Notes from an address preached by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D. Originally published in the October 1950 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine for Romford Congregational Church.
The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose ... the glowing sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. - Isaiah 35
Hilaire Belloc, in his book, "The Battle Ground," relates the events of the Gospel to the structure of the land in which they happened, in a highly dramatic and interesting way. The book is not in every way to be commended, but in this respect it is extremely valuable. At least, I found it so, and I propose to use it freely for the purpose of this address.
Belloc paints an imaginary picture of a little boat exploring the Mediterranean, ages ago. Such a boat, sailing east past the island of Cyprus, would have found itself heading into a wide gulf. Forced to turn south, almost at right angles, and proceeding down the coast of what is now Syria, the sailors would have recognised at last that they were following the wall of an inland sea which has no means of egress. The coast is regular, and not very long, continuing for about 400 miles. Here and there its line is broken by an island, like that which became the city of Tyre, or a short, jutting peninsula, like that which was one day to provide a foundation for Sidon. The whole coast is followed by a line of mountains, descending to mere hills in the south, where also the line recedes to give room for a wider coastal plain. Such is the most important coastline in the world.
Suppose that these explorers left their boat and climbed the mountains lying close to the coast towards the north. Gradually they would leave the fertile growth on the lower slopes behind, until the summit, when it was reached, would prove to be bleak and barren and covered with a thin layer of snow. (These are the heights of Lebanon.) Looking over the top they would have seen the mountains plunging down for thousands of feet, and giving way to a green belt of beautiful and fertile country. But not a very wide belt. Some 40 miles away another range of mountains, the Anti-Lebanon, tower up into the sky.
Crossing the fertile land between, and the streams rushing through the centre of it, the sailors might have climbed these other mountains. These, too, at the summit, would prove barren of life. But beyond them they would've been astonished, and perhaps awed, to see nothing but desert, stretching away into hazy distance.
This imaginary adventure adequately describes the shape of Syria, or rather of that part of it in which settled life is possible. Syria and Palestine make a wedge of green between the desert and the sea. A tiny area of life lying between vast areas of death.
In the whole of this part of the world water is of first importance. Go down into Egypt, and you will find the most extraordinary river in the world. The Nile flows for thousands of miles through the worst of deserts, and snatches from it a ribbon of life which nurtured a great civilisation. Go east into Mesopotamia (the word means "in the midst of the rivers"), and you will find another great river, the Euphrates, and also the Tigris, which provided not only physical nourishment, but also a highway for ideas to pass between ancient Syria and the once powerful civilisations which lay beyond.
In Syria there is no single great river. But a series of rivers run down the centre, between lakes which occur from place to place. In Palestine the mountains have shrunk to hills. But even here the essential shape of Syria - a kind of trough dug out between heights - is preserved by the strange character of the river Jordan. For this river flows beneath the level of the sea. Plunging downward from the sea of Galilee it eventually loses itself in the well-named Dead Sea, which in one place finds its bed as much as half a mile below the surface of the earth.
If you look at the map you will have the feeling that the desert ought to have stretched right down to the coast. It is as though Syria has no natural right to be there. But the hills and mountains capture enough rain to make life possible, and their porous nature, together with the snows on the highest of them, store water sufficient to feed the essential streams. And so Syria exists, a tiny place on the edge of a much vaster desert. It is a workshop in which many ideas essential to our civilisation were hammered out.
These facts, underlined by Belloc in his book, seem sufficiently striking. But they suggest a still more significant image.
Throughout the Bible, the figure of water constantly recurs to represent the life of the spirit. "Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters ..." We can hear the tinkling of a stream or the strong sweep of a river flowing through the poetry of prophecy and psalm. And this is natural in a people who must always remember the wilderness at the door. But there is perhaps another reason. For just as the life of Syria seems poised precariously between the desert and the sea, so it was with the waters of life, with the great revealed truths concerning God and man which the people of Israel alone possessed. The life of the spirit is precarious, too. The desert is at its door waiting to absorb it if it can.
Th most exciting story in the world is that which tells how God spoke to a little community in a tiny land. And how that community, possessed of a divine truth, and developing it, preserved it through the centuries like a man carrying a cup of precious water through a hostile crowd. The religious genius of Israel might have been overwhelmed again and again by alien cultures and religions. The worship of the true God was threatened from the beginning by the worship of false gods, many of them foul and base, little more than projections of human lusts and fears. His shrine was surrounded by a spiritual desert. The Old Testament contains a clear account of the difficulties which the early leaders of Israel encountered in striving to keep the people free from contamination. And the same struggle persist right through their history. Great world powers, emerging one by one as the ages passed, rolled over the little nation yet proved powerless to obliterate it. Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, each had a contribution to offer to the process of civilising mankind, yet each lacked anything like the seeds of a great religion. From the spiritual point of view they represent the desert, while to Israel, politically of no consequence, belong the green pastures. This does not mean that everything in the religion of Israel was always good, or that it did not need to develop and enlarge its concepts, or that it was quite insensible to outside influences. But it does mean that the Word of God committed to it persisted through every change, and was never utterly forgotten. The river of life did not lose itself in sandy wastes.
All this is due to the providence of and power of God. He who preserved Syria between the desert and the sea by the gift of water, also preserved the soul of Israel in the midst of false religions by the gift of grace. And all was for a purpose. All led to a climax in Christ, who said, "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink."
But when we speak of the providence of God we tend too easily to picture a situation in which man needs to do nothing. This is not so. God gives the water. But man must cultivate the land. God preserved Israel. But her people had to struggle to keep their faith. And so it always must be. For the coming of Christianity, even the apparent victory of the fifth century, for example, when it seemed that the whole world would by captured for Christ, a storm suddenly arose in the desert, utterly unexpected, and devastating in its effects. Just when all seemed secure, when men had almost forgotten that the wilderness was there, the horsemen of Islam rode in to conquer and to destroy. This was only the beginning of a gigantic disaster. Islam ate its way into the heart of Europe before, at last it was checked and turned back, and even so it wrought a permanent and unhappy change in the East. At one time it must have seemed to many that the very existence of Christianity would prove uncertain in the face of the world-conquering religion of Mohammed, just as to-day people think fearfully of the world-conquering religion of Marx.
All this is a symbol and a warning for us all. Do not imagine for one instant that because our country is called Christian, Christianity can be left to look after itself. Or that because Christ promised to preserve the Church we need to do nothing in its defence. In Christ's community the rivers of life are flowing. But remember the desert at the door. One day the wilderness will blossom as the rose. But many a battle must be fought, and many a sacrifice offered to God, before that. In the meanwhile let us look to our precious faith: Be vigilant. Be loyal. And be strong.