If you go bushwalking, then you don’t wear thongs. Male and female, we wear thick socks inside a pair of sturdy boots, anticipating the uneven and prickly ground beneath our feet. Along with water and sensible snacks we tuck sunscreen and insect repellent into our daypacks. The fierce sun is the first thing we notice walking into the open spaces of Australia – that is before all sorts of flying, biting, whirring- winged insects notice us.
Moses, a desert dweller in a place we now call Saudi Arabia, would have been at home in the interior of our country, though I’m not sure how successful he would have been herding sheep there. We’re familiar with that famous bit in the Book of Exodus where a voice says to Moses, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground’. Overcome by the wondrous sight of a bush burning but not burning, of a voice that was probably God but then again might have been an illusion, he did as he was told. So Moses was faced with the mystery that is God at the same time as he hopped unshod from foot to foot. God does have a sense of humour.
Like Moses, Jesus had some time in the desert. And also like Moses, he was confronted by all kinds of fears during his time there. He was facing a life-changing time in his life, leaving behind the safe and settled life of a village where he known as a carpenter. Some decisions never come easy: practicalities get in the way.
How would he support himself?
What would happen to his mother?
If he went against accepted religious expectations would it put him in danger, or would God protect him?
Or, if his mission was a wonderful success, would he get caught up in the trappings of power?
Would the simple beginnings get tangled up in property and bureaucracy?
(Is that what has happened to the Church over the last two millennium?)
Fears morph into temptation. The Gospel writer embroidered Jesus natural fears with images of angels as well as devils, with great heights and wonderful visions of the future. Like all of us, Jesus was tempted by the security that comes with an avoidance of risk. We flippantly say ‘No pain, no gain’, but we choose the pain we are most comfortable with. We acknowledge our materialistic lifestyle as we put more goodies on to our credit cards.
It’s hard to imagine that desert country, which looks so barren, so disturbingly other, can be holy ground. Mostly we assume we’re on some kind of holy ground when things are good, when life is easy and exciting, things panning out the way we plan them. All the pesky questions and fears that challenge our complacency are tucked away out of sight and feeling.
Holy ground becomes more recognisable when the desert dust has settled. Maybe we have been able to accept or even welcome the changes that threatened our settledness. A deep pull and push to take the ‘everyone does it’ path has been replaced with “what would Jesus do’. The ground beneath our bare feet may be pebbly or prickly, but that’s OK.
Away from the comfort of our well-protected pavement feet, we have met God.