Few of us have spent 40-days in the wilderness like Jesus did, but that is exactly what Lent challenges us to do. Here’s a brief meditation that I am presenting tonight for our community lenten service.
The Wilderness: A Lenten Meditation
Matthew 4:1-11 NIV(1984)
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Tonight we begin our 5-week series of Lenten meals and meditations together. The lectionary reading for the first week of Lent reminds us that the 40-days of Lent are patterned after Jesus’ 40-days in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his itinerant ministry.
As we begin this Lenten journey together tonight, I thought we might think about the wilderness together. And we might be surprised at what we discover about Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, and ours 2,000 years later.
The Wilderness Is Not The City
The first thing, and most obvious, is that the wilderness is not the city. When you think of the great urban centers of population, what comes to mind? Probably crowded conditions, lots of people, traffic jams, noise, and pollution. And that’s in the 21st century!
Our picture of the city in the 21st century isn’t really that much different than descriptions of city life in the 1st century. Listen to Rodney Stark, professor at Baylor University, and author of Cities of God, describes urban life in the New Testament era:
“Greco-Roman cities were small, extremely crowded, filthy beyond imagining, disorderly, filled with strangers, and afflicted with catastrophes — fires, plagues, conquests, and earthquakes.”
He goes on to describe living conditions:
“Unlike dense modern cities such as Manhattan, which are spread out vertically, Greco-Roman cities had no tall structures — usually no more than 3 stories. Even so, inhabitants lived in constant danger of having their tenements collapse for lack of adequate beams, to say nothing of the threat of falling down during earthquakes, which were frequent in the eastern portion of the empire. And if tenements didn’t fall down, very often they burned. Although some temples and public buildings were built of stone, most structures were built of wood thinly covered with stucco, and they burned so well that many of these cities were often destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt repeatedly upon the ashes….The threat of fire was increased by the fact that the chimney had yet to be invented, so all cooking and heating was done over insecure wood- or charcoal-burning braziers.”
I won’t even begin to read his description of the sewers, most of which were non-existent; and of the water, plagues, and disasters that swept through these cities.
My point in all of this is that cities, even Jerusalem with its temple, were never considered centers for spiritual insight and meditation. They were simply too chaotic. Religious rituals might have been performed in the temples located in the cities, but to cultivate spiritual insights people fled from the cities.
This exodus from urban centers is confirmed in one of the most famous communities of the New Testament era, the Essene community. If you have never heard of the Essenes, you probably have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls which scholars believe were the product of the Essene community. The Essenes lived an almost monastic life in a community located intentionally away from Jerusalem, which they considered to be corrupt morally and spiritually.
Even after the spread of Christianity to the cities by the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christian mystics also moved to the deserts of Egypt, and became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They sparked the beginnings of the monastic movement which developed into a force for evangelization and scholarship in later centuries.
So it’s not surprising that we find John the Baptist preaching, not in the city, but in the wilderness in the 3rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. And, it is from his encounter with John the Baptist, and upon his baptism, that Jesus retreats further into the wilderness to prepare for the beginning of his ministry.
One of the hallmarks of Lent has become a withdrawal from the bustle of everyday life, even if that withdrawal is not one of location, but one of denial.
The Wilderness Is Not Under Our Control
A second characteristic of the wilderness to which Jesus turned, and to which we turn during Lent, is that the wilderness is not under our control. Of course, the cities were chaotic, but at least there was the presumption of control within the cities. After all, the epitome of control was represented in the cities by the presence of the Empire of Rome.
Even in Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, where the Temple dominated the cityscape, Rome was present. Hard against the outer wall of the Temple was Antonio’s fortress, the garrison where Roman centurions were billeted and from which Rome exercised military control over the Jewish nation. Not much escaped Rome’s eye within the cities, including insurrections and the rebels themselves.
But in the wilderness, not even Rome was in control. The Empire might have laid claim to all the territories of Judea, Galilee and the entire region, but they concentrated their strength in urban areas.
In the wilderness, Jesus returns to the most elemental of God’s creation. There are no man-made structures to shelter him. There are no city markets from which he can buy bread and food. There are no calls to prayer three times a day at the Temple, because there is no Temple. Jesus turns to the wilderness, led by the Spirit of God, to do that which we want to avoid with our whole being — to be tested by the devil.
