Sunday, 22 February 2015

Lent 1: God in the wilderness

 We had the immense joy at this morning's service of hosting the baptism of Florence McCall- Edwards, who was baptised by her grandmother, Revd. Adie McCall. Adie often worships with us when she isn't helping out at other churches, and has led services when I have been away as well. It was a very joyful occasion and we were delighted to be able to be part of this important moment for Florence and her family.
This is the sermon I preached for the occasion.

Genesis 9.8-17, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Traditionally Lent is a time when Christians recall the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He went there to prepare himself for his ministry, to be clear about what it was his Father was calling him to do. In the reading we’ve just heard Mark gives us the briefest account possible of that time. He doesn’t even tell us what Jesus was tempted to do. Other Gospel writers fill it out a bit. He is tempted to turn stones into bread, to meet his own needs. He is tempted to throw himself off the top of the temple and expect God to catch him, to do spectacular things to draw attention to himself, even if they don’t benefit anyone else. He is tempted to bow down to Satan – to fall in with the powers of the age – in order to get political, worldly influence. But Mark just tells us that he was tempted, and that means that perhaps we can fill in the gaps for ourselves, and wonder what we would be tempted by in his situation. Whatever our answer, we can be certain that we wouldn’t have found this experience a walk in the park either.

 We sometimes think of desert places as beautiful, as places to get away from it all. We imagine Jesus going there to find peace and space to think, but for the people of the time deserts were seen as battlegrounds, dangerous places. And of course they were right. We might romanticise the desert, but that’s because we’ve mostly lost touch with what it is like to be on our own, without the back up of a mobile phone and well-equipped emergency services

To add to the physical dangers, at the time of Jesus deserts were seen as spiritually dangerous too, the haunt of demons and other evil spirits. Far from being a place to retreat to, they were the frontline in a spiritual battle. And again, the people of Jesus time were right to think this. If you are out on your own in the desert, with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company, nothing to distract you from whatever inner baggage you have taken with you, you are going to have a tough time. You don’t have to have a literal belief in demons to know this. Most of us can’t manage a half-hour train journey into London without having some electronic device to plug ourselves into , or at least a newspaper to read. Banks and post offices and takeaways have tv screens playing adverts or news while we wait in case we should get bored for a millisecond.

But out in the desert, with nothing but the clothes on your back, your own thoughts are all you would have. And  in the middle of the night, with the wind and the wild beasts howling around you, it’s easy to see how you would feel overwhelmed, plagued by the fears and regrets that are normally buried in busyness. Out in the desert you soon find out who you really are, and what you are really made of.

This dry, dusty Judean desert isn’t the only wilderness in today’s readings though. The Old Testament reading talked about a very different sort of wild place. It came from the very end of the story of Noah. It’s a story that we often think is familiar. We remember the procession of cuddly animals, going two by two into the ark, and beautiful rainbows – but actually that childhood version doesn’t really do justice to the gritty reality of this story.

It’s a story about a disaster so great that it wipes out almost all living things. Variations on this flood myth crop up all around the Mediterranean in many different cultures and religions. Either there was a widely shared folk memory of some ancient cataclysmic flood, or a story told in one culture had travelled around, as good folk tales do, being adapted and changed subtly by each society it came to. Random disasters were a part of life anyway – floods, droughts , plagues. No one knew why they happened, so you’d expect people to try to find reasons for them, and the natural thing was to blame whatever deity you believed in. To us, this seems strange. “What kind of God is this?”, we ask. It’s a problem for us, but ancient cultures just assumed it was the way gods behaved, so they wouldn’t have been surprised at all. What would have surprised them, and what is genuinely different about the Biblical story, is that as the story unfolds we find that the God it speaks of genuinely cares about humanity and is committed to his creation for its own sake, not for his. That’s not true of other versions of this myth, where humanity either survives by their own cunning or because the gods have some sort of ulterior motive in keeping them alive.  The God of the Bible saves Noah and his family because he just can’t bear not to, and although Noah feels alone as the Ark floats on the wilderness of these waters , the story makes it clear that God hasn’t forgotten him or abandoned him. It is not the devastation which is the point of the story – that would have been taken for granted as a natural part of life - it is the fact that Noah and his family and the animals are saved, and they are saved because God loves them. The story ends with a promise that whatever disaster comes, God’s love can’t be drowned.

So, there are two wildernesses in our readings today, two places where people have to sit through times of terror and doubt. Noah doesn’t know if he will ever see land again as he waits through the 150 days of the flood. He doesn’t know whether the Ark is simply going to be a floating coffin. Jesus must have wondered whether he would survive the heat and hunger of the desert, and the jaws of the wild beasts. And in a way this story is a foretaste of his death on the cross – so perhaps we’ve really heard about three wildernesses this morning. When Jesus is crucified he’ll once again find himself in pain, afraid, with no guarantees about what is going to happen next.

But in all these wildernesses, there turns out to be hope. Noah and Jesus feel alone, but God is, in fact, present. Noah hasn’t been forgotten, and the rainbow tells him that he never will be. Angels come to wait on Jesus, signs of God’s care, and at the end of that third wilderness, the wilderness of the cross, there will be the new life of resurrection.

When things are difficult in our lives it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we see at that moment is the whole story, the eternal truth, something that will last forever. It is hard to hang onto hope that things can change. We can’t see into the future. We don’t have hindsight when we need it. What we can cling to, though, is the promise that is embedded in these stories that feeling alone isn’t the same as being alone. When we are anxious or depressed we often feel isolated – sometimes when we don’t need to be. We cut ourselves off from others, because we don’t want to burden them, or we think they can’t cope, but that just makes everything worse.  It may be that all we need to do is reach out a hand or pick up a telephone to find help, but that can feel so hard to do. But even when human help seems to be unreachable, Christian faith proclaims that the love of God is always there; nothing can destroy it. It can’t be withered by the heat of the desert. It can’t be drowned by the waters of the flood. It can’t be killed by the cruelty of the cross.

That’s a message that is especially important to hear today, because it is one of the most basic messages of baptism; that God is with us, come what may.  
The waters of baptism are meant to remind us of life in all its fullness, not just the good, easy aspects – the water that cleans and revives – but also the times when we feel out of our depth, all at sea, like Noah floating on the endless ocean. The prayer we use to bless the water speaks of Jesus coming through the “deep waters of death” to the new life of Easter Day. I am quite sure that Adie isn’t going to let Florence drown in the font, but the symbolism of this act reminds us – and hopefully Florence one day – that though we may sometimes feel as if we are in the desert, God hasn’t deserted us and never will.

We can’t wave a magic wand to make everything in Florence’s life go smoothly, however much we would wish to. The gift we claim for her in baptism,though, is far more precious than a magic wand. It is the assurance that God is with her always, known through his Spirit, known in the stillness of prayer, and known in his Church - through all of us, who will in a moment commit ourselves to supporting her.

Whatever deserts she may find herself in, we pray that she will have that knowledge secure in her heart to sustain and keep her.


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