Lent - A Wilderness Time
Assistant Rector's House, January 1997
On the first Sunday in Lent we will hear again the story of Jesus' time in the wilderness. For forty days he was without food and surrounded by wild beasts, by far the most obvious and frightening dangers (one would think) of being alone in an uninhabited wasteland. But actually these fears are only mentioned in passing. The wilderness experience of Jesus, which the Gospel writers describe in detail, is the wilderness of his inner conflicts.
He is in mental and spiritual anguish, as he struggles with his desire to do what is good, and yet to do that in ways which are consistent with the character of God his Father. He longs to help the hungry and relieve the oppressed, he yearns to show God's love to the whole world, and is tempted to do all this by the ways of worldly power and showy display - surely the quickest and most effective means of achieving his compassionate ends. But they are not God's methods. Jesus' thoughts go round and round, in and out, as though he were in a wilderness of thorn bushes, caught up on one sharp point after another, unable to disentangle ways and means, the temptations of his humanity and the aspirations of his divinity.
As is often the case, what happened to Jesus in the wilderness shows us what is happening to ourselves. So often we feel as though our lives are a wilderness. For some of us that means part of our lives for part of the time; for others is appears as though the whole of life is a wilderness experience. That is why we have chosen to use the theme of "Wilderness" in this year's Lenten sermons - because we feel it addresses reality.
There can be few of us who don't often feel be"wilder"ed in some way or other. We may be caught up in a wilderness where good intentions compete with our disorderliness, laziness, indecisiveness and need for self-preservation. We may feel out of control and a sense of panic as our own values seem to compete with the values around us. Or that God has abandoned us and that we are isolated, unable to love or be loved. "Wild" emotions - anger, envy, impatience, fear - are part of the human condition.
In Jesus' life we see the meaning of our own. It was in the desert that he resolved his inner conflicts, that "angels ministered to him". Amid the emptiness, openness and rigour of the desert conditions, the clutter and muddle and obsessions were sorted. "Face up to your problems" is an oft-quoted panacea. But that can mean getting more deeply involved and entangled, as we try to conscientiously grapple with their complexities. To step aside for a while, to give ourselves space for prayer and consideration, and open ourselves to hearing God's voice; Jesus' example suggests that may be the way to wholeness.
I am writing this on the feast-day of Saint Antony of Egypt (c.300), one of the first of the Desert Fathers. When Antony emerged from twenty years in the desert he was described by a contemporary as "a man all balanced, as one governed by reason, and standing in his natural condition". Far from being a "running away" which produced an eccentric, unbalanced personality, Antony's time in the desert was fruitful and life-enhancing, it produced maturity and wholeness.
Literal deserts, with sands and stones, are not for us. But we can attempt to find spaces of time and detachment. We can try with some rigour to get back to the ultimate concerns of our lives, to remove the clutter and face ourselves in God's presence.
This Lent the committees and organisations of St Peter's are trying to keep their activities to an absolute minimum, to help create that space for some of the busiest people in our community. This year we are not providing a Lent Course, but a quiet time of worship and reflection each Wednesday evening. In his letter last month, Leslie suggested that the New Year could be a time to consider a rule of life; in Lent we shall be making available some guidelines to help those who wish to reflect on their life of faith and clarify their commitment.
In this emphasis on space, quietness, commitment, and openness to God, we are aligning ourselves with the words of Thomas à Kempis, written more than 500 years ago: