We just began the Lent season, where we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ journey to the cross. The Lent season is often a stark contrast with the celebration that we do in Advent leading up to Christmas. Lent isn’t really a “Joy to the World” kind of season – it’s a bit more somber. It’s a bit deeper than the unbridled joy of Christmas.
We started the Lent journey with Ash Wednesday. And now we continue that journey by following Jesus into the wilderness.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to tour the Biblical sites in Israel, and there were two signs that were forever etched upon my memory. And no, I’m not talking about figurative signs from God, I’m talking literal, man-made signs here. The first memorable sign was at one of the archaeological sites that had been discovered. And it was a fairly expansive area, lots of place you could wander around in. Now I emphasize the word “could” because this particular sign made it very clear that it wouldn’t be a wise idea. The sign said, “stay on path – landmines.” We ignored many signs on our trip to Israel, but not that one. That one we obeyed. Pretty effective.
The second sign had no words – just two symbols. We were on the Jordan River where John the Baptist did his baptizing, and there’s quite a little operation setup there. They have official group baptisms – for a price, of course. And you can buy food there. They have a gift shop, just like John the Baptist had back in his day. And then this sign – one symbol was very clearly a person getting baptized in the water of the River Jordan. And the other symbol was a hamburger with a red circle and a line through it. Apparently Jesus can wash away your sins, but he can’t wash away your hamburger. Who knew?
And that continued a trend that we saw the whole trip. Depending on your perspective, it was either tragic or comical how touristy the holy sites had become. Jesus’ birthplace is no longer a humble cave, it’s basically a cathedral now where you wait in a line like cattle for the opportunity to hear a disgruntled worker tell you, “manger’s on the left, birthplace on the right, keep moving!”
Same thing with Jesus’ place of crucifixion and his tomb – they actually built a cathedral big enough to cover both of those in one building. And you get to witness an artist’s conception of the crucifixion encased in gold. And there’s the click, click, click of cameras and selfie-sticks as your constant companions.
But that baptism facility I think took the cake, well at least as long as it wasn’t eating that cake while being baptized of course. When people went out to be baptized by John, they didn’t go to a burger stand and gift shop. They didn’t have to pay for the right to access the water. They went into the wilderness. And the greatest irony to me is that the place where scholars believe John baptized is STILL wilderness. It’s so remote that they built this tourist trap closer to the cities so people wouldn’t have to go to as remote of a location as the REAL place.
We are so accustomed to being comfortable that people couldn’t even be bothered to drive to the ACTUAL baptism location – there might not be electricity. There might not be burgers. Oh, the humanity!
You know, the wilderness is an interesting place in the Bible. Why did John baptize in the wilderness? Why did the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil in our text today? If you remember the story of the prophet Elijah running away and hiding on the mountain and God speaks to him with the still small voice, that was in the wilderness. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness. The wilderness is a very important place in the Bible. But why? What’s so special about the wilderness?
First, let’s consider what the wilderness is NOT. The wilderness is NOT the desert. It’s not lifeless. It has just enough to survive, but it’s not a very pleasant existence. Just enough to get by. And if you have too many people with you, there won’t be enough for everyone.
So the wilderness isn’t lifeless, but it’s also not the place for a party. It’s a lonely, desolate, sometimes even dangerous place.
Have you ever felt like you’re kind of alone? Have you ever felt like you’re just barely able to survive? Have you ever felt dry? Have you ever felt like you’re just wandering with no direction? That’s the wilderness. Ever been there? Are you there now? <LONG PAUSE>
A Spiritual Place
You know I’ve always been bothered by something in movies. Whenever there’s a treasure map, invariably left by pirates who are apparently prone to burying their coins, the treasure map is always a full sheet of paper with lots of markings, and the heroes have to follow the map through the jungle, then up and through the harrowing mountain pass, then around the base of the volcano, and finally to the grassy knoll with a palm tree that looks like the face of Richard Nixon. That’s where the red “x” marks the spot. And this has always bothered me, because it sure seems like you could just sail to the other side of the island, skip the jungle, the mountain, and the volcano, and just go right to the tree that looks like Richard Nixon. Treasure maps are very inefficient – a lot of extra steps in those directions.
