DESERT JOURNEYS 11
Wednesday 28th February 2018
The Israelites gathering manna Ercole de Roberti (National Gallery, London)
It’s so easy to grumble.
Time and time again we read of the Israelites wandering in the desert grumbling about their lot, and comparing what they had with some idealised memory of the past in which they conveniently forgot the harder parts. If we are honest, we can probably identify with their grumbling, as this is something we all tend to indulge in many times throughout the day.
Grumbling often begins when we start to look at what we do not have, rather than what we do have. When that happens, rather than dwelling on what we have in abundance we tend to focus on what we lack, which can easily lead on to apportioning blame for our lack and judging others.
This is exactly what the Israelites did – they took their eyes off their freedom, off their vision of God and off the divine provision given to them on a daily basis and recalled a rosy past, forgetting the slavery, beatings and helplessness of their previous situation.
We may not be wandering in a desert and have never been slaves but what we do have in common with the Israelites is our propensity to grumble, to take our eyes off what we have and fix them on what we do not.
Take a moment to pause and thank God for something you do have. God always wants us to come to Him with our needs but by beginning to give thanks our awareness of His goodness to us will increase.
DESERT JOURNEYS 10
Tuesday 27th February 2018
Sometime ago, when my son was working in Dubai, he took us into the desert. My husband was alive then.
The first thing one notices in daylight is the beautiful sculpture of the sand dunes and the silence. They flow and have sharp edges and stretch in wonderful shapes for miles. It gets very cold in the desert at night so we wrapped up warm, took a picnic and lit a fire. I remember I was amazed by the wonder of the stars if one wandered away from the fire. It made me paradoxically feel insignificant, but thankful and much loved by God and in awe of His creation.
DESERT JOURNEYS 9
Monday 26th February 2018
Having never visited a desert, it’s difficult to draw parallels, but looking back I might describe the first part of my life as a bit spiritually deserted. I was enormously blest to be brought up in a Christian family, encouraged to attend Sunday School, and surrounded by friends and family who modelled Christian values. I dropped out of church during teenage years, but was drawn back whilst at University. By the time I started work, I had a reasonable knowledge of the Bible. I knew about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. I understood what happened to Him. But I didn’t understand why.
Through a remarkable series of events involving music, house moves, phone calls and choirs I found myself worshipping at a church in Derby where the Gospel of Jesus Christ was taught clearly. Gradually it became clear that ‘the Gospel’ wasn’t just the title given to four books of the Bible. God helped me to understand that he loved me enough to send his son, Jesus Christ, to die instead of me. Punishment that I deserved for the many things I got wrong had instead been taken by Jesus. And amazingly, I didn’t, in fact I couldn’t do anything to assist this process. All I had to do was say sorry, accept forgiveness, and trust Christ to put me in a right and wonderful relationship with God.
Finally I had come to understand the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’, the oasis in the desert.
Life now has very different motives. Once I might have said I was doing things ‘for God,’ in the hope that the more I did the more God might love me. But now I understand that nothing I do can earn God’s forgiveness, but that everything I do can be in gratitude for what Christ has done for me. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth in to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and in to an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you,’ (1 Peter chapter 1, verses 3 and 4).
DESERT JOURNEYS 8
Friday 23rd February 2018
Huacachina Oasis, Peru (Diego Delso CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mention of the Lenten blog brought to mind a song I wrote many years ago when I was about nineteen. It was called ‘Oasis’ and was, I thought, quite simply a work of genius.
“Yes,” I said to myself, “I’ll dig that out and send it to Sophia and everyone will be uplifted and enriched by it. Even without the melody, the rhythm and rhyme of lines like ‘We may wander when we thirst, but to me you were the first… oasis’ are quite splendid.” So full of smugness, I went to dig it out.
And it’s gone.
And then I remembered why.
It wasn’t very good at all! In fact I’d even nicked the first line from an old Eagles song!
Years ago I chose to discard it and work harder to become a better writer. And I have (although some may disagree because I just started this sentence with ‘and’ and I’m going to start the next with ‘but’!). But throughout my career and life journey, the rhythm and rhyme of that line has never left me. Just as God has never left me. Life has taken me in all sorts of directions and spiritual wildernesses many times but always at the back of my mind there has been the reminder that whatever attracts us, it is only Jesus, the living water that really satisfies. “We may wander when we thirst, but to me God is the first…oasis.”
DESERT JOURNEYS 7
22nd February 2018
Wadi Rum (Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0)
I have had the good fortune to be able to spend a number of occasions on actual desert journeys. I find them incredible places of beauty and there is nothing like the silence of a desert. I want to tell you a little more about a cycle & climbing expedition in the Jordanian desert with my husband.
