Into the Wilderness

How good are you at being quiet? And for how long?

Can you turn off your phone, turn off the television, and spend time just being available for whatever God wants to say in the silence, inside and outside of you?

If you’re like most people today, it might not be long before you start to get antsy. Or maybe you begin looking for projects—things to clean, drawers to reorganize, shelves to straighten.

In worship, when we’re together, we settle into our quiet time—communion in the manner of Friends—as a peaceful opportunity for listening and prayer. Typically the silent part of our worship only spans 10 minutes or so. But when we’re on our own, when it’s just up to us to choose the quiet—how long, when, and where–it can feel like we’re heading into uncharted territory. Quiet can make us feel vulnerable, like we’re not sure what to do next. Anxieties crowd in. In our loud, fast, media-saturated world, with televisions and computers and phones continually tempting us with headlines to click and videos to watch, intentionally choosing silence may take effort and focus and perseverance.

As you know, last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, marked the start of the Lent season that will lead us to Easter. Lent is a time of reflection, quiet, and spiritual disciplines throughout the Christian world. The 40-day period of Lent is fashioned after the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness as preparation for his earthly ministry, which was soon to begin.

I’m sure you remember the story of Jesus baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. That’s what happened just before the scripture story we hear in Matthew of Jesus’ trip to the wilderness. He stepped into the water and John told him that it was he—Jesus—who should be baptizing John, recognizing the divinity of the one who stood before him. And when Jesus came back up out of the water, all who were gathered saw the spirit of God descending like a dove on him and they heard the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

And right after this powerful moment, the scripture tells us, Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

What sort of wilderness was it, I wonder. Was it a barren place, an unfriendly place, where wild animals prowled and there was no comfort or shelter? Although the actual location of the “wilderness” Jesus was led into is unknown, scholars largely believe the site is likely Mount Quarantania, which is on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Quarantania gets its name from the Latin word Quarantena, meaning 40, for the number of days Jesus fasted in the wilderness. From the top of the mountain, you can see a vast distance and look out across the beautiful Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the mountains of Gilead and Moab.

Since the earliest days of newborn Christianity, monks turned caves in the walls of Mount Quarantania into cells, chapels, and more. In the 19th century the Greek Orthodox church built a monastery right into the mountainside and it continues in service today. It is known as the Monastery of the Temptation.

So after the high moment of Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus up to the top of the tallest local mountain to fast and pray and think things through. We don’t know much about Jesus’ life up to this point beyond the story of him as a pre-teen, staying behind at the synagogue while his parents and their group started on the road for home. We can assume Jesus was always drawn to the things of God. We can imagine he felt different, growing up, as though there were a purpose for his life. We don’t know whether Mary and Joseph ever told him about the prophecy of his birth, the visit of the angel, and the confirmation of the prophetess Anna in the temple. We know from Jesus’ public teachings later and his interactions with the Pharisees that he knew scripture very well, so it seems evident he had been well taught in the law and the prophets and perhaps had studied other philosophies of his day. And he would have known Isaiah’s prophecy, which pointed toward John the Baptist as the one opening the way for the coming Son of God, saying

3A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord a ; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. b 4Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.”

What we don’t know was whether Jesus understood his own divinity or not. Did he know—quite literally—he was the Son of God? Or did he simply love God and seek after the truth of the Spirit? We can try to fill in the gaps, but we’re mostly guessing. Isaiah foretold the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament

It’s possible that the day of Jesus’ baptism provided a kind of affirmation for him that God was unfolding something big in his life. And if that’s the case, it’s easy to understand—human to human—why he would need a bit of time away, some quiet to get his head around what was happening. What would this new chapter of his life be about? Was his faith pure and strong enough to see him through? Had his years of study and prayer prepared him adequately? What more did God want him to know?

There are times in all our lives when we sense change coming right around the corner. All the big moments in our lives—when we got married, when we became parents, when we changed jobs, bought a new house, made touch decisions, edged toward retirement—all those huge moments required both faith and a reckoning. We may have needed time to think through what was coming and deal with it in the best possible way. We may have asked things like, “What will I need to know? Will we be okay? How can I be certain God is leading me?”

