by Rev Dr Phil Wall
So, the last time I led a service with you, it was New Year’s Eve as some of us gathered for a zoom Communion service, bidding farewell to the old year and welcoming in the new. In spite of much of the gloom that surrounds us, I hope you have found some light within this new year. I assume your Christmas decorations are now down, though I know a couple of church members who deliberately left out their nativity scenes until Wednesday, giving the wise men their time in the spotlight. For Wednesday was the Feast of the Epiphany – the day on which Christians around the world celebrate the magi’s visitation to Jesus and the worship of the first, rather exotic, gentiles. It might also be noted that following the magi’s visit, an insecure despot named Herod was so threatened by the news of a successor that he tried to overthrow the result through violence. He did not succeed. Herods come and Herods go whilst the love of Christ remains!
Whilst the feast of the epiphany was on Wednesday, the season of epiphany continues right up until Lent and so, over the next few Sundays, we’ll be reflecting on the gospel accounts of various encounters with Jesus; thinking about what they reveal about God and what they might teach us about being followers of Christ in 2021. Along the way, we’ll be blessed by fellow travellers – two former ministers of our respective congregations – Simon & Gethin – as they offer their reflections to the mix, aiding our musings on what the church should and could be today. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a breath and listen to Mark as we begin at the very beginning of his gospel account, hearing of a holy hullaballoo by the River Jordan…
Reading: Mark 1:1-13
So, it’s the January of the year 2000. The UK is taking baby steps into the new millennium, buoyed by the avoidance of a millennium-bug induced apocalypse and, on this side of the Severn, by the newly created National Assembly. The future looks bright, not least for an 18-year-old from Orpington who has completed his secondary schooling and has his place at Nottingham University secured. Before crossing that educational threshold, however, this lanky vegetarian with Deidre Barlow style glasses and curtains, has chosen to follow in the footsteps of his privileged forebears by indulging in the holy grail of middle-class rituals…the gap year!
Now your outlook on a gap year – a year between periods of education or work, most often post-secondary school and pre-university, in which one might work, travel, volunteer or study something unusual – may well depend on your age, desire for travel, own experience of work and study etc. and perspectives vary from them being a frivolous waste of time for spoilt, rich kids to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain experiences, skills, and friendships which will enhance the rest of one’s life, and possibly others to boot. One refrain which is often used by both critics and proponents of such ventures is that a gap year is where you’re meant to ‘find yourself’ as if, embarking on foreign adventures or reflecting on domestic dynamics will enable to you to successfully complete an existential game of ‘Where’s Wally’. I got so many jibes about ‘finding myself’ from one particular friend that I sent them a postcard from one of my travels which just said ‘I’ve finally found myself! Unfortunately, it turns out that I’m a bit of an idiot’, or words to that effect!
And yet, whilst I would freely admit that I did indeed find a Wally or two during my gap year, I can honestly say that my experiences during the year, most notably during a few months of voluntourism in rural Kenya, affected my outlook, my faith, and, in fact, the course of my life. The juxtaposition of both the horrendous living conditions of the students I taught and the friends I made out there and the beauty of the country and its people saw me change my beliefs, behaviour, and the subject I would go on to study at university. So for me, that time away from the usual carousel of work and study enabled me to reflect and readdress my priorities in life.
In some ways, the past year has been like a literal gap year for many of us – a year’s break from the norm which has led to many folk reflecting on and changing their perspectives of and priorities in life. This has been no less true for us at Castle Square and at St. David’s Uniting Church, the latter of which turned 18 last January and whose gap year has been somewhat different to that we might have planned. Some of our gap year experiences have been good. Time to think; rediscovering the beauty on our doorstep; many examples of community kindness; the re-establishing or deepening of relationships with those we could only encounter online; to name but a few.
Much of this gap year of sorts, however, has involved great suffering and loss. Loss of connection and company; loss of employment and opportunities; loss of good health or even of loved ones. For countless millions around the world, the past year has felt like a time in the wilderness –a period which has seen us cut off from the norms of society, fearful of the dangers that lurk all around, uncertain whether the silence and solitude we face is friend or foe.
Our more contemplative siblings across faith traditions would tell us that it is exactly at such times that we come face to face with our own ego; in such times that we can open ourselves up to revelation of a profound type; that we might even discern the still, small voice of God. This is why the desert fathers and mothers of the early church retreated to the wilderness to live and worship; and, why, following his baptism and that sky-splitting affirmation from the Creator and the Spirit, Jesus is led there too.
Now Mark is, as ever, a little breathless in his narration of what happened to Jesus in the wilderness so we have to turn to Matthew and Luke to hear a little more detail about the time he spent fasting and being tempted by Satan. For those of us a little unsure about the mention of Satan here, down the years alongside more literal interpretations of Satan’s presence here, some Christians have understood ‘Satan’ as representing one’s shadow side or as a symbolic personification of our own ego – just as the number ‘40’ might well be less a specific number and more a general term for a significant period of time. Ponder that, as you will.
However we are to perceive Satan’s presence here, the temptations that Jesus faces would appear to relate, not simply to his current wilderness context, but to the ministry upon which he is about to embark.
