God is Wild

So there is always a danger that the wilderness God will be forgotten, and that the deity which people seek out for ordinary purposes is a god who is shaped by language and concepts that are much closer to home. And if this happens in a society where the highest human power is the king, then the human institution of kingship will shape the peoples' understanding of the Kingship of God.

had to be used together to explain and expound the power of God and the potential of God's people.

However, the Holy One of Israel was not so easily domesticated. God had called Abraham out of the cities of Ur and Haran[1] towards a land he did not know and where he would never settle. Stories were told of how God had acted against Babel, Sodom, Gomorrah and the cities of the plain[2] because of their wickedness; how the Hebrews had slaved to build the store cities of Egypt, but had then been led out by God to find freedom in the desert[3]. Prior to the Israelite capture of Jerusalem, and even more so before their settlement in Canaan, they had worshipped God where they had found him, and he had found them.

Again and again – for characters as diverse as Hagar, Jacob and David[4] - this encounter had taken place in the Wild. Furthermore, there were three particular experiences of the "wilderness God" that may have been especially significant for Jesus, and certainly seem to have been important to Mark. (Moses, Elijah, Isaiah)

These experiences were significant, not just because of their consequences, but because they enabled the people of God to re-imagine the nature of God, God's relationship to them, and therefore their own potential. In the Wild, they discovered that God's Kingship was not limited to one small territory, but could encompass the desert, the place of bondage, the land of exile, the palace of the enemy. In the Wild, they learned that the resources at God's command were not only those of an ordered and cultivated environment, but also the uncontrollable and chaotic forces that surge through the cosmos, threatening its final destruction. The significance of the wilderness experience lay in the reconfiguring of three elements: human hardship, the sovereignty of God, and power.

In the cities, it was easy to fall into the habit of seeing God as very much like any other king, only a bit grander, and to relate to him accordingly – as a power to be obeyed so that life continued to go well, or to be appeased so that life became no worse than it was already. City life predisposed people to see God as supportive of ordered power as they already experienced it under the king and his ministers; of good government, however that was defined by the king of the day; and therefore, of the status quo. However, encountering God in the wilderness showed them that power could take other forms - forms that were disorderly, ungovernable, beyond human control - and yet which were also creative, transformative and even beneficial.

In short, the experience of the wilderness enabled people to re-imagine the power of God, and therefore the Kingship of God. It set them free to think differently, and equipped them with alternative images to nourish and shape that thinking. They saw - or rediscovered - how the Kingship of God is not like the kingship of men. It is greater, wilder, even more awesome. It can reach further, deeper, higher than any human power; further, deeper and higher than we can imagine any power being able to reach. It can do more, change more, and - wonder of wonders - it is willing to meet the simple needs of ordinary men and women.

This was the insight that inspired prophets and renewed the faith of the people of God: their faith in God, in each other and in themselves. Not just that the power of God was greater than they had ever imagined, but that it was a power that is well-disposed towards humanity and capable of attuning itself to the joys and sorrows of the feeble, the fragile and the frail. It was the realisation that this vast power was willing to act on behalf of human beings; that being moral, personal and benign, it could establish relationships and sustain them; transforming situations and relationships so as to benefit everyone with whom it was in any form of partnership.

Though God remained unfathomable mystery, an holy absolute, it could be seen that God's purposes were not alien to human understanding. On the contrary, God could act to further human hopes and dreams. Though "wild", the power of God was neither indifferent, nor hostile, to humanity. It was a reservoir of unlimited resources that was always accessible; a force for transformation capable of meeting the deeper need, healing the greater wounds, righting the wrongs that kings were powerless to address - and the wrongs of which kings were the source and the cause.

Beyond the writ of any human king, the people discovered that God was the King of the Wild. The power they experienced in that fearsome environment gave them a new symbolic language for power, forcefulness, effectiveness, might. This imagery enabled them to re-imagine the Kingship of God in terms of transformation: God's faithful, loving regard for humanity; God's willingness to respond to the human condition; God's capacity to answer human suffering and assuage human need.

[1] Genesis 11.27-12.3; 15.7.
[2] Genesis 11.1-9; 13.2-13; 19.1-29.
[3] Exodus 1.11; 14.10-31; 15.22-27.
[4] Genesis 16; 21.8-21; 28.10-22; 32.22-32. The evidence that David encountered God in the wilderness is circumstantial rather than specific. He hid out in the Wild while he was on the run from Saul, and stories suggest that this was the time that formed him as a leader (see 1 Samuel 17.12-54; 22.1-5; 23.14-29; 24; 2 Samuel 23.13-17). In a general sense, it came to be believed that God was with him, and it is possible that in Psalms 18 and 23 (for example) we have the inner experience of that period.

This came fresh – as a revelation – on each occasion because human beings have a tendency to prefer small marvels to infinite mystery. For everyday purposes, most of us prefer to deal with people and powers with whom we can communicate readily and who we hope to persuade to be attentive to our needs. A god who is wild, holy and awesome is not a comfortable companion in everyday life. He or she does not feel approachable to the timid, the simple and the sinful. I am not likely to feel that such a god will look kindly upon my trivial, mundane concerns. So, once the Israelites were settled in Canaan, they

So whatever we say we believe, in practice we tend to prefer the known to the unknown, what we can understand to what we cannot understand, what we can see to what we cannot see. The remarkable fact about the faith of the Israelites is not that they kept being seduced into worshipping a small-scale, domesticated god, but that they so frequently rediscovered the terrifying magnificence of the Holy Other.

But before we condemn them, we do well to take a long hard look at our own offering of prayer and praise, not in terms of what we believe about worship, but in terms of what we actually do. We discover that in practice it is not often that we combine – in the same act of worship – an openness to the "wild transcendence" of God and that tender, unconditional acceptance which soothes our hurts and encourages us to bring our fears into the open. We aspire to this combination of awe, gentleness and transformation, but it is rarely achieved. This is because it is actually very difficult for us to encompass such a broad range of thought, feeling and experience in our heads all at once or within a short period of an hour or two. Processing and assimilating such a wide range of experience is actually quite hard work, so in practice we focus on one part of the spectrum, which means that we down-play, de-emphasise, ignore or even deny the others.

Ant/elephant refocus
We can do this by focusing at one end of the spectrum or the other, so that our worship evokes an awareness – or comforts and consoles with assurance that our needs will be met, an opportunity to petition and intercede release our concerns. Aim for the middle ground, do not do either at depth. Enough for normal circumstances, but cannot deal with crisis.

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