Times of trial, times of blessing

Reflecdtion given 21st Feb by Revd Maggie Hindley 

When I’m out and about on foot or bicycle, I still sometimes spot the odd kid’s picture of a rainbow, faded and curling, in a suburban window. How long our continuing time of trial by pandemic has been. How long before it’s over? If you think back over the story of Noah’s ark, maybe we’re at a similar stage to Noah when the flood was over but the ark was still afloat on the receding waters. Do you remember how he sent out, first  a raven and then a dove? – to see how close they were to touching dry (or more likely extremely muddy) ground.

We’ve heard the end of the story of the flood just now, and it’s reassuring. Most rainbows may have disappeared from our windows, but the promise God makes here is for all time. God is heartbroken. He realises that by saying a furious ‘no’ to evil in the human race, he’s ended up saying ‘no’ to life. Only Noah’s family and the animal pairs survived the terrible flood. Now, a more compassionate God puts a check on himself. The companion of the bow is the arrow, poised in the rainbow to shoot up to the heart of God should he repeat his mistake. He blesses Noah and sends him out to replace the people of the world, and to thrive. He makes clear that he wants every living creature, every man, woman and child, every animal on this planet, to prosper, A blessing has come out of catastrophe – the primacy of compassion.

Trial and blessing come together very often in the Bible, as in my experience they do in life.

It’s Lent, and in today’s Gospel we see Jesus putting himself voluntarily through two kinds of trial, in preparation for what is to come. Baptism then wasn’t a splash of nicely warmed water and a delicate white heirloom dress; it was a simulation of drowning in a cold deep river. I bet John the Baptist held people under for long enough to leave them gasping for breath.  Jesus, who alone among us had no need for repentance, comes forward for this rough ritual. And is immediately blessed. A voice speaks from heaven as he comes up out of the water. You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased. Wow! What wouldn’t you give for such an affirmation?

Then, to hone his commitment to the Spirit, Jesus spends a good chunk of time alone in the hills above Jericho. Mark doesn’t say he fasted, or in what shape the temptations came, but we know a lot about that from the other gospels. He does say that Jesus was with the wild beasts, wrestling with them, I imagine, as he wrestles with the temptation to power for its own sake. Mark does tell us that it was also a time of blessing. The angels waited on him. And then he was good to go, preaching, healing, calling disciples, heading eventually for Jerusalem and his death – and his resurrection.

And you, and me? What have been and are your times of trial? The privations of lockdown have hit us all differently. There is anxiety. I guess we all know someone who has been ill, and for some of us that’s close to home. There are all those terrible deaths. There are the secondary impacts – livelihoods lost, homes lost, education lost, crucial medical care postponed. All of that. And for those of us who have been more fortunate, trials of inconvenience and boredom and having to wait to see those we love in person. Many of us are also going through trials that have nothing to do with Covid – heartbreaking issues of loss and disappointment that are routine in humanity but devastating to us as individuals.

So how might we best use the season of Lent?

Probably the majority of us usually make some sort of observation, giving something up to make a space in our lives for God. Chocolate, wine, coffee, Facebook, that sort of thing. Some of us will do that again this year, though I think lots of Christians will feel that the externally -imposed deprivations of lockdown are quite enough of a trial. That’s fair enough!

At the same time, life goes on; we have a future and it’s going to be demanding and difficult in new ways.

Maybe this year we might let Lent nourish us for the time ahead.

Maybe it’s a time to look at the cards that have been dealt us and ask God to show us the hidden blessings within them, and give thanks. Maybe there have been new relationships; for loads of us there are the blessings of Zoom and other new ways of communicating . Maybe your garden is set to bloom especially beautifully this spring after all that work last summer! Maybe you’ve discovered that your hair looks rather good a bit longer. Maybe, in dealing with illness and loss, your relationship with God and with others has deepened a little. Maybe there are blessings we can’t see yet; that take time and sitting quietly with God to bubble up. Now is a good time to be open to that!

Now is a good time to adopt the symbol of the rainbow with its huge implications for each of us and for everything that lives on earth. Now is a good time to hear God say to each of us, intimately: You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you. Now is a good time to notice that we have angels waiting on us.

We have angels waiting on us in unseen and delicious ways. It will be good, too, this Lent, to put our own trials in context. I’m sure we all try to do that already! – but we might give it more focus during this season of Lent. We know that for all the perceived injustices of the vaccine rollout here, there are places where there is Covid and little or no vaccine. It’s good to see the richer nations competing to respond at last; let’s pray for a world where meeting people’s basic needs is a matter of justice, rather than charity. We know that for all the severe economic consequences here, there are places where poverty runs much deeper. We know that Climate Change hasn’t gone away. This Lent, you might go on the Christian Aid website. There is a lot of material, including the chance to donate for vaccines where they are most needed and – right now – an open-to-all online Changemakers conference this coming week. God’s rainbow promise is for every man, woman, child, animal – how do we become an active part of realising that promise?

What matters more than choosing how to spend Lent is that we do it wholeheartedly. That we lift up our soul to God, like the psalmist. That we open our eyes to the brightness and glory of the rainbow, the gentleness of God’s compassion for us, the angels who attend to our needs. Then we may be ready to follow him more closely on the road to Jerusalem. That would be a real blessing.