David Brooks’ book The Road to Character is full of real stories about people who spent significant time and effort in the forming of a significant life.  Dorothy Day, Samuel Johnson, George Marshall, Bayard Rustin.  Some of the names might mean more to you than others, but the stories have a common thread—the road to character is a long and challenging one, but it is worth it; we see it through these various individuals who learned something significant about life through self-examination, or struggle, or love, always through some form of challenge or testing. 

This morning’s Bible story might be very much at home in the same book. 

At first the story seems the stuff of fantasy, but on closer examination, it is all about the world we live in.  This story is about the power of temptation and greed, it’s about the dangers of idolatry—which means centering your life around the wrong thing, and it’s about getting lost and trying to find your way in life.  All those things are in this story, and I could go on.  In this story, Jesus goes to the wilderness to prepare for his ministry.  He takes the time and accepts the challenge to grow into the spiritual person God created him to be. 

Let’s look closer:  We’re in the midst of a sermon series called Becoming Jesus.  In this series we’re looking at stories from early in Jesus’ life and ministry, and how he prepares for his ministry.  Last week we looked at the only account we have of Jesus’ childhood; in that story we saw that Jesus was not just some all-knowing God-child, but that he “grew and increased in wisdom” over the course of his life.  This week we look at a similar idea.  Jesus was not born a spiritual giant, but that he had to go through a process of preparation and struggle, which he would continue to renew throughout his life.   

As we look at the story, we’ll stop for some short detours to explore some of the specific things going on. 

First I want to invite you to notice the way the story begins and what has taken place just before:  Matthew and Mark recount this story; in both versions, first, Jesus is baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus showing that God is pleased; and then, it’s that same Spirit that sends Jesus out into the wilderness.  Matthew says Jesus was “led” by the Spirit; Mark, whose language tends to be more direct, says Jesus was “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness.  So in this story, God is making it clear that there is something Jesus must go and do.  It will be essential for his development.  He cannot do without it.  And it’s a good thing for him to have this experience—it is God’s Holy Spirit that drives him there. 

But then there’s this thorny issue of what comes up next.  Waiting for Jesus in the wilderness is “the devil” in Matthew’s version; Mark’s version draws on a Hebrew term calling him Satan.  Plenty of us, myself included, are not sure how we feel about hell, or traditional depictions of the horns and the pitchfork and all—is that really consistent with the God of grace and love, right?  So, let’s put this in some context.  The Satan who is mentioned here is part of a tradition we see elsewhere in the Bible; the context that might be familiar to you is the Book of Job.  In that story, Satan is depicted as a member of God’s heavenly court who becomes sort of a “fallen angel”; the character in this story is similar: he knows God and Scripture and quotes it to Jesus even as he offers temptations—the devil is familiar with God’s power, but wants to see it used for harm rather than for good; the devil in this context is a sort of literary device that brings to life the struggle between good and evil in the world.  You don’t have to buy into the horns and the pitchfork, but this is supposed to be a means for us to talk about the fact that there is evil out there in the world, and we must contend with it.  In Job’s tale, Job’s goodness and faithfulness is deeply tested, but God’s goodness ultimately prevails.  In this story, the same Satan is present and preys upon Jesus in the wilderness.  

And this begs the question:  why would God send Jesus into such an experience?  The answer seems to be, again, that this is what life in the world is like—human beings face testing and temptation in the world; that’s just one of the facts of life—and if we’re going to claim that Jesus really understands what it is to be human, testing and temptation have got to be a part of that.   

The story continues—in Matthew’s version—with these three very tangible, descriptive accounts of what Satan says to Jesus.  Satan dares Jesus:  “turn these stones into bread if you are hungry; throw yourself off this tower and force the angels to save you; worship me and the whole world will be yours…”  

Theologians note in this story a distinction between temptation and testing.  For the devil, this wilderness time is an opportunity to tempt Jesus—to try to get him to use power improperly or chase greed and power, or take shortcuts to glory—these are temptations to go the wrong way; but for God they are tests—opportunities to meet choices that are part of life in the world and to choose reliance on God and build a life of stronger faith.  In the same way that we grant greater freedoms to children as they grow, God provides these tests, even to Jesus, to lead him toward a life not of empty shortcuts and material pleasures, but of faith in things that matter and last.  This is the kind of character Jesus will need in his ministry just like all of us need them in order to lead principled, character-driven lives.  And likewise, most any challenge that meets any of us in life can be considered a temptation to shortcuts and selfishness, or can be tests that lead us to greater inner strength.  That’s what’s going on in this story. 

Mark’s version of the same story is much shorter, but all of the same elements are there:  Jesus driven to the wilderness for a long period of time, temptation and testing, references that remind us Israel once walked this road as well; the reality of evil and the greater goodness of God, the comfort provided to Jesus by the angels.  Even without the specifics, Mark gets his point across:  Wilderness time is important.  And the journey to spiritual maturity is important.  And God is present in both. 

I’m not sure why, but I remember reading this story as a young person and imagining that everything associated with this story was bad—the devil, the temptations, the hunger—but the more I reflect on it now, the more I see the graces that are present in this story.  It is about the reality of hardships and choices in life, and about a God who wants to guide us into a life of faithful living for things that matter.  And wilderness is not at all a bad thing, though it usually feels that way at the time.  All of us at times experience wilderness periods in life, where we wander a bit in search of what we are supposed to do next, unsure of what choice to make.  And this story suggests that even though we may not always realize it, God is near, perhaps nearest to us, in those wilderness times, preparing us for what lies ahead. 

This story is all about Jesus’ spiritual development, and the last thing I’ll note about it is that it takes time—whenever the number 40 is used in the Bible, it’s a pretty good indication that something lasted a long time.  So for those among us who may be currently facing a season in life in which we are feeling tempted or tested or wandering in search of what we are supposed to do next—and if it feels like its lasting a long time—note that you are in good company, including that God walks with us in these long seasons, often in ways we do not see. 

One of the primary purposes of the church is to be about the work of guiding people through times of spiritual wilderness.  Already in our congregation, but more coming up in the season of Lent, and increasingly throughout the year, we plan to get more explicit about ways you can be aware of this part of your spiritual journey and be intentional about it, so that wilderness does not just happen to you, but so that you might be driven to it and led through it, as Jesus was, and so that you might sense God’s presence even in the struggle.   That journey begins with prayer, which Jesus did throughout his ministry to renew his strength.  I know many of you are experiencing some kind of wilderness even today, so I’m going to invite us to close today by praying together: 

Let us pray.  Gracious God, be present with us as we are here together, and be with each one of us, as we struggle with temptation and testing and wilderness in life.  Perhaps today, people among us are being tempted by greed or addiction or some other shortcut to happiness that will more likely lead to misery.  Help us God, guide us, keep us from harm and give us strength.  Temptations come in life, O God, but help us to receive them and deal with them; we need not rely only on our own strength, but we can pray for strength from you to see us through, and then we might discover that there was more goodness and depth of character within us than we realized, and we might through you grow and increase in wisdom, as Jesus did.  You are with us in the wilderness times of life, God.  Help us to know it.  If we are wandering in these days God, help us to find our way, to renew our sense of purpose and to be guided by you.  Even as we struggle, help us to live generously, for our own happiness is usually found in helping someone else.  Perhaps we have been in the wilderness for a long time.  Help us to be gentle and patient with ourselves and to remember that you are with us.  We know that the path to joy is not a quick one but that you are there, wanting good things for us.  We thank you, God.  Amen.