Times in the Wilderness

Sunday the 5th of March 2017

Matthew 4: 1-11

A number of years ago I was a part of a small bible study group, at the Lutheran Church at Glynde in Adelaide. At one of our meetings someone brought along a friend who had just come to faith in Jesus. Of course on this night this person shared her journey, and it was a memorable occasion as she shared how she had moved from being a total nonbeliever, to coming to faith. This woman was very excited and she was full of enthusiasm for God and getting into his Word, which inspired all of us there that night. After she had left, a good friend of Julie’s and mine, whose name also happens to be Julie, said that we needed to pray for this woman. I asked her why and she said that because all the people that she had met who had come to faith in Jesus, started out with enthusiasm, but eventually they went through times of testing.

I thought about this woman and the conversation and prayer that I had with Julie, as I was looking at the Gospel reading for this week from Matthew chapter 4 where, just after Jesus had just been baptised in the previous chapter, he was led into the wilderness to be tested/tempted by the evil one.

It was not accidental that Jesus was led into the wilderness after his baptism. It is not as if he was wandering around and suddenly got lost. And he was not in the wilderness because he was being punished for doing anything wrong. No; Jesus was there because he had been led there for the very purpose of being tested. I get the impression that Jesus in his debate with the evil one, was in the process of preparation. A place of preparation for the mission entrusted to him.

Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness can often be seen as a place where God’s people are going through preparation; a place of waiting to see where God will lead next; a place of people growing and learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus remained in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.

For forty days and nights Noah and his family endured being on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood; for forty days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God’s covenant for the Israelites; for forty days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God; for forty years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land. Time spent in the wilderness was important.

So in today’s reading we see Jesus is facing a time of testing as he was being prepared. Taking advantage of Jesus’ hunger, the devil tries to entice him to change the stone into bread; he tries to entice Jesus to demonstrate his close association with the powerful, by proving that God’s angels will keep him from injury, by tempting him to throw himself off the temple top. And finally he tempts Jesus, with the promise of a false glory, by tempting him to bow down and worship Satan, and then he would rule the kingdoms of the world. Jesus did not give in; he did not lay down to the temptations being thrown at him. Rather, they made him stronger.

The lessons from these temptations which Jesus went through, he then used in his ministry to all. For example, in today’s reading Jesus refuses in the wilderness to turn stones into bread to fulfil his own hunger, but in time he would feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish. Also he would teach his disciples, which includes us, to pray to God for their “daily bread.”

Jesus refused to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others, while trusting God’s power to the point in which he ends up dying on a Roman cross.

Jesus turned down the devil’s offer to have the power over the kingdoms of the world, but instead he offers the kingdom of heaven to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness.

The point that I am getting at here is that this time in the wilderness, where Jesus faced temptations, was not a one-off experience for him to get through, but the temptations were tests of preparation for the choices Jesus would make in his earthly ministry. Time and time again we can see, how the wilderness experience formed Jesus’ interactions with those who were sick, hungry or in need; with those who use their connections to power (this would include the lawyers, Pharisees and Sadducees who test him in various ways; to challenge his loyalty); with people who too easily got caught up in world’s view of greatness rather than God’s (which included his own disciples at times).

Time spent in the wilderness did not just happen to Jesus. It happens to all of us. It may not be a physical place, but it is a time where we are tested. It is those times in life where we feel that we are vulnerable, searching, and perhaps even under spiritual attack. It is those times in life where God can often feel like he is far away, and that we cannot see him. It’s those times in life where we can be tempted to take the easy way out; to stop praying to God and look for answers elsewhere; to give up on coming to church because in those times it is just too hard to. It is those times when we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and that he has a plan for our lives. Those times where we struggle to trust God.

When we go though these times as Christians it is tempting to think that we are alone, that nobody else understands what we are going through. But here, the thing to remember is that our Lord Jesus, that one whose promise is that he is with you always, even to the end of the age, has already gone before you. He has already gone to the most forsaken places of the wilderness, and he meets you there in the most difficult temptations and times of testing in your life. There is no place that is too far, too distant, or too challenging that Jesus has not already been there. There is no test or temptation that is so great that Jesus has not already overcome. So when you go through these time in life, you can be assured and confident that Jesus is also there walking with you.

The way that Jesus was attacked by the evil one, by his being tempted to focus on his own needs instead of God, his temptation to put God to the test, and the temptation to want to have all the glory for himself, to want to be the god of his own life, are all very real ways the evil one still attacks us, as his followers, today, particularly when we are vulnerable. But because Jesus is with us, we can walk through these times knowing that God is in fact preparing us for the plans he has for our lives. How many times have you been able to look back on your life and see that if you had not gone through difficult times, you would not be where you are today? This is because God is continually at work building up his people.

The ultimate test that Jesus faced through his temptations, I believe, was the temptation to give in so that he did not have to face his journey to that cross. It would have been easy for him to give in and avoid following his Father’s will. But he did not give in, and therefore because he went to that cross, where he took all the punishment for all of our sins, which includes every time that we have given in and not trusted God, we now have forgiveness.

I would encourage each of you in these 40 days of lent, to think about everything that Jesus went through, including his temptation in the wilderness, for you. To think about how he did this for your sake and that because he followed through with his Fathers’ will, that you now stand forgiven and what this means for your life.