In other words, he has just been declared God’s beloved Son…but what kind of Son of God will he be? Will he be one that will rely on miraculous acts to keep him in comfort (stones into bread); who will expect a divinely privileged and protected lifestyle (angelic safety); and who will wield worldly power to achieve his goals (inheriting worldly kingdoms)? No, decides Jesus, that path is not for me. And so, grounded in his understanding of God as revealed in scripture, Jesus rejects Satan’s temptations and walks onward on a path of vulnerability and risk; poverty and total reliance upon God.
A life of vulnerability and risk; poverty and total reliance upon God. I wonder, if we put that on a banner outside our church buildings, whether interested passers-by would flock to our church. I suspect not. For it doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh, does it? When we’re stuck in the wilderness, facing the darkness or the world or our own reliable demons, vulnerability and risk; poverty and total reliance upon God doesn’t sound…well, tempting to be honest, does it? When faced with the potential of loss – whether it be of status or income, connection or even the loss of loved ones – then give me divine intervention any day. That goes for both my personal life and on a church level. Faced with the loss of church members; faced with rapidly reducing congregations, loss of income, status and power – going on well before and after Covid – give me a miracle, a sudden turnaround, an inspired idea or project that will suddenly reverse the direction of travel and I’m in! Sorry Jesus – you stay fasting in the wilderness – I’d rather be feasting in a growing church any day!
And with that, I leave Jesus behind. Or try to. He’s stubbornly persistent! And somehow, he reminds me of a few words about losing a life and gaining it. Somehow, he helps me realize that Satan isn’t my only company where I am, but the Spirit, the animals and angels are with me too. Somehow, he takes me back to that event just before the wilderness – a descending and rising in the Jordan – and I realize afresh that the cross and the empty tomb – the wilderness and the God who meets us there – are inseparable. That, perhaps, it’s only in the wilderness that I can even begin to find myself; only there that I allow myself to be truly found, known and loved by God.
Of course, this realization doesn’t mean that I don’t crave, or often give in to my desire for, privilege, protection and power. And, perhaps, you’re hearing this and thinking there are better gap years to be had, easier paths to take. Paths that might protect us from harm, reduce the pain of loss, direct us away from difficult questions about the future of our congregations – and this might well be true. But to follow such a path would be to choose the pleasures and powers that can distract us only for a time; to choose to remain in spiritual immaturity; to go from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, denying the reality of those days in between.
Instead, might we become accustomed to the wilderness and encounter God’s Spirit here? Perhaps this means learning to let go of our need to control our own lives, the behaviour of others, even the actions of God! Perhaps it means learning to face our losses with honesty, not denying our pain or fears, but grieving with hope; remembering God’s promises of new life and transformation, of flowers blooming in the wilderness. Perhaps, as congregations, it means learning to let go of the things we think we need to survive – to let go of the goal of survival itself – and to fully abandon ourselves to God.
Maybe this fits nicely into your own gap year plans. Maybe you’ve learnt to let go of plans altogether. If so, please tell me how.
In the meantime, it’s time to get back into the wilderness. The angels and animals are waiting for us. And so is God. Amen.
 Remember, all members can join us at these services – whether by telephone or on the computer.
 Those of you who are currently watching ‘The Serpent’ will have heard similar arguments being exchanged about the backpacking fraternity of South East Asia.
 The boys who were able to attend the school at which I was teaching were considered the lucky ones and, on top of the poverty even they endured, around a third of them were HIV positive in a country with a limited health care system.
 One poll last year found that only 12% wanted to return to the old ‘normal’ British society in a post-Covid world –
I wonder how our wilderness sojourn might change our perspectives and priorities.
I wonder what temptations of privilege and power we need to be wary of.
I wonder what we might need from God, and from each other, in order to survive – even thrive – in the wilderness.
I wonder what God might be saying to us in our wilderness.
Prayers of intercession
God our Guide, sometimes you call us into the wilderness – into those places where we must rely totally upon you for our survival – at other times your Spirit drives us into those places – and each time we have entered the wilderness we have been tempted and tested – tempted to seek out the magical, to cling to power and control, to claim special protection. As your church, as followers of the wilderness wanderer, help us to rely on you alone. Grant us the strength to keep walking your path of humility, humanity and love. Lead us on our journey and inspire us all to encourage one another in word and prayer, act and grace.
God our Rock, throughout history you have given us the courage to form and re-form your church against all odds and into pathways as yet unknown. By your Spirit and in unexpected ways, you have brought us to this place in the circle of your love. Guide our ways that we may grow in faith and hope. [Short pause]
God our Friend, surround us with your love and affirmation through the kindness of others, be they friend or stranger, young or old. Give us eyes to see the love you lavish on all people. Make us bold to speak your grace and act on behalf of your kingdom with strength of purpose. [Short pause]
God our Provider, give us courage to stand up for the abused, the needy, the sick, the poor and the stranger. We pray for those who suffer in mind, body or spirit, that you might bring healing and comfort. Inspire us to be your hands, your feet, your body, to provide for those in need as we are able. [Short pause]
And, because words can never be enough, we come before you in a time of quiet, bringing to you the people and places on our hearts today…
We bring all our prayers together with the words that Jesus taught us in a multitude of forms and languages, saying – ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’
Hymn: All Are Welcome in This Place