What is the safest place you can imagine? Is it inside your home? Perhaps one particular room in your home where you feel the safest, most secure, least vulnerable.
Now mentally, leave that safe place. Go to where there is some risk – perhaps in the company of strangers; or even riskier, strangers surrounding you in a strange place that you do not recognize and do not know which direction leads back.
Mentally, go to a place where nothing feels safe – where everything about it feels threatening, and there you are, alone, with no one to cry out to. Darkness comes, the wind howls, and it feels evil.
Being in wilderness
That is wilderness. To be in the wilderness is to be at risk from all sides, to be vulnerable, unprotected, and lost. To be in wilderness is literally, to be bewildered.
Israel spent time in wilderness. As horrible as it was for them to have lived as slaves; making bricks without straw for the glory of Pharaoh, it was, nevertheless, not a light nor easy thing to leave the security of a settlement and to go out into the wilderness which, in their view, even God seemed to have abandoned to the demons.
It turns out they had real cause to be afraid. Wilderness was an insecure, uncertain place. They wondered, “Where is the path to the Promised Land – there are no road signs. Where will we get water? How will we eat? By day the sun burns off every blade of grass. In the cold night air, the menacing demons howl and snicker.”
And what about God? Wilderness seems to be all “valleys of the shadows of death,” but no shepherd. Wilderness is a time of testing and trials, of temptations to abandon hope, to succumb to despair, to make a deal with the devil for the sake of survival.
Wilderness, and us
What is your wilderness? What is it that pushes you out into that territory of uncertainty, lostness, fear, and bewilderment? For some of us it is simply anxiety; for others it is the process of aging and the nearness of death. For others it is loneliness or grief. For some it is simply doubt. There are as many kinds of wilderness as there are people – we all have our own place of bewilderment.
How do we deal with wilderness? Jesus told us that the truth sets us free. We begin the season of Lent with a full-faced, unblinking acknowledgement of the truth of our mortality. We will not live forever in this world; we know that. That is truth number one.
Truth number two is that nobody gets through life without passing through wilderness. That’s why this text before us is so powerful. We watch even our Lord himself experiences a time of wilderness. We need this text to make it though ours. Let us walk through this scene together.
We begin, noting that Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan River. The Spirit of God has descended on Jesus. Now that he is filled with the Spirit, should he expect a bright, successful ministry? Not so fast. Immediately the Spirit sends him into wilderness.
His experience is ours. Wilderness times come abruptly, without the courtesy of announcement or warning. No memo; no calendar alarm. Suddenly we are there, alone, bewildered. Maybe the Spirit is there – but if so – only in an unseeable manner.
And, there is no proper food. For forty days Jesus is there, surviving on who knows what, and at the end of it, he is hungry. Is there any single word better suited to sum up the human condition than “hunger”? Is there anyone who feels that they get all of what they need? Isn’t there, rather, an ache in every human heart that never gets fully satisfied, even in the best of times.
And if we are hungry people when life is normal, how much more acute is that hunger pang when we step out of “normal” and into wilderness? The daily craving of normal time is forty-fold hunger in wilderness, and we are faint.
Bread for the hungry
And then it starts; the search for the way out of that hunger-condition; the way out of wilderness. The temptations begin. We hear the voice telling us:
“command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
The temptations all come as suggestions – as a voice from somewhere unseen. The voice tells us that our hunger has a solution, and it names the solution. “Go for it, take it, consume it; the solution is right there in that stone – in the bottle, in the prescription, in the distraction, in the escape, in the purchase, in the rash action – do it; take it now, and be done with the pain. Stop the hunger.”
But, if what we are all so hungry for really was bread, or houses, or trips, or cars, computers or cable, then why aren’t they working? If we were really hungry for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and products, then why aren’t they working?
Perhaps our hunger is far deeper than “bread” of any kind. Perhaps, as Pascal suggested long ago, the vacuum in our hearts is not bread-shaped, but God-shaped.
Control – at any cost
The voice of temptation tries again.
