With Jesus in the Wilderness

Frances Ward

A sermon preached at St John the Evangelist, Workington, 1 March 2020

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

It’s Lent – the season to reflect on the state of our souls. As we hear of Jesus’ sojourn in the Wilderness, let’s consider our internal life. Is it a wilderness? Are we dry and exhausted inside? What difference does it make to believe in Jesus? To what extent does Jesus bring us to life?  Help us to live and flourish – abundantly?

Something different this morning. I ask you to listen, to use your imagination. Perhaps it was like this.

Jesus was tired. So very tired. He’s been working full on now for days. Talking with folk, explaining to those disciples of his who were – well, let’s say, not always as bright as they might be, not always very quick on the uptake. Word was around, so the sick flocked to him and each time, energy went out of him. He felt that there wasn’t much more to give, to be honest. His soul was parched, dry. Sleep eluded him; always there was the sight of some poor face, or crumpled body, mangled leg or wasted arm. Always more need, more problems to solve. Always something else, someone else who wanted him.

Yes, Jesus was exhausted.

He packed up some bread, a few dried fish and a bottle of wine and set off. He needed to be by himself for a while. To regain perspective. Find himself again.

The wilderness was vast, out there, once he’d left the town. It too was dry, parched – the external environment mirroring his own internal state. After a while he left familiar paths and found himself in unknown territory. He plodded on. And on. Feeling the tiredness of his soul begin to slow his body too.

It was getting towards evening, so he started to look for somewhere to sleep. A sheltered spot, under the overhang of a large rocky outcrop. This would do. He lit a little fire to keep wild beasts away, and to give some warmth as the night came down. It wasn’t long before the stars were out – myriad stars, blazing like pinpricks in the cloth of heaven. He sighed, deeply, and began to pray.

The food wouldn’t last long, and then he’d go without, cleansing his soul from everything – all the desires that cried out within, like his belly. He asked God to be with him. Simply that. God be with me. God be with me.

When sleep came it was profound. Dreamless. A deep sinking into the dark comfort, the everlasting arms of God.

He woke with the dawn, and began to wander. Simply following the Spirit – letting it lead him where it will. He found a scorpion and watched it for a while, marvelling at its stillness. It began to be beautiful as he watched. Slowly he stretched out his hand. It came closer. After an age of simply holding his hand near, the scorpion clambered on and sat there in the warmth of his palm. Then, after five minutes or so, it sprang away and was gone. Jesus smiled.

A little while later he crouched down to gaze at a cactus, covered in bright buds. As he watched, they began to open. Not just that one flower, but all around him; a riot of colour – pinks, orange, reds. The desert seemed to come to life. As if it had been waiting for him.

The bread was long gone. He’d eaten it, moist, soaked in the wine. He’d chewed the fish skins, sucking out the salt. His last meal for a while. Before long hunger pangs began. They came in spasms; his stomach crying out to be filled. But no. Jesus distracted himself by looking for a place to settle for the rest of the day.

That night he did dream. He felt a presence with him – not God, now; but malign, out to get him. He tossed and turned, to shake it off somehow. The vision kept appearing – succulent bread, stained red in wine, such as he yearned for. He woke with a start. The moon and the stars; God’s ordained universe was all around. He knew, in that moment, that he belonged to the world in a way that was so much bigger than his hunger. That he didn’t live for bread alone. There was so much more to life. He found God’s peace, and slept again. 

The next morning he climbed, scrambled up the rocky slope that beckoned him upwards. His sandals were no good, so he left them behind, preferring bare feet; his toes gripping the cracks and crevasses, working like his fingers. It was flat when he reached the top – a platform the size of a yard. He crept to the edge – which was much steeper now, looking down, than it had seemed as he ascended. The impulse was there – the strange impulse – to throw himself down. For who would know? What was his life worth, anyway? It was as if a death wish took him over. If the final outcome of his life was death anyway – and he had a strong sense that it would all end that way – why not? Why not now? Why not simply fling headlong, and soar like an angel? Why not spring up for the stars? Become one with the enormity of the universe? For surely God would hold him – in death, as in life?

