Gifts for the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11

I wonder sometimes if the most challenging part for Jesus in the wilderness was not the tests that came at the end.  I wonder if the hard part was those forty days which came before.  Indeed, I wonder how it was at day seventeen when not a whole lot was happening yet — at least not in a way that would have been visible to anyone else —  and there was still no end in sight.  That time when it must have seemed as though God was so very far away. 

For I’ve had those times.  I expect you have as well. Such wilderness times come for us, usually unexpected and surely unbidden.  It has always been so.  Indeed, you and I have the gift of the entire Biblical witness recounting these times in the wilderness for others of God’s people.

For just think of the wilderness encountered by Abram and Sarai when in their latter years, God called them to a new place.  And then those decades of waiting for God’s promise to come true for them in Isaac.

Consider the family Isaac formed with Rebekah — and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, whose entire lives, from what we can tell, were marked by rivalry.  Think of the heartbreak they all must have felt in the wake of Isaac’s betrayal by his wife and son.  And what sort of wilderness must Esau have experienced as his life played out in ways he could not have imagined?

Remember Jacob — his flight to his Uncle Laban — and then his falling in love with one woman only to wind up with her older sister on his wedding day.  And then remember the heartbreak of Rachel when she was so-long barren, her grief accentuated as she witnessed her sister bearing child after child.  What wilderness that must have been! 

Oh, and don’t forget the wilderness Jacob had to navigate when he was led to believe that his beloved son, Joseph was dead.

I look back over these stories and so many others like them and I know that part of the gift they bear for all of us is that you and I know the ending.  We get to witness the emergence from the wilderness — those times of overwhelming joy when the child is born, when brothers are reconciled (more than once in these stories), and when the father’s grief turns to joy once more.  Unlike some of these stories in the account before us now for this first Sunday in Lent, we hear little about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  Rather, what is described before us now is the end of that time when Jesus responds to those three temptations posed by the devil in ways which continue to inform our lives of faith.  But as for the middle of his time in the wilderness? We don’t hear so much.

This is why I have been so grateful in these last months to spend a little more time with the “story of the family of Jacob” — the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Our local community theater will be sharing this much loved story this month and so we decided to use this as the theme of our Lenten Study this year.  (In order to enhance and deepen our learning, I have written a reading guide to accompany us as we walk through the story.  Should you wish to use it, too, there is information about how to access it above.)

Indeed, Joseph surely knew ‘wilderness’ — not in a defined forty days as described in today’s Gospel, but for decades as he lived out his life.  (Of course, it is also certain that the wilderness Jesus knew was not limited to those forty days either.)  From the moment Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery until they were reconciled late in the story, his life was marked by struggle — by wilderness — if not always physical, then certainly emotional and familial.  Spend a few minutes with the scene of Joseph in prison.  This particular portrayal certainly offers a sense of Joseph’s deep despair.  At the same time, you can also hear him clinging to the already ancient promises of God.

To be sure, in my own wilderness times, it helps to sit still in stories like these — both those mentioned here and those in my own life or in the lives of others I have known — which offer endings marked by meaning and purpose, reconciliation and hope. I wonder if Jesus also clung to these stories passed down to him in addition to so many others like them during day nine, and day seventeen, and day twenty-nine in his wilderness.  I wonder if that is not what partly sharpened his clarity, what deepened his strength, what enhanced his resolve when the devil offered to satiate Jesus’ hunger with bread and with power and with glory  I wonder if that’s what gave Jesus what he needed so that he could rely instead on those eternal gifts of God which were meant for him and for us all.  What do you think?

  • What gifts do you draw on in your wilderness times?
  • How does it help you to hear the stories of others who have been through such times?
  • How do you think the endings of these stories are shaped by day nine or day seventeen or day twenty-seven in the wilderness?   In other words, how might our ‘wilderness times’ result in strength or resolve or purpose? 

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