We flew out on Christmas Day 1997 – a strange time to travel but it was cheap. Over the next week we cycled the King’s Highway to Petra, on to the seaside resort of Aqaba, and then to spend time climbing. Neal had always dreamt of scaling the sandstone mountains of Jebel Rum after reading a book by his hero, Tony Howard. It was dedicated to the Bedouin people of the Wadi Rum area and in particular Sabbah Atieek who showed Tony many routes. So having arrived in Wadi Rum and found somewhere to camp it was a great thrill when Sabbah came to visit us the next day. He made us tea and discussed our plans. We then set off up the 1800m Jebel Rum, and while I have not got room here to describe the next two days in detail, in short we found ourselves still on the mountain as sunset approached.
At the time I was not an active Christian but that night I prayed as we were plunged into the dark of a desert night huddled high on a mountain with a diminishing amount of water and a small fire made from what scrubby gorse wood we could find to keep us warm. As soon as sun rose we continued our journey back down the mountain but soon came across an infamous gully that we knew we had to jump to continue down. This was the most terrifying thing I have ever had to do and it still fills me with fear when I think about it; but the words ‘Trust Me, you can do it’ propelled me to put in the biggest leap I could muster. God looks after us at all times – it is easier to hear in the wildness and remoteness of a desert but He is always there.
When we returned to the village and were sitting having some much needed food, Sabbah came visiting again. He had seen our fire on the mountainside in the night and he just wanted to check we were OK. God also sends us the people we need to look out for us; we don’t always know who they will be but at times we must trust in the kindness of strangers.
DESERT JOURNEYS 6
21st February 2018
Jesus’ temptation Jan Brueghel
All the synoptic accounts1 of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness state that Jesus spent forty days of fasting there. This echoes the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. All the synoptic accounts state that Jesus began his journey in the desert after his baptism – a ritual where the old life is symbolically washed away ready for the new life that is to begin. The synoptics also record God’s dramatic affirmation of his love and Christ’s calling with the words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.’2 The recognition of his vocation by the voice of God means that Jesus now needs to prepare more fully for his ministry. It is now that Jesus hears the voices of doubt that try to move him away from his true vocation. In order that he might fulfil his mission, these voices must be dealt with.
Many early Christian commentators saw Christ’s battle against the devil (especially in the fuller accounts given by SS Matthew and Luke) as portraying Christ as the model exemplar for a Christian. St John Chrysostom (c.347-407) wrote in a homily on Christ’s temptations in the wilderness: “All that Jesus did and suffered was for our instruction. He consented to be led into the desert and to do battle with the devil so that when the baptized were assailed by greater temptations after baptisms than before they would not be troubled as though this were something unexpected, but would remain steadfast, bearing all nobly.”3
Whilst this interpretation is undoubtedly true, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness clearly echo the forty-year wanderings of the Israelites. It is here in the wilderness that Jesus must understand the demands of life under God’s direction, demonstrate mastery of the temptations that could steer him away from his mission, and prepare himself for the work ahead.
Perhaps when we find ourselves wandering in a ‘spiritual wilderness’ amongst the competing demands of life, it is to emphasise that it is God on whom we rely and who will ultimately give us the strength and guidance we need.
1 Matthew 4: 1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13
2 Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22.
3 ‘Homilies on St Matthew’s Gospel by St John Chrysostom’ Christ our Light: Patristic Readings on Gospel Themes Volume I. Translated and Edited by Friends of Henry Ashworth (Exordium Books: 1981).
DESERT JOURNEYS 5
20th February 2018
The Jews in the Desert Tintoretto
The use of the word ‘wilderness’ occurs frequently throughout the Bible. I reach for my somewhat ancient copy of Cruden’s Concordance and scan its pages, counting up how many times the word ‘wilderness’ occurs. There are over seventy citations. This somewhat crude statistic serves to indicate the importance that the wilderness, and journeys through it, have for our understanding of God.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, a wilderness can refer to a barren desert, or just to land that is uncultivated – a sparsely populated area, consisting of a few nomadic herdsmen. One of the better-known stories of the Old Testament is told not in one continuous narrative, but spread throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It details the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, after gaining their freedom from slavery in Egypt, before arriving in the Promised Land. It was in the wilderness that the Israelites would learn to understand life under God’s direction.
As a motif, the wilderness expresses hardship and testing in inhospitable and potentially dangerous surroundings, but it is also a place where the old life can be discarded and the new life begun and practised. In the case of the Israelites, this meant leaving the old life in Egypt for a new life in Canaan. Viewed through this prism, it is perhaps no surprise that we find Jesus, shortly after his baptism by John, also in the wilderness.
to be continued tomorrow