What stopped him? Who knows. A still, small voice. No. Your life is not yours to dispose of. It is not for you to decide.

Again, he slept, high on that mountain. The cold blanketed him; the stars stabbed him with their sharp ice.

As the dawn began to reach from the east, he was awake, watching the world come into being, as if for the first time. The far horizons, suffused with peach gold. All so rich, so wondrous. He caught himself saying ‘If I play my cards right, I can have them all eating out of my hand. So powerful; no one could resist me.’ The energy welled up inside him; it was overwhelming. The sense of his own power. Of course, he said, I’ll use it for the good. Of course, I will. But how delicious it will be to see their admiration, their adoration. It would be so good, feel so strong.

The sun rose suddenly; suddenly he was bathed in brightness; his eyes dazzled; his whole body seared with a burning heat. He fell back, exhausted by it; as if the radiance had cut him through, leaving an empty husk. The power gone, he knew only his own emptiness, his own need, dependence, utter need for God. I am nothing without you, he prayed.    

The sun grew hot as he made his way down, finding what shade he could. Hours later, when he reached ground level again, he began to wander at will, looking all around him with eyes that saw, and ears that heard God’s presence in each atom, in each grain of sand.

Wherever he placed his foot, his bare foot, the grass began to grow. Wherever he looked, the birds appeared, and sang for him. Whenever he dug a little, the water filled the hole – clean, lovely water. My sister water, he praised. Behind him trees grew – fig trees, apples, vines in abundance. He blessed the wilderness with his presence and it blossomed into life. He smiled, and the rocks dripped honey. He touched, and the flowers coloured the world. The moss and lichens provided his bed that night, and a wolf came and lay down beside him. As he slept, the sky was filled with angels. He was ready to go home.

book announcement

Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate Crisis, Eco-Anxiety and God

We are delighted to announce the publication of Frances Ward’s latest book: Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate Crisis, Eco-Anxiety and God (Sacristy Press, 2020).

From the blurb:

Christians often don’t know how to respond to the climate crisis and messages of possible destruction caused by human activity.

Frances Ward offers a thoughtful and engaging reflection on
how Christians can live and act in a spirit of hope amidst messages of impending doom.

We are a people on the verge of extinction. Progress is never made by contented people, nor will the necessary ruptures needed to stop our damaging behaviours ever be made convincing by them. However, Frances Ward’s discontent understands the deep connections between the inner and outer landscapes. She scrutinizes both on a journey, with a restless attention, and writes this journal of soul and world in a poetic voice. The result is a holy and subversive protest for creation and for God.

Mark Oakley, Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge
The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward

For further information, including on how to obtain your copy, please see the promotional flyer.


Loss, Transition – and the Gospel of Lament

Dr Karl Möller

On 15 February 2020, Karl Möller and Nicki Pennington facilitated a day on loss, transition and the gospel of lament. Taking Psalm 137, arguably one of the most difficult texts of the Old Testament, as the starting point, the day explored lament as:

  • honest prayer;
  • passionate clinging to God;
  • liberating voicing of anger;
  • struggle against chaos;
  • exposure of violence;
  • demand for justice;
  • resistance against hopelessness, numbness, voicelessness and dehumanisation;
  • a transformative process of empowerment;
  • entailing the seeds of hope;
  • gospel.
The Revd Nicki Pennington

We considered what the process of lament and letting go might have to offer to the church today, as we transition from being a church at the centre to a church on the edge. Reflecting on Isaiah 49:1-6, a text offering hope and a new vision to the people in exile, we explored how loss can turn into a fresh vision and renewed hope, with new opportunities emerging for a church on the edge.

The day ended with an act of worship, which included some prayer stations on loss, struggle, brokenness and exile.

The full text of Karl’s notes on the gospel of lament is available in our Resources section.