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. (Matt 4:1-11)
Sometimes, when I listen to Bible verses in church, I feel like I’m watching a 15 minute clip of a movie. Even if I’ve seen the movie before, it can be hard to remember where that one scene fits in the larger story. This text in particular is one that I’m so used to hearing read in church that I sometimes forget how it relates to the rest of the story of Jesus’ life. So, before looking at our gospel reading, I wanted to take a minute to refresh your memory about how this story relates to the rest of the Gospel of Matthew.
Right before Jesus entered the wilderness, he encountered John baptizing people in the Jordan river and telling anyone who will listen that the Messiah is on his way. Jesus followed the crowds to John in order to be baptized. The moment John saw Jesus, he recognized him as the Messiah. He originally refused to baptize Jesus at all, saying that he’s not worthy to baptize someone so powerful, but Jesus eventually convinced him to baptize him anyway.
When Jesus was finally baptized, the gospels tell us that the sky opened, a dove descended, and a voice from heaven said “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
It was then that Jesus understood God’s plans for him. He saw John calling him the promised one, and heard the voice of God naming him as beloved, and he responded to that life-changing event by going into the wilderness, where he would be tempted by the devil.
Traditionally, many Christians have often seen this story as being like those fairytales about children who get lost in forests: Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood. Jesus goes out into the wilderness, where he meets the Big Bad Wolf–the devil– and narrowly escapes. The wilderness is seen as frightening, far from the protection of God and occupied by demons.
But I think we miss the point of this story if we try to turn the wilderness into something threatening or evil. To me, this story isn’t about the dangers of the wilderness, but the necessity of it.
I think that part of the reason Christians have sometimes read this story as being about a threatening wilderness is because of the ways that modern Christianity has demonized the wilderness. In the United States in particular, there’s a belief that the wilderness is something that needs to be tamed, or subdued. Nature is often thought of as uncivilized, compared to the “civilization” of cities. So, it makes sense that we would understand the wilderness as an evil force threatening the goodness of Jesus.
But it’s important for us to remember that for much of Jewish and Christian history, the wilderness was understood to be a sacred place where we could go to encounter the holy. For centuries, ancient Hebrews climbed mountains to be closer to God. That’s why the book of Exodus tells us that Moses climbed Mt Sinai in order to receive the 10 commandments. Before we had temples or churches, mountains were understood to be the dwelling place of God.
And of course, the Genesis story is clear in its statement that the wilderness–the earth–is a good and beautiful place. The story of creation begins with God forming water and land and plants and animals and declaring all of these things to be good. Adam and Eve are placed in the garden and are told to enjoy the plants and animals that surround them. It is only after Adam and Eve disobey God and are thrown out of the Garden of Eden that humanity loses that close communion with nature. The scriptures are clear in their insistence that the creation is good, and that people can know God on a deeper level by communing with nature.
That, I think, is why our scripture reading for today begins: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” It was not the devil that led Jesus into the wilderness, but the spirit. The wilderness was not a place apart from God. It was a place Jesus went to encounter the divine more fully.
Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson says that the Holy Spirit is the part of God that is present to us in in our lives here on earth. To Johnson, there is nothing good that we can experience on this Earth that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is the part of God that remains down here with us, in our lives and our loves and our struggles.
Johnson argues that if the Spirit is that part of God that dwells here on Earth, then it must have played an important part in creation. She points out that Early Christians used to call the Holy Spirit the “life-giver” and believed that this spirit had played crucial role in the forming the earth.
Johnson calls the Holy Spirit the Creator Spirit, and she sees this Creator Spirit as being particularly at work in nature. I believe it’s that Creator Spirit that carried Jesus into the wilderness, and that remained with him there. The Spirit who had created the earth—the wilderness—as a reflection of God’s glory and who knew that the wilderness was where God dwelled in the most intimate way.
The Creator Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness precisely because it was a safe space, a sacred space. Away from the distractions and noise of Galilee. A place where he could find himself. Where he could dwell in the presence of the spirit and discern his future and his call.
To spend time in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, is a crucial part of what it means to be human. Literally, we need time to be alone in the wilderness, to get to know ourselves as being (what Mary Oliver calls) ‘part of the family of things.’ To see our place in the tapestry of God’s creation.
Figuratively, we also need to find our own inner wilderness. We need to encounter the Spirit in that still, small place in our souls. We need to learn how to feel comfortable in the silence, without the distractions of TV, crowds, sometimes even our own friends and family. It is in that lonely stillness where we are most able to know ourselves as being beloved by God.
In fact, spending time in the wilderness is important because it is among nature that we are better able to discover our own inner wilderness. In the stillness of nature, we are finally able to, in Wendell Berry’s words, “rest in the grace of the world” and know ourselves as free. By going into the wilderness, we are able to learn about our own inner wilderness. We have the ability to learn peacefulness from the peacefulness of nature.
