Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, I am transported back to the days of my sabbatical in the Holy Land in 1994 which I think I’ve spoken of from this pulpit before. I spent part of that time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in the Gospel reading this morning.
The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it is positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world.
This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like you sometimes visualize it. It is bleak, barren, rocky ground, so hot and dry that you must wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. I can remember the Dean of St. George’s College in Jerusalem telling us all to “drink water, drink water” whenever he saw any of us yawning, fearing that we were beginning to dehydrate before his very eyes.
A person can die in a couple of days in the desert unless you can find shade and drink plenty of water. My assumption is that Jesus fasted from solid food for forty days (which others have done, before and since) but not from water.
During those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have seemed more like mid-life – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like. He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan by John, and immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, to take a mini sabbatical, to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead. As we all know, he had to wrestle with several primary temptations, according to the Gospel writers. Anglican New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, summarizes it this way:
“The struggle is precisely about the nature of Jesus’ vocation and ministry. The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick ‘success’, the desire to change the vocation to be a light to the world into the vocation to bring all nations under his powerful rule by other means – all these would easily combine into the temptation to doubt the nature of the vocation of which he had been sure at the time of John’s baptism. If you are the Son of God…” the tempter says.
“There are many different styles of career, ministry, and agenda that Jesus might have adopted. Messiahs came in many shapes and sizes. It was by no means clear from anything in the culture of the time exactly how someone who believed himself to be the eschatological prophet, let alone YHWH’s anointed, ought to behave, what his programme should be, or how he should set about implementing it. Finding the way forward was bound to be a battle, involving all the uncertainty and doubt inherent in going out into unknown territory assumed to be under enemy occupation.” (Wright’s Jesus page 458)
The enemy, in this case, was not the Roman Empire or Jewish religion gone wrong, but Satan himself! It was likely this decisive battle in the wilderness to which Jesus was referring when he said, later in Matthew, in the context of the Beelzebul controversy “…how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man. Then indeed the house can be plundered!” (Matthew 12:29) In the wilderness, Jesus tied up “the strong man” – his Adversary.
I don’t know what temptations you are facing in your life. But, if you’re anything like me, they may not be so different from the ones Jesus faced – in degree perhaps, but not in kind. The pull of hunger, the lure of cheap and quick “success,” the desire to control others. Most of us eat too much and drink too much. We are tempted to take short cuts to whatever “success” story appears to be out there for us. And we certainly fall into patterns of domination and control – often of those closest to us.
And the tools we have to confront those temptations are pretty much the same ones Jesus had as well. Being attentive to God’s word…refusing to put God to the test…worshipping and serving God and God alone. You may not be able to take a mini sabbatical or even make a Lenten retreat this year. But you are entering more fully today into the holy season of Lent.
Like Jesus’ experience, it is a forty day period of fasting and of prayer. A time to listen for God’s word…a time to stop testing and challenging God…a time for worship and for service. I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines which can help you do some of those things. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told us what some of those disciplines are, and it’s not too late to begin today if you haven’t already! Self-examination – looking inside oneself. Repentance – turning away from destructive behavior and thoughts. Prayer – for strength and direction. Fasting – in order to give. Self-denial – so that others may have enough. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures – to teach you how to do all this.
I invite you then, once again, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent this year by embracing those disciplines. May our prayer this Lent be the prayer of the Psalmist. A prayer which, no doubt, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the wilderness, during some scorching days and freezing, lonely nights:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God…
And renew a right spirit within me…
Cast me not away from your presence…
And take not your Holy Spirit from me…
Give me the joy of your saving help again…
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.”