“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Into the WILDERNESS…..We talk glibly of wilderness experiences. Times of suffering and aloneness, without the comforts – even the necessities of life. Times when we are at our weakest – most vulnerable, most fearful. Times when evil seems to be in control – when God seems absent, when we feel isolated and under attack.
WILDERNESS EXPERIENCES – we have seen plenty of these in NZ over the past 12 months.
In March 2019 the mass killing of 51 Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers at the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch.
In the first 10 months of 2019 a measles epidemic which infected 1,057 people – only 2 deaths in NZ; but it spread to Samoa where there were over 5,000 cases and 83 children died.
In December the deaths of 24 people, many of them tourists, during a massive volcanic eruption on White Island/Whakaari.
Also in December the devastating floods in Gore/Mataura – dozens of farms were inundated, many tourists were stranded and up to 6,000 residents were forced to flee their homes.
Death destruction and the loss of everything – Wilderness experiences NZ’ers will never forget!
But I don’t want to downplay our own wilderness experiences – they can be just as real and just as devastating! A year when we faced our own personal “wildernesses.” When we were confronted by cancer or debilitating health problems, the breakdown of family relationships, the loss of security or independence, the death of much loved family members or friends. And we too know the power of evil – the so-called enticements of the world. We only need to look at our world leaders and International politics today for examples of this.
Our reading this morning from Matthew’s Gospel is something to do with that. How do we respond in extreme circumstances? Straight after his baptism – and before he begins his ministry, Matthew presents us with this strange enigmatic story which begins with a most telling little sentence: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It was to be a life-changing moment – Jesus’ response being seen as pivotal in all that followed. And that’s why Matthew, Mark and Luke ALL record the story in their Gospels.
The Jesus Seminar agree that this story is a legend with no historic basis – and the fact that each temptation is followed by a quote from Deuteronomy links it to the Old Testament account of Moses and the children of Israel in the desert. The temptation story is thus a retelling of that ancient story – but substitutes Jesus for Moses. Just as Moses and Israel were tempted during their 40 years in the Wilderness, so Jesus was tempted during his 40 days in the Wilderness but in his response he rejects the miracles which are seen as no more than self-serving acts: turning stones into bread to satisfy one’s hunger, gaining acceptance by leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, or demonic collusion – gaining the world by obeying Satan. It’s amazing isn’t it how in the most EXRTREME CIRCUMSTANCES we can find the strength to hold on to what we see as MOST IMPORTANT.
Marion and I returned to Zimbabwe in 1985 – 5 years after Independence. We were sent by the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe to work in the Kadoma Circuit – 34 Churches – 1 Minister, 1 Youth Pastor and 1 aged Evangelist – and Marion, the unpaid minister’s wife to do all the Women’s work. Memories of the atrocities committed by both sides during the War of Liberation were still fresh and raw in people’s minds.
The largest Church in the Circuit was in Rimuka African Township; 300 – 400 members. During the Armed Struggle the Churches in the Township had largely disbanded. The ZANU and ZAPU fighters saw Christianity as an offshoot of the Colonial Regime – they actively encouraged a return to African Traditional Religion. Christians who persisted in their faith were victimised, beaten and tortured!
The Ghosa, or Church Steward at Rimuka at the time was Simon Chiremba. Simon was very faithful and each Sunday he would open the Methodist church for the handful who attended. – no minister so they often met just to pray and sing some hymns together. One night returning from locking the Church he was accosted by a group of armed ZANU (PF) soldiers. Told to stop encouraging people to attend Church, he tried to reason with them. They shot him and left him by the roadside.. The next morning when the body was found they discovered the Church key still clasped in his hand. His wife showed it to me – wrapped lovingly in an embroidered handkerchief. It was obviously precious.
In extreme conditions – when we sit among the “rubble of our Lives” it is often the most ordinary, and the most mundane things that we hold onto for comfort, for reassurance and for hope. In fact when we are going through “wilderness times” – when there is barrenness all around, even the smallest insignificant things can take on special meaning.
In my 7th Form Year at Mt Albert Grammar my Literature teacher “Butch” Brown, was particularly fond of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. We read Solzhenitsyn’s description of life in a Labour Camp in Siberia. It was called “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” And that is what it describes; one day in the life of a prisoner amidst the deprivation, monotony and violence of the sort of camp set up by the Communists for those who disagreed with them. Nothing really happens in the story, but I remember being drawn into the reality of the inmates daily existence- and actually feeling a delight when Ivan Denisovich manages to steal an extra slice of black bread, which he hides under his mattress until he can eat it when ne is alone and can savour every mouthful! A slice of dry black bread seemed like a feast! Solzhenitsyn probably regarded black bread with distain during his days of freedom, peasants fare, something only to be eaten when nothing else could be procured. BUT in the Labour Camp, this became great treasure. The extreme times – our wilderness times - are the occasions when suddenly our life is put into perspective, when what matters becomes clear, and when what is trivial and unimportant is seen for what it is. ON THE EDGE OF LIFE we see very clearly – in the extreme circumstances of our lives!
And here we are this morning – it’s the first Sunday in Lent. With Jesus we are beginning our journey our journey to Jerusalem – to the Cross. And we have the opportunity to stop for a moment of reflection. Our Lent may not be spent in the Wilderness – but it can still be a time to pause, to take stock, a time to contemplate, a time to review – a time to identify what is important for us.
Anne Benefield Pastor at Geneva Presbyterian church in Washington D.C. says:” The power of Lent is in the wilderness of letting go. Lent calls us to pause, to reflect, to disengage. We are called to pull back, to rest and to re-examine our lives, to access our faith and renew our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. Without re-fuelling and re-energizing,” she says “our spiritual physical and intellectual lives suffer. As we unplug and unwind, we find that the Spirit leads us to a place of spiritual rest to prepare us for whatever lies ahead.”
I just want to conclude with a famous story. It is the best known modern literary treatment of the Temptation of Christ. It’s called “The Grand Inquisitor’s Speech” and it’s from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” During the Spanish Inquisition Jesus appears on earth. He is recognised and heals many; but finally he is arrested and imprisoned by the authorities. During the night the Grand Inquisitor comes to his cell. He tells Jesus that he has failed. He accuses Jesus of missing his chance in the Wilderness. He could have acted to change the whole course of human history – feeding the hungry forcing people to choose the good and taking charge of the world – as was supposedly intended, BUT instead he resisted Satan, does nothing and allows hunger sickness and sin to continue. For this the Grand Inquisitor says he deserves to be executed. Did Jesus miss his chance? What do you think? I think in this story we are seeing Jesus in a genuine Wilderness moment. Here he is refusing the temptation to use his miraculous gifts for his own self- glorification and aggrandisement. He rejects the enticements the world has to offer us – and how well we know these. The enticements of self-gratification, of fame and fortune, of power and prestige – and shows that his gifts are to be used exclusively in life-giving service for others. A life dedicated to the service of others. Is this failure?
LENT allows us to pause, to reflect, to disengage… LENT gives us the chance to re-examine our lives, to treasure ordinary, everyday things, to take stock, to identify what is important We are told the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness….if we want to be part of this story perhaps we should ask ourselves “Where is the Spirit leading us this Lent?”