Lent 1 - with Jesus in the desert

A sermon preached at St George's Campden Hill by the Revd Georgiana Heskins, 17 February 2013

In the name of God who creates redeems and sustains us

It’s some years ago now that I had the fun and the privilege of walking for a couple of weeks in the Sinai desert.  It was exceedingly cold for sleeping under the stars and exceedingly hot during the day – it was April.  What had once been water courses had not seen rain in years.  The skies were enormous, the rocks were streaked with extraordinary colours, and when we came across a tree it was a major landmark, a rare and exciting sight.   It stood out against the sky like a burning bush.  The barren ground made us notice things we would not otherwise have seen. 

We were a group of 12 and we walked together, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conversation.  Our pace was as slow as the slowest – and we were accompanied by a couple of camels, who carried most of our stuff, and they needed a long break in the middle of the day.  So we all stopped in a shady place, ate, talked, slept – each day one aspect of the biblical desert tradition became the focus of our prayers and one person prepared a little reflection; one day on the people of Israel’s being provided for by God; one day on the desert highway by which they returned to Jerusalem from exile; one day (and on this day our guide found us running water) we reflected on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well; another day on the wise ones coming from the East to the infant Jesus; Elijah and the ravens; John the Baptist preaching repentance.  Sometimes we celebrated the Eucharist.  

Occasional low-flying military aircraft reminded us that that in the 21st century the Sinai remains disputed territory; the dried up river beds were wake-up calls to global warming.  And another sunset and another sunrise took us back to a timeless wilderness – where a snake or a goat was enough to surprise or unnerve us.   

The Sinai provided the backdrop of course for all that was going on in our lives at the time: one romance kindled into passion; one wedding was planned; one big grief began to be healed; our oldest pilgrim faced for the first time the diminishment of her physical powers and learnt a new kind of wisdom…we wept and we laughed.  You might not immediately have noticed the changes in us, but they were many.   And we ALL came home, I think, with a new clarity; we were wiser, dare I say it, for a new encounter with the divine in each other – especially perhaps in the great grief which our sister was carrying in bereavement; but also in the landscape and in our own secret places. 
Each of us was drawn a little deeper into God’s BIG PROJECT for the universe; we’d even been quite creative – some wrote, some painted, some produced amazing photographs or collected mementoes.  We had all been changed by the Sinai.

And that, I think, is what happened to Jesus in the Judaean wilderness.  We are told that he was alone, driven by the Spirit.  The landscape will have carried many of the same resonances, particularly the desert as the place of Israel’s encounter with God, testing by the Spirit – or is it the devil, personified evil, the evil we prefer to put out there onto other people, strangers, things we don’t understand; but in the desert that’s just not possible.  There are no distractions; we’re thrown back on ourselves and our response to God.   We’d accepted an invitation to step back a bit and see our lives in the world more honestly perhaps.

In Luke’s story Jesus the man of the Spirit is doing battle with his own demons, the temptation to deny his newly- discovered identity as the Son of God, becoming the collaborator in God’s big project for the universe.   

This is a collaboration to which we are all called – especially in Lent.  God keeps calling to us.  And on each of our dyings and our griefs, he sheds the warm light of healing. 

In words sometimes ascribed to Nelson Mandela: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.’
I wonder if that is what Jesus heard in the silence of the desert?

It seems to me that, almost certainly, that is part of what he was taken to the wilderness to discover.  This story, which recapitulates Israel’s history of struggle with God, shows us Jesus the mystic, in silent communion with his father, taking on the mantle of his calling.   Just two things – from our experience - which helped this process: the silence of course and the unhurried pace through a stark landscape, with little distraction.   ‘You are a child of God.  Your playing small/safe does not serve the world.’

Our trip to the Sinai included reminders of the desert monks who used to seek out silence there.  Silence is always about God’s initiative.  Remember what happens afterwards?  Jesus goes straight back to Galilee and preaches in the synagogue:

‘The Spirit of God is upon me.  He has anointed me to bind up the broken hearted, to let the oppressed go free.’    He goes straight from a time of communion and contemplation in the desert to a free, loving response to his call, into provocative action.  

The text for that sermon is from Isaiah, but Luke is deeply imbued with Deuteronomy (from which our first reading came): the focus for action there is always on orphans, widows and resident aliens.  In Luke the ‘binding up of the broken hearted’ and the ‘letting the oppressed go free’ leads to the attempt on Jesus’ life by people with whom he was brought up, his own familiar friends - and to a life of conflict and activity which takes him relentlessly in the direction of Jerusalem and conflict with the religious authorities.  

Contemplation will always be the seedbed from which we too are summoned to risky service. 

So our God, the father of Jesus, waits in the silence for our free response.  He gives us our role in the Great Project – and he waits for us, in patience and hope.

We cannot abandon the project by falling into despair – or, if we do, we are denying the God who is waiting for our involvement and response.  We are to welcome God’s new creation with every Eucharist….with tears for our world and for ourselves, with prayer for the apparently hopeless and depraved, in patience – and in the joy of the spirit.  In the words of the hymn: ‘he sent me to give the good news to the poor, tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more, tell blind people that they can see and set the downtrodden free – and go, tell everyone the news that the kingdom of God has come.’  

Today the church encourages us to embrace a bit more silence and create a bit more space, to be a bit more PRESENT in everything we do over the next six weeks, maybe DO a bit less – or at least embrace what space we can find, rather than running away from it.   We can cultivate presence: a little mindfulness in the way we walk down the street, listen to our families, read the newspaper or watch the news.  All these things will help our attentiveness.   Discipleship begins with God’s activity – NOT ours. 

Love is bidding us welcome - and we have the chance to respond, as we do this morning, in this Eucharist, bringing our troubled world, our personal agonies, our doubts and fears – all of it to be transformed and used in the Great Project in which, by are baptism, we are enlisted.   The Eucharist calls us away from our frenetic activism – and reveals God who becomes flesh among us; God’s project is for this world – not for some other.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.  You are a child of the God who only waits for your response: 

I’ll give the poet George Herbert the last word: 

‘Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.’
‘Welcome dear feast of Lent’
Holland Park Benefice