In the Wilderness

Sermon Sunday 1 March 2020

Lessons Genesis 2: 15 – 3: 7 St Matthew 4: 1 – 11

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

Holy God, Consciousness of the cosmos, Soul of the world, open our hearts and minds that a true sense of Your Presence may penetrate our souls, and fill our emptiness with Your fullness. Amen.

What wonderfully imaginative stories we find in our sacred text! In the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, we read a carefully crafted faith narrative, a myth, about a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit hanging from its branches succulent and ripe, a rib taken from a man to form a woman, a speaking serpent, human nakedness, loincloths and death. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, there was a vivid account of arduous struggle. In the extreme temperatures of heat and cold, through day and night, a cycle of blinding sunlight and utter darkness, Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Fasted and famished, the tempter, the devil, the Satan, sought to provoke and challenge the ‘Son of God’. If we approach Scripture with imagination, we can never say that it is dull.

What are we to make of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the tempter, the devil, the Satan, in the wilderness? Jesus was alone. It was a mystical encounter in which He faced some of His own demons. In the Jewish tradition, the religious tradition which shaped Jesus, the most important writings are the first five books of our Old Testament. Known as the Torah, ‘the teaching’: they are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. More than half of the Torah is set in the wilderness. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, when the prophet Moses climbed the mountain to receive the stone tablets, he remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, alone without food or drink. The fourth book of the Torah, which we know as Numbers, is in the Jewish tradition entitled, ‘In the Wilderness’.

It was in the wilderness that Abraham was tested by God. In the mythology of Noah and the flood, God sent rain to cleanse the earth for forty days and forty nights. Before his mystical encounter in the cave, before he heard the whisper of God in the sheerest silence, the prophet Elijah had journeyed through the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God, for forty days and forty nights. At the end of His ordeal, Jesus was attended to by ministering angels, just as Elijah was. These stories of wilderness experiences are a genre: they are spiritual stories with spiritual meanings.

Who was the tempter, the devil, the Satan? These are not proper names but mean simply ‘the one who opposes’. In popular culture, the Devil or Satan is often portrayed with flaming red skin, a horned head, muscular tail, and carrying a trident. In the Bible, the tempter, the devil or the Satan is the one who opposes or tests. At God’s behest, it was Satan who tested Job. It was the Spirit of God which led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. We must discard, cast away, all notions of horns, tridents or pitchforks and instead read the story of Jesus in the wilderness as an inner experience; an inner wrestling between good and the temptations of selfishness and evil.

The temptations which Jesus faced are not unique: on the very first pages of the Bible we read the account of Adam and Eve, of humanity’s struggle with good and evil. For Jesus, like the rest of us, this was not a struggle that He faced once only but, like the rest of us, it was a struggle that He had to face again and again, though most obviously at the outset of His ministry and in the final hours of His life, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In His inner, mystical vision, Jesus faced three temptations. The tempter asked Jesus to turn stone into bread; the devil encouraged Jesus to test God with a miracle; and, the devil offered Jesus status and authority in this world. The three temptations may be described as economic, spiritual and political. The Church of Scotland faces these same temptations. The Church is tempted to idolise social justice by turning stone into bread, as if physical needs are all we need for life. Even if Jesus had turned stones into bread, it would not have been enough for true life. The Church is tempted to make claims of God which are unsustainable and false. Christians speak of miracles and supernatural interventions, when we have no right to do so. The Church is tempted by the reflected glory of being a friend of political leaders.

In response to each challenge, Jesus quoted three times from the Torah, from the Book of Deuteronomy. His response brings to the fore the central importance of Scripture in His life. It was formative and shaped His thinking every day. What do we learn from wilderness experiences? What can we claim for ourselves? Place yourself in the wilderness: be aware of the changing temperature and the risks of attack from jackal, poisonous snake or wild beast. In the middle of the wilderness, the Hebrew people learned the importance of humility, of one’s smallness and, beyond physical needs, what is needed at attain spiritual contentment in life.

Often, it is in times of challenge, when we come to realise our smallness, fragility and brokenness that we truly learn humility and our dependence on God. Jackals, poisonous snakes and wild beasts may be metaphors of our own inner demons: our loneliness, weaknesses, shame and the haunting memories of failure. At night, the desert, the wilderness is silent like no other place on earth. People sometimes avoid silence because it is then the inner demons emerge from the darkness.

Despite the desperate struggles for material survival, it was in the wilderness that the Hebrew people felt themselves to be especially close to God. In the Book of Numbers, ‘In the Wilderness’, there is a scene when, having set up the Tabernacle of God, the Tent of the LORD’s Presence, each member of the community was invited to stand around it, encircle it. Spiritually, this meant that each member of the community had a different, personal and unique perspective on God; each had an individual relationship with the Eternal. It also meant that, in the wilderness, in that moment of smallness, fragility and brokenness, God was with them.

An American rabbi writes of taking a group of pilgrims to Israel. He said:

The stillness of the [wilderness] commanded our
attention. Here, for the first time in our travels
throughout Israel, we found it hard to get a cell phone
signal. Here we escaped the traffic of Jerusalem and
Tel Aviv, the dense thickets of apartment buildings
and stores and restaurants, the gaudy shopping malls of
Eilat. We walked, each at our own pace, to a private space in the wilderness and heard nothing but the stones crunching underfoot and the sound of our own breathing. Each of us reported a transformative experience in those few minutes of wilderness silence. [It was] wonder or radical amazement.

For Abraham, Moses, the Hebrew people, Elijah and Jesus, the silent wilderness, a place of spiritual struggle, was also a place of intimate encounter with the Divine Presence. It was a place where they faced their own demons, met their inner struggles, and journeyed into God. It was a place where they learned humility. ‘A sojourn in the wilderness recalibrates our perspective. We no longer feel like we are the centre of the universe.’

The Benedictine and Celtic spiritual teacher, Esther De Waal, draws strength from the spirituality of the Celtic Church. She said:
The Gaelic race see the hand of God in every place,
in every time and in every thing. They have this
sense of life being embraced on all sides by God. They
speak of God dwelling in his world, and in our lives
in such a way that Emmanuel, God with us, becomes
a reality….Christ within me, the indwelling God…is
virtually tangible. This is a God physically present,
alongside, behind, before, above, below. God is
companion, guest, fellow-traveller, friend, fellow-
worker. Some of the most used words that we find
in [their] prayers are encircle, encompass, uphold,
surround…..God [is] with us.

How do we cultivate the Divine Presence? Give thanks always: for snowdrops, swans, grains of sand, friendship, the psalms and stories of Scripture and, despite the burdens we carry, our essential goodness in the eyes of God. As we continually give thanks, we too will be attended by ministering angels.