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. 

1 Corinthians 7:32-40 – Relational Worries

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (NIV)

Everyone experiences worry and anxiety. It is part of our human condition in this broken world. You may have even woken up this morning with deep furrows of anxiety about the state of your life – and maybe God was lost somewhere in your worry. The Bible addresses worry many times, and the Apostle Paul brings it out here in our New Testament lesson for today.

Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt with several issues effecting the life and health of the church. One of the topics of discussion was the prospect of marriage for unmarried persons (sounds like Paul spoke at a lot of college campuses). Paul went back and forth with the people as if he had a daisy in his hand giving a pre-marital counseling illustration of “she loves me, she loves me not” as he pulled petals off the flower.

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.”

thomas merton

Paul vacillated between whether to get married or not because of his larger concern about individual and congregational anxiety. The Apostle wanted everyone in the church to be free from worry. This, then, becomes a sage grid from which to make an important life decision: Does being unmarried create worry and anxiety within you, to the point that you cannot think about pleasing God? 

If that is the case, then drop the long engagement and get married, or put yourself out there to connect in a relationship. If being unmarried does not cause one to worry, then Paul would say to stay in your current state and be unconcerned for pursuing a marriage relationship. Instead, use your station in life to serve God freely, liberated from the worry of caring for a spouse.

Pleasing and serving the Lord is Paul’s highest good. If we are in life circumstances which make it difficult for us to serve God, then we ought to work to change the situation so that we can focus better on Christ. This is one of the most simple and wise ways of making decisions for the Christian devoted to Jesus, and discerning God’s will.

Having said that, it is important not to overthink this – because it only adds to the anxiety and really goes nowhere in making sound decisions. When it comes to issues about marriage and relationships, some folks get paralyzed wanting to make the “right” decision, and so, get too scared to even talk about their worry with others. Throw into the mix a possible underlying anxiety about being rejected, and decision-making can get quickly stymied. If we are too nervous to voice our concerns, we will likely miss out on the opportunity to potentially get reassurance and help.

Whenever we experience decision-making anxiety, there are some ways to address it…

  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. When you have an internal conflict, it creates inner drama, and we easily get stuck. Take a deep breath to take the edge off.
  • Be curious. When we are conflicted on the inside, be curious about what you want or need. Explore your true intentions without judgment. It is when our inner-critic chimes in with the harsh rhetoric of judgment that we often become anxious and worried. It is okay to identify and express what we really need and want.
  • Write it out. The act of writing not only helps clarify our thought process; it also calms our brains and our spirits – which allows us to calmly ask ourselves: “What is the best move at this point?”

May you blessed because you care. Although relational anxiety can vex our spirits, it is a sign that we want what is best for ourselves and others.

Gracious God, you in every way want me to be healthy and content. Help me not to be overcome by anxiety, and in all I do direct me to fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, along with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Way of Peace

Peace is neither merely the absence of conflict nor simply tolerating each other. Peace in Holy Scripture is cooperative fellowship, a harmonious way of living with God and one another based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peace is simultaneously a virtue we already possess and an ideal we need to obtain and live into.

In writing to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul strung together several verbs to make it clear how to achieve peace on the practical level. Six of the verbs are in the imperative form, that is, they are commands.  Paul gave these imperatives to the Church because they were in danger of a breakdown in their fellowship. Embedded within Paul’s message is a deep Christian spirituality based in knowing Christ, with an overall message and imperative to keep persevering and not give up on peace or on one another.

  • Stand firm in the Lord. (Philippians 4:1) 

Standing firm in faith is a function of knowing Jesus Christ – an experiential knowledge beyond mere mental acknowledgement (Philippians 3:7-10). Our feet are to be firmly planted and rooted in the soil of Jesus Christ as our highest value and our surpassing greatness over and above anyone or anything else. 

