This morning, as we draw towards the end of another week, we’re going to do something a little different…
I’m going to slowly read some words from the Psalms. I invite you to simply relax and listen to the reading. Close your eyes if it helps. This is a Psalm which contains many powerful images. As you listen, pick out one which particularly resonates with you, and sit with that image for a few minutes. Turn it over in your mind…
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you.
2 Do not hide your face from me on the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily on the day when I call.
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin.
6 I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places.
7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8 All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
Which image stood out to you?
What words would you use to describe that image? Why do you think it resonates with you?
Does the image reflect any area of your life right now? Or someone near to you?
If so, how?
I’m going to read some more words from the Psalms.
These are words of blessing, a response of God to those crying out to him.
You might want to pray these words as a blessing over yourself, or for someone else who is suffering?
17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord: 19 that he looked down from his holy height, from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, 20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die; 21 so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem, 22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
Hi. Welcome back to our Lent reflections at Harrow Baptist, based on the resource Worship in the Wilderness, by Sara and Sam Hargreaves of Engage Worship.
I’ll open the words with some words from the Gospel of John, chapter 6. A bit of context, just before we dive into it. Jesus has just fed a large multitude with 5 loaves and a couple of small fish. Because of this, the people have decided they want him to be their leader – whether he wants it or not. Jesus has made his escape from the crowd, having sent away the disciples to other side of the Sea of Galilee. In the night, Jesus has rejoined them, walking on the water, which has completely confused those on this side who never saw Jesus leave. But when they realise he must have gone, they pursue him to Capernaum…
The only miracle that all four Gospels recount is the story of Jesus feeding a multitude of people, 5000 men, plus women and children, with nothing more than 5 loaves and a couple of fish. But there are a few details which John includes that the others don’t mention. For example, if you went to Sunday School growing up, I’m pretty sure at some point you were told about the little boy who gave his packed lunch to Jesus. We get that from John. We might be able to have a guess at the time of year this happened from the other accounts, but only John tells us that Passover was near. So about a year before the crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew and Mark tell us about Jesus sending the disciples away and dismissing the crowd. But only John tells us why. The crowd have decided to make Jesus their king. They want to start an uprising and install Jesus as their leader. And that’s something Jesus really does not want.
And only John includes the Bread of Life speech which follows the miracle. And within we find the reason why this reason is included in this series of reflections. For throughout Lent we’ve been thinking about ideas of wilderness – primarily about Jesus time in the wilderness. But this in turn echoes the Old Testament narrative of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. And there is a parallel drawn between this miracle and that time in the wilderness. ‘Our ancestors at the manna in the wilderness: as it is written he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’
Our society and generation is quite unusual in that we’re the first not to consume so much of our lives in growing, hunting, collecting and trading food and gathering wood and water to cook it. We are shocked by Foodbank statistics because, as one of the richest economies on earth, we have largely taken it for granted that our population can be fed. We are not used to going without. We only have to look at the response to possible shortages in our supermarkets, way back in the first lockdown. Bread is probably a relatively small part of our diet too.
That was not true of this people. Their diet mainly consisted of two things – bread and fish. But whilst control of fishing stocks might be an issue in our times, this was less of a concern in first century Galilee. But bread was different. For many reasons it was in short supply.
We have a saying, that an army marches on its stomach. The Romans recognised this too and were quite belt and braces in their approach. When they conquered someone, they made sure they’d be in no position to conquer them back. Between land grabs and rationing, they restricted the food supply of those they conquered to 1600 calories per adult male. By contrast their own troops had a minimum calorie intake, depending on whether things were peaceful or not, of between 3000 and 6000 calories. Most of it was bread.
Today many wars are over access to energy supplies or even water. Then it was the food supply. Control the food, you have the power.
But Jesus could feed the crowd until they were filled, and still have loads of leftovers. Is it any reason they wanted to make him king?
But they also want to control him. To ensure he keeps the food coming.
Effectively what Jesus says to the crowd is ‘Yes, I’ve read Exodus too. But you’re focussing on the wrong thing and you’re missing the point. You’re caught up the with manna side of the story. You’re blinkered into looking at the pile of food I provided for you. But you’re not looking at what those events and those stories were supposed to tell you.’
In Deuteronomy Moses reflected on the Children of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, and how God miraculously fed them with manna. But the lesson they were supposed to learn was that we do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God. That life was not sustained by things we like to control, such as the ability to eat, but that our very breath is a gift from God. Even in the wilderness they were not at the mercy of the elements, for even if things were not under their control, they had a God who had it all under control and could bring them through.
And that’s a lesson for us, as we reflect on this season of wilderness. That story of wilderness wandering towards a Promised Land, at the mercy of terrain and circumstances evokes images of so much of life in the last year. There are times when we’ve felt completely at the mercy of events and trying to get things under control.
But when we think it’s all out of control, Jesus tells us there is one in whom we can trust. God wants us to do is trust that he has it under his control. Jesus says that whatever else we place our trust in, whatever else we use to sustain us, it will falter, it can’t keep us going forever. But if we place our trust in him he will be with us in the wilderness and can give us life over which not even death can speak the final word.
Jools and I were out in the car over the weekend, when a song came on the radio I hadn’t heard in absolutely ages. I’m quite prone to getting a song stuck in my head, so for quite a bit of the afternoon I found myself singing this song. It was probably from about the 1980s but I could remember every word.
In fact my brain seems capable of remembering any amount of useless trivia. Actors who have played Dr Who, with their dates, pretty much every murderer in Midsomer, the Arsenal side that win the 1979 Cup final…
Which makes it all the more frustrating when I struggle to remember the three things I went to the supermarket to buy, why I went upstairs…
…or even, now I think about it, the name of the song I hadn’t heard in ages that was stuck in head, just last weekend!
A regular feature of the Bible story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness was the call for them to Remember. The passage we just shared contains many such calls…
v2 Remember how the LORD your God, led you all the way in the desert these 40 years.
v10 Be careful you do not forget the LORD your God.
v18 But remember the LORD your God
v19 If you ever forget the LORD your God…
Why the constant call to remember? Because we so easily forget. And often what we forget is the stuff we really could do with remembering.