Now, I want to be honest: encountering our inner wilderness can be difficult. There is a very good reason why our culture has given us so many distractions: TV, facebook, fattening foods. It is hard–really hard– to be alone with ourselves. To sit in silence. To sit in prayer. Maybe one reason our culture seems so determined to destroy the wilderness– through oil drilling and coal mining and deforestation—is because we’re so scared of our own inner wilderness. Psychoanalyst, poet and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes says that “It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades.”
In the wilderness, we are forced to encounter the truth of our lives, and the truth of what God requires of us. It’s scary, and unpredictable. It makes us feel vulnerable. And frankly, sometimes we’d rather stay distracted.
Last Wednesday marked the start of Lent, the Christian season of fasting. This year, I made two commitments for Lent: The first one was to give up caffeine. The second, was that I would sit in silent prayer for at least 15 minutes a day. Now, you don’t know this about me yet but I really love my coffee. I normally drink multiple cups a day, and it’s definitely a thing that I rely on to get through days when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. So, these last 5 days of giving up coffee have been hard, but they have been nowhere near as hard as adding that 15 minutes of prayer into my life. I have had trouble getting into a routine, I have had trouble finding room in my busy schedule. But most of all, I find myself resistant to it. Sometimes, I just don’t want to deal with the silence. To be alone with God. To honestly take stock of how I’m feeling, and reflect on whether or not I am living into God’s plans for me. My inner wilderness can be scary. Maybe yours can be, too.
Because, as Jesus knows, if you spend enough time in the wilderness, you’re going to have to wrestle with demons. It was in the wilderness where Jesus had to face the devil. In the silence of the wilderness, he was faced with the reality of his own temptation to use his powers selfishly. The wilderness is a frightening place not because it’s evil but because it forces us to be honest with ourselves, and to face our own demons.
But it’s only through wrestling with our own demons that we can learn how to defeat them. Our demons are always there: demons like feeling inadequate, unloved, selfish, or being overly dependent on a person or a substance. Our demons haunt us, and if we try to ignore them we end up letting them win. But when we meet our demons in the silence—in our own inner wilderness— we have the power to defeat them. It is only when we are willing to encounter our own demons face to face that we can stop being held prisoner by them and we can live into God’s fantastic plans for us.
We need the wilderness because we need to sit in silence. We need to sit in silence because we need to struggle with our demons. We need to struggle with our demons so that we can be freed from them and grow into greater relationship with our God.
And of course, we don’t have to struggle with those demons alone. The Creator Spirit—the Holy Spirit—led Jesus into the wilderness but did not abandon him there. The spirit stayed with him, cared for him as he wrestled with his demons. The spirit stayed there, whispering in his ear the same words that had been given to him at his baptism: ‘You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased.’ And finally, when the devil left, the spirit brought angels into the wilderness to care for Jesus. Throughout his temptations, Jesus was never really alone.
And it’s the same for us. If our wilderness is the place we go to struggle with our demons, it is even more the place we go to meet our God. To struggle in the wilderness means to try to grow more deeply into our relationship with God. So, even if the wilderness can sometimes seem scary—if it can seem scary to be alone with ourselves—we shouldn’t fear it because it is in the wilderness where we are able to fully encounter the God that loves us and that will never abandon us. It is in the wilderness where we are really able to hear God whispering in our ear: “you are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased.”
After his time in the wilderness, after all the praying and struggling and silence, Matthew tells us that Jesus left the desert finally ready to begin his ministry. Ready to live into his mission. And, I think, his ministry couldn’t have happened without that wilderness time. Because the wilderness for Jesus—and I think for us—can be a sort of cocoon. A place where we go to reflect, and pray and discern our future before taking that next big step in our lives. Before crossing over from what life has been, to what it could be.
This scripture is traditionally read the first week of Lent to remind us that, like Jesus, we will be spending 40 days fasting and in prayer. Lent was created by the church to mirror the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, and to give us the opportunity to sit in the wilderness with him as we reflect on the meaning of his life and death, and await his resurrection on Easter.
So, this Lent, I invite you to find your own wilderness space. I hope that you’ll spend some time going out into the forest, the beach, golden gate park—or just your own backyard. Wherever you can get lost in what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.” Where you can feel a part of the glory of God’s creation.
And regardless of whether you ever make it into the forest, spend some time sitting with your own inner wilderness. Meditate, sit in silence, go to a restaurant by yourself. Sit in your own wilderness, and wrestle with your own demons. Spend some time reflecting on how beloved you are by God. Sit in silence, allow yourself to be uncomfortable in it. Like Jesus, make your wilderness a sort of cocoon for yourself this lent, and wait to see the ways that it will transform you.