In the Wilderness: Claiming What Matters Most

Luke 4:1-13

Now this is so. Either as preacher or as one in the pew, I have paused in the story of Jesus in the wilderness on the first Sunday in Lent my for as long as I can remember.

This is also so. For all the times I have spent in wonder at this story — as it is told here in Luke or elsewhere in Matthew or Mark’s Gospels, I feel as though I am hearing it with ‘new ears’ this time through. Indeed, in this reading, I hear these familiar words with a deep sense of yearning for what Jesus must have experienced then. Oh, it is not that I would presume to be able to withstand what he did. Forty days of fasting alone would be far outside my capacity and as for that much time without human contact? That is utterly beyond my imagination. And yet, maybe it is because I just came back from a little getaway where I got a small taste of what it is to have my spirit rest and breathe. And perhaps it is because my first sabbatical in nearly 31 years is just around the corner, but as I ponder Jesus’ spending this much time apart, I do find myself yearning for at least a small measure of what he must have known:

  • The quiet, yes.
  • The relief from everyday demands on his time and energy.
  • The focused time to do what might be called ‘soul work.’

Now I surely know that is not the whole point of the story, but I also know that nothing of what came next would have come next at all if following his baptism, Jesus had not been led by — if Jesus had not allowed himself to be led by —  the Spirit into the wilderness. If he hadn’t taken that first step and then the one that came after that into a time of deep preparation for all that would follow. For the temptations Jesus would face down following those forty days were the same ones which would be his for the rest of his time on earth. And the resources of his faith which he drew on then would be ones he would lean into over and over again throughout his ministry and certainly in his final hours:

“One does not live by bread alone.”

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

  • Indeed, isn’t the powerful truth behind these words enough to guide any one of our lives?
  • And don’t these words point beyond us to what sustains us, to what matters most, and to the sacredness of a wondrous relationship with God which promises to hold us all?

But again, I expect Jesus needed that wilderness time to ground himself in the very gifts of his faith which had brought him to that point and which would sustain him to the end.

And so it was a few years back I found myself in a time of of ‘temptation’ or deep testing. I had not seen it coming, not at all, and no, this was not a ‘testing’ that I chose. Rather, I thought I was following God’s call. And perhaps I was, though for reasons I could not have yet fathomed and may not still.

The circumstances don’t much matter now, I suppose. Put it simply, I was in a place where I did not belong, not using the gifts which were mine to share — and more than this, in a place some would call ‘toxic’ which did not uplift, but instead, tore down. The rub was that I had chosen this myself. Indeed, I had given up a lot to do it and I could not easily see a way out. As one week led into another deadening week, my spirit sank and my sadness deepened. I was doing all I could to hang on to some sense of myself beyond what was being told to me day after day. It was then I began writing here, yes, and this was something and perhaps this is what pulled me out.

There was also this:

It was a mild winter then and I had been getting up before dawn to walk before heading to work. A friend learned of this and suggested I try out the exercise class which was so important to her. It met at 5:15 am, but I was up early anyway so why not give it a try?

And so I did. And it was hard. For while I was an avid walker, I hadn’t picked up so much as a two pound weight since high school. At first, at least,  it was as much a ‘time of testing’ as where I was spending the rest of my days then. Only this one had community. And encouragement and kindness. I remember leaving that first day and thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” and going to climb the stairs at work and being almost unable to make it! It got better though and soon became an important part of my routine — one I try to continue to this day. This is why this comes to mind today. I didn’t see it coming, I surely did not choose it, but I WAS in a time of testing at work which tempted me to despair, at the very least and no doubt to rely on that which was not of God. On the other hand, I chose this particular early morning ‘testing’ for myself. And as time wore on, it became powerful gift to me — not only because the exercise was just plain healing, but because it somehow served as reminder that the ‘other’ did not own me. Every time I pulled on my workout clothes and went to pick up those weights before dawn, I realized that what the work was doing to me was not all of me. And before long, I was able to see my way clear to leave that work and seek another call which would bring life and wholeness again. And I cannot help but believe that the two are connected somehow.

Oh, I know this metaphor is far less than perfect, still I think this is what ‘wilderness time’ — the sort that Jesus experienced — can do and often does. It is space for reclaiming one’s deepest, truest sense of who and what and where and how one is to be. In Jesus’ case, it was all summed up in words which had been his since he was a child — words he clung to and pulled out and spoke aloud when the devil came to him after those forty days. Words and meaning which held him in all the days which would follow when he could easily have forgotten what matters most. And oh,  wouldn’t you agree that those forty days apart surely led him to a place of strength where he could better remember what mattered most for who he was and who and what he was called to be and do?

So it is these days, I do find I am yearning for time and space to do the same. Much of the time, of course, this does not come as gift to us from extended time apart, for that is simply not available to most of us most of the time. Instead, it  often is ours to receive in snatches of time — early or late in our days, perhaps, where we tend what matters most much like Jesus did so long ago. And while I know, we know, we will not, cannot do it as Jesus did, we can still follow in his footsteps to a wilderness of our own. And in that time and place apart, we can allow ourselves to be strengthened and shaped in much the same way, learning over and over that we are not ‘owned’ by the things of this world which are not of God.

  • The details of Jesus’ actual time in the wilderness receives little attention here, but it seems to me that was a time for strengthening for Jesus — a time when gifts were received and perhaps reclaimed enabling him then to stand up to the devil’s challenges which were soon to follow. Does this make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • What would it look like for you to experience and receive the same? Do you find yourself yearning for such as this as well?
  • Though none of us can be or do what Jesus did, in your experience how has such ‘time apart’ enabled you to reclaim who and what you know yourself to be? When has this been so for you?
  • As I say above, the metaphor I offer now is far from perfect and I am still trying to find words for how that time was for me. Even so, those early morning workouts somehow helped me reclaim first a part of me and then as time went on, somehow more and more of me. Or rather, it helped me to recall God’s claim on me, giving me the strength to step away from that which was not life giving, that which was not ‘of God.’ Do you know what I am trying to say here?  As you receive it do you think this metaphor works?



  1. I remember when we left our mission post in the middle of the night because the walls were closing in. Guilt and fear rode in our squareback VW for hundreds of miles. We were broken – and then found ourselves restored in our next call. Being broken hurt those we left, but seemed the only option at the time. I look at those times as formative for who we are now – having come through them gave us a sense of freedom and possibility as well as looking at our colleagues with different eyes.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Bill, for your reflection. I can’t help but think that’s exactly what ‘wilderness’ times do. Bless you and your family in your ministry.

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