This first command is a bedrock imperative. We cannot really move to the other five imperatives until we ensure our foundation is solid. In other words, there will be no peace in our personal lives or in our corporate life together unless we embrace Jesus as our most precious relationship.

If our god is our stomach and we do not take charge and own our Christian walk through spiritual practices that connect us with Jesus, then peace will be elusive. We must patiently, deliberately, and slowly plod along with Jesus and follow him as our highest priority in every sphere of our lives.

  • Help resolve disagreements. (Philippians 4:2-3) 

Euodia and Syntyche were two prominent women leaders in the Philippian Church. Whatever their differences were, Paul made it clear to them that they must agree and be like-minded concerning the issue. 

This second imperative goes beyond telling two persons to work out their differences; the church was called upon to help do the work of peacemaking. Because peace characterizes the triune God, and Jesus Christ came to achieve peace on our behalf, God’s people are to be peacemakers.

Many differences are resolved with far fewer disagreements when we abide in Christ. If folks immerse themselves in Scripture and in knowing Christ, instead of taking the stance of being right despite any evidence to the contrary, then a lot less peacemaking would even need to take place.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “Personal differences should never become an occasion for advancing your party, for stroking bruised egos, for resorting to cheap triumphalism, for trimming the gospel by appealing to pragmatics.  Focus on what unites you: the gospel. Be like-minded; think the same things; agree with one another. Work hard and humbly on these central issues, and in most instances the peripheral matters will take care of themselves. Resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other believers. This will ennoble and strengthen all sides, so that you will never abandon the Christian walk.”

  • Let your gentleness be evident to all. (Philippians 4:4-5) 

The Christian is to have a basic disposition of humility and meekness. There is to be gracious forbearance with others that is publicly observable. Rejoicing in the Lord need not be a command when we are truly pursuing the experiential knowledge of Christ (because joy then just spills out of us). Gentleness is the fruit of a meek and humble spirit, a direct result of knowing the gentle Savior.

A solid building block of conflict intervention and resolution is a humble and gentle spirit – which goes beyond personal holiness. It is being close enough to rub shoulders with others so that the gentleness can be experienced by another. This will sometimes require getting graciously involved in the interpersonal affairs of others. 

Getting involved does not mean dipping into other people’s business with unsolicited advice, angry diatribes, nor taking sides. It means, rather, extending basic human kindness in all affairs of group life, being part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.

  • Do not be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6a)

Where disharmony exists, anxiety is not far behind. Worry about the future only obfuscates a way forward. Sometimes anxiety is rooted in our theology. If we fundamentally view God as a stern Being whose chief activity is dispensing disapproval and wrath, then we will likely live with an underlying sense of anxiety and fear of upsetting such a God. Performance-based living comes from trying to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps to placate a hard-to-please God who is always looking over our shoulder to make sure we do not mess up.

On the other hand, if our theology has God as a loving Being who is pained by the damage sin does to the souls of people, then we become open to the gracious mending of broken spirits. In the Christian tradition, the death of Christ is the ultimate act of love in handling the sin issue once for all. God in Christ did for us what we could do for ourselves.

Chronic spiritual anxiety usually arises from the inability to perceive a generous and hospitable God having our backs and working on our behalf. Knowing God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, leads to peace and rest.  This logically leads to the fifth imperative….

  • Present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6b-7) 

Prayer naturally arises from a heart that knows God is listening. Prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings are all congruent actions stemming from an experiential knowledge of God’s grace.

Having the peace of God which transcends all understanding is a beautiful thing. If our theological view is of God playing games with us, holding out a carrot stick we can never quite reach, then peace will be elusive. Conversely, if we have confidence to present our requests to God and have the discipline to slow down long enough to do it, this inevitably leads to peace.

We are to pray about everything, in all circumstances with all kinds of prayers. Spontaneous prayers, written prayers, heartfelt prayers, silent prayers, and loud prayers are all encouraged. We are to pray without ceasing, praying for everyone – for rulers and all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Pray, then pray some more. If we struggle to pray, perhaps we struggle with our view of God.

