Sunday Worship 18 February 2024

Today’s service is led by the Revd Dr Susan Durber


Hello! I am Susan Durber, a retired United Reformed Church minister, living in Pembrokeshire. I also serve as the World Council of Churches President from Europe.  Among Christians in the West, this Sunday is the first in the season of Lent. While, for many of us, every Sunday has to be ‘a little Easter’, a celebration of the resurrection, some of us are also learning to value the seasons of the Christian year, so that we can live through the Gospel story, through the rhythms of repentance and rejoicing, of emptiness and fulfilment, of dying and new life. In this service, at the beginning of Lent, we are invited not only to think about, but to share, Jesus’ experience of going into a wild place to learn who he was and what his life was for. In our worship God expands our imagination and opens up our lives to a new world, so that we can learn how to live in this one. 

Opening Responses

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.   – Mark 1:35

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you
in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  
– Psalm 63:1

God says, ‘I will turn the wilderness into pools and dry land into springs of water.’   – Isaiah 41:18b

Hymn     Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us
James Edmeston (1791 – 1867) Public Domain Sung by the choir of St Michael and All Angels, Bassett.
Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
o’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us,
for we have no help but thee;
yet possessing every blessing,
if our God our Father be.

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us:
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.
Spirit of our God, descending,
fill our hearts with heavenly joy,
love with every passion blending,
pleasure that can never cloy:
thus provided, pardoned, guided,
nothing can our peace destroy.

Prayers of Approach and Confession

Eternal God, we are glad to come on this day
to praise you, to listen for your Word,
and to find strength for life in the world.
As we worship, surrounded by your saints,
we open our ears to listen for the Gospel,
our eyes to see the world new
our mouths to sing your praise
and our hearts to receive your love.

Eternal God, at Creation 
you called us into being out of the dust of the earth,
and you stay beside us in every dusty, desert day.
Bless us on a journey into the wilderness,
as we set out on a pilgrimage towards Easter.
May any fasting we do encourage our hunger for justice;
let any of our giving to charity deepen our generosity,
and may extra prayers bring us closer to you.
Let our worship in this service,
be offered in the name of Jesus,
who shares with us the wilderness and the feast,
the ordinary and the holy,
the wonderful everydays of all our lives.  Amen.

God of all mercy and understanding,
we know that we tend to mess things up,
that we cannot tame all that is in us
and that our days are shadowed by regrets. 
Sometimes we find ourselves where we do not want to be,
or in a wilderness where we cannot find
the safe and welcome path. 

Come to us today. Come and find us where we are.
Forgive us, in your love, where we need it
and prepare us for home again.

God is merciful and full of compassion.
Jesus says, ‘Your sins are forgiven’.
With a new heart, set free from wrong and death,
hear the call to abundant life
and live your days in the Kingdom of God.

The Lord’s Prayer

Hymn     O Matchless Beauty of our God
Augustine of Hippo translated by Colin Thompson © used with permission sung by Paul Robinson and used with his kind permission

O matchless beauty of our God
so ancient and so new,
kindle in us your fire of love;
fall on us as the dew!

How late we came to love you, Lord;
how strong the hold of sin!
Your beauty speaks from all that is:
your likeness pleads within.

You called and cried, yet we were deaf;
our stubborn wills you bent;
you shed your fragrance and we caught
a moment of its scent.

You blazed and sparkled, yet our hearts
to lesser glories turned;
your radiance touched us far from home;
your beauty in us burned!

And should our faith grow weak and fall,
tried in the wilderness,
let beauty blossom out of ash
and streams of water bless!

O matchless beauty of our God
so ancient and so new,
enfold in us your fire of love;
anoint us with your dew!

