The wilderness is indeed a strange place.
It’s a place we feel we need to avoid.
And how many of us have been there and not enjoyed it?
That feeling in our Christian walk that we are lost and alone.
The wilderness experience is a place we feel we need to get out of when we are there.
We feel distant from God.
We feel that our devotional life is in ruins.
We feel our prayer life is non-existent.
We feel like hypocrites in our Christian example.
We feel like we just don’t have faith.
We feel there is something wrong in our relationship with God.
We feel as if, perhaps, that God is punishing us and we have to get ourselves right again.
But if we look at our bible reading we find something quite interesting.
If we look closely we see that being in the wilderness was not some sort of going off the track for Jesus.
It wasn’t that Jesus had gone astray.
No, it was the Holy Spirit who actually led Jesus into the wilderness.
So there are some important details that we draw out of our bible reading that also relate to us:
The first words in our Gospel are: after his Baptism.
In Baptism one of the questions asked is – do you reject the devil and all his works and all his ways?
The devil’s works and ways want us on a path away from God.
He tempted Peter to go the glory way rather than the cross.
Jesus then rebuked him and said – get behind me Satan (Matthew 16:23)
Our baptism is that dividing point where we reject whatever is against Jesus.
When we are tempted then we should look to our baptism and remind ourselves that we have rejected that way of life.
Like Israel who constantly wanted to go back to Egypt when the going got tough in the wilderness, sometimes we are tempted to go back to the life we have left behind.
Any lifestyle or decision that is against God’s will we are to reject.
And when we fail and end up sinning then we also look to our baptism and remind ourselves that in Baptism God washes away our sin.
We don’t try and balance the evil we do with good – no we look to God’s grace.
The Holy Spirit
We hear a lot about the Holy Spirit.
We hear about people’s experiences of the Holy Spirit where they speak in tongues – or they feel so excited about their faith and refer to it as an infilling of the Holy Spirit.
Others associate the Holy Spirit with healing and if you’re suffering then it’s because you don’t have enough faith, otherwise the Holy Spirit would heal you.
But here we see that the Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent Jesus from going into the wilderness but leads him there.
This isn’t something you’ll hear a lot about when you hear charismatic speakers talk about the gifts and working of the Holy Spirit.
No they’ll talk about excitement and moving emotions – but here the work of the Holy Spirit is to lead Jesus and us into wilderness experiences.
The wilderness is not a place of punishment or evil.
The wilderness is a place where we are emptied in order for God to grow our Christian faith and awareness.
It’s not a nice place but it’s a place where we often find ourselves.
It’s a place that is sometimes necessary to realise our human frailty and need for God as we hear in Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
It’s what Paul discovered in his wilderness experience as he cried out to the Lord 3 times:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses – not my healings -, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It’s what Paul wrote about Jesus who “emptied himself and become obedient unto death – even death on the cross”. (Philippians 2:7,8).
And by that suffering Jesus was given the name above all other names. (Philippians 2:9)
The number 40 is a significant number in the bible.
Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness until God led them into their new promised land.
It was 40 days that the rain fell as God prepared the new land for Noah and his family.
It was 40 days that Moses spent with God on Mt Sinai.
It was 40 days that Jesus spent on earth after his resurrection prior to his Ascension.
40 days warning to Nineveh that God was going to destroy them.
40 always speak of a time leading up to something extraordinary with God.
Times of wilderness sometimes take us on a journey deep into the heart of God’s presence.
But that journey is one of trust in God’s presence in the wilderness that we only see when we look back at the journey.
Just look at those 40 days with Noah on the high seas, Israel wandering through the desert, Jesus going without food, Israel who built a Golden Calf during those 40 days because they thought God had abandoned them.
Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before a young shepherd, David, would slay him and become King of Israel.
Those wilderness times are not easy, not enjoyable, but so rich with spiritual growth.
On the journey we at times cry out like Jesus – “my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46).
Or we cry out like Israel to Moses where they stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18-21).
Wilderness experiences lead us to the Promised Land but at times they seem like thick darkness.
Like Jesus, our journey begins in our baptism but it continues through the wilderness.
Sometimes we tend to romanticise the Christian journey that it’s about spiritual highs and feelings of contentment.
Our contentment comes from assurance of our salvation and eternal life.
If you’re struggling in your faith; if you’re struggling in your prayer life; if you’re struggling in your worship life; that’s not a sign that you’re off track.
No, the chances are you’re right on track, but take comfort that the track is leading you to your Promised Land – eternal life with God in Heaven.
May God bless your Lenten journey – and don’t be afraid of journeying through the wilderness