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Sunday, September 12, 2010

God who searches the Wasteland

Texts: Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15. 1-10

Midway this way of life we're bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
where the right road was wholly lost or gone.

So begins Dante's great story of the soul's journey towards God, The Divine Comedy. And it continues, a few stanzas later, with this:

How I got into it I cannot say,
because I was so heavy and full of sleep
when first I stumbled from the narrow way.

Dante is certainly not the only person in the history of the world to have woken to find themselves in a strange and unfamiliar place. It is so with many of us. To all intents and purposes, life seems well enough. 'Well' in the sense of 'can't complain'. 'Well' in the sense of 'comfortable'. 'Well' in the sense of 'uneventful'. But these are adjectives which betray a terrible forgetfulness. A forgetfulness about the call to follow Jesus. A forgetfulness about the possibility of pain and risk on mission with God. A forgetfulness about the ecstatic moments of joy and celebration in the embrace of God's love. Forgetfulness is like being asleep. In sleep we dream of the life unlived, the heroic life filled with daring and courage for the sake of love. But it remains a secret. Only very rarely is it made real.

Dante awoke from his slumbers to find himself in a very scary place, an unfamiliar wood. He was lost. Have you ever felt like a stranger in your own life? Have you ever woken up and asked 'how on earth did I get here?' 'Here' is not a place, of course, but the life we're living. Suddenly the truth hits us, and we can see our life for what it is: unreal, a lie, a wasteland of lies. We begin to question the value of everything we've ever done, the purposefulness in what we've slaved so hard to become. Have any of you seen the Scottish film called Trainspotting? It's about a group of heroin addicts who party their way through the most appalling lives imaginable. As the film's observers, we can see their lives are a waste. But they can't see that themselves. They just keep on trashing themselves and their friends and their families for the sake of that little rush of heaven called heroin, all the while pretending that life is grand. But there comes a wake-up call about half-way through the film. One of the girls has a baby, but she's neglected the little fellow awfully. One afternoon she wakes up after a particularly crazed trip to find her child dead. He's simply died from neglect and starvation. The scene is one of the most harrowing I have ever seen. She wails and wails and wails, and her partners in crime are shaken to the very core with shame. Suddenly they are confronted with the truth they've made: their lives are garbage, a wasteland of garbage.

The prophet knew about rubbish lives. He announced the fact to the people of Jerusalem around 600 BCE. They'd forgotten about God. They'd forgotten about love and care for one another. They'd gotten into ripping each other off for the sake of making money and becoming powerful. But Jeremiah declares the truth in a devastating picture of the fruitful land gone to desert:

I looked to the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord,
before his fierce anger.

These images are not just about the coming historical disaster known as the exile, when the noble classes of Jerusalem would be captured and taken to Babylon. More primally, they are about the condition of the people's hearts and souls. Their souls are a wasteland, made desolate through greed and that numbing forgetfulness about God and the ways which bring life. When you awake to a wasteland of your own making - as Dante did, as the Hebrew nobility did, as the apostle Paul did - life can become very scary indeed.

For many, that is where life effectively ends. Some try to run from the wasteland by denying its existence. By blowing their life savings on a hedonistic trip.  Or having an affair.  Or buying a red sports car. Or drinking themselves back into the stupor from which they came. For others, the wasteland is just so terrifying that they take their own lives. I guess that's how it was for Kurt Cobain, idol to millions of disaffected kids all over the world. Shortly before killing himself with sleeping pills, he penned the words 'Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam, Jesus don't want me at all'. Either way, the sense of waste remains because you can never escape from yourself.

Ursula Le Guin tells the story of a young wizard named Ged who gets too big for his boots by trying a spell which is way beyond his years to control. The spell goes wrong and Ged succeeds only in releasing a shadow into the world which immediately begins pursuing Ged. The shadow is terrifying. It succeeds in stealing all the young wizard's zest for life, and weighs on him a heavy sense of shame and dread. The shadow pursues him to the edge of the world where the young wizard seeks the help of a dragon to defeat his foe. The dragon guides him toward a terrible truth. The shadow is his own self, a shocking externalization of Ged's own darkness and conceit! Running, he learns, will never effect an escape because you can't run from yourself!  In Le Guin's story, the dragon functions as the paragon of hope: a Christ figure who advises the young wizard to stop running and acknowledge his shame and guilt.

That's what Christ does for us, too. As in the parables we heard this morning, Christ is one who searches for us in the wastelands of our own making. We are like sheep who get lost on the mountain slopes, who turn aside from the narrow paths which the shepherd has forged for us. Yet the shepherd does not abandon such sheep to their foolishness. He leaves the ninety-nine more level-headed sheep, and searches for the lost one until he finds it. The apostle Paul reports that when he was lost in the wasteland of blasphemy and violence, 'the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus'. Christ is the guide you will find in your own wilderness, too. The guide who reminds us that life is still possible. He appears in many forms: the shepherd, the peasant woman, the poet or the young lover (as in Dante's Comedy), but he is the same Christ. He is always there in the wasteland, because he represents the love of God for all who get lost, for all who lose their way to the garden of God. Remember, he knows the wasteland well. That is what Good Friday and Holy Saturday are all about: Christ's journey of solidarity into the wasteland of human misery and sin, there to share our shame for the sake of becoming our guide toward a new way, a way that leads to life in all its fullness.

Remember, though, that life in all its fullness - symbolized in the parable by the joy of heaven's angels - comes not only because of the guide's love, but also because of our own repentance. There are two sides to any rescue operation, are there not? You've heard the joke I'm sure: ‘How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb must want to change!’ So it is with the pilgrimage toward life. The guide may appear in the midst of the wasteland, calling our name and offering forgiveness. But unless we are willing to leave where we are and follow, we shall remain in our misery. The biblical word for wanting to change is 'repentance', which means, literally, turning right around and setting out in a radically new direction.

Perhaps you have woken in a strange place recently, a place that scares you to death. A place populated by demons and hobgoblins and terrible, nagging questions about the ultimate value of everything you've even been and done. If so, Jesus comes to you this morning and says, 'don't be afraid. You need to face the truth of your own life in order to be reborn. That will be painful. It will even mean putting to death the self you're accustomed to being. But don't worry. I will be here to guide you into resurrection. You are forgiven your sin and your foolishness. When you pass through the waters and the fires, I will be there. Trust me, listen to me, and together we will walk the path to your only true home . . . in the heart of God'.


  1. Thanks mate. You share the prophets' knack for expressing words that simultaneously comfort and confront. Appreciated.

  2. Thanks Paul. You know your stuff, so I'm grateful for your words of appreciation.

  3. Found your article interesting and provocative. Thanks Garry