A prayer for illumination

O God, who is beyond all the ways we usually know things, 
we rejoice to meet you in the glories of nature,
in our awe on the mountain top or beside the ocean,
through the love that surges at a new birth
or the beauty of a beloved face. 
Speak to us now from the scriptures,
that we may hear the revelation of your love
through ancient script and spoken word,
made vivid in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Reading     Psalm 25:1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 
O my God, in you I trust;
   do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
   let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
   for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
   for they have been from of old. 
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
   according to your steadfast love remember me,
   for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
   for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Reading     Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Hymn     Father Hear the Prayer We Offer
Love M. Whitcomb Willis 1824 – 1908 Public Domain BBC Songs of Praise
Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.

Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our guide;
through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side. 


I wonder whether you ever come across a verse of the Bible that you hadn’t really noticed before. It wasn’t so long ago that I realised that Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so different from Matthew’s and Luke’s. There is nothing of those long stories about the temptations, about turning stones into bread or being offered all the kingdoms of the world by the devil – nothing like that. It just says that he was there for 40 days, being tempted. And then it says that he was among the wild beasts and the angels. That’s the bit I hadn’t really noticed properly until a little while ago. But I think that this tiny verse might be really rather important. 

Maybe if Lent is a somehow a time when we follow Jesus into the wilderness then it may help us to face up to an encounter with both wild things and angels. And in that moment we might somehow come to find ourselves closer to God. 

Some sermons come out of reading and reflection and some come out of pretty raw experience. And this sermon, I think, is one of the second of those. Reading about Jesus being in the wilderness always strikes me powerfully, because, like pretty much all of us, I’ve been in some wildernesses of my own. Perhaps what we mean when we talk about going into the wilderness, into a wild place, is not necessarily that it’s a bad place, a place of evil, but more like a place that we cannot tame, that we cannot control, a place that doesn’t belong to us, that isn’t in our power. And sometimes we find that life becomes something that happens to us rather than something that we plan or shape for ourselves. In the wilderness spaces or experiences we find that all our usual strategies for coping and managing things somehow break down, all our usual ways of shaping our lives seem to disappear, and the things we normally hold on to for survival aren’t there. And we find that we meet things and experiences that are unexpected, not what we planned. And we meet there both terrifying things and, and surprisingly, sometimes comforting things. 

Anyone who has been through any kind of loss or bereavement or trauma might hear something of an echo in what I’m saying. But perhaps the time of Covid was a kind of wilderness that we all went into, a time when the world we thought we could control slipped out of our hands. It was frightening suddenly to experience the world as a dangerous place that we could hardly understand, let alone control. We’ve learned that all our enlightenment and ingenuity can be undone by a virus, carried to us by some bats… probably… And climate change has made the world a wilder place than our neat gardens made us think. Suddenly there are wild fires in suburbs and holiday destinations, floods and storms in the home counties, and more lands made desert and more people left famished… And in our own personal lives there are wild things that suddenly erupt; a job loss leaves us wandering through our days with no direction any more, or a relationship break up turns us inside out, or an illness disrupts our plans and hopes, or leaves us anxious, depressed, wild with a kind of madness.  

Sometimes in life can seem like one long Lent, because we find ourselves in a wilderness, our world disrupted, and we are more vulnerable and hungry. But there are also, even in such Lenten days, unexpected blessings. Sometimes when you find yourself in the wilderness, and you get to the point of finally letting go of trying to fix everything and do your duty and keep going, then it can feel amazingly liberating. When you do allow yourself to rest and receive support from others when you need it, it can allow you time to meet with God and to wait to see what will happen next. It can offer a time to reflect on what’s really important in life and what, within the wild, uncontrollable world we all have to inhabit, you might yet be able to contribute. It can be wonderful to see that the wildness of the world, and the uncontrollable grace of God, may not be so scary after all, and that life without the familiar markers can be possible, and even good. Sometimes we discover that a life without some of the things we had hoped to achieve, a life that is perhaps a little bit wilder and freer, might even be better than we thought. And perhaps some of the things we’ve been most scared of might not be so bad after all. 

