Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 9, 2014

2014.03.09 “The Wilderness Experience” – Matthew 4: 1 –11

Central United Methodist Church
The Wilderness Experience
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 1 –11
The 1st Sunday in Lent
March 9th, 2014

Wilderness 3.9.14

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
– Matthew 4: 1 – 11, The New Revised Standard Version

We have arrived at the 1st Sunday in Lent, the forty-day period of preparation for Easter. We began our Lenten journey Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – with the sign of ashes. Seven Sundays from now, we will arrive at Easter. Let us pray that by then, the weather will be appropriate. Meanwhile, let’s console ourselves with the knowledge that somewhere, Easter lilies are growing.

I read an article recently suggesting we ought to retire the metaphor of Lent as a journey, because it no longer has meaning anymore. As the author argued, Lent simply isn’t a journey for most Christians; we are not going anywhere, either figuratively or metaphorically. We might go somewhere for Holy Week or for the Easter weekend, such as over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s place. But most of us don’t journey anywhere for Lent. And he gave other reasons as well, why we should retire the metaphor of Lenten as a journey. (Rolf Jacobson, Rethinking the ‘Lenten Journey,’ Working Preacher, February 12, 2014)

I beg to differ. Personally, I love the metaphor of Lent as a journey, for three reasons. First, it’s a journey through time, if not through space: we begin today and in seven Sundays arrive at Easter. Secondly, it is a journey through the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospels, and that’s always a good thing for all of us, because no matter how many times we’ve heard it, there’s always more to learn. Thirdly, in the Gospels, Jesus is on a journey, from his home up in Galilee, down to Jerusalem, where we know what’s going to happen. As Jesus journeys, we journey with him.

This year, Year A, the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary gave us a series of encounters Jesus has along the way to Jerusalem. So this year as we journey through the Sundays of Lent toward Easter, on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus, we hear his dialogue with the devil in the wilderness, with the Rabbi Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman at the well, with a man born blind, and finally, and with Martha and Mary when Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Who could resist such a line up? (Not me!)

The first of these encounters, for this 1st Sunday in Lent, takes place not on country roads or city streets, but out where Lent journey always begins, in the wilderness. So grab a bottle of water, and let’s go!

Did you know that half of Israel consists of desert? Mostly the Negev in the south, but also the Judean wilderness to the east, near the Dead Sea, where Jesus likely went. I drove through it last summer. It’s a desolate and foreboding place, with steep, barren mountains and sun-scorched soil, bleached the color of bones. It’s a place that looks more than a moonscape than a place you might want to go on retreat. And yet that’s where Jesus goes.

Do you have a wilderness place to which you go? A national park, a cabin by a lake, a favorite retreat? For the last several years, my favorite has been St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. The rooms in the guesthouse are most notable for what they do not have: no radio or TV. Better yet, there’s a big picture window, looking out on a lake. I was amazed how long I could stare out that picture window. Or go for a walk around the lake, listening to the sound of the rain pattering on the leaves. We need experiences like that; they are restorative for our souls.

But the desert? That’s something else completely. What would that have been like for Jesus? Why would he do it at all?

While the Gospel’s lack of detail give us creative license to imagine what Jesus’ wilderness experience might have been like, don’t picture a talking snake (like Genesis), or the devil as a guy with horns carrying a pitchfork. Instead, see Jesus pushing himself to his physical, emotional, and spiritual limits, to test himself. Not only did Jesus not rely upon his divinity, he pushed himself to the limits of his humanity. As we have all likely learned from experience, it is when we are weak – when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – we are most vulnerable to temptation. It was at that moment that Jesus was offered bread, power, and protection, the three things that – in the moment – would have helped him the most. He refused them all. Because of all that was to come, Jesus remained faithful to his test, and to the One who – over the long haul – would matter the most.

The remaining question is why? Why would he do this? Didn’t he just hear, at his baptism, that he was “God’s Son, chosen and marked by God’s love, the delight of God’s life. Wasn’t that enough? Why expose himself to hunger and thirst, the elements, loneliness, exhaustion, even delirium?

Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, about heroes in every culture. Campbell concluded that every hero, before undertaking his mission and calling, must first undergo testing. And so it was for Jesus, that after his baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness for testing, before he undertook the work God had called him to do. What would his motives be, what would his methods be, and most of all, did he have the character not to be corrupted along the way, and the courage and endurance to follow it through to the end. He had to find that out right at the beginning.

As it was for Jesus, so it is for us. Sooner or later in life, everybody – including every Christian – must spend time in the wilderness. It may not be an actual wilderness like Jesus was in, with rocks and sand, but it will definitely feel like wilderness. It might be in a hospital room or a living room. It might be in the form of a job with more demands than you can meet, or in the form of a pink slip and a final paycheck. It might be in the form of a broken relationship, or in the midst of a chronic illness. It might involve the loss of faith. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”

In the wilderness, there will be a voice. It may not be the voice of the devil. It may be the voice of society, of someone else, or even our own voice. Sometimes the loudest voice testing us, questioning us, even telling us lies, may be our own. As with Jesus, our greatest temptation is to believe those lies, telling us that we are something other than beloved sons and daughters of God.

In the wilderness, along with the voice, there will be a Test. Not necessarily the same test Jesus faced, all of our tests are different. As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.”

And yet, here is the paradox of the wilderness experience: despite the fact that we’d just as soon forego it, the wilderness experience is also the place of transformation, the place that reveals and clarifies our calling, our character, and values. As the Children of Israel were transformed in the wilderness, as Jesus was transformed in the wilderness, so are we as well. In the sense of, I suppose, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Because after you’ve been through the wilderness experience, you would never trade for anything what you have learned there, valuable lessons for life. Not that you’d ever want to do it again. Even though, as we know, we almost certainly will.

I’ve been in the wilderness, haven’t you? I think about the things I’ve seen and experienced in my life; by them I have been changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I have always said I would only want to be young again (not that I have that choice), if I could know what I know now.

I have always liked a little poem called, “Autobiography in Five Chapters” by Portia Nelson, which I came across years ago. Perhaps it best describes the learning curve of the wilderness experience.

(1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to climb out.

2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in . . . It’s a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

So on this 1st Sunday of Lent, if you think what you’re going to get out of this story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, are three easy steps to overcoming temptation, forget it. Instead, what the wilderness temptation of Jesus teaches us, is that the wilderness experiences of life are the crucibles of our transformation, as human beings, as followers of Jesus, and as children of God.

Best of all, when we find ourselves there, based upon his own experience, Jesus is with us. When we are down in the hole, Jesus walks by, and jumps in with us. “What did you do that for?” we yell. “I been here before, I know the way out.”

With his help, may we emerge from the wilderness experiences of life as he did, loving God above all, and our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.


– Here is the video used for the Children’s Sermon. It is entitled: 40 – Jesus in the Wilderness, and was created by Adam Young, from a series of illustrations by British illustrator Simon Smith, accompanied by an Explosions in the Sky song:

– Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent sermon may be found here: The Wilderness Exam, February 21, 2010,;

– For this sermon, I’m also indebted to David R. Henson, at his blog on Patheos, Into the Wilderness: A Lenten Homily Not About Temptation, March 7, 2014:


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