Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, confronted by Satan with choices about his ministry. He chose to follow the leading of the Spirit. Then angels visited him, and he was ready to proclaim the good news of God, that the kingdom is at hand. Would that we could trace the same progress from wilderness to kingdom.
In a symbolic way, much of our time is spent in wilderness. As we see how Jesus faced his temptation, we may learn something valuable and helpful as we face life, and cry out, “Where is the Kingdom?
Almost all people in biblical times lived in walled cities with heavy wooden doors closed every night. The homes, shops, and temples were all inside the walls. Fields or pastures were outside the wall – which is another reason the Christmas angels came to shepherds. They were the only ones not inside the walls of Bethlehem. The angels sought people who were in the wilderness, and made their announcement of the birth of Jesus first to them.
When Jesus was crucified, it is significant that he was taken to a hill outside the city, in fact, to the garbage dump where polite people, powerful people, nice people did not go. Jesus did not die for only the people in charge; he died for all.
Inside the walled cities, there was safety and protection. You knew what to expect because there was a government at work in the city, inside the wall. All of us are creatures of comfort, creatures of structure, creatures of community. We like to know whether we are protected. We like to know what is expected of us, and we like to know the routines that make life comfortable and orderly when we are among other people. Territory between cities was unprotected, unpredictable, unsafe for ordinary people.
And that’s where the spirit led Jesus after his baptism, into the wilderness where he was tempted. People of God have to be aware of the wilderness, for only as we know the wilderness is out there, can we escape the temptations of a false road to God.
If we were in conversation with persons about to be brought to baptism, it would be tempting to promise that accepting the faith would bring them success beyond their dreams. We can find that theme in many a sermon, especially on TV and from other pulpits as well. But bring religious does not mean that our all our natural urges will be satisfied. Lent reminds us that Christianity is not a religion of glory. It is a religion of the cross. Followers of the crucified Son of God cannot approach life by asking, “What’s in it for me?’”
After his baptism, it was time for Jesus to do what he came to do. He led to think about his mission, needed to be sure he was following God’s plan for his life. After all, since he was truly a man, we are free to believe he could have made a different choice.
He left the safety of a walled-in city to go into an unsafe, lawless wilderness and face wild beasts. In other words, he left the safety of automatic divine choices and faced the possibility of selfish human choices.
As St. Paul writes in Philippians, even though Christ was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human kind. But because he was successful in his time of temptation, we now have a champion before God’s throne who gives us strength from on high. When we face the same tests, the same temptations, the same wrestling with the question of what life is all about, God is with us. We need to come face to face with the living and loving God.
We may think of life with a railroad mentality, that is, of being locked on the tracks and moving along without having to think where we are going. But we have choices, and we must ask what God has in mind for us. God asks us to cleanse our hearts, to repent of falling in love with the world, and to renew our zeal in the faith. Can we trust a God who asks us to humble ourselves, and be obedient even unto death?
If we have thought that following Jesus Christ means security, or money in the bank, or freedom from anxiety, or no more panic attacks or no more unanswerable questions, we need to look again at some of our forefathers in the faith. They did not move from having everybody’s approval to a position of glorious assurance of the goodness of the world and then to heaven’s effulgence without a struggle. They never had or sought everybody’s approval. They never lusted after comfort and glory or fame.
They endured the shame, and Jesus, the cross. Then they entered heaven’s company with God. We live in wilderness. When Jesus was in wilderness, he overcame the tempter. Can we? Abraham learned what it was to be tested. He was called out of his native land and promised that through his descendants, God would bring a blessing to all the earth. He was to be father of the people chosen especially by God.
Just when it seemed God had long forgotten his promise, a son was miraculously born to Abraham and Sara. Isaac, then, was the link between Abraham and the promised people, the living sign that God would keep his promise. In one of the greatest mysteries of God, he seems to put Abraham to the test by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Certainly, deep in his heart Abraham wondered whether he could continue to believe that God was good and loving. If Isaac were dead, Abraham wondered how God could keep the promise that his descendants would be numerous as the stars in the sky.
So how can Abraham keep his faith in such a situation? How can he trust a God who cannot seem to make up his mind? St. Paul shows us how to face all those things in life that seem to deny the goodness of God. As Christians, we will not be spared any of the tragedies that fall on others.
We as well as unbelievers will know tribulations, distress, persecution famine, nakedness, peril, and death. The good news of God is that he has promised we can come through the wilderness experience and be made over daily into new persons by the renewal of our baptism.
Jesus found his mission upon his encounter with God and came out of it to offer us the Gospel, the good news. The call, the challenge of the gospel, is not to play it safe, but to hide in the security of an old walled-in city, the comfort of the familiar. Rather, we are called out from worldly ways to seek a new encounter, a new experience under God’s care and direction.
We are a pilgrim people. That is, we have no safe home within a walled city, but we’re like the ancient children of Israel. They were called out of the safety of Egyptian slavery to find a new experience of freedom with God in the wilderness.
We are called now to find our mission and set our determination to meet the task. Our mission at age 35 is not the same as it was –or will be – when we are 65. Whatever our age, we must continue to ask the question, “What does God expect of me today?”
If we are willing to be led by the spirit into the wilderness of tomorrow where we keep on meeting God again and again, by his power we will overcome whatever wild beasts may come our way. And then, angels may come and minister even unto us.