Two years ago, I entered a season of wilderness as I left the faith community I was part of for 7 years. This was a community that I invested in spiritually, emotionally, physically, and financially. This was a community filled with many people that I loved dearly. A year before that leaving, I knew something was coming. Things had shifted in my heart and soul in such a way that I had a consistent unsettled feeling each time I went to worship at the church. Instead of loud music and bright lights, I longed for silence and space to breathe. Instead of consistently peppy sermons filled with anecdotes, I was reworking the sermons in a way that the Word of God could stand on its own; I needed time in that space for those words to penetrate my heart and mind. Instead of a quick pass of the juice and wafer plates and a fast prayer of remembering, I needed the communion elements to flood my taste buds in an unhurried way.
God was calling me to something different, and part of that different included pastoring and teaching, not just women and children, but the whole Body of Christ. Living out that calling was not allowed in the church I attended, so after much prayer and consideration, I sensed God releasing me from that community. So, my family and I left.
I’ve believed in Jesus since 1995, and I have faithfully followed Him since 2001. Since that time, not being part of a church community was not an option, not for my family or me. We participated in missions, bible study, service, and more. We faithfully tithed and supported whatever faith community God placed us in. To no longer have such a community, indeed a family off faith, has been very disorienting. It has also been painful, lonely, and filled with uncertainty. Often times I have felt stripped down and hungry for a sense of belonging and identity. It has made me question many things I believed to be true and caused me to wrestle with why I believed them.
Have you had such a season in your life?
Over the past two years, not only has Jesus has been sitting with me in this wilderness, but I have been sitting with Jesus during his wilderness experience, but especially that which is recorded in Matthew 4:1-2:
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
For months, I have been praying and considering what that experience was like for Jesus.
Initially, I made many assumptions about this passage:
- I always thought Jesus knew exactly how long he’d be in the desert and why he was there.
- I assumed he was totally alone, always.
- I assumed he stayed in one place the whole time, like in a cave or something.
- I assumed he had complete understanding of what it meant to be the Son of God and all that that entailed.
But here’s the deal. The text doesn’t say one way or another that any of those assumptions are correct. My OT professor would always encourage us to look for the “story behind the story,” or he’d ask, “What in the text leads you to that conclusion?” And my preaching professor encouraged us to “trust the story.” Both of these approaches require looking at the whole of scripture, asking questions of the text, and digging into Jewish and Ancient Near East history.
I have to think since Jesus was fully human and fully dependent on God, then he probably didn’t know the extent of what was to come when he first entered that wilderness. Maybe he had a sense, an unsettled feeling? I’m pretty sure he had lots of questions, because this leading into the wilderness happened right after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John, right after he had the Spirit of God descend like a dove and land upon him and declare “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Think about it, Jesus was just publicly declared to be the Son of God, and now he’s walking into the desert with no real plans on the agenda. Did the Spirit tell him, “You’ll be here for 40 days, and when you are hungry, thirsty, and at your weakest point, Satan will come to you and tempt you three times?” I don’t know about you, but personally, God’s Spirit says little to me in regard to specific details.
Did Jesus roam around day after day, looking for just the right place to lay his head, to rest from the sun, or to find shelter in the night? As the days passed, did he think of his ancestors who long ago were led to the wilderness?
Did he consider:
Noah’s 40-day water wilderness journey?
Or Abraham’s leaving all he knew to go to a land God would show him?
Or maybe he thought of Moses and his post-murder escape to the desert for 40 years?
Or Israel’s 40-year wilderness wandering?
As each day passed, I imagine his questions became fewer and fewer, as they were likely met with silence. Or a simple, “Do you trust me?” “Abide in me” or “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Being Jewish, Jesus would have been very familiar with what the wilderness was to his people. Historically, both positive and negative experiences happened in the wilderness.
The Book of Deuteronomy calls the wilderness “a barren and howling waste.” It is a place of holy encounters and desolate destruction. In the wilderness, faith is tested, obedience refined, sin recognized, redemption experienced, doubts voiced, and promises given and fulfilled.
In the cool of night and warm of day, stories Jesus heard in his childhood likely flooded his mind. When his stomach grumbled, and his tongue felt parched, he thought of the manna from heaven and water that flowed from a rock, both provided by God for his people in the desert. When he felt alone, he remembered when God saw Hagar, wrestled with Jacob, provided for Joseph, and whispered to Elijah.