  • Put it into practice (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Armed with a vigorous theology, the task of spiritual formation is unlearning harmful theological approaches and discovering new and helpful ways of the Divine. This requires some basic spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer (both individually and communally), and practices of silence and solitude which put us in a position to connect with God and self.

Conclusion

Healthy spiritual rhythms help us know God and God’s peace. To put the six imperatives into practice, a plan is needed which translates good intentions into good habits. We need a rule of life. God may be opposed to earning salvation but is not opposed to sanctified effort – and effort is necessary for effective spiritual practices.

Do you have a method for being a peacemaker? Are you developing ways for making gentleness evident? Is there a plan in place for avoiding anxiety? What is your agenda for structuring consistent prayer?

Experiencing peace does not spontaneously materialize. Peace occurs through tapping into the spiritual resources we have in Jesus Christ. Realizing practical peace is rolling up our spiritual sleeves and working on the biblical imperatives Paul provided for us. It is everyone’s job, and not only the job of a few. 

May you know the peace of Christ this day.

May you experience God as your refuge and strength.

May God hasten the day when wars shall cease, and poverty and pain shall end so that the earth may know and experience the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

John 11:45-57 – Against Fear and Worry

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore, Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts, they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. (NIV)

Effective ministry and service is risky business. Just ask Jesus. The Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was deeply disturbed by all the hubbub Jesus was stirring. Rather than celebrating the healing of many people in both body and soul, the rulers were anxious, worried, and afraid. They feared the worst: The Romans will obliterate both temple and nation.

Wherever you find a group of folks living in continual fear that something awful is going to happen, there you will find a strict code of conformity and no allowances for difference. After all, rocking the boat only draws attention. If anything, or anyone, deviates from established protocol, the voice of fear says, the entire religious system and even its people will be destroyed.

Well, my goodness, Jesus was anything but a conformist to the status quo. He frequently operated outside of established religious norms. Thus, Christ was viewed by many religious leaders as a loose cannon that was making too much noise and needed to be silenced before something terrible happened.

One of the problems with living in the fearful worry of what horrible thing may occur is that we play an ignorant game of prognostication. We simply do not know the future. We can predict. We can become full-time pundits. Yet, when all is said and done, the future is not ours to see. Only God is privy to standing above time and space.

Churches, Christian organizations, and really any institution whose chief focus is keeping everyone in line out of a fear of losing influence, power, privilege, money, devotion, buildings, or people will likely experience a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. It is necessary we define our ministries, services, and actions by who we are and not by what we don’t do.

Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress to the ultimate suffering and death of Jesus. Within the Apostle John’s account, two streams run parallel with one another. There is a group of Jews who observed Jesus, listened to his teaching, saw his miraculous works, and believed in him.  Alongside them is another group of Jews who experienced all the same events and heard all the same words of Jesus – yet responded in a quite different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.

Fear can take such a tight hold on some that premeditated murder is planned and executed without any moral misgivings. Worry can worm its way so deeply into a group that verbal assassinations seem both justified and necessary. Anxiety can overwhelm an institution to such a degree that rationalizations for unethical behavior are rife. People cease to be looked at as people. They are referred to as threats, demonized as monsters who are trying to take away a way of life.

Christ before Caiaphas by Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, c.1617

Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow religious leaders, perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words: “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 

The implications of Christ’s death are magnanimous. The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the bondage of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and, victory over the demonic realm, death, and hell. With all this incredible work of restoration and renewal, fear and worry take a back seat. Courage and confidence take the wheel.

Merciful Jesus, you are my guide, the joy of my heart, the author of my hope, and the object of my love. I come seeking refreshment and peace. Show me your mercy, relieve my fears and anxieties, and grant me a quiet mind and an expectant heart, that by the assurance of your presence I may learn to abide in you, who is my Lord and my God. Amen.