Preacher Revd Neil Summers
The former MP and current journalist, Matthew Parris, although an atheist, was brought up in a Christian environment and is very knowledgeable about the faith. He wrote in his newspaper column of a visit to Israel. While acknowledging people find the city of Jerusalem very moving, he said that it moves him only to despair. ‘Everything about the city feels interior and crushing’ he said, not least because of what he calls the bickering of Christian churches over the demarcation of property added to the conflicts between major world religions in a very tight space. ‘How I longed for the open hillside, the grass, the cave, the wind, the stones and the silence’, he continued. And he discovered it – in the Negev desert in simple cabins under the stars, with the mountains of Jordan lit palely across the Dead Sea after sunset, and a charcoal fire in the evening. ‘Surely the Gospel writers misunderstood’, he said. ‘Those forty days in the desert will have been the best days of Jesus’s life.’ Well, who knows? It’s certainly one way of looking at it…
The Gospels do portray Jesus as regularly seeking solitude and quietness, but some of them, at least, indicate the wilderness was also a testing time for Jesus, and a time for clarifying his future direction. The wilderness had a beauty all its own: silent, mysterious, evocative. And Jesus the Jew, of course, was very aware that it was a place of great significance in the major stories of the Hebrew Scriptures – of his own ancestors. It was there that the people of Israel, led by Moses, had encountered God. It was the place where they journeyed for forty years, before entering the Promised Land. It was in the wilderness that they learned about their particular mission as a ‘chosen people’, and what that meant for them as a community.
In many ways, though, it was an unpromising environment for these things to happen. After all, the wilderness was also demanding, stark and lonely. It was rocky, barren, virtually devoid of vegetation. To lose your way meant almost certain death. The writer of Mark’s gospel makes it clear that it was also a place of potential danger, telling us that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts.’ It was difficult to survive the physical realities of searing heat and penetrating cold, as well as the intense isolation. Small wonder, then, that the wilderness was a place of testing and often, for the Israelites, a place of failure. Yet it continued to feature strongly in Israel’s history as a place of preparation. And so it was for Jesus. Today, we imaginatively enter once more into his forty day ‘wilderness experience’, traditionally regarded as a time of temptation and trial, and also of preparation for his public ministry.
Perhaps some of you have experienced the beauty of desert places on your travels. And I guess all of us find ourselves in our own difficult metaphorical desert places from time to time – physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. There are times in our lives when we wonder about our own future, and what we ought to be doing; times when we feel the need to withdraw from the world; times when we feel depressed, inconsolable even, because of what life throws at us, when everyone and everything seem to be against us. Times when our facades are exposed, pretensions have to go, and we find ourselves confronted with the reality of who we really are. Or times when we have to make life-changing decisions, prepare for new challenges, move on. Times when the support mechanisms we normally employ just to keep going – or to dull the pain – fail, and we are forced to rely on our own resources and just get on with it. Times when we feel intensely lonely, and God seems at best remote or, at worst, absent. In the desert, we may be forced to see things more clearly – sometimes, perhaps, too clearly for comfort. And it’s not just about us and our innermost feelings. It sometimes feels like the world itself in a perpetual desert, with continuing conflict, violence, hatred, poverty, inequality, hunger, and indiscriminate suffering that defies explanation. Yes, the metaphorical desert, too, can be a place of severe testing, where survival cannot be guaranteed.
Now, it has to be admitted that Lent has traditionally been about self-denial, fasting and sometimes a rather unhealthy, make-you-feel-bad-about-yourself obsession with sin. I hope we have moved on somewhat from Lent being a season of the year which somehow legitimized misery. (Mind you, that suited some personality types rather well, if truth be told!) Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James, Piccadilly, tells of her time as a canon at St Paul’s Cathedral. One Ash Wednesday – always a long and demanding day – she asked the head verger what he had given up for Lent. With a wearied and hangdog expression, he replied, ‘Hope!’ To be less flippant, though, there is, of course, a place for discipline and challenge, a confronting of our own demons, and a proper acknowledgement of those things which need addressing in our lives. But these days, we are encouraged to take a more positive attitude towards Lent, so let me finish on a more uplifting note, because the desert is certainly not all doom and gloom.
The experience of being in the desert can lead to the discarding of accumulated clutter, and can give us the chance to move towards clearer understanding and new insight. In the desert, we can begin to move closer to the heart of things, to sort out priorities, to move forward. It isn’t a place for wallowing in self-indulgent or morose feelings, but rather a place which can, used productively, enable us to grow and to look forward. The Hebrew prophetic visions tell of a time when desert places will be transformed: ‘the rough places will be made plain’, and ‘the crooked places straight.’ Not only that, but ‘the desert will rejoice and blossom as the rose.’
As we travel imaginatively with Jesus in the desert this Lent, and as we go through difficult individual and global wildernesses, here are two reasons from Christian tradition to take heart and remain hopeful. First, look back just a few weeks to Christmas and give thanks for the God who has entered quietly – but decisively – into the desert places of our human experience, and who is beside us in our personal wildernesses. Then, looking forward, give thanks for the God of Easter Day and of life, who rejected the easy way out of the wilderness. That is not to say we can, for one moment, ignore or minimise the difficulties we may face in the wilderness, or the anguish, abandonment, pain and suffering we know has to come on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But it does mean that, in spite of everything, we can take heart that it is life, and not death, that will have the last word.