The wilderness is often thought to be a place that is desolate and uncultivated, a wasteland and a desert. Trials, tribulations, testing, and tempting all occur here. But it is in the wilderness and through these forty days of temptation that Jesus is prepared and readied for all that will follow. What possibilities and transformations await as a we journey through the wilderness?
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday with Victor Floyd leading us in a worship themed “Doorway to the Desert.” We were invited to remember our baptism, to be marked with ashes, and to take a key to open that door and let God and whatever else we might need this Lent into our lives, and to perhaps even step out into the desert with God for these forty days.
Last week, on the first Sunday of Lent, John Weems preached on the very same scripture passage you heard read by Ellie this morning. Lent usually begins with this passage of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness; these forty days of Lent (which don’t include Sundays by the way) hearken us back to Jesus’ forty days in the desert and to the Israelites forty years wandering in the wilderness.
John reminded us last week that Lent isn’t about a strict diet or practice that we must adhere to. While these practices may be good and may help our spiritual growth and formation, “Lent is about relationship,” he said. And he reminded us that we must give up our need to control and allow freedom to exist, so that true relationship with God and with one another can occur.
This morning, we are again with Jesus in the wilderness. And that’s not because this is the only scripture passage there is for Lent (it’s not), but because today, our Lenten Small Group Bible Studies begin with an opening luncheon.
Over a hundred and twenty (120) of you have committed to journey together this year through Lent by building community in small groups and growing your faith through bible study. That’s more than we’ve ever had in past years, and there are over forty of you who have chosen to do this for the very first time. That is so exciting.
You all make this kind of ministry possible, through your participation and through your leadership, through your hospitality and through your service. So thank you.
I also know and have spoken with many of you who would have liked to participate, but your schedule and travel just doesn’t allow you to do so. Or there are others of you who just didn’t want to commit to something like this this year. And we get that.
Our sermon series through Lent, however, follows the scripture passages we will study and discuss in our small groups. So we are all on this journey together, one way or another, be it through our small groups or through corporate worship or both. And this journey we take together is Through the Wilderness.
In our scriptures, the wilderness is both a physical place as well as a spiritual and metaphorical space. The wilderness represents times of testing and uncertainty, of temptations and trials. But it is also a place of great possibility and transformation.
For instance, Moses spends forty years in the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that he is called to liberate God’s people from Pharaoh. The Israelites spend forty years wandering in the wilderness as they move from Egypt to the Promised Land, and it is during this time in the wilderness that they are called a “nation” for the first time. And Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days and faces and overcomes temptation there.
When you see that number forty in the Bible, it often indicates a time testing or of trial. Some would argue that forty days or forty years is the length of time necessary for God to accomplish some major part of God’s plan in dealing with humanity. Some of you probably also remember that it rained for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah and the flood.
Well, I’m not sure there’s anything inherent about the number forty that somehow makes it more mysterious or holy or transformative than any other number. But I am quite certain that these wilderness times are necessary for us.
Today’s scripture doesn’t say that Jesus, following his baptism, got a little lost and accidentally wound up in the wilderness. Chapter 4 verse 1 says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Jesus followed the Spirit into the wilderness. That was where the Spirit was guiding him.
We don’t know all of how Jesus spent those forty days. We know that he wasn’t alone because the Spirit of God was with him. We know that he fasted; he probably prayed and studied scripture. But he wasn’t tempted for forty days straight. The temptations came at the end of those forty days.
So perhaps the wilderness is not a just a place where we face temptations and trials, but a place that helps build our character and our faith to help us face the temptations and the trials that are sure to come.
Perhaps the wilderness is a place for preparation, a place that allows us to face the difficult times to come and to embrace the joyous transformation and new creation that God is doing in our midst.
For people of faith, who want to grow and become more and more like Jesus the Christ, wilderness times are necessary for us.
John Westerhoff, a religious educator who taught at Duke Divinity School had a theory about how faith develops and grows. He matched the faith stages with developmental stages in life but recognized that the earlier faith stages could be present much later in life as well.
The key, for him however, was that he believed each stage built upon the previous one, so you couldn’t skip ahead to the final stage without having gone through the others.
He identified four stages: Experienced Faith, Affiliative Faith, Searching Faith, and Owned Faith.
The “Experienced” and “Affiliative Faith” stages are the earliest stages. An experienced faith is the stage of going through the motions and learning the practices of faith. It’s living the rhythms of a faithful life but not really knowing what you believe or understanding what your faith means to you and your life.
An affiliative faith is claiming your faith as part of a community, and affiliating with a group of people who’ve become your a community for you. You’ve become a part of something, a member or active participant.
According to Westerhoff, these, the experienced and affiliative, are the two earliest stages of faith.
The goal was for all people of faith, to reach what Westerhoff calls an “Owned Faith” which is the strong, personal faith that is able to articulate what you believe and why. It is a mature faith where faith becomes central to your life and your being. Your faith becomes a means of reaching your full potential. And a person with this style of faith can appreciate the faith experiences of others and can learn from other traditions because it’s not threatening. Your faith is your own. You have claimed it for yourself. It’s personal, not private because it’s shared in community, but it is personal. It holds personal meaning and reason.