You may have read a children’s book called Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. It’s won lots of awards. It tells the story of a boy called Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, makes such a mess in the house that he is sent to bed without any supper. Then his bedroom becomes mysteriously transformed into a jungle, and he sails to an island inhabited by beasts called the ‘wild things’. He manages to become king of the wild things and plays with them. But he starts to feel lonely and he goes home, where he finds a hot supper waiting for him. Children love this book and there are lots of clever theories about why. Psychoanalysts say that Max visits his wild side, but is pulled back to reality by parental love, symbolised in the hot supper. And there is certainly something here about how children, how all of us, can learn how to handle the wildness, the untamed rage and pain, inside each of us. 

Perhaps the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the idea that in Lent we might also go into the wilderness, is another kind of version of the children’s book. Except that it might say that the wilderness, the wildness, the untamed experiences, the bits of human life that we can’t always control, are places where angels also lurk with promises of blessing. We ignore, or think we can ignore, the wilderness, at our peril. It’s better to walk there bravely and wisely and to trust that though there will be challenges and temptations, there will also be angels and blessings. 

It’s fascinating to me that the Christian tradition keeps inviting us to go into the wilderness and encourages us to believe that it may be important not only to embrace it when it comes to us, but even sometimes to seek it out – as we might in Lent. In the very early centuries of the church’s life, when the church was becoming compromised with state power, being tamed by political forces, there were those who were called ‘desert fathers’ and ‘desert mothers’ who left the safer life of the cities to set up communities in the wilderness. They believed that they would find God again in the wild places. There are also Christians today who will tell us that if we want to follow Christ, then we have to ask ‘Where is he likely to be?’ and to recognise that he will be with those very people in our communities who are already facing the wilderness, who are living in bleak and lonely places, who are overwhelmed by life. We are called as Christians to follow Christ into that wilderness and to find the courage to stay there with him and to recognise that he went there for 40 days – which is biblical code for ‘as long as it needed’. Christianity is most definitely not a way of taming life to make it sweet and comfortable, but it is a way of finding the courage to live courageously in the wilderness, trusting that there are angels there too. When we have a physical illness, or a disability, or when grief and loss come, we can hold on no more to the sense that life is ours to shape as we wish, or that we can have anything we want if only we dream hard enough. Human life is to be lived in the wild places, the places we can’t always control, and yet are still places of blessing, where we receive things that we might not have earned for ourselves, but things nonetheless that come from God’s good hand.  

Mark’s Gospel tells us in just two verses what other Gospels dwell on in much greater length – that Jesus went into the wilderness and that he was there for forty days. But it may be that this short verse or two is in its way a more truthful account of what Jesus went through. It was not an empty time, but a time more full than all the years it takes to get a degree or to have a career or to raise a child or whatever it is that has marked the times of your life. 

Jesus stayed there in the desert, in the place of wild things and the angels. He stayed in the place of hunger and boredom, of loneliness and emptiness. He remained with the thin fabric of the real world – refusing the temptations of magic, spectacle and miracle. He was committed to the places where this world feels to be at its hardest and its most ordinary and least spectacular. Jesus is present with us then when the church feels to be most empty and unyielding and lacking in wows and wonders. He’s with us when we don’t know what to say in the face of a sorrow or struggle or illness. He’s with us when life just feels empty and a struggle and unexciting. 

The great promise and hope of this story is that Jesus came out of the desert – not saying ‘Thank God that’s over’ or ‘I’m never going back there again!’ or even ‘You’ll never believe the size of the teeth on those wild beasts!’ He came out of the desert – where he had refused to escape hunger, boredom and beasts – and he said ‘there were angels there!’. Or as Mark puts it, Jesus came out of the desert and said, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

May angels accompany through this Lent and through the wild places of all your days. And may you know that Christ is with you, and that the kingdom of God is very near.  Amen. 

Hymn     The Day of the Lord Shall Come
John Bell and Graham Maule The Wild Goose Worship Resource Group © GIA Publications reprinted and podcast in terms of One Licence.  One Licence # A-734713  

The day of the Lord shall come as prophets have told,
when Christ shall make all things new, no matter how old;
and some at the stars may gaze, and some in God’s word,
in vain to predict the time, the day of the Lord.