One of the things we can so often forget, or not really recognise, is the way God has cared for us in times of trouble. It’s almost the stereotype prayer in the TV comedy. Dear God, I know I’ve not been in touch that often, but if you just get me out of this, I promise I’ll… only to forget as soon as a the trouble passes.
There’s a certain comedy to the story of the wilderness wanderings. The people run into trouble, they grumble why is this happening to us? God helps them out. The people respond God, you’re so fab? How could we have doubted you? We’ll never doubt you again… only for the cycle to repeat the next time they run into trouble.
It was a lesson it took them a long time to learn. I’m told the journey from Egypt to Canaan should have only taken 2-3 weeks. It took 40 years. Why so long? It can’t have just been, as the joke suggests, they were being led by Moses, and, as a man, he refused to ask for directions.
No, it seems because it took them so long to learn some very basic lessons, such as they could trust God. I’m not sure they ever really learned that lesson. When they finally do settle in Canaan, the book of Judges suggested that they kept forgetting about God, running into trouble, crying out to God, then, when he rescues them, promptly forgetting him again.
And that’s not a tendency that’s gone away. One of the reasons the PM is being so cautious about lifting lockdown restrictions is because he is aware how as soon as restrictions are lifted there will be those who just go straight back as if nothing had happened at all. We forget how vulnerable things felt and start to feel invincible again. And in no time at all, we’re back where we started.
And we can all be like that with God. It can be possible that in our minds God is only as good as the last thing he’s done for us. Each time we run into trouble we can so easily forget how God has helped us in the past and get into a panic that this will be the time when god comes up short.
Or when things go well, we can take all the credit and think about what we’ve done. But when things go badly, we can pass all the blame to God, who should have been helping us, but let us down. Often we’re not as dissimilar to the Israelites as we might like to think. Basically cos they are very human.
Perhaps one of the things we’ve had to learn this last year is how vulnerable we really are and also to look at the different ways God has cared for us in the midst of it all. As I write this, I am mulling over the latest ‘roadmap’, what it all means, and how church might look over the next year or so.
But just important is to reflect on where we are now. What lessons have we needed to learn in this season? Have we learned them? In the midst of the struggle what blessings have we found? How has God cared for us? Can we allow them the time and space to take root in our hearts and minds, so that when we eventually do emerge, wilderness will have done it’s work?
Heavenly Father, everything I have comes from you
All my achievements, relationships and possessions
are the fruit of your goodness to me.
As I journey through this season of wilderness with you
Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.
During the Lent season we are considering the idea of Worship in the Wilderness. Life comes with its ups and downs, it’s highs and lows. We have seasons when we feel on top of the world, but other times when it feels more of a struggle, what we might call wilderness seasons. These can come in a number of ways. I thought today I would share one of mine.
Something I have learned over the last few years is to spot and recognise seasons or rhythms in my life. It’s not necessarily anything to do with time of year, how busy I am, rest, self-care. All of those things are important and if I’m not paying attention to them, I will pretty soon start to flag.
This is something different, that it’s hard to put my finger on it. You might recognise periods like this. Even if you love your job, there are times it becomes just that little bit more a slog. It’s that little bit harder to work up and maintain enthusiasm and energy levels.
Perhaps the nature of the role I have makes me more attuned to how this manifests itself in my spiritual life. Prayer can seem to be that little bit harder. It becomes a bit more of an effort just to show up. Concentration is difficult. It is easy to get fixated on whether I sense the presence of God, but perhaps in such times a better question might be is God sensing the presence of me?
I used to get quite anxious about this. I remember a comment someone made to me about how ‘if God feels far away, guess who moved?’ And just as when I start to notice myself feeling this way physically, emotionally, mentally, I might do a quick self-check of how well I’m caring for myself, so I will take a bit of time to reflect how me and God are doing at the moment.
And sometimes there is stuff I need to work on. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Things are rarely so straightforward. I’ve known people to go through quite prolonged ‘dark nights of the soul’ without any real sense that they have drifted from their faith. It’d be pretty insulting for me to tell them otherwise.
I can’t say it’s ever really been anywhere near like that for me, but I am conscious of those seasons when life, including my faith, does feel a little more wilderness-like. Things just feel that little bit dry, barren, difficult.
And I guess that for me, part of that anxiety is that on a pretty much weekly basis, I’m trying to write something that will help others connect with God, to encourage, challenge, inspire people even. If I’m not feeling that myself, how can I communicate anything to others?
And if you’re an over-thinker like me, you can find yourself asking what if I’m stuck here? What if the sense of inspiration never comes back?
What encouraged me first was when I started to pick up a certain amount of regularity to it. You couldn’t quite set your watch by it, but close enough that I can ask myself when did I last feel this way and, assuming it’s been a certain length of time, I can be pretty sure that, in the absence of anything else I can point to, this is just a dry, flat, barren spell I’m going through. And if, instead of trying to fight it, I work with it, if I trust, and if I allow it to do what it has to do, it’ll be alright. Things will turn around again.
What do I mean by working with it, not fighting it? In part it’s about being a little bit kinder to myself. Recognising this is where I am at the moment and not beating myself up if it’s not coming so easily.
Also, I try to use the seasons when it is all flowing well and I have energy, to build up reserves that will sustain me in the more barren times.
But equally I’ve grown to trust God with it. In my relationship with God, an extremely large part of it is just turning up. I’m a great believer in the maxim pray as you can, not as you can’t. It might mean if, at times, I’m really struggling to pray as fluently as I’d like, for a season I use set prayers. I’ve also noticed that even when things are quite dry and barren, God can still be at work. In fact it’s amazing how often God seems to do his best stuff despite me, rather than because of me!
The awareness that has come from this is that I know that even when I am in a season of dryness, I’m not alone. That God is still there, he still does care for me, and that if I go through it with him, it will pass. How we worship in those seasons may look quite different, but God knows us and knows our hearts I believes he honours what we can bring, rather than fixating on what we can’t.
