Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Today is the first day of Lent, a season of forty days of preparation for Easter, a time that roughly corresponds to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. And we begin this season with that very scripture, which we read this morning from Matthew. Jesus is in the wilderness.
What is wilderness, anyway? Is wilderness exciting or scary, welcome or threatening? Is it a place to get away, or a place to avoid? I guess it all depends.
For some reason, I think of my Aunt Opal. She and Uncle Charles lived in Seattle, and after he retired from Boeing they decided to move back to the Midwest. They didn’t think they would do so well in the rural area in Southern Illinois where they were from, so they moved to Evansville, about an hour and a half from their old stomping grounds. My dad and two other brothers and their families lived there and it was a more happening and cosmopolitan place than Dahlgren, Illinois. But it didn’t work. Aunt Opal had trouble buying carrots wholesale for her carrot juice, and we didn’t have six lane freeways, just traffic lights everywhere. It was kind of like the wilderness to her, and so after about six weeks they put the house they had just bought back on the market, loaded up a truck and moved back to Seattle.
OK, the idea of wilderness runs maybe a little deeper than that, but there is some sense that wilderness is in the eye of the beholder and that wilderness is what we make of it. For most of us, wilderness is more deserted and more desolate than a medium-sized city.
Some of us like the idea of heading out into the wilderness, enjoying nature, enjoying peace and quiet and stillness. Even if the landscape is harsh, the notion of solitude in the wilderness can be very appealing. But for others, wilderness means danger. And the danger is not only physical danger; wilderness can mean life without distractions, and some of us want to be distracted. For some, quiet and solitude are the last things they want.
The metaphor of wilderness and the idea of a journey through the wilderness fit very well with the season of Lent, because this is a time of introspection. It is a time of reflection, a time to think about choices that we have made and choices that we need to make, a time to think about who we are and where we are heading. It’s a time for spiritual discernment.
There are a few details in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation that deserve our attention. First, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. That can seem a bit disconcerting. Does God bring about temptation? Does God want us to be tempted?
As far as I can tell, we don’t really need any “help” to be tempted. We come by it pretty naturally. The word translated as “tempted” can also mean “tested,” and in fact that is perhaps a better translation. We might think of this as a time of preparation for Jesus – a time of making choices about who he was and what shape his ministry would take. It’s not that God dangled temptations in front of Jesus, but the Spirit led Jesus to a time of reflection and decision-making that was essential to his ministry. Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a time of making decisions about who he was and what kind of ministry he would have, and for this kind of work, maybe something like wilderness is necessary.
Secondly, Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days and 40 nights. If the number 40 sounds familiar in Biblical terms, well, it should. This parallels other uses of the number 40 in scripture: 40 days and nights of rain while Noah and his family are in the ark, Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, Moses’ 40 days on Mt. Sinai. In all these cases, God is at work in a powerful way. Forty days is the Bible’s way of saying a significant amount of time. This wasn’t just a momentary blip on the screen.
We all experience times of testing, times of wilderness. Times when we feel alone. Times when things seem up in the air, when there are any number of ways that things might go, and we have to make choices about how we will live our lives. This wilderness time often takes a lot longer than 40 days. It takes time.
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness because he needed to make some basic choices about his life and ministry, and that doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes time for us as well. In fact, it is more of an on-going process.
And then, as he was in the wilderness for those 40 days, and when he was famished – when he was most vulnerable – Jesus was tempted by the devil. This is such a familiar story that it can lose its sharp edge on us. Jesus was really tempted.
Hebrews 2:18 says “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” The testing, the temptation, was real.
And it is certainly real for us. I don’t have to tell you that. But so often, the real temptations for us don’t seem like temptation at all. Temptation can be very subtle and it is always attractive. It has to be appealing; otherwise it wouldn’t be a real temptation.
Nathan Horwitt, an expert on mushrooms, has said that the mushroom Amanita phallides is the deadliest of all mushrooms. The common name for this species is the “death cap.” No antidote exists, and the death rate for those who eat is has been estimated from 50-90%. Even after the victims have recovered from abdominal pain and vomiting and are home from the hospital, they can die two or three days later of kidney or liver failure.
But poisonous as it is, the Amanita is also one of the most beautiful. With its soft cream colored cap, it looks delicious. And it is extremely tasty. People say that it’s the most delicious mushroom they’ve ever eaten. They say that with their dying breath.
A killer mushroom presents itself in a very attractive way. And that is the way temptation is for us. Jesus really was tempted -- he could have given in. He really was tested – he could have failed. He could have chosen another course.
The story is told of a man who got angry because this little church had rented an empty store beneath his apartment, and they were holding the noisiest revival services you ever heard. He complained to the landlord. He complained to the police. But nothing could be done.
Finally, he decided he was going to get even. He went down to a store that rented costumes and he rented a Devil’s suit. He went home and put it on. He climbed down the stairs and waited for just the right moment. And as it happened, a storm came up, and thunder rolled and lightning struck, and the power went out. At that moment he burst into that little church, yelling and screaming!
People were terrified. Everyone bailed out of that church, except one lady. And this man stepped up to her, pitchfork gleaming, and he said, “How come you’re not running away like all the rest?” And she said, “Mr. Satan, I want you to know, I've been on your side all along.”
