The Wilderness

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11

I wonder if you have ever thought: “if only I could get out of here. If only I could escape. If only I could leave all this behind and find that imagined place of peace.” I think all of us at a time need escape routes. I wonder where yours is?  The theme of fleeing- leaving the world behind and going into the wilderness occurs many times both in the Bible and in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers. The saving event for the Jews was, of course, the escape from Egypt. But crossing the Red Sea was not the end of the story but the beginning of a new one of testing struggle and temptation for 40 years. Jesus after his baptism goes into the desert for 40 days and nights and also is tested. St Antony of Egypt and the desert fathers and believed that if they fled the city they would be saved.  Yet in the life of St Antony written by St Athanasius we read how Antony like Christ himself struggles with the devil. Athanasius writes: “The devil, who hates and envies what is good, first of all, tried to lead him away from his discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body… In a word he raised in his mind a great dust of debate, wishing to debar him from his settled purpose.” Sound familiar?

I wonder how often in our prayer life we have been beset by a similar ‘great dust of debate’-worries, fears and distractions. We may not call it the devil but how often are we too worn down by self-doubt and despair that anything good will come from this path.  I was on the phone yesterday to a friend I have known for 40 years she was telling me how her brother had been very sick in hospital and she had been visiting him each day to look after him and then she said: “But I am so crap at caring for people.” This from a woman who cared for both her parents until they died and every neighbour too.  So I said to her “Don’t you recognise that tune.” “What do you mean?” she said. “That tune that keeps telling you, you’re no good and useless. You’ve been playing that tune over and over again ever since I first met you over 40 years ago. It wasn’t true then and it’s certainly not true now. You are truly one of the most wonderfully caring people I have ever known in my life. Perhaps you should turn off that tune! ‘If only” she said and laughed. We may not use the word devil these days but Martin Laird writes that we all have this inner tunes or what he calls our “inner videos” which we play and divide us against ourselves and deplete our spirit- I wonder what yours are- inner videos of anxiety, hurt, rejection, shame, loss, not being good enough, not coping, falling in love, betrayal, pride, fear… Sometimes we even mistake this video for the condemnation of God. We need to recognise however that what is of God will draw us back to God- but our negative spirit drives us away from God depleting us.

As any of us enter more deeply into the life of prayer like any true relationship or covenant we begin to discover that we bring all of ourselves- not just the initial idealised love on its best behaviour, but everything the bits of ourselves that we hide and we fear and which can fill us with regret or unhappiness. It’s a bit like a marriage- after the initial infatuation, we have to live love with all its moods struggles and irritations which may be as seemingly trivial as have you put the cap on the toothpaste and cleaned the basin after using it. T

The desert mirrored in these forty days of Lent can become the place of learning and formation- and this involves: recognising, allowing, illuminating and nurturing. In prayer I find the  acronym RAIN helpful:
R- recognising all that we are carrying within us.

A-allowing ourselves to see ourselves as we are without condemnation.

I-illuminating all that we have recognised and allowed in the presence of Christ.

N-Nurturing all that is life-giving.

This I have found is a very helpful structure to contemplative prayer especially in times of struggle.  It is when we face ourselves with truthfulness that we in the words of Thomas Merton “are called to heal in ourselves the sins of the world.” We need to discover an inner truthfulness. Recognising the good- and acknowledging that we too have feet of clay and that we stand in need of God’s redemptive love. The alternative is to live the false self the way of duplicity and cover-up, and when we begin to believe the delusion then sin multiplies.

When Jesus is led into the desert he is led is by the Spirit. It is God who leads Jesus into this place of testing. You see the wilderness is not the place of escape it is in fact the place of facing who we are and what God really wants us to become. In our Gospel Jesus faces three temptations and I want to look at each of these three and Jesus’ answer to those temptations in the context of our own lives.

