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20 March 2011
Year A, Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

In my attempt to observe a holy Lent each year, one of my personal customs since my days in theological college has been to select a book to read in a disciplined way, one section or chapter at a time, throughout the season. So far, I have chosen theology books, poetry, even novels–all depending on what I have to hand. (Amazingly, if you read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings one chapter at a time, you can start on Ash Wednesday and end exactly on Ascension Day. As that will tell you, Lent reading will sometimes extend into the season of Easter.)

For this Lent, I began with The Sacred Desert by David Jasper. The book is a theological exploration of deserts and their significance in sacred texts, spirituality, history and myth, literature and other arts. The desert, as a place where the wind scrubs away illusion or kills you, or both, emerges as the ultimate limit, civilization’s other, but also, paradoxically, as a source of life. Wandering through The Sacred Desert is a fitting way to begin Lent, as readings from the first two Sundays place us right in the midst of such a wilderness topography, last week with Jesus being tempted in the desert and this week with Abram being commanded by God to leave his home and head into the wilderness. One should not forget the Psalm either, as you could easily envision the psalmist journeying through the wilderness, looking up to imagine what danger might be hiding in the surrounding dread hills.

But there are two kinds of desert. One is the wilderness, the place of stone and sand, of wind, of the earth’s indifferent gaze: where life may be hard won, but still there is life. This desert is part of nature. David Jasper’s book focuses on this.

The second type, however, is desolation, as in the ‘Desolation of Smaug’, the region that the dragon has laid waste in The Hobbit. This is the desert as wasteland, the desert created by malice which blasts the life out of a place. The desolation only appears in passing in The Sacred Desert.

I remember that, when I first read The Hobbit, I thought ‘Desolation’ was an odd word to find on a map. Now I realise that it is far too apt a toponym in some situations. A desolation is the area which has been devastated by a bomb. A desolation is the land held in the grip of a separation wall, the checkpoints and barbed wire gates. A desolation is the point on the road where you see a bus going by and, when you notice that it seems emptier than usual, your first thought is ‘Of course, who would take a bus in downtown Jerusalem the day after a bomb at a bus stop?’ A desolation is when you are Palestinian and suddenly your work permit is not renewed right away for no discernible reason.

And there are desolations of interpretation, too. This week I have been reading the esteemed 20th-century Protestant theologian Karl Barth on what he had to say about Jews. Not what he had to say about Israel, mind you–for Barth, Israel is always the chosen people, never to be rejected by God–but what he wrote about Jews, about ‘the Synagogue’, about the people who persist in, well, remaining Jewish. Page after page about the ‘obdurate’, the ‘disobedient’, the ones who have tried to reject their calling by rejecting Christ and handing him over to the Gentiles to be crucified. Page after page of Jews as the symbol of human misery, as the representation of all the aspects of humanity that deserve the wrath of God’s judgement, and exist as witnesses to the incredible wideness of God’s mercy. Frankly, this is more than depressing. It is a desolation.

To me, this all connects because of the four readings of the lectionary for this past Sunday. The Romans reading talks about Abraham being justified by faith and not by following the law. The reading from the Gospel according to John is the story of Jesus talking to the Pharisee Nicodemus about people needing to be born from above, of water and the spirit, and shaking his head at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding. When I read these alongside Barth, all I hear is the idea that the people who designed the lectionary wanted church-goers to appropriate Abraham for themselves, to make the road from Haran, the place that Abram-who-became-Abraham left, bypass Sinai on the way to Golgotha. All I hear is the Barthian refrain of Jews representing the ‘old man’ who is passing away, a people with no future except through conversion. Then I look at Kippah and cringe with shame at what I have read. Another desolation.

It is at times like these that I am glad for wildernesses, for all the places which remind us that human settlement on the earth is actually very tenuous indeed: the writing that we trace on the surface of the earth might best be seen as marginalia where the book of creation is concerned. In other words, the wonder of the wilderness is greater even than the despair of desolation. For the wilderness is not just the desert. (As a Canadian, I cannot even deign to respond to the assertion in The Sacred Desert that the last frontier in North America lies in the desert of the southwest United States. The Arctic and the northern forests shrug in that direction.) There are boreal forests and rain forests, Arctic and Antarctic ice, mountains and valleys far from any human home, and more. And as Jesus says in the reading for this past week, ‘The wind blows where it chooses’. Sometimes it even follows us into desolations. The interpretation of the lectionary does not have to follow Barth. When we set out with Abram into the wilderness we also do not know exactly where we are going to end up. When we sit down with Jesus and Nicodemus we can be reminded that we also do not always understand, but at least God’s regard is on the world. The desolations are not the only possible answer.