Boosts from the Bible #10 (Jesus in the Desert)

Welcome to “Boosts from the Bible,” our weekly devotion that delves into the depths of the Holy Scriptures, in order to receive a boost of God’s wisdom and love…a boost of God’s hope and peace during this weird time. Let’s begin!

Picture this: There I was, almost fainted on a famous civil war battlefield. I was a young man then, almost 23, a college graduate about to enter seminary to train to become a pastor. I was far away from home for an extended time for the first time in my life, wondering whether I was doing the right thing even being there. In that respect, I had entered a spiritual wilderness. Alone.

We’ve used the following words so much to describe the viral experience we are now in, that we are getting sick of them: getting sick of words like “unprecedented,” “unparalleled,” “extraordinary” “these are uncharted waters,” and the like. We are getting sick of these words because we are getting sick of this…this situation, a situation often characterized more for what we LACK than what we have GAINED.  When we think about times when we have “lacked” things, we sometimes use the word “desert” or “prison” to describe the environment we are in. We’ve used the word “prison” before in our “Boosts” series; this time let’s use the word “desert.”

Jesus was in the desert once, you know, and for a long time. Oh, the traditional formulation is “Jesus was 40 days in the Wilderness,” but for us Americans, “wilderness” and “desert” are two very different things – and in the Middle East, when you were in a wilderness or “wild” region, you were probably in a DESERT. For us Americans, in OUR kind of wilderness you can easily find food, but in the desert, you cannot. Jesus chose the desert as a good place to fast for forty days – a spiritual activity many prophets went through in Judaism. But 40 days of fasting – just because it was done before – that doesn’t make it an easy thing to do, even for Jesus. Jesus was no doubt pretty weak and hungry at the end of those 40 days – so the devil considered it a ripe opportunity to tempt this possible Messiah into sin and thereby make this young man from Nazareth fail in His mission – tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread to feed His empty stomach.

I was also hungry and thirsty that one day in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, leaning on a Civil War cannon, trying to sit in the cannon’s shadow and out of the way of the hot late summer sun. You see I had just arrived in Gettysburg for my first year of seminary – studying to be a pastor. I was also a Civil War buff and wanted to trudge around the nearby battlefield even before classes started. As I walked around the famous sites – Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield – I saw amazing statues and read informative plaques. Finally, on Seminary Ridge, in the shadow of a statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse, I decided to do one last thing before going back to seminary: I would reenact the lengthy walk the Confederate army took across an open field about a mile long – the famous “Pickett’s Charge.” As the sun continued to beat down on me, that’s just what I did.

But by the time I had journeyed, step by belabored step, to the other side, where the end of that three-day-long battle had been joined, I could barely make it to the Union cannon, where I collapsed. I was beginning to get something like heat stroke. I was thirsty and hungry. I barely made it to a nearby restaurant where I had just enough money to buy a kid-size coke (and then water to go with it). Along with the air-conditioning in that place, I had barely avoided having to go to the E.R.

At the end of those forty days in the desert, Jesus didn’t HAVE a hospital that HE could go to. He had prayed His way through it, led by the Spirit…and not just LED by the Spirit; Mark tells us that just as soon as Jesus had been baptized…right after the Spirit had descended on Christ like a dove and the Father had said to Him, “Son, with You I am well-pleased”…well, Mark tells us THIS happened next: “And the Spirit IMMEDIATELY DROVE Jesus out into the desert.”

Now…is that a great way to tell Your only-begotten Son how much You love Him? Get Your Holy Spirit to DRIVE Him out into the desert to be without food and maybe water for forty long days, where, as Mark says next, Jesus would be “tempted by Satan and” be “with the wild beasts” who could kill Jesus? Now, WHAT kind of God and Father would do that to His beloved Son, huh?

The fleshly, more selfish part of us might ask God the same question NOW: “What kind of God would allow this virus to attack us, and in such a confusing way, if God loved us so much, huh?”

Just as Jesus had just received confirmation of His being the Son of God at His baptism – such a great time for Jesus! So I had just had the day of my life touring the Gettysburg battlefield – such a great time for me! And so also our economy had been going strong for many years now and technology and other things had made this upcoming decade promising – such a great time for most people! And each of these three times things just…suddenly…turned on a dime: the virus came…on that battlefield I suffered heat stroke…and Jesus was driven into the desert. What gives?

Well, it’s not “What gives” but “God gives”… “God gives, always…in all situations.” As we read in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things…ALL things…work together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” That passage reminds us that maybe we should be looking for what GOOD can come from this mess. In other words, “What is God giving us, as we deal with this virus, will help us as we go into our future – in the long term?”

For Jesus in the desert, that 40-day period became a turning point in His life. Yes, it was a period barren of food, and the danger of beasts surrounded Him…yet the desert was also barren of the distractions of Christ’s past life, so that Jesus could focus on the NEW future ahead of Him. He could plan for the three years ahead – three years of difficult preaching, teaching, and journeying ahead of Him as the now-public Messiah, a journey that He already knew would lead Him to the cross. Those forty days perhaps became for Jesus an initiation into a new stage in the development of His life.

Perhaps, likewise, this time is also an initiation into a new stage in the development of each and every one of OUR lives – both together, AND as individuals. You know, one can look at our past lives and see how it is SO easy to get into a rut and make the routines of our lives more important than the new opportunities God seeks to give us every day THROUGH the Holy Spirit.

Remember, the Holy Spirit DROVE Jesus into the desert for 40 days. Where is the Spirit driving US – not only these forty days…but the many MORE days that follow? Pray about what God might be up to in your life. After all, this is the same God who, in the Old Testament, many a time urged His people, “Sing to the Lord A NEW SONG.” Angels, Mark records, ministered to Jesus during those forty days. Each of us, according to Scripture, have a guardian angel. How is that angel and the God’s Spirit shaping and re-shaping the way we say and do things both now and for the rest of our lives? Are we learning to do new things new ways? Are we making new friends, and becoming a good influence on new people?

I was inspired to write about me in my desert of weakness on that battlefield in part because I recently found something I wrote about this incident – an account that I wrote a few years afterward. Reading this account many years later – a few days ago – I realized that, in my memory, I had forgotten my OWN angels in my desert that day: the kind waitress who helped me find a seat in that restaurant and who treated me gently as I took my time drinking my kid-size coke in that COOL air-conditioning; I had also forgotten, when I finally got back to my room at the seminary, the two guys there who made sure I was all right – two fellow students who became my best friends those next few months. You see, it’s these new connections that the Spirit helps us to make that help us make sense of THESE crazy times AS WELL, as we move forward into our future, together.

So let us go to Jesus in prayer, knowing that He, too, suffered in a desert just as we are suffering a bit – bereft of human contact like we sometimes are. Let us go to Jesus, for, as we read in Hebrews, in Jesus Christ “we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Yes, let us go to the One who was willing to die on a cross for us; let us go to the One who, in the desert, suffered and resisted temptation – again, for us. From Hebrews, we also read: “Let us, therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us] in time of need.” You see, Christ not only gives up hope for the future, but Jesus WILL inspire you and me to move forward INTO that future with new and better ideas…new and better perspectives…and new and better ways to LIVE, and SERVE everyone around us. Amen!

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