‘The Way of the Child’ – Lent part 3
4th March 2018
Matthew 18: 1-3
And DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Shadows’
Chris was saying last week that with this series of sermons what we really need is one of those little recaps, like you get at the beginning of one of those extended TV series, to let you know what happened in case you missed the week before. That’s now in my head in Anthony Head’s voice: ‘Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer..’ So – Previously, at MCC the Village:
We began with the journey of the wolf – whether it’s the teeth of the wolf biting at our heels as we flee into the wilderness, or whether it’s that lonely howl and distant shape that’s beckoning us on, it’s the process of the dissatisfaction with the world, the disillusion with religion and the things that have let us down that leads us to the wilderness. And then Michael took us deeper into the desert with the eagle, the presence of God that seems very distant at times, that speck up there, where your head knows that God is with you, but perhaps your heart doesn’t always feel it.
And so, we’ve arrived. Forty days and forty nights later, in the middle of the desert. Where we meet a child.
For a sermon series that’s basically about Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, I seem to spend a lot of time with the prophet Elijah – but I don’t apologise for that, because he also went forty days and forty nights into the desert, and met God there.
‘Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a message to Elijah saying: ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make you life like one of theirs by this time tomorrow!’ Then he was afraid, and he got up and fled for his life, and he came to Beersheba and left his servant there, and himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree, and asked that he might die. “It is enough now, God. Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors!” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said “Get up. Eat.” And he looked and there at his head was a cake and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel touch him again and said “Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you” He got up and ate and drank, and then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God, and at that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.’
One day in to the wilderness, and Elijah had thought that he had got as far as he could go. That was it, he’d had enough. Giving up. Can’t do this. Forty days later, and he’s finally ready to meet God. Because at the beginning of the wilderness, we have no idea how far the angel (or the eagle) will take us. How stripped down we can become. We’ve no idea how much there is to let go, how much control we are clinging on to. And we have no idea how much we can find when we do let go.
‘And the word of God came to him saying “what are you doing here, Elijah?” and he answered “I have been zealous for God the Lord of hosts. The Israelites have forsaken your covenant and killed your prophets and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away”.
And God said “Go out and stand on the mountain, because God is about to pass by”.
‘Now there was a great wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks before it. But God was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire. But God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard that, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’
Elijah got there in forty days and forty nights. And what he found there was something hugely bigger and so much smaller than what he was looking for.
David, in the wilderness, also found the child who was himself, and the one who was God:
‘You are my shepherd, I shall not want.
You make me to lie down in green pastures.
You lead me beside still waters, You restore my soul.
You lead me in right paths for Your name’s sake,
and even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil,
for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table for me in the sight of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of my God my whole life long.’
That’s a child’s song if ever I heard one.
Moses in the same desert, found a burning bush, and asked God ‘Who are you? Which god am I speaking to?’ and the answer was ‘I am who I am.’ Or, ‘I will be who I will be’. 8:13
All these things, whether it’s Elijah’s silence and still small voice, whether it’s the Shepherd of David, whether it’s ‘I am who I am’ – what they found was God without religion. No dogma, no theology, no formulae. And forever after we’ve tried to analyse those words: ‘the Lord is my shepherd’, ‘I will be who I will be’, we’ve tried to reduce them to theologies and systems, but that’s not what they are. They are experiences of child-like trust, of someone who was deep in the wilderness, who knew better than to try to analyse what they’d just been told, and accept it for what it was.
Because all that dogma that lets us down is what brought us to the wilderness in the first place. And forty days and nights later – in my case that lasted rather longer than forty days, because I’m very stubborn, God had to knock quite hard to get through concrete [knocks on own head]- nonetheless, when we finally get there, we’re finally young enough. We’re finally simple enough. We’re finally uncertain enough to meet God.
When we stop bargaining. When we stop trying to control what’s happening. Because a lot of religion, all kinds of religions, and Christianity often no less than any others throughout human history, has become a system of trying to control things. If I do x, God will do y. The problem with that of course is that God is God. Not a computer. Not a puppet. That kind of religion is absolutely useless in the wilderness. It’s just baggage. It drags you down, you have to let it go. Because the desert is unforgiving of those who try to pack the kitchen sink!
Now, I’m very unlike Rev Michael – I love roughing it. I adore camping, hiking and fending for myself. I love going out there in the woods. The happiest times of my life I’ve spent covered in mud and blisters and mosquito bites. Earwigs and all. But, the reason I love it, is because I’m in control. That’s my world out there. I grew up in it. Out there, I’m dependent only on myself, and my kit – which I have tested. None of the things I don’t quite trust and understand, like cars and money and computers and other people. My favourite book as a child was the SAS Survival Handbook, and I read it till the covers fell off! I built shelters, I lit fires, I made bows and arrows. I loved that stuff, because I was determined to be independent. Reliant on no-one. When the apocalypse came, I was going to be standing!
Which meant that my wilderness had to happen in the city. Among other people. And when I found myself there, I fell back on that old-time religion – I bargained. Sometimes it was overtly. I would sit there and I would pray and I would say: ‘If I do this, will you give me my life back?’ ‘If I study this. If I pray these prayers. If I do this voluntary work, will you give me my life back?!’
God said: ‘No promises. Do it anyway’. I had all the promises I needed. They still stood. But ‘no, I’m not bargaining with you’ said God. Sometimes it was more subtle. I was just directing my life to things which were good to do, service, and caring for and loving other people, but with an eye to the fact that this was my path back to the life that I’d chosen. It was only 40 days and 40 nights in, of ‘no. no bargain, no promises’, that I realised that I just had to do the thing that God gave me for that day. No strings attached. And that I might never have ‘my life’ back, whatever I thought that was supposed to mean. I just had to carry on doing ‘me’, being the person I was supposed to be, and if God chose to reward that, that was God’s business. It was the hardest lesson I have ever learned.
I had to learn that it was OK whatever happened. It reminded me of another book I absolutely loved as a child. Not quite so much as the SAS survival handbook, but I loved Watership Down. And I remembered that Hazel cries out to Elil-hrair-rah, this Jesus-like figure in Watership Down, and said: ‘A bargain, Lord. My life for theirs’. And the answer was: ‘There is not a day or night goes by but a doe offers her life for her kittens’, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his Chief Rabbit’s. Sometimes it is taken, sometimes it is not. But there is no bargain. For here, what is, is what must be.’
‘I will be who I will be’ When you meet yourself, the child, in the desert, you have to learn to trust. Which means accepting that you don’t know best. But someone does. And what will be will be, and it will be OK. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me’.
We’re as far into the wilderness as we can get and still come back, now. Emptied. Stripped down. Ready to meet God as a child does. Trusting, accepting, ready to listen. Ready for the next step.