We have watched with horror this week as video of both the earthquake and tsunami are played repeatedly by news networks. The power of earth and water, two of the primal elements, are beyond imagining. The strongest structures of humankind were swept along like a child’s dollhouse in the raging and relentless waters of the tsunami. Houses, cars, trucks, boats, whole buildings, and everything else imaginable, were unable to withstand these elements. And now the deteriorating situation with the nuclear power plants reminds us that we are not in control; and, that in the wilderness, the forces of nature are more powerful than we can imagine.
But, this power and our lack of control should not be misinterpreted. The purpose of Jesus’ wilderness journey — being tested by the Accuser — brings us to our next point about the wilderness.
The Wilderness Is Not The Domain of Evil
Even though the devil, the accuser, is present in the wilderness, the wilderness is not the devil’s domain. The presence of Diabolos does not signify that the wilderness is his possession. I think we often confuse Satan’s presence in the wilderness to tempt Jesus, assuming that if Satan is there, this must be his domain.
But it is the Spirit of God who leads Jesus into the wilderness. And after his temptation the messengers of God, the angels, come and minister to Jesus immediately. No, the wilderness is no more the devil’s domain than any other part of creation.
Rather, Jesus encounters the devil in this most primitive of settings primarily because it is only in the absence of the powers and pleasures of life that they become temptations for both him and us. And, if the presence of food itself is not enough to tempt one, the possibility of power can.
That was the temptation in the Garden of Eden. It wasn’t that Adam and Eve were hungry that the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil appealed to them. It was that they wanted the power to be like God. So, if the presence of evil is as old as the story of humanity itself. But the presence of evil does not mean that the wilderness is the possession of evil.
“This is my Father’s world,” the song writer proclaims. The psalmist reminded us that there is no place where God is not, not even the wilderness —
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
But then the psalmist adds these words:
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Even in the wilderness, even in the time of testing, God is present.
The Wilderness Is A Place of Discovery
If the wilderness is not the city with all its chaos; or the empire with all its control; or the domain of evil, then what is it?
The wilderness is a place of discovery. Let me explain.
First, the wilderness is a place of disorientation. We aren’t used to being in the wilderness. We are used to the comfortable and familiar, but in the wilderness all of that is stripped away. Jesus expected that. He chose to fast, to give up physical comfort in order to seek spiritual strength and guidance.
When we enter the wilderness of Lent, there are those who give up some comfort or pleasure to remind themselves that this season is a time to focus, not on our own gratification, but on spiritual growth.
Secondly, the wilderness is a place where we are humbled. The earthquake, tsunami, and now the nuclear disaster in Japan remind us that there are limits to what humankind can do. We cannot solve every problem, avert every disaster, overcome every force of nature. We are not God, even if at times we treat creation as though it were ours instead of the Creator’s.
Even Jesus in the wilderness was brought to a place of humility. Matthew says he was “famished.” But he resisted the temptation to bypass the provision of God. In quoting Deuteronomy 8, Jesus picked up on the passage where Moses in Deuteronomy is reminding the people of God’s care and deliverance for them. God’s care included humbling the nation so that they would not think that their power and resolve had delivered them.
“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” -Deuteronomy 8:3
Finally, the wilderness is a place where we are challenged. The King James Version used the word “tempted.” Unfortunately, when we think of being tempted, we think of being lured into doing something wrong. A better understanding is that the wilderness is a place where we are tested. And in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, spiritual testing was always an opportunity to be faithful to God. So, Jesus is given the opportunity to choose to obey and serve his Father, rather than satisfy his own appetite, or build his own reputation, or create his own kingdom. Jesus passed the test.
But Jesus did not pass the test because he was superhuman or divine. He passed the test to demonstrate that the temptation of the Garden of Eden could be reversed, that man could choose to do right, rather than wrong. The epitome of God’s creation, humankind, could remain consciously faithful to its Creator. This reversal of Eden becomes the first step in the work of the New Adam, Jesus Christ.
What will we discover about ourselves during this Lenten journey? Hopefully, we will discover a new sense of humility, and a new resolve to choose faithfulness as Jesus did.