What comes into your mind when you heard the words Led by the Spirit?
Perhaps there are moments when I readily recognise this experience in my life. There have been times when someone has just randomly popped into my mind and I’ve felt a real urge to pray for them. And, often, though not every time, I’ve later discovered that at the point where they popped into my mind, they were struggling with something and really needed that prayer. Coincidence, quite possibly… I’m not sure how you could ever prove it, one way or the other.
Or the occasion, at my last church, when I was walking past the building on a day off. There was a guy standing looking at our noticeboard. To be honest, I was tempted to just keep walking. It was my day off, I was tired… but something made me stop and ask him if I could help. He told me he was looking for the Andrew Jackson, named on the board. Could I tell him where I’d find him. We got chatting and it led to the start of something really good for that church, which is still going today.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about the idea of being led when it turns out to be a great success. Perhaps even when things have worked out despite me, rather than because of me. I’ve no shortage of stories like that.
But what of those moments where it doesn’t work out? I can think of several in my life. And yes, there are some of them I can look back and think what made you ever think that was a good idea? But equally there are other times when I have acted in good faith, really sensed something was the right thing to do, and it’s taken me to some places I’d really rather not go. Am I simply to assume that I was mistaken? That somewhere along the way I stepped out of God’s plan for me? Yes, occasionally I may look back and see how I learned or grew through something, but is that not just God somehow, graciously making good come out of my mess?
Or is God’s leading a little more mysterious than we realise? In today’s passage we read of the Spirit sending Jesus out into the wilderness. The actually word used is Jesus being cast out into the wilderness. It’s the same word that’s used for what Jesus does with evil spirits elsewhere in Mark. It’s like Jesus is thrust into something not of his own choosing. It’s quite telling that in the rest of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is very intentional, active, in control. But in those opening sections, with his baptism and wilderness experience, the language is more passive. It’s like stuff just happens to him.
And there are times when life is just like that for us. When we find ourselves thrust into the midst of stuff we’d rather not face. And we can find ourselves wondering if it was something we did wrong, or if God has abandoned or forgotten us.
But then in my mind I’m taken to the famous, much loved Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. And the Lord is his shepherd, guiding him to green pastures, still waters and restoration. But he is also the shepherd in the dark valleys. His presence is still there.
And so as I look back and I think of lessons learned in the darker places, maybe it wasn’t just God making the best out of my mess ups. Maybe we were following just as closely as when it all flowed. That’s not to say I never search my heart, to check I haven’t been wandering from God. But I don’t obsess about it. Because whether I feel like I’m going under, because like Peter on the water, I’ve taken my eyes of Jesus, whether I am like a sheep being led through a dark valley by a shepherd who is very close by, or whether it just seems I am caught up in the midst of circumstances, security is to be found in reaching out, calling out to the one who never leaves me nor forsakes me, trusting that he is good, he is for me, and he has promised never to let me go.
For someone who wasn’t much good at biology at school, I have a bit of a fascination with facts about the human body. I came across one which caught my attention this week. I was aware that there are noises we cannot hear because they are outside a particular frequency range. So dogs can pick up sounds we can’t. There are sounds which younger people can hear that older people can’t. So I suppose that the same should be true of sight should not really have surprised me. But I’d never really thought about it.
Anyway, the thing I read said ‘the typical human eye can only see between 400 and 800 Thz. Our ears can only detect sounds between 20 Hz and 20 KHz. These ranges make up a fraction of the total sound and light frequency range. This means that there is a lot going on around us that we cannot see or hear.’
I found myself thinking of how the same is true of our relationship with God. In I Corinthians 13, in the great passage about love, Paul speaks about how we know in part, we see in part. We understand in part. In old fashioned language, which has passed down into quoted English, we see through a glass darkly. It’s an image of a mirror. In the classical world, mirrors weren’t like the clear glass we have today. They were made of polished metal, and they didn’t give you the clearest image. I might see enough to know it’s me, but not enough to see I’ve got a hair out of place! As we go through life, we don’t always see, hear, sense all that is really going on. Often it’s only in hindsight that we realise ‘ah, that’s what was going on.’
I thought about that as I approached the readings we have for this morning. In this season of Lent, we are looking at this theme of Wilderness, Worship in the Wilderness, from a number of different angles. It’s an appropriate theme for the Lent season, as we reflect on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Last week I introduced the thought that there were two sides to the way the Bible uses the image of wilderness. It’s a place of struggle, isolation, temptation, danger – it’s a tough place. And we might use that expression in modern life. We might talk about a famous person’s wilderness years, when they were out of the spotlight, when they had fallen from favour, the politician who was in the cabinet, only to find themselves on the back benches for a season.
But it’s also a place of encounter and transformation. Where people met with God and had encounters like they may never have had otherwise.
Last week we thought of the journey into wilderness as an inner journey, a secret journey. This morning I want to reflect on the idea of it being a Spirit-Led Journey.
And there are three things I want to draw out of this.
The first thing is that the wilderness is not often the road we would choose. It is an Unchosen Journey. There are seasons of life when we feel we are on top of the world. Where it just seems to flow, things come fairly easily. And we may well wish that we could stay in that place. But you don’t have to have been around that long before you realise that’s not really how life works. There will also be seasons when life is hard, when it’s a struggle, when you really feel you’re stumbling in the dust and can’t see a way forward.
Perhaps there are times when we can see how we wound up there. We made bad choices and are dealing with the consequences. That can feel tough enough.
But there are other times, more mysterious, perhaps more frustrating, when that is just what life throws us. There is no reason. No bad choices. No wrong turning. However much we might want it to, life very rarely takes us a direct route. And you find yourself in a place you never would have chosen.
Remarkably often those ‘stumbling in the dust’ moments can come remarkably close to seasons when we have been on top of the world. That was the situation on both the passages this morning. The Israelites had just been rescued from slavery in Egypt. But they seem to go so far then double back. To the Egyptians it looks like Moses and this people haven’t a clue. So they set off in pursuit.
