David Walker Sermon - 18th February 2018
May we all be filled with the spirit as we attend to your word and search for your truth. In the name of the one God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Revd John Moore welcomed us last week with the announcement that that service would be the last happy one for some time. Lent was looming. The forecast was gloomy.
Well Lent has since loomed fully. We’ve had our pancakes and our Mardi Gras, and this morning is our last opportunity to be ashed.
John was right, of course, about Lent, about the mood of Lent and about what it stands for and what it should mean for us. It’s not a time to be careless or frivolous. It can be a little gloomy. But my contention this morning is that we canstill be happy and should be happy during Lent, albeit in a particularly Lenten way. I emphasise – in a Lenten way.
There’s an article in this week’s Church Times written by an American theologian diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 35. She found that a lot of the churches she was visiting who were following the so-called prosperity gospel had lost the ability to be anything but happy all the time, even during Lent. In her words, everyone was trying to ‘Easter the crap out of Lent’.
That’s not my aim.
My simple message is this. Sometimes we will find ourselves in the wilderness but this need not be a bad thing because in the wilderness we can often find God, become closer to God. When everything else has left us, when we feel naked and abandoned, what will always be left is God.
It’s a simple message to hear but possibly a difficult one to take on board.
Noah accepted that he must go into a wilderness, that he and his family must be the sole survivors of a human race devastated by a cataclysmic flood. God challenged him to accept his state and promised that he would be with him. And in the end he sets his bow in the clouds as an everlasting covenant between God and ‘every living creature...’
Noah’s experience of wilderness was pretty extreme. The end of the world, the death of almost everyone he had even known. But he survived. He put his faith in God and God did not fail him.
As for Jesus....In this morning’s roller coaster of a gospel he is baptised, named as the beloved Son of God, driven into the wilderness, tempted, endangered by wild beats and protected by angels. And then he’s off to preach the Gospel.
In the middle of all that what we find is that even Jesus needs to spend time in the wilderness.
What both Noah and Jesus find in the wilderness is a place where God is and a place of hope and new beginnings. Emerging from the wilderness it all begins in earnest. Noah finds a new world to live in; Jesus begins a mission which will take him to the cross but also to a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the promise of the resurrection.
Wilderness can be a place or it can be much more. At its most obvious it can be Noah’s watery wastes or the desert into which Jesus was cast out. But it can also be a familiar place cast in darkness or gripped in cold, a state of mind, a feeling of terror, fear or desolation, of emptiness, of absence and removal from the world and from God. An arid, dry place of spiritual abandonment.
Let me tell you a story. Some of you may be familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Even if you haven’t read it you may have seen the musical or a TV adaptation.
There’s one scene which has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it.
A reminder - The central character is Jean Valjean, an escaped convict, who spends most of the book seeking redemption, seeking to do good whilst always attempting to escape the relentless pursuit of the policeman Javert.
Valjean promises the destitute and dying Fantine that he will look after her daughter Cosette. Fantine has sent Cosette away to live with a couple who are badly abusing and mistreating her.
On Christmas Eve Cosette is sent out to the well for water. It is a freezing cold, dark night and her bucket is heavy. The well is in the forest at some distance, but Cosette has no option. She cannot disobey her abusers.
She knows the way as she has done this many times before. But it is dark. The darkness is bewildering. She is seized by the ‘black enormity of nature’ by ‘something more terrible even than terror’.
She manages to draw the water but the bucket is now even heavier and she is tired. She wants to run but is terrified of the consequences of flight. Her wet and tiny hands are now numb with the cold. In Hugo’s words
This took place in the depths of a forest, at night, in winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight: no one but God saw that sad thing at that moment.
She makes one final effort to continue, summons up all her strength and finally cries out to God for help. "O my God! My God!"
And then, again in Hugo’s words,
At that moment she suddenly became conscious that her bucket no longer weighed anything at all: a hand, which seemed to her enormous, had just seized the handle, and lifted it vigorously. She raised her head. A large black form, straight and erect, was walking beside her through the darkness; it was a man who had come up behind her, and whose approach she had not heard. This man, without uttering a word, had seized the handle of the bucket which she was carrying.