The desert shall spring to life, the hills shall rejoice;
the lame of the earth shall leap, the dumb shall find voice;
the lamb with the lion shall lie, and the last shall be first;
and nations for war no more shall study or thirst.

The day of the Lord shall come: a thief in the night,
a curse to those in the wrong who think themselves right;
a pleasure for those in pain or with death at the door;
a true liberation for the prisoners and poor.

The desert shall spring to life, the hills shall rejoice;
the lame of the earth shall leap, the dumb shall find voice;
the lamb with the lion shall lie, and the last shall be first;
and nations for war no more shall study or thirst.

The day of the Lord shall come and judgment be known,
as nations, like sheep and goats, come close to the throne.
Then Christ shall reveal himself asking all to draw near,
and see in his face all faces once ignored here.

The desert shall spring to life, the hills shall rejoice;
the lame of the earth shall leap, the dumb shall find voice;
the lamb with the lion shall lie, and the last shall be first;
and nations for war no more shall study or thirst.

The day of the Lord shall come, but now is the time
to subvert earth’s wisdom with Christ’s folly sublime,
by loving the loveless, turning the tide and the cheek,
by walking beneath the cross in step with the weak.

The desert shall spring to life, the hills shall rejoice;
the lame of the earth shall leap, the dumb shall find voice;
the lamb with the lion shall lie, and the last shall be first;
and nations for war no more shall study or thirst.

Affirmation of Faith 

We believe in God,
who finds us in desert places
and who ministers to us in our emptiness.
We believe in Jesus Christ,
who entered the desert 
to bring us new life.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who is with us in the solitary space
of our honest selves.
We believe that God is with us,
and that every desert will blossom    
when God’s day comes

Prayers of thanksgiving and of intercession for the world

We come with our thanks for all the good things;
for the beauty of the natural world,
glimpsed in mountains and sunsets, 
and in dandelions and daisies;
for the warmth of human love,
whenever we find it and whoever we are stirred to love;
for the thrill of discovery and curiosity, 
of new things learned and gifts we can share;
for the pleasures of life, known in laughter and company,
in good food and the tiredness of a fulfilling day. 
For all that merits our heartfelt thanks,
we express now our gratitude and joy. 

In sorrow, we recognise that life is not always joy,
and that many; human beings, creatures and all things,
may suffer injury, hurt, and pain.  

We pray for all those who do not ever see much beauty;
those in prison, or working in buildings with little light, 
people deep in depression or those abused by others.

We pray for those who live in the pain of grief, 
or who have suffered such a trauma that they are afraid,
for all whose days feel beyond their control. 

We pray for those for whom hunger is physical and painful,
those made poor by ruthless economies or cruel wars,
all enslaved to hard and relentless labour. 

God of the garden and the desert,
of all pain and every joy,
be with each of us in the wild places
and send your angels to bless us. 

Give us grace and courage too,
to accompany those in any kind of wilderness
and to offer blessings where we can. 

We offer these prayers, in the name of Jesus Christ,
your beloved Son,  Amen. 

Offertory prayer

O God,  we offer to you today
this portion of what we have,
but let it stand for all that we have, all that we are, all that we can do,
to make this earth more like heaven, your people more joyful
and bring peace to all Creation, Amen.

Hymn     Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer
William Williams (1745) translated by Peter Williams (1771) Public Domain.  BBC Songs of Praise

Guide me, O my great Redeemer,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but you are mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore,
feed me now and evermore.

Open now the crystal fountain,
where the healing waters flow.
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
ever be my strength and shield,
ever be my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s Destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever sing to you, I will ever sing to you.


May God bless you this Lent,
with a generous heart,
a peaceful spirit,
an open mind,
and a deepening faith. 

The blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 
be with you. Amen.

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