Then they came to the Sea of Reeds, and they were trapped. In front of them water, behind them an advancing army, intent on recapturing them. They were convinced they were going to be wiped out, until Moses stretched out his staff, the waters rolled back, just long enough for the people to walk across on dry land, then closed back over them taking the pursuing Egyptians with them.
It was a huge victory and boy did they celebrate, with lots of singing, dancing, music. They were on top of the world. They felt invincible.
But it wasn’t to last. The next place they come to there is no fresh water. Pretty much instantly the celebrations turn to grumbling, against Moses and against God. What did you bring us out here for? But God provides them with water.
Then the next place they come to there is no food. Without a hint of delay they are back to grumbling. How is this better than Egypt. At least we weren’t hungry there!
Now there’s no sense that they found themselves in these places through disobedience or negligence. They were being led by a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire by night. There’s no reason to believe that they veered from following that. No divine satnav had been screaming at them to turn around where possible. But where they found themselves, where they had been taken, well, it was hard. It wasn’t what they’d have chosen.
Likewise with Jesus. Jesus has just been baptised by John in the River Jordan. As he comes out of the water, he sees the heaven opened, and hears a voice of affirmation and devotion, saying You’re my Son. I love you. I’m thrilled with you.
With those words ringing in his ears, we might have expected Jesus to come out really pumped up, preaching the most amazing sermons, healing anyone he comes into contact with. But that’s not what happens. Instead we read The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke soften it a little. They talk of Jesus being led there.
Mark isn’t so bothered about softening it. The word Mark uses for Jesus being sent out into the wilderness is the same word Mark uses when he speaks of Jesus casting out demons. There is no real sense of Jesus thinking I know what’s a really good idea. Let’s get away by myself and work out what all this means. No, the sense is that Jesus finds himself thrust out there. It’s a place of struggle, of trial, of sensing danger. It is no more the place that Jesus would have naturally chosen, any more than you or I would have. But it where the Spirit took him.
Life can be like that. We can find ourselves in places not of our making, not of our choosing. And might find ourselves wondering if something has gone wrong. Surely if God was with us, we wouldn’t have found ourselves here. Maybe we got ourselves lost. We might even have a sense that God is punishing us in some way. Or maybe we can feel, let down, forgotten and abandoned.
When maybe there is more going on than we can see, hear, sense. In the story of the Israelites, we read of how the route they were taken was not the most direct or obvious. But the more direct route would have taken them the way of the Philistines. They could have found themselves in a battle for which they weren’t ready and they could have given up. The wilderness where they found themselves might not have been what they would have chosen. But they weren’t to know what they had been spared.
Thing is we see in part, we know in part. We only see the effects of the paths we’ve taken. Not the paths we’ve been spared. I’ve mentioned before to you the film Sliding Doors. In it we get to see two very different life paths experienced by Gwyneth Paltrow’s character – one based on her making her train home and the other based on her missing it. In the film they often play out side by side.
In real life we don’t get that privilege. We only get to see the impact of the paths taken, whether we choose them or not. We can imagine how life might have been different had we taken this path instead of that, or if such and such hadn’t happened. But the truth is we have no way of really knowing how things might have transpired, nor what paths we have been spared thus far. Maybe it was necessary we came this way.
Occasionally Jools and I will find ourselves talking about these things. One off the top of my head I can think of was about 15 years ago, when I applied for a job in a particular reasonably well known company. I made a shortlist of the final two. So far as I was concerned the interview went fantastically well. The only way they could have been more positive and welcoming was to invite me to join them for a week in their family villa in Tuscany. But I didn’t get the job – and I was devastated. But we sometimes find ourselves speculating whether life would have been different had I got that job. Perhaps it would, but we don’t know. There’s a good chance we’d have been substantially wealthier, but would we have been happier? I’m not so sure. The road on which we find ourselves is not without its struggles. But we don’t know the roads we’ve been spared.
We humans are very good at finding meaning and purpose in our stories. How often can we find ourselves thinking if that hadn’t happened, then I’d never have discovered or experienced that. And perhaps the first thing we’re thinking of was not thrust upon us, it was not the journey we would have chosen. At the time we might have longed to be anywhere else. But in hindsight it was a necessary stage on our journey.
Oh I know it’s always possible that life is just what we make it. I have plenty of friends who tell me life has no real meaning and purpose, and it’s only our desire to create meaning and connections and make stories that gives us this sense that it does… but equally we can view it through faith and find that although the journey into wilderness was not the one we would have chosen, it would in time prove necessary, because the hardest, most unwanted journeys are pretty much always the most transformative. They can shape us for what lies ahead. For when wilderness comes our way, one thing is true – we do not emerge the same.
Which brings me to that final point. Although the journey might be unchosen, albeit necessary, it is an accompanied journey. The road God takes us down may not always be the easy one. We might question the wisdom of his leading us down this road, how could he lead us this way if he truly cares, we might feel forgotten and abandoned. But we are never left alone. Wilderness is not a sign of God’s absence.
Even in the wilderness God provided for Israel, providing water at Shur, manna and quail at Sin. True it felt dangerous, but they knew protection. Same with Jesus. Yes he was tempted, yes there were wild animals, suggesting danger. But he was also cared for.
You may look back on times in your life which you could describe as wilderness experiences and you’ve wondered how you’re ever going to get through this. And don’t minimize the struggle or the pain involved, but you’re still here.
Somewhere, you may not know how, you found the resources, were given the resources to keep going. It may have come in quite surprising ways. Maybe through a kind word, a shoulder to cry on, a chance encounter… anything. They can all be ways in which we’ve come to see we are not alone. They are ways in which whether we’ve recognised them as such or not, God had been with us. But we’ve only seen in part and known in part. For he hasn’t forgotten us. We may struggle to see, hear or sense it. But remember there is more going on all the time than we can see and hear.
I don’t know where you are right now. Some of us may well be on top of the world. If you are God bless you. I suspect for more of us it might feel quite wilderness-y right now. The space we are in may not be what we envisaged, or would have chosen. And it may be some time before we come to see how we were being shaped in the midst of it. But we are not left alone in the midst of it. We may not always recognise it, we may have to look hard, with eyes of faith to see it, but we are accompanied on the journey. We might struggle to see it, hear it, sense it. But all the time there is a lot going on around us, more than we realise.
