Naming the Wilderness
Wilderness. We have to talk about wilderness. We have all been there at one time or
another. Everyone has their own version of wilderness. I have been there. Everyone has their own triggers for bringing on the wilderness.
Experiencing loss does it for a lot of people – loss of wealth, loss of a child, loss of a spouse, loss of a marriage, loss of good health or mobility, loss of the future we had believed in.
For other people wilderness comes from doubt – is there really a God out there? Disasters like we have just been witness to in Japan with such great destruction and loss of life, and the earthquake in Haiti a year ago, bring up the problem of pain in the world. While some people instinctively grasp onto God in the face of tragedies, others get pushed out into the wilderness of wondering why such things can happen. The possibility of a good, loving, powerful God just seems hard to believe.
I wonder what pushes you out into wilderness experiences? All of us have our own triggers, and yet the experience of wilderness itself is similar for everyone. You feel abandoned and alone; hope seems to have vanished. Help is nowhere in sight.
One little sermon is not going to solve this. There is not going to be a tidy bow on a neatly wrapped answer-package at the end today. If wilderness were that easy to solve, we would have solved it long ago. But what we will will see today as we look at this powerful text, is what we need for the next time of wilderness we will go through.
Israel, Jesus, and us, in wilderness
What we need to know first is that the experience of wilderness is the quintessential experience of the people of God. It’s not just you. Israel spent its first 40 years as a people wandering in wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness. In fact, the experiences of Israel and Jesus have much in common, and much to teach us about our own wilderness experiences.
Hunger in the wilderness
It starts this way:
3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Israel and Jesus had to deal with the issue of hunger. Wilderness is always about hunger.
Israel gets out into the wilderness and immediately complains of a lack of bread. God provides them with manna. Jesus fasts for 40 days and is famished. The voice of the evil one asks why not make loaves of fresh bread out of these sun-baked Palestinian stones?
Looking around for an instant solution is the temptation. But what if there is no such thing as an instant solution because the hunger comes from the heart instead of the stomach? Then, the temptation is to find a mask for the hunger pains. Everybody has their own preferred poison for this. All of them work as a short term pain-relief. None of them works on the root cause. Most of them cause damage as they pass through our lives, leaving us that much more in wilderness.
Let us observe Jesus in wilderness, and take a lesson. The hunger cannot be satisfied with anything short-term. The hunger is God-shaped. Only God will fill it.
4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Three times the evil one will come to Jesus to try to drive a wedge between him and his calling to be God’s Son. Each time Jesus will quote from Deuteronomy. This should be a warning to anybody who ends up in wilderness without having been nourished by God’s words before he got there.
This is not a game. Something has to be there, inside you already, before you get to the wilderness hunger, to keep you from reaching for the poison in a moment of weakness. To be self-indulgent at such a time is to guarantee that the wilderness is not going to end any time soon.
But, to have been nourished by ingesting God’s words over the course of many meals may mean you have something to hear besides the voice of evil when you are out there all alone and hungry.
The experience of wilderness continues like this:
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Wilderness is more than aloneness and hunger; it’s all about magical thinking; looking for the miracle bail-out that will suddenly end the pain. We pray for miracle cures, miracle reversals, miracle changes in us and quick transformations in others. We want God to spring into action and rescue us, and so prove himself worthy of our trust.
But, the suggestion to “Throw yourself off, and let God catch you” comes out of the mouth of the evil one. A faith that needs to put God to the “save me now” test is not real, and it provides no help.
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
In fact, the wilderness itself is the test. God is there; the sense of abandonment is the
illusion. The valley is dark; it is indeed the valley of the shadow of death and it feels terribly evil. But although there is not enough light for our pupils to find anything to focus on, nevertheless, the shepherd is there. No wilderness lasts forever; he will lead us out of that valley, one step at a time; one day at a time. Wilderness is not the time for a test, it is time to trust.
All the kingdoms of the world
Wilderness is finally, like this:
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Wilderness is about our panicked need to get out of wilderness. Israel grew weary of waiting for Moses on the mountain; it was just too hard to be in that place of uncertainty and danger. So, quick, make a golden calf; bow down and say, “get us out of here; now.”
For Jesus it was the offer to get to the glory of the resurrection without going through the frustration of slow-learning disciples, through the agony of opposition from leaders, and through the suffering of crucifixion. The evil one suggests, “Just worship me, and all the suffering goes away. You will get all the kingdoms of the earth, for the price of one little bow.”
Jesus reaches into Deuteronomy again:
10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
For us, it is the temptation to give up the struggle because following Jesus, especially in the wilderness times, is so counter-cultural. Other gods are much less demanding. In our culture, the temptation to bow down to that which is not God – even if it is wealth, family, nation, or status is to avoid the way of the cross.
We are called to “worship the Lord God and serve only him.” He is the one who showed us what that means, even in the wilderness.
Learning from wilderness
Wilderness teaches us that evil is real. We will be subjected to alternative voices offering
“solutions” to our aloneness, hunger, and suffering. None of them live up to their promises.
Someone has famously said, “the only way out, is through.” This is certainly true of wilderness. The only way out of the wilderness is through the wilderness.
I don’t know what the name of your wilderness is: grief, fear, doubt, maybe addiction, loneliness or regret. I do know that you are not alone. You are not alone in experiencing what the people of God have always experienced – including our Lord himself. I do know that you are not any more alone out there in the wilderness than they were.
We are subjected to temptations in those wilderness times – strong temptations; voices offer all kinds of alternatives to us. Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection; a time to hear the only voice that can get us through; God’s voice.
Listen; he is telling us:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
This is not a quick and easy solution; but this is the way through the wilderness.