Thursday, August 16, 2007


The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

The tempter came to him and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.'

I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her vineyards and make the valley of Achor a door of hope.

As the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness.'

Great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he [Jesus] withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.

I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

(Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:3; Hosea 2:14-15; Hebrews 3:7-8; Luke 5:15-16; Isaiah 41:18; Matthew 5:6 -- all RSV)

The wilderness is an ambiguous place. The prophets speak of it as the setting of God's and Israel's shared intimacy of love and duty. But it was also the occasion of God's fierce disappointment: 'for forty years I loathed that generation.' It is a place of ambiguity for us also. It is the time in our lives when we are separated from our working, where disappointment and failure get to us and yet from which we return clearer in mind for having heard the unwelcome truth, refreshed in spirit in having been alone with God. We perceive the truth also that you cannot lead people out of the wilderness unless you have been there yourself (Henri Nouwen). It is the time of trial, of temptation, and so important to God is it that Jesus was led there, or was 'driven' there. He sees to it that we have times there also.

In the wilderness illusions are tested and destroyed, true motives, real weaknesses made plain; when our busyness, for which people praise us and in which we may feel secure, is revealed as flight. We fly from suspected fractures of integrity, the declaiming of large, round home truths and the suspicion that we are more hollow than we appear. When we are by ourselves, left to ourselves, do we experience ourselves as dry, restless, impatient? Do we fear the risk of shame before God? This is the wilderness. What can we learn from it?

Jesus had prophetic hope for his ministry, so movingly declared at Nazareth (and so thoroughly rejected by the congregation there). The adversary tested these hopes, sounded the disappointment. He probed for the falsities of illusion. Was there in Jesus desire, ambition, self-confidence enough, to draw him away from his centre in the Father? Did he really live in God? Did he really love the Father more than the mission? Might he be led to consider that the end might baptise the means? Could he be persuaded to by-pass disappointment and loss? Would he always wait for God? We hear echoes of these questions in our wildernesses.

Physical hunger is not an illusion, but the belief that it is the chief of our hungering is. Risk is not an illusion, but the belief that we can create risks for which God will then deliver us is. It is possible to gain the whole world and lose our soul. Yet God means that our desert experiences shall give us opportunities of looking for him beyond our darkness, feeding upon him in our hunger, resting on him from our labours, looking at the bones he shows us to be broken, that they may rejoice (Psalm 51:8).

The Father said, This is a stone. The Son would not say, That is a loaf.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber... We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavour to shine. We labour unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence, and neglect the real. And if we possess calmness, or generosity, or truthfulness, we are eager to make it known, and so attach these virtues to that imaginary existence... We are so presumptuous that we wish to be known by all the world, even by people who shall come after, when we shall be no more...

Blaise Pascal, Pensees

The reward of the good man is to be allowed to worship in truth.

Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart

Stanley Spencer has painted his 'Christ in the wilderness' in such a way as to bring out, in an unexpected key, the tone of Mark's 'and the wild beasts were with him'. Jesus sits on his heels in a desert empty of all life except a scorpion, which he holds in his hands and looks upon, meditatively. Isn't it a marvellous way of bringing to us both the value of solitude, of reflection, and the need for companionship in pilgrimage?

Yes, there is a sense of shame that is favourable to the Good, woe to the man who casts it off. This sense of shame is a saving companion through life. Woe to the man who breaks with it. It is in the service of sanctification and true freedom... Each one who is not more ashamed before himself than all others, if he is placed in difficulty and much tried in life, will in one way or another end by becoming the slave of men. For to be more ashamed in the presence of others than when alone, what else is this than to be more ashamed of seeming than being? Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart

A man does not live by his feelings any more than by bread.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

A most imposing gate led out on the north side, and beyond this, as far as the eye could reach, was an undulating desert over which the wintry wind was blowing... The scene was desolate beyond all words, and if ever human sorrow has left an impress on the atmosphere of a place it is surely at Kiayukwan, through whose portals for centuries past a neverending stream of despairing humanity has filed. Disgraced officials, condemned criminals, homeless prodigals, terrified outlaws, the steps of all these have converged to that one sombre portal and through it have forever left the land of their birth. The arched walls are covered with poems wrung from broken hearts, nor can anyone leave China by this road without peculiar pain, and even tears... Among all those tragic inscriptions, from the day of our visit, one message of hope now hangs, printed in crimson letters so large and clear, that every tear-filled eye can see it:

'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners'.

Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Through Jade Gate and Central Asia

Father, in my imagination I sit with Jesus in his wilderness experience. I allow the silence and the solitude to come to me, become part of me. I let go all distractions, yesterday's profits and loss, tomorrow's plans and expectations. What I spend minutes in doing, my Lord spent days. Such a long time, Father, to pray and meditate, such a long time being tried, discovering your will freshly and making it his own with joy. Let me wait before you Father, surrendering my gifts and strengths and experience so as to find your strength perfect in my weakness. I should be afraid, Father, of learning of my hidden weaknesses, my flights into busyness, my sometimes testy virtue, if I did not realise that you know me through and through, and love me dearly. Teach me, Father, and let me always be learning about the way you see me -- your desire to reach the real me, hidden from myself but coming to be, becoming more and more a blessing to those you give me to care about.

A Benediction

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort, and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St Patrick, tr. By C.F. Alexander

Still Waters, Deep Waters ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 259-263

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