The child was not afraid.
Cosette’s wilderness tested her in every way, cold and dark, physical extremity, fear and terror, an absence of love, a complete lack of hope. But in the moment when all seems lost God is there for her in the strength and saving presence of Jean Valjean.
I’m sure none of us has not experienced wilderness. It can come on us when we are least prepared. I’m sure there have been times when our world has changed and we’ve been plunged into a place where we would rather not have been.
It may have been for short time or for longer, a one off or something that recurs with dismaying regularity.
It is only this experience of wilderness, of desolation and abandonment which can really bring us to a deep understanding that when the world has let us go God has not, and God never will.
God is not capable of not being with us. This is the God who will walk beside us through the darkness, who will take the weight, who will make us unafraid.
These are times when we are tested to the limit, and when we have nothing else left we will still have God. God can help us, if only by being there, walking with us, holding onto us, holding our hand, seizing the handle of our bucket.
At these times we can begin to really get to know ourselves better, our inner resources, our character, how far we can go, how much we can cope with.
Once we recognise God with us we can begin to feel hope, we can begin to start again, to escape from the darkness.
If we can accept wilderness as a place of hope and new beginnings we can begin to see Lent in a new light.
We can equally begin to see Lent as a time of hope and new beginnings. And that is a cause for happiness.
You may be feeling on top of the world, everything going well in lives full of love and contentment. If you are, then good. If I’m honest I feel that way most of the time.
But if that’s the way you feel and if you’ve never been to the wilderness how will you cope when you are thrust into it? When you lose a loved one, or a job, when you’re ill or in pain, when you suddenly feel that you can’t go on.
Lent is a way of preparing for that. By reaching out and looking for the wilderness we can prepare ourselves for those times when the wilderness reaches out and finds us.
Lent is a time to find our own wilderness. It’s an opportunity to step out of the ordinary, into a space and time that is extra ordinary and beyond our normal. A space and time for reflection. A space for yourself. A space to find yourself, your true self. To look at yourself and ask questions. Am I the person I really want to be? Sometimes the answer to the last question is no, I want to be slimmer, fitter, more alert. That’s fine.
But Lent can actually prepare you to be in a better relationship with God, to spend more time with God, to learn how to speak to God and listen for God. And as you build that relationship you can prepare yourself for those times when that relationship is something you will have to rely on, when it may be the last thing you have, where it may be the one source of hope and the only chance of a new beginning.
You can, above all, learn to give your trust to God, just as Noah, Jesus and yes, Cosette did. And to learn that God is the one constant in your life, the one who will be with you at the start of your life and at the end.
You may already have thought very carefully about this Lent. If you haven’t then there is still time. You may be sick of Lent already, may feel that you’ve had plenty of Lents in your life, may be bored with the routine of giving up and Bible studies.
Think of Lent with a new purpose, think of it with an end in mind, the end of being in a better relationship with yourself and with God. Know yourself better and know God better.
You can still give things up, still diet, still exercise, still read the Bible but do it knowing that it’s all focused on uncovering and casting aside the bits of you that you don’t need, that are not really part of who you are, who you want to be, who you need to be. If God broke through the clouds and addressed you would he call you his beloved? What would he love about you?
I think, I know, that God loves you, just as he loves all of us. He accepts our imperfections but he wants us to be the best we can be. Not slimmer, or fitter, or more learned, just more trusting and more willing to live our lives in him and with him and through him.
It is in the wilderness that we can find that trust and the experience of life with God. And that is what gives us hope for the future and for new beginnings. And that is exactly why Lent can be a time of reflection, and yes of looking back, but with the looming presence of a happy future built upon our relationship with God.
Noah trusted in God to deliver him, Jesus accepted his full humanity and looked to the hope of resurrection life, and even Cosette, in her moments of ultimate despair, cried out to God and was answered in the strong rescuing arms of her deliverer.
We can find God in the wilderness of Lent, the God who loves us, the God who redeems us, the God who saves us. And when we need that love, when we need that redemption, when we need the hope of salvation, God will be with us. And that can only be a source of happiness.