If

Jesus-Desert

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost, and disoriented. One hill or escarpment looks very like another. Especially in the burning sun. He didn’t know what he had expected. Driven from the Jordan and the scene of his baptism, by an inescapable inner compunction. The voice that had called him Beloved had called him into the wilderness.

At first, he had welcomed the solitude, the silence of the empty landscape. If he was honest, he had also welcomed the challenge that he sensed. Pitting himself against the elements, against the odds. At first, it tasted of adventure.

At first.

The desert is an unforgiving friend. A harsh host, who gives nothing, takes everything. Strips the spirit bare, and picks over the bones of your dreams.

No roads, no directions, no certainties. No place to lay his head.

By day, the unrelenting sun. Remorseless glare of white on white. Bleached stones and dust, devoid of colour, comfort, life. The longing for shade, to creep under a rock and shut it out. A thirst for darkness, that surprised.

By night, inky blackness spreads her cloak of desolate chill. Wind whispers cold comfort to a lonely soul. Hard shale no solace to weary bones and shrinking flesh.

Hollowed out by hunger, he had never felt so empty. So spent. So alone. The breaking glory of his baptism a distant memory. The call into the wasteland a faint echo in a bleak canyon. A mouthful of dust.

There are no smells in the desert, and yet the waft of fresh-baked bread pulled him from what passed as sleep. In the shimmering haze, each stone a roll, each rock a loaf. He blinked and stared, uncomprehending. Tantalised by a phantom feast.

A shape. A form that wore a sycophantic smile and spoke in honeyed tones.

“Your power lies within. IF you are the son of God… One word would turn these stones to bread. You are weak with fasting that has become fanatic. Gone beyond the call. What harm in feeding yourself? Come now, listen to the voice of reason. ” 

So simple. So sensible. So inviting. .. Just a word.

And yet. And yet the words ingested as a child nourish him still.

“Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’  Spoken to desert wanderers, long years before, lest they forget the hand that gave them life.  He’d not waste his words, or play with power to feed himself, or to prove the power was his. He would stay hungry for God.

The desert dropped away. His vision swam and cleared to see the crowds far below. The temple throng and press. The silky voice relentless in his ears, as he swayed on tiny ledge.

IF you are the Son of God, as you believe (is that really true? How do you know?) God would not let his son be harmed- a thousand angels would catch your fall. Jump! Make a splash! Such a large crowd to impress. An overnight sensation – and the peace of knowing you are who you say you are. They would know- you would know. What is not to like? Jump!

The hand on his back to help him fly.

Dizzy, faint with lack, his body teetered on the edge. So easy. So sweet. So quick – an end. To fall into the angels arms.  Anger for God’s name flashed through his limbs and held him fast. His words terse and spare.

As well you know, It is written, “Do not put The Lord your God to the test” ”

He jumped ..

back –  and spun to face the shadow on his shoulder.

Gone. And in an instant, so was he. Whisked from temple tower to mountain top, the world spread out at his feet. A panoply of dominion.

All MINE. ” The voice was soft and warm. “I would not desert and starve you as the God who you call Father has.. (where is he now?) I am here. Simply rest. Kneel and ask my blessing and it is yours, my son. No more to do. No cross to bear. ” 

No cross. No tomb. No hell.

And yet hell’s breath was in his face. Sweet words on foul vapour. Deception unmasked by evil’s fetid taint.

” Be gone! ” The command brooked no rebuff. All authority was his. The Word spoke ancient words of life the devil could not stay to hear.

” Worship The Lord your God and serve only him.” 

The brush of angel’s wings.

There aren’t any roads in the desert. It is easy to get lost.

Asking the big questions

I , along with half the world, watched Pope Francis’ inauguration yesterday. Beautifully filmed, it was a moving occasion, and compelling drama. ++Justin Welby will be enthroned tomorrow, and I am sure it will be an equally momentous occasion, though perhaps with a smaller crowd.

The last time both heads of the church changed, at almost the same time, was in 1294. They were two weeks apart.

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Both men seem to have a fair bit in common, and even look uncannily alike. They both demonstrate a humble, almost diffident approach to the positions of power they have been chosen to take on. They both eschew the ostentatious trappings of their roles, and embody Jesus’  foundational teaching of service – that ‘the first shall be last’.
Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when    exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.
It is an upside down world view, that the world will never understand.

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It may be an apocryphal story, but it is said that St Francis was overheard at prayer. The cry to Heaven from Francis lips was in the form of a crucial question..
  “Who are you and who am I, that  you should choose me?”
I don’t know whether he ever received an answer, but certainly history has answered in full why God chose that particular young man.

It is a question that I imagine both Pope Francis, and ++Justin may have asked themselves of God, in recent days. Not only the inevitable ‘why me?’ cry, but the deep, important questions about who they are, and what is the nature of the God who has called them to serve.  History in time, will tell us too, what God has been about in selecting these men but the signs so far, would seem to indicate a  fresh wind of the Spirit blowing through the church.

St Francis’ prayerful cry was the subject of a talk given by the person leading my BAP (Bishop’s Assessment Panel)  three years ago. It struck a deep note within me, and I have never forgotten it. I am now approaching my priesting in the Summer, and the question is as relevant now as it was then. It is one I have to keep on asking, and keep listening for the answer. History, I suspect, will have very little to say about me, but what God has to say when I get through Heaven’s gates, is what really matters when all is said and done.