Temptation in the Desert

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15, NIV)

We are in the season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we take a forty-day journey, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. So, the church remembers this event with the season of Lent. This is the time of year in which Christians are to give awareness of the temptations we face on a regular basis. We intentionally seek to fast or give up something for six weeks so that we might see how much we attach ourselves to other things and rely on them, instead of trusting in God.

Just as it was important and significant for Jesus to be in the desert, it is necessary for us, as well. Jesus retraced the steps of his ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years. They had an extended time in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land because they needed to re-connect with God after having failed in their faith. Their trust had to be strengthened and developed before they could ever be ready to receive God’s promises.

Jesus faced down the devil and overcame temptation in the desert. The forty days were a necessary preparation for the upcoming three years of ministry that would culminate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But before any of that could happen, Jesus had to experience the desert.

We, like Jesus, need to have a desert spirituality. If we are not formed into followers of Jesus through learning to overcome temptation, then we are at risk to be shaped into followers of Satan. God desires to strengthen our faith. We, like Jesus, need to face down the devilish temptations which would impede our spiritual development.

In every sport, weightlifting has become a necessary part of athletic training. Athletes now know their muscles must be properly developed for their respective sport. Through weight training the muscle fibers are broken down with stress. Then, with proper hydration, nutrition, and rest, the muscles are re-built as better, stronger, and more agile. 

Christ in the Desert by Julie Lonneman

As Christians, the desert becomes the gymnasium where we are broken down through the stress of temptation so that we might become spiritually stronger in our faith. Without this kind of spiritual training, we become vulnerable to satanic accusations and become easy targets to demonic seduction.

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit “sent” him into the desert. The word is perhaps better translated as “thrown” or “hurled.”  It is an extraordinarily strong word conveying that the Spirit flung Jesus out into the desert.

Being tossed into the desert demonstrates how important spending time there was for Jesus. It was in the desert he learned to resist temptation in his ministry. There was real danger in the desert, wild animals, and vulnerability to the elements. Yet, put in that situation and having come through it, Jesus was able to deal with the crafty pursuits of Satan to distract him from his mission. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, after tossing demons out of people, Jesus would tell the unclean spirits not to tell anyone who he was. Part of what was happening is that Satan wanted to tempt Jesus to gain fame and power through popularity and accolades. And that was not the way of Jesus. Our Lord was not going to bring in the kingdom of God through the usual avenues of careful marketing and brand recognition.

Another practice Jesus kept up throughout his ministry was to seek places for solitude and prayer. The needs Jesus daily saw and dealt with were large and vast and never ending. Jesus resisted the temptation to continually work without any rest or guidance in prayer. It was through solitude and prayer that Jesus connected with his Father and would move from place to place traveling and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Jesus never gave in to the temptation to settle in one place and build a petty kingdom of his own, apart from the Father.

As Jesus went about the countryside telling people to repent and believe the good news, he often spoke in parables designed to encourage thought and reflection. He did not succumb to the temptation to always be black and white about everything, giving just the bottom line of his teaching to people. 

Jesus did not teach to get immediate results or to let people know which side of the fence he occupied concerning the issues of the day. Instead, Christ understood his business – a ministry of building something permanent that would far outlast his mere three years of ministry. Because of the desert, and through his Father’s affirmation, Jesus lived a unique three years on this earth that has never been equaled before or since.

Some years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. We had to be continually vigilant to not attract bears. The wilderness can be a dangerous place. On one of the days in that week, we were each dropped off on our own personal islands for an entire day, alone. Being face to face with yourself can be hard to deal with, which is what a desert experience does – it exposes the idols of our hearts and the ways in which we are tempted.

A person need not be in the Canadian wilderness or in a real desert to experience the effects of desert life. The Holy Spirit has a way of throwing us into the desert through changes of circumstances so that we will flex our spiritual muscles to get into spiritual shape.

The top three temptations of people today are worry, procrastination, and gossip. So, how do we face down those temptations (and others) and retrace our steps back to the path of God?  Here are some lessons I have learned in my own wilderness experiences through God’s Word:

  • Know your weaknesses. Know yourself. Know the temptations of Satan. The three temptations just mentioned all come from a tendency toward perfectionism. We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly. We procrastinate saying or doing things for fear of screwing up and not being perfect. And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others. However, perfectionism is slavery. 

We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So, stand strong in that freedom. Do not go back into slavery again. (Galatians 5:1, ERV)

  • Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest, at your most vulnerable time? What triggers you to sin?  We know that when our kids and grandkids act up, we first wonder if they are tired, hungry, or have some other need. It is the same with us. Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals, or eating poorly because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.

Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

  • Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think you ought to resist temptation all by yourself, all the time. Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples. During a time of intense stress, Jesus said:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:38-41, NIV)

  • Have a plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work. One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3, NLT)

  • Overcome evil with good. If we apply this to the top three temptations people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute. It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountable relationships. It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21, NRSV)

  • Realize you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus. Even the Son of God was never on his own.  Whatever you are facing is likely not unique to you. Others face similar struggles. Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let the desert shape and strengthen your faith. If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ. 

Matthew 9:2-13 – Why Jesus Came

Healing by Russian painter Ivan Filichev

Some men brought to Jesus a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So, he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known as the newspaper columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” That quote is an accurate reflection of what Jesus was doing and saying. We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind and reorient us toward why the church exists.  

The church of the Lord Jesus does not remain on this earth solely for our benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of the doctors or insurance companies! Rather, the church lives to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of good news with the restorative touch of grace. The church’s calling is not to find others who can help them with their tithing and keep warm seats in the pew. Instead, the church is the community of the redeemed, gathered and sent to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth.

Some who are reading this are not healthy. Some are sick with sin; others are heart-sick; yet others are plain sick-and-tired of being sick-and-tired. Jesus came neither to condemn nor heap a pile of unrealistic expectations on us. Christ points us to the source of healing and change and invites us to admit our need and come to him. 

Conversely, many others today are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. It is our job to roll up our sleeves and serve, participating fully in the mission of Jesus to the world. The question I want us to grapple with is this: Why did Jesus come to this earth? The answer to that question is to also answer the question of our own purpose and existence as followers of Christ.

Jesus came to forgive sin and transform sinners.In today’s Gospel healing, it was a case where the person’s sin was connected to his paralysis – and the paralytic found in Jesus not only physical healing, but new spiritual life.

The religious insiders observed the healing. Yet there was no rejoicing by them about the transformation. Instead, they became hung up on Jesus claiming to be God. Granted, this was a hard truth for them to get a hold of. But Jesus labeled such thinking as evil – the inability to see and perceive the situation as a divine intervention, and that Jesus really is the Lord who graciously did it. Because they wrongly discerned who Jesus is, they wrongly interpreted the situation. 

Therefore, it is important to see Jesus as the Human One who extends compassion and forgiveness. If we fail to see this about Christ, we will get caught up in all kinds of silly matters of personal preference and ridiculous power plays, based in how we think things should go, rather than the gospel.

Jesus came to forgive sin. Healing the body is good but not enough. Just focusing on the physical well-being of individuals was not why Christ came. At the heart of the human condition is spiritual brokenness, and Jesus is all about taking away guilt and shame, creating a new person and a new community. It is a radical vision which seeks to encompass all persons – which means Jesus touched many people overlooked by others.

Jesus came to call the despised people of society, the “sinners.” He called Matthew, a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated. They were corrupt characters who extorted money from innocent people. Jesus not only called the despised Matthew but had dinner with him and all his unsavory buddies. This kind of behavior by Jesus was deeply offensive to upstanding citizens.

However, Jesus did not back down. He responded by saying that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And he backed up his social actions with Scripture by encouraging offended folks to meditate on what this biblical phrase means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

hosea 6:6, niv

It is possible to engage in outward rituals of worship, do all the right things, fulfill our duty, yet still miss the heart of God wants for humanity. Mercy is what God wants. Jesus knew this. So, Christ entangled himself with sinners to bring spiritual healing and restoration.

When Corrie Ten Boom sought to bring deliverance of the Jews from the Nazis during World War II, she had to entangle herself with Jewish refugees. When Christian missionaries seek to be the light of Jesus to people, they must entangle themselves with the people’s culture. If we want to see God deliver people from their situations, we must entangle ourselves with them, into complicated lives that are not pretty, with persons who have been tainted by sin. 

