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So from the banks of the Jordan River and his baptism, Jesus immediately traveled to a very different location – the wilderness. Here in the wilds of PA we think of wilderness as being wooded and wet.
We have tree covered mountain ridges cut through by many streams and rivers, but this was not the kind of wilderness Jesus entered. Wilderness for Jesus was an arid, barren, almost desert like mountainside. In fact, many believe this is the mountain where Jesus spent his 40 days in the wilderness and it is called Mount Quarantal, which means 40.
Half way up the mountain there is a cave where Jesus could have spent his nights and today you can see there is a monastery built over the opening and visitors can go in and see where Jesus may have slept and prayed during this time.
Jesus was not led into the wilderness to just get away from the crowds so he could listen to God; time in the wilderness was always an important and formative time for God’s people. The people of Israel travelled in this kind of wilderness for 40 years and it was during that time God led them from being slaves to free people. It was a time of transformation, growth and development for God’s people. When David was persecuted and felt alone he ran into the wilderness and lived in these kind of caves and it is from these kind of locations that he wrote psalms like this: Psalm 142:1-2, 5-6. When the prophet Elijah ran from Queen Jezebel who wanted to kill him, he also ran into the wilderness where he cried out to God for help. So the wilderness had special significance for God’s people. It was a place of testing and struggle, it was a place of formation and growth and it was a place of refuge. While all these wilderness stories may be different, there is one constant, when people traveled into the wilderness – God was there.
I want us to take a look at one of the very first people in the Bible who ran into the wilderness and that was the maid servant to Abraham and Sarah, a woman named Hagar. Abraham and Sarah had been told by God that they were going to have a child, but they were already old when they got this news and after waiting years without any signs of this promised child coming, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They decided that Abraham should at least have a son, so Sarah gave him permission to have a child with her maidservant – Hagar. Hagar got pregnant and just as you might imagine, jealousy arose between Sarah and Hagar. In fear and frustration, Hagar ran into the wilderness. Hagar was not just trying to run way from Abraham and Sarah but from God as well, but God found her in the wilderness. Genesis 16:7-10, 13.
This is an amazing story; first of all, it is the only time a woman gives God a name. While so many people see the Judeo-Christian faith as just a patriarchal male dominated system (which at times it was), stories like this show us that God has always honored and lifted up and valued women. Hagar calls God, El Roi, which means the God who sees, because God not only saw her hiding in the wilderness but he saw her problems and reached out to help her. Hagar’s story shows us that when we run into the wilderness, when we are overcome with problems and just want to run away from it all God will always be there. God was for Hagar and God was there for David and Elijah and God was there with His people as they travelled through the wilderness for 40 years. God was there.
If nothing else, that is what we need to remember today, that God is with us during our own wilderness experience. We all go through times of testing and turmoil and times of darkness and depression and it is important for us to remember that when we walk through these barren and dry times – God is there. For about three years after college I struggled in my own kind of wilderness. Because I worked many nights and every weekend, it was hard to get connected to a church so I didn’t attend worship on a regular basis and my faith felt dry and desolate and at times I wondered if God was still there. Looking back I can see that God did not abandon me during that time, He was right there, and that is what we need to remember. God is with us even when we don’t hear him or sense his presence. God is here.
This was an important message that Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples understood which is why I think he shared this story with them. Think about it, how do we even know this story of Jesus in the wilderness? There was no one there to record what was being said and done which means that we only know this story because Jesus told it to his disciples and Jesus told his disciples because he wanted them to know that when we go through difficult or dry times – God is there – God is always there.
So God was with Jesus when he was tempted by the devil and as we look at each of the three temptations Jesus faced, we see that these were not temptations that Jesus just faced in the wilderness; these were the ongoing temptations of His life. Every day Jesus was faced with choices that would define his life and because he made faithful choices here in the wilderness, it gave him the strength to keep going when these temptations came up again. So let’s look at these three temptations because the truth is, we face them in our own wilderness. We find them in Matthew and the first temptation was for Jesus to turn stones to bread, Matthew 4:3-4.
Remember, Jesus had been fasting for a long period of time so he was hungry when he faced this test. In an instant, Jesus could have met his basic physical need with as much food as he wanted. Think about all the stones Jesus saw in the wilderness – they were everywhere, so Jesus could have as much food as he wanted in an instant. Instant gratification with food, it’s one of the greatest temptations we face, in fact it was part of the very first temptation. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they didn’t trust that word of God, they wanted the instant gratification of knowing all things so they gave in to the devil who encouraged them eat. So think about it, Adam and Eve denied the word of God, listened to the devil gave into temptation and went for instant gratification and ate the fruit. The exact opposite was true with Jesus. Where Adam and Eve gave in and ate – Jesus did not. Where Adam and Eve disregarded the word of God, Jesus trusted it. Adam and Eve were faithless – Jesus remained faithful.
It’s interesting that the very first thing that Jesus did after his baptism was to begin to reverse the failures of Adam and Eve and show us that there is a very different way we can live our lives. We don’t have to continue to live out the failures of Adam and Eve. We don’t have to live a life that is focused on instant gratification and living for ourselves first, last and always, we can turn things around and start listening to and living for God. By standing strong in this temptation Jesus is showing us a different and better way to live our lives.
