"Rivers...and an Ark"

5 Lent.C.22
Isaiah 43:16-21
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Our lesson today from the Book of Isaiah, begins with a nod to the past with a reference to the Exodus, the story of the people of God escaping from Egypt into the promised land. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior, they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” The parting of the Red Sea is a story about a place where water had become problematic—through it, we are told, God made a pathway and rescued the Hebrews. From this damp landscape, the imagery shifts from a place that had too much water to a wilderness setting that does not have enough. The Lord says: “See, I am about to do a new thing...I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…”

More than simply a shift from water to desert, this lesson also moves from past to future. The people to whom Isaiah was writing were now exiles in Babylon. Think of Babylon as the global superpower of the time. They had just decimated Judea, destroyed the temple, and carted much of the population off into exile. Writing to the people, Isaiah reminds them that God, who made a pathway in the sea during the Exodus, will now be the one who will “make a way in the wilderness and the desert.” “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

And marvelously, in the midst of this promise, God switches gears yet again, not speaking of the people of God or even of the barrenness of the desert or the mightiness of the sea but of jackals and ostriches, of wild animals, whose presence in these places is also a testimony to the goodness of the Lord.

What do we think? Does God continue to do new things? Can God, even now, part seas and make rivers in the desert? I read the headlines, and I understand the overwhelming odds that seem to be pressing down upon ourselves and our world—there are repercussions from the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war, the climate crisis to name but a few. The problems we face appear staggering and immense—and, much like the situations which befell the people of Israel in the past, a good portion of these tribulations can be laid directly at the feet of humanity. Where is hope to be found? Where shall we look? Can we, like the people of God before us, find a pathway from disaster, death and suffering into the way of life and peace?”

This past week I discovered an article by Annie Roth about a peculiar situation in Kenya, amongst the Pokot and Ilchamus people, living along the shores of Lake Baringo that illustrates the importance of people, animals (and, I believe, God, as well) helping one another to make a path toward life and peace.*

The Pokot and Ilchamus peoples had spent decades waging war over cattle, land and water—and in their spite and divisiveness they had managed to turn one of Kenya’s most biodiverse regions into a barren battlefield.

In 2006, Pokot and Ilchalmus elders reached a truce in their bitter conflict. They agreed to work together to build unity and trust—and to do so by bringing back the wildlife their conflict had helped to drive out. And this is where the Rothchild’s giraffe, also known as the Baringo giraffe, comes into the picture. Only about 2,000 of these beautiful and graceful creatures remain in the wild, and 800 of those in Kenya.

Pokot and Ilchamus peoples established the Ruko Conservancy. “It wasn’t easy,” says Rebby Sebei, a Pokot community member, “But both sides were keen for a change.” The giraffes were placed on a peninsula in Lake Baringo, where they could easily be protected from poachers. This project attracted tourists, giving the local economy a much needed boost. What’s more, the animals became “a symbol of peace, unity, and a source of community wealth,” Sebei says. Then disaster struck.

Heavy rains fell. By 2020 the lake’s rising waters had displaced more than 5,000 people and destroyed schools, hospitals, and homes. And the giraffes peninsula had become an island. Animals began dying. What to do? How do you get 18 foot tall animals, prone to neck and leg injuries, who don’t handle tranquilizers well from an island to a place of safety?

The Pokot and Ilchalmus peoples built an ark—they found a way through the waters. As the first giraffe stepped off the barge and onto the new sanctuary ground, a crowd of Pokot and Ilchamus people burst into applause. Sebei says: “It was a dream that came true…Happiness engulfed everyone.”

Finding a way—this seems to me to be so much the work of God. Whether it is helping the people of God to cross the Red Sea, or, in the case of Isaiah, assisting them in finding a way across the desert back to their homeland, or Jesus, gifting us with a path to salvation through the cross, so much of God’s marvelous work is assisting us in finding a way—a path through the wilderness, be it water, desert or death. What we discover is that when we work with God, paths appear, arks are built, people find peace, animals are saved so that they, too, might glorify their Creator.

This season of Lent—it’s not simply about remembering and honoring events which happened long ago—be it the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary, which we heard today in the Gospel lesson, or the entry into Jerusalem and passion of our Savior that we will observe next Sunday. Striving to be a faithful follower of God is not solely about looking back toward the past—it’s also about looking ahead, to the future. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t simply about being able to recite the Nicene Creed by heart and participating in the sacraments; it’s also about working with God to craft a future in this present moment. The lesson this morning from Isaiah is a reminder to us that God provides a way in the wilderness—even now, in the difficulties of our day, God provides rivers in the desert, water cascading down dry streams. God does this, not only so that we might find life and peace—but so that the ostriches, jackals—and even giraffes, might also glorify their God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(“How former foes worked together to help save these rare giraffes” by Annie Roth, April 15, 2021, National Geographic)