A Wilderness Exam  /  Message for the First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2010  /  Resurrection Lutheran  /  Pastor Carol Kniseley

As we all know by now, “tradition” has it that the season of Lent is a time for either giving something up…or for taking something on.    It is a way for us to spend the next 40 days focusing on our ‘walk with Jesus’ in a very intentional way.     This year, I’ve decided to take something on that will drive home the fact that this Lenten season is meant to be a journey of sorts.     For the next 40 days, I plan to ride 48 miles a week on our stationary bike with the intent of improving not only my stamina…but my walk with the Lord.     Because if Luke’s Gospel is any indication of the fast pace that Jesus set for himself, then all I can say is:  we haven’t got one moment to waste!  

In the course of just thirteen verses, Luke has Jesus walking rather “briskly” through three very important events.    What begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan quickly dove-tails into Jesus hearing a voice from heaven affirming that he is indeed God’s Son.   In the very next breath it seems, that same Spirit that had descended from heaven, is now seen “driving him” into the wilderness where he is to be tempted by Satan himself.   When that is all over, Jesus then puts on his walking shoes and goes about proclaiming that the ‘time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God has come near.’    Whew!

Needless to say, unlike Mark’s Gospel which is intent on moving things along with very little detail, it is Matthew and Luke, who decided years later to try and fill in the blanks.     It is from these two later versions that we begin to understand the gist of what took place.   What happened was that Jesus went from one spectacular moment of being acknowledged as God’s Son to a long, lonely time in the wilderness.     For forty days and forty nights…there was no sign of God at all.     The sky stayed shut.   There were no doves to be seen and no voice from heaven to be heard.   Apparently…there was just Jesus, the desert, and yes…the devil himself.   

We already know their conversation pretty much by heart.   And even though Mark remained completely silent in regards to content, Matthew and Luke practically copied each other word for word when it came to what was on the devil’s test.     First, he tempted Jesus to practice magic:  Command these stones to become loaves of bread.  To which Jesus responded: One does not live by bread alone.   

Then he tempted Jesus to take control of all the kingdoms of the world saying: All of this I will give to you…if you will fall down and worship me.    To which Jesus responded:  Worship the Lord your God…and serve only him.

Finally, the devil carried him all the way to Jerusalem and placed him on the highest point of the temple (some 100 feet up in the air)…goading him to lean on God for special protection:  Throw yourself down from the temple.    To which Jesus replied, again quoting Scripture: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.   

Did you notice that all along, the devil was suggesting that Jesus “deserved better” than God was giving him.   Why should the son of God go hungry?     Why should he so much as stub his toe, or be subject to Caesar when Caesar should be subject to him?       If God could not do better than that by his own son…then maybe it was time for Jesus to start shopping around for another Father.

One thing we have to remember is that Jesus did not wander into this wilderness by mistake.   According to all three Gospels, he was ‘driven there’ (Mark’s wording)…’led there’ (Matthew’s and Luke’s wording) by the Spirit, who delivered him to the devil for his forty day exam.

AND…it is important for us to note that according to Matthew and Luke, the exam actually came at the end of the forty days, when Jesus was practically starving.      So who is this Spirit…this one that drove / led Jesus into a place that he really didn’t want to go?   

Let’s think about the implications of this highly provocative question.      Could this really be…the same Spirit that descended like a dove from heaven at the time of Jesus’ baptism?    And if it is…then for what good purpose was Jesus “allowed” to be tested?     And to take the point just one step closer to home…if Jesus is “allowed to be tested” under such harsh conditions…then does that mean that we will be tested as well?   

If we are looking for answers from Luke’s Gospel, then we need to look again.  There is a reason why Mark’s Gospel is known to be the shortest.    Mark is a writer who uses very few words to state what he has to say.      Despite his lack of words, Mark does have one puzzling piece of evidence not recorded by the other Gospel writers.  

In verse 13 we read:  “…and he was with the wild beasts”.       Two thoughts come to mind.   First of all, what Mark is most likely alluding to is the ‘loneliness and isolation’ that occur when one is separated from the community.   By being driven into the wilderness, it is no surprise to find that Jesus soon finds himself in the company of animals as opposed to human beings.   For some animal lovers…that would actually be considered a blessing.

Now  what if I were to tell you that one of the signs of God’s coming kingdom was that there would be a remarkable unity among all living creatures?    Namely:  ‘The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…’ (Isaiah 11: 6, 8).      

What Mark may very well be alluding to, is that such possibilities are drawing nearer with the coming of the kingdom, and that Jesus’ closeness to the animals could very well be the first sign.      Is it any wonder then, that following the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus sees it all as “a sign” that the time has come (is fulfilled)…and that the kingdom of God has come near.    

It occurs to me that we here at Resurrection may very well be seeing signs of God’s kingdom breaking in…especially as a result of our being tested as of late.     Oh yes, I believe that God does allow for testing to take place…even among his faithful.   And yet, it is in the person of Jesus…that you and I find our stamina for this 40 Day Lenten journey.    Every day we draw strength in knowing that Jesus has experienced fully what it means to be tempted.    And because he has, he can relate fully to any of our needs as well.    

The honest to God truth is…we have nothing to fear as we walk this journey with Jesus for the next 40 days and beyond.    Our assignment, if we decide to accept it, is to take seriously our walk with our Lord…and to step out in faith as we find ourselves driven on occasion to  places we would really rather not go.    The really Good News, however,  is that Jesus has already gone before us…and it is he who will continue to set the pace.    Thanks be to God.