“Look,” it says, “at all the kingdoms of the world…. “To you I will give their glory and all this authority;
The voice knows that wilderness is all about insecurity – not being able to say with certainty that we will be taken care of when we need it the most. The tempting voice tells us that unless we are on top of the pile, we are at risk. Unless we are in total control, we may loose out. Unless we are in a position to make the kingdoms of the world bow to our agenda, we are at their mercy.
So, the voice says,
7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
“Abandon your conscience,” the voice tells us, “do whatever it takes to get what you need. Don’t read the prospectus; if the bottom line is good, invest without questions or scruples.”
But choices sometimes have to be made. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” What if it comes down to abandoning the only thing in the universe worthy of worship? Is that a bargain? To whom do we owe our ultimate fiduciary responsibility?
God to the rescue
The voice of temptation tries again. It asks us: “How did you get here, into this wilderness? How did you get to this slippery top of the steeple with no good foothold and no rope?”
“Well, never mind how got you here; you are here now, so:
“throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’”
Wilderness is about regret. It’s about reviewing all the decisions we made along the way, all the little steps, all the habits of thought, habits of choice, habits of lifestyle, habits of indulgence that may have landed us suddenly in this bewildering state. And so the final voice says, go for the dramatic God-bail-out. Jump off and be caught.
The voice says, “It’s not about confession, repentance, a change of routine, new daily disciplines; it’s just about demanding a miraculous intervention to undo it all in one fell swoop. You have been speeding down this road 90 miles an hour for a long time; you look in the mirror and see the flashing lights: time to start to pray. Put God on the line; ask for a miracle: the final shot at the buzzer.”
In that hungry, lonely, vulnerable wilderness, the tempter’s voice sounds attractive. Why are the temptations so compelling? Everyone loves the sound of their own voice.
The Way Out of Wilderness
Our Lord has gone though wilderness for two reasons: to let us know that he understands full well, with the knowledge of personal experience, what our wilderness means to us, and to show us the way out.
The way out is to decide to listen to the other voice speaking to us out there, for there are two, not one. The other voice is different. It is not the opportunistic voice of the moment, spontaneously spoken by a tempting would-be advisor. The Other voice is one the comes from the distant past. It has been spoken, not off-the-cuff, but rather in a time of profound instruction. It is not hearsay, but rather, it is the collection of words which the community heard God speaking to it, written down, treasured, preserved, handed on, generation to generation, attended to by successive communities, gathered to hear again the ancient Voice.
The escape from the seductions of the tempter’s voice in the wilderness is the Voice contained in the texts where “it is written… ” and “...it is said”
“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Dt 8:3)
“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”(Dt 6:13)
“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Deut 6:16)
Gathered to hear the Voice again
We all go through wilderness; we all go through times of total bewilderment. We are not alone. The ancient voice that spoke those words to the community in their wilderness speaks to us today. This is why we gather together; to be the community that receives those words, that treasures those words, that learns their significance, and that hands them on again.
We may be in wilderness, but we are not alone. God has given us each other, the community of faith. Our Lord Jesus has bound us together into an alternative community, in fact, a family, that supports each other. We are not a group of people who are above crises of hope or of faith; rather we are a community which admits the truth: that just like our Lord, we all experience wilderness temptation; this is who we are.
And so we gather to hear those ancient words and to support each other. We actually need each other to keep re-affirming our faith that bread does not save us, no matter how tempting it smells coming out of the Madison Ave oven. As we gather in community, we reassert together the alternative perspective that economics are important, but never in any ultimate sense. Wall Street never saved one person from wilderness, and never will. We will ‘Worship the Lord our God, and serve only him.’”
We gather together to support each other in confession and repentance of destructive behaviors, and for support in re-learning the habits of a disciplined life of faith that does not expect God to bail us out, but expects to learn to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ “one day at a time.” We will not “put the Lord your God to the test” no matter how strong the temptation, but to worship and serve him only; even in wilderness.