Rev. Andrew Cunnington
7th December 2014
A Touching Place Amidst Wilderness

I keep meaning to say, when you are passing, don’t forget to give us a wave.

If you’re on the train to Horley, Gatwick Airport and all stations south, don’t forget to look out for me.

As you pull out of Redhill station and are still wondering if it was a good idea to sit opposite someone eating a Big Mac, with a double splodge of BBQ relish, glance to your right and look up at the row of houses on top of the hill. We’re one of them and like as not I will be sitting gazing out of the window forlornly wondering where the next sermon is coming from. So don’t be shy, give us a wave to make my day!

If you look up you will see all the back gardens of our houses are pretty presentable, except for one. One of the gardens is an unkempt mass of wilderness and you can see it quite clearly from the train. Well, that’s me” So don’t forget to wave.

Some of us keep our wilderness places well hidden, some of us, due to circumstance, have them on display for all the world to see.

We’ve got a little bit of garden that’s OK, but then there’s this massive hillside bit which tails down to the A23 which is just overgrown. I’ve locked the gate to our wilderness and thrown away the key. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the wherewithal. And now it’s so entangled, I just don’t know where to start.

The Gospel of Mark gets straight down to business. No messing around with the Christmas stories or anything like that, chapter one and verse one finds John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus by getting the people to face up to the things about themselves that need changing if they are to meet the Son of God face to face.

But John doesn’t come into the centre of their lives to start ringing the changes. He goes out into the midst of the wilderness and waits for the people to come to him there, and staggeringly, everyone flocks to him, bringing the things about themselves that have become so entangled, that they don’t know where to start in order to put them right.

This Advent season does not mean we have to get everything neat and tidy by Christmas. As if God were like some fractious Mother In Law, ready to run her finger along the dust on your window sills and find your housekeeping wanting.

What we do have to do is know where our wilderness is. That’s the Advent journey. Find out where life is so entangled that we don’t know how to start untangling it. Find that place and go and sit right in the middle of it.

When, in the bible, something good is going to happen, it normally takes shape in the wilderness. Moses is left tangled up in bulrushes. His people go round in circles in the middle of nowhere before they reach the promised land. John draws the people into the wilderness. Jesus is baptised there and then is flung deeper into its grasp for some forty days.

The wilderness is where you discover the truth about yourself. It’s where you discover that you are loved by God more than you knew. For in these tangled up, overgrown places, where we have done our best to turn our backs, there he waits, ready to make his presence known, ready to make something of us. And he’s waiting us to come out from the city to join him there.

In January 1978, I started a new job. As filing clerk in Secretary’s Dept of Arun District Council in Littlehampton. For the first couple of days my boss would not let me in to the filing room, for he was a kindly soul, but when finally he did, the place was floor to ceiling with papers. Nothing had been filed for a year or more. People had slung their papers through the door and slammed it shut. It was a tip. It was a wilderness, and I didn’t know how I was going to put it right. I didn’t know what the different documents referred to or what the system was or anything.

Maybe you know that sort of desperation. Knowing that on your own, you are just not going to be able to do this. God meets us in Christ, in the places where we are becoming overwhelmed.

If we realise that is the truth about ourselves it will change the way we look at others. Instead of seeing other people as thoughtless or incompetent, we will probably see that when we rub each other up the wrong way we have simply hit the buffers of one another’s wilderness places.

So amidst that which is entangled, in the worst place possible, Jesus meets us, If the neglect is ours he forgives us. If it has been inflicted by another he starts to heal us. Then, he claims us for his own, and he calls us to follow.

I love the picture of Jesus emerging from the wilderness to begin his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God. He does not emerge from the temple or the synagogue. He does not sally forth from bible school or college. He does not make his way into our lives squeaky clean, he comes to us bruised and battered, long before the cross, he comes from the place of his own entanglement.

One of the things I enjoy doing as Area Dean is to work with parishes who need a new vicar to help them produce a parish profile. It’s a big operation these days, and the result needs to be honest and true, but it needs to be exciting and eye catching too.

As I’m looking through the content, I’m looking for the wilderness, the admission by that parish that they are struggling somewhere in the life they share and are prepared to say so. For in my estimation, that’s where Christ will be. If there’s no wilderness in your church, where on earth do you expect Christ to make his home. If there’s no wilderness in your church, where will the people take their need and find their blessing.

Where is your wilderness place? Where is the place where the prophet Isaiah’s words will cut deepest in your life?

I don’t mind saying the vicarage back garden you see from the train is but a living parable of the Vicar that lives there. And I don’t believe for one moment that I am alone in that.

John Bell’ beautiful hymn unravels our need to be honest about ourselves and where we will find God.

Feel for the lives, by life confused, riddled with doubt, in loving abused.

Feel for the lonely heart conscious of sin, who longs to be pure but fears to begin.

To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace,

To those who cry in pain or disgrace. Christ makes with his friends a touching place.

I know where that touching place is. It’s a bit like the view of my back garden as you look up from the train.

ISAIAH 40:1-11 MARK1:1-8