The first temptation is the temptation is to provide for all material wants: “If you are the son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  How wonderful would that be to be able to change stones into bread. To find a solution to human desire and need as direct and simple as that. How often in our own lives we want to provide the quick fix that ends the problem and shortcuts the struggle: If only I could win the national lottery that would solve everything. Our transactional ways of living lead us to believe that solutions come like this. If you give me £10 I will have a place in a hostel for tonight. But what about tomorrow night? And the next? If God would only provide what I need now then everything would be alright. How often have I thought that at St Martin’s… if only, if only I could just provide for every need. But this is not the path of the true saviour who answers “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I have begun to learn that every problem does not have a solution. That sometimes you learn most from hunger and living among the stones and that actually, dare I say it, without ignoring or underestimating the anguish of the cry – is it not in recognising our deeper hunger that we begin to seek the bread which is eternal. How easy it is to leave our second-hand sandwiches or bag of old clothes at the refuge and still be home in time for tea.  How hard it is to recognise in others our own poverty and walk with them the longer distance.  As I watched my mother’s gradual slide into dementia, the temptation was too long for a fix, a solution, the tablet, the diagnosis, the answer to end or reverse the loss but the recognition over the last five years is to learn to live the whole journey with love and trust and steadfastness- and if that is possible then it is indeed a far greater miracle of grace.

The second temptation from the pinnacle of the temple is the temptation of miracle or spiritual power.  “If you are the Son of God- throw yourself down and the angels will protect you.” Have we not all somewhere within us harboured that superstition too that somehow our faith can help us live chosen, charmed lives, protected in a way that others are not protected. As though blessing and prosperity were  God-given rights purchased by prayer, or acts of righteousness rather than a pure undeserved gift. Notice how the devil plays upon one’s spiritual pride-“if you are the special one.. if you are better than others than do this thing that is reckless, dangerous, senseless, abusive- prove yourself. For how many people does religious faith not become the path to generous wisdom and respect for all life- but leads to narrow bigotry of superiority, a justification for behaviour that may be unacceptable, and in fact the denial of life in all its fulness. God answers my prayers. God supports what I want him to support. How many lives have been senselessly sacrificed in war in the delusion that God will save his own? It is this same spiritual pride that justified slavery or the exploitation or subjugation of women, or continues to tell LGBTI Christians that unless you are like me you cannot be saved. This is not the life that sets us free this is where our religion becomes the means to manipulate others to become what we want. And Jesus answers: Do not put the Lord your God to the Test. He is not your God to manipulate for your agenda or prosperity he is the God of all creation.

Why God? why do people suffer? where is your power to save me? Last week after an hour of silent meditation a member of the Nazareth Community came to me and said “In my prayers, I kept on asking Jesus on that cross I saw in our East Window “How do you cope- how do you cope in a world like this where there is so much suffering. And eventually, Jesus answered me.”

“What did he say?” I asked

“He said I don’t cope”

We both laughed it seemed a relief that sometimes Jesus can’t cope too with the suffering of the world- indeed that is why he was on the cross. You see he didn’t cope. Cope is a limited limiting word, it’s a word about self-preservation and providing instant solutions. Jesus didn’t cope- he loved. There’s a world and an eternity of difference. Often we will not cope or be able to control and that’s when we depend on God’s love.

And the third temptation: On the top of a high mountain the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world: “All this will be yours if you fall down and worship me.” It is the temptation of worldly power and authority. But at what cost -the cost of his soul? We may think this temptation is so far removed from our own life experience but is it? Listen to the leaders of our world promising to make us great again.  Yet at what cost? The whole of creation stands on the precipice of that mountain at this very time. The decisions that we make now will directly influence the future of our planet and the decisions though couched in a different language are in fact very similar. Do we decide to serve God and humanity or do we continue to exploit the world for our own self-interest and advantage?  Jesus’ answer is very clear. “Away with you Satan! For it is written worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.”

In the wilderness Christ confronts his demons and chooses his path-   I wonder what path we will choose. It is not preordained. Christ does not bribe us with our material needs, or spiritual, or worldly power, instead we are given the freedom to choose. The temptations of the devil will lead humanity to the crucifixion of the Son of God- but Christ himself points us today to greater freedom, the place beyond the tomb. For just as in sin comes death even so in Christ shall all be made alive….To be continued this Lent.