Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 5, 2017

2017.03.05 “What We Learn in the Wilderness” – Matthew 4: 1 –11

Central United Methodist Church
What We Learn in the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 1 –11
The 1st Sunday in Lent
March 5th, 2017


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


One of the more thought-provoking movies of last year was Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, an imaginative film about Jesus’ last days in the wilderness. It takes awhile to get used to Jesus as played by a Scotsman, Ewan McGregor, but it works.

After a month of solitary wandering, Yeshua is tired, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and lonely, weary of not hearing his Father’s voice. He implores, “Father, where are you?” and “Father, speak to me!” yelling with frustration into the wind. The only voice that answers is the devil, his evil twin, a mirror image of himself. This devil taunts Yeshua, trying to plant doubts about whether his father really loves him, and whether his father even loves anyone other than himself. But Yeshua steadfastly refuses to give in to all temptations. In time, he happens upon a family in the wilderness who recognize him as a holy man, offering him shelter and hospitality. In return, he offers them help with some carpentry.

Last Days in the DesertWhile Yeshua, as played by Ewan McGregor, is the center of the movie, a strong supporting role is played by the desert itself. The bleached-out grandeur and ripples of sand that form the Anza-Borrego Desert southeast of Los Angeles (standing in for Israel’s Negev) demonstrate how the desert can be at the same time, both beautiful and threatening. To get a sense of the movie and the story, take a look: [Last Days in the Desert trailer]

For most Christians, the story is both familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar, because each year as we begin our Lenten journey toward Easter, we begin with Jesus in the wilderness. Three of the four gospels tell how, after his baptism by John, Jesus goes into the Judean Desert to fast and pray for forty days. During this time, Satan – the Accuser – tempts and tests Jesus, and each time he resists. By the time Jesus leaves the wilderness, he is ready – in every way – to begin his public ministry.

In other ways, however, the wilderness is unfamiliar to us, and I found Last Days in the Desert helpful in its real images of wilderness, which most of us have a hard time appreciating, having never experienced it ourselves. We tend to think of these scenes in cartoon images, but actual wilderness is real and imposing. Perhaps, at some time or another, maybe on the moonscape of a mountain top or the edge of the Grand Canyon, we have stood on the edge of the wilderness, and while it was beautiful, it was also daunting. Not only is there no entertainment, no iPhone or internet, no YouTube or Facebook, there are no amenities: no comfort, no water, the blazing sun in the day and chilling cold at night.  All wilderness – and especially desert – is a hostile environment; make a mistake, and you die there, even without devils to tempt you. I like what Jesus’ host says to him in the movie, when Jesus asks him why he lives there: “The desert is ruthless; it strips you of your vanities, your illusions, gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are. Isn’t that why you’re here, because your God speaks louder here?”

On the other hand, I believe that even if we have never been in the actual wilderness, most of us know what the wilderness experience is. It might be in a living room or a hospital room or a living room. It might be in the form of a pink slip and a final paycheck. It might be in the form of a divorce, a struggling child, or an illness, physical or mental, like depression or schizophrenia. It might be the space around the slow or sudden death of someone we love, and the long grief which follows. The wilderness experience might even 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.”

As a pastor, I have had the opportunity, sometimes to stand on the edge of the wilderness and observe – sometimes to experience wilderness with other people. Let me share just one, from this week. In my previous congregation there was a woman who suffered from severe mental illness; I think it was schizophrenia. Sadly, at times it got so bad that for their own safety, her parents had to lock her out of the house. (Can you imagine that?) Sometimes, she slept on the porch; mostly, she was homeless. Not only did she sleep in the homeless shelter at our church, she attended our church. Sometimes, she would leave a door propped open, so she could get in to sleep at night. Sometimes, she came to worship; I will never forget the prayers she shared – like announcements – for friends on the street. Last Thursday night, she slept in the homeless shelter, on Friday she was taken to the hospital, on Saturday, at the age of 61, she died. Life on the streets – especially when you are mentally ill – is hard. When I heard of her death I wept, wishing I had been kinder to her. Not that I was ever mean to her; in fact, I think our whole congregation was kind to her, I just wish we could have done more for her. The wilderness that some people experience in their lives is more than I think I could handle. All of us know families like this – sometimes our own – who wander in a wilderness, not of their own choosing.

Apart from the deprivations of the desert, with this experience also comes temptation, the testing of our character that is part of the wilderness experience. As we have liked learned from experience, it is when we are weak – when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – that we are most vulnerable. In the movie, the taunt of the devil at such at time was to call into question the Father’s love: “Does he really love you?” At such times, we might begin to wonder.

In the Gospel, Jesus is tempted by the devil to turn stones to bread, to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, testing his father’s rescue; to reign over earthly kingdoms, “if only you will bend down and worship me.” In every instance, Jesus chose deprivation over gratification, vulnerability over rescue, and obscurity over honor.

Because Jesus chooses God’s way, what happens in the desert will not stay in the desert: in time he will feed thousands in the wilderness, and teach them to pray for their daily bread. He will not stand upon the temple and bask in adulation, but hang upon a cross and endure the taunts of others. Turning down the offer of power over kingdoms, instead he would offer to all kingdoms the Kingdom of Heaven. Through acts of power, maybe Jesus saved a few hundred or a few thousand in Galilee, but through his willingness to bear his cross, he saved the world. (Debbie Roberts, Journey with Jesus, March 9, 2014)

When our time of testing comes, we won’t necessarily face the same tests Jesus faced, our tests will be different. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “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.”

In her commentary on this text in Feasting on the Word, Maryetta Anschutz puts it this way:

“Temptation comes in moments when we look at others and feel insecure for not having enough. Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 48)

It seems to me that temptations such as these are rampant in our society today. We – as the Church of Jesus Christ, and as Christians – must choose: will we accommodate and surrender to these temptations, or will we uphold the vows we took at our baptism: “To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, to reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

In the end, Last Days in the Desert ends the way we know it will, with Jesus hanging on a cross, once again experiencing wilderness, utilizing what he had learned in the wilderness to get him through, maintaining his love and trust in God to the end.

This is why we are given Lent; this is why we are given these forty days and forty nights, this is why we begin in the wilderness. This time is given as a gift to us in order that we might enter into ancient practices such as solitude and prayer and study and worship and generosity and learning to trust even when it is almost impossible to do so. Because on that day when we enter a wilderness not of our own choosing, we will need everything we have learned in the wilderness to get us through, as Jesus did. (Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word, “And Suddenly Angels Came, February 28, 2017)

May God be with us throughout these forty days of Lent and especially when we are in the wilderness, until an Easter of unending joy, we may attain at last. Amen.


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