Wilderness Struggles

February 21, 2021
by Pastor Charles Nyamakope
First Sunday of Lent
Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11


On Wednesday we began the season of Lent, which is our preparation for the Easter celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a time of imitation of Jesus spending forty days in the desert. Jesus fasted in the desert and overcame the devil’s temptations. Jesus never sinned but, in the desert, he was tempted. During these forty days of Lent we remember His temptations as we try to overcome temptation in our lives. There is practically no hiding place or shelter in the desert and the difficulties of the desert makes whatever is inside a person come to the surface. The desert tests and shows a person as they are. Lent is an invitation to us to take the courageous step of “going into the desert.”

In Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, we read the story of the snake tempting the man and woman in the Garden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, even though God told them not to do so. In short, the serpent convinced them not to trust God. They lost their innocence. In Matthew, we see Jesus similarly tempted in the wilderness by Satan, but Jesus withstands the temptation. So, what about us? We all find ourselves in a place, from time to time, where we are in the wilderness. And we can learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In fact, the season of Lent is a gift to us to help with this wilderness experience.

In the gospel of Matthew today, we are presented with just such an episode in the life of Jesus. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the River Jordan, where the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And our gospel picks up the story with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts for those forty days, and when the weeks and weeks were over, he was famished.

Then, the devil gives Jesus quite a few interesting tests or temptations. He offers him more bread, more protection, more worldly power. Jesus turns each of these temptations down.

Interestingly, these temptations are much like the Genesis offerings to the man and woman. The snake had called into question God’s trustworthiness. The couple “fell” for it and tried to rely on their own strength. The tempter in the wilderness tries the same thing with Jesus. “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread….” In other words, do not take God’s word for this–don’t believe what the voice from heaven just said to you a few days ago at the River Jordan–if you are the Son of God do this magic trick!

But Jesus did not give in to the temptation. Jesus knows who he is. What about the rest of us when we are in the wilderness? Instead of looking at the specific temptations of this story, let us focus on the fact that there is always a wilderness. We have all been to the wilderness. We know people in the wilderness right now. Perhaps the wilderness looks like a hospital room to you. It might look like the office building of the job from which you were laid off. It might be the kind of wilderness that just lingers in the depths of your soul, where you wait and wait to hear a word from God and you hear nothing but your own, slow heartbeat.

The thing about the wilderness is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” version of it. We cannot predict exactly when or how we will walk into one. In fact, usually, the only way we know we are in the wilderness is once we are there. But the thing about the wilderness is this: part of that journey helps us discover who we really are. Let us look at Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, for example.

He ended up in the wilderness because the Spirit led him there. Once he was there, he had nothing to live on. And he lived there for weeks and weeks. And when he left, he was famished. But what did his experience in the wilderness do for Jesus? It was the very experience that freed him from distraction. It helped him focus on his true purpose. Jesus learned to manage his appetites in the wilderness. But he also learned to trust the Spirit that led into the wilderness and was with him throughout his ministry.

Friends we might have tragedies in our lives such as diseases. We will have hardships. We will have depression, or sadness, or anxiety. We will, therefore, have wilderness experiences. We will also, like Jesus, have with us in those experiences the Holy Spirit to guide and bless us.

Friends, the word “Lent” is an old English word which means “springtime.” May this Lent really be a new springtime in the lives of each of us. Through prayer, through fasting from food accompanied by forgiving others and not bearing grudges, and through donating from our surplus to help the poor, may we, like Jesus in the desert for forty days, overcome temptation and thus be well prepared to celebrate Easter. Amen.