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In The Wilderness




The angel of the LORD found her (Hagar) by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” Genesis 16:7-8 

 

In the Bible, the wilderness is presented as a place apart, a place of danger and risk but also a place of escape. Hagar flees into the wilderness when she is abused by her mistress Sarah, later, Abraham would send her and her son Ishmael away from home and into the wilderness, knowing that they might die of thirst and exposure. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Elijah flees into the wilderness when he is persecuted by Jezebel. Jesus himself is tempted by the devil in the wilderness after his baptism.  

 

However, the wilderness is also a place where one meets God, often alone and apart from others. The angel of the Lord seeks out Hagar in the wilderness. Elijah is met by the still, small voice of God in the wilderness. The Israelites are fed daily with “bread from heaven”. John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, is portrayed as proceeding from the wilderness, having likely done much of his spiritual preparation there. Jesus fasts and prays in the wilderness and overcomes the worst of the temptations that the devil could throw at him.  

 

So, the wilderness is at once a place of risk and fear and a place of solitude and deep spiritual growth and sometimes healing. Although there are times when we seek out aloneness and solitude, such as on retreats, we rarely seek out the kind of wilderness portrayed in Scripture. In fact, even the biblical characters listed above, with the exception of our Lord and perhaps John the Baptist, seek out the wilderness unless they are driven into it by circumstances or other people…….  

 

And no wonder! The wilderness is a scary place, it is where our faith is tested, our relationships with others or even our sense of ourselves might be tested. The practices and things that we have relied on no longer work. We can feel alone, forlorn and terrified. Like in the physical wilderness of Judea, we may well feel like we cannot survive.  


And yet, we do find ourselves in the wilderness, often many times throughout our lives. It might be prompted by a serious illness (physical or mental) or injury that prevents us from doing what we are used to doing or which brings about pain, complications and medical costs. It might be the illness or death of a loved one whom we have always relied on. It might be the breakdown of a relationship or community that had been important to us. It may be the continuous experience of discrimination and injustice. Or it may be more subtle. It may be the realization that our lives have not gone the way we have wished or planned, work or relationships that we dreamed about have not come to fruition and we don’t know if they ever will. It might be disappointment or anger with the church, or with leaders who fail to live up to their calling or use their power to abuse or exploit others. It might be anger or disappointment with God for allowing any of this to happen. These and many other circumstances can drive us out into the wilderness…… 

 

The hardship of the wilderness cannot be overstated. The fear, uncertainty, anger or grief can all overwhelm us. And yet, in all the examples of the wilderness in Scripture, God is ever present. God surprises Hagar as the one who seeks after her. God meets Elijah, not in mighty acts of power, but in the angel that gives him food and drink because “the journey is too much for you” and the whisper of the voice that he recognized.  

 

Are you in a place of wilderness right now? Do you know or love someone who is in a place of wilderness? There are times in all of our lives when we are in the wilderness or stand as witness to someone else’s wilderness. Sometimes our families or church communities can also experience times of wilderness collectively. In our wilderness or that of someone else, in the places where we never chose to be, our Lord’s promise is that he will never leave us or forsake us. The steadiness of his presence, his utter knowing of us and his everlasting love. And although we may feel alone, we are called into communities of faith, so that we can bear witness to and stand alongside each other in our places of wilderness. Others can pray for us when we cannot pray. Others can come alongside and do what we cannot do. We can also do that for others. This does not make the wilderness not hard, but it means that we are never really alone. Like Hagar, like Elijah, like John the Baptist and like our Lord himself, the wilderness can come into our lives, our families and our communities, often unwelcome. So, if you are in a place of wilderness, may you remember the presence and love of the Lord and rely on those around you, including those in your church family, who love you and can remind you of what you may forget. If you are not currently in a place of wilderness, can you bear witness to and stand alongside someone else who is? Can you be there for them, pray for them when they cannot pray and remind them of what they may forget? In doing so, not only do you provide the support they need, but also help to create the community which can stand alongside you, when you come to a place of wilderness.  

 

Love and blessings,  

 

 

Pastor Julia 

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