Jesus went off into the wilderness—up to the top of the tallest mountain in the region—to search his heart and clear his mind, to fast and pray and prepare his soul. Scripture says he did that for 40 whole days and at the end of the time, he was famished and probably physically weak. At that point, when his strong, young, human self was at its most vulnerable and most hungry, the devil came to tempt him with doubts, and pride, and empty promises. His first mocking challenge pointed to Jesus’ hunger. “If you’re really the Son of God,” he said, “Tell these stones to become bread.” Use your power to meet your own needs, the tempter suggested. But Jesus knew why he was there and he answered from his deep understanding of scripture: “ “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ b ”

Next the tempter took him to the highest pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and again mockingly suggested Jesus wasn’t who God said he was: “If you’re the son of God, throw yourself down.” The devil pointed out that God’s angels would surely save him. But Jesus said he would not because scripture says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

In the final temptation, the devil brought him to the top of the mountain and had him look over the beautiful vistas of kingdoms spread before them and said, “All this I will give you, if you bow down and worship me.” Here the tempter reveals the real motives of the doubts and challenges he’s been offering. He wants the worship focused on himself. Jesus sees him plainly. “Away from me, Satan!” he says. “For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

After the final temptation, the devil did leave, and angels came and cared for him.

Among all the profound and spiritually significant things Jesus worked out in his own life of faith and in ours while he struggled in the wilderness is the fact that Jesus redeemed—by making a better choice—all the things that Adam got wrong. Where Adam and Eve gullibly fell under the deceitful spell of the serpent and went along with his suggestions, Jesus stood firm again all the prying doubts and prideful invitations. Jesus knew—and claimed it and said it over and over—that his actions, his intentions, his heart, his purpose wasn’t about himself, glorifying himself, gathering power for himself, but about God. What God wanted. What God gave. What God envisioned, that was the goal at the center of Jesus’s heart.

When we step into a wilderness time in our own lives, it will likely be under different circumstances than those Jesus encountered. We may have something we’re struggling through in life. Or we face a major change. Or perhaps our hearts are just yearning for a deeper faith, more silence, more alone time with God. This time of Lent can be a fruitful wilderness time for us, if we are willing to let if be a season of intentional spiritual deepening, a rededicated time to listening in which we open our hearts and our schedules to provide the room for God to speak.

And of course, really, seen in a certain way, the wilderness we travel extends everywhere in our lives. It’s true that we are stepping into the unknown each and every day. When we wake up in the morning, we don’t know what the day will bring. When we get in the car to go to the grocery, we have an idea, a hope, about how it will go, but we don’t know when we start out. Maybe there will be a detour. We might meet an old friend. Or perhaps life will bring other joys or challenges we can’t imagine when we begin a simple, ordinary task like that.

When we began this message together a few moments ago, we were entering a wilderness. You don’t know where it’s going to go. Perhaps half-way through I’ll burst into song. Or Gloria will interrupt things. Or I’ll begin reciting Green Eggs and Ham by heart. You just don’t know. And even though I know the ideas I intend to share, I can’t be guaranteed the technology will hold out through the whole message. We’re all, always, in a bit of a wilderness together as we live through each day. We don’t like to admit that, because it makes us anxious to feel change is always so close, so pressing.

And whether our wilderness feels like a big or small landscape, the temptations that  come will likely not be exactly the same ones Jesus faced in his wilderness, but they will probably have some common roots. In response to his temptations, Jesus affirmed that he would rely solely on God, that he would not put God to the test, and that he would worship only the one true Lord. Our temptations may bring up old struggles we’ve had in our lives, things not quite resolved that God wants to help us with. Perhaps troubles we’ve had believing God really hears us and is intimately involved in our lives. Maybe we’ve struggled with forgiving others or trusting people who’ve caused pain in the past. We might doubt we’re loved, that God has a plan for us, or that God even now is rising up the ocean of light that flows over the ocean of darkness.

Whatever our doubts and temptations might be, our time of prayer, of still and gentle listening in the wilderness will help us see our struggles for what they are and reconnect with the comfort and constant companionship God provides. We’ll see the truth of what we need when we look at our lives together with God. The time we spend in stillness, seeking God in this way is right at the heart of our Friend’s belief and worship practice.

Here’s what Quaker Caroline Stephen said about what happens during our alone time with God:

The silence we value is not the mere outward silence of the lips. It is a deep quietness of heart and mind, a laying aside of the preoccupation with passing things — yes, even with the workings of our own minds; a resolute fixing of the heart upon that which is unchangeable and eternal. This “silence of all flesh” appears to be the essential preparation for any act of true worship. It is also, we believe, the essential condition at all times of inward illumination. “Stand still in the light,” says George Fox again and again, and then strength comes — and peace and victory and deliverance, and all other good things. “Be still, and know that I am God.” It is the experience, I believe, of all those who have been most deeply conscious of his revelations of himself, that they are made emphatically to the “waiting” soul, to the spirit which is most fully conscious of its inability to do more than wait in silence before him.

So this Lent season, we are invited to be aware of how tenderly God travels with us through the wilderness experiences of our lives, whether it’s a trip to the store, the unfolding of a normal day, or the facing of something more difficult. We can find that inner thread of gratitude and peace that we are being guided, attended by God’s love and care. And we can be sure that this time of seeking will bring fruit in deeper understanding and stronger trust in the One who knows and loves us most truly.


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