Fairy Penguins are the smallest species of penguin with an average height of little over 1 foot. There is a colony of them by St Kilda Pier in Melbourne. In the picture we have two penguins, one with his flipper round the other. One is a younger male and is dark, the other, an older female penguin is much greyer. What makes the picture particularly poignant is that both the younger male and the older female had recently lost their mates. Since then they’ve met regularly on the rocks of the bay. Whilst the other penguins on the colony would run around, or sleep, these two spend hours together, enfolding one another in their flippers, staring out over the lights of the city across the bay. Their loss has brought them together.
Every tradition, faith, culture, will create rules, norms and customs around mourning. Some are more public than others, some are more expressive than others, but they’ll exist nonetheless. And they can play an important part in the grieving process. When loss comes, grieving is a healthy process. Bypassing it, shortcutting it, living in denial are unhealthy.
And when we are not able to fulfil those obligations, it causes great distress. One of the hardest aspects of the pandemic we’ve experienced over the past year, has been the inability to say goodbye to those we love in ways which feel appropriate, whether in the final days of a person’s life, in the funeral arrangements, or even in being able to hold the bereaved, to hug them and comfort them as we would want.
One of the rituals associated with times of mourning in the ancient Jewish world was the Keriah. The tearing of clothes. In Genesis we read of Jacob tearing his clothes, when he is informed (falsely) of his son Joseph’s death. In 2 Samuel, David does the same upon hearing the news of King Saul’s death.
In today’s reading, the prophet Joel uses this image in the context of worship at the temple. He’s inviting people into a season of repentance. To reflect on their lives and how they do not live up to what the claim to believe in their worship. To recognise that they are called to live in a particular way, they are not doing so, and to recognise the hurt and the damage they cause to God, to one another, to themselves.
We don’t tend to make much space for sorrow, mourning, lament in our worship. Our hymn books are much lighter on the darker side of faith, than say, the Psalms were in the Hebrew scriptures.
But perhaps the one time in which we might be able to make space for this is right at the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. In some Christian traditions, people will mark themselves in ashes with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday. Normally these ashes would be the result of the burning of palm crosses from the previous year.
On Ash Wednesday we were reminded of our frailty and vulnerability in a variety of different ways. We are reminded of our mortality, of the words in Genesis that we are dust and to dust we will return. But those words were also first used in the context of human frailty to sin. They occur in the story of the Fall. In both senses we are reminded that life is fragile. That, however self reliant we are, we are vulnerable, reliant on God. Even what might seem a quite trivial act, say, giving up chocolate for Lent, can be a reminder of this, as we discover how weak we can be, faced with the offer of a chunk of Galaxy Caramel, or Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
As we reflect on or frailties, and our need for forgiveness, we may be led towards sorrow either at a very low level, as we reflect on harmful, destructive patterns in our own life, or in the part our choices play in the perpetuation of might bigger, social evils in the world.
But we are invited to do so, knowing that we bring it to a God who understands in our weakness and frailty at both levels. For this God is the one who has taken on flesh in all its frailty in Christ. And we are invited to follow him into the wilderness, knowing that even there we are not alone and abandoned. He has gone into our wilderness ahead of us, has overcome it, and promises to sustain us in the midst of it. It is safe to rend our hearts before him, for he has promised to be close to the broken hearted, he will forgive and if we trust him, he is able to put us back together.
Once upon a time there was an overweight minister who decided he needed to do something about it. So one year, at Lent, he gave up cake.
At first, he was very diligent and stuck to his diet very strictly. He even worked out a new route to the church so that he wouldn’t drive by his favourite bakery on the way to the office.
However, one day, a few weeks in, he walked through the church doors with a massive coffee cake. Naturally, being Christian and gracious, the others who worked at the church started to relentlessly take the mickey out of him for not keeping his Lenten promises!
But he said ‘no, no, I can explain… You see, this morning I “accidentally” drove past my favourite bakery. I saw all these delicious coffee cakes out on the display case. So I prayed. I asked God, ‘if you really think I should have this delicious coffee cake, grant me an open parking space right in front of the bakery.’ And who am I to argue? On my 8th time round the block there was one!’
Temptation. It’s something that is common, yet unique to us all. It is common in that, in some way or another, we all face it. But unique in that it will not come to us all in the same guise.
I mean in Brighton there is a Duck Shop, which sells nothing but rubber ducks of all sorts. I doubt whether too many of you would have to practise serious self-restraint if you visited it.
Me, on the other hand…
Equally some of you will have to watch yourself around fruit cake or go easy if someone’s serving blue cheese after dinner. That won’t be a particularly big challenge for me. I’m not a fan.
Also, like a good murder mystery, real temptation requires means, motive and opportunity. There are temptations which some face that will simply never come our way, cos we are not in a position to face them. I’m unlikely to be tempted to avoid tax by hiding my millions in a secret little scheme in Lichtenstein. I’m not complaining about what I earn, but it’s not enough for someone to think it worth my while.
At the start of Lent we are invited to reflect on the idea of temptation. We remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness and the temptations he faced. We may choose to fast or give some something up for the season. And, as a result, we might face temptation, like the minister in my opening story to go back on that promise.
But not all temptations are the same. It’s hard to equate the temptation I might face to say nothing when someone gives me change for a £20 note rather than a £10 one, with what Jesus is facing here.
And it’s a fallacy to think that if we just become more spiritually mature we wouldn’t face temptation. As we see in this evening’s reading, Jesus himself faced it. And these are real temptations. Jesus isn’t playing at being human and being tempted. And if he can be tempted, we can pretty much count on us facing it.
And temptation can come even when what we want to achieve is genuinely good. In fact some temptations only arise when your intentions are good. There is something of that in the story of the temptations of Jesus. In his book Surprised by Jesus Tim Stafford suggests each of the temptations is designed to enable Jesus to succeed in the wrong way.
