Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1
Quick review: Matthew begins with a genealogy, the deep roots of Jesus' family tree, including people whose halos did not shine the brightest. He moves on to shining a light on Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father, who swims against cultural and religious expectations by dismissing Mary quietly. By doing that Joesph takes on the shame of a broken relationship, since people would assume the baby Mary carried was his and he was not taking responsibility. For this Matthew calls him "righteous," which stretches our understanding of that word. Then, we get visitors from the East, who knock on Herod's door, causing a nervous Herod to go into hyper mode when he hears that there is a "King of the Jews". When the Wise Ones leave for home by a road that did not pass by Herod's palace, Herod inflicts infanticide on people, creating misery and pain and reminding us of the ways people in power today still use their influence to hurt rather than help. Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt, so that Jesus' life will echo...echo...echo Moses' life. Eventually, Herod dies, a new regime is put into place to serve at the pleasure of the Roman empire. It is safe for Jesus to stop being a refuge and return to his homeland. We then have a gap in Jesus' life from age 5 or so, to the moment he shows up on the shores of the Jordan for baptism. Whew! And that is just the first three chapters!
You can click here to watch a sermon from January 11th I preached on baptism. But it is those moment following baptism, as the echo...echo...echo of God's voice claiming Jesus as a beloved son fade into the blue sky that is so powerful. Jesus does not jump up and down, shouting, "Look at me, I am the king of the world." It is not cue dramatic music ala Rocky Theme or Chariots of Fire. The amazing moment of being named and claimed by a child of God is follow by...wait for it...temptation!?
I once heard a theologian say that the moment you get what you want, whether it is the corner office or relationship or the recognition, you are going to be tested. You will be tested because the dreams you'd built in your imagination will clash with the harsh realities of life in the office...or relationship... or with the award on your wall. The dream and reality meet and it is not always cordial.
But, you may wonder, what is the deal with the devil? So often we picture the devil as some being in a red suit, pitch fork, piercing eyes, the overseer of the underworld no one wants to visit But the better translation here is "accuser". Ever gotten a new position and found an "accuser", someone who tests and tries your patience? A new employee you are supposed to supervise who undermines and trash talks? A co-worker who you confide in, only to have it come back to bite you? We all have made trips to the wilderness, we have spent some time there. So did Jesus.
This may not make everyone feel better. But, for me, it makes a difference that it was not all pony rides and chocolate rivers in Jesus' life. He was tempted, he was tested by voices that wanted him to do all sorts of things his heart told him not to, and he was able to find another way. Just as the Wise Ones found another way home, Jesus finds another way. He does not give in to anger or to gossip in response to the accuser. He simply faces the difficulty with honesty and his heart wide open.
Are you going through a wilderness moment right now? Are you living with physical, emotional, or spiritual pain that numbs you from feeling fully alive? That is wilderness. While I do not believe God causes pain, I do find moments of trail and wilderness to be times when I encounter God in deeper ways. There is a vulnerability in living in the wilderness that opens me to God with honesty and an open heart. And there, I do find more than a trace of God's grace. I am not sure this is always an "all is well that ends well moment." The times of testing and trail can leave scars that take time to heal...sometimes never fully recover. Wilderness moments, trial moments, and struggles are part of life, even Jesus' life, and while that doesn't make it easier, it does make a difference for me.
God's love and blessings, especially to those in the wilderness right now!