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Desert Experiences
(A Lent Reflection)

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Desert Experiences

(Originally preached on the First Sunday of Lent 2009) 

Read : St Mark 1: 9-15 

"The Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan" 

Another Lent begins and - for many - another round of denying ourselves this, that or the other. Indeed, one of the questions that pops up a lot at this time of year is, "Are you giving up anything for Lent?" or "What are you giving up for Lent?" Chocolate, smoking, junk food, soap operas? Some people even suggest giving up wine! But you can go too far. You don't want to become a fanatic!  

I have a friend who - when he was asked what he had given up for Lent - responded that he had given up guilt! Which in turn led me to wonder if it was legitimate to give up self-denial for Lent! 

In fact, I am not at all cynical about the idea of fasting or of giving something up for Lent. I am doing so myself and think it is a very useful spiritual discipline, an appropriate way to mark the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness, and a good means for preparing ourselves for the celebration of Easter which lies only six weeks away.  

However, Lent is not something that we should view simply as an annual rite of denial; the season of Lent should be a wake up call to all of us. The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here, it is now and we should get up and embrace it with the vitality it deserves. 

The call to renewal is as strong today as it was when Jesus proclaims it in the words we heard in today's gospel; "The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News." 

And so, over the Lenten season we are invited to put our spiritual and material lives more in balance. And it is in this context that "giving something up" for Lent can have value. 

However. there is so much emphasis on giving something up for Lent, I wonder if we might instead consider what we can take up for Lent. For example, might we "take up" a discipline of daily prayer and Bible reading? Or adopt an attitude of being more positive in our view of others? Or a deeper concern for issues of justice, peace and care of the environment? Or a greater readiness to acknowledge our Christian faith to others when there is an appropriate opportunity? 

You could create your own list. 

The point is that the most crucial question is not what little things we can give up for Lent, but what are the patterns of being and acting and relating and spiritual discipline that we need to take up - not just for Lent - for good. 

And here is one thing that we could take up that would be good for us all. Let's take up honesty. 

I'm not meaning in the sense of not telling lies to each other, or not fiddling our tax returns or whatever, although if we are in the habit of lying or fiddling our tax returns then let me say I think these would be very good things to give up! 

What I really mean is this: let's begin to be honest with ourselves, with God and with one another. 

Let's be honest with ourselves; honest about the inner tendencies, drives and traits we deny or ignore, or to which we are blind, or to which we have simply resigned ourselves. No change will occur until we acknowledge the truth of what we are like and what is really going on in our lives, and accept our need of forgiveness and transformation.  

Let's be honest with God; telling him where we have failed, acknowledging our deep need of cleansing and renewal, asking for his grace and strength and life-changing power.  

And let's be honest with one another, and stop pretending. In particular, let's be honest about the fact that all of us are - to greater or lesser degree - broken human beings, with faults and failings, doubts and difficulties. We all go through "deserts". Our faith is not always strong, our Christian living far from what it might seem to others, our spirituality much more threadbare than we would like each other to realise. Not that I am proposing that we should all act as if we were at some great group therapy session and reveal all our darkest secrets to one another. Not at all; that would be as inappropriate and unhelpful as it is unlikely. 

Detailed public confession is not what I am advocating. Rather what I am suggesting is that we embrace a general honesty with one another; acknowledging that all of us face or have faced times of darkness, difficulty, doubt, spiritual dryness: deserts

"The Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan" 

We all go through deserts of dryness, darkness or doubt. 

Let's be honest about it. We all have periods, brief or prolonged, of spiritual dryness when there is no sense of God's presence, when peace and joy seem to have deserted us, when prayers seem to get no further than the ceiling, when worship fails to inspire, when the sacrament does not bring any sense of God's nourishment. Yes, we all face such deserts. 

And we all experience periods of deep darkness when suffering or loss, fear or despair surround us or grip us and seem to blot our any light.  

And we all of us face times of doubt, when the whole fabric of Christian faith seems no longer to hold together, when the affirmations of hymns or creeds seem empty and unbelievable.  

We all experience deserts. 

And we are not alone, which is good to know, and there is comfort and strength in knowing that others are facing what we too face. That is why I think we should more openly acknowledge that we all experience such times.  

And, what is more significant; in Jesus there is one who has gone through desert experiences and still travels through them with us.  

Jesus journeyed to and through the desert. 

He was tempted; yes, Jesus was tempted, just as we are. "He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan"  

He doubted; yes, Jesus doubted just as we doubt. Is that not what is happening as he shouts out from the Cross in that disturbing and distressing cry of dereliction "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me"?  

He had periods of darkness; yes, Jesus struggled in the darkness as we do. He wrestled in prayer with God's purposes and his dreadful vocation in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane.  

And so, when we face desert times, we can recall that he who has promised to be with us, to never leave us or abandon us, has been there too, and is yet with us in the dryness, darkness, doubt or difficulties. 

There are some deserts through which we travel that have been caused by circumstances, neither of our own making, nor of God's intending. There are external factors that cause us problems; tough times arising out of illness or loss, employment or financial concerns, relationship issues and more besides.  

Then again sometimes the difficulties we face are of our own making; bad decisions, poor choices; wrong actions; honest but painful mistakes. 

Whatever the cause, God is with us in the desert times.  

But there are also times when it may be that these wilderness experiences which we go through are not necessarily due to external circumstance or emotional cycles, or another's actions or our own choices. 

The desert may be the place where God has led us, even into places of doubt, darkness and dryness, or perhaps even temptation.  

"The Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan" 

The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness; God sent him there. 

And so there are times, as individuals, as a congregation, perhaps even as a society, when we have to go through a wilderness because that is where God is sending us; through a time of darkness or difficulty or dryness; in order that God might prune or cleanse or strengthen or enable us to reorient our lives, or congregation, or society, and so rediscover Gospel values. Deserts are places of coming to terms, of re-assessment, re-prioritising, re-orientation, of preparation and strengthening. 

There are times when the desert is the place we need to be, the place to which the Spirit is leading us, for God has something to do with us, bring to us, teach us, or accomplish through us in the desert.  

Whether or not the deserts we face are ones to which God calls us, or ones that are a result of circumstances around us, or are of our own making, still it can be, and may yet be, that it is in the wilderness that Jesus will meet us. For he who was driven there by the Spirit after his baptism, is still to be found there. 

The journey from the Jordan River where he was baptised to the Judean Desert where he was tested was a short journey in geography, but a long journey emotionally and spiritually. Jesus was impelled to undertake that journey into the wilderness by the Spirit, and in facing hard testing and sore tempting he was identifying with us, as he submitted to God's will and way, as he suffered for our sakes, as he offered him self for the world. 

We may travel through deserts, but we do so knowing that he has been there. He has experienced darkness and doubt, threat and temptation, abandonment and aloneness. So as we journey through desert places we do so in the company of one who has journeyed to and through the desert before us, who has dwelt in the desert for us, who walks in the desert with u, and who is still alongside us in the desert, working out his purposes for us and in us and through us.  

Rev David Denniston , March 2009


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