The second temptation for Jesus was to jump off the pinnacle of the temple and allow the angels to catch him, Matthew 4:5-7. I see this as the temptation Jesus faced to use his power and position to gain instant fame and glory. If Jesus had jumped and the angels caught him before he hit the ground – even without a youtube video of it going viral – Jesus would have become an overnight sensation. People would have flocked to him and not because they saw in him the grace and love of God but because of his spectacular ability. But this was not the way Jesus was going to live his life. Just as Jesus rejected instant gratification, he also rejected instant fame and popularity and chose a very different way. Instead of worldwide fame coming from feats of daring, Jesus submitted to God and lived out a life of humility, service and sacrifice and in the end we see that the way of Jesus is the better way. Fame is fleeting (after all, who can name the American Idol from season 4 or the winner of dancing with the stars season 2) but the legacy of Jesus life has changed our world.
Today we face this same temptation. People do all kinds of sensational stunts to post on youtube in hopes that it will go viral and make a name for themselves. People are lining up to be on reality TV in order to experience instant fame in hopes that it will bring a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. Again, Jesus rejected this kind of fame and invested himself in a different way of living. The way Jesus lived and the way Jesus calls us to live is a way of long term relationships which include service, sacrifice and love and it is this way, Jesus says, that will lead us to the kind of meaning and fulfillment that lasts more than an instant. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, those who lose their life in this world will find it. Those who don’t try to make a name for themselves in this world will find the true meaning of life both in this world and in the kingdom to come.
The third temptation for Jesus was also one that we are familiar with, and that is the temptation of money. Jesus was offered all the wealth of this world if he would worship Satan. What’s interesting for us to see here is the response of Jesus. Matthew 4:8-11 The first two times Jesus is tempted, he responds by saying, “it is written…” and then he quotes a passage from Deuteronomy, but to this temptation Jesus begins his response by saying, “Away with you Satan!” There is more emotion here, maybe even some anger and it could be that the anger is coming from Jesus’ knowing that this temptation is powerful and affects us all.
Jesus talked a lot about the danger of money and in Matthew 6:24Jesus said, you can’t serve both God and money. If we are going to give in to this temptation and trust in our own wealth and resources then we are not living for, serving or trusting in God. Jesus knew that this temptation was going to be difficult for us to overcome which is why he talked about it so much. He warned us about this because it is a serious. We look for our money to bring safety, security and significance but the truth is that it is not money that brings us any of these things. Look at Jesus, he didn’t have any money – he had nothing and yet he felt secure about his future and he lived the most significant life anyone has ever lived and it was all because he trusted in and worshipped God alone.
So Jesus’ time in the wilderness was important because it helped define the way he was going to live. Jesus was not going to choose the path of instant gratification, fame and fortune, he was going to walk in the way of sacrifice, service and faithfulness to God. But let’s be clear – this was not an easy way. Choosing to live this way, choosing to be faithful and trust God in all things was hard for Jesus and he knows it will be hard for us as well. Jesus knows we will go through our own struggles in the wilderness which is why he shares with us this wilderness experience.
So what does Jesus teach us about making it through our own times in the wilderness? Well, the first thing we need to remember is that God is always with us, but beyond that he shows us that we need to draw upon the power God gives us. Jesus draws from the power of God by using the word of God. With each temptation Jesus used the word of God to help him fight off the devil, but let’s be clear – the word of God is magic – it’s not like we read it or quote it and our problems go away and the devil is defeated. I would suggest that the scripture Jesus quoted he quoted for himself. Jesus needed to hear the word of God give direction for his life. When Jesus said, “man does not live by bread alone” it was to remind Jesus that there was more to life than meeting his own basic needs and when Jesus said “we should not put the Lord God to the test” it was to remind him to remain humble and when he said he needed to “worship God alone” it wasn’t for the devil to hear but to remind him that he didn’t the things of this world but the God who created this world.
So what helps us make it through our times in the wilderness isn’t just quoting God’s word its hearing it ourselves and trusting God enough to live it out. That was the real difference in the wilderness. Jesus loved God and desired to live in a way that honored and pleased God so when he heard the word of God, he trusted what it said and followed it. That’s the way to live. It’s not enough to read the word or listen to it, we need to live it out – that’s where the power comes from. That’s where life comes from.
We will all experience times in the wilderness. We will all go through times when our faith will be tested and we will struggle to remain faithful to God. It is during those times we need to remember that God is not only with us, but through his word and through his love He gives us the power to overcome all things and stand strong. If you are experiencing life in a dry place and a faith that is struggling – don’t give in to the devil who would want us to give up. Stand strong and draw strength from the presence and power of God.
The Way ~ The Wilderness
1. Take some time to learn from others who walked through the wilderness:
- · Hagar: Genesis 16
- · Moses: Exodus 19
- · David: 1 Samuel 22-24, Psalm 57, 63, 142
- · Elijah: 1 Kings 19
- · Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11
2. In the wilderness, Jesus faced three temptations. In what ways do we face the same temptations today?
- · Instant Gratification: Matthew 4:1-4.
- · Instant Fame and Popularity: Matthew 4:5-7
- · Instant Wealth and Money: Matthew 4:8-11
3. What temptations do you face today? What resources has God given you to help you resist these temptations?
4. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. What similarities do you see with Noah spending 40 days in the rain, Moses spending 40 days on Mt. Sinai and Elijah spending 40 days in prayer?
5. Commit to spending the next 40 days walking in the footsteps of Jesus?