“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew 4:1
Sunbeams scorching all the day;
chilly dew-drops nightly shed;
prowling beasts about thy way;
stones thy pillow; earth thy bed.
The story of the temptations in the desert, which we read on the first Sunday of Lent, usually prompts us to think about the temptations we face. The hymn, “Forty days and forty nights” reminds us of the context of those temptations, the circumstances in which Jesus found himself; the circumstances which gave rise to the temptations; what can we learn from the place where Jesus went?
“Stones thy pillow; earth thy bed”, says the hymn. There is no-one to keep watch when Jesus sleeps; he is alone, isolated. Absolute isolation 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. 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.
Jesus is alone, had he found himself in danger, 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.
“Let us the endurance share”, says the hymn. Isolation always seems worse when we have to endure darkness. Those of us who hate the dark winter evenings will know that being alone always seems different in the winter. Darkness becomes something that cuts us off; it can become something sinister and threatening.
Yet while darkness can be something to be avoided, for some people it’s an opportunity. The night sky for many people is a source of interest and wonder. If we are to enter into Jesus’ experience of the wilderness, to share his endurance, we need 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.
Along with the isolation and the darkness, the wilderness offers Jesus silence. How many of us put on the television or the radio, even if they are not listening? 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? 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 which probably affect our minds much more than our bodies. There are other experiences in the wilderness which are much more concerned with the body, with physical sensation. As the hymn says.
“and from earthly joys abstain,
with thee watching unto prayer,
with thee strong to suffer pain?”
Are we strong to suffer pain?
Jesus suffers the pain of hunger. 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 was part of the pain, as were the other physical experiences that Jesus went through in those forty days, “sunbeams scorching all the day; chilly dew-drops nightly shed”: the discomfort of living in the open air, sleeping on the rocks.
How well do we cope with physical discomfort? How would we face 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? 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 our thoughts about what things are really important.
The wilderness experience wasn’t just about challenges to the mind and body, it was challenge to his spirit. The hymn acknowledges that Jesus vanquished that challenge and calls on him to help us:
And if Satan on us vexing sore,
flesh or spirit should assail,
thou his vanquisher before,
grant we may not faint nor fall!
There seem two emotions that Jesus’ physical experience would have caused that are not mentioned in the Bible but would have been a challenge to his spirit. 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? What fears would be a challenge to our spirits?
The other emotion is boredom. How does Jesus cope with boredom? How do we cope with boredom? Boredom can be an opportunity to get thoughts in order and to think about things that might otherwise get no thought, but it can also be a time when we get overtaken by negative thoughts.
The wilderness experience allowed Jesus to ponder his mission; this season of Lent allows us to think, to find a spiritual peace.
So shall we have peace divine:
holier gladness ours shall be;
round us, too, shall angels shine,
such as ministered to Thee.
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, be close to his side, if we never take time to listen?
Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,
ever constant by Thy side;
that with thee we may appear
at the eternal Eastertide.