God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterward he was famished." So begins Matthew's account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a very familiar story. We read it from the different gospels on the First Sunday in Lent each year. Jesus has just been baptized by John the Baptist. He has heard the voice of God proclaiming him as God's beloved Son in whom he is well pleased. Then he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus goes from the mountaintop experience of baptism to the despair and agony of the wilderness.
Why was it necessary for Jesus to go into the wilderness and be tempted by the devil? He had been baptized and God has called him God's Son. So why does Jesus go into the wilderness? Why does the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, not to discern whether Jesus is the Christ, but to discern what kind of Christ he is going to be. What did Jesus' Messiahship mean and how would it be expressed to the world?
At the end of forty days, Jesus is tempted by Satan. Satan comes to Jesus when he is the most vulnerable - when he is hungry and lonely and tired. Satan presents himself as the good guy - ready to help Jesus out. "If you are the Son of God," Satan begins as if Jesus might have some uncertainty about who he is, "then command these stones to become loaves of bread." No matter how hungry Jesus is, and how much he would like to have some bread to eat, Jesus refuses Satan's request. His reliance is on God alone. Life depends, not on bread, but on the Word of God.
Satan tried to tempt Jesus another way. He takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and says, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down." Satan wants to put God to the test to see if God will send angels to rescue Jesus. Jesus refuses to put God to the test.
Satan tries a third time to tempt Jesus. Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will fall down and worship him. Jesus does not care about earthly power and he refuses to worship anyone but God. Finally, Satan leaves Jesus and angels come and minister to him.
Those who have been to the Holy Land will know that the wilderness is really a very desolate, rocky desert with little shade or water. There is no place to get out of the hot sun, except for some caves scattered here and there. What is referred to as the wilderness where Jesus was tempted is not a place filled with trees and cool shade but a harsh environment where it is hard for anything to survive.
I think Jesus goes into the wilderness to be a part of humanity, to be tempted as we are tempted, to be alone and hungry and afraid as we are at times, to have a wilderness experience the same way that all of us have a wilderness experience - those times in our lives when we feel so alone that we think that God has abandoned us, that no one could ever possible love us, to feel that emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Jesus not only endured the wilderness experience, but he came out stronger, with a clearer understanding of who he is as the Messiah, and a clearer direction of what God wants him to do. It was not fun, that is for sure, but it was necessary. And oftentimes our wilderness experiences are necessary for our growth in the Christian life and faith. They often come at a time when we are at a crossroads in our lives and are trying to discern our direction.
Wilderness experiences can be times when we connect with God at a deeper level. When we have exhausted all of our resources and done everything we can think of to do, oftentimes it is then and only then that we turn to God. We are exhausted by trying to do things on our own, by ourselves. We are hungry with a need that we cannot fill. We can no longer rely on ourselves or our friends - then we are in the wilderness. Emptied of ourselves, we turn to God with a longing for peace and a desire to have the hole that is in our lives filled with the presence of the living Christ. Without all the noise and clatter and commotion around us, we can hear the still, small voice of God, talking to us, being with us, leading us forward, leading us out of our wilderness. Author Robert Farrar Capon says, "God comes to us in the brokenness of our health, in the shipwreck of our family lives, in the loss of all possible peace of mind, even in the very midst of our sins. God saves us in our disasters, not from them."
Just as Jesus did in the wilderness, we need to turn away from the temptations and the traps that Satan puts in our way before we can turn to God. In our baptismal vows, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. And then we vow to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior.
This season of Lent is a good time for all of us to do a spiritual housecleaning, to get rid of the clutter and anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. We can focus on turning away from the evil that we may harbor in our lives and turn to God to be filled with God's life changing Holy Spirit. Only God can fill the emptiness and the hole that we have in our lives.
As Jesus spent time in the wilderness to discern what kind of Messiah he would be, we need to take time to discern what kind of Christians we will be. Will we be Christians in name only, giving lip service to God, but not living the life God calls us to live? Will we be Sunday morning only Christians? Or will we commit our whole lives - body, mind and spirit - to God? What kind of Christians will we be?
These forty days of Lent can be a time of spiritual housecleaning and renewal, to put God at the center of our lives, around which everything else revolves. If we seize this opportunity and spend this time well - with self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word, as the words of the Ash Wednesday service charge us to do - then this could be one of the most significant Lenten seasons ever. We can learn how God is with us in the midst of our wildernesses and how it is God alone who can lead us out.
I invite you to live fully into this season of Lent, to let Christ fill the voids and holes in our lives so that at Easter, we may truly experience the joy of new life in Christ. Amen.
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