Theme: God is with us
Where are you this morning ? When posing this question, I am not asking you to describe where you are physically i.e. sitting on the fifth pew of a medieval church, in a small village in South Cheshire. No I want us all to stop and take stock of our situation.
Socially are you in the centre, at the hub of things, the focus of attention. If people are planning to hold a party, is yours the first name on the list as without you there is no party. When you are there do people crowd around hanging on your every word ? Do you find it easy to strike up conversation with everyone you meet. Do people recognise you as you go down the lane, and stop to chat ?
Or perhaps you are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Rather than being outgoing, you are withdrawn. Few people know you, and even less seem to care. 35 years ago Lennon and Mcartney wrote a song titled Eleanor Rigby, which starts " Look at all the lonely people" and then proceeds to describe the life of Eleanor Rigby, who goes about her business, going to church, tending the graveyard, watching the world go by, but no-one notices. Do you feel like that at times ?
Despite the hustle and bustle, the frenetic pace of life, cities can be one of the loneliest places to live. It sounds counter intuitive but I have experienced it first hand. At times when I was living out of a suitcase in yet another hotel room, I felt totally alone, even though I may have spoken to Greta a couple of hours earlier on the phone. When I walked through the park all I could see were others enjoying themselves, talking with friends, kicking a ball around, taking the dog for a walk. Ironically it was the contrast with how I felt that made it so stark.
It is strange that as we are on the verge of the 21st Century, despite the explosion in ways of communicating, not just letters and phones, but mobile phones, faxes, video links, and e.mail, that probably more people feel cut off from others than ever before. Rather than one to one, we seem to have created a society where personal interaction is infrequent, and if we are not careful, superficial.
And this is not just a disease of the cities, even in villages like Bunbury people can feel cut off, excluded. Net curtains, and mortice locks keep others at bay, protecting you from a hostile world but making you a prisoner in your own house. People are unable to just drop in, instead meetings are scheduled weeks in advance
Barriers need not be physical, sometime people are unable to communicate about how they feel to those around them. A couple of months ago Kath shared with us how she felt when she moved into Swan Lane 17 years ago. How many people understood what she was feeling at that time. How many people living among us feel like that now ?
Or you may feel totally isolated spiritually. At a loss to know what to do. Circumstances have conspired so that any faith you have had, seems to have disappeared. You are desperate to cling on to something but God, if he exists, is so far away and based on your view, apparently disinterested.
If that is where you are this morning, then take heart. Others have been there before. In the Old Testament we read of the occasion when Elijah, despite witnessing at first hand God's awesome power at Mount Carmel, and effectively routing the prophets of Baal, is hiding to save his life, and bemoaning his fate as the "last" person alive who serves the true God.
And also Job, after disaster upon disaster befalls him, laments "May the day of my birth perish . may God above not care about it, may no light shine upon it".
If you feel isolated, alone, either socially or spiritually then you are effectively in the wilderness. What picture does the term wilderness conjure up in your mind's eye. For me it is an image of total emptiness, not a Hollywood set with swirling sand, more like a lunar landscape, dominated by rocks, a total absence of water, vegetation or any means to support life. I have caught a glimpse of it, when visiting a base metal mine in Tasmania. The sulphurous gases from the smelter had choked the atmosphere and denuded the hillside of all plant and animal life.
We know that the Children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness when travelling from Egypt to Canaan, a journey that should only have taken a few weeks. This was due to their disobedience and lack of faith in God.
But have you ever stopped to think why Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In fact despite our familiarity with the story, the whole of Mark's account detailing Jesus' baptism and then his time in the wilderness is not straightforward.
John the Baptist was in Judea preaching a gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins which was signified through baptism by immersion. Figuratively it showed that those who were being baptised had turned back, they were starting a new life with God at the centre.
But that makes it even more puzzlig that Jesus was baptised ? After all Jesus was God, moreover he was sinless, so technically he had no need for baptism. But in the gospel reading, Mark records that at the moment that Jesus was baptised, the Spirit came on him like a Dove, and a voice was heard "This is my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased".
Jesus' baptism signifies that Jesus can understand and identify with our spiritual need that is ultimately expressed in turning away from our natural instincts, and trying with God's help, to lead a life which we are expected to.
The time of temptation that is recorded in more detail by the other gospel writers, demonstrated Jesus' total reliance on God. The Devil came to him after Jesus had been fasting for 40 days i.e. he was at his lowest physical ebb. The idea of turning stone into bread would have been very tantalising. In itself it wouldn't have appeared that fundamental, certainly not by the standards of the later miracles which Jesus performed yet it would have shown Jesus using his power to further his own end, which is not why he came.
And the other temptations, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in full view of everyone to demonstrate God's power, on the surface this was the ideal short cut to get people to treat God seriously. Yet on each occasion Jesus confronted Satan with Scripture.
The apostle Paul reminded the Corintians that they were not exposed to any temptation that was not common to man. And that when they were tempted God provided a way out, a release.
When we are feeling isolated, alone, as if we were in the wilderness, do we recognise God is there and can help us, or do we try and tough it out relying on our own skills / strength.
I am sure many people have heard the poem entitled "Footprints" which describes a dream in which a man looks back on his life. Throughout much of it he sees 2 sets of footprints walking side by side signifying the close friendship he had with God, yet he was surprised to notice that at the most difficult times, God appeared to be absent as one set of footprints disappeared. When questioning God about this, he discovered that far from God leaving him, it was at that time that God carried him.
In re-reading this it occurred to me that if we are not careful at times of difficult career, personal and other issues, we become so wrapped up in what is occurring that we fail to notice that God is with us.
Mark stresses that Jesus was not led out into the wilderness and then left alone, no the opposite was true, the angels came and ministered to him. Important to recognise that we are not alone, far from it, it is at these times that we should be more aware of God's presence as we are forced to rely on him.
The late Rabbi Hugo Grinn, reflecting on his time in an extermination camp, remembering the horrible scenes that were before his eyes on a daily basis, remarked that the difference between the survivors and those who perished was those who had hope. Without hope man is lost, no matter if his physical needs for food and shelter are met.
And that is what we can hold onto this morning, even if we feel in the wilderness, as God is there with us, leading us towards his promise of a bright new dawn, the current heaven and earth will pass away and we will be in a new Jerusalem.
Simon de Bell