As we trek through the metaphorical wilderness of Lent, I am reminded that Jesus spent time in a real wilderness. Mark 1:12-15 reports that after Jesus was baptized, “…immediately the Spirit impelled Him (Jesus) to go out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.”
Now most of us haven’t spent 40 days and nights in a desert with the devil. But I bet you’ve been in a wasteland of sorts. Let me name a few and see if you can’t relate:
Mark tells us that Jesus was “impelled” into the wilderness (NASB). Other versions say he was “sent out,” “driven out” and “compelled.” It’s actually a violent word in the NT, the same word used to describe Jesus casting out demons. The same dovelike Spirit that descended on Jesus during His baptism is now thrust into the wilderness.
Sixteen months ago, I received a prostate cancer diagnosis – right before the holidays. Talk about being driven out into the desert. I have always been pretty healthy, so this threw me for a loop. Mark’s Gospel reports that wild beasts were in the desert with Jesus. I can relate. My fear was like a lion crouching in the bushes nearby; at times I sensed the buzzards of despair circling overhead, waiting to land and devour any faith I had left.
Mark says that Jesus was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights. I was tempted, too: I was tested to see if I would hold on to the God I had so boldly proclaimed over the years. I was tried when numerous men who had gone through the same experience gave me conflicting opinions and others shared horror stories of dads and uncles who had passed away from prostate cancer. And after visiting doctors, filling out mountains of paperwork and faced with an array of treatment options, I was tempted to say words that you wouldn’t utter in Sunday school.
Have you seen this email list about children who have learned from the hard knocks of life? Here are just a few of them:
“You can’t trust dogs to watch your food for you.”
“You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.”
“When your mom is mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.”
“No matter how hard you try, you cannot baptize a cat.”
A woman named Carole Bonno, experiencing grief, wrote this: “People say I am different now. I am. People say I am more compassionate now. I am. People say I am helping others who have had a similar loss. I am. But why couldn’t I have learned these things by just reading a book?”
We can learn from books, but we lean on God – most notably during our times in the wasteland. Only wilderness time can give us the real-life experience we need to teach us about our priorities—what really matters.
From my cancer ordeal, I learned many things. I learned that the babble of worry blocks God’s small, still voice. I was taught deeper compassion. The Holy Spirit reminded me that I can’t do life on my own; I need the Lord. I learned that Jesus is truly with me, even in the uncertain times. When I was being prepped for surgery, I prayed silently that God would give me one more sign of His presence. The anesthesiologist stepped in and I noticed he was wearing a scripture bracelet. I asked him about it. Come to find out he and his wife were active members of a church in Dallas. I told him about my prayer and he smiled. “Christ will be with us in that operating room,” he assured me.
After surgery, the first nurse came into my room. “Hi,” she said. “My name is Hope.” And my sister reminded me that my surgeon’s name was “Dr. Shepherd.”
Christ can minister to us in the wilderness because He has been in the wilderness. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that we have a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He was tested in every way, but without sin. As Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher noted, “A Jesus who never wept could never wipe away my tears.”
But Jesus did weep. He also got tired, he hungered, he thirsted, he got angry, he bled, he died.
But He also rose again. And this is why we can put our whole lives in His hands. He conquered temptation; He defeated death.
We can, too. For if the wilderness teaches us anything, it teaches us this: the devil and wild beasts may be nearby, but “He is who is in us is greater than He who is in the world” (I Jn 4:4).