The Wilderness of Our Lives

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

and they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

1Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV)

Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.

Today we have before us the high drama of life. It is the ultimate confrontation. This kind of drama is portrayed in the movies when the sheriff is at one end of Main Street and the bad guy is at the other end and as they walk toward each other you know there is going to be a showdown. Tension builds. The music swells. The shop keepers shut their doors and the townspeople disappear. Everything is quiet. One of them is not getting out of this alive. Main Street is a wilderness at this moment. These two are ON THEIR OWN. 

Only they’re not. Even though the street is deserted, the people are watching. You can’t see them, but there are eyes at every window. As soon as the shootout is over, people will flood the street from every direction. They’ll be there to clean up the aftermath and make a new start. Whatever happens, life will go on. There will be a new start. The showdown might be the end of this part of the story, but it will certainly bring the beginning of another. And that is just the thing. No ending is simply an ending. It is always also a beginning.

It is that way for Jesus in our gospel passage today. If you remember, in the end of chapter 3, Jesus was baptized. He has heard the word from on high, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” And immediately the Spirit leads him into the wilderness. Don’t kid yourself about this. Jesus is not being gently led by the Spirit. Jesus is being led to a place no one wants to go to. (It is the same word as when Adam and Eve were forced out of the garden. It was not a happy day.) Think more like Jesus is being driven into the wilderness like a herd of cattle are driven toward the slaughterhouse. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t gentle. Jesus doesn’t have much opportunity to resist. 

Now Jesus has fasted forty days and nights, living rough, surviving off the land, which was very sparse. The Jordan Valley is lush, but the wilderness around it? Not so hospitable. There are things that could hurt you in the wilderness. There are things to frighten you there. But he had a lot to think about. In those forty days, did he wonder if the message of love was real? Did he have a sense that God was near? Or did he feel abandoned by God? Was he confused out there? Was he wishing for something more? Something else? That his life would be different? Did Jesus wonder “Where is God now?” Did Jesus think God was hiding from him? Was that wilderness experience like our “wilderness experiences” where we feel alone, and without resources, and uncertain about the future? We cannot know what Jesus was thinking and feeling, but I can say with a pretty good level of certainty that we would have. I certainly would have been wondering what this was all about.

It is one of the big stories of life. Genesis portrays this big story has been part of the human pattern from the beginning. Adam and Eve were in the garden. Life was wonderful. They had everything they needed. But the serpent convinced them they didn’t. Eve saw that the tree was good. She didn’t have to choose between good and evil. She had  only good things to choose between; all the good of the garden vs all the good of the tree. She did what any of us would have done… she chose to better herself. She wanted knowledge. She wanted to make progress. She wanted something better. We cannot fault her for that. Who here among us has not wanted something better even though what we had was good? Eve didn’t fall for the serpent’s rationalization because she was weak but because she was human! We are wired to seek knowledge. From the time we are babies we are seeking knowledge. Babies are learning machines. They learn so much in those early years… they learn to walk and talk and by the time they are two they have learned how to play their parents off each other. Our human default setting is to soak up information and turn it into knowledge. 

The showdown for Adam and Eve symbolically brought an end to the euphoria of infancy—the end of life in the garden—but was the beginning of life “on the outside” where they had responsibilities. They had to work. They knew pain as well as pleasure. They had to be adults. They had to go through ‘the wilderness’ to get there. After their eyes were opened, they knew they were naked. They covered themselves and they hid from God. They were in the garden, but they were in the wilderness nonetheless. And then they were driven from the garden like cattle are driven to the slaughterhouse.

This is our human story. We are driven into the wildernesses of our lives. It is never by choice. We might go hiking in the wild lands. It might be dangerous out there, and it might stretch us, but that is different. That is not the ‘wilderness experience’ to which this sermon is referring. These are not invigorating wilderness experiences. These are the desolating wilderness experiences. Sometimes those wilderness experiences are in the midst of the life we knew, like for Adam and Eve still in the garden, yet everything had changed. And sometimes, like Jesus, we are plunged into circumstances completely unfamiliar and unfriendly and unwelcome. It might be rough. It most certainly will be. But we will get through it. There will be a new start. 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. All through Lent we will be examining the wilderness in our lives; the metaphor and what it stands for, what it has to teach us, and where we might go from there. Lent can feel like a wilderness. It can be bleak. It can seem long, especially if we are practicing some unfamiliar spiritual disciplines that don’t yet feel good. But trust me, they will. If you haven’t started a Lenten practice yet this year, don’t despair. It is not too late. I encourage you to do something. Walk the labyrinth—on your own or with our group walks at 5:45pm on Wednesdays during Lent. Pick up a daily devotional booklet like ‘Christ in our Home’. Take our prayer list on the inside back cover of the bulletin and pray through it. Ask a friend to read a Bible passage every day and discuss it together. These are just a few suggestions. Don’t be stymied by the fear of not being able to do it perfectly. We are practicing. And don’t give up if you start and then stumble. Get up and start again. The wilderness is hard. So remember, you are never alone in it, even if it feels like you are. It won’t last forever, even though it seems like it will. In a moment we will have a brief time of silence. You might choose to use this time to tell God what you need to get through a current wilderness. It might be an opportunity to thank God for getting you through the wilderness of the past. Maybe in this moment you are ready to offer yourself to God, to go wherever God leads you, even if it is as a herd of cattle to the slaughterhouse. I give you silence. It is for you and God.

(silence for reflection) 

Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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