Lots of people are in awful predicaments. Christians, like their Lord, will need to get their hands dirty and their feet wet to extend Christ’s ministry of mercy and forgiveness. The gospel was never intended to be proclaimed from afar, but up close and personal through entanglement in people’s lives. If the merciful mission of Jesus is to occur, it requires the following three activities:

  1. Intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Scripture are the activities which help us to know Christ better and know and how to respond with mercy.
  2. Intimacy with fellow believers. We are hard-wired by God for community. Superficial relationships can only provide superficial community. Christians need to help one another with spiritual growth. They must hold one another accountable for the mission of Christ.
  3. Intimacy with “sinners.” This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are locked in unhealthy patterns of living. They need a merciful change of life that comes from the merciful Jesus acting through merciful Christians. 

Mercy, not judgment, is at the heart of all change. If we desire others to be different, we will need to be acquainted with the mercy of God.

Most merciful God, we confess we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and by neglect. We have not held fast to your commandments and have strayed from your teachings. We turn from our self-centered actions and pride. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we are released from anything that seeks to keep us from delighting in your presence. Empower us with your wisdom, revelation, and discernment so that we might be your merciful hands, feet, and words to one another and those who do not yet know you. Amen.

Mark 1:29-39 – The Rhythms of Jesus

Welcome, friends! On this bitterly cold day, may the gracious warmth of Jesus infuse your spirit with peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Click the videos below and let us discover the spiritual health and life of Christ our Lord…

Mark 1:29-39
Words by Edward Mote, Music by William B. Bradbury, A Cappella Arrangement by David Wesley

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.

The Rhythms of Jesus

The Solitude of Christ by French painter Alphonse Osbert, 1897

As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her.So, he went to her, took her hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to wait on them.

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Incredibly early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So, he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues, and driving out demons.

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead, he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:29-39, NIV)

Solitude by Russian painter Tatiana Yushmanova

We need rhythm.  Everything in life is rhythmic. Each new year moves with the rhythm of the four seasons. Our hearts beat in rhythm. When we walk, our gait is in a distinct rhythm. When talking, we speak with a rhythmic cadence. We sing and make music because of rhythm. We need healthy rhythms of waking and sleeping.

When our rhythm is off, we are off. Busy or unhealthy lifestyles can insidiously drag us away from the spiritual rhythms we need for healthy living. Over time, it may go unnoticed that our rhythm is off.  For many folks, normal is getting dressed in clothes bought for work, driving through traffic in a car still being paid for, to go to a job to pay for the clothes, car, house, and other stuff that is left empty of life all day to afford to live in it. Many people are oriented more by the rhythms of work, school, and sports than by a connection to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Our 24/7 world demands more time and resources, convincing us we can never slow down or take a break. Some people know their rhythm is off and out of sync with God’s ways but feel powerless to change it. So, how do we restore the unforced rhythms of God’s grace to the center of our stressed and chaotic lives without being overwhelmed by a new set of time commitments? To have healthy rhythms of life, we must look to Jesus.

Jesus was continually filled with the life of God the Father and therefore was always overflowing with that life to others. Christ had a rhythm of life which was oriented around times of inner solitude with his heavenly Father, and times of outward spiritual care to people.  Jesus needed regular, dedicated time for solitude and prayer for the rigors of ministry. So then, how much more do we!

There are two distinct sections in today’s Gospel lesson: Christ’s outward healing ministry; and his inward attention to solitude and prayer. By examining Jesus and following his rhythms of life, we can find the way to living healthy fulfilled spiritual lives as Christians.

The outward healing ministry of Jesus was powerful and effective.

Jesus was committed to helping and healing people with the authority given him. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. Every sickness in the ancient world was serious and could easily result in either permanent physical damage or death. In a clear demonstration of power, Jesus simply took her by the hand and raised her up to new life. As soon the fever left her, the woman immediately began serving the people in the house. The proper response to being healed by Christ is to become a servant of others. 

13th Century Byzantine Church mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law

Jesus and the disciples were in the little village of Capernaum, and being a small town, the news spread quickly of what happened with Peter’s mother-in-law. As a result, by evening, every sick and demonized person in the village showed up to see Jesus. Christ healed them all and confronted the demonic among them. Jesus wanted to avoid creating a circus and desired to move about freely, so he commanded the demons not to speak, because they knew who he was and what he was up to.

