A Sermon from Sherborne

Temptations in the Wilderness

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 18 February 2018 by Canon William Cave-Brown-Cave


My wife and I have a problem. We live in a flat. One of the advantages of our home is its view across the roof-tops of Sherborne. One of its disadvantages is that space for books is very limited. Out household rule is that books may only expand until the shelves are full, after which books must sorted and prioritised, and then sent variously to libraries, second-hand bookshops, or one of Sherborne’s charity shops.

Occasionally one or other of us scores an own-goal by passing-on a book subsequently found, with regret, to be needed once more. I am sorry to report that at some point in the last few weeks another own-goal would appear to have been scored.

The book in question was Palestinian Walks, Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, published in 2007 by Profile Books. The author, Raja Shehadeh, a human-rights’ lawyer described by the publishers as Palestine’s leading writer, lives in Ramallah, a West Bank town to the north of Jerusalem. Fortunately, contemporary technology means that I have been able to order another copy and find the text of a passage in the first chapter in which Shehadeh writes about the Palestinian custom of Sarha; making spiritual journeys into the wilderness. This is how the writer remembers the sarhas of his grandfather:

As a child I used to hear how my grandfather liked nothing more than coming to Ramallah in the hot summer and going on sarha with his cousin, leaving behind the coastal city of Jaffa and the stultifying coastal administration which he served and whose politics he detested. It was mainly young men who went on these expeditions. They would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, sometimes for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They didn’t have a particular destination.

To go on sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. A man going on sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. Going on sarha implies letting go. It is a drug-free high…Palestinian style. (Palestinian Walks 2008:2)

In the 1980s and early 1990s I was a Chaplain at Lancaster University, an institution with a progressive ethos and reputation. Considerable efforts were made to encourage students from difficult situations, including the West Bank and Gaza, to study in Lancaster. As Chaplain I received a lot of invitations to visit former students and their families in their homes. Men still went on sarha: (I’m not so sure about women!) Disappearing into the wilderness for days and weeks at a time on retreat: One of the few remaining ways of escaping the prison-like confinement of Israeli occupation.

The West Bank and Judean wildernesses still have their hills and valleys, rivers and streams, trees and plants, animals and birds; although a consequence of settlement-building and security restrictions means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for spiritual pilgrims to enjoy them.

Jesus’ wilderness journey after his baptism, was a rite of passage. His transition from the family, friends, and the experiences of youth and early adulthood to the acceptance of his calling as Son of Man and Son of God, and his ministry as prophet, priest, saviour, Lord and king.

Except for the tempter the gospels make no reference to others; later they also record that Jesus continued to go on his own to pray. Nonetheless the wildernesses of today are certain to be more crowded than in the time of Jesus, or even Shehadeh’s grandfather, even allowing for their encounters with other retreatants, nomadic herdsmen, traders or pilgrims to and from Jerusalem and may bring temptations more likely to arise from our relationships with others than solitary encounters with the tempter.

Instead of natural beauty and abundant wildlife, we are now more likely to find evidence of the environmental consequences of human activity on our natural inheritance. Instead of pilgrim people and nomadic families, we are now more likely to find migrant people displaced by conflict and hardship, trying to find better lives, as well as those seeking to exploit their vulnerability for their own greed. Instead of prayerful retreatants we also more likely to find military bases, prison camps and the detritus of 21st Century humankind.

Even though, sadly, the wildernesses may have changed, the temptations remain the same for us as they were for Jesus. In the 21st Century the temptation to turn stones into bread is not so much about external miracles showing the power of God as about curbing our own desires to exploit the natural world and our fellow human beings for our own purposes. Just as scripture says that, to be fully human, we cannot live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. So we must learn how to be content with the requirements of each day, and accepting our responsibilities to ensure that others also receive the necessities of life.

In the 21st Century the temptation to worship the devil in return for power and control over others is simply about our own desire to put ourselves first: regarding ourselves as better, more important, and of greater worth than others. No wonder when Jesus (and others) taught the command to worship the Lord your God and serve him alone, it was frequently followed with the requirement to love your neighbour as yourself.

In the 21st Century the third temptation is the perhaps the hardest to appreciate, but the simplest to follow: If you are the Son of God…jump down from here….then he will put his angels in charge of you. And hold you up on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone… To which Jesus replies You must not put the Lord your God to the test.

This is about learning how to become secure in our relationships, with ourselves, with other people and with God. Not looking for repeated reassurances of whether or not we are truly loved by others.

Although, by wise tradition, disciples of Jesus use this Lenten season to reflect on Jesus’s sarha in the Palestinian wilderness, or make our own pilgrimage to sacred places on our planet, there are wildernesses much closer to home, even in this gentle oasis of Sherborne. These are the unchosen wildernesses of human existence in the 21st Century. Illness, aging, loneliness, economic hardship: just a few for starters.   There are many more. Even though the Gospels may or may not be accurate in the implication that Jesus was alone in the wilderness, these wildernesses are full of people.

Might our response to the season of Lent and the modern Temptations, to make ourselves more important than others, remind us that Christ still journeys in the wildernesses of all those who suffer, and is waiting for us to join him in our own pilgrim journeys of discipleship.

 Father, thank you that you love us and that you love us too much to let us stay as we are, thank you that you change us from the inside out, by your Holy Spirit, through your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(Praying together Diocese of Salisbury 2018)

Canon William Cave-Brown-Cave 18/02/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne