Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Taking my cues from the story we always read on the first Sunday of Lent of the time Jesus was led by Spirit into the wilderness, I’d like to reflect with you about the times in our lives when we are led, or forced, to face something big, potentially life-changing or life-ending. Whatever that something is, there’s no getting around it.
These are the times when we need to be completely honest with ourselves about who we are and what’s in front of us.
Let me begin by telling you about friends of mine, Jeff and Mallie, a couple that my husband and I have known for over 35 years. They were members of the first church I served as an assistant priest in Toledo, Ohio. While we all moved on from Toledo a long time ago, our friendship endured, albeit from a distance.
Sadly, Jeff died recently from an aggressive form of cancer. The amazing thing was that he had lived a lot longer than anyone anticipated when he was first diagnosed. His body responded surprisingly well to experimental treatments that prolonged his life well beyond expectancy for people with his condition. During their last years together, Mallie and Jeff both retired. They traveled and spent time with their grandchildren. Nearly every day Jeff did what he most loved in the world, which was to play golf. Life was good for them, and while Jeff knew that he would eventually die from the cancer, they were able to live long stretches of time without having to think about it. Until recently.
A bit of backstory about Jeff. He grew up Roman Catholic. As a boy he attended masses that were still in Latin; he went to Confession every week; and among the sins he was told to confess was whenever he had eaten meat on Friday. Years later, in response to changes in the Roman Catholic Church, his priest told him that it was no longer a sin to eat meat on Fridays and there was no need to confess it anymore. Jeff was puzzled and then angered by the abrupt change. What do you mean it’s not a sin anymore? What about other sins that I’ve been confessing? Are you going to change your mind about them, too?
During our Toledo years, I remember Jeff going on and on about how angry he was that the Church changed its mind about eating meat on Fridays which I thought funny. For him, though, it was a big deal, and it became a barrier that kept him at arm’s length from any form of religious authority. It kept him at arm’s length from church, and it kept him at arm’s length from God.
Back to the present. In the weeks before he died, Jeff wrote me an email, asking if we could set up a video call so that I could bless a saint’s medal that he had been given as a child. In some way that medal represented the healing power of God. I was touched that he asked me, and I happened to be sick at the time. By the time I recovered, he was too sick to talk, Then he died.
Later Mallie told me about something that happened on the second-to-last night of his life, that was for Jeff a wilderness moment.
“He was scared,” Mallie told me. He was scared to die, and scared to face whatever awaited him after death. He lay in bed, she said, shaking with fear. Mallie noticed that there was rosary by his bed that she had never seen before, and the saint’s medal. She asked if he wanted her to call a priest. “No,” he told her. “Do you want me to sit with you?” she asked. “No,” he said. “I need to pray. I need to pray alone.”
Jeff knew that the time had come to face his fear, to face the final reckoning that death represents, and to face His God. He went into the wilderness that night, or maybe the wilderness came to him. Either way, it was a moment of great courage.
The next day he seemed calmer. As the day went on, Mallie was determined to take him to the hospital. Jeff insisted on staying home. “Alright,” she told him, “But if you aren’t better by the morning, I’m taking you in.” In the morning, Jeff was gone.
In retrospect, Mallie realized that through his night of prayer, Jeff came to a place of acceptance of his death that she had not. She would have done anything to keep him alive a bit longer, but something shifted for Jeff. He faced his fear; he faced His God; and he found peace.
Obviously that’s a very dramatic example of a wilderness experience. They come in many ways, not merely when we’re facing our physical death. Yet however they come, they are what some monks like to call “little deaths.” Friends of ours who moved out to the country ten years ago have just signed a contract for an Independent Living apartment. They may not move into it for years, but signing for it was an acknowledgement that they wouldn’t live on their beloved farm forever. It was, she said, like practicing death.
Let’s return to Jesus’ wilderness experience. You may remember that the Spirit led him there immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. He had just had this amazing experience of rising from the water and seeing a dove descend over him. He heard a voice from heaven declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Then off he went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days.
In one version of this story, all we are told is that Jesus went out into the wilderness where he faced temptation. In the version we read today, the temptations are spelled out. Notice how Satan tempts Jesus by daring him to prove who he was:
If you are the Son of God, turn these loaves into bread;
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple;
If you are the Son of God, worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait.
Some have said that Jesus went into the wilderness to learn what it meant from him to be Jesus.
I wonder if our wilderness experiences help us to learn what it means for you and I to be who we are.
Among the many things this season of Lent invites us to consider is what we learn in those truth-revealing experiences–what we sometimes call “Come to Jesus Moments”–when we need to face a particular truth or situation that we’d rather not face, or that seems so big that we freeze whenever we think about it.
Will God meet us in our wilderness?
I’d like to tell you about two other such moments, one from my life as a young adult and the other from one of our son’s life when he was a child.
When my husband Paul and I were first married, I managed to persuade him that we should spend our first year together living and working in Central America. This was during the mid 1980s, when virtually all of Central America was caught up in civil unrest and warfare. Very few of our family thought this was a good idea, but we were young and idealistic, and so very naive.
We spent a few weeks with Paul’s family before we left, and during that time we got all of our immunizations for the various diseases we might encounter in Central America–typhoid, hepatitis, and malaria. Paul had a serious reaction to one of the shots and one night he got really sick. There I was, barely married, convinced that I had killed my husband.
As Paul lay in bed with a high fever, I sat in a chair in an adjacent room, terrified. I happened to be reading from the Gospel of John as part of my prayer practice then, and that night I came to a passage in which Jesus, facing his fate on the cross, prays this prayer: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I pray, ‘Father, spare me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to his hour. Father, glorify your Name.” (John 12:27)
Through these words I heard God say to me something along the lines of, “I cannot spare you the pain and fear you are experiencing now, and will likely experience again. But they are not signs that you have made a mistake. They are part of the journey you are on.”
It was what I needed–an assurance that suffering and fear were part of the path we were on. Paul recovered, and we both got sick several times in our year away, along with other calamities that occurred. In my wilderness moment, Jesus taught me to face fear rather than run from it.
Now the story about our son, Patrick. When he was 8 years old, he fell off a retaining wall and broke his arm badly. Bones protruded from his skin when I scooped him up and took him to the hospital. He was prepped for surgery almost immediately, and as he lay on the gurney about to be wheeled into the operating room, he panicked. So did I.
Everything was happening so fast. Just then, the operating door opened and someone we knew from church approached Patrick. “Hello, Patrick,” he said calmly. “It’s me Lynn Christiansen. I’m the doctor who is going to help you go to sleep now. I’ll stay with you during the entire operation to make sure you will be okay.”
Patrick looked at Lynn, and then at me. Then he gulped once and said, “Okay, let’s go, right now!”
I share all these stories with you as encouragement, should you be facing something hard right now, should there be any place in life where you need to be brave and all you feel is vulnerable and afraid. These are the moments that bring us to our knees, and that’s a good thing. For then we have no choice but to be honest with ourselves and with God.
In those moments, it’s good to hold onto something. Think of Jeff and his rosary and saint’s medal; me and my Bible; Patrick looking into the eyes of a friend. Even Jesus had angels to comfort him.
Wilderness experiences, hard as they are, are often remembered as gifts to us, because in them, we felt the presence of God. They are the moments we look back on as turning points, markers in life, that helped make us who we are, and confident that God is real and there for us in ways we can trust.
May God bless and keep you all this Lent–the time we set aside in church to consider the power of wilderness and remember that whenever we’re in one, we are not alone. Most especially, I pray that God makes His presence known to you in a palpable way in your wilderness times, giving you faith and courage to see you through.