Healing is wonderful. Talking about it, not so much. Discussing healing is difficult because seeing one person healed and restored while another person is not, defies simple answers. So, I offer a few biblical observations about this human conundrum we all have likely experienced.

  • Healing narratives in the Gospels say much more about Jesus than about us. 

Jesus has the power and authority to overthrow demons, cure the incurable, and restore people to health. It is all a sign that the kingdom of God is near, and when the kingdom comes in all its fullness, there will be no more sickness, pain, or demonic influence.

  • Good health, security, and safety are not necessarily a sign of God’s presence any more than pain and suffering are signs of God’s punishment, or a lack of personal faith. 

We have enough stories in the Bible to let us know we are not privy to the big picture of what God is doing. We will not always see what the Lord is up to and very well may never have an answer to our questions, this side of heaven.

  • Every person who is healed today will eventually get sick again and someday die. 

Even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again. The ultimate meaning of any person’s healing is more than the physical – it affects the entire person – body, mind, emotions, soul, and spirit. For example, forgiveness is many times the needed miracle before any kind of physical healing can occur.

Sometimes the greatest miracle of all is our response to sickness and suffering.  A surgeon, Richard Selzer, describes one such miracle:  “I stood by the bed where a young woman lies in post-op after surgery, her mouth twisted looking clownish.  A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed to remove a tumor in her cheek.  Her young husband is in the room.  He stood on the opposite side of the bed as if I were not really in the room, his full attention on her.  She asked me, ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’  ‘Yes, it will, because the nerve has been cut,’ I say.  She nodded somberly.  But the young husband began to smile.  He said, ‘I like it; it is kind of cute.’  He bent down to kiss her crooked mouth and I was close enough to see how he twisted his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

Perhaps the kind of healing we all need is the ability to receive God’s love in the person of Jesus who has accommodated himself to us.

Christ did not spend every waking moment with people, teaching and healing. Jesus knew that working without prayer, rest, and solitude is not realistic and rarely ends well.

The inward prayer and solitude of Jesus caused him to be powerful and effective.

Early the next morning after a day of healing ministry, Jesus got up and went to be alone with the Father. The fact that Peter and the disciples hunted him down when they could not find him, shows they did not quite see the same value of solitude that Jesus did. In Christ’s healthy rhythm of life, he included significant doses of solitude with his Father.

It is important for believers to spend generous portions of time with God. If we fail to do this, God has ways of getting our attention. We must slow down and calm our racing thoughts enough to listen. Human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus!  We cannot rush from task to task and expect to live a healthy spiritual life.  We need time with Jesus.

“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

Pablo Picasso

Only through a healthy rhythm of life that includes solitude and prayer will we have clear direction for our daily lives, and wisdom for sound decision-making.  Jesus came away from his time of solitude having re-connected with his purpose for being on earth.  It was his clear conviction that he must travel and not just stay in one place.

Traveling is important to the Christian life.  I am not talking about moving from state to state like I have done in my life; I mean that we must keep moving, like walking across the room to engage others we do not know. Our lives become stagnant when we only ever interact in our small circle of friends and family. 

So, Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, convinced to do so through his time of solitude and prayer, to spread the good news of God’s benevolent kingdom and drive out demons wherever he went.  Even in this we are to imitate our Lord.

Driving out demons is, yes, a literal reference. The demons were driven out so that people could be liberated and experience freedom and connection in community, since most demonized people were always in solitude. They were freed so that they could have healthy rhythms of life of not just solitude but of ministry, service, and community. Hell is a separation from God and others.  Jesus came to bring relational health and wholeness through relational connection.

Conclusion

Both continual work and prolonged withdrawal from others is unhealthy.  To always be working and serving eventually leads to bitterness, exhaustion, and burn-out.  To always be alone (even in a crowd) and not serving leads to spiritual sickness.  It may be counter-intuitive for us to break away from work, but solitude and prayer will help us more productive.

If we are constantly on the go, there is healing available through solitude. If we are continually withdrawn from others, then the healing we need will come through engaging with others and moving past passivity.

To attach and detach, to connect and let go, to engage and desist, are spiritual rhythms of life that we must hone and practice so that we will be healthy persons for ourselves and for others.