February 26, 2023 – First Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

I enjoy wilderness.  There’s something about getting out into nature that just restores my soul.  I like to walk in the woods, though I’m neither particularly sure-footed, nor am I in good enough shape to do anything super strenuous.  I have no illusions about the kind of wilderness experiences I enjoy.  I prefer well-marked trails, where there’s little chance I’ll get lost.  I would choose terrain that’s not too rough because, as I already said, sure-footed I am not.  I like to feel far away from civilization, but preferably not be out of range of cell service.  So you might say that I enjoy “tame” wilderness experiences.

But Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was not a tame one.  There was no pathway to follow – his only guide was his trust in God and his knowledge of scripture.  The terrain was not gentle.  In fact, there was nothing gentle about his 40-day sojourn.  And he was not only far from civilization; he was deprived of all comforts and supports.

Whenever we read about wilderness in the Bible, it often doesn’t refer just to uninhabited places.  More often than not, the wilderness is symbolic, a place of danger and uncertainty.  When Hagar fled from her angry mistress, Sarah, she fled to the wilderness.  When the Israelites left Egypt headed for the Promised Land, they sojourned 40 years in the wilderness.  When Queen Jezebel threatened to kill the prophet Elijah, he went into the wilderness, where he sat under a broom tree and asked God to take his life.  John the Baptist undertook his unsettling work in the wilderness.  And of course, as we begin the season of Lent, we always remember how Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan.  The wilderness was a place of extreme danger, uncertainty, and vulnerability.

We all know about vulnerability.  When loved ones die, and we’re left with gaping holes in our hearts – then we are vulnerable – that is a wilderness experience.  When relationships dissolve, and the stability and security we took for granted no longer exist – then we are vulnerable – that is a wilderness experience.  When injury or illness forces us to slow down, to do less than we are used to doing, to depend more upon others for help and support than we are used to or than we want to – then we are vulnerable – that is a wilderness experience.  When we find ourselves imprisoned – by unhealthy patterns of behavior, in dead-end jobs or never-ending stress, by expectations that we cannot meet – then we are vulnerable, and that feeling of imprisonment is also a wilderness experience.

Throughout our lives, we will encounter wilderness.  It is unavoidable.  But when we are in one of those vulnerable places, we can remember three things.

First, we can remember that our Savior also knew what it was like to be in the wilderness.  St. Matthew tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  I think that’s easily misunderstood.  It sounds a bit like Jesus had no choice in the matter.  But if we take seriously the truth of the Trinity – that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one – then rather than thinking of the Spirit as some external force, it’s probably better to think of the Spirit being a part of him.  So rather than thinking that the Spirit forced him to go, perhaps we should think about it as Jesus choosing to go.  In order to fully embrace his humanity, Jesus chose to experience all the same struggles that we do.  And because he chose to be like us in all ways, we have a savior who understands.

The second thing to remember when we are in the wilderness is that we are not alone.  If you had your Bibles open in front of you, you would notice that Jesus went into the wilderness immediately after being baptized.  And when he was baptized, he saw the Spirit descending and alighting upon him.  The Spirit descended upon Jesus, and stayed there with him, which means the Spirit accompanied him into the wilderness.  In the same way, the Spirit, which descended and alighted upon us in our baptism, also is with us when we find ourselves in the wilderness. Even when we feel the most isolated and vulnerable, we are never alone.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus accompanies us.

So we remember that Jesus understands our struggles in the wilderness.  We remind ourselves that we are not alone when we experience periods of wilderness.  And finally, let us remember that the wilderness is a place where our sense of purpose can be heightened and clarified.  That surely was true for Jesus.  Satan wasn’t really trying to tempt him with bad things.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if hunger was eradicated, as he suggested Jesus might do by turning stones into bread?  Wouldn’t people believe more readily in the invincibility of God if Jesus showed that he was invincible, say by jumping off the top of the Temple?  And wouldn’t it be a good thing if Jesus ruled the world?   But this is not the way God chose to save the world.  All this became abundantly clear to Jesus through his struggles in the wilderness.  And once he had successfully withstood the temptations of Satan, he knew who he was and what he was supposed to do:  not just feed hungry bodies, but also hungry souls; not to show power through amazing feats, but to show perfect power through weakness; not to dominate the world in power, but to rule the world in love.

In the same way for us, it is often through our struggles that we find a clearer sense of who we are and what we are meant to do.  When experience the wilderness of loss, for example, perhaps the experience can help us to know better how to support others in similar circumstances.  This can become a purpose.  Or when an illness makes us or a loved one vulnerable, perhaps through it we become more compassionate toward others who are hurting or ill and more able to know how to help.  This, too, can become a purpose.  And when we are stuck, once we have gotten unstuck, it just might lead us to help motivate others to move forward.  God put us here for the purpose of caring for one another, and sometimes, our wilderness experiences show us our purpose, our way best to serve God and one another.  That is not to say that God intended for us to struggle.  But it is to say that, no matter what the struggle is, God can use it for good, to get us to where we need to be.

Wilderness experiences – not of the pleasant, let’s-go-enjoy-the-beauty-of-nature variety, but of the painful, how-did-I-get-here-and-how-am-I-going-to-get-through-this variety – they are inevitable.  But when we are at our most vulnerable, when we feel utterly lost and alone in the wilderness, we remember that we are baptized:  connected to Jesus, who understands; accompanied the Spirit, so never alone; and called by God for a purpose, which will be revealed through suffering.  May God’s love and mercy, poured out in abundance through our baptism, bring you safely through every wilderness.

Comments are closed.