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.

Water of life

Water for the Journey. My venture into the scary world of blogging started with that post. (It remains above this as a title page, as I hadn’t learnt to post properly at that stage, but it seemed right to leave it where it was)

I started this year with another adventure. A pilgrimage to Israel.                                          Travelling on my own with a group of unknown others. A journey of encounter, of learning and entering Jesus’ world.

It started with being given a bottle of water. Water for the journey. In a dry and thirsty land where water is precious, water was to be a constant theme. The gift an example of the loving care and kindness from those leading the group,* that continued throughout the trip.

Take a desert, a barren, rocky moonscape of a desert..

Desert

and add a few vital drops of water.. and the hidden seeds buried in the hard, dry ground, burst into life.

life

Before my eyes, I saw a prayerful vision of promise for a church played out for real. Green shoots of potential breaking through in hope. Elsewhere I was to see the miracle of transformation taken much further. Valleys I had last seen as dusty wastes, were now verdant farmland- transfigured by advances in de-salination and irrigation processes. From death to life. The desert come to bloom.

The trip was as much an inner journey as an outer one. Early in the itinerary we were taken out into the Judean desert, (where Jesus faced down forty days of temptations at the very start of his ministry)and left to scatter to places of isolation for an hour of interior travel. Sitting in silent solitude was a deep balm. People-filled weeks of frenetic pace dropped away. I could have stayed much, much longer and initially found it hard to return to company and conversation. The Gospels often record Jesus stealing away to ‘lonely places’ for time out with his Father, a life-line undergirding his ministry.

Staying right beside the Sea of Galilee, was an equal balm. Early morning walks by the lakeside as dawn was breaking or watching the sun setting were a gentle counterpoint to days filled with multiple impressions, stimuli and thought provoking information.

Galilee is, if anything less populated than it was in Jesus’ day, and the vistas of hills and lake are immensely evocative of the world he knew and loved. Hard to describe, it feels a very ‘thin place’ where the veil between earth and heaven becomes transparent. Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge describes the Celtic idea of ‘Thin Place’

'Thin places', the Celts call this space
both seen and unseen,
where the door between this world
and the next is cracked open for a moment
and the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

I may not visit this shore again within my life time, but it is somewhere I can return to again and again in imaginative prayer. Water for the journey. Water for life.

At a major turning point in his ministry, as Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and all that awaited him there, he travelled with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Luke records him as ‘praying privately’. The source of the Jordan gushes out of the foot of Mount Hermon, very close to this spot, and it is possible to walk beside its roaring waterfalls and rushing waters. It would have been an obvious place to choose for private prayer.

Our guide had us walk beside the water in silence, then pause to hear Psalm 42.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’
4 These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

6 My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

8 By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me –
    a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God my Rock,
    ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?’
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    ‘Where is your God?’

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Saviour and my God.

A Psalm written in this ancient landscape. A Psalm echoing perhaps, Jesus’ mood at this point of crucial transition. He goes on to describe his coming suffering to his bewildered disciples.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.. 

A vivid, lasting memory of a much earlier visit to Israel, had been standing under the gushing force of these very falls. (This is no longer permitted) The Psalmist’s words echo my own spiritual experiences. Sometimes God is found in gentle stillness. At other times, encounters with the Almighty feel like being swept off your feet in an unstoppable torrent. 

Thirst. The Psalmist describes himself as having a ‘thirsty soul’. I need a thirsty soul. A deep and constant longing for the only water that can satisfy. 

Thirsty

The underground stream that never fails, even in the harshest drought. 

Water of life 2

Late one afternoon, we boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. To experience for ourselves a journey Jesus would have made many times. It was to prove an intense crossing for me. I think I cried for most of it. Early in my journey towards ordination, I had written a poem on the various calls on Peter’s life, as they resonated so deeply with my own. I used the poem Called to fish, shaped to serve in the presentation I had to give at the three day residential interview for the priesthood.  My own words now came back to me forcibly. ‘Stepped out of all he knew’ – Jesus’ invitation to Peter to step out of the boat..onto the deep. It seems God is always calling me to step out. Out of comfort zones and known territory. Into a place of overwhelming dependence. 

Deep calls to deep.

* www.michaelcard.com