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The Long March
(A Lent Reflection)

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The Long March 

(Originally preached on the First Sunday of Lent 2010) 

Read : St Luke 4: 1-13 

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Sprit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the Devil." 

In 1934 100,000 Chinese Communists set out on what has become known in history as the Long March. In the course of this gruelling 6000 mile journey undertaken to escape the pursuing Nationalist army, Mao Zedong was acknowledged as the dominant Communist party leader. Only 8,000 of the 100,000 who began the long march survived to the end of the journey in October 1935. 

Whatever view we may regarding the political philosophy of the marchers, there can be no doubt that this was one of the great journeys of human history and we cannot but admire and marvel at the depth of commitment shown by the marchers, and be astounded at the costly suffering they endured.  

For these Chinese communists this journey of suffering and privation was the transitional episode, the turning point, the dawning of their day. For what seemed like a retreat and a disaster turned out in fact to be the beginning of their victory.  

In the Scriptures of the Old Testament there is another famous long march. It took 40 years and not one of those who began the march lived to see it's completion in a land flowing in milk and honey.  

This 40 year long march was full of difficulty, privation, fear, doubt, and complaint. Far from being delighted at their liberation from slavery in Egypt the Israelites quickly turned to blame and despair! 

They soon were wishing that they could return to the Egypt that they had been so desperate to escape! 

"What was so bad about Egypt anyway?"
"Do you think Moses really knows where he's going?"
"I'd never have left if I knew it was going to take this long!"

It has been said, "it did not take 40 years to deliver the people of Israel out of Egypt; it took forty years to deliver Egypt out of the people of Israel!" 

Sometimes people have to take a long journey through transition before they can be transformed into the people who are ready for the Promised Land.  

God deals with us in the wilderness

Jesus 40 days in the wilderness is an echo of the 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites endured. He had just been baptised by John, affirmed by God his Father, and anointed by the Spirit for his ministry. And the first thing that the Holy Spirit does is drive him out into the wilderness. 

There is sometimes a need to travel to - and through - the wilderness. 

This is a decisive and important episode in Jesus' Long March; his epic journey of deep commitment and costly suffering. His long march has taken him from heaven to earth out of love for us; it is a journey marked from beginning to end by Submission, Suffering & Self-Offering, and as His journey moves towards its climax these themes begin to dominate.  

And this is how we should understand the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness. It is not primarily about Temptation, it is instead about the testing of Jesus. Part of that certainly involved him facing up to the devil and temptation. However, the wilderness experience is mainly about the preparation of Jesus for his ministry; about sorting out priorities, focus, motives, and commitment. 

To see the wilderness experience of Jesus simply in terms of a series of temptations is a fairly shallow surface reading of the story. What is at stake in this passage has more to do with the identity of Jesus, with the meaning of being God's representative on earth, and with the nature of faithfulness to God. 

The question at stake is what sort of son of God is Jesus? What sort of action will his identity require? 

The wilderness was an essential part of the journey for Jesus as it had been for the Israelites.  

God deals with us in the wilderness

During these forty days of Lent, we recall and reflect the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and recall and reflect the 40 years that the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. 

Our little fastings and our simple self-denials during Lent are signs of our identification with Jesus in his forty days of fasting in the wilderness and the Children of Israel's 40 years of wandering in the desert. 

Anything we "give up for Lent" - any chosen self-denial - is a reflection and a reminder that it is often in times of wilderness, desert, privation, difficulty and apparent emptiness that God effects his greatest and deepest work within us.  

God deals with us in the wilderness

But it does not always happen quickly! The wilderness can be a long march indeed. Forty years for the Israelites. Forty hard years.  

No-one said that this business of following Jesus was necessarily always going to be easy!  

As we continue on our journey of following Jesus, our ongoing march of faith, we may often find ourselves in wilderness and desert places. And they do not always pass quickly. The march to them and through them can sometimes be long. 

The wildernesses we face may be occasioned by personal issues or health concerns, faith doubt or spiritual dryness, employment dissatisfaction or financial worries, relational difficulties or family struggles, moral failure or dark fears, or any number of things. And the journey through these can sometimes feel like a long march. 

But God deals with us in the wilderness!

The Children of Israel were transformed and saved in the wilderness; Jesus was tested and strengthened in the wilderness. The desert was, for them, a time of preparation. And that can be the case for us too; in the wildernesses we encounter - in the deserts of life - may it not be that God is at work in us by His Holy Spirit, preparing us and proving us, testing us and transforming us, strengthening us and saving us? 

We most certainly can affirm that in whatever wilderness we may face, there is one who has promised to be with us, who has gone that way before us, and who will meet us in the wilderness. 

In Jesus we see that the promises of presence and provision, strength and support, do not come from some distant God who does not know or understand. Rather we can know that there is nothing that we will ever face or encounter that Jesus has not also faced when he journeyed with us.  

We may travel through deserts; but he has been there. 

We may endure hard testing; but he has endured that too. 

We may experience great suffering; but he too has touched the very depths of suffering. 

If we have to journey on our long march through whatever wilderness experience we might face, we do so in the company of one who has walked the road before us, who has walked the road for us, and who now walks the road with us.  

No matter how barren the wilderness through which we have to journey, no matter how meagre the provisions we seem to have, no matter how alluring the temptations with which we are assailed, no matter how hard the testing with which we are afflicted, he is with us, and can and will use the wilderness as a time and place of testing and transformation.  

God deals with us in the wilderness

And so may the Lord - the God of our ancestors, who brought us out of slavery into the promised land of his love and grace - bless us all as we journey together with him, and be with us through the wilderness and on the Long March. 

Rev David Denniston, February 2010


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