need. We pray especially for those of us who have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost hope. Let us be good company, even from afar; good neighbors; and good friends.
We pray especially for those on the front lines of the pandemic, for all who are in harm’s way. Gentle God, we ask that you continue to keep watch with those who work, or watch, or weep this day. Walk with those whose bodies are holding memories of sickness, of trauma, of pain, of confusion, of chaos, of isolation.
Give your angels charge over those who still cannot sleep because of anxiety or grief. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, comfort the afflicted, shield the joyous; all for your love’s sake.
God of life and hope, lift our spirits as we dare to look ahead, dare to hope and dream about the new world to come. Strengthen our efforts, deepen our wisdom, so we might hasten that day. And until that day, keep our eyes and hearts open to the signs of hope and life all around us.
For new ways to connect with each other, we give you thanks and praise!
For teachers and nurses and doctors and agricultural workers and grocery clerks and small business owners and frontline workers of all kinds, we give you thanks and praise!
For the beautiful hope of being together again in person one day, lifting our voices in song, passing the peace, sharing cups of coffee, being able to hug one another again — for that day that is surely coming, we give you thanks and praise!
For the ways in which our eyes have been opened by this ordeal, for the ways in which our hearts have been broken and put back together differently, that they be softer and more attuned to the needs of the most vulnerable, we give you thanks and praise!
For all of these things and more, gracious God, we give you thanks and praise in the name of Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord, Amen.