The Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11

“Time is
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice,
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”
Wrote Henry van Dyke.

Matthew tells us that Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the desert. Matthew would have had in mind that the Bible also says that the Hebrew people spent forty years in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt across the Red Sea, the rain fell on the ark for forty days and forty nights, that Noah waited forty days before seeing if the flood water was going down, that Moses twice spent forty days on the mountain with God, that Jonah gave the people of Nineveh forty days to respond, and Goliath tormented the Israelites for forty days. Matthew would also have known that Jesus was presented in the Temple forty days after his birth, and Matthew probably knew the story of Jesus ascending into heaven forty days after Easter. What a coincidence! Well, perhaps not. Most Biblical scholars now agree that forty days, or forty years, just means a long time, not any specific length of time.

So, it was a long time, but why? Some have suggested that this was a time of preparation for Jesus’s ministry that was to come, but I think there’s more to it than that. Whether we have a description of one period of time in Jesus’ life or, more likely, a potted description of the longer process of Jesus discovering how God leads him to be, I think that the issues raised in this story were issues about which Jesus had to decide not just once in his ministry, but many times.

Turn stone into bread, Jesus is challenged. Obviously there was an element of Jesus’s own bodily comfort, food for his hunger, but this is also about loyalty and allegiance. Can Jesus produce a gimmick to win people’s loyalty, or at least their allegiance? How many of us have a nectar card, or a Tesco club card? How many of us keep buying cars from the same manufacturer? There’s certainly allegiance to be had.

The astute among you will have already realised that Jesus did seem to create food from nowhere to feed crowds of thousands, and turned water into wine. The key point is that those were for other people, actions which showed something of the kingdom for others, not about self-satisfaction or self-aggrandisement.

Jumping off temples is irresponsible, like drinking and driving, like thoughtless speech, like congregations burying their heads in the sand to hide from the need to grow spiritually and numerically. Both action and non-action have consequences, and these consequences have to be lived with. I’m sure that Jesus knew this when he prevented his disciples from fighting the soldiers who had come to arrest him. I’m sure that Jesus knew this as he stood silently before Pilate, and when he asked John to look after his mother.

Jesus quotes from his Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, that testing God is wrong, but this about much more than finding a text to support a view. This is surely about love not being something you can force out of people, either for yourself or for God. It seems quite clear that Jesus understands that faith grows in a person, it blossoms when it’s nourished, and he embraced the ones society didn’t want to embrace, but he did this because it was the right thing to, not because it was following rules, or recruiting members. Jesus’s heart went out to the rich young man who wanted so desperately to live a godly life; but he didn’t force his wealth from him. Jesus rubbed shoulders with the Zealots, who wanted to use force to win their nation back for God; but he didn’t accept that God looks for a sterile humanity devoid of emotion, devoid of personal and free commitment.

This passage is telling us that Jesus knew that neither the power of David, nor the wealth of Solomon, had forged a holy nation out of the people, anymore than the excesses of communism or the coercion of capitalism leads to justice, compassion, and dignity in society. Jesus is surely rejecting any concept of God as one who coerces people into faith.

This time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, wrestling mentally and spiritually with the calling of God, is what enables him to find strength in the story of his people. This process of prayer, thought, reflection, the process of exploring the scriptures, exploring himself, exploring his fellow human beings, including Judas, and so the process of exploring God, which the Gospel writers put in this shorthand story as the temptation of Jesus, is what we see reflected throughout the Gospel accounts of his ministry.

Jesus’s life is one of being open to God and being open to his neighbours. This process of discovering how to be himself, and how God is, didn’t just take place in this time in the desert, but also took place in the arguments and debates, in the intimate encounters, in the teaching, and in the healing. This is what led people to find wholeness and healing through his life. This story of the temptations is surely telling us of the openness of Jesus, his spiritual and loving openness to the God he met in the scriptures and in people.

As we begin the season of Lent, we don’t read this story of the temptations to create guilt, to remind us of our inadequacies, our frailty, and our brokenness; nor do we read it to inhibit our humanity, or to goad us into giving up that which is good in life. Lent isn’t about any of these things, it’s about our need for space, spiritually and practically, to reflect on how God is in us and around us; to pray, to study scripture, to listen to each other within the church, so that we can be refreshed.

Turning stone into bread doesn’t create community, and it doesn’t help us think of our neighbour. It doesn’t encourage us to dwell on the whole of our being. Even in places of extreme poverty, Christian Aid know that merely feeding people, though essential in the short-term, is second best to giving those people the opportunity to feed themselves with food, with education, with the space to be creative, to be human; and to challenge the structures and systems that put them and keep them in poverty. We human beings need every word God speaks: his word, his personality, his being, is not to create dependency, but to create life. This temptation is about living, spiritually and physically, in community, God’s family, which is centred on the mystery that is God’s love, with us and for us without limit or condition.

Not putting God to the test tells us that blind faith isn’t the way. It’s a powerful and divine affirmation of God’s trust in us. We can be responsible, not only for ourselves, but within and for our community and family. The routine of church life, the habits, the temptation to decry the state of the world as terrible, mean we need this period of Lent to step aside and remember that God trusts us to be responsive to him and to each other, and to be responsible citizens in society. It reminds us that God sees our potential to be responsible, which can surely give us hope, both for church and even more importantly for the wider world.

The fact that this God-centeredness is not coerced means there is the possibility of harmony in human life, beautifully encapsulated by Matthew as he ends with the picture of the angels helping Jesus.

The temptations say no to turning stone into bread, and say yes to moving from individuals to community.

The temptations say no to testing God, and say yes to discovering our potential to be responsible human citizens.

The temptations say no to coercion, and say yes to discovering the God who creates harmony, drawing all people to himself.

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