Into the Desert with Jesus
I want to begin this morning by asking you to imagine with me, if you will, a new member of parliament – a rookie candidate who, to her great surprise, was successful in being elected by a comfortable majority. In the days after her election all she could feel was euphoria, but now some of that has worn off; success has brought some unexpected challenges, and she needs to go off by herself for a couple of days to think about the direction she’s going in. Perhaps, like Jesus, she goes off to a lonely place where she can walk for miles and think things through.
After the writ was dropped, of course, she was concentrating on the campaign. She’d been overwhelmed by the nomination itself – being chosen by her party as their candidate! What a privilege! All the things she’d been longing to do for years were now within her grasp: just get elected, and she could change the world! And so she concentrated on getting elected: travelling around the riding, meeting people, making speeches, shaking hands, not enough sleep, too much coffee, and so on. And finally, on election night itself, came the sweet moment of victory.
But now she needs space to think, and as she walks through the woods by herself, looking inward, into her heart, she’s a little shocked at what she discovers. All her ideals are still there, of course - the dreams of making a difference, of changing the world. But there are other voices whispering in her mind, too.
‘This is just the beginning, you know. If you play your cards right, if you don’t get too hung up on a few abstract principles, if you get to know the right people, you could be a cabinet minister. You could have some real power, get your name in the newspapers, get interviewed on TV. And some of those government ministers live a pretty luxurious life, too – flying on private jets, enjoying expensive dinners and so on!’
‘What about that party activist you’ve never liked – you could get rid of him now. You’ve got the power. You don’t have to put up with difficult people any more; you’re in charge, and they’ll have to listen to you’.
And so, as she walks and thinks in that lonely place, our young politician has to decide: is she going to obey the voice of the high ideals that got her into it in the first place, or is she going to allow herself to be distracted by these other voices, the voices of self-interest and self-advancement?
I suspect that we all go through times when we realise that we need to reflect on the direction of our life. For some people, like our imaginary young politician, it might be the realisation that their high ideals are coming into conflict with some very real temptations. For other people it might be a crisis of some kind – the loss of a job or a marriage, or some sort of life-threatening illness. It might be a bereavement, or it might be just the deep nagging sense that all the success we’re experiencing is not giving us the sense of satisfaction and contentment we were hoping for. Whatever the cause, those times come to us as opportunities for reflection and self-examination, and if we use them properly, the Holy Spirit can work in a deep and wonderful way in us, bringing us closer to God and God’s will for us.
That’s the sort of thing that Jesus experienced when he went out into the desert for forty days. He knew his Father had commissioned him to do a job, for Israel and the whole world, and he needed time to think and pray about how he was going to do it. We read in our gospel: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (v.1). It was the Holy Spirit who led him out there, and it was the Holy Spirit who helped him deal with what he faced there. The Spirit was giving him this special time to listen to his Father and make decisions about the way he was going to live his life.
And the Holy Spirit is giving you and me this special gift of the season of Lent – forty days to give special attention to thinking, to praying, to examining the direction of our lives and making decisions about getting closer to God’s plan for us. For me, the season of Lent seems to arrive in the nick of time every year. I get obsessed with some new interest, or I find myself sliding into habits that are even more self-indulgent than before, or I just get so busy that I find it harder and harder to slow down, be quiet, and listen to what God is saying to me. And then along comes Ash Wednesday, and it’s like the Spirit is quietly saying to me, “Tim, time to go out into the desert for forty days again. Want to come along?” And if I listen, and if I accept the invitation, then good things can happen.
Not that it’s always easy. As we said, our Gospel tells us that Jesus ‘was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (1-2). This is the reality of our Christian life, that wherever the Spirit is at work, the devil is never far behind. ‘Led by the Spirit and tempted by the devil’ – that’s a good description of the normal Christian life, I think! And it’s an especially good description of what happens to us when we go into those times of self-examination.
What are some of the things we can learn from Jesus’ time in the desert? Well, first of all, there’s the very fact that he went into the desert in the first place, and that he fasted for forty days. What’s that all about? It’s about the removal of distractions so that we can pay attention to God’s presence and God’s voice.
We live in a world that’s full of distractions. Every shopping mall we go into has music piping into it. Every pub we go into has a TV screen in the corner. Every time we get off somewhere by ourselves a cell phone starts ringing. When I leave my work and go home, I don’t really leave my work, because my computer at home can check my office email, and of course there are all sorts of reasons why it’s really important for me to check it. And when I finish checking it and we sit down for supper as a family, the phone rings and someone from a charity wants to know if a $200 donation would fit into our family’s budget this month.
