The desert journey begins

One of the first things we do even before setting out on the journey is to contemplate: “What should I bring along?” And so we need to imagine what it is we will be getting ourselves into, on this journey. Where will I go? What will I do? What will the weather be like? As such, we must initially deal with our expectations.

And as the weather goes, so the reality of what actually happens once we get on the road might not coincide at all with what we had anticipated. We all know those people who travel without high expectations or a highly controlled agenda; they just experience things and deal with situations when they arise. And if that’s how we are to travel on this spiritual journey, some of us may not want to go; we may get stuck even before we head out the door.

And yet, we know, no amount of planning can determine precisely how we experience the journey.

Jesus wandered the hillside, countryside and byways around Palestine. It seems every time we encounter Jesus in the Gospels he is on the move. He is either coming or going. And so it is consistent with the nature of the pilgrim God we worship: Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he even begins his ministry, the Spirit of God sends him into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights where he fasts and contemplates the journey ahead (Matthew 4:1).

“Do not worry,” Jesus later preached, “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink … what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25,31). In the desert, admittedly, those luxuries become somewhat irrelevant, don’t they?

Jesus goes into the desert. We may not literally need to go into the desert – although you can understand why ancient Christian pilgrims made it a point to spend time in the desert as our Lord did because you cannot find a more austere location for a true ‘letting go’. An actual desert pilgrimage brought spiritual benefit for many followers of Christ. But the harsh climate in that setting – with the sand dunes, scorpions, snakes and burning hot air – can also stand as a metaphor for us.

Michael Pacher’s masterful, artistic depiction of the temptation of Jesus on an altar piece in the Sankt Wolfgang church in Austria shows Jesus and the devil not in the middle of a desert as we would imagine. But on a narrow street in a medieval town in front of a cathedral, of all places. And what is more, the devil is not holding a pitch fork and coloured red. He is wearing a monk’s habit and bent over like an elderly, wizened man.

Pacher’s interpretation is worthy of reflection, as he translates the desert into his own daily reality. Living in the 15th century, Pacher implies in his art that the journey of faith is not tied down, literally, to any particular geography but is lived out especially in one’s own place, wherever one is. What is more, our greatest temptations are more subtle. What can destroy us will more often than not come disguised in familiar, even culturally acceptable ways and people.

We often discover, do we not, that the greatest challenges and difficulties on the road arise from the least expected sources — you packed the wrong pair of shoes, or you can’t decide whether to grab a quick burger here or there or skip lunch altogether. The biggest temptations, or tests, come from the most familiar, most common and from those nearest to us — even from within ourselves!

And yet, we do not overcome the devil by avoiding this pilgrim journey. In truth, the only way we experience redemption, healing and restoration is by committing to the journey through the desert of our lives.

Go, we must, should we seek the Lord. Jesus went into the desert. And so, we will follow there. “Follow me” Jesus called to his disciples (e.g. Matthew 9:9). But how shall we be? What shall we do?

If we follow Jesus into the desert, we must also consider about what Jesus was tempted. And we know that Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of all, right up to the end when he hung on the cross “despised and rejected” was taunted again by the voice of the devil in the passersby: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:39-40).

We know that, as from the beginning, Satan tempts his victims to go for power: To Eve he promised: “You can be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Perhaps this is why the first of the Ten Commandments establishes who is the God we are to worship and place undying trust in: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). The three temptations of Christ are really three variations on this same basic theme: the turning of the bread – about the miraculous; the falling from the temple – about the spectacle; and while the first two show semblance of persuasion, the third goes directly for sheer control (p.46, Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, JN Press Kentucky, 2010): “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4:8-9).

The pilgrim ‘desert’ journey is the sure fire antidote to the danger of pretending we have ultimate power and control over life. It is the path of humility, letting go, and ultimate trust in God – that God will take care of us as He did Jesus.

But we have to move. On a journey, we move, physically. We put one foot forward at a time. What tangible, intentional discipline will you do during these forty days before us now? Whatever it is you decide to take up in Lent, envision each time you do it like taking one step forward on that journey.

In worship, we symbolize an intentional discipline by refraining from singing “Alleluia”, the Hymn of Praise after the Kyrie, and, generally, simplifying and toning down the style of worship. We also give opportunity for more prayer and worship on Wednesday evenings, during which we practice the ancient Christian rite of laying on of hands and anointing with oil. With tangible, earthy, disciplines that we do together, we keep our feet on the ground and moving forward. Our soup suppers before worship on Wednesdays are intentionally simple, to remind us that we have all that we need in trusting Jesus for our very lives.

And despite the temptations and set-backs we may occasionally experience on the road, Jesus goes with us. What Jesus shows us, above all, in his wilderness experience was an unyielding trust in God, the Father. After all, it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness in the first place. Jesus needed to trust God that God knew what He was doing in sending Jesus on this unappealing journey. Jesus had to trust God’s words in Scripture over-against the devil’s wiles. Jesus had to trust God that in the end, his needs would be met. And indeed, they were, as angels came to attend to his hunger and physical need (Matthew 4:11).

Whatever temptations come our way, they are essentially an invitation not to trust God. Temptations are those ways of thinking and behavior that place more and more power and control in our hands – as if we were God. Instead, we are invited each Lenten season, specifically, to welcome opportunities to be vulnerable, to open our hearts, to not be afraid to go on that journey into the desert and experience for some time what is feels like to let go, and trust God even more.

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