WITH JESUS IN THE WILDERNESS
February 14, 2016
This is not exactly camping season. Nevertheless, over the six weeks of Lent we’re going into the wilderness as we prepare for Easter Sunday. And while we make our journey through the wilderness, we’re going to tell stories, wilderness stories, from the Bible.
To get you in the mood, I found a list of camping tips by a man named Bruce Cochran which was printed in the September, 1996, issue of Backpacker magazine. The list is too long to read in its entirety, so I’m only going to mention a few choice tips:
- When using a public campground, a tuba placed on your picnic table will keep the campsites on either side vacant.
- A hot rock placed in your sleeping bag will keep your feet warm. A hot enchilada works almost as well, but the cheese sticks between your toes.
- Lint from your navel makes a handy firestarter. Warning: remove lint from navel before applying the match.
- Take this simple test to see if you qualify for solo camping. Shine a flashlight into one ear. If the beam shines out the other ear, do not go into the woods alone.
- The guitar of the noisy teenager at the next campsite makes excellent kindling.
- Bear bells provide an element of safety for hikers in grizzly country. The tricky part is getting them on the bears.
Good suggestions for those of you who plan to go camping.
Now I want you to imagine that we are sitting around a campfire on our wilderness journey. Today’s journey is with our Lord as he is tempted by Satan. Next week we will go into the wilderness with Abraham, then Moses, and finally with our Lord again as he makes his way up Golgotha.
Time in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for the Promised Land of authentic faith. You don’t get to the Promised Land without first going through the wilderness. Notice that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, when he heard the voice of his Father say, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased …” We read these words, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished …”
Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep experience of faith. God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where they had been in slavery for 400 years. They headed toward the Promised Land. It was an 11 day journey, but it took them 40 years to get there. What took so long? You women in the congregation already have an answer for that, don’t you? Moses was a man and he refused to stop and ask for directions.
Seriously though, why did God keep them wandering in the wilderness? Even when Joshua took over and led them into Canaan, it was many years before they subdued it. And even when they were in the promised land and had subdued it, they could not keep it. There came a time when they were carried off into slavery in Babylon where they cried out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Our faith is a wilderness faith. It was born in struggle and hardship. Why was Jesus driven out into the wilderness before he began his formal ministry? Probably it was so that he could fully experience what it means to be a human being. Authentic faith is not handed to us on a silver platter. Authentic faith is born in the wilderness of testing and temptation.
A writer once told of visiting an orange grove where an irrigation pump had broken down. Because the season was unusually dry, some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water.
The man giving the tour then took the writer to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. He said, “These trees could go without rain for another two weeks. You see, when they were young, I frequently kept the water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture at a greater depth.”
Some parents are surprised when they make life as easy as possible for their children and then discover that those children do not respond in the way that the parents had hoped. Here is one of life’s most important secrets: There is something about struggle that toughens us, matures us.
Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep faith. If life comes too easily, if there are no challenges to overcome, no mountains to be scaled, then we live on the surface of life with no real understanding of God’s love and God’s sustaining power.
This should not surprise us. It is a common theme in secular literature.
Paul Ransford, a Presbyterian pastor, tells about an Irish novel. In this novel a young girl’s six older brothers are turned into swans by their evil stepmother. The only way the spell can be broken is for the girl to make each of her brothers a sweater out of starwort, which is this pesky nettle that buries its spines into one’s skin. She is told that the way will be long and hard to redeem her brothers. Furthermore, she has to gather this plant herself and spin it into thread by hand. She herself is not allowed to speak out loud until she can redeem her brothers. She’s abducted from her land and carried to a new place that is strange to her and where she has few friends. The girl cannot speak aloud until she finishes her task. But she keeps on with the task even as her hands become disfigured and all gnarly. Out of this experience she becomes a stronger person.
Jesus was driven into the wilderness. There he was tested, as you and I are tested in our daily lives. There seems to be no other way to do it. No pain, no gain.
Notice that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness. He was not lured into the wilderness by the Tempter. He was driven there by the Spirit. Evidently the wilderness was exactly where he was supposed to be.
I want to say something hard that might be difficult for you to understand. People of faith always struggle with the question, “Why is there evil in the world?” Why does God permit us to suffer? Our stock answer is that God does not cause our suffering but God can use our suffering to make us into the image of God’s Son. I personally subscribe to that theological viewpoint. I believe it is entirely consistent with the teachings of Jesus. “God sends his rain on the just and the unjust …” God does not pick out individual people and say to them, I am going to cause you unimaginable suffering in order to make you a better person. If you are in pain this day, I do not believe God caused it. God does not work that way.
