From the wilderness to acceptance and love

Mary Copping, 24 June 2018

The birth of a child is such an exciting event, and we’re told that the neighbours and relatives rejoiced with Elizabeth at the birth of John the Baptist. His birth was unusual in several ways.

Firstly, because it was a complete miracle of God, as we find in Luke 1: 7: ‘They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years’.

Second, the baby was given an unexpected name. The crowd around them fully expected custom to be followed, and that the child would be named Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth rejected this and insisted he was called John, the name that Zechariah had been given by an angel who’d visited him many months before to tell him he would have a son. This was the name God wanted him to be called, this child who was so significant in God’s plan.

The third surprising aspect was that, as Zechariah wrote the name ‘John’ on a tablet, he regained his voice. He’d lost it when he had doubted what the angel told him about having this baby in his old age. And as he regained his voice, he spoke out a song of praise, now known as the Benedictus and used in the Book of Common Prayer. It begins, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for he hath visited, and redeemed his people’. What an amazing start for a baby!

So, as the crowd around them saw all that was happening, they were amazed, and we’re told they wondered, ‘What then will this child become?’ God had special purposes for him to fulfil and, in the words of an old hymn, ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’.

In our reading from Isaiah we heard about a voice crying out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’ – a strong prophetic reference to John the Baptist and what his mission would be once God had prepared him. His voice in the wilderness would foretell the coming of Jesus.

In Luke 1: 80 we read, ‘The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel’. What happened in those wilderness years, no one knows. We can assume that he was given a Jewish education. The angel had told Zechariah that he must never have wine or strong drink (he should be brought up as a Nazarite), to live a godly life in preparation for all that God would have him do.

Also with Jesus, we know little about his life until he went into the wilderness, apart from the time when he was 12 and his parents lost him, then found him in the Temple learning from the Jewish scholars. Both had hidden lives, preparing each of them for what God had for them to do.

It has been said of those who are in the public eye, that often they pull up the ladder by which they came, so that people don’t know the struggles they have had, the difficulties they have faced. They might prefer it to be like that – though now with so much information on social media it’s more difficult to keep these things under wraps, as others desperately search for the skeleton in the cupboard for any who are in the public domain.

When I became a Christian in my 30s I had a belief that I must leave my old life behind, forgetting about it and living a new life in a new way. There were rules and regulations I thought I must follow, which would please God; and perhaps my old life didn’t please him. It became quite a strain, and for a while I almost lost sight of who I was. But gradually I understood that God accepted me as I was and had always accepted me and loved me, even though for many years I hadn’t realised.

I still tried to leave the past behind me and move forwards into the future. But sometimes the past can pull us back, can’t it? My husband and I had had a good life in the army – nothing to be too ashamed of – but was that okay for a Christian? I wasn’t sure. I was able to keep the two lives separate, until my husband’s regiment asked if I would become the chaplain to their Retired Sergeants and Officers Group and lead a memorial service once a year at Serle’s House and say grace at the dinner in the evening. What a challenge! All those servicemen who had known me before I’d become a Christian, now seeing me in a clerical collar, leading a service of remembrance. The first few times I did it, people would come up to me, nodding their heads in bewilderment and saying, ‘What? Mary Copping, Pete’s wife, a vicar?’ It led to many conversations about how this had happened, and people have been very interested in my journey. It has also helped me to come to terms with my old and new lives, realising that they are both part of me.

I am reading a book called Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian. In it he talks about different facets of God’s love. One part struck me, where he talks about our hidden inwardness and says that it is ‘bashfully afraid of being seen and deathly afraid of becoming completely exposed, it prefers that others do not even suspect its existence!’

I wonder what parts of our lives we would prefer people not to know about – what parts are the wilderness years, which we may feel ashamed of or embarrassed by? When people ask how we are, we say, ‘I’m fine, thank you’, and worry that they may find out that we’re not as we seem. One description of this is as people wearing masks to hide their true selves.

Coming to an acceptance of the whole of my life, coming to a realisation that God loves me and has always loved me, and not being ashamed of anything, has brought me great freedom.

For me, coming to an acceptance of the whole of my life, coming to a realisation that God loves me and has always loved me, and not being ashamed of anything, has brought me great freedom. Similarly, I think it has been so helpful and freeing for people to hear princes William and Harry being open about the pain that their mother’s death caused them – giving others permission to be open about their wilderness experiences.

Of course, we do not know what John the Baptist or Jesus experienced in their 30 years’ preparation time. We read that Jesus had many struggles in his 40 days in the wilderness but are not told any more. It is likely that there were times of difficulty and pain as well as periods of comfort and reassurance as God was preparing both of them for all that he wanted them to do.

For each of us, ‘God is working his purpose out’. All of us have been through our wilderness times – some, perhaps, are going through them now – and all have been accepted and loved by God. We should be accepted and loved by those in our church community too. Perhaps we can all take off our masks occasionally and trust that we will be accepted and loved, by God and by each other.