On Being Led to the Wilderness

When Christians talk about being led by the Spirit, we often think about serving in ministry, going on mission trips, or starting some new service project: “Well I was not positive that it was the right thing to do, but I felt led by the Spirit.” In the ministry of Jesus, the first place the Spirt leads him is to face temptation.

This Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, many churches will read the story of the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4.1-11). In rushing to focus on how Jesus overcomes three dramatic temptations, we may loose sight of the very first verse which reminds us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation.

We tend to think that once we have affirmed our commitment to God, we should face no difficulty, no adversity, no temptation. But the Bible says it is often at the moment of our commitment that temptation arises. So the Spirit calls us to face our temptation, drives us to it, instead of trying to ignore it or pretend it is not there.

This is not the first time the Bible uses the wilderness as a place to confront temptations. Israel wanders in the wilderness for 40 years facing temptation after temptation. The three temptations that Jesus faces in Matthew’s story parallel three of the temptations the Israelites face in the wilderness:  bread (see Exodus 16), testing God (seed Exodus 17) and idolatry (see Exodus 32). Though Israel succumbs to these temptations, Jesus resists them. Elijah is driven by God to face his fears and doubts in the wilderness for 40 days before his encounter with God on the mountain (I Kings 19). Now Jesus, fresh from the waters of baptism, where the voice proclaims he is the Son of God and the Spirit descends, is led by that very Spirt into the wilderness to face temptation for 40 days.

We tend to think of the early Christian ascetics as people who were trying to flee the temptations of society, the evils of civilization and the cruelty of humans. Yet most of these early monastics and hermits saw themselves following in the footsteps of Elijah and Jesus, being led by the Spirit to go out into the wilderness to face their temptations. What we read as dramatic encounters with demons, they meant as honest confrontations with temptation.

The danger is, when we do not face our temptations, we are prone to give in to them. Or, we may start excusing our sin because of our temptation: “Well I already thought it, so I might as well commit it. Thinking it is as bad as doing it. I would not want to be a hypocrite.”  No the temptation of Jesus reminds us that there is something different about facing the temptation to turn stones into bread and actually doing it.

So the Spirit leads us to a place where we are not distracted by background noise, by the self-congratulatory clapping we give ourselves that we have not succumbed to the temptations of others or the chatter we occupy ourselves with that may mask the temptations we have already let hold sway in our lives; a wilderness where we can honestly face the temptations that distract us from trusting God. Our wilderness may not be a physical desert like where Jesus, Elijah, and the early ascetics led. Perhaps our wilderness if the prayer closet that Jesus talks about in the gospel. The wilderness the Spirit leads us to is a place where we can face the temptations that arise in our journey with the Spirit.

We should not think that temptation is a once and done affair, once we have said no to temptation it will go away never to return. Jesus is tempted at other points in his ministry. But we can trust the Spirit who leads us to face our temptations to also empower us to resist them.

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