Every year when Lent begins, that first Sunday begins with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Every year it is repeated in different words – those of Matthew, and Mark, and Luke. We know the story of Jesus going up into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, of him resisting the temptations, and coming back ready to preach and begin his mission. But does that mean we actually know the story? While I was preparing myself for the Lenten journey this year I was struck by the realization that, while I knew the story, in many ways I no longer did; I no longer had let it penetrate into the depths of my heart to move me, calling out to me to re-orient my life back to Whom I owe everything. If you will, allow me a few moments to try and articulate some of that re-orientation that I think is valuable in this Lenten season, but also all year long.
The story begins, after Jesus is baptized, that he goes off into the wilderness, Matthew noting that he fasted there for 40 days and nights. There are other 40s in the Bible that earlier readers would immediately pick up on, two in particular. When God sent the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights. Noah and his family were alone in the Ark upon the wilderness of a tumultuous sea, trusting that they would finally find a safe harbour and journey to a renewed land. The Israelites, having been led out of slavery in Egypt, wandered and were tested in the wilderness for 40 years before being led into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is often described. The number is not new, but then neither is the wilderness, it is a place of testing, of trial, of purification, but not of home.
Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tested and to focus his thoughts on the task ahead; it is a way station, but not the destination. After 40 days of fasting, the Tempter comes; “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves a bread.”
There is an old understanding that in the temptations we see a prefiguration of the temptations that we humans face, and that in Jesus’ response are the responses that should be on our own lips. Jesus answers Satan by saying, ‘It is written: you shall not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” It answers the temptation by quoting from the Bible. If one ever needs a reason to know and read the Bible we have it here: when Jesus is tempted, his first thought is to go to the Bible, which records the history of the interaction between God and humans. It is interesting, too, that the words from Jesus’ lips are the words spoken by Moses during that other great period of trial and testing in the wilderness from the Bible, the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness.
There, in Deuteronomy 8, the words that seem to slip so easily off of Jesus’ lips, Moses is telling a story to the assembled people of Israel. It is their story; the story of them and God. God took them out of Egypt, the land of slavery, fulfilling his own promises to their ancestors, leading the people into “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and undergrounds waters welling up in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack for nothing”. That was the promise, but they got there because it was God who fed them, gave them water and shelter, along the way providing for them not only materially but also spiritually. It was in the wilderness, afterall, that God gave the 10 commandments. It was in the wilderness that God gave them bread from heaven, the bread of angels. God provided for them, so they could turn their thoughts and hearts to God. Humans shall not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.
So, Jesus is not dismissing bread, but putting it in its proper place: God will provide. I have trusted Him in the past, other people have trusted Him in the past, and we have not been disappointed; in what we have needed, God will provide, so trust in him and allow yourself to turn your attention to hearing God, listening to his Word.
But above and beyond that, as Deuteronomy makes clear, do not forget that the Wilderness is not the Promised Land. This is easy to forget. I had forgotten it for a very long time, or at least did not let it impact me in the way it should. We are in the Wilderness. This is not the Promised Land. That is why Jesus can easily say to not store up treasures here on Earth: it is the Wilderness, and we do not know when we will have to leave them behind. It then makes sense when Jesus says that he is going away to prepare the mansion, our home, for us, and that he will be waiting for us there: this is not the Promised Land, our homes here are temporary.
If this is the Wilderness, a period of testing and trial, then many things make sense. In the Wilderness, we must take care of one another, we must lift up the community and protect it against those forces that would destroy it. We need to be community, to love one another, but also it becomes each person’s responsibility to protect that community from those both within and without – to stand up, with the Word of God by your side (a triple meaning there if ever there was one), and speak truth to power, for the good of the community, and not for oneself, clique, or ideology. We are travelling in this Wilderness together; we need to help one another.
But that also means a relationship with the Earth as stewards, for in the desert you protect the watering holes, the oases you find. If you do not, then they are ruined for others, and for yourself when you might need them again: they are not yours alone, but serve all. And the stranger you find, wandering alone in that wilderness? The laws of the wilderness, the real deserts of the earth where people roam, insist upon hospitality. You must open your home to the stranger, feed them, let them drink, for you never know when it might be you who is buffeted by storms, finding yourself alone, thirsty and hungry in a dry land. After all, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
We are in the Wilderness, as Jesus was 2000 years ago. But what he recognized in the temptations was that it was not only the physical wilderness of desert, but the Wilderness of the human condition, longing and thirsting for something more, which was the true state of that Wilderness. The Israelites did not despise the earth, nor did Jesus, nor should we, but rather recognize in this Wilderness its proper place. It is not the Promised Land, the land we are journeying toward. Jesus’s response in each of the temptations makes that well known. Each response harkens back to the story of the Israelites in the Wilderness. Each of them is a call to trust in God, yes, but not just an abstract, amorphous trust. Trust in God because he has proven Himself trustworthy, in your own life, in the life of the Church, in the life of the Israelites. Trust in God because he is trying to teach us trust so that we may reach the Promised Land and enjoy the goodness and bounty that He offers, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
That is very nice in the abstract Nathan, a thought might be, but how does it look – can it look like anything – in the practical? Well, here is how it is helping to change my own perspective.
This last year has been a hard one. Being Director of the Newman Centre is always a challenge, not because there is no joy to it, but because it means opening your heart and keeping it open to every criticism, every concern, every harsh word, because the alternative is a hardness of heart that makes the heart a stone. If it is a stone, how can I move through the Wilderness to the Promised Land? This land is not my permanent home, but I must be for others – I must be for His People – helping all those others that are joined with me in community journeying through the Wilderness: I must constantly be open to changing, leaving behind those parts of me that do not help the community but harm it. I must do everything I can so that my People, His People, all that God has chosen, reach the Promised Land.
I do not know what will happen after July 31st, there is a blank, nothingness that I cannot see beyond. My path is obscured by the uncertainty of really not knowing where I will be – a darkness many of you might be facing – but then the Israelites didn’t know where they were going either, only the destination, and that along with trust in God is what sustained them: God, who is trustworthy, is taking them to the Promised Land; “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”
I am married to an amazing, wonderful wife. We are a family. But … there is no third that seems to be the promise, seems to come so easily to so many, of the Christian family. It is hard. We do not know why. Except, this is the Wilderness, not the Promised Land. This is a period of testing, of leading us in ways known only to Him, so that we might find the Promised Land together. So I will trust in Him. He is worthy of trust, and this testing is but one part of the journey – it is not the destination.
There are many others, but hopefully you get the picture. This is Lent. It beckons up with opportunities. It beckons us forward into the journey of a lifetime, but that means it is a journey: we are not yet home.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
By Nathan Gibbard, Director of the Newman Centre