You see, I’m a destination guy. If I could choose any mode of transportation, it would be instant teleportation. I want Scotty to beam me wherever I’m going instantly. I want to be at the destination. Driving around somewhat lost with no clear destination isn’t a peaceful experience for me, that would be a miniature version of hell! The only thing worse is hunting for a parking space!
But look at our text today. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus isn’t passing through the wilderness to get to his destination. He isn’t going to a particular spot in the wilderness. The wilderness IS his destination. Wandering around in a desolate, lonely place – that’s not the problem. That’s the POINT!
And that’s a funny thing about the wilderness. It’s not a place to be avoided. Spiritual things happen in the wilderness. Spiritual things happen when we’re alone. Spiritual things happen when we are deprived of our gift shops and burger stands. The wilderness is a spiritual place.
Closer or Further – Can’t Stay the Same
In the wilderness – in the place of loneliness , of dryness, of wandering without direction – in that place you will either find yourself drawing closer to God or walking further away from God. You can’t stay in the same place spiritually when you’re in the wilderness. You will either draw closer to God or walk further away from God.
But it’s not the wilderness that makes that choice. You do. Your circumstances don’t dictate your response. You do.
The wilderness will make you feel alone and aimless and dry. But YOU decide whether that reminds you of your need for God OR whether that makes you resent God and want nothing to do with him. That’s your choice in the wilderness – that lonely, dry, but spiritual place.
Martin Pistorius faced one of the deepest wildernesses imaginable. For the first twelve years of his life, he was a normal kid, if you can call an electronics tinkerer normal. Boy after my own heart. But then at the age of twelve he contracted a strange disease that took more and more away from him – movement, eye contact, speech, and finally even his thoughts. The doctors told his parents he was in a vegetative state. But his parents kept caring for him. They had to do everything for him. They had to set an alarm for every two hours to go in and move him in his bed so he wouldn’t develop bed sores. And this constant care for their vegetative son was all they knew…for twelve years.
What they didn’t know is that Martin’s mind had returned after a couple of years of the vegetative state. But he still couldn’t move, still couldn’t communicate. He was alone with his thoughts and no hope that anyone would ever notice. His thoughts weren’t exactly hopeful – “no one will ever show me tenderness…no one will ever love me…I’m doomed.” But something within him made him want to fight. Something within him made him seek any avenue to communicate with the outside world. That something…was the TV show Barney.
In an interview a few years ago, Martin said, “I cannot even express to you how much I hated Barney.” Every day the care facility would sit him in front of the TV playing the same Barney re-runs over and over and over again for YEARS! Remember, they thought he was a vegetable. In his desperation to stop hearing Barney, he learned to tell time by watching the sun cast shadows on the floor. He turned his whole willpower over to getting some message to the outside world. And slowly, very slowly, his brain started re-wiring, allowing him to communicate and NEVER WATCH BARNEY AGAIN! His body actually started restoring itself as his mind started recovering, and while he’s still in a wheelchair he now has a wife and something approaching a normal life.
And it all started with his choice in the deepest wilderness. His choice to not succumb to the negative thoughts. His choice to have hope in a hopeless situation. Given the choice between life and death, he chose life.
That’s our choice in the wilderness. When we’re alone and dry and aimless and hopeless – when we’re in the wilderness – we can choose to draw closer to God or walk further away from him. That’s a CHOICE. I know in my wildernesses sometimes I have chosen to walk away from God. I haven’t always drawn closer. I guess one hopeful reality is that we have other chances to draw closer to God even if we chose to walk away from God. That’s the GOOD NEWS behind life’s many wildernesses.
If you are in the wilderness right now, what’s your choice? How can you draw closer to God even in the dry and lonely place? How can you remember your reliance on God even in this aimless and hopeless place? What’s your choice?
Sisters and brothers, the wilderness isn’t something to be avoided. We will all go through the lonely, dry, aimless wilderness. But that’s a spiritual place. A place with a choice – will we draw closer to God in the wilderness, or walk further away from him? That’s not something the wilderness does TO us, it’s something we decide. If you are in the wilderness right now, I pray for you as you make that choice. It’s not just a one-time decision in the wilderness – it has to be decided each day. What will you choose?