Reading Exodus 3.1-6
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Almost everybody who’s anybody in the Bible serves their time in the desert. John the Baptist begins his ministry from there; after his conversion, St Paul goes off to Arabia for three years; Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, and the whole nation of Israel wanders there for forty years before entering the promised land. And tonight there is Moses.
Why go to the desert? To find space, to be alone, to get your head together; to find, or recover, a sense of your life’s purpose? Perhaps, though Moses has no problem in that department. His purpose in life just at the moment is to stay alive. He has not come to the desert for a retreat; or perhaps he has, in the most direct sense of the word – he’s in full retreat, a man on the run (we shall hear why, by and by).
While doing some casual shepherding there, Moses meets God, something we all want to do, I hope. Now – again – if you or I say we want to meet God, what we probably have in mind is what we nowadays call a spiritual experience, something that will deepen your life, give it more meaning; not a cosy experience, necessarily, but something that feels good and welcome. But – yet again – for Moses it is not quite that. For him, meeting God brings news that he must go back to Egypt, to the very place he has run from. He’s like an asylum-seeker whose case is heard by the highest authority and who’s then put on a plane back to the land he has fled. If you carry on reading Exodus chapter three, you will see that Moses is terrified. And when God says, ‘Don’t worry, I will be with you,’ Moses is not convinced.
Going into the desert beings no guarantees that you’ll get what you want. Nevertheless, generations of people of faith would go there. Some years ago I read a novel about a monastery in which the quirky abbot explains that, after Anthony of Egypt had made the whole thing fashionable, there had been something of a population explosion in the desert: a traveller in the area in AD394 reported that the desert dwellers equalled the population of the towns. Solitude was never so crowded. But, said the abbot, things changed; by the 20th century the desert had once more become a useless place which no-one quite knew what to do with.
And that is a shame, because the world is full of people who, like Moses, are on the run. It is a feeling you may recognise. Conceivably, you may be just like Moses, and on the run from the authorities; more likely you could be on the run in some more subtle way, chased by people and circumstances that will overwhelm you unless you put a bit of distance between yourself and them, unless you can get what the abbot calls ‘a sense of sand’.
But perhaps you don’t feel on the run at all. That may be because things are pretty much as they should be, and if so, that is wonderful, and there is no need to pretend. On the other hand, your feeling that you are not on the run may be because you have given up the struggle. Moses is part of the struggle: he killed an Egyptian guard who was abusing one of his kinsfolk, and that’s what has put him on the run into the wilderness. His fellow Israelites, however, aren’t on the run. They are back in Egypt, living as slaves, content – in a despairing kind of way. They have given up the struggle. Moses will have to go back and lead them into the desert, and they won’t like it too much. They will tell him they prefer the security of slavery to the precarious freedom of the wilderness, even if it is supposed to lead to the promised land.
Now the ways of God are consistent. God wants to free you and me from whatever enslaves us, and lead us to our promised land. And the route there still lies across the desert. Our task is to find our wilderness, that place apart, amid the complicated built-up life which surrounds us. The season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday, is an annual opportunity to do that. It lasts forty days, a symbol of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which is itself a symbol of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Lent may find you, like Moses, feeling propelled into this place apart, because you know you need it. Or, like the Israelites, you may be reluctant, may prefer the comforting clutter of a life that lives you, rather than the life God calls you to choose. You may need to be led into that place apart. Either way, you and I need to get a sense of sand.
It’s a good phrase, but what does it mean? It means finding that different perspective which comes from distance and space and simplicity. Those are the requirements, and they can be found here: we can find the desert in the city. If there is no chance of finding space and distance and simplicity at home or at work, give some time to coming here during the week – few churches are open as much as this one is – or to any church you can find with unlocked doors. And if you need resources to get that different perspective on your life, help is at hand: we have Lent study groups meeting in just over week (pick up a leaflet as you go); we have Lent reflections at our sister church of St John’s each Tuesday; we have books to buy at competitive prices, including the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2013 Lent book.
Somewhere among these things you may meet God. No guarantees, but if you and I can give the time to find some space – to get that sense of sand – then our burning bush may be there, and we can get our bearings on where we are headed, and what must come next. What must come next may be welcome, or it may not. As with Moses, the word may be:
Go back to the place you’ve run from. Go back, but do not be afraid: this time you will not be overwhelmed, because you will not be alone. This time you can say, God is with me, and I shall not fear.
A sense of sand From Desert Ascent, by Simon Parke, Hodder
• Ash Wednesday, 13th February, Services – 10am at St Mary’s, 8pm at St John’s
• Christians in Richmond Lent Home Groups start week commencing 18th February for 5 weeks at 8pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 2pm on Wednesdays. More information from our administrator Teresa Cross, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Books We have chosen four titles that we think may be of interest. If you wish to purchase any of them, have a word with our Caute Alan Sykes one of the clergy team. All the comments are taken from reviews in the Church Times. All prices quoted are the recommended retail price, but we offer them at a small discount of about 10%.
Ben Quash – Abiding (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book 2013) £10
‘Each chapter is full to the brim with challenges for the reader, and draws on a wide range of art and literature to inspire reflection … This is all good thought-provoking stuff and would certainly make for a fulfilling Lenten read.’
Judith Diamond – Friends, foes and families: Lenten meditations on Bible characters and relationships £7.99
‘Diamond constructs highly imaginative narrative, which not only puts flesh on biblical bones, but sets out connection after connection … It is all thoroughly brilliant stuff’.
Terry Hinks – God’s embrace: praying with Luke’s Gospel £9.99
‘The book teems with insight after insight that is both fresh and enables a flourishing of faith. Themes are connected and revisited, and consistently undergirded by a call to prayer which is distinctive of Luke.’
Joanna Collicut – When you pray: daily Bible reflections for Lent and Easter on the Lord’s Prayer £7.99
‘Collicut comes across as a familiar friend, a fellow traveller who understands and empathises with the human condition, boldly walking with you through Lent to draw you to your true home.’