The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s153g16   First Sunday in Lent  14/2/2016

‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit .. was led by the Spirit in the wilderness’.  Luke 4:1

I wonder what ‘wilderness’ means.

The tribes of Israel were led by God in the wilderness for 40 years.   Scripture tells us it was a time of testing as to whether they would trust God or not.  ‘Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.’ (1)   Looking at the route they took, it was more of a meandering than a distance to be traversed.  (2)   And we are told Jesus was tested by the devil, but the testing is equally the testing and failure of the devil to dissuade Jesus on his path, his path to the Cross.  

I note that scripture tells us: ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  echoed by St Paul in 1 Corinthians. (3)   We, like the Deuteronomist, can but guess at God’s purpose for doing some things.

For me the time when Abraham and Sarah were in the wilderness is instructive.   We are told: ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.   He looked up and saw three men standing near him.   When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.   He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.’  (4)  In the wilderness the opportunity for company is grasped with both hands.   So visitors to outback stations in Australia are always welcomed.   The opportunity for intelligent conversation with someone new is gold.   Recently the local Press reported: ‘Age Concern estimated that up to one in 10 elderly Kiwis lived day-to-day with little to no interaction with others’ and one 95 year old reported: ‘Although she has a "marvellous" family and neighbours, who check in on her daily with visits and phone calls, she likes to pop by the mall for a meal, an iced mocha, scratchies and some "people watching”.'   (5)   I recall a parishioner commenting after their partner retired: ‘I married him for better or worse, but not for lunch!’   I am sure this is the reason many people love reading, be it real or e-books.   Their power to take us into other worlds, other situations, is amazing.   The word page-turner: ‘a book so exciting or gripping that one is compelled to read it very rapidly’ came into our vocabulary in the 1970’s  (6)  

So ‘wilderness’ is that time when we crave company.  We have exhausted topics of conversation with those around us and we look for someone new.   I mention, for no particular reason, that I recently came across a new term to call a car roof box: a ‘mother-in-law coffin’ :-)

And I wonder if we in the church are not in the wilderness too.   The topics of conversation have dried up.   I note with some chagrin that the Archbishop of Canterbury is supporting a move by the Coptic Pope for a common and fixed date for Easter - I suppose anything to distract us from the subject of same gender intimacy!  (7)  Inevitably, of course, this will be dictated by the seasons in the northern hemisphere.

The trouble is that we continue to flog a dead horse while the only topic of conversation is Jesus, for inevitably the battle lines and demarkation disputes are all set in concrete.  

The opposite of wilderness is community.   We in the church have often chosen self-imposed isolation.

Yesterday I was visited by a lovely Jehovah’s Witness family, parents and even one child in a stroller.   They were happy enough when I responded with ‘Thank you for calling, we have our own faith’, but re-reading my words I wonder how I could have invited them in for a cup of tea on the proviso that we didn’t talk about religion.   Isn’t it sad that religion, Anglicanism as much as any other, divides.

The temptations in the wilderness are all about how one interacts with other people.   Turning the stone into bread is a metaphor for being able to provide ready solutions for other peoples’ needs, worshipping the devil is a metaphor for obtaining the world and power over others through any means possible, the third, to wow the crowds with displays of divine protection is again to set oneself up as someone special who others should follow.

Each of these seek to keep others subservient, submissive, dependent.

The opposite is to treat others as independent and equal, sacred and competent, as someone to contribute to our corporate life, like Abraham rushed from his tent to meet and welcome the passing travellers. 

And this makes me wonder how often the church pretends she has the solutions for everyone else’s needs reciting the mantra John 3:16; how often the concern of the church is the number of followers she has, neglecting the inhumanity some show towards others; how often the bible stories of old promise divine protection and deliverance for her faithful followers?

We readily recognise how illusory these are in the interaction we read in the gospel for today, yet these techniques remain remarkably persistent in the church of today.

Recently I saw a bumper sticker with the quote of the Dalai Lama: ‘Compassion is the radicalism of our time.’   It is lovely how he can encapsulate the ancient message of Jesus in a memorable saying, and picked up by modern secular society still.

In our wilderness, do we welcome conversations with the Dalai Lama, and others of good will who happen to pass by?   Or do we persist in claiming we have the eternal answers for each and every one else?   Do we continue to nervously count up ‘our’ followers as if others do not count?  Do we still offer a life free from illness, deprivation, calamity and death, when all the evidence suggests that no religion of any hue protects followers from these things?   Do we welcome fellow travellers or go hide in our tents?

The traditional disciplines of Lent are: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and while these might seem very introspective, our prayer ought to lead us intelligently towards a community of good-will, our fasting is meant to lead us to put our own egos aside, and our almsgiving to make us a part of that community of good-will. 

And if this is important on an individual and personal basis, will it not be more significant if the church corporate does these things?   Will it not be hugely significant if the church established a conversation with those of good-will in the community - of whatever faith or not?   Would it not be hugely significant if the church put her corporate ego aside and worked with others rather than against others?   In fact, if the church corporate actually practiced what she preached, would not society be hugely enriched and would not people for once have something for which to be ever grateful to God?

1.  Deuteronomy 8:2
3.  Isaiah 40:13, 1 Corinthians 2:16
4.  Genesis 18:1-3