Genesis 21.9-21, Luke 5.15-16
Understandably, the Bible tends to see the wilderness as a harsh and arid place. 'Remember,’ says the writer of Deuteronomy, 'How God led you in that huge and frightening desert where snakes and scorpions live.’ Warming to his theme, he says, 'The Lord discovered you in a barren desert filled with howling winds.’
But the wilderness is also a place of encounter where, to our surprise, God is waiting to meet us, to strengthen and encourage us. 'In the desert God became your fortress, protecting you,’ the writer says. And when ‘there was no water’ in the desert, the Lord 'split open a rock, and water poured out so you could drink.’
That means we're never alone during the wilderness moments in our lives. Life can seem pretty daunting in these moments, but God is always there with us, doing surprising things.
And so it was for Hagar. Someone has said, 'Cast out into the desert with her young son, she finds a landscape in which her life is totally scoured—a place that is empty of all meaning.’ Except that to her surprise she finds God is there too.
Conveniently for Abraham, whose concubine she’d been until now, God tells him not to worry about Hagar and their son because He will watch over them both and protect them. But either Abraham cruelly withholds this information from Hagar, or else she doesn't believe it. Not unnaturally, she’s anxious and afraid. Having run out of water she gives her son and herself up for dead, leaving him in the shade of a bush a long way off ‘because she could not bear to watch him die.’ Yet the desert is not as inhospitable as she’d imagined. God shows her a well close by and not only are they able to survive in the desert but Ishmael is able to grow up there, hunting game with his bow and arrows.
None of us wants to be in the wilderness. We want to be able to live comfortably, to be among friends and to feel we’ve got a positive role to play in society. But wilderness experiences are sometimes unavoidable and when we find ourselves in the midst of one it would be easy to give in to despair.
Hagar’s experience in the wilderness reminds us that God is always there with us. Jesus is certainly no stranger to it. He camps out in the wilderness alongside us. And always close by are spiritual wells where we can draw life-giving water.
For some people the wilderness is all they ever know. They face hardship and suffering every day of their lives. That's not ideal. We shouldn't be neglectful of their well-being like Abraham was towards Hagar and Ishmael. We should be seeking to rescue people from the wildernesses they face and to give them a richer, fuller experience of life. But nonetheless, even in the wilderness there can be hope as well as despair.
Sometimes people can be amazingly resilient. Sometimes they still find joy and happiness in desert places. Sometimes they find peace and spiritual strength in adversity. Sometimes they encounter God and sense his presence there. Sometimes, like Hagar and Ishmael, they make a go of things despite being in the wilderness.
Bishop Graham Usher points out that a careful distinction is made in the Bible between loneliness and solitude; between being absolutely alone, and feeling lost or abandoned in the wilderness, and seeking solitude there, a space just to be and encounter God.
In our Gospel passage large crowds are juxtaposed with the emptiness of the desert. Graham Usher says, 'Jesus emptied himself in places that were full of people, and needed to be filled again in places that were empty of people.’ That's because 'even a space where we’re completely alone is still ’full of God’ and - without the distractions of everyday life - an excellent place to discover him.
Are we reluctant to be alone, is it a penance, something we have to put up with; or is it something we accept and perhaps even embrace? Do we prefer to make ourselves busy rather than being still? Do we make space for the sort of wilderness moments where we can be refilled by God and concentrate on him? God is in the hustle and bustle, just as much as in the quietness, but sometimes it's easier to feel his closeness when we are alone. As Graham Usher puts it, in the quiet places God can ‘become the totality of [our] gaze and attention.’