Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13*; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8
I wonder if you have ever been to a desert. The Sahara, for example, or the Kalahari, the Mojave perhaps, or Dungeness. Yes, Dungeness, a little spit of shingle covered land in South-East Kent which is Britain's only official desert — a place so barren and dry that it is incapable of sustaining much life. (Click here for some pictures)
It is a strange and beautiful place, next to the sea, with few buildings apart from some fisherman's shacks, a pub and a nuclear power station.
A number of years ago the film-maker Derek Jarman bought a cottage there and surrounded it with a garden. In the desert. But this was not what you might typically expect of a garden — he had found objects washed up on the shoreline and arranged them to create beautiful sculptures and features. Driftwood and rusting pieces of machinery were assembled into pleasing and mysterious forms. Where no one would have imagined a garden possible, Jarman used his imagination and creativity to establish something distinctive and surprising. He was open to the possibility of something for which others would have held out little hope.
The Bible is full of stories about the desert. The wilderness was never far from people of the Old and New Testaments, and many profound spiritual experiences took place there. Yet it is a hostile and forbidding place. One can only survive in the desert with real know-how, a willingness to let go of life's little comforts, and to know with certainty what personal resources you can fall back on in order to survive. Life in the desert is stripped back to its bare essentials.
Much of Jesus ministry took place in the wilderness — a place of arid hopelessness where peopled blossomed, transformed by his healing and his teaching. It was in the desert, where little food was available, that 4000 people feasted together against all expectations.
Some of the early Christians chose to go and live in the desert as a way of purifying their faith, adopting an extreme asceticism to help discipline themselves in living a holy life. The tradition of religious life found today in monasteries around the world began in the desert, and the wisdom-rich writings of the Desert Fathers continue to inspire and guide Christians today.
During the four Sundays in Advent this year each sermon is reflecting on an aspect of prayer. So what can the desert teach us about how to pray?
There are times in life which can feel a bit like a wilderness — lonely and desolate times, where there is not much joy or encouragement. A period of ill-health, perhaps, or depression, a bereavement, or the loss of meaningful occupation. We do not feel full of life at such times, but rather somewhat diminished, and it can be hard to find the energy or motivation to make the most of each day.
Spiritually, too, there may be times when we feel far from God, uncertain perhaps about the assurances that our faith offers us. Faith itself might feel more of a burden than a help. Such experiences are not new to believers, and the Bible is full of times when God's followers keenly felt a loss of hope.
But again and again scripture reminds us of God's faithfulness and the hope that is offered when we trust God. The service of Morning Prayer in Advent includes a wonderful passage from Isaiah chapter 35, with its image of God bringing new life to the wilderness moments in our lives:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Sometimes it is when our lives are pared back to the bare essentials, the periods when we are in the desert, that the clutter of life clears away and allows us to see God and ourselves more honestly. We have to drop our pretences in the desert, just surviving takes all we've got. We let go of our delusions and see our lives as they really are, precarious, fragile and time-limited. God offers to accompany us through such times, provided we are open to experiencing the divine presence.
The desert is a silent place, away from all the cacophony and chatter of life. In this stillness it is easier for us to hear the Spirit say to us, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
This is why one of the great traditions of prayer is silence. Perhaps just for twenty minutes a day, we can take ourselves off to our room, close the door, and say nothing. We empty our mind of its distractions, rest in God and put ourselves in touch with the ground of our being. It is in recreating the silence and simplicity of the wilderness that we are better able to listen out for what God might be saying to us. No long list of requests or demands, no reciting or reading any prayers. Simply taking ourselves into the desert to wait on God.
Here, God wells up within us, a fountain of living water to refresh the parched and desolate parts of our life. Rowan Williams writes:
Prayer is not about feeling good. It is not about results, or about being pleased with yourself; it is just what God does in you when you are close to Jesus... The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. [Rowan Williams, Being Christian, SPCK 2014]
Christian life is full of waiting, and the season of Advent reminds us how to hope when we are in the desert. Prayer requires patience. As the second epistle of St Peter says, ‘While you are waiting... strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.’ (2 Peter 3.14-15)
It is out of the desert that we hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ Mark's gospel begins in the barrenness and silence of the desert. The hope that God promises is not voiced by the religious scholars of the day, or the temple elite in the holy city of Jerusalem. It is the voice of a weirdo we hear, dressed in camel skins and surviving on a diet of insects and honey. When we enter the stillness of silent prayer and contemplation, the voice of God can come from surprising places. We must prepare for the unexpected.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of Christ to heal the world of its desolation, to bring to our life waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert.
It is in our patterns and discipline of prayer that the water of life bubbles up to refresh and renew us. I pray that you might know it this Advent, and find for yourselves a garden in the wilderness.
For help with silent prayer click here to download a handout. Or read Stephen Cottrell's excellent short book Do Nothing To Change Your Life.