I don’t know about you but when I picture the wilderness it brings to mind a place that is dry, barren, desolate, and hot – a place in which little if anything can survive, a place of isolation and solitude, and perhaps even a place of despair. Certainly when I have journeyed through the Holy Land some of the places I travelled through did nothing to change that picture – the reality if you like matched my imagination.
And of course in our life and faith there are times when in some way we go through wilderness experiences. We might feel far off and distant to God, we might feel deserted and isolated, we might feel dry, tired and weary, and yes we might even know despair.
It is interesting and in light of this actually quite incredible to consider that many of God’s people found themselves in the wilderness.
We know of Elijah who at first showed such incredible faith and boldness in God on Mount Carmel who subsequently in fear of his life had an absolute crisis of faith and fled into the wilderness in despair. Here he came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4) It was in the wilderness that God said to Elijah “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9) It was in the wilderness that Elijah encountered transformation, renewal of faith and when everything was stripped away had that encounter with God – one of those ‘have I got your attention now’ moments – not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the gentle whisper. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13)
We know of Moses who spent 40 years in the Midianite wilderness before being called by God, Moses who it is said spent 40 years learning how to be a somebody, 40 years learning how to be a nobody and 40 years learning what God could do with somebody who knew he was a nobody. We know of how God’s people were subsequently led by Moses through the wilderness for 40 years before the Promised Land. For Moses and for God’s people, it was a place of transformation, a place of learning about God, a place of decluttering from all of the baggage that they had brought with them from Egypt, a place of renewal and restoration and a place of purpose and intention.
When David fled from Saul he stayed in the wilderness strongholds, and in the hills of the Desert of Ziph. When David fled from his son Prince Absalom, he sought refuge in the wilderness of Judah. For David, the wilderness was a place of growth and learning. It was a place of solitude and quietness, free from distraction, in which he could come before God. It was a place of tremendous creativity in which David composed many of the Psalms. It was a place of character building where David developed skills and abilities as a leader and a shepherd of God’s people:
“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” (Psalm 63:1-4)
And when we come to our Gospel reading, and perhaps read it a little more slowly to give it chance to sink in…it is interesting to see that even though we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation” in the gospel reading we learn how Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. We must remember that when Jesus was led into the wilderness, he was full of the Holy Spirit. And when Jesus came out of the wilderness to begin his earthly ministry he was also full of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus HAD to go into the wilderness so that his sovereignty might even be made known there. Only Jesus could resist temptation and conquer it. Only Jesus could conquer sin and death. Only Jesus could show us the way. He does the same by stepping in to our brokenness and bringing about transformation and he does that by sending the Holy Spirit. I think that how we respond to temptation is something that can reveal our true nature or character, and the extent of our reliance on God.
So let’s consider how Jesus responded to temptation:
Tell these stones to become bread.
The first temptation was the temptation of hunger – physical temptation. Jesus had nothing to eat, and quite naturally he hungered. Surely it is the right of God’s Son to have the provision of all his needs; he needs food, he has the power to make it—let him do so (4:3). There is a temptation here not to rely on the provision of his Father in heaven, not to trust, to be filled with pride.
Jesus’ response is that physical needs must be met in God’s way, not our own selfish, short-cut way. We’re tempted, of course, in so many ways to provide a quick fix for our hungers. We live in a society of instant gratification…instant on. I like making soup sometimes because it reminds me of the value of God’s provision. As I prepare all the ingredients it takes time and presents me with an opportunity to prayerfully thank God for that because he has supplied my needs.
They will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone
The second temptation was the temptation of instant acclaim by putting God to the test. Surely as the Son of God it is his right to claim protection against all dangers; and his Father has actually promised it, so let him put that promise to the test (4:5–7). I think that at the heart of this was the devil’s desire to get Jesus to seek to manipulate his Father and to do what the devil himself wanted to do – to become more important even than God.
Jesus teaching to his disciples is: answer temptation with God’s Word, just as I have. We need to know Scripture well enough to answer our doubts and fears and temptations with it. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), and as we learn to apply the Word to every circumstance of our lives, we are equipped to persevere
All this I will give you
The final temptation was the temptation of power and wealth. Surely it is Jesus’ right as the Son of God to receive power over all nations, and to become King of kings. The devil offers to give this to Jesus if Jesus is prepared to acknowledge him as his lord (4:8–10).
The thing is what the devil was offering was not his to offer in the first place! The world and everything in it are God’s and God’s alone.
Jesus knew that power was important to his mission as Messiah. But it had to be power bestowed by his Father in due time. Jesus laid aside his majesty and was utterly reliant on his Father. His was the hard way to glory…through the cross, the grave, and resurrection. But in due time the Father exalted him to the highest place, the place that he deserved as God’s equal (Philippians 2:6), and to the position in which he is publicly proclaimed before heaven and earth (Philippians 2:9-11).
Even though the wilderness can be a place of testing, a place of trial, and yes perhaps for us at first a place of failure as it was at times for Elijah, David and Moses – it is also a place of forgiveness, a place of transformation, and a place of hope. It is a place where God gets our attention. Sometimes in life we must journey through our wildernesses to get to the Promised Land. Sometimes in life we have to journey through our wildernesses to have those rough edges knocked off us. Sometimes in life we have to journey through the wilderness to become aware of our sin and brokenness.
But I have had encounters with so many people in life who get lost in the wilderness, people who never come to that place of forgiveness. I have been there myself too. We can struggle with forgiveness at so many different levels. If you did something wrong to me, I may well forgive you but unless you journey with me and accept that forgiveness it means nothing. And sometimes we may struggle to forgive ourselves. We become paralysed. But we must not forget that God is present in the wilderness too. Jesus journeyed there before us. He understands.
It is only through reconciliation and true forgiveness that the guilt is felt, faced and followed to mutual recognition that repentance is genuine and right relationships – with justice and reciprocity – are now achieved. We must acknowledge our sin and brokenness.
The psalmist said “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed are those whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. For the Lord will not reject forever.”
Forgiveness involves a creative work: “Create in me a pure heart.” This is not a creative work in the sense of creation-out-of-nothing, but a creative work in the sense of bringing order and peace where chaos and hopeless turbulence were before. It involves coming through the wilderness.
As we enter in to this season of Lent, as we are invited to journey through the wilderness with Christ, may we discover a place of transformation and find ourselves at the end at that place of forgiveness – at the foot of the cross. May we journey to Easter full of that hope of new life, full of resurrection hope and filled with the Holy Spirit. May you have the courage to forgive yourself and know the peace, mercy and forgiveness of Christ. Amen