Sermon, Monroe UCC, 2/17/02
John Stoppels

In the Northwest we are proud of our wilderness. We rejoice in its pristine beauty--it's snow-clad peaks and rushing rivers. Having moved here a couple years ago, I'm often struck by North Westerners' love of nature--their affinity with the land--a quality sadly lacking in the tame, domesticated Midwest, from where I came.

And yet, in the long course of human history, this appreciation of the great outdoors is a very recent development. Before John Muir, before Henry Therou and the other nature-worshiping Romantics, wilderness was considered of little value except as a place to conquer and civilize. At best it might be a land of adventure, for explorers, mountain men, and other nonconformists. At worst it was feared as a place of evil, an uncharted realm of wild beasts and wild men--a dark, shadowy world, where even God's face was hidden. Like the ogres and trolls that lurked in Europe's great forests, wilderness was a physical manifestation of people's deepest subconscious fears.

So when Jesus goes into the desert, or wilderness--as the word may also be translated--he is not going on a holiday or an amusing camping trip. He is going on a serious and dangerous journey. Literally dangerous, for the barren wastes of Palestine were a haven for "wild men"--thieves, escaped convicts, and other social outcasts. And a place of "wild beasts"--lions, jackals, snakes. Or one might die for lack of water and food. The days could be broiling, the nights freezing. A misstep could break an ankle and leave a meal for the buzzards.

But in a more profound sense--and more to the point of our purpose here--this journey of Jesus to the desert was spiritually dangerous.

He was alone. He had no campfire companions with whom to share songs and hot chocolate. He intentionally took himself away from the places of human habitation--which is interesting when you contrast this with his ministry, where he was so engaged with life and people--surrounded by his disciples, attending parties, riding at the head of a big parade into Jerusalem, sometimes even mixing with the rich and powerful, as well as the masses of poor. Even his death was a public event. But here, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus removes himself from the hustle and bustle of civilization--removes himself from the humanity whom he had come to be with--removes himself to the quiet, empty, lonely . . . desert.

And yet Jesus was following in the footsteps of a long, respected, Hebraic tradition. Old Testament prophets often disappeared into the wilderness for a while, before returning to preach their wisdom and utter their warnings. The nice, neat forty days of Jesus' sojourn is an obvious allusion to the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, after their escape from Egypt. And just before today's scripture passage, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, a real hermit of the desert, with his camel's hair clothes and diet of locusts and wild honey. . . .

In the Bible, the desert is not only the place where religious awakening happens, but also serves as a metaphor for that inner, psychological, spiritual landscape. Like the desert, the realm of the soul can be a dry and lonely place. It is often a place of struggle--a place of pain and thirst and longing. And yet, also like the desert, it may bloom in sudden color after a rare shower.

Or, as in the desert one might unexpectedly come upon a clear spring of water and an oasis of green, so too, in the desert of the heart, one may suddenly be touched by the spirit of God. . . .

And so Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness is really the story of an inner journey--a journey of the soul. Jesus didn't just take off on this trip on a whim. The first line of the passage makes it clear that this is an important event: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert . . ." led by the Spirit--the Spirit of God. And the fact that this journey takes place, as it does, directly following Jesus' baptism, and right before the beginning of his ministry, leaves no doubt that this is a critical juncture in the gospel narrative. What happened to Jesus in the wilderness? Did he go through some kind of internal struggle?--perhaps around whether he was really ready to do what he was called to do. Did he have fears? Did he have doubts? It said he was led into the desert "to be tempted by the devil." But did he also wrestle with demons?

I ask these questions rather tentatively. I mean: Jesus fear?--Jesus have doubts?--Jesus wrestle with demons?

Can we say that? Can we imagine that?

I put it that way because this scripture--at least the way I heard it when I was younger (or perhaps it was presented to me this way)--always smacked of what I call the Superman Jesus. I mean: he's perfect. "The tempter came to him and said, `If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.'" Jesus doesn't hesitate: "It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil takes him to the highest point of the temple: "If you are the Son of God . . . throw yourself down. For it is written: `He will command his angels . . . and they will lift you up in their hands. . . ." You see, the devil's sneaky here--he's quoting scripture. But Jesus immediately retorts: "(But) it is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Then the Devil took Jesus to a high mountain and offered him the world. But Jesus doesn't flinch: "(Get) away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

Bang, bang, bang! Game, set and match. Jesus three, devil zero. Jesus gets the gold and Satan is disqualified. . . .