When we hear of the devil, we may think of a guy in a red suit with a pitchfork, but temptation is much more subtle than that. Temptation can come in the form of what appear to be perfectly reasonable and understandable and even responsible choices. The temptations Jesus faced were not appeals to his weakness, but appeals to his strength - appeals to what is good. Food when hungry – isn’t that good? Power over nations - think of the good that could come. Revealing to others the special nature of his relationship with God - why not? Wouldn’t that lead people into the kingdom?
The temptation is to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, the timely thing when deep down, we are really just serving our own interests. Essentially, what happens here is that right at the outset of his ministry, Jesus gets some big questions out on the table. Questions about power and control and purpose and ambition and trust and submission to God. Jesus stands up to temptation, stands up to the devil.
Matthew makes one more comment about Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In the midst of the temptations and dangers that are present, “suddenly the angels came and waited on him.” Jesus is alone, in the wilderness for six weeks, tempted by the devil, in real danger, and yet God was there. God sustained him.
John Boll told of a young man who works with the youth of his church. But that was not always his goal or ambition. He had been frittering away his life, looking out only for himself. But a few years ago he accepted an invitation to join a group of people going to the mountains in Virginia to make a “vision quest.” After a couple days of training in survival tactics and the discipline of spiritual exercise, the participants were sent out to spend four days by themselves in the wilderness. The young man shared some of the events of those days with a group at his church.
First, he said, there was the extraordinary quiet and a lack of the usual distractions; no TV, computers, video games, phones; none of the devices that have become so much a part of our lives. He began to hear sounds he might ordinarily have missed: the breeze, songs of distant birds, his footsteps, insects, even his own breathing.
He also began to hear his inner voice. He found that being in the wilderness was a chance to do some serious thinking for the first time in years. A couple things he saw in nature got him thinking. One day he came across a dead horse in a field and a few moments later he saw a fragile new born doe.
These contrasting sights stirred questions in him about his basic life assumptions. He realized, when he reflected on the sight of the horse, that he had been investing his life in passing realities. The doe reminded him how fragile life is, especially young life. He decided during those four days to turn his life around and dedicate himself to ministering to youth. He would quit his job and accept a lower paying position to be a youth minister in his parish.
He was asked if he had found being alone in the wilderness dangerous. “No,” he said, “All the while I felt as if the wilderness were sustaining me.” Maybe that’s what it was like for the angels to minister to Jesus in the desert. Through the wilderness time, he was sustained.
Jesus emerges from the wilderness experience ready to begin his ministry. What had taken place there prepared him for what lie ahead. He went to Galilee and proclaimed the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus was energized by the wilderness experience. He had gone through the time of testing and come out stronger. He was focused on his calling and ready for his public ministry.
Steven Covey tells a true story about a man who experienced a time in his life when everything seemed flat, boring, dull.1 He went to his physician, who found nothing wrong with him physically. The doctor then suggested that he take a day for some spiritual renewal. He was to go to a place that had been special to him as a child. He could take food, but nothing else. The doctor then handed him four prescriptions--one to be read at 9 am, one to be read at noon, one at 3 pm, and the final one at 6 pm. The patient agreed and the next day, drove himself to the beach.
At 9 am he opened the first prescription, which read simply “Listen carefully.” For three hours, do nothing but listen? Our friend was annoyed, but decided to obey. At first he heard the wind, the birds, the surf--predictable beach sounds. But then he found himself listening to his inner voice, reminding him of some of the lessons the beach had taught him as a child--patience, respect, the interdependence of the different parts of nature. Soon, he was feeling more peaceful than he had in a long time.
At noon, he opened the second prescription, and it said, “Try reaching back.” His mind began to wander, and he discovered himself being overwhelmed by all the moments of joy and blessing, the wonderful gifts he has received in the past.
At three, he opened the third prescription. This one was harder. It read, “Examine your motives.” Defensively, this man listed all the motivating factors of his life--success, recognition, security--and found satisfactory explanations for them all. But finally it occurred to him, in a shattering moment, that those motives were not enough--that the lack of a deeper motive probably accounted for the staleness and boredom of his life. “In a flash of certainty,” he wrote, “I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference if you are a scientist, a housewife, a mail carrier, or an attorney. It is only when you are serving others that you do the job well and feel good.”
At 6 pm he read the final prescription. It said, “Write your worries on the sand.” He took a shell, scratched a few words, and then walked away--never turning back. He knew, with a great sense of relief, that the tide would come in, and his anxieties would be washed away.”
The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing, a time of reflecting, a time of preparation. He listened to his inner voice, he reached back for the blessings of his past, he examined his motives. He rejected the easy way, he rejected the allure of personal power and ambition. He put the really tough questions on the table. And then, when he understood clearly who God had called him to be, he went back into the world, ready to serve.
This morning, God invites us on a journey. May we allow God’s spirit to sustain us as we examine our lives, as we reflect on our calling, as we leave behind sinful ways and anxious minds. And then may we boldly go forth into the world to share the Good News. This is the promise and the possibility of this season. And if it starts with ashes and repentance, maybe it ends with something like resurrection. Amen.
1) in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pp. 292-294.