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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

In the Wilderness

Our Old Testament reading took us into the wilderness in words which Samuel Sebastian Wesley set to music in tonight’s anthem.  The desert is a rich theme in the scriptures.  One aspect of this is that it is a place of truth. If you have been in the desert for even an hour, you realise what a profoundly discomfiting place it is. But to biblical writers it can become not an enemy but a friend.  The desert fathers heard the voice of prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah, who said that all Israel’s problems stemmed from their having abandoned the faith of the desert.  So they turned their back on the cities and went into the desert to seek God.  Our beloved St Cuthbert whom we celebrate this week followed this same way of life when he went as a hermit to the Inner Farne. He went to face the hunger, the thirst, the silence, the loneliness, the exposure, the cravings the wilderness throws at you, live with the wild beasts, face the demons in the depths of the soul, and find God. 

We need a place of truth to teach us who we are and who God is. Jesus too goes into the wild places where, like Israel in the desert, he undergoes ordeals, not so much temptation as testing, the time of trial that portends the last things.  The test for Jesus is the same as it is in the story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. To whom do I owe allegiance?  Will I choose to have no other gods but the Lord?  The desert teaches us the difference between illusion and truth. It purifies our vision, helps us regain clarity about what our lives are really for.  So we keep Lent to strip the spirit bare like trees in winter so that we pay proper attention to what matters ultimately.  It invites us to a table spread with prayer and fasting and silence and simplicity and acts of charity: our teachers and soul mates for forty days to help us make space for God.

When we do this, we find something remarkable happens. The wilderness becomes a place of blossoming and joy.  When we give ourselves to him, God comes to us, relieves our fears, makes us strong, gives us back our lives. Waters break out, streams in the desert in the imagery of Isaiah. There is a highway, a holy way which turns out to be nothing less than the way home, the way out of exile, the way back to God. And as we journey through Lent, this wilderness way offers the promise of redemption, reconciliation, healing. We glimpse how life can begin again: for our broken world, for our damaged communities, for everyone who has lost hope, for ourselves. We sense that things could blossom and flower for us, even when life is at its most deserted, desperate and dry

The Sunday sheet charmingly announces that at this service I am offering ‘medication’ on Isaiah chapter 35. Well, the Prayer Book Collect for St Luke speaks about the wholesome medicine of the gospel and this is what we celebrate in Passiontide.  That medicine is the cross of Jesus: by his wounds we are healed.  The eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leap like deer and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  These healing images in Isaiah are metaphors of what will become true for all humanity when the wilderness becomes a paradise.  The cross is no longer a symbol of shame but of victory.  The final hymn invites us to ‘sing my tongue the glorious battle’. In this hostile, destructive wilderness there blossoms a tree that, in the hymn’s imagery frees the world from death. Its fruits are for the healing of the nations.  Christ is the victim who has won the day.  We make our boast in the cross.  Sorrow and sighing flee away.

Durham Cathedral, Passion Sunday 2013 (Isaiah 35)

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