Grace in the Wilderness
Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Acts 10:36-43; John 20:1-18
About an hour from St Andrews is Glamis Castle, where the late Queen Mother grew up. It has a complicated royal pedigree: Macbeth, so Shakespeare tells us, was Thane of Glamis. The present castle has a small chapel in which there is a lovely image of Jesus wearing a hat and carrying a spade. When, once again, we can go anywhere, you may wish to splurge on a visit to Glamis and see this image.
But why a hat and spade? Well, in John’s account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus but didn’t recognise him. Instead she supposed him to be the gardener. When the chapel at Glamis Castle was being decorated, gardeners wore hats. They still do. But why mention this today? It’s a throwaway line in the gospel. Or is it?
After all, it all began in a garden, the garden of Eden. According to Genesis, God planted a garden in which he placed Adam, trees, a river, animals and birds and Eve. It was a place without suffering or loss, of perfect health without illness or death, and where no-one was ashamed – it was beautiful and good.
We know what comes next in the story: the temptation to know it all; discord and disharmony; guilt and shame; banishment and hardship; illness and death; exile from Eden. Instead of a garden it was a wilderness where Adam would contend with thorns and thistles with the sweat of his brow.
Wilderness is often a sign in scripture of disfavour and of struggle, particularly that wilderness which is closer to wasteland, arid, barely able to support life. By the time of Jeremiah, it was a clear symbol for the difficulties the people of Israel had gone through, often self-caused. But today’s reading shows God offering hope for his people, a divine rescue-package, described as grace in the wilderness.
Jeremiah shares his vision of the faithfulness of God to his people leading to re-building, re-planting, growing new vines, eating the grapes and drinking their wine. Under the influence of the new wine perhaps, Jeremiah envisages dancing and music, not of the trumpet as we will hear later, but of the tambourine. Maybe the banging of pots lids in the Thursday evening acclamation of our NHS and other workers is an echo of this grace in the wilderness. There’s no doubt that Jeremiah is hinting at a return to Eden on the slopes of Samaria.
Which brings us, this Easter, to Jesus. That promise of Eden, of a return to the garden (Paradise in Greek), is fulfilled in Jesus. He began his ministry, however, in the wilderness, spending forty days there, fasting, tempted. That time is echoed in the 40 days of Lent which ended yesterday. Have you broken your fast yet? A chocolate egg or two? A champagne breakfast? For me, the two rashers of bacon with my scrambled eggs this morning were my first meat since Tuesday 25 February. 25 February – it feels like a lifetime ago. The most popular tweets in the UK that day were about Bayern Munich winning a football match against Chelsea 3-0, and Paul McCartney wishing a happy birthday to his late fellow-Beatle George Harrison. And in a somewhat anti-Lenten move, KFC launched a massive 80-piece popcorn chicken bucket for £6. It all seems so innocent, doesn’t it?
Jesus didn’t stay in the wilderness, though his life was in some ways a wrestling with the stubborn soil of wastelands, to make it fruitful. So many of his parables are about fields and farmers, about seeds which grow to bear fruit. I am the true vine, he said, and my father is the vine-grower.
Yet it seemed that this struggle with the soil ended in failure. When Peter preached in Caesarea, he said that they had put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree. Not the cross, but a tree. It is as if nature itself rejected this gardener from heaven who shared our earth. It is as if human nature said – there’s no Eden, only wilderness. There’s only struggle and death. That’s all. Don’t raise our hopes.
Thoughts such as these may have come to our minds of late, for nature has proved how limited our human control is. We’ve seen this in global warming – which remains an overwhelming threat to our planet – but Covid-19 is faster-moving. In a matter of three months, our world has been overtaken, and in places overwhelmed by illness and death, by financial fear and loss, by isolation and anxiety. We may have wondered how we can believe that the world is loved and tended by a divine gardener. We may have doubted that our weeds are noticed and confronted. We may have lost faith that our blossom is beheld and enjoyed. We may be feeling that we are in a wilderness without any sign of grace.
Today, could I suggest, we have reason not to feel only fear, not to give up faith, not to lose hope. The dead Jesus was taken down from the tree and laid in a new tomb in a garden. All Saturday passed, perhaps even more slowly than it did for us yesterday. And then, on Sunday, came Mary Magdalene, then Peter and the beloved disciple to the tomb. And it was empty. Mary saw a figure. Supposing him to be the gardener, she spoke to him. It was a mistake – but it wasn’t a mistake. He is the gardener. Risen from the tomb, not held by death, he is alive to work in our world, tending his people, turning over our soil, planting his word, sending his Spirit to bear fruit, looking forward to harvest. The final chapter of the Bible features the heavenly city, which is also a garden, with water, the tree of life, with leaves and fruit. It began in a garden, death was defeated in a garden, and it is a garden to which we are being accompanied.
Of course our world is going through a tumultuous time. That includes the University of St Andrews: as our Principal wrote on Thursday we have been plunged into “as serious a financial crisis as our University has faced in modern times.” And as individuals and families, we may be in the midst of life-shattering events.
But our faith is Easter faith, that there is grace in the wilderness. We trust that God’s generous, unconditional love is shared with all, regardless of these extraordinary circumstances. We believe that we are planted, tended and brought to flower by our Lord who was raised from death in a garden.
Francis Kilvert, a Victorian clergyman, wrote in his diary of Easter in Clyro, a village in Powys in Wales. The people there put flowers in the shape of a cross on the graves of their loved ones for Easter, especially primroses. Kilvert loved to see it. It captures something of our hope. Although this Easter, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, we are conscious of death, we are also hopeful of resurrection, of new life, and of flourishing again.
Let me finish by leading into our anthem with these words of Richard Coles, broadcaster, and some-time preacher in St Salvator’s Chapel:
When Christians remember the dead, we do so paradoxically, with grief and with hope. I love the Russian hymn for the Dead which gets this exactly: ‘All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!’