But there is something else about these 3 temptations I want to touch on briefly. At the root of so much, in fact, quite possibly all temptation, are desires which, of themselves are not necessarily bad. In the purest sense they are good longings planted within us by God.
The trouble is we can seek to satisfy them in the wrong way, or in the wrong places.
That’s a way in which these temptations can be brought closer to our experience. You see I’m not really in a position to turn stones into bread, nor is the temptation to throw myself off the top of Bryant Apartments expecting angels to catch me on the way down.
But underneath it all there are good desires which we may share. Take the first temptation. To turn stones to bread.
What good desire might be sought here? It’s about material security.
Of itself, it is no bad thing. In my life I’ve been financially stretched and I’ve been financially quite comfortable. I know which I prefer. Anyone who thinks there is anything romantic or inherently virtuous about poverty hasn’t experienced it.
But comfort can come with its difficulties. We can easily become entitled. It has the potential to make us quite arrogant. The more materially secure we are, the more of our problems we can easily solve. But we can some to rely on it as our way out of anything. If we just throw enough resources at it we can solve it.
Until we can’t.
We can develop that sense of ‘look what I’ve achieved.’ And we can lose sight of all that we have is gift. Wealth has been likened to drinking salt water. The more we drink, the thirstier we get. And if we’re not careful, what we have is never enough. If we just had this, if we just had that. It can get in the way of generosity.
Material security is no bad thing. But if it takes us down a path of self-reliance, or where we fail to recognise that all that we have is gift, it can be a dangerous basket into which to place all our eggs.
Jesus is then taken to the highest point of the temple. Satan urges him to throw himself off. Surely God would rescue him and everyone would be really impressed. This would get him noticed.
The second temptation is the lure of reputation. The desire to impress. To have our sense of value tied up in what others think of us.
It is natural, good healthy longing, to have dignity, worth and value. Because we were created with and for dignity, worth and value. It’s one of the most consistent messages of the Bible. That we are created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, completely and utterly and unconditionally loved. That is how we are viewed in God’s sight. That’s what gives us our true worth.
But if we live for the approval of others, if that is what we tie up our sense of worth and value in, we are destined for disappointment. We will never truly get enough. There will always be that voice telling us we’re not good enough. There will always be that temptation to compare ourselves (unfavourably) with others. That one critical voice will always be louder than all the voices of affirmation. It will always cut more deeply. And often that critical voice will be your own. And it becomes a never ending effort to maintain it.
Until you realise you don’t need to. That your dignity, worth and value are ultimately not tied up in what you’ve achieved, who you’ve become, how many look up to and respect you. Your true dignity, worth and value are bestowed on you by the God in whose image you were created. And nothing can take that away from you. The ore we grasp that, the more contented and at peace we become.
But Satan’s still not finished. In a moment all the Kingdoms of the earth flash before Jesus. You can have them if you just worship me.
The third temptation, to have the whole world at our feet, it’s the illusion of control. That we can bend all things to our will.
This is one which is playing out on our news right now. It’s one of the driving forces behind the great big push to get things back to normal, to give us a date by which everything is going to be ok.
I was listening to one of our MPs on the radio a few days ago. He was saying just that. Then he was challenged by how he had been saying something similar last November. He replied ‘well, no-one could predict the variant on the virus,’ to which the reporter said ‘exactly. That’s why what you’re asking for isn’t reasonable.’
We don’t have the level of control we think we have. So many of our problems are about not recognising the distinction between those things which are under our control and those things which aren’t and were never supposed to be. How many relationships are dysfunctional and damaged because one party or another is trying to exert influence they have no right to have.
Throughout the scriptures that was the way of Rome, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt… The way you got the nations of the world was to make them bend to your will. To coerce them into submission. That was what Jesus was being offered.
And it’s the road down which so many of gone, from the international stage, right down to the smaller scale interactions which are more our arena.
But it’s not the way of God. Who seeks to draw us with love. That’s costly. It can be painful. It can be rejected. But it’s the way God, in Christ, transforms lives. It’s the way by which he redeems the world and makes all things new. It’s why we eat bread and drink wine together. It reminds us of how God exercises his rule.
We do have these same basic desires. For material security, for a sense of self-worth, for a sense of control. They are not bad of themselves. The danger is when we seek to satisfy them in the wrong places.
To seek our security in the work of our own hands, rather than resting in the provision of God. Not so we become lazy, and expect everything to land on a plate for us. But to recognise that all that we have is a gift.
And it is not earned. Our value is not tied up in what we’ve achieved, how far we’ve gone, how many people look up to us. It’s rooted in the fact that we are loved, completely and unconditionally, simply because.
And our true control is that we are held in that love from which nothing can separate us. When the illusion of control proves to be just that – an illusion – we recognise that even in a world where so much is out of our control, we can put our trust in the one who holds all things, who has faced all this world has to throw at us, and overcome it.
It’s not uncommon, when a famous, or even semi-famous person dies, that we discover things we never knew about them. Sadly, they are not always good things. Even more sadly, that’s even true in Christian circles. In the past year the sexual impropriety of two recently deceased, very high profile and much trusted Christian figures has been revealed.
However, a few years ago, something quite different happened, following the death of pop star George Michael. Whilst alive, although he was someone who sought to keep his private life private, he found himself in the headlines for not particularly good reasons. But following his tragic passing on Christmas Day 2016, we discovered a very different side.
When he was at home in London, he would help in the kitchens at his local homeless night shelter.
Once, when a contestant on the TV show Deal or No Deal had revealed she needed £15,000 for IVF treatment, Michael had phoned the TV show’s production team and anonymously donated the cash.
In his local community there were reports that they were going to have to significantly cut back on Christmas lights, because the funding for the impressive displays they had grown accustomed to was very heavily boosted by one particular donor (guess who?) but virtually no-one knew.
It’s not that it’s uncommon for famous people to be so generous, I suspect it’s even more common than we realise for them to keep very quiet about it, but it’s also quote common, particularly when a cause is quite popular and high profile to want to be seen giving or getting involved.
