“In the Wilderness”
Sunday 10 March 2019
The temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness is one of the best know incidents in the gospels. It therefore suffers from the dangerous disease of over-familiarity. That is what happens when passages of the Bible become so familiar to us that we don’t read them carefully and prayerfully any more. We just complacently say: “Oh, yes, that’s the passage about ….. whatever.”
It is interesting to note that it is often suggested by believers that God led Jesus into the wilderness so that he would be tempted by the devil. In other words, the very purpose for which God wanted Jesus to enter the wilderness was so that he would be tempted in this view. And yet, a close reading of the three accounts given of this event in Jesus’ life by the three evangelists gives us a slightly different picture.
Certainly, in Matthew’s Gospel, the very aim of God in leading Jesus into the wilderness was so that he would be tempted. He writes quite plainly in Matthew 4.1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”. There can be little argument that there is a specific motive expressed on God’s part here by Matthew, or more accurately on the Spirit’s part. But this reading has tended to colour how believers interpret the other two gospel accounts of the event.
You see, this is not an accurate interpretation of the case with Mark’s Gospel, nor with Luke’s Gospel, which we read today.
Mark 1.12-13 expresses it like this: “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 the inference quite clearly here is that getting Jesus to be in the wilderness is the primary aim, and the temptation by the devil seems to be a corollary from that, rather than the specific purpose.
Luke 4.1-2 seems to be in a similar vein: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. It seems to me to be quite legitimate to read the principal aim of the Holy Spirit to be to get Jesus to go into the wilderness. It just so happened that when he got there the devil began to tempt him. Incidentally, Luke suggests that the temptation was continuous for the whole forty days even though he mentions specifically those temptations that occurred, as Luke says, “when they were over (the forty days that is)”.
So, what difference does it make for us if Luke saw the primary motive of the Holy Spirit as getting Jesus to enter the wilderness and the tempting by the devil was a side effect of the journey into the wilderness?
Perhaps we might benefit from some reflection on the place of the wilderness in the life of God and his people Israel. In a very real sense, the people of Israel were a wilderness people. Their great ancestor Abram, Abraham, emerged out of the wilderness of Ur, thought to be located on the Arabian Peninsula. He was a nomad, by definition, he did not live in a city, or own land for agriculture. Nomads wandered the wilderness moving from water source to water source.
When Moses brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years. Following their early lack of faith in God’s relationship with them, it was ultimately in the wilderness that they returned to faithfulness and entered into covenant with God.
And so, perhaps the Holy Spirit was leading Jesus into the wilderness for a good reason – so that he could experience the closeness and comfort of God, just as the people of Israel had found God in the wilderness. However, in opening himself to the presence of God, Jesus exposed his human vulnerability and that immediately drew the attention of the devil, the tempter.
So how might we translate this reality into our own lives?
Could it be that it is only in the wilderness that we shed all our defences and open ourselves to the presence of God? Despite the overarching threat of temptation that can take place in the wilderness, is the message of Luke that it is worth taking the risk of entering the wilderness for what it can do for our relationship with God? Even though, in shedding all defences and masks that we usually wear to protect ourselves so that we can encounter God in complete honesty, we equally open ourselves to the possibility of being tempted away from God by the allure of what might seem easy and comfortable, is it worth entering the wilderness.?
It seems to me that Luke is saying that it is. Not only that, Luke is saying that the Holy Spirit intentionally led Jesus into the wilderness despite the risk of temptation. And further, that Jesus withstood the temptations of the devil and emerged the stronger for it.
Where will we find the wilderness in our lives?
To find the wilderness or the potential wilderness in our lives, we probably need to have a deeper understanding of what it is that we actually do each day. It is very tempting (there’s that word) for us to say how busy we are. But does a close examination of what we do each day bear that out.
Some of you may have taken part in time management surveys in your work places. It all seems a bit artificial when the visiting consultant gives out the forms and asks you to record everything that you do during the work day. Artificial or not, it does help to highlight how much of our work time is not at all productive. In fact, we waste a lot of time every day. When we have to record every minute spent in idle workplace chatter for example, it becomes a bit revealing. When the coffee break consists, not only of making a coffee and grabbing a snack, but rather several conversations to and from the kitchen so that the break your thought was only 15 minutes in fact consumes a half an hour, we can be a little taken back.
Maybe we could try to do a bit of an inventory of our days as the last thing before going to sleep. The Prayer at the End of the Day of the Church (Compline) actually encourages us to do this. It recommends a period of silence to be kept at the beginning of the prayer for reflection on the past day. Perhaps if we adopted this prayerful reflection at the end of the day as a practice over Lent, it could turn into a vehicle for identifying for us other opportunities during our days where we could stop and spend time in quiet contemplation with God – in the wilderness. Perhaps we will find that we are not as busy as we first thought. Perhaps the opportunity to enter the wilderness will become more and more evident to us as we conduct this daily review of our lives.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen