I’m told that it’s impossible to be hungry in the desert because of the sand which is everywhere.
Today our readings take us into the desert, or the wilderness if you prefer (the words are the same in the Greek and Hebrew). Why is this relevant for us? Few of us regularly travel to the Kalahari or the Sahara, the Great Sandy or the Mojave. The nearest most of us get to wilderness is the Bourne woods.
Yet, the desert - the wilderness - is a powerful image for our spiritual journey.
Perhaps you’ve been to a desert? I haven't, but for me it speaks of an inhospitable and unwelcoming place, of a loss of bearings, a loss of direction, and of uncertainty and fear: a hard place, a place of struggle.
I suggest tom you that it’s not only an external place or reality - it’s also an inner experience. Where are you at the beginning of this Lent? What weighs upon your mind? What are you struggling with?
The desert isn’t an experience most of us seek, but one that we find ourselves in, taken to, or dropped into. It might be a desert of suffering, ours or someone close to us, or the world's suffering. It might be a longing to know more of God, and not finding that anything is happening, that our prayer seems to have dried up, that God doesn't seem to be there. It might be a reaction to an event, causing stress. It might be a feeling, something that touches every relationship, something that is experienced as emptiness, futility, depression. It might be a post-modern loss of meaning, of purpose, of direction, that comes upon us because that’s the sort of environment we live in, where darkness and loss of God are the experience of so many. It may be our experience - that it is difficult to believe, to trust God
The desert is certainly something very real in the Bible. After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the desert, for a long time, before they reached the so-called Promised Land, and we heard a small part of that story in our reading from Deuteronomy. Jesus was in the desert, where he encountered the devil, as we heard in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.
We can’t really know exactly how it happened, but I wonder if the temptation was something like this? Jesus is sitting on a rock, his head in his hands, saying, “if only I knew what God wanted me to do, I’ve got so many conflicting thoughts in my head, what does he want me to do with my life? I know God has given me powers and gifts, but how does he want me to use them? Should I wow the people with miracles of might, so that they have to listen,
or should I just speak the truth and love people and take it from there?”
We all know, thank God, what choices Jesus did make in the end, but make no mistake - Jesus really had to struggle to figure it out. It’s a struggle that starts here in the wilderness, a struggle which stays with him right up to Gethsemane three years later.
We do need to remember that God didn’t send Jesus a DIY Guide through the post entitled How to be Son of God in Three Easy Lessons. Instead he said, ”go out into the wilderness, give yourself space to think and wrestle and pray in the power of the Spirit until you find the truth”.
The poet Robert Graves put it this way:
He, of his gentleness,
Thirsting and hungering
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace he spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.
Robert Graves fought on the battlefields of France in the First World War and was seriously injured in the bleak wilderness of the Somme. As we begin once again our own journey through these forty days of Lent we’re reminded inevitably of the times when we too are the lost desert-folk of his imagination, when we are at our weakest, our most vulnerable to temptation to give in and go back, or to change direction and to find an easier path. Above all we’re reminded too, even as we wander and even as we wonder, of the overwhelming strength, sympathy and salvation of Jesus.
In our reading from Deuteronomy we find the people of Israel also struggling in the desert. Time and time again on that hazardous route out of Egypt, out of slavery, the people of Israel were at their weakest, their most vulnerable, lost and hungry and tired and tempted to call it a day, to give in and go back, or to change direction and find an easier path. During his own forty days wandering in the desert, Jesus finds inspiration in their persistence and strength neither to turn back nor to change course.
However we find ourselves in the desert, whatever that means in our own lives, the Israelites found God was with them. Jesus found God was with him - and so God is with us. In the letter to the Romans Paul reminds us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
As we struggle in the wilderness of this life, it may sometimes feel we’re much closer to the infernal depths than to the paradisal heights. Whether we feel that we’re in the desert, or not, Lent is good time us to consider the questions Jesus considered in the desert - who are we, and what does God want of us? So, this Lent let us seek God in humility and joy. Let us walk the wilderness way until finally we find the Promised Land, until finally we see not only ourselves but God himself, face to face. Let us ask God to tune the battered strings in our life, until finally we are fit to sing the songs of Zion. This is a time to look beneath all the layers, and to see that there is the image of God within us. What does he want of you? Is he calling you to serve, to love? To commit yourself to a particular person, or a particular cause? Has he a special role for you?
Maybe this Lent your wrestling will finally bear fruit.