Considering the Israelite’s wilderness years, Rabbi Kalu writes:
“The true goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites…The experience of the seemingly endless journey transformed a people — crushed, frightened, subservient and dependent — into a people with initiative, self-respect, anger at oppression and even militancy. The Israelites at the Jordan are a very different people from the one that left Egypt. They are ready to fight their own battles. They are a community committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together.”
Having just been publicly proclaimed to be the Son of God, Jesus had some things to work through as he walked through the wilderness. Like his ancestors, a fuller identity needed to be forged into his being. The Jesus who left the wilderness was not the same person who had entered. Things he’d been told were true or sensed could happen, needed to settle into his being in a way that would compel him to remain the course, even if events unfolded in unexpected ways. In a remarkable way, for Jesus, the goal of the wilderness was not just to be tempted by the devil, but it was to make him rethink what it meant to be not only Jewish, but also human.
The Jewish people believed the wilderness was not only a symbol of transformation, but also of universalism. Because the wilderness was no-man’s land, it was everyone’s land. According to the midrash, which is a written examination of the Torah texts, “The Torah was first given in the wilderness, publicly and openly, in a place to which no one had claim. Everyone who desires to accept it let them come and accept it.”
As Jesus wandered for days in the wilderness, he likely crossed paths with others, who were traveling roads used for trade. Maybe he noticed a colony of lepers? Or saw people who were demon possessed? Did he see women ostracized from their communities in such a way, that they could only gather water from the well at the noon hour. Who did he see? Who did he encounter? And how might these encounters have formed the ways he engaged with others once he left the wilderness?
It was clear in his encounter with Satan that Jesus knew the word of God; indeed, he was the Word of God, in the flesh. If Jesus used God’s word to battle the temptations presented by Satan, how much more would Jesus have reflected on God’s word when observing the lost, the lowly, the hurting and the broken, which often were relegated to the wilderness? As Jesus was attentive to his surroundings, he became even more attentive to the Spirit’s leading to a deeper understanding of God’s heart for the world.
Evidence of this understanding was seen in Jesus’ post wilderness years, in his treatment of the people on the margins, whether Jewish or Gentile. Jesus invited Jewish fishermen and tax collectors to follow him and engaged with Gentile women and warriors. The Torah, given openly in the wilderness for all, the Torah he studied all through his lifetime, the Torah containing the covenant and commandments of God with and for his people, was now being applied in a way that welcomed all into the Kingdom of God.
Through subversive and peacefully militant ways, Jesus overturned traditionally held Jewish systems of religious law to bring forth freedom and hope for all.
Over the course of 40 days of hunger, thirst, and temptation, Jesus gained a deeper understanding and awareness of what it meant to abide, or fully remain, in the Presence of God and to be one with his Father. This oneness allowed Jesus to experience unspeakable joy in all circumstances, knowing that whether he’s in the wilderness or surrounded by those that love him, God is glorified in and through him. Unwavering trust and dependence were forged as he experienced what it meant to follow God’s lead through the Spirit, but also learn, unlearn, and relearn divine truths that he’d speak and do, for the salvation and freedom of the world.
One of the most beautiful prayers in scripture is found in John 17, as Jesus prays for his disciples and all others who will believe.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
But the key to this unity with God, Christ, and others, lies in the following words.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:5-12a).
“The stage of journeying through the wilderness is an essential part of the transformation from slavery to freedom”Rabbi Irwin Kula
It is a stage that has been traveled by all who desire to know and follow God. It is a stage that is often repeated in the life of God’s people as God continues to refine them into the image of Christ. It is a fools-hearted belief to think we get a pass on such an experience of isolation and suffering. For in that isolation comes true communion with God and in the suffering comes great joy in Christ. It is in the wilderness that people are broken open to the fullness of God’s Presence and Glory. It is in the wilderness where compassion for those on the margins is forged, as God’s people look around and notice, they actually aren’t alone out there. Indeed, many people who typically don’t fit in or find acceptance in the “normal” of society or Christian church culture are out in the wilderness, as well.
As we go forth from our wilderness seasons, abiding more fully in Christ, we enter spaces and relationships with a grounded sense of identity, purpose, and plan, awakened to the hurting, lost, and marginalized, and willing to lovingly speak into broken systems and lives that surround. This is what it means to truly abide in Jesus, to live like Jesus, and to transform the world like Jesus.
Rabi Irwin Kula. “Through the Wilderness.” My Jewish Learning (blog) Accessed May 2019. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/through-the-wilderness/
Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (Northvale, NJ: Jason Arnson, Inc,1992) 192.