Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Luke 4: 1-13
It has been a very strange start to Lent. Within the space of a week I received news of the death of a colleague, only 10 years older than me; of a friend of about my age; and of a friend’s daughter, 10 years younger. Instead of reflecting on the temptation of Jesus I have found myself reflecting on Ash Wednesday, and the words spoken as ashes are placed on your forehead ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.
I will be honest with you – I came to the readings for this morning with a heavy heart, or maybe a desert heart – dry, lifeless, hard.
I hope you understand what I mean by that sort of feeling: surely no-one’s life is exempt from the tough times. Death of loved ones, illness, unemployment – or the problems of the wider world: conflicts, refugees, climate change, crime. There are times when we simply have to struggle on and get through.
I think whenever I have read this story of Jesus in the desert (and it comes round every year as it’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels) I think I have focussed on the temptations Jesus faces, but this year my eye is drawn more to the desert itself.
Luke tells us that Jesus enters the desert ‘full of the Holy spirit’ – but more than that he says Jesus is there because he is ‘led by the Holy Spirit’. Later, when Jesus returns to Galilee, Luke says he is ‘armed with the power of the Spirit’. The desert is not the place where Jesus is deserted by God, left alone to struggle, disempowered and failing. In the testing environment of the desert Jesus has the Spirit with him every step of the way – in fact he wouldn’t be there at all if the Spirit had not led him there. In facing the tests and enduring the discomforts of the desert, Jesus is strengthened by God’s Holy Spirit and emerges strengthened rather than weakened by the experience.
In reading about Jesus’ experience in the desert I am given hope that what is true for Jesus is true for us too: we are not alone or abandoned when we are in a time of harshness in our lives, but we can be more surrounded than ever by the strength God supplies us, and certainly we are assured that God has not abandoned us, however harsh the conditions.
Can we look and listen and feel for God with us in the deserts of life, so that he can accompany us and strengthen us, so that we might even emerge more resilient, stronger, more ‘armed with the power of the spirit’?
Perhaps you’re thinking this is just wishful thinking, trying to make us all feel better about the tough times by saying the Christian equivalent of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
But I think there is more to it than that.
When life is at its harshest, when the questions are toughest, when we feel most in need, maybe that is exactly the time we can feel God with us, without the cushioning, deadening effect of the trappings of life.
It is certainly the case that people who go into the stark beauty of a desert place often comment that they were more aware of God’s whisper – why can’t this be true of the spiritual deserts of our lives?
But Jesus’ experience also shows us that the reality is that there is temptation in the desert, too.
Jesus is tempted to seek bread, power and safety. All these things would stop him relying on God the Father, and would undermine Jesus’ confidence in both God and himself. The temptations seek to erode Jesus’ confidence that he is enough, that he is secure, that he is worthy of God’s love.
Jesus is tempted to believe that he has to fend for himself.
Surely that’s the same temptation we face? Not the detail – of turning stones to bread, seeking power through evil, throwing ourselves off the temple – but the point of it all: we are tempted to believe there is no hope for us outside of what we do for ourselves – that God has abandoned us.
When life is tough it is tempting to say “where is God in all this?” and miss the fact that he is right beside us in the desert, waiting to give us the strength we need.
In the face of his temptations, Jesus quotes the sacred story of Israel in order to assert that he is a part of that story and therefore reaffirm his identity as a child of God. Jesus is reminded by Scripture not only that he has enough and is enough but that he is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.
And Scripture can do the same for us. So when life is tough, or when life is good, we can turn to the reading we heard from Deuteronomy.
When the people enter into the promised land, when they have brought in the harvest, when they are breathing out and saying ‘phew we made it’ and when they are in danger of that ‘cushioning effect’ kicking in, they should say :
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
And how did God bring them to the land of milk & honey ? – through the desert – through 40 years of wandering in the desert.
In the desert they would not have survived unless God was with them – when they have come through they need to remember that God was there, and is here, and is forever with them.
And that is the answer for us.
If we are in the desert, tempted to believe it’s all up to us to cope - God is with us
If we are enjoying the land of milk and honey, risking the complacency of wealth – God is with us
As we journey through Lent to Easter – God is with us.
And in all the stories we will hear in Lent, we will learn that Jesus, strengthened and made resilient through the desert experiences, will face the worst humanity can do to him, and still know and show us – God is with us. Amen.