Walking the wilderness path

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’ Cuddesdon and St Giles’ Horspath on 14th February 2016.

Readings: Luke 4:1-13

One of the things Jonathan and I love to do is go walking and in recent years we have enjoyed walking with our children. In past years we spent our holidays doing some of the great long distance footpaths of England, such as the Coast to Coast, the toe of Cornwall and the South Downs Way. In its own way each one has been remarkable, not only for the beauty of the landscape but also for the sheer pleasure in looking back over a good pint at the distance and terrain covered each day. But one of them really sticks in my memory.


We were living in Cuddesdon at the time, with a daily view of the Chilton hills and one day we decided that we just had to do the Ridgeway walk which runs from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe beacon just west of Luton. At only 85 miles it certainly wasn’t the longest walk we had done and we thought it would be easy, a great five day break.


So we set off, rucksacks on our backs, a spring in our step, faces set towards our goal and confident that the 19 miles ahead of us that day would be a breeze and a pleasure. However, by mid-afternoon, with still five miles of walking ahead of us, the pace began to slow, the conversation dried up, we began to wonder if we had not packed too much in our ever increasingly burdensome backpacks and the legs were beginning to seriously ache. It was with relief that we found our bed and breakfast place and consoled each other with the fact that our tiredness was only a first day thing which would wear off. Unfortunately it didn’t. Each day it got harder and harder. You see we weren’t as fit as we thought we were. What we had believed would be a pleasurable holiday became a hard, cold miserable trial.


The lowest point came on the third day. By this time walking felt like stepping on shards of glass with bare feet and the hamstrings seems to be stretched out on a permanent rack. Each step was agony. The weather had also made a turn for the worse and we were bombarded at unexpected intervals with bullets of hail. There was little shelter and n flask of coffee. We had also come to that section of the Ridgeway which runs across the Wiltshire downs, long stretches of open grass track which never seemed to come to an end. For the first time I seriously wanted to give up.


All of us have times in our spiritual journey when the path becomes very difficult. In this desert period there is little which gives us pleasure anymore. The delight and certainty with which we set out on the journey has melted away with the morning dew and we are left with only a cold, dry drudgery. The things which burden us, weigh very heavy and seem to consume all our energy and thought. The passages, prayers and worship which had been our ever present, reliable support and consolation only give pain, leading to the bitter self-belief that we were never good enough to start out on this journey in the first place. It’s then that we are tempted.


Tempted to turn off the path and find somewhere warm and comfortable and stay there until all our pan and toil have become simply a distant memory. We settle with the illusion that we have already reached our destination. Like Jesus, we are tempted to turn stones into bread.


It’s then that we are tempted to go on, glorifying in our own stoical ability to rise above our deplorable human weaknesses and as a good Christian believing that we deserve the crown of eternal life as a reward for our own superhuman efforts at the journey’s end. Like Jesus, we are tempted to stand on the pinnacle of the Temple and show our spiritual calibre to all.


It’s then that we are tempted to sink into despair and give up. To believe that the journey was not for us after all, that there are better things we could be doing with our lives. Like Jesus, we are tempted to desire the kingdoms of the earth which Satan offers rather than the love of God.


All of us have these times of trial, these periods in the wilderness. Sometimes they are short, only minutes, but at other times they last days, months, even years. We would do anything to bring them to an end and feel once more the warmth and consolation of God’s love. Believing that somehow the wilderness is in us, an inability to respond, a weakness in our faith. But just as it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into his wilderness, so it is the Spirit who drives us into ours. For the desert is not a fault or weakness in us but a gift to us from God. Where, stripped of all our ease, self-reliance and certainty, we can encounter more deeply the depths of God’s love and saving presence, which we would never have known if our journey had been all warmth and light.


Over and above all the walks Jonathan and I have done, it is the Ridgeway that we always talk about and the way in which we made it to the end but only by holding each other’s hands. Amen.