But let’s be honest, that’s not restricted to the rich and famous. Social media is awash with people talking up their most positive endeavours, or being seen to be supportive of the ‘right’ things. If you’ve done your good deed for the day, it can be very easy to just let it slip into the conversation, even if just so we can pray for the person we’ve helped!
It’s not always helpful, or even particularly desirable to be completely secretive of ‘good deeds.’ If you want to commit yourself to something, it might make sense to let at least some others know, some trusted friends, if only so they can keep you accountable. It can be very easy to backslide on a commitment you make, if it’s only made to yourself.
I’ve done a number of sponsored things over the years. I need people to know, else they’d not make any money.
Situations which may involve safeguarding will often legally require others’ knowledge and/or involvement.
So, it’s not always quite so straightforward to not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. And of course, Jesus is exaggerating for effect. What Jesus is really encouraging us to do is to check our motives, to search our hearts and truly know why we are doing the things we do.
We probably don’t blast trumpets when we give to a charity, or put on a really long face, so that everyone knows how hard it is to fast, or given something up. But it’s not a million miles from the Pharisees’ face disfiguring to a Christian posting along the lines of Woe is me. I hope God forgives me. I got distracted in my 4th hour of prayer today on Facebook, or making a big song and dance about how busy and needed you are amongst friends, or in a prayer group, in the (even self-conscious) hope that others will think more of you.
Something that has stuck with me for many years was a passing comment by a very wise minister colleague. It’s a while ago, so I’m probably not word for word, but you’ll get the gist. He said ‘everyone today is worried about their reputation. We should be more concerned about our character. If we watch our character, the reputation will take care of itself.’
That’s a helpful message for the start of this Lent season, when we are being invited to look inwards. The story to which we are directed at the start of Lent is Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. Because it’s about who we are when no-one’s watching. The only reason we can possibly know of this story is if Jesus told it to at least some disciples. He was the only one there. This is about who Jesus was when no-one was watching. Our Sunday services and my reflections over the next few weeks, will be based around material from a resource called Worship in the Wilderness.
We Baptists maybe don’t go in much for Lent, apart from maybe a study group with the other churches. Maybe we should a little more. Not so much in the chocolate, the wine, or come other ‘vice’ category. But more the inward journey. To search our hearts, to explore our motives, to acknowledge those areas of our lives where we need a little more of God’s light to shine. Not so we can feel good about ourselves when it’s all over. But to enable us to draw near to God.
There will be a few ways to do that over the Lent period, as we prepare to celebrate Resurrection. I invite you to take one up. You may choose to share the journey with a trusted other (or two) if it helps you to keep each other on track. But it’s primarily about the inner work. About who you are, who you’re becoming, who God is shaping you to be. I pray that you may discover something of that over this Lent season. And that you may be drawn deeper into relationship with God as you do so.
Last weekend, at the England v Scotland rugby match, there was an incident before kick off which drew a lot of comment. After the national anthems, they had a round of applause for Captain Tom Moore, victims of Covid, thanks for our emergency services. Then there was a moment of silence, marking the fact that racism has no place in sport (or indeed anywhere). During that time some players ‘took the knee’, an act which started out as a protest against unjust treatment of black Americans, but over the last year or so has become a globalised symbol of the fight against racism. What drew comment was that some of the players did it, whilst others stood.
I noticed on social media and in some parts of the press that there was criticism being aimed either at the authorities, for not encouraging it, or in some cases, at the players themselves, for not taking part. Surely, it was claimed, it was such a simple gesture. It looked bad that so many were not doing it. None of the players who were not ‘taking the knee’ would have honestly claimed to support racism. Why not just do it?
Now before I go further, I think, had I been in that position, I probably would have ‘taken the knee.’ What I’m less comfortable about, is condemning others who choose not to. In particular, I don’t think I am in the best position to lecture black rugby players on how they should demonstrate their opposition to racism. But my main problem was that it could be very easy to ‘take a knee’ before kick off, when the cameras are on you, then racially abuse a player in the first ruck! Just as it is possible to stand on a doorstep applauding NHS staff, but then behave in ways which keep neither yourself or others safe from Covid!
I guess what I’m saying is that things like taking the knee, or doorstep applauses have their place. I would argue they are good things. But there is a danger that they can become ways in which we declare our ‘righteousness’, whilst looking around at who is not doing it and judging them. More important is the state of our hearts, and how we behave, when no-one else is watching.
This week, on Wednesday, sees the start of Lent. It’s a 40 day period in the build up to Easter. It’s a time for searching our hearts, reflecting on where we are in our relationship with God. Perhaps considering those areas of our lives which we need to be allowed to be brought into the light of Christ, to know his grace, forgiveness, the chance to make a fresh start. Those parts of us which are dead and into which we need Jesus to bring resurrection life.
Lent is a period associated with ‘wilderness.’ We remember the children of Israel journeying 40 years in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. We remember Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, between his baptism and launching his ministry in Galilee.
It’s a time of testing, of wrestling with temptation, of looking inward and of Jesus truly coming to terms with who he is and what he is called to do. We are invited to follow Jesus into that space. To reflect on who we are, those areas of life where we are struggling, to name and confront our own ‘demons’ as it were.
Perhaps that’s a space in which we feel we’ve been living for far too long. I remember last year talking about how it was appropriate that we were going into lockdown in Lent, with those themes of wilderness, distance, and isolation. When I said that, I’m not sure I’d reckoned on us still being there a year on.
But the image of wilderness in the Bible has another side. It was also a place of provision, transformation, where people encountered the divine. It’s in the wilderness that Hagar encounters God and becomes the first person in the Bible to name God – El Roi – the God who sees me. In that place where she thinks she’s alone, abandoned and forgotten, she realises God is with her. Jacob, Job, David and Elijah all meet God in the wilderness. We might think it rather odd, given what we read of Israel’s wilderness wanderings in the early part of the Hebrew scriptures, but in a number of places in the rest of those scriptures this period was recalled with a certain amount of nostalgia, when they were formed as a nation, when they were closest to God! It seems people have always found ways of romanticising the past!
So yes, wilderness is a place of danger, temptation and chaos, but it is also a place of nourishment, solitude and encounter with God. It’s a place where new beginnings can emerge, new life can develop. That’s why the image I’ve chosen to go with this series is that flower in the desert landscape. Even in the midst of a seemingly dry, barren landscape, new life is possible.
That’s why, although in our non-conformist traditions Lent is not something with which we have tended to engage, it can be helpful and important. We can want the happy side of faith, without the self-examination. We want to celebrate resurrection without ever fully really appreciating why we need it.
A fully rounded, mature faith, rooted in Jesus needs to embrace both shadow and light. Death and resurrection. Wilderness and Promised Land. Not just so we can spend a few weeks feeling miserable. But so we fully appreciate the joy. To do that we have to acknowledge the contrasts. Wilderness is a space where we encounter God, perhaps in more meaningful and sustaining ways than we do in the highs of the mountain tops. It’s a place where the distractions of life are stripped away and where we discover who we truly are.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to follow a series called Worship in the Wilderness. It’s from the same people who prepared the material we used at Advent. We are going to look at several aspects of the journey into wilderness. Today we are reflecting on the secret journey.
The story of Jesus in the wilderness is one of the most sacred stories we have in the Gospels. For really the only source of the story must have been Jesus himself. No-one else was there to witness it. It’s about who Jesus is when no-one is watching, when if he just bent the rules, no-one would know.
For that’s where we discover who we truly are. When the cameras are off and no-one is watching. We may have learnt a bit more about ourselves in the last year or so, as we have spent more time social distancing, perhaps alone, perhaps with those closest to us, who generally get to see more sides to us than anyone else. Who we are when we’re alone can be very different to the face we present to the world. And who we are at home can be very revealing. If you really want to get to know someone, go live with them for a while.
Let’s be honest, those we are closest to often see the worst of us. If we continually act like a jerk at work, they’ll sack us. If we act like a jerk in social settings, people will stop calling, or won’t bother with us. Family? We’re kind of stuck with them!
There is something about the secret journey, it reveals who we truly are, as opposed to the face we present to the world. It’s in both our passages this morning. Joel is believed to have been a prophet who was involved in the life of the temple. But in his role is seems he noticed a disconnect between the people’s worship and the rest of life. They weren’t living out what they claimed to believe.
In chapter 1 there is a plague of locusts which devours the harvest. Now Joel never says this was caused by God or was a punishment from God. But he does use it as a warning picture of the destruction that could befall them if they don’t change their ways. Joel is calling people to repentance, to see how their lives don’t match what they claim to believe when they go to the temple. To recognise what a mess they are making of things and turn around and do things differently.
In some ways it is a Lent-like period of self-reflection and examination to which he is calling them. But he is aware of our capacity to put on a show. To want to be seen to do the right thing. One of the rituals associated with mourning in their culture was tearing clothing. For example, in the story of Joseph, the technicolour dreamcoat one, not the father of Jesus, when Joseph’s brothers tell Jacob that an animal must have attacked and killed Joseph, Jacob rips his clothes.
There are times when a period of self-examination and reflection can be painful and sorrow and lament can be appropriate expressions of worship. But just as it can be possible to take a knee in a stadium when the cameras are on you, or clap loudly when all the neighbours can see who is out for the NHS, in worship we can go through the motions, do all the right things when everyone can see us, and it not really have any impact on how we live. There can be a disconnect between what we say we believe and stand for and how we actually live. It can be possible for me to get angry about climate change, without really wanting to consider my consumption. It can be easy to be angry and sorrowful about inequality and poverty around the world, without considering the impact of my choices.
And so Joel says ‘rend your hearts, not your garments.’ He is saying don’t settle for the outward show. And don’t just lament the state of society, one step removed, as if you are not part of it. Consider your heart, your life. Allow that to be transformed.
Likewise Jesus knows our capacity to want to be seen to be doing the right thing. Prayer, fasting, charitable giving, they were all important parts of the spiritual life. And they were all good things. Jesus assumes that those who follow him would do such things. These things are not bad of themselves. In fact they are good, Godly things. But to use a horrible, overused, modern term they can become religious ‘virtue signals.’ If you want to get noticed, it’s quite easy. Jesus says if that’s what you truly want, well done. You got it.’
Even the talk of reward can make things slightly concerning. There can be a sense of well, God, I’ve prayed, fasted, given lots of money away, so God you owe me big time. That’s not what Jesus is talking about here.
There is something far more natural, organic even about what Jesus is saying here. Being drawn deeper into relationship with God, discovering more of the life he called you to live, that in itself is the true reward.
And in a sense we know it to be true. Generous people are happier people. People who can fast, who aren’t slaves to their cravings and addictions, they are more contented people. Those who have learned to lean into their relationship with God, who realise the whole world does not revolve around them, that God has a Messiah and it’s not them, they are more fulfilled people. No matter how good or virtuous the deed, if you’re doing it to keep God in your debt, or to keep God happy, or just cos he’s told you to, and to get him off your back, you will be frustrated. Your faith will never bring you real joy. It will never be enough.
But those who are prepared to examine their hearts, to face their own frailties, who learn to pursue the right thing, regardless of who is watching, or what they have to gain out of it, who allow their repentance to reach the heart, they are the ones who encounter God, who are drawn closer to Christ. And that, of itself, is the true reward.
That’s why we are invited to enter this Lent, to approach this season of self-examination, to follow Jesus into the wilderness. It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes courage. It is a path easier avoided. Each of us has stuff we’d probably rather not face. Demons we’d rather not confront.
But when we go there, we find God waiting to encounter us. And to encounter us not with condemnation, for where we have fallen short, but with love and compassion. We discover a God who knows we are dust, who knows we are fleeting. But who loves us with an inexhaustible, patient, kind, enduring, unfailing love. Who created us for relationship and delights in drawing us deeper into relationship with himself. We can develop a relationship which can not only survive the wilderness, but nurture newness of life even in the midst of it. Because it is not reliant on the externals, is not looking for the approval of others, is not striving to be noticed for doing it right, but it’s emerging as a natural expression of who we are, who we’re becoming in Christ.