Sermon preached by the Revd Canon Peter Moger

There is a comfortable inevitability about the cycle of the Christian year. Epiphany follows Christmas and, before long, we are once again in Lent. And, as usual, on this First Sunday of Lent, we hear one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels give us quite a lot of detail about the temptations of Jesus. But Mark—whose turn it is this year—sums up the whole thing in a single verse:

'[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.' (Mark 1.13)

I know Mark is renowned for being concise, but is that really all that there is? This is brevity in the extreme! What are we to glean helpfully from this about overcoming temptation, which is the usual focus of the First Sunday of Lent?

But Mark’s account does include one highly significant word, and that’s ‘wilderness.’ Jesus was in the wilderness forty days. A while ago, I received an email from Amazon inviting me to ‘re-wild’ myself – the mind boggles! There was a suggestion of 10 books I might like to read: ranging from Think like a tree to Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds. There’s no doubt that when the UK went into lockdown four years ago, one of the positive results for some people was a re-engagement with the natural world. In that context, being able to connect with nature was good for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

But Jesus spending time in the wilderness isn’t really about him connecting with the natural world, and it’s also far more than his simply taking time out to be alone with God. The wilderness was, and always had been, a special place for God’s people. The Scriptures are full of references to the wilderness as a place where important things happen: a place where God and human beings meet, and serious spiritual business is done; a place where things are seen from a new perspective, a place where people change, and a place from which change comes—the promise of something new and life-giving.

When the Israelites were suffering as slaves in Egypt, the core of Moses’ pleading with Pharaoh was that he allow the Israelites to make a three days’ journey into the wilderness, to worship and offer sacrifice (Exodus 3, 4). In the event, when they finally escaped through the Red Sea, it was for 40 years that they wandered in the wilderness. It was a time of testing, as they discovered who they really were in relation to God, but ultimately it led to their freedom and a time of prosperity. They were no longer the same: their time in the wilderness had changed them.

Generations later, the prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life from Jezebel, made a day’s journey into the wilderness where he sat under a solitary broom tree and prayed for his life to end. But a meeting there with the Angel of the Lord brought him food and new strength. He then journeyed 40 days and 40 nights, encountered God in the still small voice, and received a new commission. There was now no turning back: he anointed Jehu son of Nimshi as king and Elisha as prophet in his place. In the wilderness, Elijah had met God, and had discovered new purpose and energy, from which change was able to flow.

And in what must be one of the greatest of all passages of Scripture – forever linked in the mid of many with the wonderful anthem by Samuel Sebastian Wesley - Isaiah looks forward to the day when:

'The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them,
and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
....for in the wilderness shall waters break out,
and streams in the desert.
....And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion
with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads:
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.' (Isaiah 35)

Isaiah’s vision is of the wilderness as a place of new life—of new possibilities, of resurrection.

In the New Testament, we encounter the wilderness early on – as part of the story of John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John 

'...was in the wilderness until the day he appeared
publicly to Israel.' (Luke 1.80b)

For John, the wilderness was an essential part of his formation – it was there that he learned who it was that God was calling him to become. And when he did appear to Israel, it was to proclaim and prepare for a new way: the way of the Lord. He baptised as a sign of people’s choice to turn away from sin and self and to point their lives in a godward direction.

And then we come to this morning’s Gospel, and to Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness. Mark records that, immediately after his baptism by John in the River Jordan—at which the Holy Spirit had been seen to descend on him in a visible form—that same Holy Spirit 

'...immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.' (Mark 1.12)

Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not his own doing, but the Holy Spirit’s doing. Like Elijah after his meeting with the Angel of the Lord, Jesus found himself compelled to be in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, as he prepared for the three years of public ministry that lay ahead. There’s no doubt that, as he was tempted by the devil, the wilderness was a frightening and a challenging place, but in the same way that it had been for so many before him, it was to be a place of growth, of change, and ultimately, a means by which God brought a message of life.

