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Reform Magazine | November 25, 2020

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Editorial: In the wilderness

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As someone who sometimes preaches in churches – and, I suppose, in this column – I feel myself at a bit of a loss when Lent comes round. Christmas, Easter, Trinity – bring it on. I don’t know why, perhaps because of my super-low church upbringing, but I find I have nothing useful to say about Lent. That doesn’t stop me, but it probably should.

So I think this month I’ll talk about current affairs instead. I cast my eyes around and realise I’ve never yet written anything in this column addressing Brexit…

Lent is patterned on the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness just before he started his ministry. It was a pretty gruesome ordeal by the sound of it. Six weeks without so much as bread. Six weeks of utter isolation. Deprivation and loneliness. Surrounded by wild animals. And then the greatest ordeal, when he starts to hear the voice from hell, that tells him to despair of his fast and give up, to betray his calling and fall in love with selfish power over others, to throw his life away and see what happens.

To me, this does not feel (I hope I can say this without sounding snide) like a story about giving up crisps or reading an improving book. (I couldn’t, could I?) It sounds more like going through some of the most wretched depths of human experience – through the valley of the shadow of death, as the psalm puts it.

So it intrigues me when the Gospels tell us that it was the Holy Spirit who took him out there. It was the Demon he met out there and who tried to break him, but the Lord who set it up, it seems. In same way, the psalmist I quoted just now, going through the same dreadful valley, knows, or learns, that he is taken through it by the good shepherd. This rod and staff are God’s.

And so Jesus emerges from this ordeal equipped for the world-changing and costly mission that lies ahead; the psalmist emerges into green pastures and still waters, his soul restored.

The scriptures don’t, I think, try to justify the ordeal, but they do suggest that we can look back on it and know that it was not merely some meaninglessly awful accident, but it was a dark day of learning and growth which turned out to have prepared us for what came next.

Perhaps what seems for all the world like a pointlessly chaotic accident turns out to be how we learn and grow. And I thought I wasn’t going to talk about Brexit.

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This article was published in the March 2019 edition of  Reform

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