Text: Matthew 3: 16-17 and 4:1a, followed by Robert W Service’s poem The Land God Forgot
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and we begin our Lent series… a 6 sermon series which Rev Peta and I are sharing which looks at Lent as the process which Jesus took, first of all into the desert, and then from the desert through the temptations and into ministry…. And hopefully we’re going to do so in ways that are a little different and perhaps stir the imagination a little to draw us more completely into that story.
We’ve just sung ‘Holy Spirit we welcome you’, and most of my sermon is about the times when the Holy Spirit may very well be active, but we don’t always feel that it’s terribly welcome – the journey to the wilderness. Though I have to say that when it came to writing this particular address, the Holy Spirit was exceedingly welcome! I couldn’t work out how I was going to finish it, because it’s the first of six. Then I realised, that’s the whole point, it doesn’t finish. I also have quite a short bit of the story to work with. It basically goes like this: ‘and the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness’… That’s a short sermon. It needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a lot of story in that sentence, and a lot for us to speculate about as well. How long did the process take, of the Spirit leading Jesus to the edge of the wilderness? How did it happen. What was going through Jesus’ mind at the time? What took place between the moment that Jesus went and was baptised and the moment that he knew he needed to walk into that wilderness? That very lonely, hungry, empty wilderness?
What is the wilderness? It’s the wild lands, yes, around the area of Israel, the spaces that weren’t the agricultural lands and the cities and the places people mostly lived and worked, it was the other bit. The empty bit, the dangerous bit, the bit where you couldn’t just survive unless you were incredibly hardy. And it was more than that. It was incredibly meaningful to them, it was almost symbolic to them, because it was this ever-present boundary to their world. This harsh, empty place that was a place of danger, a difficult place to travel; but it was a place of prophecy, it was a place of history, it was where they knew, as a people, they had come from. We know from the writings of Isaiah and the story of John that it is across the wilderness that they saw God coming, and it was from the wilderness that prophets emerged. And it was into the wilderness that scapegoats and lepers were driven.
It was hugely meaningful. It’s not just a place, it’s a state of mind, it’s a place you can be in without ever leaving your own home. It was almost an absence of things. Because what was ‘not the wilderness’? Everything else in their lives. Work, family, tribe, cities, markets, fields and vineyards and herds. Noise, strife, pleasures, everything else. Everything that fills up your life, everything that fills up your mind. Everything that seems important. In the wilderness, silence.
So the journey to the wilderness is the journey away from all that. Away from constantly looking and listening and paying attention to what’s all around you, to the externals, to being alone with Spirit, whatever Spirit is to you. And it’s all about a story, this Lent, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell stories. I’m going to tell the stories of the people who went to the wilderness.
I’m going to start with Moses. Moses went to the wilderness twice. Once on his own, once because as this young man who had been raised in the palace, around all this stuff, all the politics, all this wealth, and all the other politics of him knowing that his identity was really as one of the Hebrews, as one of the persecuted people, it was from all that that having basically got himself into trouble – his politics had led him to commit murder, he was terrified – he ran away into the wilderness. Where there was no Pharaoh and there were no Hebrews, where he was neither one of the ruling elite nor of the persecuted slaves, and he was no longer a political figure of any kind. He was just a guy, who got to know another guy, and looked after his sheep.
And we know, he met God in the wilderness, and in due time he went back to Egypt. This time when he went back into the wilderness, he took all the Hebrews with him. I don’t think the wilderness was quite as much of a wilderness to him, this time, because he’d taken with him all the politics, and all the people he was looking after and all the noise and all the bustle. But for Israel, for the people, this was their first experience of the wilderness. It was their first experience of not having slave-masters. It was their first experience of not having all of those things that they spoke to Moses about remembering – the melons on the vines and the fish and all the other good things that they just didn’t have anymore because it was just them and God.
David spent quite a lot of time in the wilderness. He was running away from Saul, the first time (he went back, too) the first time, he was running away from Saul, another guy who had become part of a royal household, had been involved in the wars, he was a soldier, he had all this political stuff going on in his life. He was already a very God-centred person, but he’d got on the wrong side of the king, rather like Moses, and he’d run for his life and he wound up in the wilderness. A very long time later, when he was not a young man, he was an old man, a tired man, he had to do the whole thing again with his household when his son turned on him.
These are people who fled to the wilderness. They didn’t want to go. I don’t think they’d have said that they were gently led in any way. But they found something there nonetheless, so I think we can say that in some way, the Spirit led them to the wilderness, even if it didn’t really feel like it at the time.
Elijah ended up in the wilderness too, and his is an interesting story, because well, you could say he was having an easy time of it. He was the last prophet of Yahweh, the only one. The queen had killed all the others. But at the time that he flees, he’s actually had a major triumph, because this is the time when there’s him – just him and Yahweh, and then there’s all the priests of Baal, I think there are about 150 of them in the story, and he challenges them to a sacrifice contest. He gets these two bulls and he makes these two altars, and he says ‘well, it’s pretty simple, really, we’ve got this famine, this drought going on, and each of us has been praying like crazy to our God’ – and I think, because we already know that God had told him that it would come to an end soon, the rains were coming, he wanted to make pretty damn sure that when the rains did come, they’d know it was Yahweh and not Baal that had a hand in it. The timing’s pretty good for that theory, I reckon.