So where is the Holy Spirit driving us this Lent? What is our wilderness—our place of formation—going to be for these next 40 days? The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness have become synonymous for the Christian Church with the 40 days of Lent, and so we instinctively think of the wilderness as being a barren, negative place—somewhere where we are deprived of creature comforts, and experience austerity.

But what might our wilderness look like if we think of it more positively: as a place of growth, of nurture, of life-giving encounter with God, and of change for the better? A place—a space—of creativity, of openness to God’s Spirit of Life; a place where we can flourish. A place in line with Isaiah’s vision, of joy and gladness where waters and streams break out, and 

'...[where] sorrow and sighing shall flee away.'

Or, as one commentator, writing for the start of Lent put it:

Can we [perhaps] move from a penitential Lent, to one where we are free to treat ourselves, free to be kind to ourselves and free to invite God into our lives. Because God cares for our souls, but he also cares about our bodies and physical welfare. Our bodies are given to us to do God’s work. As Christians taking caring of our bodies is therefore taking care of the place where the Holy Spirit dwells. As we open up time to spend with God we can begin to open our hearts, our whole selves and our whole lives back to him. And surely this is what Lent is all about. 

I rather like this, not only because it offers the possibility of a Lent with chocolate, but because it offers a holistic vision in which there is no artificial dividing line between the ‘spiritual’ life and the physical. Maybe, if this is an authentic view of Lent, each of us should be asking ‘Where is the Spirit driving us to be kind to ourselves, and to invite God in?’

I’d like to offer us two pictures to take away. The first, which became very familiar to Heather and me when we lived on a Scottish island, is of the ever-shifting patterns of sand on the beach. One of the remarkable things about sand on a beach is that it never stays still and is constantly being changed—shaped and re-shaped by the wind and the tides. And the same is true of the wilderness: it’s never the same two days running. 

The danger of the annual cycle of time in the Christian Year is that we can assume that things are going to be the same every time we revisit it: the same liturgical colours, the same liturgical words, the same readings, the same music. (Here we come – the First Sunday of Lent again – it must be Jesus in the wilderness.) But that’s not the case. Because not only does the world and its circumstances change from one year to the next, so do you and so do I. None of us is the same now as we were a year ago. And so, when we encounter the wilderness in the Gospel each First Sunday of Lent, we encounter it differently from the way we did this time last year. The sand will have shifted: the wilderness is no longer the same place, and no more are we in the same place.

And not only does the wilderness change; the wilderness is itself a place of change: a place where spiritual encounters lead us to engage with the God who ‘makes all things new.’ Christ Church is (as most of you will know) in the midst of a process of governance review. When it’s complete, the temptation for all of us will be to sit back and say, ‘now we’ve done that, we can get back to normal’. But that’s not an option. The process will have ushered in a ‘new normal,’ whatever that might look like. 

The season of Lent offers us this year’s wilderness: an opportunity for us to begin, here and now, to re-imagine our life here under God. Where might God be leading us to go over these coming years? As an institution? As a cathedral, a congregation, and as individuals. That’s a question we shall need to address as we discern where the Spirit is leading us, so that we shall be able to plan creatively and strategically for the future. The wilderness—the place of challenge and change—the place out of which God’s new life is born—is where we start.

The second picture comes from the First Reading. After the flood, God says to Noah, 

'I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.' (Genesis 9.13)

The rainbow is a symbol of hope because it speaks of God’s covenant with Noah. This was a promise of God’s faithfulness to humanity and to all living creatures: a promise of God’s commitment to the flourishing of life.

Whatever a ‘new normal’ might look like, however uncertain or challenging the future might be, we can be certain of one thing which does not change: and that is the constancy, the reliability and the faithfulness of God.

   Faithful God,
   your Son grew closer to you in the wilderness;
   help us to use these days of Lent
   to grow in wisdom and in prayer
   that we may hear the promptings of your Spirit,
   and respond by trusting in your unfailing love,
   made known to us 
   in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.