This “Owned Faith” stage, however, which Westerhoff argues is the goal, is only made possible by first going through the stage called “Searching Faith” which is a period of doubting and questioning and wresting with God.
I would call this the wilderness portion of our faith lives.
Westerhoff says that in this stage we question traditional values and search for understanding and meaning for ourselves. It is often difficult and may be understood as losing faith, and some do choose to drop out and leave the faith altogether at this point. Conversely, others choose to regress and simply stay in the “experienced” of “affiliative” stages of faith because again, this “Searching” stage is hard.
It is a questioning but also an internalizing and choosing for yourself what you believe. Westerhoff emphasizes that, “’Searching faith’ is a necessary prerequisite to an “Owned faith.’”
Searching faith, wilderness times, are necessary for us.
Unfortunately, according to Westerhoff, most adults are stuck. Can you guess where? In the affiliative stage.
Most adults who identify as Christians, who affiliate with a church or a faith community have never allowed themselves to really walk through the wilderness, to search and question, and experience God in the desert times of our lives.
We avoid the wilderness, and refuse to take on the search and the questions that lie within us. It is an unwillingness to step into the unknown and to allow God to work in spite of our uncertainty. But the wilderness is what prepares us, readies us, to face and overcome adversity, to be faithful followers of Christ even when it’s hard, to do God’s work in the world.
Baptism alone did not prepare Jesus for the subsequent years of ministry to follow. Jesus needed that time in the wilderness.
Liberation alone did not prepare the Hebrew people for the Promised Land. They needed that time in the wilderness.
Their forty days or years in the wilderness, however, weren’t just for the purpose of trials and testing. It’s not suffering for the sake of suffering. Just as Lent is not for the sake of Lent. Instead, the wilderness allows us, prepares us, and shapes us for transformation.
Lent is not for Lent’s sake, but for Easter’s sake. Lent prepares us for the resurrection, the renewal, and the transformation that is Easter.
This is not to say that the wilderness is not difficult or trying or heartbreaking at times. It is. But it is to say that the wilderness does something in and through us that may not be possible otherwise.
There are countless stories of people overcoming times of testing and trials to only have their faith strengthened; in fact, I would say that is the pervading story of most faith leaders found both in the Bible and in society today.
Interestingly enough, however, this is often true not just in matters of faith or in the church, but oftentimes in business and in relationships as well.
Most of you have heard of a nerd named Bill Gates. He and his partner Paul Allen founded a small company called Microsoft, and it did quite well. Gates is, according to Forbes magazine, the wealthiest person in the world. But before there was Microsoft, there was a little business called Traf-O-Data. Anyone heard of Traf-O-Data? No? That’s because it failed miserably.
Traf-O-Data was also started by Bill Gates and his partner. Here’s how Paul Allen explained how the failure helped them: “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later.”
Traf-O-Data was a failure by all measures of success, but that experience and that failed attempt prepared Gates and Allen to create Microsoft.
Wilderness times: times of failure and illness, times of brokenness and feeling lost, they are sometimes necessary to produce not just a product that is successful, but a person of character and integrity.
Oftentimes, the pervading feeling we have when journeying through the wilderness is that of loneliness. Perhaps the greatest temptation in the wilderness is the myth that we are alone. We are not.
When we travel through this wilderness, we are in good company.
There is not a single faith leader in all of scripture, including Jesus, who doesn’t undergo some time in an actual and/or spiritual wilderness.
And most likely, there is not a single person sitting in your pew who has not been led to an actual and/or spiritual wilderness.
The question is, do we run when we realize where we are, or do we allot ourselves the time and patience and endurance to allow God to change and mold and shape us in the wilderness?
Because of course, God, too, is with us. And we are invited into the wilderness, to go through this time and learn and grow from it.
A multitude of people who have lived incredible lives of faith have been there. Jesus himself has been there.
And if we can find the wherewithal to look up and look around, we realize we have an enormous community of people from every time and place who walks this journey with us.
So, this Lent, we step into the wilderness with hope, with expectation, and with one another.
We will not run from it; rather, we will accept it as part of our faith formation, maybe even embrace it as a time of experiencing God in new and incredible ways.
Our musical reflection this morning is by the Queen of Country, the great Dolly Parton. In her song, “Travelin’ Thru,” she writes,
“Questions I have many; answers but a few
We’re here to learn the spirit burns to learn the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again you’re gonna see a change in me
God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain
Oh, sweet Jesus if you’re out there keep me ever close to you
As I’m stumbling, tumbling, as I’m traveling through.”
As we stumble, tumble, and travel through Lent, what transformation awaits us?
What kind of resurrections will Easter bring?
And how will we allow ourselves in these forty days to be prepared and fortified for what God is doing in and among us?
Consider these questions as we pause and listen.