So he does this contest, whichever God is able to make the sacrifice go up in flames, is the real God, who is bringing the rain. His sacrifice goes up in flames, despite the fact that he’s poured buckets of water over it and all kinds of things, theirs doesn’t despite all their best efforts, he has a little laugh at them, and he’s vindicated – Yahweh is God, and because this is real early Old Testament pre-Isaiah sort of stuff, he has them all dragged down to the river and slaughtered, you know, this is the sort of thing that goes on at this point in the Bible. So you can’t say that he’s actually on his down and out by this time, Elijah. He’s just had this massive public victory, he’s vindicated, Yahweh his God is the God, and at this time he’s the only prophet of Yahweh, so he should be looking like he’s in a good way, but, he’s a bit worried. Because the queen was a bit fond of those prophets that he’s just had killed, and even though the rains are coming, and everyone’s a bit happy and they all reckon that, yes, you’re the one with the right God, he doesn’t think the queen’s going to see it that way. 14:00 so he legs it. And he legs it into the wilderness, and he hides there…. And you’ll have to wait for the rest of the story, because my story today finishes there – at the edge of the wilderness. Next week, Michael gets to take you into the wilderness.
And these stories do somewhat resemble my story of how I ended up in my wilderness time, because I did not want to go. I really didn’t. And I was doing alright at the time, more or less. I’d bitten off far more than I could chew, but I was already fully committed to following God, it’s just that everything had got in the way. This is me looking back and thinking about what God probably thought about what I let get in the way, because at the time, I thought, well you know, I’m doing my studies and I’m serving in my church and I’m doing all these things – but all those things got taken away. I wasn’t doing my studies any more, and I wasn’t serving my church and… you’ll have to wait for the rest of the story because I stop at the edge of the wilderness today! But I did not want to go.
And yet. I return. Elijah returned. David returned. Moses returned. Every now and then we just end up back at the wilderness. And we end up there for a lot of reasons. Those of you who saw ‘The Shack’ will know that Mack ended up there because of huge personal tragedy. That’s not always the reason. Some of us are just utterly disillusioned with the world. Some of us just look at it all and think ‘Nah. This – this just isn’t the way it’s meant to be’. One of whom was the guy that wrote Ecclesiastes, who may or may not have been king Solomon. ‘‘‘It is useless, useless” said the philosopher “life is useless. You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come, and generations go, but the world stays the same for ever. The sun still rises and it still goes down, going wearily back to where it must start all over again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round and back again. Every river flows into the sea but the sea is never full. The water returns to where the rivers began and it starts all over again. Everything leads to weariness, a weariness too great for words.”’.
I kind of like that they included this one in the Bible. That we know that there were people who were utterly devoted to God who felt just like that, and it got included. He goes on much later: ‘I determined that I would examine and study all things that are done in this world. And God has laid a miserable fate upon us. I have seen everything done in this world and I tell you that it is useless. It is like chasing the wind. You can’t straighten out what is crooked’ (thank goodness!), ‘you can’t count things that aren’t there. I told myself “I have become a great man, far wiser than anyone that has ruled Jerusalem before me. I know what wisdom and knowledge really are” I was determined to learn the difference between knowledge and foolishness, wisdom and madness. But I found out that I might as well be chasing the wind. The wiser you are, the more worries you have. The more you know, the more it hurts’.
Sounds to me like this guy was definitely on his way to the wilderness. He carries on, speaking about the injustice that he sees in the world, that the oppressed were crying and no one would help them. He envied those who had never been born. And he said that he had realised that ‘the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, the wise do not always earn a living, capable people do not always rise to high positions, and bad luck happens to everyone’. And at the end he says: ‘After all this, there is only one thing to say: Have reverence for God and obey his commands, because this is what we were created for’.
I don’t know what happened between the first words and the last ones, because by his own account, he’s summarised in one very short book about sixty years of study. But I think he was definitely in the wilderness for quite a lot of that.
C S Lewis was another one who studied and attained great wisdom and was a philosopher and studied all these different things and went into all kinds of stuff, and he said at one point: ‘and eventually’ (I forget the precise date) ‘I gave in and admitted that God was God – the most reluctant and dejected convert in all England.’ Have to say he didn’t stay dejected and reluctant, and he wrote a lot of things after that, but I like that he includes the fact that so many times we get this story that the wilderness is where you go because you’ve got to the bottom of your life, then you find God, and then it’s happy, happy, joy, joy, it’s all fixed. But according to most of these stories, and C S Lewis story, and Jesus’ story, deciding to follow God was the start and the wilderness came afterward. I mean that’s certainly how it worked out for me.
Some went there deliberately. John, for one, went there to seek God. The Qumran community, they all went into the wilderness to get away from all the noise of the world, because they’d read all the scriptures that I’ve just read and they had learned that if you got away from all that bustle, you would find something there. Some of us have the wisdom to go there deliberately – I didn’t.
But whether through accident or foolishness, orderly or chaotically, sooner or later we all go there. And it’s not the end of the journey. We don’t finish in the wilderness. We’ve got mount Horeb to come, the burning bush, mount Sinai, the tempest and the still small voice, the river Jordan. We’ve got a grief to observe and a joy to be surprised by. The story isn’t over when we’re led into the desert. It’s only just begun.