Let me encourage you, this Lent, to turn off some of the distractions. For me, in my own life, one of the biggest distractions is the Internet. Some of you know that I have a blog, and I’ve also made contacts with other bloggers around the world; I read their sites regularly and often comment on them. But I’m well aware of the fact that this can easily get obsessive for me, and so every year in Lent I take a forty-day break from Facebook and blogging and reading blogs. I don’t think this discipline is for everyone, but I do know that for me, the Internet is one of the most potent distractions from hearing the voice of God and doing what he tells me to do. And I think we all need to ask ourselves the question: ‘What are the most powerful distractions in my life, and what am I going to do about them?’
Noise can be a distraction. I sometimes think about the early missionaries who brought the Christian gospel to the prairies, and the long journeys they made by horse and canoe in the days long before iPods and car radios and all those other assorted noisemakers. I suspect that they became adept at spending long periods of time in silence, in prayer and in listening to the voice of God. And you need silence to do that. So let me encourage you to turn off some of the background noise in your life for the next forty days, and make significant space for silence.
Of course, we’re all at different places in our life journey. Some of us have small children at home, and the last thing God wants is for us to see them as a distraction from doing his will. But all the more reason, when we do manage to get a few moments of silence, for us to truly honour that silence and take time to pray and listen to God.
Food is a great gift from God to provide sustenance for our bodies. But food too can be a distraction, and so fasting is an ancient discipline found in many spiritual traditions around the world - yet another way of turning away from distractions so as to be able to hear God’s voice more clearly. Fasting is a way of nurturing our hunger for God; it’s as if, as our body is deprived of its normal food, we somehow find ourselves reaching out in a deeper way for the sustenance that we need most of all – the sense of the presence of God.
So if you’ve never tried fasting before, you might like to give it a try this Lent – always remembering that it’s not about cosmetic weight loss, but about hungering and thirsting for the presence of God. If you’ve never done it before, I recommend that you start with a twenty-four hour fast – that is, missing two meals, breakfast and lunch – and spend the extra time in prayer if you are able to do so.
Another thing: I suspect that while Jesus was out in the desert he was meditating on the scriptures. Of course, he wasn’t able to take a Bible with him – in those days the scroll of just one book, Isaiah, would have cost more than a year’s wages. But as a good Jewish boy Jesus would have memorized the scriptures. When he is tempted by the devil, he quotes the scriptures back at him, and all the quotes are from the book of Deuteronomy. Is it fanciful to imagine that before he went into the desert Jesus had heard the Deuteronomy scroll read, and had been meditating on it in his time alone? Maybe – but the slow, prayerful reading of the scriptures is an ancient and time-honoured way of listening to God’s voice. And so I suggest that this Lent you pick up your Bible, open it to the Gospels or some other place, and pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you as you read.
And don’t be in a hurry; Jesus took forty days to do this. You can’t have an instant spiritual life – it takes time, patience, and lots of practice. Don’t suppose that when Jesus was out in the desert for forty days he heard God speaking to him all that time. I suspect that for a lot of the time, all he heard was silence. So don’t be discouraged if that’s the case for you as well. Learn to be content with that silence, and to wait patiently for the time when God decides it’s right for you to hear something specific from him. In fact, the silence can be the voice of God, too, if you learn to listen to it.
If you listen long enough, you might find some things out about yourself that you don’t like. I find it interesting, as I read the story of Jesus’ temptation here, to see how all three of his temptations were about putting himself first. He was tempted to use the miraculous power of God for his own self-indulgence: “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v.3). He was tempted to make a spectacle of himself by jumping off the highest point of the temple so that all Israel would see him floating down miraculously to the ground, unharmed, saved by God’s angels. That would be a good advertising gimmick, wouldn’t it? And he was tempted to avoid the hard road of the cross and win power over all the kingdoms of the world by worshipping the devil – in other words, to let the end justify the means, to use the devil’s strategy of oppression and violence rather than God’s strategy of suffering servanthood. That would be a much easier way, wouldn’t it?
Jesus rejected those temptations, because he knew that his life wasn’t about himself - it was about God. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ (v.10). But I’m sure those temptations were tailor-made for him, and it wasn’t easy to reject them. It was good for him to learn about himself in this way; he could keep better watch over his own soul, once he knew which temptations were particularly appealing for him. And the same goes for us as well. As we wait on God in silence we will probably learn things about ourselves, and that knowledge will stand us in good stead as we continue in the path of discipleship.
One last thing: don’t forget the place we started from: ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’ (v.1). The Holy Spirit had filled Jesus at his baptism, and the Holy Spirit strengthened him in his forty days in the desert. So as we go into these forty days of Lent, let’s be sure to pray often that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit, and let’s pray that at the end of our forty days, as we come out of the desert, we also will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and ready to do the work God is calling us to do.