Preached by the Minister on 6th March 2016:
Into the wilderness…………….
I wonder what ‘wilderness’ means to you? I think of the manse garden, but that’s not really what I want to talk about!
The wilderness is a place of self-emptying. Jesus emptied himself literally, fasting. And following the physical self-emptying came a time of temptation – to take short cuts to power and celebrity. The self emptying made him able to resist temptation, not because it made him strong, but because it made him totally reliant on God, and on the power of God.
Those who first heard the story of Jesus in the wilderness would have connected it to the story our Old Testament reading refers to; how, after the Hebrews escaped from slavery in Egypt they became wandering migrants in the wilderness from which God brought them up into a land of milk and honey. We have no details of the wandering in the wilderness in this passage, but they are well known – the people ate manna provided by God, they received the law from God, they were tested and most of the time they failed. It was a time of preparation, like Jesus time in the wilderness, a time of empty-handedness contrasted with the time after settling, when the people brought in the hands baskets of produce to offer back to God.
In his book about forgiveness, Healing Agony, Stephen Cherry, a Christian teacher, talks of the wilderness of hurt through which everyone who has been hurt but has a forgiving heart must pass. It’s a hard place – the place which makes us doubt whether goodness really is stronger than evil, love stronger than hate, light stronger than darkness, and whether life is actually victorious over death. It’s a place where only those with a forgiving heart will be sustained by the faith that this is not the whole story and enabled to say no to the temptation to become a bitter, passive victim to a hate-filled avenger. There’s an emptying-out of our own strength before the person discovers empathy and sometimes a road to being able to say ‘I forgive’.
In Marian’s story the wilderness experience comes after she has been through the moving experience of wrapping her murdered sister’s bone, AFTER she has made a vow to forgive when she is overcome with the most appalling anger that takes he rover, body as well as soul. For me, she says, forgiveness began with murderous rage.
And ourselves? After all this, where do we, where have we experienced the wilderness?
Sometimes the wilderness is forced on us by loneliness, by illness or pain or loss, by injustice, by being genuinely victimised. When we are driven out into the wilderness by things not of our choosing we need that same faith in the goodness and grace of God in order to find, in God’s time, God’s love and goodness and light and life coming to meet us out of the very wilderness in which we find ourselves. How has that happened for you in your life, past o present?
We can also prepare for the hard things of life by entering the wilderness willingly, emptying ourselves on purpose. We do that by prayer and fasting, by searching our conscience and making amends for ways we’ve hurt people. Are you doing that this Lent? In the wilderness we simplify, simplify, simplify, in order to be still enough and silent enough for God to be able to draw close and change us.