Trusting God in the Wilderness

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11

Jeremy Richards

“This story was told: There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found him also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.”

Where does Jesus begin his ministry? After being plunged into the Jordan by the fur-clothed, locust-eating, vagabond John the Baptist, after having the skies opened and the Spirit descend as a dove and the voice of God say “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” where does Jesus go?

To seminary to get a formal education?

To the temple to take up an official position as a priest?

To a nonprofit to do community organizing?

Later, he will do work similar to the work of a priest and a non-profit worker, but Scripture says that first the Spirit – the Spirit, that has descended upon him like a dove – leads him into the wilderness.

Isn’t that the way it goes? We think this Christian life means safety and security. We think we would move from the waters of baptism into the city, with sturdy walls and well established buildings. We think we will have the answers now, we’ll be safe, doubts and fears will be a thing of the past.

But that’s not how it goes, is it?

Jesus is barely out of the water, his hair and beard are still wet, and the Spirit – God – leads him into deprivation, uncertainty, and worst of all isolation.

In this time of Lent we embrace these very things, those elements of our life that we often try to avoid: uncertainty, doubt, repentance. During Lent we strip away a city’s worth of distraction that we’ve built up around ourselves. We rest a little while. We wait for the murky water to clear up to see who we really are when all the turbulence dies down.

During Lent we admit that we’ve been trying to make bread out of stones. We’ve looked to entertainment, indulgence, and personal success to fill us where we really needed the Spirit all along. We’ve tried to satiate our hunger through our own doing and not through the living Word of God.

During Lent we acknowledge that we’ve misunderstood God. At one time or another we expected God to remove all our troubles. We thought that being a Christian meant a life free from pain and failure, so when we jumped from the temple, we were shocked and offended that God didn’t catch us, at least not in the way we expected God to.

During Lent we recognize that we have bowed down to the idols of safety, comfort, financial stability, and success. We’ve been seduced by the promise of worldly power.

During Lent we don’t steel ourselves against temptation, as if preparing ourselves for when it comes (although there is an element of that), so much as we recognize that it already has come, and we’ve failed the test – maybe not every time, but certainly some of the time.

We look back at the last year, since last Easter, and realize that despite our best efforts, we aren’t Jesus. The tempter has come to us like a serpent in the garden, whispering half-truths, causing us to question whether God is truly trustworthy, and daring us to reach out, touch the fruit, pluck it, eat it, share it with those we love.

The good and bad news is that it’s already been done. We’ve already dropped the ball. We’ve already taken a bite out of the fruit, tried to eat rocks and broken our teeth on them, jumped from the temple only to have the wind knocked out of us, bowed down before the gods of this world only to find that we can’t get back up under the burden they’ve placed on our shoulders.

We are, it’s true, the descendants of Adam. But, thanks be to God, Jesus came after Adam. Jesus has done what Adam could not do. That’s what our reading from Romans is all about. Jesus has done what we cannot do.

Jesus didn’t turn the stones into bread, but waited for the Lord to provide.

Jesus didn’t take his life into his own hands by jumping from the temple, but surrendered his life to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus wasn’t seduced by the false promises of worldly power, and so he worshipped God and not the devil.

Jesus’ ability to be all that we cannot has opened the door of grace to us. We aren’t condemned by our failures, but are empowered to keep venturing into the wilderness by the One who promises to journey with us. Our past failures don’t define us, but we’ve been given the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus, and that same Spirit drives us also out into the wilderness, time and time again.

The wilderness isn’t a one-time thing. The wilderness is all around us, all the time. We are constantly called to venture into the wilderness, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s the place of struggle. It always has been. The Israelites struggled for 40 years in the wilderness. Hagar was sure she and her son, Ishmael, would die in the wilderness. Elijah fled to the wilderness when he was being pursued by Ahab and Jezebel.

These stories of God’s people in the wilderness are often accompanied by doubt, exhaustion, and hopelessness, and yet, in every case, God shows up in a profound way. God travels alongside the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, eventually leading them into the promised land.

