Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

Praying in the Wilderness

Romans 8:18-27

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit* intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Sermon Draft
One year I went to my daughter’s Year Seven school camp as one of the supporting parents.

One activity on offer at Coffin Bay that summer was wind surfing. The girls were in thigh deep water, and would teeter to an upright position on the board, which mostly resulted in them falling off, and bouncing off the bottom of the bay, with the obligatory squeals and shrieks. Everyone was having a great time.

The three girls I was tasked to watch and help, were very slowly drifting away from the shore as they splashed and crashed around in the water. Then, after one more attempt to raise the mast, the girl fell off, just on the other side of the board to where her friends were standing, and completely disappeared. Three, maybe four seconds later, she popped up, shocked, shrieking, spluttering and white, and was back on the board quicker than a champagne cork out of a bottle.

At some places in Coffin Bay, the beach goes out for many yards with no perceptible change in depth, and then drops abruptly as it falls over the edge of an ancient cliff. It feels like there is no bottom to it all. (Original Story)

All our life is lived on the edge of that ancient cliff. We mostly splash in the domesticated shallows of life with the comfort of electricity, good hospitals, and reasonable government. We are affluent and safe.

And we easily forget— in fact, we prefer to forget—  the deep savagery of the creation. In our safe cities we forget that the earth is a wilderness, that there is a great depth of mystery, hope, but also savagery very close by. One school of thought suggests we spend our lives trying to manage the terror of our existence and the inevitability of our death, and that this is the key thing which drives our culture. (Terror Management Theory)

We have a very human need to deal with the fact that we will die, even if a lot of the time we essentially pretend we won't. And we have lived through a time where the sciences and technology have been stunningly successful in protecting us from the savagery of the wilderness.  Bishop Frank Griswold once wrote, "We have nature by the throat."

But what he was hinting at in when he wrote that in 1987 has now become undeniable: we don't have nature by the throat. Nature may well spit us out. We are in danger of extinction. And our constant need for entertainment and distraction and new things betrays the shallowness of our domesticated lives.

We have made a kind of safety. We eat (too) well. Life is mostly predictable, although the memories of terror never quite fade— the ghosts of Joanne Radcliffe and Kirsty Gordon haunt us again this week— and new terrors explode among us with plane crashes and heart attacks. And... there is always an emptiness, a nagging dissatisfaction, an unanswered longing for something deeper.

I think we begin to answer those longings and fill the emptiness by facing our fears of the wilderness. Wilderness is not all bad. During bible study this week we listed the images we had of wilderness: remote, savage, it makes us puny and puts us in our place, dangerous....   and,  Michael said, "A place of grace."

All these things are correct. In the stories of Scripture, Israel spent years in the wilderness, and yet the wilderness was the place they were led by the cloud and the fire— by God. The wilderness was the place of feeding with manna and quail, and of water flowing from the solid rock.

Wilderness is where Elijah flees and meets God in a new way. God is not just the God of fire, earthquake and wind— the traditional understandings—  God is also a still, small voice, and Elijah goes on renewed and with a new vision and understanding of what God is doing in Israel.

And yes, wilderness is the place of temptation; the place where Jesus faces the devil. But who drives him there? The Spirit of God...

... because wilderness is where we come close to the edge of life's depths. It's dangerous, but it opens us up. It puts things in perspective. It is real. It pushes us to be honest about our limitations, our fears, our failings, and our longings.

It removes all the safe insulating distraction of our domesticated life in the shallows, and on the nicely trimmed lawns of the local park. It gives us opportunity to hear God.

Wilderness drags us into the presence of the Spirit. In the wilderness something happens. I'm quoting the words of the Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold

... our boundaries are extended. We are confronted by an abundance of life that we have neither asked for nor can in any way imagine. The word is larger than we are.

Or to put in another way, wilderness confronts us with the feeling— even the threat—  that maybe the image of the underwater cliff where the grounding bottom of our domesticated existence simply disappears is more than a sermon illustration.

Maybe God is not a tame being who makes life small and safe. Maybe God is deep, transcendent, wild, healing, loving, and other, way beyond what we "can in any way imagine." For we small and timid creatures the utterly loving God of Israel is also terrifying; Elijah wrapped his mantle around his face for a reason!

When Paul fell over the edges of life on the road to Damascus, he came up gasping for air like that little girl at Coffin Bay... and crying, "What happened to me?"

The reading we have set from Romans 8 today has two aspects of his answer to his own question.

The first answer has to do with all the savagery and pain that sometimes makes us question whether life has any meaning at all, or if god is, in fact, even evil. Paul makes a staggering claim; it would have been controversial in his time too. He says there is a purpose. The savagery and pain — he calls it the futility— that marks  and mars creation has a purpose which we will find to be good.

It's a claim that we prefer to ignore. The scholar Ronald Goetz says,

God has created an order in which all is passing away. Yet it is the resurrection faith that death is but a means to a very different end. The notion that the end justifies the means—which many find to be ethically appalling—provides the only way finally to understand Paul’s contention that "the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory [about to be revealed to us.]" God’s capacity to achieve "the glory" is the ground on which Christianity stands or falls. Can God indeed lure all things to himself through the reconciling fervor of his love?

Well, not only does that seem ethically appalling, for many of us it is simply unbelievable. How do we get to a place— can we get to a place!? — where that even begins to feel true? Where might we meet an experience of grace that gave that vision a reality, that made it something we—  even if only sometimes—  could believe?

The answer is wilderness, that staring straight into our fears instead of retreating to the TV or FaceBook. We can go into the wilderness in a hospital bed, although if we are not stuck there, we should spend more time in the remote and wild places which still exist even in Adelaide. For in those places we don't even need to avoid the TV and the comforts of carpet. They are stripped away from us.

I quote Bishop Griswold again:

"The word [of God] is ... intimate." He quotes Augustine: "It is 'more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.'"

And he quotes Deuteronomy 30 [the] "commandment that I am commanding you is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away....  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."

Griswold says

There is a sense in which the word is already present within us, waiting to be born into consciousness. Hearing this intimate word involves being intensely present to our own lives, intensely present to the ebb and flow of the events that make us uniquely who we are...

He says we need to be present to those things

... rather than trying to escape the demands of our life by projecting our energies and imagination onto something seemingly more exciting or more noble or more worthwhile. Hearing this intimate word means accepting the fact that the hidden treasure of God's intent is to be found in the soil of our own existence, in the field of our own heart. If we are not present to our own lives, then we cannot be present to the word.

The Spirit of God is in us. She knows what we need. She prays for us, with us, and speaks to us. But our domestication and our desire to be safe and stay away from the edges of life— another name for this is... our sin

all this will drown out the still small voice if we don't pay attention. The wilderness of life... is the place of the still small voice. And the still small voice is the only thing which properly tames wilderness. Amen.

Andrew Prior 2014
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

1 Kings 19:1-18

 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. [Horeb is Mt Sinai, where the law is given to Moses and Israel.]

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

11 He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ Back


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