At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.
Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?
Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.
But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!
One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.
The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.
How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.
Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:
‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)
The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.
Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?
If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.
When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.
One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.
So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:
‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)
What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?
The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’
If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.
And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.
Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?
Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.
You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).
Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.
And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.
Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.
Maybe then, we might find life.