But then I can't quite help having the feeling that the judging is fixed. . . .

Now I don't mean to get too frivolous here, for what I'm actually trying to hold out in front of us is a very important question--a question that I've struggled with, and continue to struggle with--a question that I believe most people of faith who take Jesus seriously . . . struggle with: . . . Who is Jesus? Is he the god-like Superman Jesus?--always victorious, never hesitating. Or is he the human Jesus?--born of a women, died a bloody death, sometimes went hungry, sometimes got tired, sometimes got angry, and perhaps sometimes even got totally disgusted with the whole darn thing. . .

A Jesus who says, "I am with you. I am with you in your pain. I am with you in your doubts. I am with you in your struggles. I am with you in your loneliness. I am with you in the deserts of your soul. Because I have been there." . . .

If we read the scripture closely, we'll notice that the encounter between Jesus and the devil/the tempter/Satan--whatever you want to call it--actually comes at the end of the journey, "after fasting forty days and forty nights."

So what happened during those forty days? The scripture doesn't say. Did Jesus simply sit there and meditate in peace like some Buddhist mystic.

Or did he wrestle?

One way to get at scriptural questions like this is to think about who the original audience was. Who was the author of Matthew writing for? Yes; you and I, of course. But let's not idolize the Bible in such a way that we can't go back and put ourselves in other people's shoes and discover more. The author of Matthew was a First Century Jew. That was the world he lived in. He was a Jew who believed that the promised messiah had come, but he was still a Jew nonetheless. Those were the people for whom the book of Matthew was originally written. And being good Jews, they knew their Hebrew scriptures, backward and forward. They would have immediately recognized the scriptural passages that Jesus and the devil are quoting. And they would have immediately made the connection from Jesus' desert sojourn to the experiences of the prophets and other men of faith who came before. And those prophets wrestled. They poured out their doubts. They cried out their fears. Moses by the burning bush: But why me, Lord? I don't even know how to talk to people. Jacob wrestled with a heavenly figure--an angel--wrestled the whole night through. The outcome was a draw, but the angel finally blessed him.

Like many of the prophets before him, Jesus' time in the desert also came at the beginning of his ministry. And First Century Jews, hearing this story, would have filled in the details. Set in the context as it was, his forty days in the wilderness were not just a quick contest between Jesus and Satan, but an extended time of trial--a purging of the soul. It was a preparation for the longer journey that lay ahead.

The three temptations are placed at the end of the forty days, but perhaps they are the culmination of a long contest, an internal struggle that had been building to a climax for a long time. Jesus makes quick work of the devil. But he is not a Sunday school teacher's pet, rattling off the correct answers. His is the power and wisdom of a man who has been through the fire--who has faced his demons and come to terms with them.

So I think we can safely ponder what Jesus might have gone through over the course of those forty days. Did he have fears and doubts about the future? Did he perhaps mourn the loss of the simpler life he was leaving behind? He must have been wise enough to know that if he followed his ministry to it's logical conclusion, that it would surly end in disaster, at least by the Earthly standards of power and success. Did he pray, as he was to pray three years later in the Garden of Gethsemane, that this cup might pass him by?

We'll never know for sure. But we can begin to see how this gospel story may intertwine with our own lives--with our own temptations, our own personal deserts, our own journeys through the dark night of the soul. As we renew our faith every day, as we make our own new beginnings, we can remember this story that takes place at a turning point in Jesus' life. We can be assured that yes, Jesus has been there too. And he gives us new hope, and he shows us a way--a way out of the wilderness. For Jesus remains faithful. In his final rebuke to the tempter, Jesus gets to the point of the matter: "It is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

As they say in figure skating, it's been a long program. But in the end Jesus does get the gold, and Satan is disqualified. And this time the judging is true.