God speaks to Hagar when she has lost all hope and is sure her son will die. God shows her a well of water and promises that Ishmael will live and prosper.

After 40 days in the wilderness God speaks to Elijah in the silence outside of the cave where he is staying.

So the wilderness is the place of hardship, but it’s also the place of God’s self-revelation. Richard Rohr often says that only two things change people: great love and great suffering.

Often, in the wilderness, the two go hand-in-hand. In the midst of suffering, we find God’s love sustaining us. When we are in the wilderness we might meet the devil, but we will also meet angels, who will minister to us. Usually these angels come in the form of friends, family, and the Church. When we are driven to the desert of doubt, we are gifted a more robust trust by the Holy Spirit who travels with us.

When I was in college at Concordia University, I took a class on the Old Testament. This class began with our professor, Dr. Thomas, telling us that, while we had become adults in many areas of our lives and our studies – some of us could do advanced math, others could read complex novels and critique them, and still others had learned the inner workings of the human body – many of us still possessed an infantile faith. We still operated off the same general understanding of God, Scripture, and the Church that we did as a young child. He then told us he was going to tear all that down and build us back up. Quite an intro, huh?

Dr. Thomas was true to his word. We began by looking at inconsistencies and contradictions in the Old Testament. He drew a diagram of what the ancient Hebrews believed the universe looked like as described in Genesis and the Psalms. Shocker: it was different than what we know the world looks like today. We learned that maybe, historically, things didn’t really happen exactly how Scripture said they did.

As someone who was brought up hearing that Scripture was inerrant, this was a big blow. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, it caused a real crisis of faith for me. For me, Scripture had been synonymous with God. If Scripture was called into question, and it was in this case, then, for me, God was also called into question. I felt that I couldn’t trust Scripture, and so I couldn’t trust God.

This was an extremely painful and scary time for me. The wilderness usually isn’t fun! But the wilderness forces us to grow. Transformation happens in the wilderness.

During this time of doubt, I was forced to change my understanding of God and Scripture. Over time, God reminded me of all the times I’d seen God work in my life and the lives of others. My faith grew and was transformed. Instead of being rooted in an idolization of Scripture, it became rooted in a living, dynamic God who could be seen in the lives of those around me.

Life is a series of wilderness experiences. Sometimes God leads us into these experiences, as the Spirit led Jesus, and as the pillar of cloud and fire led the Israelites. Other times we are thrown into the wilderness by the sin of others, as Elijah was forced into the wilderness because Ahab and Jezebel were seeking his life. Or Hagar, a slave, was exiled by the Abraham and Sarah.

The cause and severity of our wilderness experiences vary, between people and even within our own lives, but they all test our faith. More than that, they redefine what faith is. We come to realize that faith is not the absence of doubt, but trust in the midst of doubt.

The biblical scholar Pete Enns says, “A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can hold up.”

Trust is, in the end, what it all comes down to. Not trust that God will save us from the wilderness – Jesus’ ministry is in many ways one long wilderness experience – but trust that God is with us in the wilderness.

Scott Erikson, an artist here in Portland who did a wonderful rendition of the stations of the cross, which highlights Christ’s shared humanity with us, said, “Our deepest question isn’t, ‘is God real?’ it’s, ‘is God really here, in the midst of all of this?’” The season of Lent lasts until Easter, and during this season we will see the humanity of Jesus, and that humanity is God’s resounding “YES” to the question of whether or not God is with us or not.

Jesus has entered fully into life with us, which means he entered fully into temptations, betrayal, pain, suffering, sorrow, and death, and now, through his resurrection, he walks with us as we face those same challenges today.

During Lent we choose to enter the wilderness of our own volition, not to pursue needless suffering, but to lean into God in a new way, to embrace the opportunity to trust God. We strip away the distractions, that we might see God in a new light, and that we might see ourselves in a new light.

During Lent we lay the thin tracing paper of our own lives over the blueprint of Christ’s life. We see the thick, bold lines of his grace fill in the gaps of our failures. We see Jesus’ face reflected with our own in the clear water.