The Desert

This sermon was given by Rev Sue. You can read it again here:

It had been quite day. Jesus had been preaching at the morning worship at the synagogue, where he had healed a man, who was probably in today’s terms psychotic. From there he had gone back to Simon’s house for lunch, found his mother-in-law ill, and healed her. And in the evening, we are told, the whole city came to the door, and Jesus healed one person after another. He must have been exhausted. Time, you might think for lie in. Yet the next day he was up before dawn and went to a deserted place to pray. More than rest or sleep Jesus craved the silence and solitude of the desert.

Throughout the ages people have felt the call to take themselves to a lonely place, the wilderness or the desert. John the Baptist lived there. After his baptism Jesus withdrew to the desert for 40 days. Later it became the cradle of monasticism, when people like St Anthony, yearning to know God better, went out to live by themselves or in small communities, in desert places. People sought them out for the wisdom they found there, and their writings on prayer are still among the most profound and inspirational.

So I was fascinated to find myself last week at a retreat centre in Arizona. Forget the image of camels and sand dunes – our desert had many plants, mostly cacti of different varieties. At first, I couldn’t see why people called it beautiful – but eventually I began to appreciate the subtle palette of greens and reddish browns. The stars were bright and the sunsets fantastic. The days were warm and dry, but the nights were freezing. Think cowboy films – a lot were filmed in Arizona. The appeal of the desert is to literally get away from it all. It is a place where not much happens. The seasons change, flowers in the spring, rattlesnakes in the summer. There are rock paintings by indigenous tribes from centuries ago. But there is little in the way of distraction.

We have few opportunities to literally retreat to the desert. But we can all benefit from time out, to pray, to think, to read – but above all to meet with God. Retreats or quiet days, or just a walk in the country. Leaving behind our preoccupations, our worries our pleasures and our distractions gives us a chance to hear the still small voice whispering in our soul.

But deserts are not always chosen. Sometimes they are the places of deprivation and hardship, of danger and fear. For another image of the desert from the cowboy films is the lone man, his horse unable to carry him and his water bottle punctured with an arrow. He has nowhere to turn. The desert is pitiless – without water you die.

There are times in our lives when we feel the wilderness has been thrust upon us. We feel alone and bleak. Bereavement in all its forms – the loss of someone we love, relationship break up, loss of employment and illness can all leave us feeling that there is no place to rest, no comfort, no one to help us. The ultimate desert experience is depression, when food loses its taste, sleep is full of restless dreams and our everyday pleasures lose their appeal. God can seem far away. We remember the joy we found in prayer, the comfort in the Bible and the uplift of worship, but they seem to have vanished. Deserted us. Life is barren and meaningless. The cowboy in the desert may be a sharp shooter, a smooth talker or the best horseman in town, but none of these will help him. The test is not of prowess or intelligence, but endurance. And sometimes just getting up in the morning is a brave and heroic thing to do, a statement of hope that today will be better, or if not, that we can nevertheless survive it. We wait and we endure.

Whether the desert is your choice for peace and solitude, or your wilderness of pain or misery, be assured of one thing. Stripped of all the other trappings of life, God is there. We meet him in the silence or in the despair, the prayer or the emptiness, but meet him we will. And we will emerge stronger, wiser and more compassionate people.

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