However, God did Create this world in which suffering is very much a part of our environment. That says to me that suffering has its place in God’s overall plan. Some hardship, some adversity seems to be necessary for spiritual growth. Of course, people respond to their wilderness experiences in different ways.
There was an episode on the television show “Ally McBeal” sometime back. The program opened with Ally slowly making her way home after some Christmas shopping. She spies a man standing in a cemetery looking down through tears at a new gravestone. Ally gently asks if there is anything she can do. The response: not unless you are an angel … or a prophet. As he turns to Ally, his overcoat, open at the neck, reveals a clerical collar; it turns out he is a Methodist minister. He tells Ally that the gravestone belongs to his wife, just recently murdered by a nervous robber who shot her while she fumbled too long in her purse. He also notes that he has just lost his job– his congregation’s Administrative Board asked him to leave. Why? “They say because I can no longer do my job.”
“Why do they say you can no longer do your job?” Ally asks.
“Because,” says the man with a collar, “I don’t believe in God anymore.”
It was only a fictional drama, mind you, but it is true to real life.
Life in the wilderness is not easy. It is filled with tests and temptations. People respond to these tests and temptations in different ways. Some give up their faith. Some sell their souls for bread. Some bow to Satan and settle for a life of material comfort while remaining spiritually poor. Each of us has a choice in how we will respond to life.
I read a powerful story recently, told by an Australian pastor.
It took place in Russia at the end of World War II. The Russians were marching German prisoners of war back to Germany. Ordinary Russian people lined the streets by the thousands to see the spectacle. Remember, no nation suffered more casualties in World War II than Soviet Russia. Conservative estimates are that 40 million Russians died as a result of the war. One could not possibly imagine the feelings of these ordinary Russian people as the German soldiers were marched in front of them. A chorus of hatred, heckles and jeers permeated the scene. First came the German officers, relatively well fed, in their uniforms, marching in step, able to keep a semblance of dignity and respect. The Russian people had no problem sustaining their hatred of them.
But after a while the vast bulk of prisoners appeared, the ordinary German foot soldiers. They could hardly march at all, let alone in step. They were emaciated, with few clothes, truly humiliated, wretched, gaunt, pitiful creatures. The jeers and abuse stopped. There was a hush over the crowded lines of people. Then finally a couple of elderly Russian women, from the margins, broke through to these ghostly figures and held out crusts of bread. The bread was gratefully and eagerly accepted and soon many other ordinary Russian bystanders were moving amongst the columns of German prisoners with offerings of bread. It became so overwhelming that the Russian guards cannot stop the crowd. Somehow, those ordinary Russian people were moved with an unconditional love that revealed to them that their enemies were simply other people’s children who are lost, hungry and needing to go home.
No one would have blamed these Russian people if they had treated these German soldiers with indignities. The soldiers had brought so much suffering and pain to their land. But these men and women made another choice. How you deal with your wilderness experiences reveals what you are inside. Some people have gone through the wilderness and lost their faith. Others have moved through the wilderness and found a closeness to God and to others that they’ve never known before–a faith they would not have discovered any other way.
Nina Mason Bergman struggled with multiple sclerosis and wrote a book of meditations about her experiences. In her book she explains that for a long time she saw MS as an obstacle that prevented her from truly loving God. She blamed all her spiritual defeats and defects on her disease. Today that is not the case. She claims that she is grateful for the invasion of multiple sclerosis into her life. She says she can hardly believe that it is so, but it is so. She uses this analogy:
She says their home is nestled on an acre of land back a short way from a main highway. A gravel road is the only approach. Sometimes the city sends a man and equipment to smooth out all the existing bumps in the gravel road. Then whether and wear shape new potholes and dips. The jarring places are not pleasant. Their car shakes and groans as they pass over the road. But she is glad to have that road, for it leads home.
So it has been with MS–a rough pathway to be sure, yet it has led her, she says, to an awareness of God she would not have known otherwise. She writes, “The promised grace is sufficient, and God’s power does abound in my weakness. I discovered that in having less of me, I gained more of the Lord–a good trade.”
It seems remarkable to me, almost incredible, that a person could give thanks for MS, or cancer, or any other such horrible disease, but it happens often enough that we are forced to accept it as real. Some people discover a faith, a peace, a joy in the wilderness that they could not have found anywhere else.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tested by Satan. He passed that test. So can we. It will not be easy, but it can be done. Time spent in the wilderness is a prerequisite for a deep experience of faith. God has a place for the wilderness, not that we shall stay there, but that we shall move through the wilderness and, in doing so, experience new faith, new hope, new love. Are you in the wilderness this day? By the grace of God you can make it through.