Scripture: Matthew 4:1–11
I’ll begin with an adaptation of the poem, Desert Lesson, by Andy King that was inspired by today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew.
It is the empty time just before morning, the light just beginning to touch the tops of the hills, just beginning to palm the skins of the desert stones.
First one stone and then another begins to change colour as in slow grandeur the sun lifts into red-orange sky. First one stone and then another emerges from shadow, small solitudes of darkness in the solitude of wilderness in the emptiness of early morning.
Jesus is awake – blankets clutched to keep out the cold while he sits and watches stars fade in the spreading dawn. Hunger gnaws at his belly… Looking at a stone, he thinks, ‘How like a loaf of bread this rock appears. How comforting such food would be…’
The wind begins to rise, stirs the dry and scrawny grasses. Jesus ponders the passage of time, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the tides of marching armies, the endless quests for power that sweep up people and nations like sands in a desert wind…
Jesus sighs, and stands and stretches, a solitary and hungry and yet satisfied man, and folds the dusty blankets.
He will not bid the stones turn to bread today to ease his pressing hunger: for the hungry and poor of the world cannot, and he is in the world to bear their burden.
He will not seek the throne of kingdom today, selfish wealth or glory: for the outcasts and hurting of the world cannot, and he is in the world to bear their burden.
Day has come to the wilderness around him. The sun is full and blazing. …Jesus starts to walk from the desert testing toward the towns and cities where his ministry of love will begin.
His feet leave firm footprints in the sand.
— Desert Lesson by Andy King (adapted)
Jesus’ wilderness experience, described in the Gospel of Matthew, comes immediately after the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. This is a time of immense blessing, affirmation and commissioning for Jesus. Matthew says,
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
The very next verse in Matthew’s gospel story states,“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)
Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. He was gifted, called and chosen by God for a special purpose. This had a profound effect on him and I’m sure it also had a profound effect on the people closest to him who saw a transformation within him. Some were ready to drop everything and follow him right then and there. Jesus knew he needed to prepare for the trials and temptations that accompany such a sacred calling. Jesus needed to be grounded in God’s spirit and strengthen himself for the journey ahead by spending time in prayer, reflection and communion with God. He knew there would be many challenges that he would face in his ministry. It would be tempting to claim glory, for himself, for healing and liberating ordinary people from the chains of oppression that bound them. It would be tempting to have followers worship him instead of giving credit and glory to God. His mission was to teach others by his words and actions about God’s commonwealth where all are valued and loved and free. He was a prophet, a teacher, a guide. He pointed to God and reminded everyone he met that God’s presence was everywhere and they could be strengthened in their journey with assurance and reliance on God.
Prophets and guides before him had responded to God’s call to them and had spent time in solitude and prayer at various times in their lives. The great Jewish prophet, Elijah, followed God’s urging and fasted forty days and nights as he travelled to Mount Sinai. Moses fasted alone in the presence of God for forty days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments.
Jesus had learned from his ancestors in faith the importance of developing a strong bond with God and experiencing total dependency on God’s inspiration and guidance. And, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus knew that extended times of fasting and prayer were known to produce visions and lead to a sense of clarity of purpose and commitment. Jesus was about to embark upon a life that would be physically, spiritually and emotionally demanding. He would travel by foot tending to the needs of the people he’d meet along the way. In a land occupied by the Roman Imperial Army his actions would put him at great risk and he needed to learn to overcome his fears through dependence on God alone.
The story of Jesus’ wilderness experience highlights temptations that Jesus would face in his public ministry. Any charismatic leader knows the temptation of letting personal popularity get in the way of focusing on one’s calling and purpose. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about him it was about God and God’s commonwealth. He was a messiah who was called by God to serve – not to be served. His journey would not be one of comfort of wealth and the riches of power and glory.
In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Jesus responds to each temptation with a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures ending dramatically by saying that it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” (Deut. 6:13)
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry became a model for the Christian Church for the final preparation for baptism of new Christians on Easter Sunday. This time was a testing period to determine whether or not those seeking baptism could live in a disciplined, Christ-like way. It was a time of fasting, prayer and intensive study. Sundays were the exception to the fast days as they were celebrations of feasting together in Christian community.
Author and theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that this season in the church year that we now call Lent is,
Forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul. No one has to sign up for it, but if you do then you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life. …[you] find out what life is like with no comfort but God. (Home By Another Way, pgs. 66 & 67,Cowley Publications, 1999)
In the United Church of Canada we view the season of Lent as an opportunity to encourage each other to be intentional about prayer and spiritual practices. It is an opportunity to review our actions both as individuals and as a community of faith and clarify whether our actions are centred on God and motivated by God’s calling for us as people of faith. The United Church doesn’t tend to focus on fasting or deprivation of favourite foods or activities but does encourage simplicity during this season. Rather than thinking of punishing ourselves for not living up to our calling as Christians we are encouraged to take positive steps to live more fully in Christ’s way.
With this in mind, I’ll close with words of encouragement from an Ash Wednesday reflection by Tom Sherwood:
Fast from worry and feast on trust in God,
fast from complaining, and feast on appreciation,
fast from negatives and feast on affirmatives.
Fast from emphasis on differences, and feast on the unity of life,
fast from hostility, and feast on tenderness
fast from anger, and feast on empathy.
fast from judging others, and feast on the image of God within them,
fast from words that pollute, and feast on phrases that heal,
fast from idle gossip, and feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from self-concern, and feast on compassion for others,
fast from discontent, and feast on gratitude,
fast from bitterness, and feast on forgiveness.
Fast from facts that depress, and feast on examples that inspire,
fast from discouragement, and feast on hope,
fast from anxiety and feast on prayer.
(From an Ash Wednesday reflection by Tom Sherwood, Chaplain at Carleton University)
As we journey together in this Lenten season may the blessing of God be upon us as we follow the Way of Jesus, this day and in the days to come.