“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” Luke 4:1
“In the desert”. What does it really mean to be in the wilderness? What are the experiences that Jesus endures in these forty days?
Absolute isolation is the first thing that would strike us; in our world, it is a rare thing. We live in a world where there are people all around. Even if we are alone, it would be rare for us to be absolutely isolated. Anywhere you go in Ireland, if you face an emergency then there are people to call upon. RTE Radio carried a report during the week on a Trans-Atlantic rowing race, with particular mention of a man who was rowing solo and the terrible loneliness of nights in a small boat in the Atlantic. Yet, generally, even in the wider world absolute isolation is a rare thing, you might be a round the world yachtsman or a polar explorer, but there will be the radio communication and the satellite navigation, and if you run into trouble the aircraft will be out looking for you.
We have to imagine a world of bygone centuries, a world where there is no instant communication and no rescuers. Jesus is alone, there would have been no-one upon whom to call, no-one to come to the rescue. Absolute isolation is a frightening prospect. Imagine being entirely alone. What if you were sick? What if you fell on one of the rocks and broke an ankle? You would just lie there and slowly die.
Loneliness, for me, always seems stronger when it is combined with darkness. When we are battling with our emotions, night time is always the most difficult of times. Darkness for me is something to be avoided, but for other people it’s an opportunity. The night sky for many people is a source of interest and wonder. Standing on the veranda of a house in Africa last summer, it was amazing to be able to stand and look up at the Plough and at the Southern Cross in one night sky.
If we are to enter into Jesus’ experience of the wilderness we need to experience darkness away from all the city lights and the glow in the sky and to look into the sky as Jesus would have done during those forty nights. When we do that that we have a sense of our unimportance, our frailty, our mortality, but also a sense of God’s great love, that in this infinite space he has time for infinitesimally small people like us, we can ponder on the words of Psalm 8, “what is man that thou art mindful of him?”.
Along with the isolation and the darkness, the wilderness offers Jesus silence. Many people put on the television or the radio, even if they are not listening. I remember being a curate in the North and saying to one lady that she had left her television on in the other room. ‘Oh, I keep it on’, she said, ‘it gives me a bit of company’. I must confess to being like her, often the car radio is on, but I have no idea what is being said.
There is a tendency to fill our lives with noise. It’s almost as though we are afraid of what thoughts might come into our heads if we were quiet. If we fill our every waking moment with inconsequential babble, then there will be no place for disturbing thoughts. Look at the stuff we watch on television, how much of it is actually worth watching? I was at a dinner on Friday evening when a man stood up and said “Whodunnit?”
“Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the library”, I called down the table.
“He’s talking about East Enders, you twit, not Cluedo”, the person next to me said.
Three years ago, we had only four television channels and I realized how much I had filled my life with pointless noise. Why not turn off the set and listen to the silence? How can we hear God if we never take time to listen? The story of Jesus in the desert teaches us the importance of silence, of being quiet for even a short time so that we can hear the voice of God.
Isolation, darkness and silence are experiences that can have both negative and positive aspects. There are other physical experiences in the desert that do not have a positive side to them, but can still give insights.
Hunger is not positive. Standing at a school in Vunga, Rwanda last year at four in the afternoon, John Wesley Kabango asked James, one of our party, how many meals he had each day. “Three”, James replied.
He turned to the 150 students from the school, “How many of you have had a meal so far today?” Six raised their hands
There is a difference between fasting in our own country where we have full cupboards of food and the hunger faced by countless people who simply have nothing to eat. To be hungry is something we can choose, not because it necessarily makes us any better, but because it gives us a tiny insight into the realities of our world.
Hunger is not a positive experience, nor are the other physical experiences that Jesus went through in those forty days, the scorching heat of the midday sun, the bitter cold of the nights, the discomfort of living in the open air, sleeping on the rocks.
We were away when there were cuts in the water supply in January—I couldn’t cope with a shortage of water. I don’t cope well with physical discomfort, but particularly I have to have lots of water to wash – it might mean standing in a shack, pouring buckets my head, but I can cope with that as long as I feel clean. My problem in facing what Jesus faced would be the thought of not changing clothes for forty days, I couldn’t cope with it; it makes me itch to think about it!
Maybe it is a useful exercise to think about what things we need in order to cope. What things are essential to us? If everything were lost tomorrow, what things would we want to replace first? It is remarkable how much we have that we don’t need, yet after a while things that we once regarded as luxuries become necessities. Jesus’ physical experience should help thoughts about what things are really important.
There are two emotions that Jesus’ physical experience would have caused that are not mentioned in the Bible and that might help in thinking about the story. The first is fear. Being in the open air, alone, at night, in an environment where wild animals were common would have been frightening. You become wary of every little sound. What things do we fear?
The other emotion is boredom. We never allow a place for boredom now. Even walking from one place to another or sitting on the bus or the DART, people have earphones in. How does Jesus cope with boredom? Boredom can be an opportunity to get thoughts in order and to think about things that might otherwise get no thought.
Maybe this this Lent, we could think about the reality of Jesus’ experience and try to imagine it for ourselves: the isolation, the darkness and the silence; the hunger and the discomfort; the fear and the boredom. When we get close to Jesus, then we will hear the voice of God. How can we hear God if we never take time to listen?