St Barnabas, Ash Wednesday 5th March 2014
Reading – Luke 4:1-11
I want you to take you this evening out into the desert. Not literally, of course, but in your imagination. Perhaps you’ve visited a desert place on some holiday; perhaps you’ve seen a wildlife programme or a film about the desert. Just use your imagination to picture the scene in front of you. One thing you quickly notice is the heat. The sun burns incessantly and there isn’t any shade. There are few signs of life and you are aware of nothing but sand and rock beneath your feet. Maybe there’s a harsh wind blowing and some of that sand is being whipped up into your face. You quickly realise you can’t stay long in the desert without finding some shade, some place of safety.
And then in the distance you notice a tree. It’s not much of a tree admittedly. It only has a few scraggy leaves and a rather gnarled trunk. But it’s a tree nonetheless. It’s a sign of life, and even though the sun is still blazing down, there is at least some shade. And as you take a rest, you ask yourself the question: how come there’s a tree growing right here, when all around seems to be so dry and sandy? The answer can only be that this tree has grown deep roots, that somewhere way, way beneath your feet there is a source of water and even in the fiercest heat of the hottest day somehow the tree clings on to life.
Of course you might well be wondering how it is you’ve ended up right here, out in the desert. After all, the desert is not a place most of us choose, at least not unless you happen to be one of those extreme tourists who are drawn to the most dangerous situation imaginable. But then again, where we end up is not always a matter of choice. It might just be something has happened which has forced us out there. So, for example, we might have been driven out into the desert of loneliness, where we feel completely friendless and alone. Or we might be finding ourselves in the desert of temptation, where we seem to be facing an enormous challenge no-one else is fighting. Or indeed, our circumstances may have led us out into the desert of poverty, where we have no resources to help us through the coming day. Yes, we do not choose the desert, but I think we can all point to times and seasons in our lives when we have been there.
And if that’s the case for you this evening, I want you to be massively encouraged by the fact that tonight we also find Jesus out in the desert. You see, just before the events of this evening’s passage Jesus has been baptised in the River Jordan and as He is praying, a voice from heaven confirms Him as the Son of God. Now if you were reading the story for the first time, you might reasonably expect Jesus at this point to go straight on ahead and begin His new ministry, strengthen and confirmed in His new public identity.
But no, Jesus, goes from the waters of the Jordan into the dryness of the desert, and disappears from human view. Why? Because in the desert He is being tested as the Son of Man. His human nature is being pushed to the limit and His temptations reveal just how far He is prepared to go to identify with us in our weakness and frailty.
After all, Jesus as Son of God would be more than able to fulfil His mission to save us. But if He were not also proved to be Son of Man, there would be no real understanding of those He came to save. That’s why we find Jesus in the desert. His humanity is being pushed to the limit, so – if I might put it this way – no-one can turn round to Him as say, “You don’t know what it’s like”. The Jesus we find in these forty days is a hungry, thirsty, weak Jesus undergoing the most severe trial and tribulation, and let no-one convince you His mission was easy.
So how did Jesus survive the desert? The simple answer is, He had deep roots. I don’t mean of course Jesus has deep roots down to a secret supply of water or anything like that. He had deep roots into the word of God, which He had been taught from a very early age and which He knew by heart. So when temptation came, as it surely would, He was able to resist and so complete His mission.
And let’s be clear, the temptations Jesus faced in the desert were real and they were severe. If you were out in the desert, hungry and alone, and you had the power to turn stones into bread, wouldn’t at least the thought cross your mind? But Jesus knew that if He gave in to His cravings, not only would He fail in His own testing as the Son of Man, He would also ultimately fail in His mission to our Saviour. So when the devil comes and whispers in His ear, Jesus summons up all His strength to reply: It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone’. Or again when the devil tempts Him to take possession of all the kingdoms of world – because a king in such a position would never need go hungry – again Jesus resists with all He’s got and says in a hoarse, dry voice: It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’
But please note – when Jesus draws on Scripture on this way, He isn’t just trotting out His favourite Bible verses parrot fashion. Satan, after all, isn’t so easily deflected by the odd quotation of your top ten favourite passages of Scripture, for as the third temptation makes clear, he himself is quite able to quote chapter and verse as the occasion demands. However Jesus had deep roots not only into the word of God, but also the character of God. Not simply because He Himself was the Son of God, but because He knew the author behind the words He was reading. And so when the devil quoted that psalm, Jesus could tell – hungry, weak and tired though He was – that this was never the way God intended that psalm to be used. Rather, with one final, energy-sapping effort, He answers: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.
Now to some extent we can never fully fathom what it was like for Jesus to be faced so directly with such fierce temptation in the desert. It would be difficult to imagine any kind of scenario when we would find ourselves pushed to these kinds of extremes. And yet we must not make the mistake of believing this passage contains no lessons for us in our own walk with God.
This evening marks the season of Lent. Lent is a season of discipline, of reflection, of prayer. It is, in other words, a time for us to put down deep roots. Now it might be that some of us already are out in the desert, and we are already going through a time of severe testing. If that’s the case, then I hope tonight will provide some shelter from the heat, and the Lord will minister mightily to your needs. But I suspect that for rather more of us we are still in the hustle and bustle of the city. We are going about our daily business trying to fit everything into another hectic week, distracted, if not weighed down, by the many demands upon our time and sometimes feeling that we are running just to keep still. And if that’s the case for you, then I certainly know from my own experience that the temptation we face is to pay only lip service to Lent, to make it matter, say, of just giving up chocolate or sitting light to our duty to spend time with God each day.
But if I’m right, then one day, sooner or later, each of us will find ourselves in our desert. And I suggest that this Lent is the time of us to put down deep roots now so that when the time of testing comes we will ready. Yes, I know this will require a certain sacrifice of time and energy and effort. I realise, for example, that many of us will struggle with our simple Lent challenge this year simply to come to church each week, and I’m certainly not asking anyone simply to do more or cram more activity into an already overcrowded schedule. But if under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit we can learn how to discipline our lives and make the space we need to grow in our relationship with God, then we will be ready for the challenges ahead. Because the thing is, no-one quite knows when we will be driven out into the desert. It might be next week, it might be next year, it might be in ten years’ time. But one day we will receive that bad news, or face that unexpected challenge, or go through that time of testing. And at that point we will need to know we already have those deep roots, into both the word of God and the character of God.
That’s why during the season of Lent we’re going to be looking each Sunday at some of the great heroes of the Old Testament – Abraham, David, Elijah, Samuel and Daniel. We are going to see how they wrestled in prayer with the purposes and promises of God, and see how their struggles can help us deepen our understanding and our worship of the Lord we know and love.
But let me just add: please don’t confuse grower deeper in our faith with growing more inward looking. I know that sometimes when people talk about growing in prayer, they talk in almost mystical terms of journeys of the soul, as if prayer was simply about me and my relationship with God. Actually the reason why these great men wrestled in prayer was that they were looking outwards to a world that had predominantly rejected God, and they wanted above all else for the Lord to act in grace and mercy. Just as Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert so that He would be ready go out in public ministry to the lost, the poor, the broken.
Some words from Psalm 1:
1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
So may you be this Lent like this tree planted in the living streams of God’s words so that in due season you may bear fruit, even in times of temptation. For His name’s sake. Amen.