Renewal in the Wilderness

This is the sermon I preached on the 1st Sunday in Lent (6th March, 2022) at Putney Methodist Church. It was the first in a series looking at the theme of ‘Renewal’. The texts were: Luke 4:1-13 and Isaiah 35.

The wilderness holds a special place in the Bible. Most obviously, it is a frightening place: a place without food or water, full of hidden dangers. The ‘Holy Way’ described by the prophet Isaiah is remarkable because it lacks the threats that lurk in other wildernesses: “No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it” (Isaiah 35:9). This is something that most of us struggle to imagine today – especially here on a bright day in central London – but the wilderness could be a terrifying place. In towns there were people, safety, light; in the wilderness, there were dangerous animals and dangerous people. No wonder that the Bible concludes with a vision of paradise that is not some pastoral idyll but a divine city full of light (Revelation 21).

The wilderness was also a symbol of abandonment and loss in the Bible. A sign of the withdrawal of God’s favour, as we see later in Isaiah:

Your holy cities have become a wilderness,

   Zion has become a wilderness,

   Jerusalem a desolation. (Isaiah 64:10)

Human failure, like the corrupt leadership of Judah’s false kings (often referred to as ‘shepherds’), can also turn God’s creation into a wilderness:

Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,

   they have trampled down my portion,

they have made my pleasant portion

   a desolate wilderness. (Jeremiah 12:10)

In the light of the tragic events in the Ukraine, I found this reference from the prophet Joel particularly pertinent, referring to the acts of an over-mighty ruler with scant regard for human suffering:

Egypt shall become a desolation

   and Edom a desolate wilderness,

because of the violence done to the people of Judah,

   in whose land they have shed innocent blood. (Joel 3:19)

Yet in the Bible, the wilderness is also very much a place of revelation and renewal. For Moses and the people of God wandering during the Exodus, the wilderness was the place where they received God’s laws and were re-formed into a holy nation. For Elijah, Ezekiel and other prophets, the wilderness was a place of visions, where they experienced God face to face. For the Israelites trekking across the deserts of Arabia, the wilderness of the Babylonian exile was a place where they learned that their God had not deserted them and experienced a new understanding of the divine.

That is the context of the passage which we have just heard read from Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of what God can and plans to do for his people:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

It’s interesting to note that Lent begins and ends with a wilderness. We start with Jesus tempted for 40 days and nights, and we finish it with him abandoned and alone in the virtual wilderness of the Garden of Gethsemane. Both are painful experiences, where seemingly God is absent, but both produce times of incredible renewal. In the middle of a desert, incredibly we find a crocus blooming.

This Lent, our theme is renewal, and we shall be reflecting on what it means in several different ways. To be made new, involves taking risks: it involves losing something and stepping out into the unknown. But scripture teaches us that God offers the gift of renewal to us all; in every wilderness situation we face. Even though it may seem as though we are abandoned in the desert, God is in fact there with us. Even there we may find the incredible gift of renewal, like Isaiah’s crocus.

But what is the difference between such Christian renewal and all the other self-help books, podcasts and programmes out there? “Build a new you”, “Think yourself thin”, etc. For me, Christian renewal looks far more like Alcoholics Anonymous than anything else. I once had the privilege of accompanying a recoeving alcoholic to one of their meetings in my church. I was so impressed by the group’s welcome, discipline and honesty, and, like many others, left thinking ‘Why can’t church be more like this?’! Their famous 12 Steps programme – which ultimately derives from some sort of belief in God – starts in this way:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

In a similar way, true Christian renewal begins with a recognition that we cannot do this alone. In the Bible, and for all Christians today, the wilderness is a frightening, scary place. To get out of that wilderness may seem impossible and we may feel useless and weak because we have failed to do it through our own efforts and willpower alone.

We need to recognise, though, that for followers of Jesus, we need to follow something like those 12 steps when we find ourselves in the wilderness – whether that be of our own making or someone else’s. We must first ask ourselves, do we really want to get out of this wilderness? (Like the man by Pool of Beth-zatha in John’s gospel (5:6), whom Jesus first asked, “Do you want to be made well?”.) This may seem ridiculous but, so often, people cannot actually face the cost of change. We then need to admit that we need God’s help; we must conquer our pride and admit we are lost. And we need actively to turn to God and away from the wilderness. This does not mean the wilderness was our fault or God’s punishment but it recognises that we must actively turn to Christ. Finally, we need to admit that we cannot do this alone and ask for strength and courage to face what lies ahead – and companions to help us on the road.

This does not mean a miracle cure. Nor does it mean that we shall have exactly what we want: it never worked for Israel! It may just mean that we remain exactly as we are but that we come to peace with our situation, and are granted the strength to carry on. Think of the example of Jesus, who prayed in Gethsemane, “Let this cup be taken from me…” but whose prayer was not granted, as he seemingly would have wished. Yet, he was ultimately renewed in ways beyond all human imagining.

The story of Lent, the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, and of Christ’s passion and resurrection is ultimately one of renewal. Of turning to God in a time of wilderness, and realising that we are never abandoned or truly lost. Of recognising our human frailty and the limits of what we can achieve by ourselves. And of finding in Christ the promise of a life renewed: The wilderness and the dry land shall [indeed] be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing for evermore. Amen.

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