Monday, 27 February 2012

A hellish place, or a place of discovery?

Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent:  Gen 9:8-17; 1 Peter3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

My father lives in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona, a land with just two seasons:  hot and hotter.  Their winter is like an English summer, with temperatures in the 70’s, but in summer Phoenix becomes a hellish place, and the people stay indoors with the air conditioning on to survive the heat (that is, if they can afford air conditioning).

Our gospel reading today got me thinking about what it would be like to live in the desert for 40 days.  Jesus was ‘sent’ into the desert by the Spirit – it wasn’t as if he knew what he was there for, or chose to go with a sense of purpose.  So for a start, it would probably be for us a bit like being blindfolded and plonked in the middle of the Mojave or the Sahara.  What would you do? 

You’d probably first want to remove your blindfold, and then maybe you’d begin wandering around.  It wouldn’t take long before the whole ‘focus of your being’ would be on how thirsty you’ve become.  It’s getting difficult to swallow.  Your lips cake up and stick to your teeth and begin to crack and even to bleed.  For Jesus, this experience is in direct contrast with the full-immersion baptism he had just undergone; we can imagine Jesus there in the desert, casting his mind back to the cool, clear water of the Jordan embracing him – refreshing water, cleansing and thirst-quenching. 

But here in the desert, there’s not a drop to drink. And dehydration plays all kinds of tricks on the mind. What easy prey Jesus could have been for Satan’s tempting suggestions.  Our gospel writer says he was with ‘wild animals’, too, and I don’t think he meant harmless little lizards or meercats. Some writers suggest that the wild animals were caring for Jesus alongside the angels, but I don’t think so.  In Isaiah 11 it is prophesied that one day ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’, but I don’t think that day has yet arrived. The picture that Mark was sketching out here was that this wilderness was ‘a hellish place’.  And in this bleak and miserable environment, the ground seemed only fertile for the germination of fear and desperation.

The story in Mark is typically short, but we have the devil in the detail provided by Matthew and Luke.  “If you are the Son of God”, says the Tempter, “tell these stones to become bread.  If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from this temple.  I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, if you’ll bow down and worship me.”  Essentially, after 40 days of fasting in the desert, in his weakness Jesus is tempted to sway from his path and true purpose. 

For us, the 40 days of the season of Lent provides time to consider what it is that tempts us from following our path and true purpose.  And many of us try to discipline ourselves at this time from common temptations that affect many people; temptations like:  spending money as a way to comfort yourself, even if you’re already in debt; drinking too much alcohol or eating too much as a way of dealing with your problems; spending too much time on the computer, to the neglect of family and friends; or simply focussing too much on your own comfort and security, while ignoring the needs of the wider community.  And if any of your temptations have become addictions, you aren’t alone, and you don’t need to struggle alone. There is help available – reach out, tell someone – tell me or tell Frank and we can get you to a place where there is help. 

As Jesus overcame his temptations, he went on to fulfil his earthly mission, ending with the cross and the resurrection and his ascension into heaven. And so the desert or the wilderness becomes transformed from its potential as a ‘hellish place’ to a place of discovery with the potential for growth.  ...Our second reading from Peter’s first letter says that the whole reason for the death and resurrection of Christ was ‘to bring us to God’.  And as Christians for centuries have testified, our own desert places, as difficult as they are while we’re in them, have the potential to bring us closer to God and closer to the awareness of what matters most in life. 

The theologian Karl Rahner movingly expresses this idea of the desert being a place of deep personal discovery of God when he says: 

Therefore Jesus goes into the desert, therefore he fasts; therefore he leaves behind everything else that a man needs even for bare existence, so that, for this once, not just in the depths of his heart but in the whole range of his being he can do and say what is the first and last duty of humankind – to find God, to see God, to belong to God to the exclusion of everything else that makes up human life. And therefore he fasts. Therefore through this cruelly hard act, this denial of all comfort, this refusal of food and drink, through the solitude and abandonment of the desert, through everything else that involves a rejection, a self-denial of the world and all earthly company, through all these he proclaims this fact: one thing only is necessary: that I be with God, that I find God, and everything else, no matter how great or beautiful, is secondary and subordinate and must be sacrificed, if needs be, to this ultimate movement of heart and spirit.

But this ‘finding’ of God in our personal desert regions doesn’t end there; for we who have been through the waters of baptism, who are possessed by the Holy Spirit, are inevitably then also led back into the world and into its wilderness places, where Jesus calls us to turn toward the broken, the hurting and the lonely.  Because as one contemporary thinker puts it:  ‘that's where Jesus hangs out’.  That’s where Jesus calls us – to feed the hungry, to visit those who are, in many ways, imprisoned, and to speak hope to the hopeless.

Did you know there are at least 27 million people worldwide who are captive in slavery today?  There’s a new UK-based initiative (called, appropriately enough, “27 Million”), that aims to raise awareness for these people, many of whom are children, who are enslaved for the purposes of sex or for labour.  For most of us it is difficult to face the reality of this – just imagine what life is like for these people.  But we don’t have to feel helpless about it – there are ways to help.  These people need someone to stand up for them.  This is where the living water needs to be shared – in the deserts of life.  And as we reach out and get out hands dirty, the ‘hellish places’ become places of discovery and growth not only for ourselves but also for others.

If you look carefully in the desert you can discover some amazing displays of life.  Just the other day I read about scientists finding what they called ‘a microbial oasis’ living in the extreme conditions of the Atacama desert in Chile.  Many plants have adapted to make the most of the desolate regions of the world.  There’s an entire ecosystem organised around the conditions of life in the desert.  Nature works with what it has, it hasn’t got a choice – and everything is inter-connected.

As individuals and as communities we have choices when it comes to how we live. We can chose to separate ourselves from those who are different from us, whom we might consider scary or even ‘unclean’; or we can recognise our inter-connectedness with others, that what we do affects others; and what happens to others, affects us. With this view, we realise our daily choices matter – what we choose to eat and drink, what we choose to spend our money on and how we spend our time, and how we deal with the daily temptations of life, all of this really does matter. 

God said to Noah that his covenant is between God and every living creature.  In 1 Peter the apostle says that Christ died ‘once for all’.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus emerges from his baptism and heads straight into the desert, and then emerges from the desert to proclaim the good news:  the time has come; the kingdom of God is near!   Whatever Lenten disciplines you observe, may they help you to discover the nearness of the kingdom.  And when you go through the desert, as we all do at times, may you discover the strength that comes from Jesus, and may you be thoroughly refreshed by His living water, which is ultimately all that anyone needs.   Amen. 


  1. Awesome, evocative, beautifully written.

    1. May I use that desert picture for personal use on my desktop?

    2. Anonymous: I got the picture from Google images - permission to use the picture is not mine to give.


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