Forty Days: a Wilderness Diary (story sermon)
Forty Days: A Wilderness Diary
Matthew 3:13-17,4:1-11, Psalm 32
The Gospels tell us that Jesus spent forty days alone in the wilderness, before he began his ministry. Mark merely says, “He was tempted by Satan,” while Matthew lists three specific temptations. I wonder what it was really like for Jesus? What thoughts went through his mind during those forty days? What was it he most needed to learn, to conquer, to get clear? Today’s meditation takes the form of a diary written by Jesus in the wilderness.
Day One: Not knowing how long I am to be here, I have decided to keep a journal to mark the days. “Here” is a cave in the mountains. There is no human habitation as far as the eye can see— only scrubby trees and large rocks sticking up to catch my gaze. A small spring seeps just enough water to slake my thirst. How peaceful it is here! I sit and watch the clouds and the sunset and thank God for bringing me to this tranquil place.
Day Three: Yesterday was about the same as day one, and here we are again…I am growing impatient with the sunsets and the silence. Why am I here? What am I supposed to be learning? It is certainly beautiful, but I can’t see that I am accomplishing anything. All I know is that I had a powerful urge to come here, to this lonely place, and to wait for another message from God.
But let me go back a bit, to a strange experience I had last week. I approached the prophet John, seeking baptism in the River Jordan. As John pushed my head under the water I began to tremble. And as I came up, suddenly there was a white dove, fluttering above me. She swooped down, and instinctively, I ducked, but she barely brushed my head with her wings. In the same moment, I heard a quiet whisper that cut through me, the words making the bones of my chest vibrate: “You are my Beloved Son. With you I am well-pleased.”
I left the riverbank in a daze, trying to make sense of what happened. I felt unprepared, yet at the same time, I knew that God had named me, and called me to begin the work I was born to do.
All my life, so far, I suppose, has been preparation for this. I grew up in a loving family, leaned a trade, made a living, and studied Scripture on the Sabbath. Yet I always sensed there was something ahead of me, something completely different. And now it has begun.
Is that why I am here? To plan a strategy for my new life? Ok, I’ll just get to work on it.
Day 5 : I am ready, Father. I really think I am prepared now. I spent all day yesterday making plans, and I know now what needs to be done. First, I’ll recruit some disciples: sturdy, local folk who can work with me. A traveling ministry would reach the largest number of people. We’ll start by speaking in synagogues, and relating your new word to the Hebrew scriptures. But we won’t neglect other opportunities, like open-air gatherings. So… when can I begin?
You are silent. So much silence….. I long for the sound of a human voice. Can it be that I am still not ready?
Day 6: You called me your Beloved Son. What does that mean? I feel proud that you have singled me out and blessed me. I can still feel the touch of your spirit upon me. But within me there is also a feeling of heaviness, almost of dread. What if no one listens to me? You have given me a great responsibility along with this privilege. There are times, even here in the desert, when it feels as if the whole world’s sins are pressing down on me.
Lord, strengthen me for whatever is to come….
Day 10: Hungry….. sick of berries and roots.
Day 11: Heard wild beasts howling at night. Couldn’t sleep.
Day 13: Lonely….I would give anything for someone to talk to…tried some new berries, but they were dry and bitter.
Day 14: At last, something has happened. No, it was not the signal to return to Nazareth.
I had a visitor! He treated me most respectfully, and seemed to know all about you, Father. He called me “Lord and Master” (the first time anyone’s called me that!). It felt good, but the best thing was having a companion after all these days alone. He was witty and entertaining, and we talked for an hour or two, before the conversation began to make me feel uncomfortable.
He said to me “Boy, you have powers you haven’t even tried yet. Stick with me, and I’ll show you how to use them. How would you like to feed the whole world? He picked up a rock and held it out to me. Did you know that you have the power to turn this rock into bread?”
I was confused, flattered, and scared all at once. Suddenly I wondered whose side he was on.
Was it true I had such powers? Wouldn’t it be cool to try them, and see what I was capable of?
But as I took that rock in my hand, a line of scripture popped into my head. “Man does not live by bread alone” I said. And instantly, as soon as the words left my mouth, he vanished.
What does it mean, Abba? Did I do the right thing?
Day 17: After two days of silence, during which I felt your presence all around me, I came back to the cave to find another visitor. He was dressed differently than the first, but something in his manner reminded me of my earlier companion. Naturally, I welcomed him, but I was on guard.
He began to talk in tones of utmost sweetness and reason. He said it was time for me to come back to the city. He proposed setting up a mass meeting for me outside the Jerusalem Temple. He would introduce me, and then I would to climb up and throw myself off the pinnacle of the temple tower. The idea was that you would save me, and all the people would instantly believe in me.
I wavered…. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust you to save me. But I want people to follow me for the right reasons. I don’t want to become some kind of magician or circus performer. On the other hand I am so eager to go back and get started!
Again, I tried to think of a verse of scripture that might help me decide what to do. What came to me was “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” And my companion vanished, as quickly as before.
Day 18: He will no longer show his face, but all day long I hear whispers. They say you have abandoned me. They say I have messed up your plan already. I cover my ears, and sing out loud, to drown them out. Anyone watching me would be certain I was crazy.
Day 20: They are at war within me. All night long, I hear them, angels and devils:
A: You are the Son of God D: You could be king of the whole world!
A: God has sent you to be a servant. D: Why would someone with your skills be a servant?
A: Stay firm and God will guide you.
D: HA! God has left you here in the wilderness, and he’s not coming back. Just give up.
A: You are almost ready to fulfill your destiny.
D: Worship me, and the world will fall at your feet tomorrow!
A: You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.
I am worn out from this battle. My soul is being torn in two. Who am I? Where are you? How long, Lord, can this go on?
Day 22: I awoke this morning to blessed silence. The demons have gone. I know they will return, but now I know how to recognize them. And there are angels all around, helping me fight them. Your divine light fills me with peace.
Day 25: I am beginning to understand why I am here. This struggle for my soul will go on, won’t it, Abba. I must be very clear about who I am, in order to distinguish your voice from all the others. I’m willing to stay here as long as it takes….
Day 30: Today, as I was dozing at the mouth of the cave during the heat of the afternoon, I had a vision of the future. I saw beloved friends, a community drawn to your love, as to a magnet. I saw us traveling and teaching. And then, I saw…. darkness and fear. I saw myself alone and in pain. Yet I could feel you within me, like a strong and steady heartbeat. Then, anguish and utter desolation…. And then I emerge, as if out of a long, dark tunnel, into light and joy. What does it mean, Abba? Is this my future? Give me courage to trust your plan for me….
Day 32: The temptations within me have grown as familiar as the wild creatures that prowl around my cave. I am constantly on guard, but I know now that we are stronger than they are. You will never leave me.
Day 35: Another vision. This time, I see far, far into the future, a white wooden building on the shores of a lake, a church, where my friends gather. And I see that they too are tempted.
They are tempted to see themselves as superior to other people because they “go to church”. They judge others for petty sins, forgetting their own sins of pride. They worry about money, and their church is limited by their lack of vision. They want to be in control, and they are so afraid to let the fresh breeze of the Spirit disturb their routines. Despite all this, I see them being so kind to one another—all because of me.
O Father, help them! Send them angels to contend with their demons.
Day 39: I am ready. I hear the cries of your people calling to me. I know who I am.
I know how much I need you, if I am to stay on course. I understand I will not be safe. But I also know that your love is more powerful that all the devils’ subtle reasoning.
I return to your world: to work, to teach and to love.
To suffer and die.
To live again.
God, go with me. Amen.
© Rev. Martha B. Peck, 2015